In football, matches are won and lost in midfield. The battles and conflicts that take place between central midfielders make up some of the defining moments in any game, as the two teams tussle for possession of the ball, and action switches repeatedly between one end of the pitch and the other.
Taking charge during these key moments is the defensive midfielder: combative, dominant, and forming the linchpin of their side's core unit in the middle of the soccer field. Their skillsets can vary, but one thing you can depend upon is that without a good defensive midfielder, it's very difficult for a team to win anything.
In this article, we'll be explaining what it is that the defensive midfielder does, before going through a list of all the best defensive midfielders of all time. From La Liga to Serie A and the Premier League, fans of all of the world's best leagues have seen some fantastic players occupy this position.
In soccer, the role of the defensive midfielder is all about protection: they sit in front of the back line, protecting the defenders behind them and screening the deep midfield area of the pitch. Doing this job involves making tackles and interceptions, tracking runs, jockeying and blocking shots from opposition players, and building possession from the back once the ball has been turned over.
However, defensive midfielders also have some responsibilities going forward. These will vary from team to team, with different players being given different responsibilities by their managers. However, offensive duties for a defensive midfielder (also called a holding midfielder or CDM) typically revolve around starting attacks with short passes, killer through-balls, or long cross-field passes, driving forward via dribbles or off-the-ball runs to receive passes in more advanced positions, and contributing toward attacking set-pieces.
A wide variety of skills are needed for a player to be able to competently play in the central defensive midfielder role. Below you'll find a few key examples.
Being in the right place at the right time is absolutely essential for defensive midfielders; if they don't fulfil this basic duty, players in this position will leave gaps that opposition attackers are able to exploit, and they will also leave teammates unsure where they are and whether they're able to receive passes in key moments. Staying disciplined and focused in regard to your positioning is a big part of the CDM's game, plugging the space between defence and midfield, marking zonally and man-to-man when needed, and being ready to intercept passes.
Physicality is important for defensive midfielders, as they will regularly be up against tough players, and even if they're not the tallest or most physically imposing player, they need to be able to hold their own. Outmuscling attacking midfielders to win possession, shielding the ball before making a pass, and competing to win headers in a busy penalty area when defending corners or set pieces are all essential within this role.
All defensive midfielders need to be able to jockey and mark players, make solid standing tackles (and slide tackles when necessary), and intercept through-balls and passes in midfield and defensive areas. These basic skills are the bread and butter of any player screening a back four or looking to stifle creativity amongst the opposition.
Once they've disrupted the play and won the ball for their team, defensive midfield players must be able to distribute it properly. Whether it's a quick one-two before driving up the pitch, a well-timed lay-off to a teammate, or a long pass across field to kick off a counter-attack, various different types of pass can be used by defensive midfielders to help their team in transition.
Some CDMs will sit very deep and constantly screen their defence while others will be more dynamic, with greater license to roam forward. Either way, stamina is a must in this position; central midfielders run more than players in any other position (often over 10km in a single match), so being super fit and capable of playing with intensity and commitment for 90 minutes every week is extremely important.
Here, you'll find a list of the most impressive defensive midfielders to have ever graced a soccer field.
French international Claude Makelele was the central defensive pin in Chelsea's midfield during Jose Mourinho's impressive first spell in west London during the mid-noughties. Highly regarded for his aggression, tackling and intercepting skills, reading of the game, and positional intelligence, Makelele racked up over 200 appearances for the Blues before moving onto PSG in 2008.
Another France and Chelsea man who went even further than Makelele to win the World Cup with his country (in 2018), N'golo Kante was a revelation in English football, developing a reputation over several years in the top flight as a player who could be counted on for crazy running stats and dynamic, skilled box-to-box midfield play. At his core though, Kante is a defensive-minded player, whose clean, intelligent, yet strong and powerful play at the base of midfield has allowed him to win multiple Premier League titles.
Many people view Lothar Matthäus as Germany's best-ever midfielder, and it's difficult to disagree with that sentiment. The holding midfielder, known for his excellent passing, positional discipline, leadership skills and tactical prowess, won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany and was awarded the Ballon d'Or in the same year. An ever-present for club and country, he managed to notch a remarkable 150 international appearances, and almost 800 at club level for clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach and Internazionale.
Brazil legend Dunga is one of only two men to have played in a World Cup final, an Olympic final, a Confederations Cup final and a continental championship final (the other being current Barca boss Xavi). And the strong, combative, but technically excellent CDM (who was known by many for his ability to make a firm tackle and lay off an inch-perfect pass almost in one move) didn't just reach finals, he went all the way. As captain, he led his national team to glory at the 1994 World Cup, making 91 international appearances in total before going on to coach the team, and winning the 2007 Copa America.
At the base of the midfield for three historic clubs — Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich — Xabi Alonso had a huge impact on the European game throughout the 2000s and 2010s. A versatile player with multiple strengths including fantastic passing, tactical intelligence, and physicality, he was able to provide the foundations for more attacking players like Steven Gerrard, Luka Modric, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to shine, whilst collecting countless trophies including two Champions League triumphs.
Sergio Busquets — now a key part of David Beckham's Inter Miami project, spearheaded by fellow Barca legend Lionel Messi — is one of the most iconic defensive midfielders of the modern era. He's an extremely elegant player, tall and unassuming, with a wonderful first touch, outstanding passing skills and forward vision, and an ability to read the game that very few players can match. As the pivot in Barcelona's midfield for 15 years, he worked with midfielders like Xavi and Andres Iniesta to develop a dazzling style of possession football, winning nine La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, 7 Copa Del Reys and a World Cup and a European Championship with Spain to boot.
A far more combative defensive midfielder known across the world for his strength and stamina, firm tackling, tactical awareness, and ability going forwards (with 21 goals, he's Italy's highest-scoring midfielder in the post-WWII era), Daniele De Rossi is seen by many as being the complete defensive midfielder. A one club man who gained legendary status in Torino by racking up over 600 appearances and 63 goals for Roma between 2001 and 2019 (winning two Coppa Italias and one Supercoppa Italia), he is an Italy legend who played a key role in his country's 2006 FIFA World Cup win.
The Netherlands have produced some marvellous technical footballers over the years, including Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten, and defensive midfielder Frank Rijkaard is widely considered to be up there with the best of them. Blessed with height and strength as well as technical proficiency and great passing ability, the Dutchman played for Ajax, Real Zaragoza and AC Milan, collecting tons of medals including five Eridivise titles, two European Cups and two Serie A titles with AC Milan, and the 1988 European Championship with his country.
Grizzled, hardy central midfielder Roy Keane is one of the most legendary defensive midfielders the Premier League has ever seen. The former Ireland international won a staggering seven Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, and a Champions League during his 12-year spell at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Combative and aggressive, with great tackling and a real mean streak, as well as bags of technical ability and an ability to get up the pitch and be offensive, he's someone you'd want on your side in a battle — there aren't many defensive midfielders of Keane's pedigree around.
If you'd like to find out more about the Central Defensive Midfielder (CDM) role in soccer, check out our guide to the position here.