Modern Midfielder

By Ryan O’Keefe (Sydney Swans)

Description of the position

The role of the midfielder in the team structure can be many things, but essentially it is the workhorse of the team. Stoppages form a large component of the game and with midfielders attending most stoppages it is easy to understand why it is a primary focus for a midfield.

The main roles for midfielders are ball movement, support and communication.

  • Ball movement - the flow of the ball during the game depends on the midfield functioning well to create space and options, and most importantly get hold of the ball. The more times the midfield has possession the more opportunities it has to drive the ball forward for a scoring opportunity and the less likely the opposition will have to create their own scoring opportunities.
  • Support - the midfield needs to work back to help the defence move the ball out of the defensive zone and push hard forward to support the forwards.  Midfielders need to provide constant movement up and down the ground. A midfielder needs to work hard all game, get to as many contests as possible and make an impact when opportunities arise.
  • Communication - direction and instruction is required all the time to ensure correct structures are in place; match ups are right and positioning of team mates are advantages. Stoppages occur all across the ground so communication is required between all positions.

Due to the midfield supporting both ends of the ground the midfielder’s relationship with other positions is vital. In today’s game midfielders also spend time either forward or back as part of a rotation.

Midfielders need to understand their role and responsibilities and carry them out to the best of their ability. This is the key to a long and successful career.

The main focus for a midfielder should be their work rate. The harder you work the more impact you are going to have on the game. Hard work also incorporates the lead up to games in terms of your preparation during the week. Perfect preparation delivers perfect performance.

Coaching the position

Coaches should avoid information overload. Focus on the key points you wish to get across to your players. The main point is to understand your role in the midfield group at various game situations.

If stoppages are a main focus for the midfield group then that is a key element you need to teach. Teach the players their role at the stoppages, body positioning, reading the cues from both the rucks, opposition and team mates, and executing both defensive and offensive patterns during the scrimmage. It is also important to teach the players the offensive and defensive running patterns after the clearances; this can be just as important as winning the clearance.

Midfielders also need to understand their general field running patterns to help out the defence and launch attacking moves. The key is hard work. You can’t be lazy because it’s the players work rate that will get them to contests around the ground. Having high work rate boils down to fitness and preparation during the week and pre season.

Specific training for the midfield is based around running, stoppages, and ball movement.

  • Running should be the main focus during the preseason period. Running training should be both aerobic and speed based.
  • Stoppage training is done by implementing your game plan. Train your tactics repetitively and use different game scenarios including opposition tactics to develop player decision making and how they can move the ball efficiently. All players in the midfield group and others that may work at the stoppages occasionally know the tactics, calls and our team philosophy. If everyone is on the same page then the group can work cohesively and successfully.
  • Ball movement is just an extension of stoppage training but incorporates everyone and all areas of the ground. Specific skills the midfield group can work on are taking the ball off the rucks hits, handballing under pressure and in traffic, gathering the ground ball and kicking out off stoppages under pressure.

Pre-match preparation is very important and you should use this time to work on everything that you want the midfield group to carry out well (eg. handballing, reading the ruck etc.). 

In the week prior to a match players must understand the opposition’s stoppage patterns, game style, specific roles their players have, best match up options, strengths and weakness.  Most importantly players need to understand what you are going to do tactically to break their game down while successfully playing your own game style. Opposition analysis shouldn’t be confined to stoppages, it should consider the whole ground and the general patterns of the opposition.

Players need to be well prepared, have good game knowledge and smarts, communication and synergy with team mates and be physically capable to carry out the roles. However the best advice is to work hard.  Hard work is the foundation of all great successful people.  They work hard at their trade, reduce their weakness and sharpen their strengths.

Specific drill

There are many drills that are used to develop the players’ competencies in the midfield:

  • handball pressure drills
  • decision making drills both handball and kicking
  • stoppage drills
  • ball movement from stoppages and general play
  • game plan/style drills

One drill that incorporates all these aspects is this drill that I designed:

Teaching points:

  • Attackers are to have clean hands from the hit out, then work the ball under pressure to the outlet.
  • The kicker needs to execute the kick under pressure to one of two forward options down the field who are being defended by three players as if the opposition has a loose defender.
  • The outnumbered team receiving the kick needs to work together to be able to provide an option for the kicker.
  • Accuracy and decision making is crucial, along with synergy and teamwork.
  • The defenders need to minimise the attacker’s effectiveness at a stoppage when out numbered. However, when defending the kick, the defenders should use the spare number to greatest benefit to stop a completed pass.


Ryan O'Keefe produced this article as part of the requirements of the AFL/AFLPA Level 2 Coaching Course