For our next article in the Soccer 101 series, we’re moving up field to the midfielder position, and downtown to Georgia State University’s Atlanta campus. GSU midfielder Stephen McGill talked with us about the ins and outs of playing his position.
Stephen is well versed in the subject. In 2013 he was selected to the College Sports Madness All-Independent First Team along with being a two time Player-of-the-Week. He’s played in 40 career matches for the Panthers, totaling over 3,220 minutes, with eight goals and six assists. He was a team captain last season, as well as being a Dean’s List student.
10Soccer: What are a midfielder’s general responsibilities?
Stephen: It varies whether you’re outside or inside. For me personally, I’m a central midfielder, so my main responsibility would be to link play between the defenders and the strikers, to make sure that that gap on either side isn’t too big or too small. Keep everything spaced out and have the awareness to get the ball off of the defenders, to turn and then find the forward or the winger and enable us to move forward from there. What we say is break lines. We like to break down the lines of the defense. We try to get past their midfield four or their lines, and put the pressure on their defense.
10Soccer: Are you getting past them by passing, or dribbling, or whatever is appropriate?
Stephen: Whatever’s appropriate. More times in the center of the field for me, it would be passing, because it’s a little more congested. It would be short, little quick passes, having awareness and trying to pass it over the field quickly. Whereas outside midfielders would be more of the faster players with a little more ability to run at players themselves and dribble.
10Soccer: Soccer players in general seem to be skilled in a lot of areas, no matter which position they play. But is it fair to say that as a midfielder, you probably need the most all-around soccer skills?
Stephen: I think it’s the most versatile position in terms of – if we’re defending, we’re getting back, if we’re attacking, we’ve got to be up there. And either way, I’m getting the shout from Brett [GSU Head Coach Brett Surrency], “Get back!” or “Get forward!” So regardless of what’s going on, we’re involved. I think that’s why I always wanted to play center mid. I never liked being a defender and watching the attackers go up and me not getting involved. As a center mid, you kind of have a hand in everything – somewhat the point guard of the team. You control the tempo and you control the flow of the game. When things aren’t going right, Brett looks to us to settle things down and get us organized and get us back on track. So I think it’s probably fair to say that.
10Soccer: As a central mid, do you take a lot of responsibility for communicating where the play is going?
Stephen: Some of it has to be an understanding, because the game is moving so fast and you just need to know. But vocally too, especially a defensive midfielder, who would kind of shield the back four a little bit more, has to be a little bit more vocal. Even though we’d like most of our talking to come from the back because the defenders can see everything ahead of them and get organized, I think a midfielder’s job in general is to continue that organization to help the back four. And me personally as a captain, I think I have to be as vocal as anybody just because it comes with the job description. But the more everybody talks together, it’s more helpful and more information, it just makes everything easier for us.
10Soccer: You had four goals and three assists last year, and 30 shots. So on a pretty regular basis you are making the decision to go forward. How do you make that decision?
Stephen: For us specifically, we play with a 4-3-3, so our midfield is only three, whereas traditional soccer would be a 4-4-2, and you’d have the two central and two wide. Ours is more like a triangle. We have one holding and two attacking, but really we’re all on kind of a rotation. We always like to have one of the three hold and not push up in case of a counterattack. But two of us are usually going forward, and I’m usually in one of those gaps.
I like to get forward and I like to be a late runner in the box and get shots off. It’s just a responsibility and a relationship the three midfielders have to have. Not everybody can go forward at the same time. Kind of taking turns and almost being on a basketball pivot and knowing if we’re going, you’re holding. And if I’m out, you’re sliding in.
I definitely like getting forward. I played a little bit of striker too, so I definitely would prefer the attacking side than the defensive side of it. But it’s nice to do both.
10Soccer: The flip side is that occasionally defenders come forward. Does a midfielder react to that by physically going back and taking that defender’s place, or does he just start to play more defensively in basically the same spot on the field?
Stephen: It varies on situation and numbers. If they’re a team that likes to have a lot of numbers high, then there are certainly times if a center back gets drawn out of position then a center mid would assume his position for the time being. But some teams we play like to sit in and play a counterattacking game. So if we have one defender out of position, if numbers are still in our favor, there’s no need. Just have an awareness that someone’s out and make sure we’re covering the angles, but it’s not necessary to drop back. But [it] just depends on personnel and the team we’re playing.
10Soccer: You referred to it depending on the team you’re playing. Do you get good scouting reports on the team you’re playing, or do you develop that feel for the other team as the game progresses?
Stephen: A little bit of both. Definitely we know teams’ tendencies. And we’d also know levels of playing and how they’ve done, and sometimes that can dictate how a team plays. If we’re playing a team that’s struggling, a lot of times they will sit in a little bit more defensively, and be a little bit more cautious. Then when we go and play the UNCs and the Dukes of the world, they’ll tend to high press you a little bit and try to make you a little bit more uncomfortable.
In terms of that, you can kind of get a feel for it, but Brett is definitely a coach that is an “us” focused coach. He doesn’t like to worry about who we play anymore. He thinks if we do what we need to do, and we focus on us, we should be able to be successful.
So we’re not big on scouting reports, but we definitely get tendencies, and we’ll definitely get individual players and some special players, just to take note of. But as games go on, things change. You go up one, you might sit in a little bit more. Or if you go down, you might need to press up. Teams are always adapting, so we have to adapt to that as well.
10Soccer: In the case where a team that sits back or “parks the bus”. Does that cause you as a midfielder to become a little more offense oriented?
Stephen: It depends, if they are parking the bus, it gives us a lot of time on the ball, which as midfielders is nice. You got a little bit more space and time, because, especially in the college game, the middle of the field is very congested. But if they’re parking the bus, then it’s about being patient and continuing to get the ball moving and flowing and picking your times to go.
If they’re really parking the bus, it allows someone like myself to get into a more advanced position constantly and get closer to that striker and see if we can break through them and cause a little problem. Because if you are able to get through and get a goal, then it kind of makes them have to adapt and maybe change, which they don’t like to do, if that’s their team philosophy.
Photos courtesy of Paul Abell/Abell Images and Randy Wilson Photography via GSU Athletics.
10Soccer: If they’re playing defensively, does it make you a little less worried about the counterattack, letting you go forward a little bit?
Stephen: You’re less worried about it, but sometimes you get so focused on going forward and them not being a threat that you do become susceptible on the counterattack. So you have to definitely stay disciplined. That’s when our defenders have to keep us organized and make sure that one central midfielder’s still holding. But it does let attacking center mids have a little more freedom to go forward and be a bit more aggressive.
10Soccer: Take us through a couple of set pieces. Let’s start with a free kick.
Stephen: If it’s not in a position to have a strike on goal, we usually say if it’s about 30-40 out, we just want to get on it and get it down, take a quick one and play. We’re a pretty possessive team, we like to get the ball moving and passing. So if there’s no real threat, and we don’t feel the need to get it in the box, just someone get a hand on it and get it moving and get the tempo of the game going again. If it’s a little bit closer, we feel like we can have some service. If it’s out wide, we’ll get two around it, and maybe get some service in, maybe hit one to the back post and see if we can get a header back across for somebody coming on. Or if it’s in the center of the field, get some wide options and see if we can change the angle and then go ahead and serve it into the box. [We’re] trying to avoid hitting a straight ball on the set pieces from the middle of the field, because it’s a bit too predictable for the goalkeepers.
10Soccer: What about a corner kick?
Stephen: Defensively we run a zone and mark kind of a hybrid. So we’ll have a strong zone inside the 6-yard box with some of our bigger guys and then mark up the rest. Offensively, it varies. We run different plays throughout the season, obviously the main ones being front and back post. But most of the time we’re having somebody on the goalkeeper, trying to be annoying, just getting in his way and throwing hands up, doing whatever. And we usually have four runners. That’s just a conversation that takes place between the four of us, mix it up and don’t be predictable. But make sure we have the key areas, the front post, the back post, and a couple of central runners, trying to keep them staggered in case the service varies, which it usually does. But we get really good service on our corners, so it’s something that we’re definitely going to look to build on for the future.
10Soccer: When you’re marking a player one-on-one in a set piece, is that match up determined before the game, or is it something you just do when the set piece develops?
Stephen: Most of the time it’s something that will be organized throughout the game, usually between me and our goalkeeper CJ [Cochran]. We kind of take control and try to match up personnel-wise, size-for-size. But there are occasions in the scouting report, we get news ahead of time that someone’s very good in the air, or if they have a really big kid, then we might address that before the game. For most games it’s just play it by ear, see how it goes.
10Soccer: What’s the hardest part about being a midfielder?
Stephen: Probably awareness and knowing when it’s appropriate to turn and knowing when it’s appropriate just to set it back to your defenders and keep going. And having the ability to turn and get it off to those defenders and break those lines down.
And then secondarily, the fitness. You’ve got to have an engine on you to keep going, because there’s no rest time. We definitely cover a lot of ground.
10Soccer: You talked a lot about awareness, your head really needs to be on a swivel.
Stephen: Yeah, that’s a term Brett uses a lot actually, head on a swivel. Body positioning; opening your body up and not receiving the ball in a closed down position where you only have the option to go in one direction – but can you open up your body in order to create space to give yourself that option, if it’s appropriate. So a lot of that is worked on in practice – receiving balls with the lead foot, turning in a tight space, stuff like that.
Head on a swivel is definitely necessary. Eyes in the back of your head would be useful. We like to give people who don’t play in the middle a hard time and say they just don’t have the vision to take care of it.
10Soccer: Is there anything else about playing midfield that you think fans don’t understand that they probably should?
Stephen: I think it’s a tough position, but it’s a fun position. It’s rewarding. There are defensive aspects of it and there are offensive aspects of it, but I think in a lot of teams, it’s the heart of the team. You look at some professional teams like England and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and they’re the pulse of the team. I think it’s up to a center mid to do the right thing and to get the team moving and to get the flow of the game going. And definitely put in a good few crunching tackles when necessary as well, because it’s an area of the field where ball-winning and heading and tackling is pretty important and necessary as well.
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