In the modern game, a defensive midfielder is required to be at their very best for the full 90 minutes, running with their engine on full blast.
They need to be relentless pressers, able to read every situation imaginable but also be talented on the ball, capable of intricately stroking it around at close range or picking a long-range pass. Often, it’s hard to gain recognition in the best sides around the world if you play the anchor role, but every great team often has a number six making things tick.
The fun bit, for us anyway, is the debate around who the very best in the business is because there are inevitably differing opinions about who is the top dog.
So, because those kinds of debates are what we thrive on, we present the 25 players who are the best in the business right now – primarily based on current form and standing at the highest level, taking into account injuries and excluding those who typically operate as a more rounded ‘central’ midfielder…
Here’s our rankings as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.
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Welcome to World Class is back for another series across 90min’s Youtube Channel, social media accounts and 90min.com. The guys will be returning through the week as they agree on their 25 man squad and debate the Welcome to World Class XI.
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Manu Kone loves a yellow card, picking up 12 in the 2022/23 Bundesliga, but that didn’t stop the Frenchman earning comparisons to Jude Bellingham for his agility and quickness in midfield.
The Borussia Monchengladbach ace can skip past challenges and likes to shoot from distance, also showing great defensive work rate. His 74 successful tackles placed him ninth in the metric in Germany’s top flight last season.
Juventini laughed at Tottenham for acquiring Rodrigo Bentancur in January 2022, with many supporters never forgiving the Uruguayan for his error against Porto in a Champions League knockout tie the previous year.
The Lilywhites were the beneficiaries of Juve’s willingness to sell and Bentancur has since blossomed into a star in north London. An elegant performer in the middle of the park, the Uruguayan transformed Antonio Conte’s midfield at the start of the Italian’s tenure. He takes responsibility in possession and is mightily effective without the ball.
He seems to have garnered a second wind after parting ways with the Old Lady and Spurs have greatly missed his presence after he suffered an ACL tear at the start of 2023.
Oriol Romeu has long been considered a potential Sergio Busquets replacement, and he’s finally got his chance to be that this season.
The holding midfielder is working wonders in the heart of Barca’s midfield.
The midfielder is arguably the key man in Unai Emery’s Aston Villa side.
His ability on and off the ball allow the players in front of him to go and win games.
There are certainly high hopes for British record signing Moises Caicedo at Chelsea.
Having forked out an astonishing £115m for the midfielder, Caicedo will be expected to lead Chelsea into a very successful period in the club’s history.
Marcelo Brozovic’s outlook at Inter once appeared bleak before Luciano Spalletti aided the midfielder’s evolution from bratty playmaker into metronomic regista.
Broxovic’s turnaround was remarkable, developing into one of Europe’s best under Antonio Conte as Inter won the Scudetto in 2021.
His 2021/22 campaign with Simone Inzaghi was similarly excellent and he’s often impressed on the big stage for the national team. His influence did wane at San Siro, however, and he’s now plying his trade alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr.
Youssouf Fofana likes to sit at the base of midfield but is just as adept at pushing forward and orchestrating attacking moves.
With an easy passing style that sets him apart from more rigid minded defensive midfielders, Fofana has grown at Monaco since Aurelien Tchouameni’s departure.
A player destined for a big-money move at some point, Ivory Coast international Ibrahim Sangare has built a healthy reputation in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven. Now expect him to shine at new club Nottingham Forest.
The midfielder also has a keen eye for goal, averaging around a strike every three games at international level.
So how good is Edson Alvarez?
He’s so good that West Ham fans have now basically forgot that Declan Rice ever existed.
Xhaka leaving Arsenal as a fan favourite depicted his remarkable renaissance at the Emirates.
The often scapegoated midfielder’s relationship with Gunners supporters came to a head in October 2019 when he was jeered by supporters while he trudged off the pitch. Many believed that to be a point of no return, but Xhaka quickly went about restoring his reputation with the Gunners.
Mikel Arteta’s arrival offered the Swiss international a new lease of life and he re-emerged as a key figure in north London. While there was still the odd moment of madness, Xhaka established himself as Arteta’s iron man and a role change in 2022/23 led to his most productive season in Arsenal colours.
He’s been very impressive since returning to the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen too.
N’Golo Kante’s Chelsea career rather fizzled out as injuries dashed his availability but he remains an efficient and tenacious ball-winner and a committed team player.
The Frenchman has everything you could want from a defensive-minded midfield player. He can run all day long and is so often the driving force behind blistering counter-attacks.
Kante’s only weakness is he’s far more brittle nowadays and can barely keep himself fit. He’s joined the Saudi Pro League revolution, signing for Al Ittihad.
After starring at the World Cup at the end of 2022, it took Sofyan Amrabat until the very last day of the summer 2023 transfer window to get his dream move to Man Utd, but he deservedly got it in the end up.
The midfielder will make a huge difference for the Man Utd midfield.
Just like almost every other Bundesliga star that doesn’t play for Bayern Munich, Konrad Laimer was destined to join the Bundesliga champions at some point.
It’s hard to know just how transformative a signing he will be given Bayern regularly mop up the best domestic talent, but the Austria international ran the show for RB Leipzig for six years and has been likened to N’Golo Kante which is high praise indeed.
Former Brighton star Yves Bissouma was regarded as a super signing by Spurs during a window which was meant to catapult the Lilywhites to a new realm with Antonio Conte in charge.
However, the midfielder’s debut season in north London was tough. His first few appearances in Conte’s midfield were sub-par and it seemed as if he never quite garnered the trust of the Italian before his injury setback.
Nevertheless, Bissouma’s talent is undeniable and we’ve seen how good he can be this season under new manager Ange Postecoglou.
PSG won the race to sign Manuel Ugarte during the summer, and it’s a signing that could be truly transformative for the club’s midfield.
The 22-year-old is one of the best ball-winners around.
Ghana international Thomas Partey loves to drop a shoulder to create space in midfield where he can roam forward and set off Arsenal attacks.
He was technically advanced at a young age while developing at Atletico Madrid, playing a wide range of positions under Diego Simeone before settling in a deeper role in midfield.
Last season Alexis Mac Allister was very much a box-to-box midfielder for Brighton and Hove Albion, however he’s adopted a holding role since joining Liverpool.
And so far, he looks bloody brilliant there.
That Fulham Anguissa? Yes, really!
Everything came together for Napoli during their 2022/23 Serie A title winning season. Luciano Spalletti’s midfield was weighted perfectly, with Anguissa perfectly balancing defensive contributions with clever forward runs.
The top tackling player in the Premier League last season, it’s fair to say that Fulham wouldn’t have stayed up without Joao Palhinha.
They’re very fortunate to have him on the books for another season after his move to Bayern Munich fell through.
Sandro Tonali has long been touted as one of Italian football’s future greats but for now he’ll be entertaining English crowds after his £55m move from AC Milan went through.
Tonali played an important regista role in the Rossoneri’s title win of 2021/22 with his excellent ability to read the game and make threatening passes from deep.
Real Madrid long scouted Aurelien Tchouameni during his time at Monaco and must have been impressed by the amount of defensive work – particularly tackles and interceptions – he gets through, though his progressive game isn’t half shabby either.
With a €100m price tag to live up to, expectations are high for the newest Galactico. The first season wasn’t
Declan Rice has improved at an incredible rate in recent years and is now tasked with leading Arsenal’s midfield.
Few players can match the England international’s sublime tackling rate, while he is also starting to become a force at the other end of the pitch in attack.
As midfield destroyers go, Casemiro is unplayable, while he has a level of class on the ball that most can only dream of. His importance to Real Madrid was undeniable and it will be interesting to see how they fare without him.
He has become similarly indispensable at Manchester United, to the point where the odd suspension for the Brazilian is treated like the end of the world.
Joshua Kimmich is one of the most versatile top level players in the game today. There’s very little he and his Bayern side can’t do, evidenced by their 2020 Champions League success and continued Bundesliga dominance.
Much of that has been down to the German’s brilliance at the base of midfield, ticking things over and breaking up play on an unprecedented level.
It took a season or so for Rodri to get to grips with the vigours of Premier League football, but since acclimatising there have been few better in defensive midfield than the Spaniard.
Fast forward to the present day and Rodri has elevated his game back to the highest level, showing his class and inheriting Fernandinho’s throne.
Scoring the winner in the Champions League final also boosted his stock a fair bit, but even so he’s the best in his position right now.