The midfield is the most important part of the pitch. This is where teams build up play and run the game from the engine room. Moreover, the dissipation of fixed positions and increased prominence of ‘roles’ and ‘duties’ mean these folks who play in the middle of the pitch are tasked with a myriad of responsibilities. Thus, defining a ‘central midfielder’ in this day and age is no easy task.
It is midfielders who control games and create goal scoring opportunities for their teams while also working in defence by obstructing the opposition attackers from penetrating their structure. Hence it is no secret that central midfielders are often the cornerstones of elite-level sides. They can do it all and come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and profiles.
So, without any further ado, let’s dive into it and take a look at the best central midfielders in world football right now.
Note: This listicle piece is strictly limited to central midfielders, hence the likes of Joshua Kimmich, Martin Ødegaard, Christian Eriksen, Marco Verratti etc have not been taken into account considering their profiles and style of play don’t fall into this category.
- Fabián Ruiz
- Marcos Llorente
- Mateo Kovačić
- Sergej Milinković-Savić
- Franck Kessié
The top ten
10. Pedri (Pedro González López)
20 years old • FC Barcelona • Spain
While the comparisons are ubiquitous, the similarities are too distinct to ignore. People aren’t a long way off when they say Pedri is the second coming of Andrés Iniesta. He’s a genius with or without the ball. The 20-year-old ghosts into pockets of space that seemingly don’t exist, dazzles in possession with his impeccable close control, and supplies teammates relentlessly.
There’s already an aura surrounding Pedri that’s too strong to ignore. His rise to the very top of the game has been swift, since it wasn’t too long ago when the Spaniard was toiling hard in the Spanish second tier. However, Barça knew the kid was special. Pedri’s a generational talent and already one of the best central midfielders in the world.
9. Rodrigo Bentancur
25 years old • Tottenham Hotspur FC • Uruguay
After a tricky spell in Turin with Juventus, where he attracted more criticism than admirers, Rodrigo Bentancur has found a home in Tottenham Hotspur and is flourishing under Antonio Conte.
With a relentless engine and an eye for goal, the 25-year-old has formed the heartbeat of the Spurs midfield with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The Uruguayan is cool and composed in possession and is an excellent reader of the game courtesy of the number of tackles and interceptions he makes every game. Last season, he was pivotal to Spurs securing Champions League qualification. This season, too, he has been one of Spurs’ best players alongside Harry Kane and Højbjerg.
8. Eduardo Camavinga
20 years old • Real Madrid CF • France
Never before had I seen a player at the mere age of 16 perform the way Eduardo Camavinga did against a side of Paris Saint-Germain’s quality – in central midfield, no less. Following that showing, the Frenchman’s rise to stardom almost felt inevitable as he eventually joined the European giants Real Madrid.
While he’s still to nail down a regular starting spot, Camavinga had a huge role to play in Real Madrid’s unlikely Champions League triumph last season. He changed the course of at least four knockout ties off the bench as Los Blancos completed a journey for the ages.
It is really difficult to pick a single flaw in the Frenchman’s game, and there’s no doubt he will go on to become one of the best midfielders of his generation.
7. Leon Goretzka
27 years old • FC Bayern Munich • Germany
Slowly but surely, Leon Goretzka has transformed from a lean and lanky midfielder to a mean and mighty industrialist in the middle of the pitch, morphing into one of the most destructive midfielders currently in world football. Although the Germany international isn’t the best technician, he is incredibly effective at what he does.
Goretzka has a penchant for making late runs into the 18-yard box that often results in an attacking output, while he is also an indefatigable runner out of possession. He displayed his best football under Hansi Flick for Bayern in the 2019-20 season.
Although injuries have slowed him down in recent times, Goretzka still is one of the most unique profiles of central midfielders out there and is a joy to watch whenever he takes to the field.
6. Nicolò Barella
25 years old • FC Inter Milan • Italy
The Italian maestro is someone that opposition teams have been trying to nullify without much success. The tenacious 25-year-old rose to prominence during Antonio Conte’s reign as the Inter Milan manager as the Nerazzurri ended Juventus’ decade-long reign as Italian champions by lifting the Scudetto in 2021, with Barella sitting at the heart of everything good happening in the middle of the pitch for Conte’s team.
Although the level and magnitude of some of Barella’s performances under current Inter manager Simone Inzaghi have remained excellent, he has also endured consistency issues over the last 12 months. Still, Barella is someone who can grab games by the scruff of the neck and make a difference out of nothing.
5. İlkay Gündoğan
32 years old • Manchester City FC • Germany
There are very few players in world football who would make one say: “He’ll become a world-class coach one day.”
İlkay Gündoğan is that guy.
A player who has been the cornerstone of both Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola’s peak successes, the German World Cup-winner is “one of the most intelligent and wisest players on the football pitch”, a compliment coming straight from Pep Guardiola.
If there was ever a player or a profile that would fit the criteria, İlkay Gündoğan would fit in as the ultimate Guardiola player. His importance to Pep’s Man City is paramount and will only be felt once he leaves for pastures anew.
4. Thiago Alcântara
31 years old • Liverpool FC • Spain
The Spanish maestro has seen it all. From Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides to Jürgen Klopp’s heavy-metal football at Merseyside, Thiago has been part of some of the best teams in club football. On the ball, the 31-year-old is a joy to watch, and his technical ability is off the scale. Off the ball as well he has the requisite aggression and tenacity to impact games with his defensive contributions.
Thiago is a metronome; one that circulates possession effectively and alters the tempo of attacks with a plethora of technical qualities on the ball. There isn’t a pass he hasn’t got in his locker. Recurring injuries mean Thiago has nearly missed 30% of game time throughout his career, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the best central midfielders in the world.
3. Jude Bellingham
19 years old • Borussia Dortmund • England
Jude Bellingham is a phenomenon. His talent is obscene, the skillset extraordinary, the temperament elite. I guess we can all agree that he is a future Ballon d’Or winner, right? With clubs like Real Madrid, Liverpool and Man City circling for his signature, Bellingham’s stock will only rise once he seals his inevitable move to one of Europe’s behemoths next summer.
If we look at his overall attributes, Bellingham has got everything required to reach the very top: a wide range of skill sets, a hardworking personality, and a tireless mentality. The 19-year-old is a monster between the boxes, and someone who has been carrying the Borussia Dortmund midfield for some time now.
2. Toni Kroos
32 years old • Real Madrid CF • Germany
Toni Kroos epitomises German stoicism. He’s industrious, perfectionist and intelligent. You give him an inch of space with the ball at his feet, and he’ll pick you apart. The enigmatic German has been playing at the elite end of the football spectrum for over a decade now, having made up a third of arguably the greatest midfield trio the world has ever seen alongside Casemiro and Luka Modrić.
While Kroos is nearing the twilight of his career, he remains, to this day, one of the most enjoyable midfielders to watch. A clutch player who grabs a game by the scruff of the neck with his imperious vision and impeccable passing range, Kroos will go down as one of his generation’s finest, and remains one of the world’s best central midfielders amid a wildly successful period with Los Blancos.
1. Luka Modrić
37 years old • Real Madrid CF • Croatia
The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner. The man who brought the Leo Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly to an end. Luka Modrić will go down in history as one of the best midfielders to ever grace the game. He was one of the primary cornerstones upon which Real Madrid enjoyed arguably their most successful decade. A master manipulator of the ball and an excellent reader of the game, the Croatian captain still holds the ability to control games at the ripe age of 37.
Last season, with just ten minutes to go in their Champions League quarter-final tie against Chelsea, Real Madrid were heading for the exit despite winning the first leg 3-1.
Then, Luka Modrić happened.
The Croatian innocuously picked up possession midway through Chelsea’s half before picking out Rodrygo at the back post with one of the most audacious outside-of-the-boot passes. While the technique was insanely good, the touch and precision of Modrić’s trivela allowed Rodrygo to finish first time with aplomb. That sequence of play, for me, was the catalyst for Real Madrid’s Champions League success last season, and it was Modrić’s fifth European title.
He’s one of a kind. He’s Luka Modrić — world’s finest central midfielder.