The Best Defensive Midfielders of All Time

Gennaro Gattuso battles Claude Makélélé in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
Gennaro Gattuso battles Claude Makélélé in a Euro 2008 qualifier. | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Often when an aspiring young footballer displays a talent for a specific facet of the game, the position they will play in can be chosen accordingly.

Those who demonstrate the ability to spot a pass before perfectly executing it tend to become central midfielders. Those who possess a skill for reading the game and timing a tackle become defenders. The very few footballers who show they have the capacity to provide all of the aforementioned qualities become defensive midfielders.

Not only do the attributes needed to play the role make it one of the toughest positions on the pitch; there’s a mentality required to become a top defensive midfielder. You’re not going to score many goals, you’re seldom going to get to make heroic, last ditch challenges and you’ll only truly be appreciated when you’re not playing. Tough gig, eh?

These unheralded stars often become the foundations upon which their team is built upon, making them one of the most integral parts of a side. The footballing world has been blessed with some truly exceptional midfield anchors over the years, and here’s 90min’s rundown of the greatest of them all.

Claude MakeleleClaude Makelele
Makélélé became a cult hero at Chelsea for his defensive stability | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

A handful of players are lucky enough to retire from the game with their name forever associated with a piece of skill; even fewer depart having had an actual position on the pitch named after them.

‘The Makélélé role’.

The holding midfield position will forever be synonymous with arguably the greatest executor of the role. The Frenchman honed his craft at Spanish giants Real Madrid before arriving in the Premier League with Chelsea in 2003.

His ability to sense danger before it had even manifested, while knitting passes together and launching attacks became an instrumental part of the club’s maiden Premier League winning side of 2004/05. While the Abramovich era has seen a plethora of stars arrive at the Bridge since, Makélélé remains arguably their greatest purchase.

Dunga of BrazilDunga of Brazil
Dunga lead his Brazil side to World Cup glory in 1994 | Ben Radford/Getty Images

The lynchpin of the victorious Brazil side at the 1994 World Cup. Dunga’s tenacious, physical and robust style of play wasn’t necessarily befitting of a Brazil side that prides itself on slick and intricate football, but his martialling of the team and ability to organise those around him allowed the side’s flair players to express themselves.

Despite making a name for himself as a tough-tackling midfielder, Dunga was far from just a ‘stopper’. His ability to spray the ball around the field with the outside of his boot became a feature of his play, regularly unlocking defences with intricate balls from a deep-lying position.

Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca ZambrottaGennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta
Gattuso’s tough tackling became a feature of the Milan side | Giuseppe Cacace/Getty Images

Nicknamed ‘Rino’ for his fiery temperament (short for ‘Ringhio’ meaning growl or snort), Gattuso became renowned for his no-nonsense approach to midfield play.

The Italy international was a key part of the AC Milan side that dominated Serie A in 2003/04, finishing 11 points clear of their nearest challengers as they secured their first title since 1999.

In 2006 his partnership with Andrea Pirlo at the heart of the Italy midfield propelled the Italians to World Cup glory, with Gattuso winning more challenges than any other player at the tournament. The pairing with Pirlo meant the Milan man could concentrate on breaking up play and make simple passes when he won possession, something no other player on the planet could do better.

The ever-recognisable Edgar Davids at Juventus | MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

Davids represented a whole host of European giants over his 23-year career as well as earning 74 caps for the Netherlands.

Nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’, Davids forged an illustrious career as the ball-winner in sides littered with superstars. Raised in the famous Ajax academy, his tenacious play means he’s not an archetypal graduate of the Dutch side’s youth setup, though his ability on the ball is a constant nod to his education.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Gilberto SilvaCristiano Ronaldo, Gilberto Silva
Gilberto dispossesses Cristiano Ronaldo | Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

While the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira are rightly lauded for their part in the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04, one man who is regularly overlooked is Gilberto Silva.

Full of pace and power, Arsenal’s Premier League winners were renowned for their continuous waves of attack. Often this would leave the Gunners exposed defensively, meaning teams would attempt to soak up the pressure before springing attacks.

Gilberto was the safety net of the team, with his rangy frame making him a nightmare for the opposition to get past. The Brazilian rarely looked fazed under pressure, manoeuvring himself into space before offloading to the nearest teammate. A colossus of a midfielder who the Gunners are yet to replace.

Jean TiganaJean Tigana
Jean Tigana in action for France | STAFF/Getty Images

Far from your stereotypical brute of a defensive midfielder, Tigana’s nimble frame perhaps lured opponents into a false sense of security; the truth is he was one of the most combative and tireless midfielders you are ever likely to see.

Tigana’s work ethic and ability to dominate the centre of the pitch saw him become a popular member of the France team of the early 80s. His defensive maturity allowed for the likes of Michel Platini to roam free as France were crowned 1984 European Champions – their first ever major competition triumph.

Graeme SounessGraeme Souness
Liverpool’s midfield hard man Graeme Souness | Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Better known these days for talking about football rather than playing it, Souness took the term ‘tough-tackling’ to a whole new level.

The Scotsman tasted league success in five of his six seasons at Liverpool, with his bone-crunching challenges becoming a feature of his play. Despite his ‘whole-hearted’ approach to midfield play, the former Middlesbrough man certainly knew how to play. 92 league goals in an illustrious career tell you he knew where the net was, with many of those strikes coming from distance.

French player Didier Deschamps, holdingFrench player Didier Deschamps, holding
Deschamps salutes the home crowd following France’s 19998 World Cup win | PIERRE VERDY/Getty Images

Nicknamed ‘the water carrier’ by former France teammate Eric Cantona, Deschamps may not quite have possessed the same level of technical ability as some of his peers, though he was certainly a fine player. He captained his nation to World Cup and European Championship glory in 1998 and 2000 respectively.

Deschamps’ ability to organise a side has seen him turn his hand to management, and in 2018 he became just the third man to boast a World Cup win as both a player and manager – as France were crowned world champions in their home tournament.

N'Golo KanteN'Golo Kante
The tireless N’Golo Kanté in action for Chelsea | Visionhaus/Getty Images

Chelsea boss Frank Lampard appears adamant to prove Kanté can offer something to the side offensively as well as defensively, but the Frenchman is undoubtably at his best when shielding the backline.

Despite playing in the French lower leagues for much of his early career, the World Cup winner shot to fame in 2015/16 as a key component of the Leicester side which shocked the world in being crowned Premier League champions.

His selfless attitude and ability to move around the pitch have seen him become one of the most sought-after defensive midfielders on the planet.

Marco Tardelli, Paul BreitnerMarco Tardelli, Paul Breitner
Tardelli steams into a challenge at the 1982 World Cup | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Regarded as one of Italy’s greatest ever midfielders, Tardelli was the cornerstone of Juventus’ successful side of the late 70s and early 80s, winning five Scudettos during his time in Turin.

A well-rounded player who could adapt to play in a number of positions, Tardelli made his name as a technically gifted ball-winning midfielder. His ability to disrupt the play and launch attacks became a feature of the Italy side that was crowned world champions for the third time in 1982.


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