Defensive midfielders link the defense to the attack. They break up the opposition’s play. They provide cover when defenders venture upfield. At times tasked with marking the opposing attacking midfielder, with defensive responsibilities being of primary importance but also expected to be able to bring the ball out of defence and act as a conduit between defence and the midfield.
In this article, we will have a look at some of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time. The players are ranked on the cumulative basis of impact, longevity, success, big-game performances, consistency and work rate.
Here are the ten greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
*Honorable mentions – Ernst Ocwirk, Sergio Busquests, Edgar Davids, Dunga, Diego Simeone, Graeme Souness, Didier Deschamps.
10. Fernando Redondo
Elegance personified on the field of play. The Argentine midfielder was capable of carrying on his own the weight of the midfield. Redondo made a name for himself as one of the world’s best midfielders with his superior defensive and offensive skills.
He was a product of the youth teams of Argentinos Juniors. Redondo made his top-level debut in a game against Gimnasia y Esgrima. News of his tremendous quality soon reached Europe. Azkargorta brought him to Tenerife, where he had four excellent seasons, helping the club qualify for the UEFA Cup. Madrid had already set its eyes upon him, and in the summer of 1994 completed his signing.
He was the starting point of the offensive football of the Real Madrid that once again reigned on the continent. Six titles, amongst them two European Cup titles, is the spectacular résumé of this footballer, dearly loved by the fans at the Bernabéu. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
9. Paulo Roberto Falcao
Falcao is widely considered one of the greatest Brazilian players of all time. He was a general on the field, brilliant both tactically and technically. He was known in particular for his flair, control, vision, passing, and long-range shooting ability.
The midfielder began his professional career at Internacional at the age of 19 in the year 1973. He quickly moved up the ranks as an elite midfielder of Brasileiro and was praised for his ability to control the flow of the game with his accurate passes and strength in marking.
He led Internacional to its greatest period of success, taking the club to its three Série A championships in 1975, 1976, and 1979. The Brazilian mastermind was signed by Roma in 1980 and instantly gelled into the Giallorossi, becoming a talismanic figure that was deeply loved by the fans and people of Rome.
He guided the the Giallorossi to their first Scudetto triumph in 40 years. Serie A recognised Fãlcao as the Player of the Year that season beating such luminaries as Michel Platini.
A pure genius and one of the best players in the legendary Brazil squad of 1982, he was a complete player and one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
8. Claude Makelele
Makelele was the perfect defensive midfielder, simply winning the ball and making a short pass to keep possession. He was so successful in this position that it is now known as the “Makelele role”.
He started his career with Nantes in 1991. Despite having early success in France during a five-year spell that included winning the Ligue 1 title in 1995 and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League the following season, Makelele would spend a season at Marseille before heading south of the border to Vigo where he would hone his anchor man capabilities.
With Makelele in midfield, Celta would record landmark victories, most notably in the UEFA Cup where they defeated Italian giants Juventus 4-0. He would depart the Galician club after just two seasons following a toxic transfer saga that saw him refuse to play in order to force through his move to Real Madrid.
Claude Makelele covered countless kilometres in his three seasons wearing the Real Madrid shirt. The Frenchman was the engine room in the centre of the park and became a key piece of the madridista set-up, providing balance and bringing a sense of order to the team in his 145 appearances for the club.
Following his time at Real Madrid he went on to play for Chelsea and PSG, where he retired in 2011. It was at Chelsea that everyone saw what a quality player he was. Makelele’s introduction to the Premier League was seismic. Chelsea were a step ahead of the competition as they cantered their way to the 2004/05 Premier League title with a 95-point haul attached. At the centre was Makelele, with his influence in midfield appearing to know no end.
During his career, Makelele won a Ligue 1 title, two La Liga titles, two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, and a Champions League. He made 71 appearances for France, including helping them to the 2006 World Cup final.
7. Patrick Vieira
Formidable midfield general Patrick Vieira was the driving force in Arsenal’s hugely successful side of the mid-nineties and early noughties, leading the Gunners for almost a decade.
He was just seventeen when he made his debut with AS Cannes. Within two years, he was skippering the Ligue One outfit. Italian giants AC Milan took the fledgling prospect to Italy, but he was afforded little senior game time at San Siro, making just two league appearances for the Rossoneri.
Having finished without a trophy in 1995/96, Arsenal were undertaking a raft of changes on and off the pitch, and Vieira was brought to North London ahead of compatriot Arsene Wenger.
Nobody expected the youngster to pull up any trees, but it became apparent in his first training session in England that this was a player of immense physical and technical potential. Vieira was joined in the middle of the park by fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Petit, forming a partnership which yielded a league and FA Cup double in 1998; the pair would later combine to score France’s third and final goal in the World Cup final against Brazil.
Vieira was a champion for the first time in his career, and had cemented his status as one of European football’s finest young central midfielders, demonstrating his physical, technical and leadership skills throughout the Gunners’ title charge.
Arsenal would secure another Premier League title in the 2001/2002 season, but not before Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson launched an audacious bid to sign the French star in the summer of 2001.
After the 2001/02 title win, Tony Adams retired and the Arsenal captain’s armband was handed over to Vieira – there could have been no other candidate. No player better embodied the commitment demanded by fans while possessing the skill and intelligence required of an elite-level player.
Under his stewardship, Arsenal mounted a successful defence of the FA Cup in 2003, before going on to complete one of English football’s most astonishing feats. The Gunners went an entire Premier League season without suffering defeat – becoming the first English side in 115 years to do so. Despite struggling with a thigh injury for parts of the season, Vieira led by example as ‘The Invincibles’ romped to the title.
One of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time, Vieiera then returned to Italy, playing for Juventus, but quickly departed after the club sustained relegation for their part in a match-fixing scandal. He then signed for Inter Milan, where he consecutively won four league titles, before featuring for Manchester City, where he won another FA Cup before retiring in 2011.