Scouting Defensive Midfielders: Finding the Next Oberdorf or Walsh

Jessy Parker Humphreys asks why there are so few holding midfielders of the highest quality in the women’s game, and looks at a few who could join Walsh and Oberdorf as the best in their role

“It’s a position that naturally goes unnoticed, same in the men’s game as the women’s.” This was Keira Walsh talking about gaining more recognition as a holding midfielder in the aftermath of Euro 2022. Six days after the interview came out, Walsh was announced as a Barcelona player. The reported €400,000 fee made her the most expensive women’s transfer of all time, smashing the record set when Chelsea bought Pernille Harder in 2020.

While increasing transfer fees are a feature of women’s football, there’s no doubt that the Walsh premium was because she excels in a difficult role and there are few, if any, who can do what she does.

And Walsh is not alone in being coveted in that position. Wolfsburg’s Lena Oberdorf recently finished fourth in the Ballon D’Or voting after picking up the Young Player Award at Euro 2022. While Walsh and Oberdorf both represent very different iterations of what it means to be a holding midfielder, there is no doubt that in the women’s game, that role is currently in very high demand.

Obviously there are a variety of different technical skills that a holding midfielder can have, and the distinction between Walsh and Oberdorf sums them up neatly. Walsh is a player who excels at distribution, with her impeccable passing being one of the most eye-catching elements of how she plays. Oberdorf meanwhile is someone who has made her name by covering huge amounts of ground whilst being a fantastic reader of the game, timing tackles and interceptions to perfection, with a fair bit of physicality thrown in.

That Walsh pass from the Euros

It is hard to exactly pin down why the position has become so popular within the women’s game recently. One potential explanation might be that the increased funding with women’s football has led to a predictable increase in tactical sophistication as clubs have been able to hire multiple coaches. For example, Chelsea have three UEFA A assistant managers, as well as Emma Hayes. As tactics have developed, teams have been more focused on using players as part of complex build-up play.

Yet, within men’s football, there is not a comparable demand for holding midfielders, at least as expressed in terms of money spent. Looking at record fees, you have to go all the way down to number 23 before you reach a holding midfielder (Aurelien Tchouameni’s €80m transfer from Monaco to Real Madrid, although reported add-ons could bump him up 11th). The explanation for the difference here seems to focus on scarcity. The idea is that there simply are not enough excellent holding midfielders for the very best teams at the top of women’s football.

While this might be in part due to the fact that Barcelona are hoarding three of the most accomplished defensive midfielders in women’s football in Keira Walsh, Patri Guijarro, and Ingrid Engen, there is no doubt that in England, all three of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal are on the hunt for one.

Manchester City were understandably left in the lurch after Walsh’s transfer late on in the window, but both Arsenal and Chelsea have been actively and unsuccessfully looking for future replacements for Lia Walti and Sophie Ingle respectively. Emma Hayes has even gone so far as to attempt to turn to attacker Erin Cuthbert in order to make her a sort of Oberdorf-type holder.

Comparing Oberdorf and Cuthbert shows the Scottish player ahead in quite a few metrics, although she is being compared to WSL central midfielders, not defensive midfielders – nonetheless, it seems like Hayes is on to something here

So who should these teams be looking at? Here are four players aged 24 and under who could solve the holding midfielder scarcity crisis.

Damaris Egurrola

Of all five of the players discussed here, Damaris is the only one who is at a big club. The 23-year-old has long been very highly thought of, with the Dutch national team winning a protracted battle with Spain and the USA to secure her international services; she was eligible for all three nations. She signed for Lyon at the start of 2021, earmarked as the long-term successor to Amandine Henry.

Egurrola compared to other midfielders in FD1 with a ‘DM – all round’ profile over the last 12 months

Damaris is an excellent passer, with long balls in particular a key part of her game. She is particularly good at bisecting the space between an opposition fullback and centre back in order to get her team’s wingers on the ball in dangerous areas. While not the most obviously physical player, she reads the game well enough to offer strong defensive cover to her side too.

But she has made less of an impact at both Lyon and for the Netherlands than many might have expected. She only made nine starts for Lyon last season, and Sherida Spitse was preferred by Mark Parsons in her role at Euro 2022. Of all the players on this list, Damaris looks the best positioned to be the next ‘big thing’ in this role, with an obviously high ceiling, but she has yet to be able to really nail down a starting position for club or country.

Unfortunately, Damaris looked to have suffered a bad injury in Lyon’s recent Champions League group stage match against Juventus. Whilst the initial prognosis seems to be not as bleak as might have been initially feared, it remains to be seen when she might be back on the pitch.

Sjoeke Nüsken

One player who has established herself as essential to her team is 21-year-old Sjoeke Nüsken. Part of a high flying Eintract Frankfurt team, Nüsken’s defensive abilities in particular are demonstrated by the fact that she has played at centre back in the German national team, something that might be necessary for her if she is to make headway in that squad given the dominance of Oberdorf in the defensive midfield role.

One area which Nüsken needs to improve is her consistency. She is still prone to errors – a failure to clear the ball lead to Hoffenheim getting a goal back in their 3-3 draw with Frankfurt just this weekend  – which is probably not helped by the fact she is used in such a wide range of different positions. In fact it may even turn out that she ends up playing as a centre-back long term rather than as a holding midfielder. Her passing is certainly better when she has the time on the ball that is more often afforded to defenders.

As you can see from the map top-right, Nüsken’s minutes have been split across a variety of positions, with 45% at DM and 36% at CB. Her metrics are compared to other Frauenbundesliga CMs.

Nüsken is a player who, given she is only 21-years-old, has the time to make significant gains in her game. At the start of 2022, Nüsken signed a new deal with Eintracht Frankfurt, keeping her at the club until the end of the 2023/24 season. Her progress over the next two years will be key to whether she can step up to a bigger club.

Sam Coffey

Sam Coffey recently finished third in Rookie of the Year voting for this year’s NWSL season, having impressed in her first professional season at the Portland Thorns. The 23 year old was the 12th overall pick in the second round of the draft, and finished the season with a NWSL Championship medal having played all of the Portland Thorns’ 2-0 win over Kansas City Current.

Coffey compared to other NWSL midfielders over the last 12 months as a ‘deep playmaker’

Coffey might be the most well-rounded of all the players discussed here, in terms of her defensive capabilities alongside her on-ball passing range. Her main defensive weakness is when it comes to aerial duels with Coffey seemingly not yet comfortable with judging the flight of the ball when it is dropping. Yet where she really excels is in the speed of her decision making. Coffey is very good at quickly moving the ball on when she receives it, with her accurate passing meaning that she is often able to move her team up the pitch well.

Another string to Coffey’s bow is her ability from dead ball situations. She has shown herself to be an able free-kick taker this season, another asset for any team who might be keen to interest her in European football. Historically, there has not been a huge amount of crossover between US national team players and European clubs, although Catarina Macario’s success at Lyon has shown there is plenty of opportunity for an American willing to make the move.

Irene Santi

23-year-old Italian Irene Santi has established herself this season in the first team of an Inter Milan side who are currently the only unbeaten team in Serie A Feminile. Having not started a single game for Inter last year, she has started four of their six so far.

Irene Santi’s ‘DM – holding’ profile compared to other midfielders in Serie A Women over the last 12 months

Santi is firmly on the defensive side of the holding midfielder spectrum, excelling at tackles and interceptions. She reads the game well and specialises in making clean tackles when it looks like the opportunity might have gone.

The one issue Santi might have moving forward is her on ball ability. She is not a great passer of the ball, and is even less likely to carry the ball forwards. While she often knows where the correct pass is, her execution can make it hard for her team-mates to control the ball. In a more technical side than Inter Milan, this might become an even bigger problem. However, for teams looking to potentially play a double pivot, Santi could be an excellent defensively-minded option, provided she was not required to do the on-ball work.


It is easy to see why established holding midfielders have been so sought after over the past season by top European clubs. While there are talented options out there, many of them remain quite raw and in need of development, with Damaris Egurrola clearly being the most well-rounded under 24 option. Certainly for clubs looking for more defensive minded options (such as Chelsea), Nüsken or Santi could be worth pursuing in the future, but clubs looking for players who will excel on the ball might find younger options hard to come by right now.

Header image copyright Imago/Urbanandsport

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