Soccer’s mystique is built on its brief moments of magic that populate the field.
The praise and adulation is often heaped onto strikers who steal the headlines with their goals despite the hard work of everyone around them. This is true for the Wisconsin Badgers. Their senior-led offense of Mark Segbers, Mike Catalano, Tom Barlow and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Chris Mueller have combined for 28 goals en route to the Big Ten Tournament title and a first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013. Mueller has been the team’s magician, scoring brilliant goals from set pieces, assisting with that crucial final ball and dancing past defenders on the way to goal.
But how does the ball reach Mueller and the rest of the Wisconsin attack?
Meet sophomore midfielders Noah Leibold and Mitch Guitar.
The pair has started every game in the middle of Wisconsin’s 4-4-2 formation, and has given the Badgers stability in the middle of the park. Center midfielders, especially the holding midfielders or box-to-box midfielders, rarely get the praise or stats as the forwards players. Leibold has scored the only goal between the two of them, and while it was the important equalizer against Maryland in the Big Ten Quarterfinals, it was overshadowed by the dramatic game-winner scored by Segbers. Yet their role in the Wisconsin offense goes well beyond just the stats.
“When you look at the attacking four and put Mitch Guitar and Noah Leibold in the midfield that help prompt a lot of those great attacks, it’s a unique attacking group,” head coach John Trask said earlier this season.
It’s a unique position playing in the center midfield. Often times, Leibold and Guitar are doing the most running, covering the whole midfield on both defense and offense. In Italy, box-to-box midfielders are sometimes called distruggitori di gioco, or “destroyers of play,” for their defensive characteristics. While Leibold and Guitar excell at making great tackles and interceptions, their ability to quickly lay the ball off to a defender to keep possession or to find a player like Mueller to get the counterattack off and running is the key to success in this system.
“[Noah and I] just need to get them the ball and get going because transition offense is not something that many teams have,” Guitar said.
The sophomore from Royal Oak, Mich., has played in a similar box-to-box or defensive midfield role since growing up, and while he played out on the wing during his freshman season, he’s really found a home in the midfield alongside Leibold.
“He’s someone who is really easy to play with always knows what his role is,” Guitar said.
Leibold discovered his role in the midfield when he was about 13. Growing up in Germany, Leibold played at many different academies such as the Mainz Academy for the German club FSV Mainz 05. He likes the position because his style of play fits the role required of the position.
“You need good tactical awareness to see where your opponents are running [on defense] … and you also need to be fit,” Leibold said.
Leibold started all the games in his first year, so he already had a familiarity with the position, but he and Guitar have found a partnership both on the field and off the field.
“The last few games we’ve definitely formed a great relationship in the midfield. We read each other well,” the German midfielder said. “We’re the guys in the middle that kind of dictates the game both forward and backwards.”
The pair have bonded because of their quieter natures and they’ve developed a good understanding, but both know they’ll soon become the leaders on the team.
All the forwards who have led the line for the Badgers are seniors, and while the senior leadership has helped them both settle into their roles, they both want to continue their legacy of leadership for the new underclassmen.
“I hope I can carry on what they’ve been doing for me. It’s unreal looking at every side of the pitch and seeing a senior who...helps me out everyday,” Guitar said. “I really hope to be someone like them.”
And as the Badgers get ready to host the UIC Flames in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday evening, both Guitar and Leibold know exactly what will be needed from them. Guitar would love to get a goal or an assist to tie him with his counterpart, but he is far more worried about other things.
“I would definitely love to [get on the scoresheet] ... but I’ll be just doing my job of trying to get the offense going and playing sound defensively,” Guitar said.
All in the life of a box-to-box midfielder.