Ranked! The 10 best central midfielders in the world
The brilliant men in the middle who come out on top in our examination of the greatest the engine room has to offer
You know how the old cliches go: centre-forwards who win you games and defences win you leagues. Yet there is no denying teams are built around the men in the middle of the park.
Football isn't the simple game it once was, however. These days we have all kinds of midfield maestros: ball-winners, mezzalas, trequartistas, deep-lying playmakers and anchor men - and that's just those listed on Football Manager.
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It's not easy picking between the different types, but we've done our best to mash them together into one definitive list. If you don't like it (and there'll be plenty of you who don't) feel free to tell us where we went wrong on Twitter.
10. Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid)
Eyebrows were raised when Real Madrid sold Llorente to cross-town rivals Atletico in 2019. A promising young central midfielder to direct La Liga competition - seriously?
They should have seen it coming. A phenomenal 2020/21 season saw the Spaniard score 12 league goals and lay on another 11 for teammates as Diego Simeone's side won their first La Liga title since 2014. Llorente ranked among the best players in the Spanish top-flight for key passes and defensive contributions, evidence of his all-round game. The 26-year-old is an asset to club and country, and will be hoping to build on his 12 caps so far.
9. Nicolo Barella
Nicolo Barella has swept 2021, with Inter Milan dominating in Serie A and the Azzurri taking the Euro 2020 crown at Wembley - it's been a great year for Italians all round, with the nation landed titles in Eurovision and the Olympic 100 metres final too. There's even an Italian on course for the Great British Bake Off trophy.
Yet Barella's performances over the last 12 months have been even more exquisite than Giuseppe's in the tent. The midfielder has been a metronome for club and country, never gives the ball away and is capable of affecting play in any phase. He's super reliable, excellent in and out of possession and his passing is superb. Bellissimo.
8. Leon Goretzka (Bayern Munich)
Leon Goretzka was already an excellent midfielder when he swapped Schalke for Bayern Munich in July 2019. Since then, he’s become a phenomenon.
Much of that has had to do with a training regime which has seen him bulk up to Mr. Universe level, without sacrificing the agility and speed which made him such a promising box to box player in Gelsenkirchen. For club and country, Goretzka’s partnership with Joshua Kimmich provides the foundation for success. The former drives forward in possession, creating chances and scoring goals, while his teammate takes care of the dirty work behind him. It’s a match made in heaven, which makes rumours of Goretzka's desire to leave Bavaria all the more baffling.
7. Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)
For a long time after swapping Borussia Dortmund for the Premier League in 2016, Ilkay Gundogan was a man who drifted in and out of the starting XI for club and country. Last season, that all changed.
Seventeen goals in all competitions, including 13 in the Premier League, amounted to a breakout campaign for the Manchester City man, and owed much to Gundogan’s improved movement and composure in the penalty area. He also became the first name on the team sheet for his national side, and will be hoping to lead Germany to the World Cup next summer.
Gundogan has always been a classy playmaker and remains so, but he has added a goalscoring element to his game and has taken him to new heights.
6. Marco Verratti (PSG)
England never stood a chance. That both Marco Verratti and another Italian midfielder on this list entered the Euro 2020 final in the top 10 players for passes completed meant that it was always going to be a struggle to wrestle the ball away from the boys in blue.
Showing his trademark range, Verratti also finished the tournament with 30 tackles, twice as many as any other player. He is, quite simply, the complete midfielder, and a key reason behind Italy's success at Wembley. It's mad to think the 28-year-old moved to Paris Saint-Germain a decade ago. The Italian has been a complete force of nature for club and country over that spell, becoming the beating heart of every side he plays in.
5. Jorginho (Chelsea)
What a year it's been for the Italian. He won the Champions League and Euros with Chelsea and the Azzurri respectively, playing a crucial role in the successes of club and country from the base of midfield.
At Euro 2020, Jorginho ranked second overall for both passes completed, with 529, and ball recoveries, with 42. He was utterly central to the success Roberto Mancini's side enjoyed en route to Wembley. So much so, that'll he can be forgiven for almost costing his team the tournament when Jordan Pickford saved his penalty in the final shootout (which would have sealed victory).
Jorginho is a coach's dream, in that you rarely notice him during a game but, take him out of the side, and wheels fall off. A sensational footballer.
4. Declan Rice (West Ham United)
The idea seemed to be that one day, Declan Rice would slot back into defence, where he's a towering figure and excellent ball-player. He's just too good in midfield, though.
Rice's rise to become one of the elite all-round midfielders of European football has correlated perfectly with West Ham's ascension. He's everything you want in a footballer, beginning to influence games in the final third, while an excellent ball-winner and good passer. The England man could be scarily good when he adds that experience, too.
3. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)
If ever evidence were required to convince people just how important Joshua Kimmich has become to Bayern Munich, you need only ask the two most expensive forwards on the planet.
“The coach wanted me and Neymar to close the passing lines on Kimmich,” Kylian Mbappe told reporters following PSG’s 3-2 win against Bayern in the Champions League quarter-final first leg back in April.
The message to opponents is now clear: stop Kimmich and Bayern become vulnerable. The diminutive German is the fulcrum of one of the best club sides in the world; the man charged with winning back possession, starting attacking moves and making those all-important fouls whenever necessary. The 26-year old’s snarling performances and tranquility in possession were perhaps the main reason Bayern claimed a treble in 2020/21, and he looks likely to take the captains armband from Manuel Neuer for club and country when the gloveman calls it a day. Iconic.
7. N'Golo Kante (Chelsea)
Still the best ball-winner in the game. N'golo Kante averages 2.6 interceptions per game and regularly covers over 11km a match, working in perfect tandem with midfield partners for club and country to do the dirty work and recover possession for his side.
When Blues manager will Thomas Tuchel took charge back in January, he claimed Kante had always been a player he had wanted to work with and it isn't hard to see why. The Frenchman is a work horse and underrated in terms of what he can do on the ball. He probably still doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
1. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
It's been a difficult year for Kevin De Bruyne. The Manchester City talisman may have added another Premier League winner's medal to his impressive trophy cabinet but there have been some bumps along the way. Not least his struggles with injury. First there was the broken eye socket sustained in City's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea back in May. Then there was the ankle injury which curtailed the Belgian's Euro 2020 campaign.
Despite these issues, the flame-haired creator remains the yardstick for midfielders. He provides the thrust for two of the best sides in the world, creating 3.5 chances every 90 minutes for City and whipping balls in for whichever false nines Pep Guardiola swivels into his system.
De Bruyne has also become a leader in recent seasons, taking the captain’s armband and grabbing the side by the scruff of the neck in vital moments. At 30, we could see a few more years of that peak, too, but only if those injury problems are kept at bay. Wrap him in cotton wool, Pep. The world needs a fit KDB.
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Mark White has been a staff writer on FourFourTwo since joining in January 2020, writing pieces for both online and the magazine. An encyclopedia of football shirts and boots knowledge – both past and present – Mark has also been to the FA Cup and League Cup finals for FFT and has written pieces for the mag ranging on subjects from Bobby Robson's season at Barcelona to Robinho's career. He once saw Tyrone Mings at a petrol station in Bournemouth but felt far too short to ask for a photo.
By Conor Pope
By Conor Pope