Defining a ‘central midfielder’ in this day and age is no easy task.
The dissipation of fixed positions and increased prominence of ‘roles’ or ‘functions’ mean these folk in the middle of the park are tasked with an array of duties.
Nevertheless, 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.
All of that makes ranking the best 25 in the world incredibly tough, but here’s our crack at doing exactly that as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.
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A star of England’s Under-21 Euros triumph, Angel Gomes has come on leaps and bounds since leaving Manchester United.
Now one of the better midfielders in Ligue 1, the sky’s the limit for Gomes at Lille.
Watching Marco Verratti in the build-up phase is nothing short of an exhibition. The composure he emanates even in the most hostile of environments up against the fiercest of presses is staggering. He backs himself to wriggle out of any situation, bypass any opponent. More often than not, he succeeds.
But Verratti isn’t a midfielder merely reliant on his outrageous technical quality to thrive. The diminutive Italian is a gritty defender who loves to dive in – he’s partial to a booking or two, that’s for sure.
Verratti is an amalgamation of some of Italy’s great midfielders from yesteryear. He boasts Andrea Pirlo’s serenity, Daniele De Rossi’s grinta and Gennaro Gattuso’s combativeness.
Injuries have prevented the midfielder from reaching the absolute apex of the game, and he looks set to never really do that now that he’s off to Qatar to continue his career.
Teun Koopmeiners became one of the best players in Serie A last season thanks to a stunning 10 league goals for Atalanta.
Don’t be shocked to see him playing for one of Europe’s elite clubs very, very soon.
Enzo Fernandez’s reputation should further increase as the years go by. His first half-season at Chelsea did not go exactly to plan, but he was hardly alone in that regard.
The Argentinian showed at Benfica and at the 2022 World Cup he can develop into one of the best midfielders in the world. He’s already one of the most expensive midfielders ever.
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Chelsea will expect to see some tangible return for that fee in the 2023/24 campaign.
Piotr Zielinski is one of the world’s most underrated performers. Period. He doesn’t blow you away physically or even technically, but he’s such a smart footballer who’s produced consistently for Napoli since his arrival in 2016.
The Poland international has appeared in at least 35 Serie A games every season since his arrival, which is a testament to his availability and importance to Napoli. He primarily functions as a #10 but is also adept at dropping in to aid his side’s build-up and contribute to up-back-and-through passing patterns.
Zielinski was another vital player in Napoli’s Serie A title in 2022/23 and he upped his attacking output, scoring seven goals and getting 11 assists.
One of the key ingredients to Napoli winning their first Serie A title in 33 years, Stanislav Lobotkas has long been an underrated midfielder in Europe. The 2022/23 campaign has alerted more people to his talents.
His strength lies in quick passing of all ranges. The Slovakian is metronomic and just sprays the ball around the pitch with complete ease, promoting comparisons with Luka Modric.
He is a small player, meaning he won’t win you headers in midfield, but he can turn and dribble out of difficult situations very easily.
Why does Mason Mount polarise opinion as much as he does? It’s hard to fathom. He’s one of the best midfielders in the world.
His rise at Chelsea was rapid and Gareth Southgate was quick to entrust the savvy creator in his excellent England team. Southgate once lauded Mount “exceptional” while former teammate Antonio Rudiger described him as “phenomenal” before departing to Real Madrid.
Mount’s a likeable character who certainly knows how to perform a creative midfield function to a very high level. His movement is excellent, while his ball-striking stands out as an impressive attribute. Having moved to Manchester United, Mount could soon be playing in a deeper role and now has a new stage on which to remind everyone of his quality.
Ruben Neves was perhaps at Wolves for much, much longer than he expected to be.
Despite that, the midfielder is still very highly regarded thanks to his ability to dictate the tempo of games.
Dead-ball specialist Hakan Calhanoglu was brought to life by Stefano Pioli at AC Milan before he opted to cross the Derby della Madonnina divide in 2021.
The Turkey international started brilliantly at Inter and was regarded by many as the star of the first half of the 2021/22 Serie A season. Calhanoglu aptly replaced Christian Eriksen in the Nerazzurri’s excellent midfield three and had emerged as one of Europe’s most productive attacking midfielders.
As time has worn on, he has become a deeper-lying midfielder for Simone Inzaghi and actually took the place of Marcelo Brozovic for much of the 2022/23 season. Calhanoglu has immense technical ability and it seems that his fitness levels have increased as well, with more and more lung-bursting runs from deep coming into his game.
Once a flair player, Lucas Paqueta has become a ball-winning box-to-box machine under David Moyes.
He’s actually completed the most successful tackles in Europe so far this season. Surprising and impressive in equal measure.
Christian Eriksen’s arrival was an incredibly smart piece of business by Manchester United as he joined on a free transfer from Brentford in 2022.
Considering his health issues, there were concerns Eriksen would not be able to cut it at the top end of the Premier League anymore but he has proved those doubters wrong.
Erik ten Hag has deployed Eriksen in a deeper role alongside Casemiro, allowing him to compensate for a lack of pace with his incredible passing range and immense intelligence.
The Dane was key for Man Utd all season in 2022/23, scoring twice and getting ten assists. He has overcome a serious health issue to return to his very best.
Leon Goretzka’s transformation from lean and skinny to mean and mighty helped him morph into one of the world’s most destructive midfielders.
The Germany international certainly isn’t the cleanest of technicians but is incredibly effective at what he does. He times his runs into the box superbly, while he’s an indefatigable runner out of possession.
Goretzka’s a one-man pressing juggernaut and played a starring role for Hansi Flick’s all-conquering Bayern during the 2019/20 season. Injuries have slowed him down somewhat in recent times but he remains one of the world’s most powerful and unique midfielders when he does take to the field.
Something of a redemption story, there was a lot of derision towards Adrien Rabiot when he was linked with a move to Manchester United from Juventus. He ended up staying with the Bianconeri and in what was a very hard campaign for the whole club, he stood out as arguably their most important player.
He seemed to maintain a level head among the chaos at Juventus and became a real leader. The 28-year-old scored 11 goals and got six assists, showing his attacking ability. He is athletic and very useful in both boxes due to his height.
After a period of time where he was not very highly rated, Rabiot looks to have found his groove again.
Bruno Guimaraes was very good and perhaps underrated for a few years at Lyon, but his first season at Newcastle has cemented him as one of the best all-round midfielders in the world.
The Brazilian was arguably their most important player as they managed to qualify for the Champions League and reach the Carabao Cup final and the times when he missed a game through injury made it really clear how important he is.
He grabbed 10 goals and six assists in 2022/23 from 57 games, a great return for a midfielder who is also very good in the tackle and does a lot of hard yards for the team.
If only this guy didn’t pick up so many injuries. Mateo Kovacic is a wonderful player to watch and he came into his own Chelsea following an indifferent start under Maurizio Sarri’s tutelage.
The Croatian is one of the most proficient ball-progressing midfielders in the world. Not only can evade challenges like a prime Mousa Dembele and carry the ball in a similar vein to Lionel Messi, but he can also pick apart defensive structures with the most precise vertical passes.
He’s been picked up by Manchester City and will hope injuries don’t threaten to derail him at the Etihad like they did at Stamford Bridge at times.
The marauding mezzala Sergej Milinkovic-Savic produced staggering numbers during his spell with Lazio.
The Serbia international has perpetually been linked with a mammoth move away but remained loyal to the Biancocelesti for eight seasons before the mega-bucks of the Saudi Pro League snared him from Italy.
The Serb can dominate physically but also dazzle with the ball at his feet. He’s a 6’3 ballerina.
20 years old and already a key man for Real Madrid, it’s fair to say that Eduardo Camavinga is pretty damn good.
Be it as a full-back or a midfielder, Camavinga excels.
Forever desired by Manchester United, Frenkie de Jong boasts truly outrageous talent.
The Dutchman has endured the typical peaks and troughs of being a Barcelona player. The fresh-faced midfielder is as press-resistant as they come and has a knack for embarking on the maziest of dribbles that astound the demanding Camp Nou faithful.
The Barca man is proactive in possession, while his defensive instincts mean he can fill in at centre-back for Xavi. Moreover, De Jong is incredibly athletic which allows him to cover a ton of ground in transition.
While our praise for the Dutchman is high, there’s still plenty to come.
Nicolo Barella and the right half-space is a deadly combination.
The tenacious Italian rose to prominence during Antonio Conte’s reign at Inter as the Nerazzurri lifted the Scudetto in 2021, ending Juventus’ decade-long reign as Italian champions.
The midfielder has continued to produce in a similar role under Simone Inzaghi and showed his quality time and time again during the run to the 2022/23 Champions League final.
Barella remains a player who grabs games by the scruff of the neck and will long be a staple of Inter’s midfield.
You can’t give Toni Kroos an inch of space with the ball at his feet. He’ll pick you apart.
The elegant midfielder has been playing at the very highest level for a decade now and made up a third of arguably the greatest midfield trio the world has ever seen alongside Casemiro and Luka Modric.
Nevertheless, while Kroos is reaching the twilight of his career, he’s still one of the world’s most enjoyable midfielders to watch. The German has long played a crucial role for Real Madrid amid a wildly successful period for Los Blancos.
He’ll go down as one of his generation’s finest and remains one of the world’s best central midfielders.
The comparisons are ubiquitous, but the similarities are too distinct to ignore; Pedri is the second coming of Andres Iniesta.
The teenager’s rise to the very top of the game has been swift. It wasn’t too long ago when Pedri was toiling away in the Spanish second tier with Las Palmas. Barcelona knew the kid was special, however, and his performance away at Juventus in the Champions League during his first season at the club depicted just how talented the midfielder is.
Pedri’s a genius with and without the ball. He ghosts into pockets of space that seemingly don’t exist, dazzles in possession and supplies teammates relentlessly. There’s an aura surrounding the low-sock-donning Spaniard that’s too strong to ignore.
In a world where the word is thrown around too often, this kid is truly generational.
With just over ten minutes to go in their Champions League quarter-final tie against Chelsea, Real Madrid were heading out despite claiming a 3-1 victory on the road in the first leg.
Then, Luka Modric happened.
The Croatian innocuously picked up possession midway through Chelsea’s half before picking Rodrygo out at the back post with the most audacious of outside-of-the-boot passes. The technique was obscene, while the touch and precision of Modric’s instinctively crafted ‘trivela’ allowed the Brazilian to finish first time with aplomb.
That sequence sparked Los Blancos into life amid their whirlwind of a journey to Champions League glory last season.
It was Modric’s fifth European title and the described assist epitomised the Croatian’s quality. He’s one of a kind and still arguably the world’s finest.
Often shuffled around from one position to the next, Federico Valverde had to do some hard yards to get recognised at Real Madrid.
That’s exactly what the Uruguay international did, however, even with competition like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. His insatiable work ethic and risk-free approach in possession means Real’s attacking stars are freed up to do damage in the final third.
Valverde assisted Vinicius Junior’s winner in the 2022 Champions League, showing his accurate eye for a pass. He’ll be a mainstay in Real’s starting XI for as long as he’s at the Bernabeu.
Ilkay Gundogan will make a world-class coach once he decides to hang up his boots, which is still a few years away yet.
The German, who won two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund, was Pep Guardiola’s first signing as Manchester City boss back in 2016. The genius manager has since labelled the German as “one of the most intelligent, wisest players” he has ever seen.
Gundogan is the ultimate Guardiola player and his importance to the Spaniard’s majestic City side was paramount. He can perform multiple roles to an elite standard and his goal record in recent years has been very impressive.
He led City to a historic treble and will now look to further carve out his own spot in history at Barcelona.
We can all agree Jude Bellingham is a potential future Ballon d’Or winner, right?
Once Bellingham took to the field for Borussia Dortmund, it was easy to understand why boyhood club Birmingham City retired his #22 shirt.
Now at Real Madrid, with Carlo Ancelotti completely changing the club’s tactical set-up to get the best out of him, Bellingham has become the best midfielder in the world in recent months.
He’s truly exceptional.