Over the last month, I have given my views on the seven greatest attacking trios and back fours in football history, and to be honest, I was pretty happy with both.
By using the system of ranking the players out of 10 for individual talent and the group out of 10 for how well they played together to give an overall score out of 20 which determined rankings, I felt pretty confident with my selections.
There were a lot of requests for today’s video, which is why we’re doing it, but although I have used exactly the same methodology here, it was much, much more difficult coming up with a definitive seven, so much so that I can’t say I’m 100% happy with my final choices.
As always, longevity isn’t a factor, the three players simply must have played at least one season or one major tournament together if it’s an international trio. As with the others, we have strictly enforced the ‘trio’ part, so not just any three midfielders who played together are eligible, the trio has to make up the entire teams midfield, and we’ll have some honourable mentions between first and second place.
Here are our 7 greatest midfield trios of all time:
7. Makelele, Lampard & Essien
In a seven packed full of selection headaches, seventh place was the ultimate migraine, and I won’t argue with anyone who thinks one or two of our honourable mentions could come in for these three. However, using our impeccable criteria, it’s easy to see why they scored so highly.
Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien spent three seasons together forming a formidable midfield trio at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. Makelele was the pivot, in the so-called Makelele role, expertly breaking up play and snuffing out opposition attacks. Lampard was just so prolific, bagging 20+ goals in each of these three seasons from the middle of the park, playing arguably the best football of his career. And then Essien was a perfect blend of the two, such a powerful presence in midfield, bringing energy, dynamism and real quality. It’s easy to forget just how good pre-injury trouble Essien was, and between 2005 and 2008, every one of this trio was named as either Chelsea’s Player or their Players’ Player of the Year.
Brilliant as a unit and excellent individually, although we have one or two doubts about their inclusion, there can be no doubts about the overall quality of this combination.
(L-R) Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrate their victory in the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at NSC Olimpiyskiy...
The only current trio in this seven, it’s difficult to overlook the combined achievements of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric at the heart of the Real Madrid midfield. Casemiro is the deepest of the three, the tough-tackling and energetic Brazilian bringing grit and resilience to a talented Real side.
Kroos is just a class act. One of the best central midfielders in world football, the German rarely has to break a sweat, picking passes, opening teams up and controlling games as a deep-lying playmaker. And then we come to Luka Modric, for our money, the pick of the bunch. An attacking midfielder during his time in England, Modric has become a wonderfully complete footballer in the Spanish capital. He has a real engine, fantastic technique and a rare footballing brain.
Although all three are top class, it is their complimenting approaches and strengths which put them in our top seven. In four seasons together, they have won four Champions League titles, and although those successes are obviously very much team efforts, this trio were a huge contributing factor behind Real’s continental success.
That’s right, it’s the controversial choice siren, not because anyone would question Gattuso, Pirlo & Seedorf’s ability - well, no-one with any idea about football anyway - but because there’s very good case to be made that they played in a diamond, of which Kaka operated at the apex of. This was a tough one, and we may well be being too lenient here, by Kaka was such an attack-minded playmaker who played just in behind the likes of Shevchenko and Crespo, with so little defensive responsibility, that we have decided to give this one the thumbs up.
Once eligible, these three had to score very highly in terms of talent and togetherness. Gattuso was a tireless defensive midfielder who was a brilliant leader and spoiler of opposition attacks. Pirlo was a world class deep-lying playmaker with an almost unrivalled footballing intelligence and passing ability, whilst Seedorf just exuded class.
Together, these three won nine trophies in nine years together, including two Champions League’s, until AC Milan were foolish enough to allow Pirlo to leave on a free transfer to Juventus.
4. Davids, Deschamps & Zidane
Former football player Zinedine Zidane during the 2018 Friendly Game football match between France 98 and FIFA 98 on June 12, 2018 at U Arena in Nanterre near Paris, France
Staying in Italy, although there aren’t actually any Italians in this trio, fourth place goes to Juventus’ brilliant midfield trio of the mid-late 1990’s. Teammates for two years in Turin, these three had a bit of everything.
Deschamps was the least technically proficient of the three, an industrious defensive midfielder famously nicknamed the water carrier by Eric Cantona, but don’t be fooled into thinking he wasn’t a top class player. Deschamps was a fantastic leader with a brilliant defensive reading of the game.
Alongside him was Edgar Davids, that feisty untameable Dutch sensation. Davids had the energy of two players in the middle of the park, combining pace, power and tenacity with good technique and the ability to spread play when called upon.
Lastly, we come to Zinedine Zidane, a man who looked to have been born with a ball at his feet. I have been criticised for suggesting that Zidane is overrated by some, but only by those who either only saw or only remember his performances in key games and claim that he ought to be on a pedestal with the likes of Pele and Messi.
Make no mistake though, Zidane was a force of nature on his day. He was big and powerful but incredibly graceful. He could beat players at will, turn a game with a flick of his boot and score huge goals on the biggest of stages.
These three have to feature in this seven, despite all being shut out by Roy Keane in the 1999 Champions League semi-final, which is a mark of the Irishman’s genius.
3. Van Hanegem, Neeskens & Jansen
When people talk about the great Netherlands side of 1974, the focus tends to be on Johan Cruyff, and understandably so. However, in Rinus Michels fluid and revolutionary variation of a 4-3-3, that first three were pretty special too. That midfield was made up of Feyenoord legends Willem van Hanegem and Wim Jansen, and Ajax star Johan Neeskens.
Unlike the others in this seven, this Dutch trio wasn’t so much a case of one sitter and two playmakers or two sitters and an attacking midfielder, with all three being pretty interchangeable. Van Hanegem and Neeskens played similar roles for their club sides, and worked brilliantly together. All three had fantastic energy and worked incredibly hard, Van Hanegem was an outstanding passer of the ball, Jansen was brilliant at reading the pattern of play and Neeskens was a fairly regular scorer from midfield.
Together they reached the final of the 1974 World Cup, but more than that, they left an indomitable mark upon a generation of footballers and football fans who watched them.
2. Matthäus, Littbarski & Hassler
Pierre Littbarski , scout of VfL Wolfsburg looks on prior to the Pre Season friendly match between VfL Wolfsburg and SSC Napoli at Volkswagen Arena on August 11, 2018 in Wolfsburg, Germany.
If you look at most great midfield trios, there is someone who is basically there as a spoiler. In this seven, we’ve had the likes of Gattuso, Makelele and Deschamps. Now, that isn’t to diminish their talents or impact, a spoiler can be as important as the finest of playmakers, but none of this German trio were mere spoilers.
We should start with Matthaus, who is the most celebrated, and the greatest defensive midfielder of the modern era in our eyes, when he played there at least. Such a complete footballer, Matthaus could play anywhere in midfield. He was fiercely versatile and intelligent, a brilliant tackler, a wonderful passer and a tireless runner.
Pierre Littbarski spent much of his career playing further forward or out wide, but he played in alongside Hassler and Matthaus in central midfield when Germany won the World Cup in 1990. A genius with a ball at his feet, Littbarski was a sensational dribbler and a really creative footballer who spent most of his career at Koln.
And finally, Thomas Hassler was everything you want from an attacking midfielder. Diminutive, agile, technically excellent, a master passer and a free-kick specialist. There was just no weak link in this German midfield, and they rightly take second place.
0. Honourable Mentions
Right, we’ll try and make this quick because there’s a lot to get through. From the 1920’s to the present day, there were some quite brilliant midfield trios who missed out. We have to start with Uruguay’s all conquering midfield of the late 1920’s and early 30’s, made up of Gestido, Fernandez and the best player on the planet at the time in the form of Jose Andrade.
Similarly, Austria’s Wunderteam of the decade that followed and their midfield trio of Urbanek, Smistik and Wagner were unfortunate to miss out.
More recently, Liverpool may feel that their brief but brilliant trio of Mascherano, Alonso and Gerrard warrants a mention, which is what they just got, and they did make our shortlist.
Johan Neeskens may have made this seven with his Dutch teammates, but the Ajax trio of himself, Arie Haan and Gerrie Muhren weren’t far behind.
We must give quick mentions to brilliant Juve trio Tardelli, Bonini and Platini, two more Ajax combinations in the form of Davids, Seedorf & De Boer and Seedorf, Davids and Litmanen, and Real Madrid’s midfield three made up of Fernando Redondo, Clarence Seedorf and Christian Karembeu.
Lastly, there are a couple of suggestions a few of you may think we have missed that were actually overlooked since we didn’t consider them to be strict trios. They are England’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ from the 1966 World Cup of Peters, Stiles and Ball, who miss out since Bobby Charlton was very much a midfielder so we can’t call that a trio.
And then the most notable of all, Brazil’s 1970 combination of Rivelino, Gerson and Clodoaldo, all geniuses, but not a midfield trio, since Rivelino played on the left and Jairzinho played on the right, so it could be either a four or a two, but not a three.
There are more we could name but we’ll stop there. As always, let us know your views and suggestions in the comments, as well as any future video ideas you may have, but first up, we come to top spot…
(L-R) Xavi Hernandez of FC Barcelona, Sergio Busquets of FC Barcelona, Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona, Pedro Rodriguez of FC Barcelona, Jordi Alba of FC Barcelona with Champions League...
There shouldn’t actually be too much debate about this one. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets all rank among the finest players of their generation, and in tandem, they were simply irresistible. The only debate about their inclusion would be over whether they were a midfield trio, but we can quickly put that one to bed. Whilst they rarely operated as a trio for Spain, with Busquets normally having a sitter in alongside him - like Xabi Alonso - and Iniesta often deputised on the left wing, they were very much a midfield three during Guardiola’s reign as Barcelona manager.
Busquets was the pivot, Iniesta dazzled on the left side of central midfield whilst Xavi roamed around the field, constantly recycling possession, stretching the play and waiting to pick off Barca’s opponents.
Xavi and Iniesta would both probably have won Ballon d’Ors if they played outside of the Messi-Ronaldo era, whilst Busquets is too subtle of a genius to be put up for awards like that, but he is among the ten greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
Individually, these three are as good as any other trio, and in terms of their chemistry and talents when operating in tangent, they’re the best by a mile. In our eyes, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta have to go down as the greatest midfield trio of all time.