In the modern game, a defensive midfielder is required to be at their very best for the full 90 minutes, running with their engine on full blast.
They need to be relentless pressers, able to read every situation imaginable, but also be talented on the ball, capable of intricately stroking it around at close range or picking a long range pass. Often, it’s hard to gain recognition in the best sides around the world if you play the anchor role, but every great team often has a ‘number six’ keeping the lights on – you know, making things tick.
The fun bit, for us anyway, is the debate around who the very best in the business is, because there are inevitably differing opinions about who is top dog.
So, because those kind of debates are what we thrive on, we present the 25 players who are the best in the business right now – primarily based on current form and standing at the highest level, taking into account injuries and excluding those who typically operate as a more rounded ‘central’ midfielder…
VfB Stuttgart’s promotion back to the Bundesliga was exactly what German football needed.
What was also needed was an emerging defensive midfielder capable of reaching the very top of the game. Enter, Orel Mangala – who before too long is going to get a move to a big, big club.
Watch this space.
If you’re on the radar of Manchester City from a young age, you’re usually pretty good.
The bad news for Douglas Luiz is that competition for places meant an exit was needed for regular first team action. At Aston Villa, he’s found exactly that – and is very a capable patroller in front of the back four.
There’ll always be the tired old argument that Eredivisie football isn’t up to the same standard of Europe’s top five leagues.
While there is a large element of truth to that, there’s no disputing that versatile Mexican star Edson Alvarez has a big future in the game. Carry on with the kind of performances he’s been putting in as an anchor and Ajax’s midfield is in safe hands.
If you’re a player of Football Manager, you’ll know who Bruno Guimaraes is.
If you’ve been watching Lyon closely, you’ll know that Bruno Guimaraes’ talents extend far beyond what a computer game may say (we know it’s real life, but work with us here…).
He’s so good that Brazil handed him a maiden cap in 2020 – one of many we expect him to pick up in the future.
It looked as if Middlesbrough had done well to turn a modest profit on Martin de Roon a year after signing him from Atalanta, but few could ever have predicted his dramatic improvement since returning to Serie A.
He helped pin together one of the stories of the 2019/20 Champions League season, and Atalanta continue to delight the world – with De Roon’s imposing style at the centre of their success.
A regular member of Marseille’s side since 2018, Boubacar Kamara continues to go from strength to strength in Ligue 1.
Technically gifted on the ball, Kamara has a great awareness of what’s around him, often drawing fouls while displaying a great passing range. A representative of France at every youth level going, it might not be too long before Didier Deschamps is on the phone for senior duty.
Leandro Paredes knows his name will never be up in lights at Paris Saint-Germain, given the calibre of teammate he gets to play with each and every week.
But that doesn’t mean that the Argentine’s work in midfield isn’t valuable, when he’s given the opportunity to start, that is. He sits deep, Marco Verratti trots up ahead of him and PSG invariably win – simple, eh?
There will be a time when Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves gets itchy feet and starts clamouring to play Champions League football.
Basically, he’s too good not to be competing at Europe’s top table, given his immense energy, technical proficiency and endless work rate. Still, you’ve got to admire the talented Portuguese’s loyalty to the Molineux project…
Manchester United’s Fred is one of those midfielders – some people think he’s great, some people think he’s good and some people think he’s rubbish.
The issue is that his role at Old Trafford is largely undefined, though he does spend most of his time dropping deep to recycle possession and break up play. He’s arguably underappreciated for fulfilling a role that isn’t entirely natural, particularly as his displays are actually pretty consistent.
When Merino was at Newcastle, he would’ve struggled to make the top 250 defensive midfielders in the world, let alone the top 25.
He has been a man transformed since his move back to Spain with Real Sociedad, however, and has time on his side to become a truly world-class talent.
Keeping it simple, getting stuck in and giving away fouls.
That’s a pretty brief but accurate representation of all that Idrissa Gueye does for PSG, albeit to a pretty high standard.
He’s an under the radar player, but his superb work brings out the best in everyone around him.
Chelsea’s Italian metronome has kept them ticking over in a tumultuous and uncertain period, despite being in and out of the side.
With Frank Lampard no longer at the helm, the Italian can likely look forward to increased game time – which can only be a good thing for the purists who love to see their defensive midfielders stroking the ball around and dictating play.
For Everton’s sake, let’s hope their days of mindlessly spending outrageous amounts of money are behind them.
But before we get too far with those hopes, we need to appreciate the cracking bit of business concluded in the summer of 2020 – when Carlo Ancelotti prized Allan away from former club Napoli.
The diminutive Brazilian is a terrier like figure in front of the backline, eating up the ground and providing plenty of bite in the tackle.
In case you were playing a game of spot the talent Arsenal let slip through their grasp, look no further than Algeria’s Ismael Bennacer.
Allowed to leave the Emirates in 2017, he’s since starred for two years at Empoli before rocking up at Serie A giants Milan. With Bennacer holding things together, I Rossoneri are back on track in their quest to again become a heavyweight force in Italy – question is, how far can he take them?
Whatever you think of Tottenham’s brand of defensive football sh*thousery, there’s no denying that it’s brought out the best of Pierre Emile Hojbjerg.
The Danish destroyer loves getting stuck in, and is a real throwback to the days of a defensive midfielder purely being in the side to crunch opposition playmakers.
The Brazilian is in the twilight of his career, but even now he’s a player that Pep Guardiola simply can’t do without.
Intelligent and efficient at everything he does, Fernandinho is still capable of mopping everything that comes his way up and has undoubtedly helped raise the game of Rodri.
Barcelona have won eight La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues with Busquets at the base of their midfield, and though Lionel Messi can take 99% of the credit for their success during this period, the Argentine would be the first to tell you that Busquets has more than pulled his weight.
He still dictates the play, and along with Messi and Gerard Pique, remains one of the last vestiges of an era gone by in Catalonia.
It’s fair to say that Declan Rice held a fractured West Ham team together during 2019/20, playing every minute of the campaign en route to completing the most tackles of any player in the Premier League.
He’s gone from strength to strength since, assuming the captaincy at the London Stadium as well as becoming an important figure in Gareth Southgate’s England side.
No wonder Manchester United and Chelsea have been sniffing around him.
Leicester’s surge into perennial Champions League contenders has thrust the limelight onto James Maddison and Youri Tielemans, but their unsung hero is often found doing the dirty work at the base of midfield.
Wilfred Ndidi is the one to really make things tick, and much of his brilliance comes for his love of tackling and intercepting the ball – something he does with alarming regularity.
Inter’s resurgence under Antonio Conte owes much to the consistent brilliance of Marcelo Brozovic.
Always regarded as a capable and accomplished midfielder, he’s assumed the role of being the one to drop deepest in I Nerazzurri’s central three – and is the best in the business in Serie A for what he offers.
It’s fair comment to say that Rodri’s first season at Manchester City was a little underwhelming.
The Cityzens had opted to trigger the £62.6m release clause in the Spaniard’s Atletico Madrid contract, but adjusting to speed of the Premier League proved difficult for the then 23-year-old.
Fast forward to the present day and Rodri has elevated his game back to the highest level – showing not only his class, but his readiness to ascend Fernandinho’s throne.
Fabinho took his time to get up to speed at Liverpool, but once he settled into a groove it was quickly apparent just how good he is.
A resilient shield that protects the Reds’ back four, his reading of the game is second to none – evidenced by Jurgen Klopp opting to move him to centre-back during the most unique of injury crisis.
When he’s not playing in his favoured defensive midfield role, Liverpool are far worse off – and you’d arguably go as far as to say Fabinho is one of their most indispensable players.
What is there to say about Casemiro that hasn’t been said already? Real Madrid’s contrasting records with and without him tell you everything you need to know; they simply have no player capable of filling his shoes, even for 90 minutes here or there.
As midfield destroyers go, he is unplayable – while he has a level of class on the ball that most can only dream of.
It’s been a rollercoaster couple of years for N’Golo Kante at Chelsea, but there’s no disputing that he’s back to his very best.
The Frenchman has everything you want from a defensive-minded midfield player. An efficient ball winner, he can run all day long, is a tenacious and committed team player and is so often the driving force behind blistering counter attacks.
Above all else, he’s super reliable and often gets through more work than a midfield duo all by himself.
Joshua Kimmich is not only one of the most versatile top level players in the game today, he also happens to be the best defensive midfielder in the world.
There’s very little that Kimmich or his Bayern side can’t do, evidenced by their astonishing success since dispensing with Niko Kovac as manager. Much of that has been down to the German’s brilliance at the base of midfield, ticking things over and breaking up play on a level far greater than any other player.