Top 20 Central Defensive Midfielders In The World Right Now

Top 20 defensive midfielders in men’s football right now

September 28, 2023

The role of a defensive midfielder has evolved so much over the years. From breaking up play, winning the ball back and protecting their defensive lines, to setting up attacks, making clever forward runs and impacting play in the opposition end of the pitch — they’re asked to do it all. 

But who are these midfield generals? Well, you’ll find some familiar faces like N’Golo Kanté, Joshua Kimmich, Casemiro and Rodri here. But there are some fresh faces who are quickly making a name for themselves after showcasing their incredible talent over the last 12 months or so. 

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 20 central defensive midfielders in men’s football right now:

Also read: Top 10 attacking midfielders in Premier League right now

Ranked! Top 20 defensive midfielders in men’s football right now

#20 Ibrahim Sangaré

Ibrahim Sangaré is a 25-year-old Ivorian defensive midfielder who has recently moved to Nottingham Forest from Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven. A physical and athletic player who is known for his tackling, passing and ball-carrying ability, Sangaré has the potential to be a top-class player. 

During the 2022/23 season, Sangaré made 35 appearances for PSV, scoring six goals and providing two assists. He averaged 2.8 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game and had a high pass completion rate of 88.6%.

Besides being a good tackler and an able passer, Sangaré also has a good work rate and positional sense. However, he can be a bit rash in challenges and get caught out of position.

#19 Youssouf Fofana

Youssouf Fofana is a French defensive midfielder who plays for Ligue 1 club AS Monaco. Known for his all-round abilities, combining a strong defensive presence with good passing and dribbling skills, Fofana is strong both in the air and on the ground, while his good passing range allows him to start attacks from deep.

During the 2022/23 season, Fofana played 45 games for the Monégasque club, scoring two and providing two assists. Given his ability to break up play and start attacks, the 24-year-old averaged 2.3 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per 90 while keeping an 83% pass completion rate and 2.1 successful dribbles per 90.

Still a promising young midfielder, and given his growth over recent years, Fofana will soon be on the wishlist of some of the biggest clubs in Europe. 

#18 Konrad Laimer

The Austria international had another excellent season for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga last season as he established himself as one of the best midfielders in the league and earned himself a move to Bayern Munich on the back of it.

Laimer has made 29 appearances for Leipzig in all competitions, scoring four goals and providing one assist. He has averaged 3.5 tackles per game, 1.1 interceptions per game, and 1.3 successful dribbles per 90. He has also won 60% of his duels. The 26-year-old’s defensive stats are particularly impressive with him ranking in the 99th percentile for tackles per 90 and the 95th percentile for interceptions per game among midfielders in the Bundesliga.

A complete midfielder who is capable of doing everything, Laimer is a great tackler, an excellent passer, and a capable dribbler. He is also a hard worker who covers every blade of the pitch. He is a valuable asset to any team, and after joining the German champions on a free transfer this summer, the 26-year-old is sure to be a success at Bayern Munich.

#17 N’Golo Kanté

N’Golo Kante will go down in history as one of the most unique and beloved players in world football. The diminutive midfielder is a gifted ball-winner and has a knack for finding space in tight areas. Known for his incredible energy, relentless tackling, and ability to break up play, it seems his body is finally calling it a day after undergoing serious injuries during his final campaign with Chelsea last season. 

Now playing in the Saudi Pro League alongside Frenchman Karim Benzema, the 32-year-old will be looking to set alight the league and enjoy the final years of his professional career. 

#16 Marcelo Brozović

Marcelo Brozović had another outstanding season for Serie A giants Inter Milan during the 2022/23 season. The Croatian international played a key role in the Nerazzurri’s charge for silverware both domestically and continentally, making 40 appearances in all competitions and contributing with three goals and six assists, as Inter made it to the final of the UEFA Champions League. 

The 30-year-old’s strengths lie in his passing, ball retention, and defensive work rate. He is an excellent passer of the ball, both short and long, and being the metronomic figure he is at the middle of the pitch, he is always looking to create chances for his teammates. Despite attracting interest with his performances last season from some of the biggest clubs in Europe including the likes of Barcelona, the Croatian decided to try a new challenge by securing a move to the Saudi Pro League club Al-Nasr on a three-year contract that is reportedly worth more than €25 million per season. 

#15 Fabinho

Regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world not long ago, Brazilian international Fabinho’s fall from grace has been nothing short of sensational. Just 18 months ago, the 29-year-old was part of the Liverpool setup that was all set to conquer England and Europe with Fabinho playing a crucial role in it, and today that same player isn’t even considered among the top 10 in his position. 

A versatile midfielder who can deputise both at right-back and centre-back, Fabinho was the anchor of an ageing Liverpool team that just had one season too many without mobility and legs in its midfield since their Champions League triumph in 2019. However, with his big £40 million (US$52.5 million) move to the Saudi Pro League club Al Ittihad this summer, the 29-year-old will be earning a massive £700,000 per week in wages. With the Brazilian international part of a big contingent of established players to make the switch to Saudi, it’ll be interesting to see whether he can bring back some of his lost touch that made him stand out as one of the very best. 

#14 Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets is probably the last of his kind. The definition of a deep-lying playmaker, his ability to control the tempo of a game remains unmatched to this day. The 35-year-old has a wide passing range. He can pick out a pass with either foot and is always on the lookout to create chances for his teammates. An excellent reader of the game, the Barcelona legend is a master of the art of interception, always finding himself in the right place to break up opposing attacks. 

Last season, Busquets was ranked in the 99th percentile for passes completed and in the 95th percentile for progressive passes. However, Busquets’ 2022/23 season was not without its flaws. Throughout the season there were instances where the Spanish international was sometimes caught out of position, while also not being up to pace to start quick counter-attacks. With his summer move to Inter Miami, the 35-year-old will now be playing alongside friend and former Barca teammate Lionel Messi after signing a two-and-a-half-year deal with the David Beckham-owned club. 

#13 Rodrigo Bentancur

Juve’s loss is Tottenham’s gain. After his rocky patch with Juventus, Rodrigo Bentancur took some time to find his feet at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in his first season under Antonio Conte. However, the first half of the 2022/23 season showed what this Uruguayan midfielder can bring to the table when given the licence to flourish. An elegant passer of the ball, the 26-year-old was one of the standout performers for Conte’s side last campaign, recycling possession effectively and marshalling the defence as a screen alongside Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. 

In his 18 league appearances for the club, before an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury ended his season prematurely, the Uruguayan scored five goals and set up another two for his team. However, with the appointment of an attacking-minded head coach in Ange Postecoglou, the 26-year-old will become an even greater asset due to his defensive and box-to-box abilities. 

Also watch: Top 20 defensive midfielders in world football right now

#12 Pierre-Emile Højbjerg

Despite another disappointing campaign for Spurs, the Danish international enjoyed another solid season, especially in front of goal, scoring five and creating another seven as the Lillywhites finished the season in eighth. A tidy midfielder whose primary strengths are passing, ball retention, and defensive work rate, his deep-playmaking abilities will come in handy under the new management of Ange Postecoglou. 

At 28, he is entering his prime as a midfielder and being part of the leadership group, his contribution – both on and off the pitch – will be vital if Spurs are to push for a European place finish in the post-Harry Kane era.

#11 João Palhinha

João Palhinha was a revelation in his debut season in the Premier League. The Portuguese midfielder joined Fulham from Sporting CP for £18 million in the summer and has quickly established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. A tireless worker who is always looking to win the ball back, and progress the play by distributing the ball from deep, it is his positional awareness and decision-making that sets him apart from many of his peers. 

His ball-winning ability and passing range make him a complete midfielder, and despite just a season in the Premier League, the 28-year-old Portuguese midfielder has attracted attention from some of the top clubs in Europe with his combative performances throughout the 2022/23 Premier League season. 

#10 Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa

Remember the raw and headless-chicken like Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa in Fulham’s relegation campaign during the 2020/21 Premier League season? Yes, that Anguissa. Today that very player has become a Serie A champion with Napoli. A versatile midfielder who can play in a variety of roles, the Cameroon international is strong in defence, good at carrying the ball forward, and is excellent at reading the game and anticipating danger. 

The 27-year-old perfectly balanced defensive duties with smart forward run as he seldom bossed the game for his team from the middle of the pitch, scoring three and assisting five goals in 36 Serie A appearances last season. Still, a young player and developing his game, if he continues to develop at this rate, he could become one of the best midfielders in the world in the coming years.

#9 Sandro Tonali

After his breakthrough season for AC Milan during their Scudetto-winning campaign during the 2021/22 season, Sandro Tonali established himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in Europe last season. Despite I Rossoneri failing to retain their domestic crown, the 23-year-old enjoyed his most productive season in professional football after scoring two and assisting nine goals in the Serie A. 

A technically gifted midfielder whose attacking threats lie in his accurate passing, timely dribbles, and astute ball retention. Also known for his defensive duties, the Italian international is an exceptional reader of the game, knowing when to trigger a press or put in a tackle. Tonali’s performances in 2022/23 made Newcastle United splash £55 million to acquire his services on a five-year deal. Besides, given Eddie Howe’s playing philosophy, the 23-year-old should easily slot into that midfield three. 

#8 Bruno Guimarães

Ever since joining Newcastle in January 2022 from French club Olympique Lyon, the 25-year-old Brazilian has been one of the catalysts in Newcastle United’s rise from relegation fodder to Champions League qualification. Sitting at the base of the Magpies’ midfield three, the Brazilian international breaks up play and sets off attacks from deep. 

Last season, alongside Joe Willock and Joelinton, Bruno Guimarães formed a formidable trio that bullied and harassed most teams in the Premier League. His defensive contributions as well as his five goals and five assists were vital to Newcastle finishing fourth. With European football back at St. James’ Park after two decades, the Brazilian will look to build on his performances during the 2023/24 season. 

#7 Moisés Caicedo

Brighton & Hove Albion have made a habit of unearthing hidden gems in this hyperinflated football market, and this time, it is the Ecuadorian international Moisés Caicedo who has exceeded all expectations to emerge as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe. After breaking into the Brighton playing XI towards the end of the 2021/22 season, Caicedo took no time to cement his place in their midfield, becoming a star performer for Robert De Zerbi’s side as they qualified for Europe for the first time in the club’s history. 

For someone who is strong, athletic, technically gifted, and has a good understanding of the game at the age of just 21, it seems understandable why Chelsea went all in and broke the British transfer record to sign him for £115 million. 

#6 Aurélien Tchouaméni

Real Madrid’s €100 million acquisition of Aurélien Tchouaméni from AS Monaco didn’t quite go to plan last summer as the French international failed to cement a starting position in a star-studded Real Madrid midfield. Particularly impressed by his defensive work that includes timely tackles and interceptions, at 23, the Frenchman has enough time to hone his attacking attributes and emerge as an heir for one of Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić when they eventually hang up their boots. 

Despite his lack of playing time at the Spanish capital, Tchouaméni has had a long list of suitors ready to prize him away from LaLiga, especially with Premier League giants Arsenal and Liverpool looking to bolster their midfield ranks. 

#5 Declan Rice

Declan Rice’s stock has risen astronomically over the last couple of seasons. The former West Ham United captain enjoyed another fruitful campaign last season that ended with him lifting the UEFA Conference League trophy, bringing home the club’s first silverware in over 40 years. As a result, the 24-year-old was subject to a £105 million move to Arsenal over the summer. 

Very few players in world football can match the England international’s excellent tackling rate and superb reading of the game with timely interceptions. However, there has always been his question on his back whether he can contribute more offensively, and given some of the worldies he has scored for the Hammers over the years, there’s no doubt Rice will get ample opportunities to decide games in the attacking half as well. 

#4 Joshua Kimmich 

Joshua Kimmich is one of the few elite-level versatile footballers currently in the game. The right-back turned defensive midfielder has been the architect of Bayern Munich’s success both domestically and as recently as their Champions League triumph in 2020. 

The German international is a complete midfielder, ticking things over with his immaculate passing range and breaking up play at an unprecedented level for both club and country. With someone like Leon Goretzka alongside him, it gives licence to someone adventurous like him to make marauding forward runs and create chances for both himself and his teammates. 

#3 Thomas Partey

Arsenal’s Ghanaian midfielder was challenging the likes of Rodri and Casemiro as the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League last season before injuries to William Saliba and Partey himself getting injured derailed Arsenal’s bid to win a first Premier League title in nearly 20 years. Moreover, it won’t be exactly over-exaggeration to say that the role he plays in the Arsenal midfield is one of the toughest roles currently in European football. Everything flows through him, he is the lynchpin of this Arsenal team, and whenever he’s having an off-day (which is quite rare nowadays), it is likely the team is struggling for control as well. 

The addition of Declan Rice will certainly give him more licence to venture forward, which he consistently used to do in his early on in his career as well as take off some of the defensive burden from his shoulders. Moreover, despite interests from the Middle East, he has stayed put with the Gunners, extending his deal until 2028. 

#2 Casemiro

As far as midfield destroyers go, there is none better than Casemiro in world football right now. The 31-year-old Brazilian was at the heart of everything good at Santiago Bernabeu for seven years before Florentino Perez and Real Madrid thought he was surplus to requirements. Thus, it was a big shock when the Brazilian international joined Manchester United last summer. 

But Casemiro took little time to cement his place in the team and became one of the indispensable members of Erik Ten Hag’s team. So much so that his occasional unavailability through suspension would be treated like the world has ended for them. 

#1 Rodri

Like so many players before and after him, it took a year for the Spanish international to get to grips with the pace and physicality of the Premier League. However, once he found his feet, there have been few midfielders that have been better than him in the central defensive midfield department. 

Last season, alongside Erling Haaland, he was one of their most consistent performers. Scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final to help his club become only the second English team to win a European treble. He was awarded the UEFA Champions League Player of the Season award for his performances and given his role during the Premier League campaign, there’s no doubt that the 27-year-old Spaniard will be right up there with Erling Haaland contesting for this year’s Ballon d’Or trophy. 

Rahul Saha

An engineer taking the road less taken. I love writing, live and breathe football, and am always up for a tactical conversation.

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