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.
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.