What is a CDM in soccer?

Soccer is a pretty technical sport – if you choose to make it that way. In other respects, it comes down to what other sports are decided by.

Scores. Whichever team has the highest score when the time is up, they win.

But we all know it’s much more than that in reality.

And anyone tuning into a soccer game for the first time could be well forgiven for turning off, given the amount of confusing jargon that is spouted by commentators and experts. It’s incredibly off-putting – but soccer is not alone in that respect. The NFL and MLB are two sports deeply mired in stats and nomenclature that seems far removed from what the subject matter actually is.

And soccer’s technical terms are quite easy to explain too. They normally derive from an acronym – and this article centres on one of these terms.

The CDM.

Fortunately for you, dear reader, this three-letter acronym is easily dispelled. 

It stands for central defensive midfielder.

But before we explain what one of these is – first we must delve into formations.

A soccer team comprises eleven players on the pitch. The coach’s job is to construct a team that is the optimum selection and tactics for victory. And that means coverage on the pitch.

It would be easy for a coach to name eleven defenders on the pitch and line them up just in front of their own goal, blocking a path for the opposition to score. It would be effective, but there would be a limit on what you could expect. No wins, no goals.

Alternatively, the coach could set up his team with an emphasis on attack with all eleven players playing toward the other end of the pitch. Lots of goals perhaps, but they would concede just as many, if not more.

So a formation is needed that adds balance to the team. 

And the favourite, go-to option for coaches is the tried and trusted 4-4-2.

It places four defenders on the pitch, covering key zonal areas that focus on cutting off service to the opposition and keeping key territory.

It also has four midfielders, with the same special zones. The two strikers are supplied by the midfield when in possession of the soccer ball, with the team aided by decent pressing across the pitch when not in possession.

And it is in midfield, the centre of the park, that the CDM is located.

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What is a CDM? And Where do They Play?

The central defensive midfielder is one of the central midfielders. The position is an evolution of the conventional central midfielder and it is allowed by the fact that the two central midfielders work in a pivot of sorts. One attacks while one sits back in case of lost possession.

And the player that is chosen to play the cautious role is the CDM. 

Normal attributes for a CDM are very physical – strong, tall, great marking instincts to block player runs and above all, the ability to position themselves well when danger arises.

There are exceptions though!

The CDM really rose to prominence thanks to one player – Claude Makalele.

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The birth of the CDM – Claude Makalele

The Frenchman won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euro Championships with his native France and a lucrative move to Real Madrid followed. He was a revelation at the Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real, and in his three years there he won everything. Manager Arrigo Satchi said that because of the attacking jewels in the Real side – Zidane, Raul and Figo – he knew that the team would need a presence to site behind them. A security guard of sorts. And Makalele didn’t just excel in this role – he revolutionised it.

Makalele was a silent assassin, taking the ball cleanly when he had no right to and recycling it to other members of the team who could cause damage. It was such an effective tactic it took Real Madrid to Champions League glory and his next club, Chelsea, to double Premier League championships.

The Rise and Rise of the Defensive Midfielder

Seeing the success that having a CDM in the side can bring, led to a resurgence in leaving a player slightly deeper on the pitch. And thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. A player sitting back to help out the defence means more reinforcements when the pressure is on and it also reduces the risk of dangerous counter attacks. At the other end of the pitch, the CDM gives free rein to more attacking players to make runs forward without worrying about what was going on behind them.

A win-win situation. 

And looking at the current sides in the top competitions worldwide, it has certainly caught on.

But there has been a twist of sorts. A lot of teams like to employ two midfielders in the centre who are adept at both the attacking interplay that links defence to attack – but also the tasks toward their own goal. They are multi-talented, with stamina for days. These players are pretty difficult to find, but they are out there. And any side who gets two? They are normally fighting for titles.

The framework we discussed before for the ideal CDM? Tall, athletic, good football brain? The last two are prerequisites of course, but there have been exceptions on the first point.

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The Best CDM’s in The World

Perhaps the finest CDM in the world over the last five years has been another Frenchman – N’Golo Kante. The unheralded midfielder joined EPL side Leicester City in 2015 and his exhaustive focus on the ball was one of the main reasons why 5000/1 shot Leicester won the EPL title that season. It led to a move to Chelsea soon after and he continued to destruct attacks with his laser focus on opposition runners.

Kante won the World Cup in 2018 too, as well as another title with Chelsea. And listening to his exploits would summon images of a huge monolith of a player, every player unable to pass him.

But N’Golo Kante is only 1.68metres tall. Yet he is widely considered to be the finest CDM on the planet.

Before him came Sergio Busquets. Part of the all-conquering Barcelona and Spain teams that won European Cups and national titles, Busquets was content to mop up any potential mess, while his two central midfield buddies, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, wreaked merry havoc in front. It is possibly one of the most successful and effective midifelds in the history of football – and Busquets was pivotal. The Spaniard didn’t do things in an overtly physical way. He did so with expert positioning and astute reading of the game, mixed with incredible stamina and great passing.

The Thankless Task of a CDM

In regards to Makalele, Busquets and Kante, they all had their own strengths, but in terms of CDM? Each of them carried the role and showed the true value of having a destructor – a player hellbent on breaking up opposition attacks. If they can then offload the ball effectively? Even better. But Makalele wasn’t famed for his passing – Real Madrid president Florentino Perez once said that the Frenchman only passes the ball three yards – and yet he is lauded for changing the game with his play.

Whatever happens, the demand for a specialist defensive midfielder is still in rude health. Managers of soccer clubs still like to employ a player that has no other mission other than to stop the other team.

Much like a lot of soccer games, it is all in the balance. If a team has a CDM, he still needs an effective partner to bring the game forward. If it is left to them? Then they may have possession, but they won’t do much with it.

So now you know what a CDM is – and how very effective they can be. Next time you’re watching the game, just watch out for that player sitting in the final third, protecting the defenders. You’ll soon see the incredible work rate that is demanded.

And the thankless task they face – because their work is rarely noted.

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