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.
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*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.
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6. Johan Neeskens
Football and Beauty are synonymous. The Brazilian flair is a thing of beauty. The Argentine wizardry is a thing of beauty. The Spanish technique is a thing of beauty. The Italians define the art of defending. Similarly Dutch Football represents all of these into a form collectively – ‘Total Football’.
The Dutch side of 1970s managed by Rinus Michels and led by the revolutionary Johan Cruyff, laid the foundations for Total Football. To this day, all the talk of positional play and tiki-taka attribute their foundations to the Total Football played by the Dutch.
In the Total Football system, there is no fixed predetermined role or a playing position for the outfielders. The players playing under this system need to be technically and physically sound. Johan Cruyff, perhaps, is the most famous exponent of Total Football.
There was another not so well known gem, who played with Cruyff at Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona and also was one of the best midfielders of the 1970s. This gem is arguably the first proponent of the current day Box to Box midfielder. He goes by the name Johannes Jacobus “Johan” Neeskens. Johan Neeskens is one of the most complete footballers the world has ever seen. He is regarded as one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
Neeskens was not a product of the famed Ajax youth system, instead he was a rough diamond extracted from Racing Club Heemstede in 1970, an addition who would complete the jigsaw as Michels tried to achieve European glory.
An indefatigable runner, Neeskens recognised that his instinctive harrying of opponents could be a trigger for the entire team to move up-field with him and capitalising on a key Dutch concept in space. By making themselves more compact, the team made the pitch smaller, reducing the opponents’ variety of options and limiting their mobility.
The Dutchman had a never-say-die attitude on the field which resonated as loud as a siren in his play. His style of play was all-out, high-octane and with little care for his own safety or the opponents’ in a bid to make his team win. He was advised by every coach he ever had – Michels included – to tweak his game such that it was not so demanding and he could reduce the chances any lasting damage or injury. But the man did not flinch, 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.”
5. Roy Keane
Plenty of people are born with footballing talent, but very few are blessed with the select set of skills of a player like Roy Keane. A tenacious box-to-box midfielder, the Cork-born man began his career with Cobh Ramblers in his homeland before catching the eye of Nottingham Forest.
He spent three seasons at Forest, from 1990 to 1993. When Forest got relegated, Keane joined Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford for a British record of £3.75 million, going on to become an undisputed legend of the club. Few men encompass the phrase “fighting spirit” as much as Roy Keane, who became a talisman for Manchester United during the most successful period in the club’s history.
He scored twice on his home debut and quickly dislodged more experienced players from the first eleven, winning his first two trophies in his first season, and adding many more to his cabinet over the years.
His duels with fellow great Patrick Vieira were legendary, as are his crunching tackles and short fuse. Behind all the aggression, however, was a player of immense quality, with Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledging him as one of the greatest player he has ever coached.
Under his leadership, United won seven Premier League titles, four FA Cup titles, and a Champions League. He later won a Scottish League title and Cup with Celtic, as well as winning 66 Republic of Ireland caps. He is widely remembered as one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
4. Jose Leandro Andrade
The son of a former slave, Andrade was born in Salto, a city in north-west Uruguay. Though he grew up in poverty, Andrade’s incredible footballing ability transformed him into an international celebrity, complete with all the trappings of fame.
An imposing man of 6ft, Andrade was an accomplished musician and dancer who, some said, had worked as a gigolo in his youth. In the 1920s, when the Olympic Games was effectively a world championship of football, he was winning over European audiences to such an extent that hundreds of thousands of people came to watch him play. Many more were denied the chance, locked out of the stadiums. He was the earliest example of a sporting symbol and a football phenomenon who has been called “the first Pelé”.
Today, Andrade is a relative unknown in the English-speaking world. Scan through a few lists claiming to chronicle the greatest footballers of all time, and in some cases his name is absent altogether. Yet this was a man who earned three world titles with his country, can correctly be called football’s first black icon, and who was once among the most famous sportsmen on the planet.
A brilliant footballer from a young age, he began his playing career at Montevideo side Bella Vista. Andrade first appeared for the national team in 1923, and was part of the squad which won that year’s South American Championship (now the Copa America). This secured Uruguay a place in Paris for the summer of 1924, where they would be their continent’s representatives at the Olympic Games. Here they would take on the best sides that Europe had to offer – 18 in total – with the United States, Turkey and Egypt completing a very Eurocentric entry list.
They went on to win the Gold medal. Andrade stood out as the star performer for La Celeste. Though just 22 at the time, he orchestrated play with a cool head that belied his years. He is undoubtedly, one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
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3. Frank Rijkaard
While Johan Cruyff led the first era of “Total Football”, Frank Rijkaard, along with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten brought it back. This Dutch triumvirate became the dominant force in both international and club football.
His time at AC Milan brought him to worldwide acclaim as he fast became regarded as one of the best players on the planet. A midfielder by trade, he played center back in the Euro 1988 final alongside Ronald Koeman.
Rijkaard helped lead the Dutch past all the disappointing finishes in their past to the Euro 88 title—the country’s first and only major title.
He won the Dutch Golden Shoe in 1985 and 1987 and was named to Pele’s FIFA 100 list. He’s one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time.
During his club career he won five Dutch league titles, three Dutch Cups, two Serie A titles, a Cup Winners’ Cup, and three Champions League titles. He made 73 caps for Holland, including playing an integral part in the triumphant 1988 European Championships.
2. Jozsef Bozsik
Arguably the finest deep lying playmaker in football history was Hungary’s stellar right-half, Jozsef Bozsik. He was a key member of the legendary Mighty Magyars as he represented Hungary in various international tournaments.
When the Magical Magyars are fondly remembered, it is often for the goalscoring exploits of Sandor Kocsis, the tactical innovations of Peter Palotas and Nandor Hidegkuti, and the all round brilliance of Ferenc Puskas. The result is that the metronomic qualities of Bozsik are frequently overlooked.
Born in the Kispest area of Budapest, Bozsik developed a life-long friendship with Ferenc Puskas from the age of five and the two would go on to form arguably the most fruitful footballing partnership in history. At 11 years old Bozsik was selected by Nandor Szucs to join the junior section of the Kispest Football Club, a team he would never leave.
Bozsik made his debut for Kispest against Vasas at the age of just 17, but following the game was dropped and it took him some time to get back into the team. By the end of 1943 Puskas had made his debut for Kispest, and soon Bozsik was back in the team. From then on he never relinquished his place.
At the beginning of his career in Hungary few appreciated what Bozsik brought to the game. Lacking pace, many considered him to be ponderous on the ball and too slow to play for the national team. With time though observers began to realise that rather than make a wrong decision quickly, Bozsik took his time to get it right.
By the stage that he made his debut for the national team it was apparent that Bozsik’s decision making was one of the central strengths to his game. Not only was he able to spot the right pass at the right moment, his technique was impeccable.
Given his lack of goalscoring prowess and the limited availability of footage it is perhaps inevitable that the name of Bozsik has largely been forgotten. Yet there are few historical players who would have been more valued in the modern game. For Bozsik possessed the gift that is the most valued in contemporary football and the hardest to find, that of time. He had the ability and composure to wait for the right option and to execute what few others could even see. In an era where such qualities are at a premium, Bozsik would have been peerless.
1. Lothar Matthaus
Lothar Matthaus had it all: scoring goals with his right foot, left foot, or direct from free-kicks, and combined a wide range of passing with the ability to glide past a defender. He was the ”best rival” Diego Maradona ever had, and developed an impressive knack of continuously adapting and improving his game. He is, after all, remembered simultaneously as one of the best box-to-box midfielders, deep-lying playmakers and most intelligent sweepers to ever play the game.
Following his rise as a talented teen at Borussia Monchengladbach – a club for whom he played for five years between 1979 and 1984 – Matthäus signed for Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in the summer of 1984, making an immediate impact.
The midfielder won his first career trophy in his debut season at the club, helping his side to the Bundesliga crown in 1984/85 with 16 goals in 33 league appearances. Matthäus would go on to make 33 goal contributions over the following two Bundesliga campaigns as Bayern won back-to-back-to-back Meisterschales.
By the time he switched Bavaria for Milan in 1988, Matthäus had already established himself as an inspirational leader, a captain fronting others into battle. In 1987 he’d skippered Bayern to the European Cup final – only to lose 2-1 late on to Porto – and the summer before his Inter move, he led West Germany at Euro ’88 – already Matthäus’ fourth major tournament for Die Mannschaft after being part of the Euro-winning squad in 1980.
Matthäus’ move to the Nerazzurri came during the golden age of Italian football, when Serie A was home to the crème de la crème of players, coaches and teams in Europe. The challenge of Italy’s top flight, the ultimate proving ground, was too enticing for him to turn down. He led Inter to their first Scudetto in eight years by a hefty 11-point margin over Napoli.
Matthäus, who started his career as a midfielder and finished it as a sweeper, played in a record five World Cups and was capped a German-record 150 times.
Matthäus won the Ballon d’Or for European footballer of the year in 1990, FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991 and German Footballer of the Year in 1990 and 1999 (the second time at age 38). He’s also on Pele’s list of 100 greatest footballers.
There’s no doubt about it. Matthäus is the best defensive midfielder of all time.