A successful football team needs to have a good defensive midfielder to keep the spacing between attack and defense at a minimum. The defensive midfielder is arguably the most crucial position in football.
The main role of a defensive midfielder, is to help the center backs to help defend when the opposition is attacking. The secondary role of a defensive midfielder is to help the midfield build their attacking play once they have intercepted the ball.
A central defensive midfielder can, in many ways, be described as the core of the game. The main job is to break the opposition’s play. To accomplish doing this, defensive midfielders have to be able to read the game as well as perform tackling at its best. It’s the defensive midfielders who work throughout the game to provide support to the defense as well as helping the offense if needed, helping to beat transitions between the two. But who are the best defensive midfielders in the world ever?
Below, we look at the best defensive midfielders of all time.
If there ever was a player who best fit the German stereotype of skillfulness, it was Matthäus. He wasn't a cultivated technician like Beckenbauer, but a merciless machine who conquered every part of the pitch. Not one for brassy displays, Matthäus always seemed to make the correct decision on or off the ball. A natural-born leader who spurred those around him to do better, he is what I would describe as the downright midfielder. A good comparison of more contemporary players could be made with Pavel Nedved.
Matthäus' stand-out attributes were his unconquerable spirit and stamina, a superb footballing brainpower and an ability to score consistently from a distance. He was also a great passer of the ball and had great accuracy even over longer distances, but he wasn't as much an acute playmaker as he was a box-to-box midfielder. Most of his goals were scored from the penalty spot or just outside the box through powerful strikes. Matthäus could also move the ball from deep and create space with his crisp dribbling and strong body.
There is no doubt that Matthaus is one of the top defensive midfielders in soccer history.
Second on our list of best defensive midfielders ever is Frank Rijkaard. With a head full of hair, football’s Black Swan was, in a sense, a bright example of everything that people had come to expect of a top-notch Dutch player from that time – intelligence and technicality mixed with talent. Johan Cruyff had paved the way, and the generation that followed took the chance to reflect in the light.
He was the best at his position in the world and he understood the view of his role as well as Stephen Hawking understands Event Horizons. Light doesn’t escape black holes, and hopeful balls didn’t escape Rijkaard. With Rijkaard’s ratio of possession in the middle, his teammates already gained an advantage of half-a-stride or more, positionally. Try and imagine a modern game – the clinical, counter-attacking football that we love. Rijkaard and his fraternity of defensive midfielders are to thank.
Rijkaard did not care about individual honours and seldom spoke. The modern fan has been used to Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira fighting to the death and shouting till the dawn comes. Not Rijkaard, who is remembered for not how much he shouted, but for how well he played. You know how they say actions speak louder than words? For Rijkaard, his passes spoke louder than his words. Should we add Rijkaard to the list of Best Defensive Midfielders In Football History? Of course we should.
Rijkaard’s coaching-era mate and best friend, Neeskens was an intelligent midfielder. His style of play was all-out, and with little care for his own safety or the opponents’ in an effort to make his team win. He was told by every coach he ever had to modify his game so that it was not so demanding and he could trim down the chances of any long-lasting damage or injury. But Johan did not startle, later saying he lived his life the same way: “When I walk onto the field, I always want to win and get the ball – I am not concerned about myself.”
On the UEFA website, there is a quote describing Neeskens. "steel-hard midfielder was a tireless runner yet also had nice technique and scored goals, helping to set the stage for Cruyff to shine...”
The pure elegance. The Mercedes Benz of defensive midfielders in 90s. He showed all of us what is the magic of one-touch passing. It's hard to describe Redondo, because even if you think of the highest kudos and the most eloquent descriptions, it just won't be enough to get a hold of the importance of his legacy. His importance to the team, club and fans was only rivaled by the empty space after his unfortunate transfer.
He was the true prince of Madrid on the pitch. He was a glorious player, but even a better person. Whenever you talk to someone, who has witnessed him playing live, they can’t help but to feel nostalgic, because he was one of the true Greats.
He didn’t have the stamina to cover every inch of the field, but his brightness and the sense of what is going to happen and where was unrivaled. At first, Fabio Capello was reluctant to play Redondo as a defensive midfielder, as he wasn’t convinced by his defensive qualities and considered him too classy to play there. These thoughts were quickly disproved and Redondo received the highest compliment he could ever get from an Italian manager.
Redondo should be considered as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world ever.
Guardiola was -very much like his managerial days- a highly creative, hard-working, and deluxe player, with good anticipation, tactical cognizance, and an ability to read the game; throughout his career, he was deployed as a central or defensive midfielder in front of his team's back-line. Even though, he was capable defensively and able to press opponents to break up play and win the ball, due to his tall and thin build he usually functioned as a deep-lying playmaker, where he excelled, courtesy of his technical ability and clever, efficient, and accurate passing game. Guardiola was highly respected throughout his career for his vision, close control, passing range, positional sense, and composure on the ball.
Guardiola was capable of being an offensive threat, due to his ability to make attacking runs or strike accurately from distance; he was also effective at creating chances or shooting on goal from set-pieces. Having served as captain of both Barcelona and the Spain national side, he also stood out for his leadership throughout his career. Guardiola is one of the best defensive midfielders ever.
That charismatic captain of Manchester United. He was the captain Sir Alex needed after Eric Cantona. Someone who could inspire everyone around him. A selfless midfielder who would rather die of exhaustion than lose a game. He made 480 appearances for United, scoring 51 goals. Almost one goal in every 10 games, not too shabby for a defensive midfielder in his caliber.
He wasn't as talented as Scholes, as athletic as Gerrard and didn't score as many goals as Lampard. But this trio of Premier League legends couldn't control a game like Keane. None of them had the effect on their teams, or English football, the way Keane had at Manchester United for over 12 years. He was the most vital player for one of the world's best clubs during their most successful time.
Roy was a precise, impressive and efficient midfielder. He was indispensable for United. Just take a look at his stats. He only played 22 matches as a substitute. Keane should definitely be considered as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
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Patrick Vieira is the next on our list of top defensive midfielders in soccer history. He is the captain of the Invincible Arsenal. Known for his iconic longer-than-usual legs, Arsenal’s Daddy Long Legs was a monstrosity. If Thierry Henry was Arsenal’s super star, then Vieira was its nuclear soul!
‘Big game player’ is one of those classic football cliches. Vieria matches that description. His performances against Spurs proves that alone. He scored 33 goals for Arsenal, 5 of which came against Spurs, 4 of them were in White Hart Lane! Can you imagine that? He led Arsenal to win the title at White Hart Lane for the second time. He was the force behind the side being unbeaten for one season. Yet, nobody speaks of him.
In simple words, Vieira is probably the most rounded central midfielder in Premier League history. He has been irreplaceable. Since his departure in 2005, Arsenal has tried Abou Diaby, Alex Song, Coquelin and Xhaka, and they all have tried and failed to fill his void. This should prove that Vieria is one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
You may not know this, but Dunga revolutionized Brazilian football in two ways. One, he was a great holding midfielder and he used his ability to create a balance between attacking and defending. This turned Brazil into a more cautious team, which was against their all-out-attack strategy that they had employed for years. Two, he was less skillful. Much less than a defensive/central midfielder like Zico. This made him not-so-popular in the early days of his career.
He began to gain more popularity to the point where 1990s came to be known as the “Dunga Era” in the press. As a player, Dunga was a strong, hard-tackling, ball-winning defensive midfielder with not so much technique, tactical versatility and an ability to read the game well and organize his teammates; he was highly regarded for his prediction and ability to time his tackles, both standing and sliding, only going in for tackles or standing tackles when he considered necessary.
Dunga was also known for his compelling striking ability from distance and from set-pieces, as well as his sight and passing range, which also saw him function as a deep-lying playmaker; he often played long balls to forwards using the outside of his right foot.
Considered to be one of the greatest holding midfielders of all time, Dunga was seen as an irregular Brazilian footballer, however, who was more similar to European midfielders in terms of his composed, efficient, tireless and physical style of play. Although he lacked the refined quality of traditional, more skillful Brazilian midfielders, he stood out for his leadership, work-rate and his firmness throughout his career. Dunga should be considered as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
A perfectly loyal player to the “total football” philosophy, Haan and Neeskens alongside Johan Cruyuff, played a pinpoint role in the making of Rinus Michel’s total football. Haan, Neeskens and Cruyuff constantly swapped positions. If you’re familiar with total football, you know how vital this change of position is to the correct employment of this tactic. Haan played a vital role in Ajax’s success story. He played in Ajax for 6 seasons, lifting the Eredivisie trophy 3 times, which marks him as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
With his spellbinding dribbling and impressive eye for a pass, Ossie Ardiles will always be remembered as one of the few players appropriate for the title: “midfield maestro.”
A Tottenham Hotspurs’ legend, he is remembered as one of the players who changed English Premier League’s style forever, shifting their gameplay from a more physical and less technical style, to a more attacking and creative style. Ardiles was gifted with great dribbling skills and technique, which is very rare for a defensive midfielder.
This enabled him to create spaces and send in through passes. His vision was extraordinary, which made his through passes correct to the scale of millimeters. Ardiles is definitely one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
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Nobody, I repeat, nobody, could’ve revolutionized the role of the defensive midfielder in the Premier League, or perhaps in the entire sphere of football, other than Claude Makelele. Known as a combative and hard-working player, he was capable of getting forward and playing in more advanced positions. He mainly played in front of the backline, serving as a defensive foil for his offensive teammates. Claude Makelele was a 2000 version of Andrea Pirlo, serving as a deep-lying playmaker at a time when Rui Costa, Ariel Ortega, or such players usually were the touchstone for a playmaker, and they played right behind the strikers.
He, with the help of his teammate, Patrick Vieria, changed the way France used to play. Their playmaking skills turned France into a team that was not dependant on Zidane only. His ability to read the game, along with his aggressive tackling helped both the offensive and defensive line of teams he played for. Football pundits still question Florentino Perez’s decision to sell Makelele, since Real Madrid struggled to find such a player for a couple of years until they found Esteban Cambiasso.
This is Fernando Hierro, criticizing Perez for selling Makelele: "I think Claude has this kind of gift – he's been the best player in the team for years but people just don't notice him, don't notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélélé was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now". Makelele, for sure, is one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
The great Dog of War. That is the perfect description for Rino Gattuso. A versatile player, being able of playing as a full-back, a defensive midfielder, a central midfielder, even as a right-back when Dick Advocaat was in charge in Rangers! That’s a quality you can’t find in every player. From a technical standpoint, he wasn’t skillful at all. Try searching for Gennaro Gattuso’s best skills in YouTube and you’ll see him tackle several players! So, what made him one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time?
Gattuso was a physically strong, consistent, aggressive, and hard-tackling midfielder, with an extremely high work rate; he also possessed compelling shots, and agile reactions, as well as an excellent positional sense and good prediction, which enabled him to excel in this position; in his prime, he was widely regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
His energetic and combative box-to-box style of play, as well as his pace, tactical awareness and abilities as a ball-winner, allowed him to form a successful midfield partnership with Andrea Pirlo throughout his career, both at club and international level. He paired up very well with Andrea Pirlo, which was mainly the reason multiple AC Milan managers preferred him over Massimo Ambrosini. Gattuso was known for his great ability to break up the opposition’s attack, intercepting the ball and passing it to his offensive and more creative teammates. Gattuso should be considered as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
Having been nicknamed “The Water-Carrier” by then-teammate Eric Cantona, pundits at first thought of him as an incapable defensive midfielder. While the nickname may seem like an insult, Deschamps was considered one of the greatest defensive midfielders at the time, using his positional awareness and excellent work-rate to prevent any attacks.
His style helped him win two Champions League titles, one with Marseille and the other with Juventus in a career that saw Deschamps win almost every trophy available.
Deschamps primarily excelled at obstructing the opposition's attacking movements as a defensive midfielder, and was capable of subsequently starting attacking plays and distributing the ball to teammates once he won back possession.
Deschamps's ability to perform this role was made possible due to his high work-rate, persistency, stamina, vision, reliable distribution and technique, and his efficacy at pressing and tackling opponents. He also had an excellent positional and organizational sense, and was famous for his tactical intelligence, versatility, and his leadership as a footballer.
People usually say Cantona was a great leader of the France national team. You can’t make the stuff up. It is true. But you mustn’t forget Deschamp’s great leadership skills made France win the 1998 World Cup. It shall never be forgotten. Deschamp is probably one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
Italy’s famous 1982 World Cup hero will always be Paolo Rossi, with his famous goal celebration. But one shan’t forget the force and leadership behind this historic win. Marco Tardelli played an iconic role in Italy’s 1982 World Cup win.
Regarded as one of Italy's greatest midfielders, and one of the best players of his generation, Tardelli was an energetic and hard-tackling yet technically skillful two-way midfielder, who was known for his ability to contribute both offensively and defensively.
Italy was getting a great reputation for performing Catenaccio at its best, and then came Marco Tardelli. An elegant and very skillful defensive midfielder. A well-rounded footballer, he was regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the world during the early 1980s.
He was tenacious, hard-working and not to forget, a hard tackler of the ball. Although Tardelli was mainly renowned for his speed, stamina and defensive skills, he also possessed a powerful shot, and was capable of striking and passing the ball with either foot, despite being naturally right footed. Tardelli surely is one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
Known for his iconic “predator glasses”, there is so much more to Davids than his glasses. An agile, hard-working, tireless team player, gifted with power and acceleration, as well as exceptional physical strength and stamina despite his diminutive height. Remembered as one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time, Davids was renowned for his dynamic and combative style of play, tight marking of opponents, and ability to break the opposition plays as a defensive midfielder.
In addition to his ball-winning ability, as well as his physical and athletic properties, Davids was also a highly talented and creative player, who was known for his superior technique, vision, pace, close control, agile footwork, and ball-juggling skills; his technical ability and artistry at street soccer and as a freestyle footballer earned him the nickname "The Mayor of the Street".
His tactical ability, awareness, and talent to read the game, combined with his speed, energy, tackling, vision, and dribbling ability, allowed him to start counter-attacks after winning back possession and also enabled him to carry the ball forward, make attacking runs, and orchestrate his team's attacking play by linking up the defense and the attack effectively, making him one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.
Who do you think should be on the list of Best Defensive Midfielders In Football History? Leave us a comment below.