Football is simple, with forwards making the headlines with goals while the defenders defend like their lives depend on it. However, it is often the midfield where matches are won and lost. The ten players listed here have not only won matches, trophies, plaudits and hearts but also inspired future generations to play the game in a new light.
While some added steel and grit to the midfield, some added flair and calmness, and some mesmerised the fans and rivals with their wizardry on the ball. The following list is a testament to the wizards who mastered their professions and charmed the Premier League with their witchcraft.
#10 Claude Makélélé
PL Titles: 2
Zinedine Zidane, who was playing for Real Madrid at the time, bemoaned his compatriot’s departure from the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2003, shortly after the club had roped in David Beckham as their latest Galáctico, stating: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine.”
Claude Makélélé became one of the first Chelsea signings of the Roman Abramovich era. Playing his first season under Claudio Ranieri, Claude finished second in the league with the Blues, behind “Invincibles” Arsenal, and made it to the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League where they lost to surprise champions FC Porto, managed by José Mourinho. The Portuguese would eventually replace the incumbent Ranieri for the 2004/05 season.
Makélélé was one of the key men in Chelsea’s 2004/05 title-winning side which conceded only 15 goals throughout the Premier League campaign – a record low in the English top-flight. Makélélé was the man who gave the likes of Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba plenty of attacking freedom. In fact, during the trophy celebration, Mourinho announced Makélélé as the club’s “Player of the season” – a title the Frenchman wouldn’t have dreamt of winning in a team full of superstars.
“The Makélélé role” is now colloquially established in the English football lexicon, used to describe a midfielder who is willing to sit in front of the back four, rarely progressing beyond his fellow midfielders and, generally, sacrificing a shot at personal glory for the good of the team. But Makélélé was so much more than that – he was a deep-lying playmaker in disguise of a central ball-winning midfielder.
In his five years with the club, the Frenchman won two Premier League titles, two League Cups, one FA Cup and saw his team narrowly miss out to Manchester United on penalties in the 2008 UEFA Champions League. The midfielder would go on to play for French giant Paris Saint-Germain before hanging up his boots in 2010.
#9 Yaya Touré
Club(s): Manchester City
PL Titles: 3
One of the colossal figures in Manchester City’s relatively recent history, the Ivorian Yaya Touré is one of the best midfielders to have graced the Premier League. Touré was blessed with an unbelievable skill set that allowed him to dominate games on his own. The now 38-year-old played for Man City from 2010 to 2018, making 230 Premier League appearances and impacting with 97 goals/assist contributions.
Standing at 6ft 2in tall, Touré was a rare blend of physicality and technicality from the middle of the pitch. His dominating presence in the midfield worked as a cover for the backline, while his sublime ball control and technique allowed him to breeze past opponents with ease. His goal-scoring abilities were nothing short of mesmerising, as the City legend had a bucket-load of stellar solo goals while playing in the Premier League.
Signed in 2010 under Roberto Mancini from a Barcelona side that he had become fed up with, who deployed him as centre-half rather than a central midfielder, Yaya played a pivotal role in Man City’s first Premier League title victory in the 2011/12 season. In fact, it was his pass that found Pablo Zabaleta for City’s opener in the final-day 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers.
Touré might have been signed as a holding midfielder, but with each passing season, the Premier League saw one of the most versatile and complete midfielders to have ever graced its shores. Able to play every position – from central defence to a proper No. 10 – Touré ability to pile up goals, assists, tackles, dribbles, and passes with the same relentless intensity throughout the 90 minutes made him a nightmare to play against. Yaya could sit deep and orchestrate, barrel through the centre, or rifle in a free-kick.
But more than anything, he loved City to his bones. He did more than anyone to change the club’s stature and mentality, from shedding their inferiority complex to turning them into serial winners.
#8 David Silva
Club(s): Manchester City
PL Titles: 4
“I am so pleased he is coming to us because I think he can make a big, big impact for Manchester City,” said City’s then-manager Roberto Mancini after securing Silva’s signature in the summer of 2010. The Italian’s words were prophetic, as after a third-place finish in Silva’s first season at the Etihad, along with a core of players who would go on to become City legends themselves – Sergio Agüero, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany – Silva spurred an expensively assembled squad to the success that was expected of them.
The Spaniard was pivotal in making the dreams of winning a first Premier League title a reality. Silva contributed with eight goals and 19 assists across 49 matches in all competitions as City pipped neighbours Manchester United to the title in dramatic fashion. It was Silva’s most productive season in the Sky Blue of Manchester, even accounting for the unparalleled dominance of the Guardiola era.
Silva possesses a unique understanding of the game. His ability to position himself in between the lines and operate from those areas while resisting opposition press is phenomenal. He has the ability to dribble past opposition players and possesses an immaculate touch, allowing him to wiggle out of tight spaces with ease.
The diminutive playmaker was the epitome of consistency for the Cityzens during his time in England. Apart from winning four Premier League titles, the Spaniard will be remembered at City much for his artistry on the ball and the ability to unlock the potential of his teammates. Nobody comes close to replicating Silva’s creative numbers since the start of the 2010/11 season, and it’ll only take someone special like his former teammate and current City captain Kevin De Bruyne to surpass Silva’s outlet and productivity.
#7 Cesc Fàbregas
Club(s): Arsenal | Chelsea
PL Titles: 2
Cesc Fàbregas joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old from Barcelona’s youth academy. The young Spaniard had wanted more playing time and saw that opportunity with Arsenal. Under the tutelage of Arsène Wenger, Fàbregas developed into one of Arsenal’s more creative and influential players, and was so pivotal to the squad that Wenger named him the club captain at the tender age of 21.
Wenger compared the Spaniard with the likes of Michel Platini and Paul Scholes, before entrusting him to assume the mantle of Patrick Vieira in the Arsenal midfield. A fan favourite, Cesc spent eight years in North London and made 304 appearances for the Gunners before his controversial move to Barcelona.
For a team that had once let him leave as a teenager suddenly looked at him as one of their own. They wanted him and pursued him aggressively. Barcelona, in many ways, acted in a completely unprofessional manner and disrespected Arsenal. Fàbregas made the switch to Camp Nou, but his stay only lasted three years. Once again, Barcelona deemed him surplus to requirements and looked to move him on.
After Arsenal and Wenger passed on the opportunity to buy back their former captain, Fàbregas controversially joined London rivals Chelsea, and in his first season with the West London club, he delivered the Premier League title, providing a crazy 19 assists for the campaign.
His ability to ping exquisite passes to every area of the pitch is matched only by a few legends of the game. He was the metronome for that Chelsea side, and his ability to dictate the tempo of the game transformed them. He broke opposition lines for fun, and more often than not delivered that final ball leading to the goal. Fàbregas’ range of passing is rare, but the skill of knowing which option to choose rarer still.
#6 Roy Keane
Club(s): Nottingham Forest | Manchester United
PL Titles: 7
It is the centre of the midfield where games are won and lost. It’s where the most control is demanded, where an unwavering personality is required, where a player leads from. The most successful captain in the Premier League era, Roy Keane, was an enigma operating from the heart of the midfield.
Keane won everything there was to be won with Manchester United, but it was at Nottingham Forest where he learned the art and craft of football. Under the tutelage of the legendary Brian Clough, Keane evolved into an intelligent, passionate and talented player, and in the 92/93 season, Sir Alex Ferguson and Man Utd took the young Irish lad to Old Trafford.
Following the departure of fellow legend Eric Cantona, Keane was handed the captain’s armband. He revelled in the responsibility of being captain of one of the most decorated clubs in the country and was an inspiration on the pitch. He may not have had the same flair, or subtlety, or athleticism as most of his counterparts, but he won games by will. He would fight for every ball, would never give up, and many times would carry the burden of victory on his own shoulders.
With so many highlights to his Premier League career, there were some low lights as well. Keane’s passion for the game and his personality was often misunderstood and criticised. Be it the prawn sandwich comment aimed at Man Utd fans for lack of support at Old Trafford, the 2002 World Cup tantrum aimed at the Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, or the dig at Rio Ferdinand and fellow teammates on MUTV following an embarrassing 4-1 drubbing to Middlesbrough, Keane said what he felt and had no filter when delivering his speech.
But his comments against his teammates was the last straw, for one person who he couldn’t cross at Old Trafford was Sir Alex Fergurson. His relationship with Ferguson had deteriorated to a point where it was completely irrevocable. His subsequent departure was abrupt, and his career ended shortly after that. But the bottom line remains, Keane was leader of the treble-winning side of 1998-99. He won seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, four Community Shield and the Intercontinental Cup once.
#5 Ryan Giggs
Club(s): Manchester United
PL Titles: 13
Ryan Giggs is a monolith. There are only two clubs who have won more English league titles than the Welshman.
Let that sink in for a second. Only two!
Giggs won 34 trophies in his career, making him the most decorated player the UK has ever seen. And the fact that his career spanned 24 seasons, in the midfield, in the topflight, at Manchester United, during the booming years, is a joke!
From the moment he made his United senior debut as a 17-year-old substitute against Everton on 2 March 1991, Giggs had history in his sights. And by the start of the following season, he was Ferguson’s first choice on the left wing, with Lee Sharpe missing large chunks of the season through injury. By the time Sharpe came back, Giggs was already undroppable.
What followed was clear for all to see – 13 Premier League titles, two UEFA Champions League wins, 963 appearances, 168 goals and a box full of iconic Ryan Giggs moments. But nothing remains quite fresh in the memories like the iconic snap of him bare-chested, shirt whirling about his head in jubilant celebration after his breathtaking extra-time winner in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal.
He became the one familiar face in Ferguson’s ever-changing Manchester United side. While Sir Alex always found a way to reinvigorate his sides throughout his career, Giggs remained an integral part of every single one of those. His versatility was something that most people failed to credit him for. He was an electric flying winger in the ’90s, a cultured and industrious midfielder in the ‘2000s, and a talismanic metronome during Fergie’s – and his – latter years.
Giggs was 40 by the time he hung up his boots, giving an emotional speech on the Old Trafford pitch after a 3-1 win against Hull City. Both his and Sir Alex’s Manchester United careers went almost hand in hand. For every bit that Ferguson was a managerial master, Giggs was his legendary lieutenant.
#4 Patrick Vieira
Club(s): Arsenal | Manchester City
PL Titles: 3
Former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira is widely regarded as one of the greatest midfielders in Premier League history. Vieira was the lynchpin during Arsenal’s historic and unprecedented “Invincibles” season in the 2003/04 campaign.
“My old man’s got a second-hand Sierra! Wooaahh Pat Vieira!” There is something when fans chant about their heroes. It’s an intoxicating mix of humour and adoration for a player they consider one of their own. This is the famous chant that emerged from the stands of Highbury after his impressive debut. The fans knew they were witnessing the start of something magical. They were not wrong.
Wenger recalled in his autobiography how Vieira confounded stereotypes when he first arrived in England: “The French had a bit of reputation for avoiding physical contact, of being the romantics in football, but when all the English teams saw this giant who was crunching into everyone the whole time, they couldn’t believe their eyes,” Wenger continued: “When players had a go at him, he gave as good as he got, and when they had a go a second time, he would make sure he returned the favour three times. Patrick was so strong, so dominating in a game. He could destroy, direct and distribute the ball, often all in one go.”
Although many people only credit him for that aspect of his game, there are a host of different traits that made up this once in a lifetime footballer, ranging from his tactical intelligence to his excellent reading of the game. Interpreted as a ‘defensive’ midfielder, the towering Frenchman was essentially a box-to-box operator who dominated the middle of the pitch. His unique physicality and unbelievable athleticism made him a nightmare for opposition players.
As hard as it might be to believe, Vieira’s best qualities weren’t any of the above traits. In fact, it was his leadership that made him stand out, along with Roy Keane, as two of the most influential captains in the Premier League era. Vieira led by example and defended his badge with everything he had. The Frenchman was at the heart of Arsenal’s three Premier League-winning sides and has ever since been missed, as the Gunners have gone over 15 years in search of a player of that ilk.
After joining Juventus in 2005, the Frenchman returned to England, but only for a year as he played the 2009/10 season with Manchester City before calling it a day on his illustrious footballing career.
#3 Frank Lampard
Club(s): West Ham United | Chelsea | Manchester City
PL Titles: 3
There was much talk of nepotism in and around West Ham United when Frank’s uncle, Harry Redknapp, saw his potential when he came through the ranks. Redknapp sounded more like a soothsayer back then than a wheeler-dealer when he predicted young Frank would go all the way to the top. His prediction did come true, albeit it took a while for Lampard to be established.
Roll on to 2003, and the arrival of Claude Makélélé at Chelsea, which gave Lampard the license to roam further forward, and with that came added success as Lampard was Chelsea’s highest goal scorer in their 2004/05 title-winning season. Fast forward one more year, and Chelsea had won their second successive league title with Lampard again being the top goal scorer. It is no coincidence that Lampard started to thrive with Makélélé in the side, as he was able to perfect his art while his midfield companion did the dirty work behind him.
But just like some other names in the list, Lampard’s versatility and longevity were pivotal in the influence he mustered on the pitch. He played relatively higher up the field in a more attacking role in his earlier days. He gradually transitioned into a deep-lying playmaker role. The Englishman’s vision, accurate passing, ability to control a game, and that wand of a right foot meant that he was able to play deeper and still prove to be a threat.
His ability to strike the ball from both open play and dead-ball situations was unparalleled. The very fact that he’s the only midfielder in the list of Top 10 highest goal scorers in the Premier League speaks volume about his goal-scoring prowess. The Englishman was also key to Chelsea’s surprise Champions League triumph in 2012 – a trophy that he lifted as the Blues’ captain.
Following a trophy-laden 14-year spell at Stamford Bridge, his decision to join Manchester City left a few Chelsea fans scratching their heads. But the move at least graced us with one more iconic moment, when he scored one of his trademark goals against his old club – arriving late into the box at the perfect moment and slotted home a goal for the Sky Blues of Manchester.
Lampard’s goal scoring record says it all – 300 professional goals as a midfielder is no mean feat. When he retired, so did his unique style, and his goals will always be engraved in Premier League folklore.
#2 Steven Gerrard
PL Titles: 0
After signing for the red half of Merseyside in 1988, it was exactly a decade later that Gerrard made his Premier League debut for Liverpool. In his 27 years with the club, Gerrard won everything there was to be won – be it domestic competitions or continental ones – but it was that elusive Premier League medal which evaded him time and again. That, though, only further solidifies the greatness of the man, being the only player in the list to have never won the Premier League title.
The mid-2000s was when the world witnessed Gerrard at the peak of his powers – from wreaking havoc with a young Michael Owen in Liverpool’s domestic cup treble in 2001 to that unforgettable night in Istanbul, which was his career high as he captained the Reds and put in a stellar performance in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan where his header nine minutes into the second half inspired an unlikely comeback that is still arguably called the greatest comeback ever that took Liverpool to their fifth European title, their first since 1977.
Gerrard is undoubtedly the most complete midfielder to have ever graced the Premier League. He could pass the ball with pin-point accuracy, make tackles, dictate the tempo of the game, and lead his side all at the same time. And not to forget his ability to tear the net with his ferocious strikes from distance, which would come in clutch situations as well. The Liverpool legend ended up not having the luxury of being part of a title-winning side, but that did not stop him from becoming one of the greatest players in the Premier League – let alone the greatest midfielders.
Gerrard was a player who could practically do everything on the pitch, and more often than not, he did precisely that. And the most impressive aspect is that he maintained an incredible level of performance despite difficult situations. Gerrard didn’t control games in the same way many central midfielders did or do at present, but he decided them. He was a player of moments, and always delivered at the right ones.
#1 Paul Scholes
Club(s): Manchester United
PL Titles: 11
The top five in this list are virtually interchangeable. One cannot put a cigarette paper between the five of them. But there’s a reason why it’s been ranked as it is, and why Paul Scholes is regarded as the greatest midfielder in Premier League history.
Scholes never won a Ballon d’Or, and only featured in the PFA Team of the Year twice despite his eleven Premier League titles. Was it that he was underrated outside the red half of Manchester or was it that he was outshone by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry who tended to catch the eye a little more easily? Perhaps it’s a culture issue, with many still tending towards fitness over guile and power over technique.
At 5ft 7in, Scholes was never going to be an imposing midfielder. But that becomes irrelevant when you have an outstanding technique, a wicked shot and the vision and intelligence to tear apart even the tightest of defences in Europe. Scholes had asthma and hence, was never going to play the sort of box-to-box midfielder roles Lampard and Gerrard excelled in, but he was probably the most naturally gifted English footballer since Paul Gascoigne donned the famous Three Lions jersey.
He broke into the first-team setup in the 1994/95 season. The following season, Scholes and his cohorts from the class of ’92 did everything in their power to disprove Alan Hansen’s adage – “You could never win anything with kids.” Fergie and his kids did just that. They blew away their competition en route to a famous league title, with Scholes the architect as he, along with battle-ready Roy Keane, formed one of the most fearsome midfield partnerships in English football history.
Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, Scholes continued to win titles and adapt his game to become one of the best deep-lying playmakers in the modern game. While every player expects diminishing returns as they reach the latter stages of their careers, that was not the case with the Englishman, as just like fine wine, he got better with time.
With the end of the 2010-11 season, it seemed like it was time to call it a day as Scholes ended his glittering career and joined the coaching staff at United. But as the injury-ravaged Red Devils struggled for form the next season, Paul took up the mantle once again as he signed a short-term deal at the age of 36. He stayed on for one more year as United won the title in 2013, with him pulling the strings sitting at the heart of the midfield in his last hurrah.
Scholes finally called time on his playing career in 2013. It says everything when a man of Ferguson’s brilliance and stubbornness had to revert back to a retired Paul Scholes to solve his midfield issues.