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What is a CDM?

With football’s continued growth and evolution, more and more positions and variations of existing positions have become commonplace. 

While the CAM gets all the glory, the CDM sits back, an anchor that gives licence for the CAM to roam and stay forward. It’s the less fashionable of the two, but it is absolutely vital.

If a CDM can’t pick up the CAM’s slack defensively, the team will crumble; rendered ineffective in both attack and defence.

What Does CDM Mean?

CDM means Central defensive midfielder. Unlike the traditional Central midfielder, the CDM operates in between the midfield and defence, sitting in front of the back line.

The CDM is usually a highly structured role, with rigid positioning, sitting further back so the frontline and midfield can push up and flourish. 

They often cover for attacking full-backs when they make overlapping runs forward, slotting into a makeshift back 4, or even 3 if both fullbacks have pushed forward. 

However, when the opportunity arises, they push forward themselves, arriving late at the edge of the box to try a shot on goal, or recycling the ball, keeping possession and restarting the attack.

CDMs are the foil to the CAM, in that while the CAM is the link between the midfield and attack, the CDM is the conduit that helps move the ball from defence to midfield.

How Are CDMs Deployed?

Most often CDMs are deployed in a 4-2-3-1, operating in a ‘double pivot’, more on what that means later, but the role also works in 4-3-3’s, Busquets at Barcelona a classic example of the lone ‘single pivot’.

In possession, they are encouraged to stay just in front of the defensive line, driving forward from deep. 

Other times, they focus on playing short passes through the middle acting as an option in the centre for quick 1-2’s, or taking the time to spread the play with pinpoint long balls out wide.

The CDM is predominantly defensive, but in recent years, we’ve seen more CDMs involve themselves in the final third, popping up with vital goals and assists. However, whilst this is part of the evolution of the role, the more traditional CDM still has a big part in the modern game.

While the more progressive CDM is typically all-rounded, technically gifted and excels in passing and playmaking, whilst being defensively sound, the traditional CDM, which is purely defensively minded, finds plenty of success.

This style of CDM focuses on cutting passing lanes, breaking down attacks and carrying the ball up field until they can offload the ball to an attacker and hold back.

Claude Makélélé was the first to bring this athletic style to public attention, and from the late 90s to today, has been the modern archetype of the CDM. This style was even named “The Makelele role”.

But CDMs existed before Makélélé, he simply reinvented it, but so have players like Gilberto Silva and Rodri, who both operate further forward than other CDMs, but are still further back than a normal box-to-box midfielder.

Before Makélélé, CDMs were more rigid, bar for the total footballing style of Brazil in the 80s, where much like today’s CDMs, the double pivot of Falcão and Cerezo in a 4-2-2-2.

Later that decade, teams saw the potential of the role. Rather than sticking with two more aggressive CDMs, they opted to rely on just one CDM, freeing up another player to play with fewer defensive duties.

By sacrificing one player’s attacking freedom, and having the CDM sit in front of the defence, sticking to that position, the team, in theory, could work better in attack.

Side’s soon found that the CDM could be left quite isolated. 

In 4-1-2-1-2 formations, the CDM struggled to act as a medium between defence and midfield, as there was no central midfield to speak of, with the other central midfielder pushed up behind the striker as a CAM.

The only out ball was instead the wingers, which soon exposed the weakness of the single pivot, as a simple ball to the winger would drag the CDM across the pitch.

This led to many teams operating with two CDMs, which solved the issue, giving teams defensive stability, and helped birth possession-based football while bringing forth the era of the double pivot.

What Is a Pivot?

A single pivot operates as a lone defensive midfielder, sitting in front of the back line and linking the defence and midfield, as previously stated. 

A double pivot, adds a second player in that zone, which opens up far greater room for nuance and variation within the role.

A double pivot is a defensive-midfield pairing. Like the single pivot, they both operate in the space in front of the defenders, but behind the attackers, but the addition of a second CDM allows for more room for progressive play.

The duo is most commonly used in a 4-2-3-1 formation, operating behind a single number 10, as the two wingers are allowed to play with more attacking freedom, as the two CDMs pick up more of the winger’s defensive slack.

Thanks to the large gap between them and the attack, there is enough space for the two to operate without overcrowding the centre of the pitch.

Alternatively, a double pivot can be used ahead of a back three in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 structure. However, these pivots are often pushed a bit further forward or have one CM and one CDM.

What Does a CDM Need to Succeed?

To be a good CDM you need to possess all the defensive acumen of a centre-back, with the vision and passing range of a central midfielder.

Having a great tactical understanding, reading the play when out of possession and in possession is a necessary skill. 

As much as keeping up with the game physically is important, a CDM will never last if they can’t mentally keep up with play.

As expected, tackling, off-the-ball positioning, and composure on the ball are all important, but physicality is not only among the most important attributes but can define what type of CDM a player is.

Those with taller, imposing/ bulky stature are usually gifted on the ball with a good touch, driving forward from deep and pushing the team forward. They work best defensively in physical duels, preferring jostling to a footrace.

On the contrary, the smaller, diminutive CDMs such as N’golo Kanté or the titular Claude Makélélé  worked best breaking down attacks by utilising their relentless stamina, closing down and intercepting passes with their superb understanding of play combined with their seemingly limitless energy.  

The Best CDMs



Arguably the best CDM in world football right now, Rodri is the perfect example of the technical, progressive, ball-playing CDM.

The driving force behind many Man City attacks, Rodri has become well-known for scoring vital goals when he’s needed most.

More than just a holding midfielder, Rodri is that powerful engine, dictating tempo, and keeping the game ticking at his pace. By slowing things down, Rodri’s underlying weakness in his lack of pace is very difficult to exploit.

City’s patient possession style would be only half as successful if they had a less capable CDM, the position very much the cornerstone of Guardiola’s playstyle.

Claude Makélélé 

The most influential CDM in history, Makélélé was so dominant as a CDM that even today we still refer to the role he played as the “Makélélé role”.

Initially a winger, Makélélé was dominant during Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea, possessing a sharp mind and unwavering resilience, combined with relentless stamina and unrivalled anticipation.

He was the destroyer, cutting out passes, rapidly closing down attackers and making crucial tackles.

While not the most technically proficient, his time playing as a winger left him with a great range of passing to boot, though he has always been much better known for his defensive exploits.

Patrick Vieira

While to some Vieira is remembered as a physical, combative CDM, he was every bit as technical and skillful as he was powerful.

An imposing figure, Vieira was at the heart of potentially the best side to ever grace the Premier League: Arsenal’s 03/04 Invincible season.

Possessing all the skill that Rodri has, while boasting better acceleration, power and work rate, if Vieira was in his prime today, he’d be worth more than any other midfielder.

Sergio Busquets

Ending with the most unique of the world class CDMs, Busquets may be further down the list of some, but I challenge you to find a more intelligent midfielder. 

Overshadowed by midfield partners, Xavi and Iniesta, in a Barcelona side that ranks up there with the best sides of all time, Busquets was the overlooked foundation behind everything Barca did.

Busquets was not afraid to do the simple things when needed, and was simply consistent to an unheard of degree. He had an uncanny ability to keep a hold of the ball. He wasn’t fast, agile or even skillful, but his brilliance came from the way he read the game.

 His lacklustre pace didn’t matter, because he seemed to see where the ball was going to be ahead of time, holding the spaces and keeping the Barca team ticking.

He’s often overlooked, but Busquets is in a league of his own. We may never see another CDM quite like him.

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