Midfielders pride themselves on being the heartbeat of a team. They occupy the central areas of the pitch, typically dominate possession, and also tend to cover more distance during a match than players in any other position. The best midfielders of all time are capable of dictating the tempo of a match and generally bossing things all over the park. In this article, we'll be providing you with a list of players who are particularly effective when it comes to this side of the beautiful game.
First, we'll explain what the role of a midfielder in soccer is, and we'll take you through some of the main skills these players are expected to have. Then, we'll list the 11 best midfielders of all time, scouring the globe for some of the stars who have inspired fans while playing in this unique position.
The first thing to note is that the midfielder role can vary a lot; there are a number of more specific positions that come under the broader umbrella of 'midfielder'. For example, wide midfielders, or wingers, will often be given very different tasks to those operating in more central positions. In this article, it's the latter that we will be focusing on more, although the freedom given to many creative midfielders means you will regularly see them drift wide or occupy spaces that would typically be filled by more advanced players.
Put simply, a midfielder is the central element of a team, part of the unit that connects defence with attack. Midfielders will pick the ball up from defenders, build possession, launch attacks and support forwards in threatening areas. They will also pick up defensive tasks like zonal or man marking, tackling, intercepting, and breaking up play.
Different midfielders will focus more on different tasks; a Central Defensive Midfielder (CDM) will cover the space in front of the back line, offering defensive protection and breaking up opposition attacks before building possession and giving the ball to more attack-minded players. A Box to Box Midfielder will be more dynamic, moving constantly from one end of the pitch to the other to contribute with goals, assists, and defensive contributions, while attacking midfielders will centre their games around creativity. Regardless of which bracket a particular midfielder falls into, there are some skills that are essential.
Passing is the bread and butter of the midfielder position, whether you're a CDM or an attacking midfielder. Not only should you be able to do all the basics, consistently completing simple passes to help your team keep possession, but you also need to have a wider range of passes in your locker as a midfielder. This includes long-range switches to the wings, pacey driven through-balls to a forward, or curled crossfield passes in transition.
Whether it's weaving your way out of a tightly packed area in your own defensive third or sparking a mazy run through a sequence of opposition defenders, dribbling is a key aspect of the midfielder role which can be employed in various different parts of the pitch. Keeping a low centre of gravity, tight control of the ball, and using your body as a shield against other players are all central to this.
Technical ball skills are hugely important to any midfielder, because they operate in the most tightly-packed areas of the pitch and need to be able to receive, control and play the ball under intense pressure from opposition players.
This is more of a focus for defensive-minded players, but even further up the pitch, it's important that more creative midfielders know how to make a successful tackle (if only to stop them launching into dangerous fouls by accident). Tackling and intercepting doesn't just halt opposition attacks, it also offers a platform on which to launch your own offensive moves.
Midfielders are relied upon as the key creative force on the field, their ball skills, passing range and creative vision making them the most pivotal players when it comes to unlocking an opposition defence. Being able to spot that killer pass or clever run from a teammate is crucial in midfield.
Some of the players in this list of talented individuals may have been deployed in slightly different areas and positions by different coaches, but fundamentally they've tended to be at their best in the centre of the park, in the midfield role.
Despite also playing as a centre-forward during his career with Manchester United and England, the late Sir Bobby Charlton was in his prime when occupying in a creative role, and it was here where he played an instrumental part in England's legendary 1966 World Cup win. His shooting was ferocious with both feet, his dribbling was sublime, and his quiet leadership made him an icon of the English game.
The Regista role is famous within Italian football, referring to a deep-lying central playmaker who is the creative spark of their team. Andrea Pirlo is perhaps the most perfect regista of all time. The Italian's intelligence and eye for a pass was second to none, his ability to dictate a team's play making him a key player for Milan, Juventus and Italy over years of dazzling success during the 2000s and 2010s.
An attacking midfielder who you would very rarely see chipping in defensively, Zinedine Zidane floated gracefully between wide areas and dangerous central positions, demonstrating his marvelous first touch, his dizzying ball skills, his long-range passing and shooting ability in Ligue 1, La Liga, and Serie A, racking up hundreds of goals and assists for legendary European clubs like Real Madrid and winning a Ballon d'Or and a World Cup in 1998.
Seen by most football fans across the world as one of the best players of all time, Brazil's Rivellino played alongside the likes of Pele and Carlos Alberto in the famous Brazil team that won the 1970 FIFA World Cup. A mustachioed son of Italian immigrants with a rocket shot, an eye for a devastating pass, and a penchant for extravagant ball skills — he reputedly coined the flip-flap skill — Rivellino was a super exciting player to watch, someone with the attacking talent to get fans on their feet in a split second.
Widely regarded as one of Germany's best-ever midfielders, Lothar Matthäus was awarded the Ballon d'Or after captaining his country to a famous 1990 World Cup win in Italy, and he was a mainstay within the West Germany team for a decade either side of that triumph, racking up a staggering 150 international appearances as well as almost 800 at club level. Matthäus was a tactically intelligent player, a great passer of the ball, strong and disciplined out of possession, and most importantly, a true leader.
Spain's global dominance during the late 2000s and early 2010s was down largely to their brilliance in midfield. Racking up huge possession percentages with their 'tiki-taka' style of football that revolved around constant rotation of the ball and short, sharp passing, Vicente Del Bosque's team helped revolutionise the international game. At the core of their success — winning the 2008 European Championship, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2012 Euros — was Xavi, the little playmaker with the wonderful first touch, supreme creative vision and excellent passing ability.
He may have marred his reputation somewhat during his controversial stint in football administration as UEFA President, but back in the day Michel Platini was an absolutely iconic attacking midfielder, a creative superstar who famously won the Ballon d'Or three years in a row in 1983, 1984 and 1985. The French international scored a huge amount of goals for a midfielder, due largely to his being a free kick and penalty specialist. Platini was also an excellent passer of the ball, and this array of skills led to great success; as well as his individual accolades, he also won the 1984 European Championship with France, the European Cup and two Serie A titles with Juventus, and various other domestic cup competitions.
Vieira is a Premier League legend who played a crucial part in Arsenal's famous 2003/04 Invincibles season, in which the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell helped Arsene Wenger's side go a whole season unbeaten. At the heart of the team was the French international Patrick Vieira, who coupled strength, height, physicality and aggression with incredible grace and elegance, gliding across the pitch and dribbling past opponents with ease, his technical ability shining through in every team he played in.
Alongside Xavi in midfield was another legend of the Spanish game, Andres Iniesta. The Barca icon, who at the age of 39 is still playing for Emirates Club in the UAE, notched up 674 games for the Spanish giants, winning nine La Ligas, four Champions Leagues, and six Copa Del Reys. His dribbling skills, clever movement, passing and finishing all raised him to elite status within the European game, and he's got the medals and trophies to prove it.
A folkloric figure within the English game, Stanley Matthews played as a wide midfielder for Stoke City and Blackpool during their 1930s, 40s, and 50s pomps, showing a remarkable staying power to rack up hundreds of appearances and win countless awards including the Ballon d'Or, the old First Division, and the FA Cup (during a time when the tournament was the most prestigious prize in the land). He is widely regarded as one of the greatest midfielders of all time, and remains the only player to have been knighted while still playing the professional game.
The star man of the 1982 Brazil team widely renowned as the greatest team never to win a world cup, Zico was noted by legendary Liverpool and Scotland midfielder, Graeme Souness, as one of few players he could "never lay a finger on"; high praise from a man with 3 European Cups. Zico spent the vast majority of his career with his boyhood club Flamengo, with short spells in Italy and Japan. All in all, he averaged more than a goal every other game, with 48 goals in 78 caps for Brazil, and 192 goals in 33 games across his club career.