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Unlocking the 4-3-3: The Holding Midfielder

October 28, 2022

Courtesy of Brian Beard
HOLDING DOWN THE MIDFIELD: Isa Quintana ’23 whisks the ball away from a Wesleyan University defender. The women's soccer team clinched the third seed in the NESCAC tournament after a 2–0 win against Tufts University on Tuesday and will play Wesleyan this Saturday at home in the first round of the tournament.

Rooted just ahead of the two central defenders and deep behind the rest of the midfield, the holding midfielder takes on the impossible tasks of both anchoring a compact defensive line and connecting it to a threatening attack.

Also known as ‘the six’ or the ‘defensive midfielder,’ the job description is one of the toughest in the game. A successful six needs not only the athletic prowess to bump opposing players off the ball and get stuck into hard challenges, but a finesse as well, as holding midfielders often need to play the ball quickly out of tight spaces at the risk of giving possession away in a critical area.

This is what makes the role so difficult. Often teams are forced to play with two defensive midfielders—one who serves as an anchor in the midfield, who plays like a more advanced center back and another who gets involved in linkup play and provides an attacking threat. To have a player that can fill all the boxes of the role is not just rare, it also provides an incredible competitive advantage.

The Bowdoin women have exactly this in Greta Farkas ’24.

There’s a great quote by Spanish manager Juanma Lillo that says, “Show me who your holding midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what kind of team you’ve got.” Sure, it’s probably an oversimplification of an ever-complexing game, but the role of the defensive midfielder is paramount in every aspect of play.

And not for nothing, but Bowdoin just clinched the third seed in the NESCAC tournament after a 2–0 win at Tufts on Tuesday. Obviously, Farkas’s role is just a piece in the puzzle of the Polar Bears’ success this season, but teams with weaker midfields often flounder and fail against an opposition anchored by the likes of Farkas.

The reason for this is simple. Farkas is just really good. For the most part, Bowdoin plays either a four or three-player midfield, with Farkas always residing at the base of it. There are a number of reasons why the team alternates its midfield shape. We don’t have to get into the specific reasons for the changes, but Farkas’s consistency in the heart of the pitch makes these transitions a lot easier. For example, in the 1–0 win against Colby College last week, Bowdoin utilized a midfield shape that pushed their traditional attacking midfielders into wider areas. In most cases, this could lead to the holding midfielder feeling overwhelmed on the defensive side of the ball, because the other two midfielders are more defensively focused in wider areas.

Yet, for Bowdoin, it is not a worry. Farkas does not get dribbled past. From the first minute to the ninetieth, Farkas gets stuck in challenges, winning the vast majority of them. Additionally, she can track into wide areas. She defends well on the touchline and can easily step in to fill a noticeable defensive gap if one ever opens up.

One moment in particular against Colby stands out. The match was still tied 0–0 and thus far, every time an opposing player dribbled at Farkas, they would get stopped in their tracks. Right before halftime, though, one of the Mule midfielders was driving right to the edge of the Bowdoin box. Farkas, who had dropped between Jess Klein ’25 and Katrina Reidy ’23—the two Bowdoin central defenders—stepped up to defend the drive. This is where Farkas’s influence is almost intangible. The Colby player noticed Farkas in her periphery, proceeded to panic and lost possession in a relatively dangerous area. Colby went on to lose the match by one goal, and it is these little things in Farkas’s game that give Bowdoin such competitive advantage, even in the most nuanced of situations.

Yet the influence of the Bowdoin six extends far past her defensive acuity. One of Bowdoin’s biggest advantages comes in the form of captain and right back Shannon Gallagher ’22. Gallagher, who played in the midfield last season, has both the experience and the skill to be dangerous in attacking areas, and when Bowdoin’s midfielders tuck inside, Gallagher is given the space to do just this. In a number of instances, Farkas has had the ball at her feet as the opposition is collapsing the midfield around her. Calm as you like, Farkas will play a forty-yard diagonal ball from her deep lying position to the feet of Gallagher, thus springing the Bowdoin attack forward. Other times, Reidy will be on the ball with acres of space in front of her. Sensing this, Farkas will step back into a more defensive position, and Reidy will start a Bowdoin attack. Not only is this unexpected from a center back, but it shows the influence Farkas can have without touching the ball.

Isabella Echeverri, a Colombian player who plays on her country’s national team, explained the role of the holding midfielder perfectly. She said, “you’re the conductor of the team and you have to have the communication skills to do it.” Farkas does this and more. She adds to Bowdoin’s threat in every aspect of play, her teammates could not speak higher of her and it is only a matter of time before one of her shot attempts from 35 yards finds the back of the net.

Bowdoin will take on Wesleyan University this Saturday at home in the first round of the playoffs, and if we get a screamer from Farkas, I will be unbearable.


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