Defensive midfielders are not only bedrocks in the middle of the pitch but can also act as a dangerous source of potent balls. Here’s my take on the very best ones in the world right now. I’m also considering here ones who might not play as an out-and-out number six but still contribute primarily to the defensive side of their team’s play.
Before you get into the list do remember that there is a myriad of reasons – many unquantifiable – that go into determining lists like these. Most of these entries might even reflect upon my subjectivity, meaning you might agree with some of my mentions, or none at all. Either way, we’d love to hear from you!
Well then, here we go.
10 – Franck Kessié
Age – 24 (19 December 1996)
Country – Ivory Coast
Current club – AC Milan (Serie A TIM)
Kessié’s recognition as one of the finest defensive mids nicely mirrors AC Milan’s resurgence as proper title contenders in Serie A. Having joined the rossoneri in 2017, the Ivorian has been allowed ample years to settle in, and he’s now established as one of the first names on the team sheet. Kessié’s not only good at cutting passing lanes, he’s also good at driving forward through the midfield. He’s also the designated penalty taker (after Zlatan, of course).
9 – Marcelo Brozović
Age – 28 (16 November 1992)
Country – Croatia
Current club – Inter Milan (Serie A TIM)
The Croatian midfielder has been the mainstay in the Inter midfield for many years now. A crafty and industrious operator, Brozović brings with him lots of aggression and a knack for long shots.
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8 – Wilfried Ndidi
Age – 24 (16 December 1996)
Country – Nigeria
Current club – Leicester City (Premier League)
The Nigeria international has proved to be yet another success story for Leicester’s robust recruitment. At 24, Ndidi is mature beyond his years and brings a calm, reassuring presence to his side.
With his close control, passing, and near immaculate interceptions, Ndidi is adept at playing as a number six, number eight, and even centre-back. It’s only a matter of time before he gets a big-money move.
7 – Saúl Ñíguez
Ñíguez is one of the most versatile players on this list. His passing and hold-up play makes him an excellent choice for teams who like to keep the ball to themselves. He can not only most positions in the centre of the midfield, he can also play as a centre-back and out wide.
6 – Frenkie de Jong
Frenkie de Jong couldn’t be any more perfect for Barça if he tried. Sergio Busquets has been a wonderful servant to the Blaugranas, but he’s getting on now and can’t play with the same intensity week in, week out. Frenkie is coming near the end of his second year at Barça and already looks set to take over Busquets for the next decade.
First and foremost, a Barça number six is tasked with regulating his sides possession by sitting at the base of the midfield. Frenkie is not only one of best passers around, he is adept at cutting passing lanes and driving the ball up the pitch.
5 – Fabinho
Age – 27 (23 October 1993)
Country – Brazil
Current club – Liverpool (Premier League)
Fabinho is a reliable operator who has proved his versatility for Liverpool this season. Having played as a right-back during his Real Madrid and Monaco days, Fabinho has been around for a while to gain experience over multiple positions on the pitch. He has had to play as a centre-back for the majority of this season given Liverpool’s devastating injury list, but there’s no doubt he’ll be retaking his place at the base of their midfield once their centre-back crisis is over.
4 – Casemiro
Age – 28 (23 February 1992)
Country – Brazil
Current club – Real Madrid (LaLiga Santander)
Casemiro is one of the major culprits complicit in Real’s Champions League dominance between 2016 and 2018. Having started his career playing advanced attacking roles, Casemiro was eventually moved backwards thanks to his defensive astuteness, but still doesn’t shy away from the occasional long shot. Now 28, Casemiro still has a lot more years left in his prime, and continues to be a rock in what currently is a transitional Real Madrid team.
3 – Leon Goretzka
Leon Goretzka was touted as one of the most complete footballers during his Schalke years. Now, he has finally become that. Over the past year at Bayern, the 26-year-old has not only honed his skills, he has also bulked himself into one of the most physically formidable specimens on the pitch. Technically gifted and tactically astute, Goretzka shares the defensive responsibilities in the midfield with his compatriot, Joshua Kimmich.
2 – N’Golo Kanté
Ever since his breakthrough season during Leicester City’s remarkable title winning campaign of 2015-16, Kanté’s stock has gone all but up. Since then, he has gone on to win another Premier League, an FA Cup, the Europa League, and of course, the 2018 Men’s World Cup with France.
When it comes to reading the game and sniffing out a pass, there is hardly anyone better than Kanté at the moment. With his incessant running and clever positioning, it is nigh impossible to dribble/pass the ball with him on the pitch and not find him ready to pounce. While he has also proved to have a deft touch and an eye for cute passes during the Sarri and Lampard years, it is widely agreed that Kanté works best while sitting at the base of a midfield – either alone or part of a pivot – for there’s hardly anyone better at intercepting the opposition than the Frenchman.
Having suffered the past two seasons by playing off-position and dealing with recurrent injuries, Kanté’s pace has gone off to an extent. But he’s still impeccable when playing as part of a defensive pivot alongside Jorginho/Mateo Kovačić, who takes care of driving the ball up the field, leaving Kanté to deal with the opposition plays.
1 – Joshua Kimmich
Age – 25 (8 February 1995)
Country – Germany
Current club – Bayern Munich (1. Bundesliga)
At 25, Kimmich has not only managed to seamlessly break into Bayern’s first XI, but also prove his versatility across different positions and even make a successful claim on the one he fancies the most.
Having started as a centre-back because of an injury crisis, Kimmich quickly proved he had the mental resilience and technical acuity to become one of the stalwarts in the team. He then transitioned into the right-back slot, and completed his Philipp Lahm arc by moving into midfield to properly make use of his many, many abilities. Currently, he not only takes care of the defensive side of things by playing in a pivot alongside Goretzka, he also oversees the regulation of his team’s passing and has a knack for making late runs into the box for a goalscoring opportunity; a complete outfielder by all regards.
Fernandinho (Man City), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Thomas Partey (Arsenal), Tomáš Souček (West Ham), Declan Rice (West Ham), Moussa Sissoko (Spurs), Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Spurs), Allan (Everton), Rodri (Man City), Sergio Busquets (Barça), Héctor Herrera (Atlético Madrid), Federico Valverde (Real Madrid), Sami Khedira (Hertha Berlin), Radja Nainggolan (Cagliari), Arturo Vidal (Inter Milan), Axel Witsel (Borussia Dortmund), Thomas Delaney (Borussia Dortmund), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Idrissa Gana Gueye (PSG), Ander Herrera (PSG), Steven Nzonzi (Rennes).
Do you agree with this list? Who would you rather have in your top 10?