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 pretty much every team has 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 as 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 that springs to mind who received praise and adoration for his performances. He became the benchmark by which all defensive midfielders were compared and here we look at the 10 best currently plying their trade.
10. Declan Rice – West Ham
Under-rated and over-exerted in a struggling West Ham side, the young star has shown his composure time and again, and the club would be lost without his ball-winning and ball-distribution skills. It’s worth remembering he’s only 21, and has a big future ahead for the England national team.
With another hugely impressive season for the Hammers under his belt, expect either the captain’s armband to be thrown his way in east London, or else a big-money move to a top Premier League side if Plan A doesn’t come to fruition for David Moyes.
9. Wilfred Ndidi – Leicester City
Given the near-impossible task of replacing N’Golo Kante, the Nigerian didn’t disappoint and has gone from strength to strength since his arrival at the King Power Stadium. Many Foxes fans even rate him higher than their former French star.
That’s thanks to another stellar season under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers, with Ndidi’s 128 league tackles for the campaign just one behind Aaron Wan-Bissaka at the very top. Playing in Belgium for Genk just three years ago, he’s now reportedly wanted by Manchester United and Real Madrid.
8. Rodri – Manchester City
City needed a replacement for the aging Fernandinho, but nobody could have predicted that they’d find the perfect one so quickly. Spaniard Rodri made an immediate impact upon arrival, filling the Brazilian’s shoes effortlessly.
With a slick range of passing, a footballing brain and the build to easily brush aside any oncoming attackers, the 24-year-old is the perfect fit for Pep Guardiola’s system. A 93% pass success percentage across the league and Champions League this season epitomises his composed approach to the game.
7. Idrissa Gueye – PSG
A Ligue 1 winner with Lille a decade ago, the Senegal international’s energetic performances came to real prominence during his three-year spell at Everton. His debut campaign at Goodison saw him claim the most tackles in the league, while also making the highest number of tackles and interceptions across Europe’s top five divisions for the 2016 calendar year.
The Toffees couldn’t persuade their star man to stay, and he’s now more than holding his own amongst all the talent in the world in Paris, playing a key role in the club’s league and cup double this season.
6. Fabinho – Liverpool
Certainly not the typical Brazilian footballer, but one that Liverpool fans have come to adore despite him only joining the club in 2018. A few world-class goals have helped increase his already-glowing stock at Anfield.
With Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold constantly bombing forward, it’s Fabinho who is often tasked with staying back to pick up the pieces. With aggression, cunning and sheer hunger to win the ball for his time, the 26-year-old is the perfect man for the job.
5. N’Golo Kante – Chelsea
The Premier League hasn’t seen much of the lively French midfielder this season, but when he’s on the pitch doing what he does best, there is rarely anyone better. Breaking up the play comes naturally to the gifted and much-loved Parisian.
Non-stop running with and without the ball is a real asset for any team, but with Chelsea going through major reconstruction under Frank Lampard, it’s hard to know where Kante’s future lies.
4. Marcelo Brozovic – Inter Milan
A crucial member of Croatia’s memorable 2018 World Cup journey, Brozovic has been equally important at club level for several years now, making the transition from box-to-box midfielder to a holding role under Antonio Conte.
His three goals and six assists this season have been an extra bonus for Inter as they kept the pressure on Juventus in Serie A, with a pass success rate of 89.3% in all competitions certainly no mean feat.
3. 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 ease the Bavarians to another title, with six goals and 13 assists in all competitions a phenomenal record.
At 25, he is already a well-established figure at Bayern and for the German national team, with his progression certain to have no limits for both club and country in the near future. He’ll be one of the world’s best anywhere on the pitch very soon.
2. Sergio Busquets – Barcelona
An experienced player who has made the defensive midfield role his own over the years, largely down to his no-nonsense approach and a strict reliance on defensive duties above all else.
The Spaniard knows his worth in an attacking team, and takes ball possession to a whole new level. A 90% pass success rate across all competitions this season typifies the 32-year-old’s accomplished nature.
1. Casemiro – Real Madrid
The complete defensive midfielder, and a mainstay in an ever-changing team under Zinedine Zidane. The Brazilian even chipped in with four goals and three assists as Madrid regained their crown from rivals Barcelona this season.
A serial winner with Real Madrid, and certain to go down as a legend in the Spanish capital thanks to his continuous dominance in the heart of a hugely talented midfield. And he’s still only 28.
There you have it, our view on the best defensive midfielders in the world right now. Do you agree with our list? Where have we got it wrong? Leave your comments below.