Tuesday, 23 Jul 2024

The 9 Best Defensive Midfielders Of All Time

In the world of football, the midfield is the battleground where matches are won and lost. It is in this central area of the pitch that the defining moments of the game take place, as teams vie for possession and the action swiftly transitions from one end to the other.

At the heart of these pivotal moments is the defensive midfielder. Combative, commanding, and the linchpin of their team’s core unit in the middle of the field, these players are crucial for any team’s success. Without a skilled defensive midfielder, it becomes incredibly challenging for a team to achieve victory.

In this article, we will explore the role of the defensive midfielder in soccer and highlight some of the best players to have ever occupied this position. From the top leagues such as La Liga, Serie A, and the Premier League, fans have witnessed the brilliance of these players.

What Is A Defensive Midfielder In Soccer?

In soccer, the defensive midfielder is primarily responsible for protection. Positioned in front of the defense, their role is to shield the backline, screen the deep midfield area, and provide cover for their teammates. This involves making tackles, interceptions, and tracking opposition runs. They also play a crucial role in building possession from the back after winning the ball.

However, defensive midfielders also contribute to the team’s attacking play. This can vary depending on the team’s style and the manager’s tactics. Offensive duties for a defensive midfielder may include starting attacks with precise passes, making killer through-balls, driving forward with dribbles or off-the-ball runs, and contributing to attacking set-pieces.

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To excel in the central defensive midfielder role, players must possess a diverse skillset. Here are some key examples:

The Key Skills Of A Defensive Midfielder

Positional Discipline

Being in the right place at the right time is crucial for defensive midfielders. By fulfilling this fundamental duty, they prevent opposition attackers from exploiting gaps and provide assurance to their teammates about their positioning. Staying disciplined and focused, they fill the space between defense and midfield, mark zonally or man-to-man when necessary, and intercept passes effectively.

Physical Strength

Physicality plays a significant role for defensive midfielders, as they often face tough opponents. Even if they are not the tallest or most physically imposing players, they must be capable of holding their ground. Outmuscling attacking midfielders, shielding the ball, and competing for headers in crowded penalty areas are essential aspects of the position.

Tackling and Intercepting

Defensive midfielders need to excel at jockeying, marking, making solid tackles (both standing and sliding), and intercepting passes. These fundamental skills are the backbone of their role, enabling them to screen the defense and stifle the opposition’s creativity.

Passing Skills

Once defensive midfielders regain possession, they must distribute the ball effectively. They utilize different types of passes, such as quick one-twos to initiate attacks, well-timed lay-offs to teammates, or long cross-field passes for counter-attacks. Their passing abilities contribute to smooth transitions and help their team in various game situations.


Some defensive midfielders adopt a deep-lying role, constantly providing defensive cover, while others have more freedom to roam forward. Regardless of their style, stamina is vital in this position. Central midfielders cover more ground than players in any other position, often running over 10 kilometers in a single match. Therefore, being exceptionally fit and able to maintain intensity and commitment for 90 minutes is crucial.

The 9 Best Defensive Midfielders Of All Time

Now, let’s explore a list of the most outstanding defensive midfielders to have ever graced the game.

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Claude Makelele

French international Claude Makelele was a pivotal figure in Chelsea’s midfield during Jose Mourinho’s successful first spell at the club. Known for his aggression, tackling prowess, reading of the game, and positional intelligence, Makelele made over 200 appearances for the Blues before moving to PSG in 2008.

N’golo Kante

Another Frenchman and Chelsea player, N’golo Kante played an instrumental role in winning the World Cup with France in 2018. Known for his incredible work rate, dynamic play, and box-to-box abilities, Kante is a defensive-minded player at his core. His clean, intelligent play and strong presence in midfield have helped him secure multiple Premier League titles.

Lothar Matthäus

Lothar Matthäus is widely considered as Germany’s finest midfielder of all time. Known for his excellent passing, positional discipline, leadership skills, and tactical acumen, Matthäus won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany and was honored with the Ballon d’Or in the same year. He accumulated over 150 international appearances and achieved success with clubs like Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Internazionale.


Brazilian legend Dunga is known for reaching and winning several major finals, including a World Cup, an Olympic final, a Confederations Cup final, and a continental championship final. As a strong, combative defensive midfielder, Dunga captained Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup, earning 91 international appearances. He later went on to coach the national team, winning the 2007 Copa America.

Xabi Alonso

Xabi Alonso made a significant impact on European football during his time at Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich. With fantastic passing ability, tactical intelligence, and physicality, he provided a solid foundation for teammates to shine. Alonso won numerous trophies, including two Champions League titles.

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Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets is an icon of the modern defensive midfield role. With his elegant style, exceptional passing skills, and reading of the game, he played a pivotal role in Barcelona’s possession-based football for 15 years. Busquets won multiple La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, and major international honors with Spain.

Daniele De Rossi

Known for his strength, stamina, tactical awareness, and ability to contribute in attack, Daniele De Rossi is regarded as one of the most complete defensive midfielders. Spending his entire professional career at Roma, he became a beloved figure, winning two Coppa Italia titles and one Supercoppa Italia. De Rossi also played a crucial role in Italy’s triumph in the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Frank Rijkaard

Frank Rijkaard, a formidable defensive midfielder, epitomized the technical prowess of Dutch football. With height, strength, and excellent passing ability, Rijkaard achieved success with Ajax, Real Zaragoza, and AC Milan. He collected numerous medals, including five Eredivisie titles, two European Cups, and two Serie A titles.

Roy Keane

Roy Keane, a rugged midfielder, is considered one of the Premier League’s most legendary defensive midfielders. During his time at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, he won multiple Premier League titles, FA Cups, and a Champions League. Combining aggression with technical ability, Keane’s reputation precedes him as a player of exceptional pedigree.

If you want to learn more about the Central Defensive Midfielder (CDM) role in soccer, check out our comprehensive guide to the position.

In summary, the defensive midfielder is an integral part of any successful team. With their unique skillset and contributions on both ends of the pitch, these players play a vital role in shaping the outcome of matches. The list of the best defensive midfielders of all time showcases the talent and impact these players have had on the beautiful game.