With the constant evolution of the game of football itself, it has become quite difficult to assess and rank players for a particular position. Although they perform the same role on paper, on the pitch, their roles and duties differ a lot based on the different systems and coaches they play under.
Back in the 1980s and the dawn of the early 1990s, the role of a defensive midfielder was more simplified: they would sit in front of the backline, intercepting balls and making toe-crushing tackles to win back possession and lay the ball off to more attack-minded players. Nowadays, these defensive midfielders still do the dirty work but are now required to impact the play in more ways than one. They are required to recycle possession, set up attacking plays, and be a master of the modern positional play.
Moreover, Before we dive into the thick of the action, I would like to say that there are a myriad of reasons—many unquantifiable—that go into determining rankings like these. Most of these entries reflect upon my subjectivity, meaning you might agree with some of my mentions, or none at all. Either way, I’d love to hear from you!
So, without further ado, I present to you my top 10 best defensive midfielders in the world in 2022.
Top 10 best defensive midfielders in the world with stats
|S.no||Name||Appearances||Goals||Assists||Pass Success %||Tackles Per Game|
|9||Frenkie de Jong||57||8||7||91.2||1.35|
Source: The above stats have been taken from trusted sources such as Transfermarkt.uk, Whoscored.com, Fbref.com, and Sofascore.com and are up-to-date as of the publishing date.
Age: 30 years old
Club: Chelsea FC
The 30-year-old Italy international enjoyed the best spell of his career during 2021 as he lifted the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea and then the 2020 European Championship with Italy, eventually finishing third in the race for the 2021 Ballon d’Or.
Considered a liability under previous head coach Frank Lampard, with his days with the West Londoners once looking numbered, the introduction of Thomas Tuchel and his highly structured 3-4-3 system has managed to bring out the best in Jorginho. His lack of mobility is no longer an issue, while his positional awareness has enabled him to act as the metronome for Tuchel’s system.
Jorginho is now used more as a deep-lying playmaker, who, based on situational assessment, either sits back or ventures further forward to influence the attacking third. Him being on the set-pieces for Chelsea has seen him score 13 goals since the start of 2021.
# 9 Frenkie de Jong
Age: 24 years old
Club: FC Barcelona
Country: The Netherlands
The young Dutchman has gone on to become a world-beater in his position, excelling both under Ronald Koeman and Xavi Hernández since the beginning of 2021. A versatile player, de Jong is adept at playing various positions through the middle of the pitch: he can function as a regista or a deep-lying playmaker in the defensive midfielder role, a box-to-box midfielder or a roaming playmaker when deployed in a flat midfield, and even a centre-back.
Under Ronald Koeman, de Jong played in various roles. His ability to dribble in narrow spaces, his positional awareness, his tendency to lay off balls along with vision and ability to ping long balls made him one of Koeman’s most-trusted assets.
Under club legend and new manager Xavi, the 24-year-old has been used as part of a flat midfield alongside Pedri and Sergio Busquets. Thus, he has been used more as a roaming playmaker who ventures forward, playing in the half spaces between the opposition midfield shield (the midfield block while defending) and the backline, while playing as a part of the second defensive line (midfield shield) when off the ball.
# 8 Franck Kessié
Age: 25 years old
Club: AC Milan
Country: Ivory Coast
The 25-year-old Ivorian has been one of the main reasons behind AC Milan’s Serie A title charge this season. Kessié has scored 18 goals (13 from the penalty spot) and provided 6 assists since the start of the 2020/21 season, having played 55 matches to date.
Kessié is a natural dribbler who likes to run at defences while possessing a strong physique with an exceptional vision to thread even the meanest of defences. He is a versatile midfielder with an engine that never runs out.
Last season, Kessié was deployed as a deep-lying midfielder, controlling possession and dictating the play yet not holding the position of a pivot as his role would suggest. In fact, the Ivorian often ventured forward, breaking lines and creating an overload.
Kessié’s ability to play as a Number 6, dropping deep to take the ball off the defenders and playing out from the back, helps Stefano Pioli’s team to break the first line of defence, while his tenacity and aggression are his most impressive traits. Moreover, Kessié’s passing range is something worth mentioning as well, as his immaculate ability to switch play in all directions, threading long balls towards the strikers or the wide outlets (wingers) in behind the opposition defensive line, helps in breaking the lines and catch the opposition short on numbers.
This season, though, as his heatmap would suggest, Kessié has been held back a bit, acting more as a pivot.
#7 Declan Rice
Age: 23 years old
Club: West Ham United FC
The 23-year-old England international has already established himself among some of the best defensive midfielders in the world. The former Chelsea academy graduate has scored 6 goals and provided 4 assists since the start of 2021.
Along with the Czech Republic international Tomáš Souček, Rice has virtually been the backbone of the current West Ham side, knitting together attacking players, linking up the back-line and forward line, while also breaking up play and recycling possession for David Moyes’ men.
At 23, Rice has already established himself among some of the very best, while his tireless and tenacious attitude towards the game makes him one of those rare gems who would thrive in the coming years despite the ever-evolving nature of the modern game.
#6 Marcelo Brozović
Age: 29 years old
Club: FC Inter Milan
The 29-year-old, with his exceptional range of passing and ball control, became one of the mainstays under Antonio Conte as Inter Milan returned to the top of Serie A after almost a decade. Brozović, with his passing and positional awareness, tends to affect both halves of the pitch.
Despite there being some concern regarding his stamina and pace, the 29-year-old has managed to hold his own, with the current Inter head coach Simone Inzaghi having stated his views on the importance of the Croatian and how he has held the midfield together alongside the likes of Nicoló Barella and Hakan Çalhanoğlu.
Ahead of Inter’s Serie A clash against Bologna in September 2021, Inzaghi claimed: “Brozović is irreplaceable, there is a reason why he has played with all the coaches who have managed at Inter.” Talking of his importance to the team, Simone stated back in November: “He is a unique player in his role, he gives us balance with his awareness and ball control.”
Over the last year or so, Brozović has averaged a total of 7.16 progressive passes and 7.93 final passes into the final third, ranking him among the top-98 percentile for both those metrics. While operating in a deeper role, Brozović completes 10.73 ball recoveries per 90’, while again ranking among some of Europe’s elites with his 65.49 carries per 90’.
Age: 25 years old
Club: Manchester City FC
The Spaniard became the world’s most expensive defensive midfielder when Manchester City signed him from Atlético Madrid for a reported fee of £56.4 million, and while he played second fiddle to Fernandinho for a while and tuned his game to Pep Guardiola’s requirements, the 25-year-old exploded into his new role since the start of last season and hasn’t looked back since then.
Under Pep, Rodri has the potential to become a complete midfielder. He has become an excellent reader of the game while also being able to do the dirty work without getting noticed most of the time. He is a great tackler, aerially strong, and recycles possession with ease.
Moreover, this season, Rodri has been seen operating in the half-spaces inside the opposition half. City are using a higher line of defence this season, and Rodri has been used more as an anchor-man who provides the link between attack and defence.
#4 N’Golo Kanté
Age: 30 years old
The diminutive 30-year-old French midfielder has won almost everything there is to be won by a footballer. But, despite winning the UEFA Champions League last year, the Frenchman hasn’t been able to live up to the expectations set by himself.
We all know N’Golo is a big-match player and thrives against the very best. However, it is his lack of consistency over the last year or so that has made me drop him down to fourth on my list. Had it been a list based on pure ability, Kanté would be there in the top two, but solely based on last year, he hasn’t been consistent enough.
A strong tackler off the ball, possessing sharp dribbling ability in close spaces, and a great reader of the game with his nonchalant interceptions, Kanté has unquestionably been one of the leading defensive midfielders in world football.
Age: 28 years old
Club: Liverpool FC
Part of Liverpool’s flat midfield three, the 28-year-old Brazilian has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. Operating often as a pivot sitting behind the midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Thiago, Fabinho is deployed as an anchor sitting between the backline and the creators in front of him, occupying the hole and marshalling his backline as a ball-winning midfielder, often breaking up play with his accurate tackling and interceptions.
Fabinho averages 5.27 successful (tackles+interception) per 90’, while completing 11.27 ball recoveries per 90’. He has good technical abilities as well, averaging 70 carries and 4.69 progressive carries per 90’.
In recent weeks, when both Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mané were unavailable because of their respective AFCON duties, Jürgen Klopp used Fabinho more as a box-to-box midfielder given his excellent positional awareness. The German got duly rewarded for his bold experiment, as the Brazilian found the back of the net four times in his last five outings.
Age: 29 years old
Club: Real Madrid CF
Brazil are really fortunate to have two world-class defensive midfielders operating at the peak of their powers, and it’s a testament to the Brazilian talent pool that both of them feature among the top three defensive midfielders in the world.
Although Real Madrid have had a plethora of world-class talents donning their iconic white jersey, it is safe to say that, based on the balance of play and the structure of particular systems, Casemiro has, without a doubt, been the most important player for Real Madrid for the last 7-8 years.
A defensive midfielder who operates primarily as a box-to-box midfielder for Los Blancos, Casemiro is an intelligent, physically strong, aggressive, and tenacious midfielder with an extremely high work rate. Moreover, apart from his standout defensive attributes, the Brazilian also supports the attacking play with his accurate long balls, playing penetrative balls to break the lines more often than not.
#1 Joshua Kimmich
Age: 27 years old
Club: FC Bayern Munich
We’ve finally reached this far, and now it is time to talk about the man of the hour: Joshua Kimmich.
Ever since Pep Guardiola transformed Kimmich from a high-octane fullback to a tenacious defensive midfielder, the now 27-year-old has been consistently taking his game up a notch, gradually to the point where he is now considered as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
Often regarded as the heir to the legendary Philipp Lahm, it is Kimmich’s versatility and tactical knowledge of the game that have made him the player he is today. A technically-gifted footballer with exceptional vision and ball control, Kimmich excels in both laying off short passes and breaking the lines with his accurate long balls. He has great concentration levels and positional awareness, though on the downside, it is his tackling ability that can be questionable at times.
If we take a look at his underlying stats, Kimmich is by far the best defensive midfielder in the world. He produces 4.68 SCA/90’ (Shot Creating Actions) and 0.62 GCA/90’ (Goal Creating Actions), ranking him first in the whole of Europe, while he also draws more fouls than committing them (1.85–1.03). The German also averages 2.78 key passes and 9.46 progressive passes per 90’ — again the most among midfielders.
For all the confusion and data-crunching I had to do for this list, picking the best of the lot was rather easy.
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