So, to the fourth in this series of 6 articles looking at the top 60 players in world football and probably the hardest list to select. In researching this list I realised our generation is blessed with a group of fantastic central midfielders and picking just 13 was very difficult. In fact, it proved too difficult and I had to choose 4 honourable mentions instead of just 3. I apologise and hope you will understand the difficulty. Thank you and please enjoy, comment, discuss, vent your outrage at my selections and read the next article on the top 10 wingers and attacking midfielders; another rather tasty one I think you might agree. Honourable Mentions
- Paul Pogba – How Manchester United must rue letting him go to Juventus for free back in 2012. Tall, rangy, skillful and majestic, Paul Pogba is the stand-out young player in the world right now. Standing out is something he seems to enjoy as well, with blonde highlights, flashy boots and outrageous pieces of skill on the pitch he has the attributes to back up his confidence. Becoming more and more vital for Juventus as he improves and Pirlo begins to fade he doesn’t quite seem to fit what we expect from centre-midfielders nowadays and yet it all comes together perfectly. Just months after signing he said “Juve can help me to realise my dream of becoming the best player in the world,” if he continues as he is he might be right. Desperately unlucky not to make the top 10 this year, but by next year don’t be surprised to see ‘Paul the Octopus’ in the top 5.
- Ilkay Gundogan – Injury has hampered the startling progress of this graceful deep-lying playmaker in the past 12 months but he is still greatly admired (and scouted) by lots of the big clubs and football experts across Europe’s big leagues. Emerged at the perfect time to replace Dortmund’s determined captain Sebastian Kehl and his fantastic pre-injury performances as Dortmund’s anchor lead to huge interest from the 2 big teams in Spain and Bayern, as well as numerous top English clubs. Injury kept him out of Germany’s World Cup winning squad but expect a resurgence in his performances and thus, the interest in him.
- Xabi Alonso – Couldn’t be forgotten after years of string-pulling for Spain and Liverpool then Real Madrid. Never seems to break sweat and yet effortlessly sets the rhythm like a metronome for club and country. Now 32, will still be crucial for Madrid despite the arrival of fellow playmaker Toni Kroos. Effortlessly stylish and composed on and off the pitch, he is the type of player we all wish England could produce one day. And no, Steven Gerrard is not the same.
- Aaron Ramsey – An outstanding 12 months for the Welshman left many Arsenal fans wondering what might have been. Drives from midfield with fantastic energy whilst also displaying composure and technique with his passing and playmaking. Added goals to his game this season, scoring 10 in just 23 appearances. Came back from injury in time to score the winner in the FA Cup final and end Arsenal’s 9 year trophy drought in extra-time. His absence coincided with Arsenal falling away from the title challenge they led for so long. A fit Ramsey could be Arsenal’s greatest signing next season.
10. Andrea Pirlo – Juventus and Italy – 35 – A player you can’t help but just enjoy to watch, (something many of his opponents have found over the years), even for the great Pirlo, 35 seems like the autumn of his career. In his latter years, Pirlo has refined and nuanced his game almost as well as his beard and arguably reached his peak at the age of about 33 or 34. Without any real physical attributes such as strength, height or tackling, it is remarkable that Pirlo can be deployed so successfully as a holding midfield player. What he lacks in physique he more than makes up for in technique however, boasting arguably the best passing range in the game, fantastic control and and a creativity and vision unrivalled by almost everyone else. As if that wasn’t enough, he is a set-piece specialist and can also bash in some long-rangers whilst also looking like he just got out of bed. Despite Italy’s disappointing World Cup, Pirlo still managed to again rip England apart with his passing and vision. Signed off from international duty at the end of the tournament on 112 caps, leaving him joint fourth on Italy’ all-time appearances list. A modern football icon, who any young playmakers should watch and marvel at.
9. Cesc Fabregaes – Chelsea and Spain – 27 – After 3 moderately successful seasons back home with Barca, Fabregaes has re-joined the Premier League roster with Chelsea and Jose Mourinho. The Special One himself said it took him just 20 minutes to convince Fabregaes to join Chelsea over Arsenal, who had first option on him; we will see if the choice will be vindicated. Versatile enough to play about 4 different positions, Fabregaes is best in the centre of midfield where he can not only pull the strings and orchestrate play but can also burst forward into the box to score goals. Was starting to regain form under Tata Martino but was once again in and out of the side in the run-in, facing competition from the likes of Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. The £30 million Chelsea paid for him may turn out to be a bargain due to his Premier League experience, creativity and goalscoring. Once quoted as saying something along the lines of if you ever see me in a Chelsea shirt you have permission to shoot me, I’m sure not too many Blues fans would care should he help them lift the title. Should blossom alongside a Matic or Mikel in Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation and may well turn out to be the signing of the summer if he can once again light up the Premier League.
8. Xavi – Barcelona and Spain – 34 – Perhaps one of the biggest and most difficult to answer questions in world football right now is: how are Spain and Barca going to cope without their talismanic centre-piece Xavi? Well, if Barca’s disappointing season and Spain’s dire defence of their World Cup crown are anything to go by, the answer is: not too well. A man who has pretty much defined and created a style and philosophy so succesful, it is now replicated worldwide and has won so many trophies its too difficult to count. Although there were the Messi’s and Iniesta’s that would win the games for the two great sides of the past 6 or 7 years there was always Xavi who make things happen and provide the chances needed for the superstars to work. It is often said that Messi wouldn’t be nearly as good without Xaviesta (as Xavi and Iniesta have become known collectively) but to be quite honest Barcelona and Spain wouldn’t be nearly as good without Xavi alone, as shown in the past year with Xavi’s advancing age making it difficult for him to have the same impact he always has. So difficult, yet so wonderfully simple. Of course, everyone knows Xavi is the best passer in the world, but there’s more to his game than that. He has great vision, expert control and can also shoot well when he needs to; Xavi is by no means a one trap pony. Undoubtedly the embodiment of a generation and one of the greatest midfielders of all time, Xavi is just starting to fade as his fitness and mobility falter, as shown at Barca recently. Ivan Rakitic looks destined to replace him but is the task too difficult? After all, the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregaes have both moved on having been labelled as ‘the new Xavi’. The question Barca and Spain are asking right now is: can anyone replace Xavi?
7. Luka Modrić – Real Madrid and Croatia – 28 – He took time to settle, but now Luka Modrić has become the player Real Madrid always hoped he would turn into when they signed him for £33 million from Tottenham back in 2012. Now as much a defensive midfielder as anything else under Carlo Ancelotti, he allows the so-called ‘Galacticos’ attackers to play and attack freely, meaning Ronaldo, Bale and co. can cause the optimum damage to opponents defences. He may be slight but he boasts a fine range of passing and a surprisingly good reading of the game meaning he has finally taken and held down a position (as anchorman in front of the back four, initiating attacks) in a stellar Madrid side. The 2 years previous to this breakthrough one were ravaged by Modric’s inability to settle, not helped by having his position changed every other week. As a result, Ancelotti has found a place for his Croatian mater-passer and Modrić has excelled, achieving the highest pass completion rate of any non-Barcelona player in La Liga last year and was crucial in their Champions Lague campaign playing in 11 of their 13 matches on the way to the title. As he reaches his peak, things can only improve for Modrić, despite the added competition that arrivals Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez, and he may wish to start by leading his country to the Euro’s after having a distinctly average World up as Croatia crashed out in the group stages. Having finally won over the Madrid fans, he will now be looking to win titles for them as midfield lynchpin.
6. Toni Kroos – Real Madrid and Germany – 24 – A former n0.10 who has developed into a deep-lying playmaker of the highest calibre, Toni Kroos was one of Germany’s best players as they stormed to victory in the World Cup. His performances in Brazil were enough to convince Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to part with £24 million to sign him for the European champions as part of what will form a devastating front 6 along with Modric, Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema and fellow new boy James Rodriguez. As part of that star-studded sextuplet, Kroos may yet become more defensive as he is required to cover for his more attacking team-mates but that wouldn’t appear to be a problem for the young German. Standing at 6 feet tall and possessing surprising strength and power, Kroos is no slight and slender Spanish midfielder. As well as his well-documented vision and passing ability, Kroos also possesses a vicious shot and great positional ability which will serve him well in the ‘regista’ defensive -midfield role he seems set to play at Real. As well as maturing tactically, he also has an eye for goal as his two goals in two minutes against Brazil suggested in the World Cup semi-final and you always know he’s in a game, constantly demanding the ball, making interceptions and getting chances through his late bursting runs. Surprising, perhaps, that Bayern did not tie up a new contract for him and decided to let him leave to such a big rival. He would have been the perfect player to end Manchester United’s midfield woes and, at only 24, looks set to boss the Madrid midfield for years to come, perhaps filling the role as creator-in-chief previously adopted by greats such as Zinedine Zidane, Xabi Alonso and the late Alfredo Di Stefano. If he continues his recent form, the name Toni Kroos will no longer look out of place in such company.
5. Arturo Vidal – Juventus and Chile – 27 – Nicknamed ‘Il Guerriero’ (the warrior) by Juventus fans, Arturo Vidal is the most complete player in the world, perhaps the only one where there are no weaknesses. Aggressive, energetic, tenacious, skillfull, powerful, graceful and composed are all words that can (and have) been used to describe the style of Vidal. Already a player who had played virtually every position on the pitch during his development (successfully, as well), Vidal arrived in Europe at Bayer Levurkusen as a 20 year old and soon became a vital player for them, making 117 appearances over four years, largely as a defensive-midfield anchor-man. He joined Juventus in 2011 and has since gone from strength to strength, with a sudden rise to stardom during the 2012/13 season after a fantastic year as a combative box-to-box style midfielder, a position he now excels in. Continually linked with a move away from Juventus (often to Man United or Real Madrid), his performances at the World Cup will have done nothing to put off any potential suitors as Vidal led his side out of a very tricky group to a penalty shoot-out against the hosts Brazil. With the shoot-out lost, and penalties inevitably being another one Vidal’s skills, had he not been taken off as a late substitute, Chile might just have won that shootout, then who knows. 1 of 3 fantastic Juve midfielders at the moment (all of whom appear on this list): one a wonderkid, Paul Pogba, one a legend, Andrea Pirlo, and one a warrior and the pick of the bunch, Arturo Vidal. If he continues as he is Arturo may just be the pick of the whole bunch and sit top of this list come next year.
4. Sergio Busquets – Barcelona and Spain – 26 – Busquets continues to become more and more vital for both club and country and is now undeniably the best out and out holding midfielder in the game. His anticipation, positioning, heading, tackling and distribution are all impeccable and his creativity has also improved over time so he now looks to start attacks himself rather than looking for Xavi, Iniesta or Pique to start them for him a he did in his younger years. He may not have won anything in 2014 but he was barely at fault for Spain’s collapse in Brazil and certainly wasn’t in any way for Barcelona’s dismal year; arguably their most crucial player along with Iniesta when Messi was out injured. The play-acting and diving appear to also be on the way out and Busquets is becoming stronger and more aggressive as he fills out his spindly frame. He often drops between the centre-backs as well now to find more space to dictate play. He is a rare hybrid between midfield destroyer and deep lying playmaker, almost a cross between Gilberto Silva and Andrea Pirlo and, although not the quickest, his reading of the game means he is first to almost every 50/50. The basis for any young defensive-midfielder and quickly becoming a Barca legend. The work he does may be less notable and flashy than that of Messi, Iniesta and co. but he is no less important and a player you will never see have a bad game.
3. Bastian Schweinsteiger – Bayern Munich and Germany – 29 – Continues to be the fulcrum and heartbeat of Germany and Bayern Munich and had a wonderful World Cup, claiming his first international trophy to add to his numerous club ones. He leads by example, with consistent faultless performances, combining pace-setting passes with boundless energy and determination in the middle of the park. A real old-school central midfielder, Schweinsteiger added a remarkable seventh Bundesliga and seventh German Cup to his list of honours as well as the World Cup in 2014. A player who can play in so many different roles it’s difficult to define his style, he also has adaptability to add to his long list of traits. He can set the tempo with his wide range of passing, break up attacks with great strength and tackling or take the attack to the opposition with powerful runs and blistering long shots. For Bayern and Germany he quite often seems to be doing all 3 at once. A player who has experienced the heartbreak of a major final defeat (Schweinsteiger missed the crucial penalty against Chelsea in the Champions League Final in 2012), it was a fantastic sight to see him comforting a dejected and distraught Lionel Messi after World Cup triumph, having played brilliantly himself in the game. A true German legend, he will surely take over from Phillip Lahm as captain with the latter retiring from international football. Could be set for a last hurrah in Russia 2018 at 33 where he may lead this young and talented German side to retaining their trophy. Another who lacks weaknesses and could easily have been even higher on this list.
2. Yaya Touré – Manchester City and Ivory Coast – 31 – In an age of petite, fleet-footed, agile and skilful playmakers a 6ft 4″ man-mountain Ivorian stands tall above most as one of the best midfielders in the world. The perfect box-to-box player, Touré can morph from a creative midfielder who marshals the back four, to a rampaging offensive player who bulldozes through whole teams to score fantastic goals, and there’s plenty of options in between as well. He arrived at City as a defensive-midfielder – imagine a slightly more technical John Obi-Mikel and you’re not far off – and is now a free-spirited box-to-box power weapon. His performances were once again key as City won their second Premier League title, with Brazilian arrival Fernandinho, giving him yet further licence to terrorise opposition defences with his graceful lung-bursting runs from deep, playing in Manuel Pelligrini’s very offensive and fluid 4-4-2 system . He also added a specialism for free-kicks and scored 24 goals in all competitions last season, an outstanding figure for a midfielder. Never afraid of speaking out, he also claimed he isn’t considered one of the best in the world just because he is African. Having finally appeared to have shaken off the knee and hamstring injuries that ravaged the early stages of his career, there is no greater sight in football than to see his long strides and powerful touches driving the ball forward on one of his long runs past challenge after challenge to be finished off with an exquisite piece of finishing, or blasted home from long-range. In any other year, he would have easily won the PFA Player of the Year but was outdone by Luis Suarez’s phenomenal season. Hasn’t yet truly shown his capabilities on the international stage and had a poor World Cup as Ivory Coast crashed out early. Nevertheless, for pure skill and watchability, there are very few better than Yaya Touré.
1. Andrés Iniesta – Barcelona and Spain – 30 – ‘A magician’ said Spain centre-back Sergio Ramos, and when it comes to Iniesta there seems little other explanation than the supernatural. His gliding running style, low centre of gravity and outrageous agility combined with one of the best football brains ever seen are enough for Iniesta to be labelled the best midfielder in the world. While Spain and Barca falter, there are no trips or mishaps by Iniesta, no mistakes, no excuses, just sheer brilliance. The man who scored the goal that won Spain the World Cup in 2010 seemed to have to try and win games single-handed in Brazil, with every good thing he did in attack woefully offset with an awful error in defence. Coming up for 20 years at Barca, he looks set to end his career at the club he always supported as a boy. Originally a defensive-midfielder, Iniesta has never lost that defensive discipline and work-ethic he developed playing that position in Barca’s La Masia youth academy, no matter how enthralling his attacking abilities are. He was described by Vicente Del Bosque as “the complete footballer. He can attack and defend, he creates and scores,”. Whilst never able to boast great physical attributes, what he lacks in strength he makes up for in balance and agility and you almost never seem get muscled off the ball. Furthermore, he has that rare talent and determination for spotting and producing a defence splitting pass in an instant, which can change a game. Slightly more offensive than his partner in crime, Xavi, he also has an eye for goal, scoring his 50th Barca goal this season. In addition, he is adaptable and versatile, capable of playing in numerous positions effectively. An artisitic and intriguing player who is the master of disguise, he often produces moments of magic with his feet, seeming to go one way, then instantly going another. Been at the very top for almost a decade and will certainly go down as one of the best midfielders ever. A really good spokesman for the sport as well, incredibly humble.