Those of you who are keeping up with our world XI series will know what to expect here by now. For those of you who are new to the channel, first of all hello, and – secondly – this is the fifth instalment of a series we’re doing at the moment on the best footballers in the world in each position, ultimately building up to our own world XI.
Defensive midfield is probably the least glamorous and most under-appreciated role in the world of football, but that is starting to change. Not long ago, your average or more casual football fan would often watch a match and feel as though the defensive midfielder didn’t bring a lot to the party, with a lot of their dirty work going largely unnoticed.
Now most people have come to accept that just about every great team needs a great holding midfield player. There are two kinds of defensive midfielders, anchors or destroyers who love to defend and break up play, and deep-lying playmakers who sit deep but look to control the tempo of a game and instigate attacks.
We’ll see examples of both here, but the ideal holding midfielder is a combination of the two.
Here are our 7 best defensive midfielders in world football:
I know some Liverpool fans feel as though their players have been a bit hard done by in this series, but Fabinho’s inclusion in this seven when we will see the calibre of player left out when we come to our honourable mentions should go some way towards mending that relationship. Signed in the summer from Monaco for just under £40 million, Fabinho didn’t explode into life at Anfield, but he has grown in importance as the season has gone on.
Liverpool have a lot of competition for their midfield three, but for me, Fabinho would be the first name in there, followed by Wijnaldum, and then one of the others to partner those two. Fabinho is an expert in the type of behind the scenes dirty work that we talked about in the introduction. He’s big and physical, has an eye for danger and his direct passing and the speed with which he looks to get the ball into Liverpool’s front three is so important to Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Wijnaldum, Henderson and Milner have all played more games than Fabinho this season, despite the midfielder having had a few games in defence, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see him become as much of a mainstay as Alisson or Van Dijk next season, and rightly so. He takes seventh place.
6. Blaise Matuidi
An enormously underrated footballer, you’ll very rarely see Blaise Matuidi have a poor game. Aged 31 now, Matuidi has been a French international for almost a decade, he gave six years of fantastic service to Paris Saint-Germain and he’s been a mainstay in the Juventus side since signing for the Italian champions in 2017. Our first two players are a Frenchman and a Brazilian, and France and Brazil lead the way in terms of defensive midfielders in football right now.
Matuidi isn’t so much a sitter as an enforcer. One could describe him as a box-to-box player, but we’re going to have this seven for defence-minded midfield players, and then another for central and/or attacking midfielders, so Matuidi fits in best here, and one suspects he’ll drop deeper and deeper in the latter stages of his career.
Right now, Matuidi is one of the hardest working footballers on Earth, he is absolutely tireless in his running and crunching in the tackle. The French Footballer of the Year for 2017 and a World Cup winner in 2018, Matuidi is a force of nature in the middle of the park, and he was yet another masterstroke of a signing by the Old Lady.
5. Frenkie De Jong
As a rule, defensive midfield players tend to emerge and reach the pinnacle of their powers a little later than say attacking midfield or wide players. Well, Frenkie De Jong is just 21 years of age, and he’s already among the most talented midfield operators in the game, so just how good he is capable of becoming is quite frankly frightening prospect.
Ajax have been a breath of fresh air in the Champions League this season, bringing Real Madrid’s stronghold on the competition to an end with a wage budget supposedly smaller than Gareth Bale’s individual salary. De Jong is arguably their most important player, keeping things ticking at the base of their midfield, and he has already signed off on a move worth a potential €86 million to Barcelona in the summer.
De Jong is very much a holding midfielder in the deep-lying playmaker mould, not one to go flying into tackles or throwing his weight around, but a footballing purist, brilliant on the ball, intelligent in possession and always looking for that opening to play the ball through. I think he’s the fifth best holding midfielder in the world at 21, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t the best within the next five years or less.
Real Madrid are of course in the midst of a pretty shoddy season, fresh off the back of three consecutive Champions League titles, although the man who guided them to those title is at least now back at the Bernabeu. Whilst the goals of Cristiano Ronaldo were obviously a pretty integral factor in those successes, Real’s midfield three of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro was a key factor as well.
Modric and Kroos are both wonderful footballers, but it was the energy and destructiveness of Casemiro behind them that allowed them to express themselves so freely. In 2016, Diego Simeone called Casemiro Real’s most important player, and Marcelo said that with Casemiro alongside him he felt like he could play until he was 45.
The Brazilian international isn’t the most technically gifted footballer in this seven, nor is he the best passer, in fact he’s perhaps the worst, but he’s incredibly strong and robust, and Real would be lost without him.
3. N’Golo Kante
We spoke in the introduction about there being two types of holding midfielders, enforcers and playmakers. Maurizio Sarri prefers the latter, and that’s why he has taken the controversial decision to play Jorginho at the base of his midfield and N’Golo Kante in a more advanced role this season. Whatever his reasons, it’s clear to see that Kante isn’t as comfortable further forward.
Despite not having played there all season though, Kante still makes our top three best defensive midfielders in the world. Prior to Sarri-ball, Kante had won a league title with Leicester in defensive midfield, a league title with Chelsea – being named as the Premier League’s Player of the Year – and a World Cup with France, so one can see how Sarri’s decision to play him out of position might be controversial.
Kante is renowned for his relentless running, selfless attitude and big smile, as well as coming across as one of the most humble top class footballers in the world. Put him back in his position and he may well challenge for top spot here, as things stand, I’m sure no-one would begrudge him third place.
2. Sergio Busquets
The top two in this seven presented a nightmarish decision between two players I hugely admire. Sergio Busquets is without doubt the finest defensive midfielder of his generation, and one of the finest to have ever lived. One of only eight or nine current players to make our list of the 100 greatest footballers of all time back in November, Busquets is a genius, probably the most intelligent footballer of my lifetime and a master technician.
However, we have to go on the here and now, and as we speak, there is one man I’d take over him in my ultimate world XI, so – regrettably – it’s second place for Sergio.
Busquets was fast-tracked from Barcelona’s B team into the first team fold by Pep Guardiola, and it’s easy to see why. Just about the perfect Pep player, Busquets became the pivot in an all-conquering Barca side with Xavi and Iniesta in front of him. Quite possibly the finest midfield trio of all time.
Whilst most of the others in this seven are renowned for their tireless running and fierce tackles, you’ll rarely see Busquets break a sweat, simply because he very rarely has to. The late great Johan Cruyff put it best early in Busquets’ career, saying, “Positionally, he seems like a veteran with or without the ball. With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.”
0. Honourable Mentions
We said Fabinho had seen off some fine competition to make seventh place, and we weren’t lying. We’ll go country by country to keep things snappy, starting in the Premier League, where Manchester United sitter Nemanja Matic and arguably Ander Herrera if one puts him in this bracket deserve some recognition, along with the likes of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool, Lucas Torreira at Arsenal, Declan Rice at West Ham, Wilfried Ndidi at Leicester, Eric Dier at Tottenham and, perhaps controversially, despite this season I’d say Jorginho at Chelsea as well. If one classifies him as a defensive midfielders, which we’d probably have to for the purposes of this series, then Ruben Neves at Wolves also must be mentioned.
In Germany, the likes of Javi Martinez and Axel Witsel could me mentioned, but Thomas Delaney was the closest Bundesliga player to making our seven. There are some excellent defensive midfielders in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, such as Danilo Pereira at Porto and Ljubomir Fejsa at Benfica, along with former Sporting and now Real Betis star William Carvalho.
Another La Liga player, Arturo Vidal, was probably the closest of our honourable mentions to making the seven proper, but right now we’d just edge towards Fabinho over him. Other players we could mention include the likes of Steven N’zonzi, Emre Can, Luiz Gustavo, Daniele De Rossi, Wilmar Barrios and Asier Illaramendi.
As always, we can’t acknowledge everyone, but do let us know your own top sevens in the comments and obviously make sure you’re subscribed to HITC Sevens.
Right, now for top spot…
It hurt not putting Sergio Busquets at the top of this seven since the Barcelona man is such a special footballer, but it is a pretty special player who takes top spot as well. Fernandinho has been an excellent servant to Manchester City for six seasons, but since the arrival of Pep Guardiola and particularly since the start of last season he has been absolutely superb.
He may be 33, but he does quite literally seem to get better and better the older he gets. An excellent reader of the game, Fernandinho is a master at cutting out attacks before they ever truly get started. What’s more, he’s actually very good on the ball, he’s rarely panicked and he scores the occasional wondergoal.
He’s not as intelligent as Busquets, as strong as Casemiro or as energetic as Kante, but he is the best blend of all three. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said Pep’s toughest task at Man City will be replacing Fernandinho, but it still rings true. A top class player and for our money the best defensive midfielder in the world right now.