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. Arturo Vidal
The only reason Vidal isn’t higher up this list is because some will argue he’s not a true holding midfielder given his ability to play box-to-box but he’s spent enough time in the position to rank in our top 10. Vidal is a tough tackler who has the ability to find himself with time every time he receives the ball meaning he’s a great out ball for the defence behind him. He is capable of dictating the tempo of games and contributes positively with a decent range of passing and even has a solid goal return – he averages one in seven from a deep midfield position.
9. Declan Rice
Rice has established himself as a key component of the West Ham side at just 20 years of age and already looks set to be an England regular for many years (sorry Ireland) but it could have been different. As a youth player he was released by Chelsea but his mental strength and resilience saw him bounce back with the Hammers. Regardless of his young age, Rice reads the game exceptionally well and shows the required discipline for a deep-lying midfielder. On the ball, he’s not a player who will chip in with goals or spray 50 yard balls around but he recycles possession quickly and accurately and that’s a huge plus in his role. West Ham fans won’t want to hear it but Rice is destined for bigger things.
A lot of people will see Jorginho as a dubious inclusion on this list after his inaugural season with Chelsea but, in all honesty, his doubters are more miffed at the use of teammate N’golo Kante rather than what Jorginho brings to the party. At Napoli, Jorginho was key to the style Maurizio Sarri implemented and he was phenomenal. His movement in the defensive phase limited space between the lines allowing for a more effective pressing game and on the ball he’s a very composed player who rarely loses possession despite attempting more passes than most. We expect Frank Lampard to set Chelsea up differently to Sarri but Jorginho will be a big part of things without question.
7. Idrissa Gueye
Gueye has recently joined PSG for £30m and, in our opinion, that is very good value in today’s market. The 29-year-old has been a consistent performer for Everton over the last few years and helped his national side, Senegal, to the final of the African Cup of Nations earlier this summer. Gueye doesn’t try and be flamboyant in possession instead pouring all of his energy, into winning the ball back for his team by forcing mistakes through hard pressing and tough tackling. Gueye gets through an incredible amount of work in the middle of the park and he’ll be a sound addition to an already strong PSG side.
At just 23 Rodri has been earmarked as the man to marshal Man City’s midfield for the next decade after his £63m move from Atletico Madrid. Rodri is a player who places his focus on one thing – ball recovery, which he achieves through capitalising on loose balls and winning tackles or aerial duals. He’ll hold his position at the base of midfield and, after picking up the pieces, will look to retain possession with a tidy range of passing and he rarely gives the ball away. The Spanish youngster might find himself playing second fiddle to Fernandinho this season but under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, he will blossom into one of the best in the world.
Casemiro arrived at Real Madrid from Sao Paulo in 2013 but it wasn’t until Zinedine Zidane took control of the reigns that he got much of a look in. Madrid have been known for their attacking style and marauding fullbacks for some time and the introduction of Casemiro has given Real a balance between attack and defence, which allows the wing-backs to bomb on. Forget last year where the entire team struggled and he’s proved to be an important cog in the machine that is Real Madrid and has even scored some big goals, like his long-range strike that gave Madrid the lead against Juventus in the 2017 Champions League final. If Zidane is to get Madrid back to their best during the upcoming campaign then Casemiro’s inclusion will be vital.
4. Sergio Busquets
For a simplistic view of how good Busquets is you could point to a career that has been spent entirely at Barcelona and the fact he has over 100 caps for Spain, which isn’t something ordinary players achieve but look a little deeper and you see exactly why he’s so special. A goal scorer or playmaker he is not but in a defensive role he excels; he wins tackles, picks up the scraps and regularly finds himself blocking shots, which doesn’t happen by accident. He can play as well though and completes 90% of his attempted passes. Lionel Messi may be the irreplaceable one at Barca but Busquets will leave some pretty big shoes as well.
3. Frenkie de Jong
Now here is the man who will fill Busquets’ boots. The 22-year-old Dutchman joined Barcelona in the summer for near on £70m after being one of the standout stars for Ajax last season. Like Busquets, De Jong operates from deep in midfield but he’s in a different mould; De Jong isn’t one who tears into challenges instead preferring to run the game with the ball. You will see him driving forwards and searching to thread balls into dangerous areas as well as looking for quick layoffs to start a counter-attack. Watch out world, this kid could be the number one soon.
David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne – three exceptional players who often grab headlines at Manchester City but it’s Fernandinho who Guardiola’s men cannot cope without. Even at 34, the Brazilian is an exceptional all-round holding midfielder with a combination of pace, power, precision passing and the ability to destroy opposition attacks before they even get started. Guardiola has identified the holding role as an area he needs to strengthen – hence the signing of Rodri – as a serious injury to Fernandinho would make City vulnerable to losing their Premier League crown and make their chances of Champions League glory basically zero; is there a more glowing endorsement than that?
1. N’Golo Kanté
It’s hard to believe Leicester picked Kante up for just £8m. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez took the headlines when Leicester shocked the world by triumphing in the Premier League but Kante was the most wanted man that summer – and Chelsea got him. After that move, he helped his new side win the title making him the first player to ever win back to back Premier Leagues with two different clubs and last summer he lifted the World Cup as well. As a player Kante is an engine room who doesn’t stop working; with him shielding the defence it releases all of his team’s creative players to focus on going forward as they can rely on Kante to regain any loss of possession. The little Frenchman likes to keep his passing short and safe but he will break forward when the time is right and has popped up with important goals. Last year Sarri made Kante adjust his game but we expect him to be back in a truly defensive screening role next year and he could singlehandedly prove the difference between Chelsea making the top four or not.
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.