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The holding midfielder is a role seldom mentioned on the playground when kids are using jumpers for goalposts and even in the professional game it’s a position that has long gone underappreciated, particularly by the average fan but times are changing and now many of the best teams in Europe have an anchorman in their line up.
Why did it take such a long time to pick up on the role? Well the truth is, it didn’t really but it never had a label. In an old-fashioned 4-4-2, one of the central pair would often sit to do a similar job while the other broke forwards but greater fluidity was afforded. As formations have developed and full-backs have become more offensively minded the ‘sitter’ becomes a more visible presence on the pitch.
Claude Makelele was the first player to make the position fashionable in the early 2000s when his performances for Real Madrid and Chelsea earned him total respect from the footballing world. With Makelele now long-retired, who are the ten defensive midfielders around today who are best living up to his legacy?
10. Fabinho – Liverpool
- 1 10. Fabinho – Liverpool
- 2 9. Eduardo Camavinga – Real Madrid
- 3 8. Bruno Guimarães – Newcastle United
- 4 7. Frenkie de Jong
- 5 6. Marco Veratti – PSG
- 6 5. Declan Rice – West Ham United
- 7 4. Marcelo Brozovic – Inter Milan
- 8 3. Casemiro – Manchester United
- 9 2. Joshua Kimmich – Bayern Munich
- 10 1. Rodri – Manchester City
If this list was made a couple of seasons ago then Fabinho would have found himself much higher in the standings and if it was made purely on his performances last season then he would be nowhere near the top ten. At his best, Fabinho is everything you’d want from a defensive midfielder – comfortable on the ball, a great tackler and someone who reads the game well.
When he signed for Liverpool in 2018, he transformed them from pretenders to contenders and without him, they wouldn’t have won the Champions League in 2019 or the Premier League in 2020. At the age of 29, there is still time for him to recover his best form.
9. Eduardo Camavinga – Real Madrid
Eduardo Camavinga signed for Real Madrid in 2021 to be the long-term replacement for defensive midfield maestro, Casemiro. When Casemiro left for Manchester United in 2022, it was expected that Camavinga’s time had come, however, due to injuries across the squad he was forced to play much of last season at left-back.
Despite that, his best position is certainly at the base of the midfield where he can pick the ball up from the defence and dictate the game. At the age of 20, he has only shown flashes of his brilliant best but next season he is expected to be a mainstay in the Real Madrid midfield.
8. Bruno Guimarães – Newcastle United
Bruno Guimaraes has transformed the Newcastle United midfield since signing from Lyon in 2022. He has added more steel to the side in the heart of the pitch meaning that no one comes to St James Park anymore and rolls Newcastle over without a fight.
Like all top-holding midfielders in the modern game, Guimaraes also has terrific vision and has just about every type of pass in his locker. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on in the Champions League next season.
7. Frenkie de Jong
Frenkie de Jong has been tasked with the impossible – replacing Sergio Busquets at the heart of the Barcelona midfield. However, the Dutchman has been doing an excellent job so far and was a key cog in the Barcelona team that won La Liga last season.
Making up a new-look midfield three with Pedri and Gavi, De Jong is responsible for the first phase of play. There is arguably no one better at wriggling out of tight spaces and beating the opposition press to get his team moving in the right direction.
6. Marco Veratti – PSG
Some people may suggest that Marco Veratti has wasted the best years of his career in Ligue 1 but at PSG he found a home and a system which suited his strengths down to a tee. Given that the forwards at the club don’t have any defensive responsibilities, it has been Veratti’s job to cover a lot of ground in midfield to allow the likes of Mbappe and Neymar to flourish.
Similar to Frenkie de Jong, Veratti is exceptional at beating the press with his dribbling ability while he is almost always the man to receive the ball on the half-turn from the PSG defence. At the age of 30, this could the last chance for the Italian to test his skills elsewhere.
5. Declan Rice – West Ham United
Rice is without question the best player at West Ham and the best English defensive midfielder. His work with and without the ball is superb and last season he recorded more interceptions than any other player in the Premier League, displaying just well he reads the game.
His excellent and consistent form means that he will be making a big-money move this summer which may well see him take his game to an even higher level.
4. Marcelo Brozovic – Inter Milan
Brozovic is one-third of one of the most formidable midfields in international football alongside Mateo Kovacic and Luka Modric for Croatia. Brozovic’s work at the base of that midfield allows the other two to move forward more freely while his work for Inter Milan last season saw them reach the Champions League final.
In Italy, he is rated as the best defensive midfielder in Serie A which is no mean feat considering the tactical nature of the league. There aren’t many players around who are better at keeping possession than the 30-year-old, while he is dogged when it comes to winning the ball back for his team.
3. Casemiro – Manchester United
Casemiro has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the world for a decade now and he effectively completed football while at Real Madrid. There is a firm belief that Los Blancos wouldn’t have had the success they had during the 2010s without the Brazilian and without him, they failed to live up to their lofty expectations last season.
He moved to Manchester United last summer and instantly made Erik Ten Hag’s team better. He reads the game incredibly well and his passing is criminally underrated. He seems to be loving life in the Premier League and he still has a good few years left at the top.
2. Joshua Kimmich – Bayern Munich
Many players have made the switch from full-back to defensive midfield over the years, but none have done it quite as naturally as Kimmich. His passion, bravery and comfort on the ball helped the Bavarians to another title last season – their 11th in a row.
His range of passing is exquisite and his calmness on the ball has allowed Bayern to dominate for many years now. Under Thomas Tuchel, he could go on to greater heights next season which could make Germany’s biggest team a force to be reckoned with in Europe once again.
1. Rodri – Manchester City
Who else could possibly be number one on this list other than Manchester City’s Rodri? The Spanish midfielder has just been crowned a treble-winner and after Erling Haaland, there wasn’t a better or more important player in the squad than Rodri.
In the Premier League, he made more passes than any other midfielder in the league last season by a huge margin while he also added goals to his game. His winner in the Champions League final against Inter Milan will go down in the club’s history as it earned them their first-ever Champions League trophy.
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