The central midfield is the heart of the team. Creativity flows from it; safety depends on it. It’s the communications hub—the nerve centre. Quite often the smartest players in football make it their home. The central midfield is typically where buildup originates or, conversely, where defense collapses. And it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Some managers prefer to have a pair of midfielders between the defense and attack in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Others favour a duo in the core of a 4-4-2. Then there are the trios that operate in each of a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, and more recently in a 4-1-4-1. But whatever the set up is, the central midfield forms the bedrock of every team.
Central midfielders come in all shapes and sizes, which often makes it difficult to compare them with one another. We decided to make this selection based on three criteria which are:
1. Eye test
2. Statistical performance
3. Influence in their teams & their impact on team performances.
Here we go
10. Rodrigo De Paul (Udinese)
Udinese has largely been a one-man team for the past 2-3 years and that one man has been Rodrigo De Paul. After a stellar 18/19 season in which he dominated almost all statistical categories for the team and produced some of Serie A’s best numbers, and a Copa America tournament where he was a revelation for Argentina, RDP returned to deliver another season of excellence for the team.
Playing on the right side of central midfield where he has fully settled, he has averaged 68.6 touches per game, playing 36.8 passes per game at 81% success rate. He is the risky passer in midfield for a team who generally don’t know what to do with the ball and he has been able to produce 7 big chances regardless – Udinese are last in the league for big chances created – with RDP creating 21% of all their big chances this season. Defensively, he has helped with 2.1 tackles + interceptions while also doing some possession winning in the final third.
9. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio)
Lazio have put together a surprise title challenge this season and Sergej has been at the heart of it. Operating majorly on the right side of central midfield, he has averaged 68.4 touches per game, playing 37.4 passes per game at 78% success rate as well as 6 big chances created. The reason for his modest pass success rate is his tendency to play risky passes in the final third.
He has done a lot of work winning possession in the final third as well, while also helping Lazio defensively – 2.9 tackles + interceptions per game.
8. Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea)
Kovacic has always been highly rated for his great ability to keep the ball and he has shown this season that he is truly one of the best around. He has averaged 76.6 touches per game, playing 56.8 passes per game at a 90% success rate. Defensively, Kovacic has contributed 2.7 tackles + interceptions per 90. His 2.8 dribbles have come with an 86% success rate.
He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; short/medium passes per 90, progressive runs per 90, final third passes per 90, offensive duels per 90, etc.
7. Valentin Rongier (Marseille)
Rongier’s entrance into Marseille’s starting XI, after arriving late through the Joker transfer option, was the catalyst for Marseille’s rise to second place in Ligue 1.
A slight dip in late February is the only reason he isn’t higher up on this list. He has averaged 70.5 touches per game, playing 47.6 passes at 87% accuracy in a largely box-to-box role. Defensively, he has immense; 4.6 tackles + interceptions per 90. His ball retention has also been excellent, with him completing 1.2 dribbles per game at 88% success rate. None of Ligue 1’s top 50 volume dribblers have a better success rate with only Zaydou Youssouf having anywhere close to his success rate (also 88%).
Rongier’s incredible ball-winning ability – especially in the final third – has been immense for AVB’s side whose pressing strategy has been integral to their rise.
6. Ever Banega (Sevilla)
Sevilla have had a largely impressive year this season and Ever Banega has been an overwhelming influence in that. Banega has averaged 87.4 touches per game, playing 59.2 passes per game at 86% success rate, creating 8 big chances.
He has averaged 7.7 long balls per game (highest in La Liga) at an excellent 77% success rate. Defensively, Banega has also contributed 1.8 tackles + interceptions per game. He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; short/medium passes per 90, long balls per 90, long ball accuracy per 90, successful through balls per 90, progressive passes, etc.
5. Dani Parejo (Valencia)
Dani Parejo followed up an exceptional campaign last year with another stellar season this time around, despite a relatively slow start. He has averaged 84.2 touches per game, playing 55.6 passes per game at 86% success rate. He has averaged 6.5 long balls per game at an excellent 74% success rate. Defensively, Parejo has also contributed well for Valencia; 2.8 tackles + interceptions per game.
His influence for Valencia in all phases of play is one of the strongest in Europe. Basically, if Parejo is having a bad day at the office, Valencia cannot play. He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; progressive passes per 90, final third passes per 90, long balls per 90, long ball accuracy, second/third assists per 90, offensive duel success rate, etc.
4. Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)
Henderson has had a wonderful season and it should not come as a surprise that he has been touted as one of the frontrunners for the Premier League Player of the Season. Liverpool have completely dominated the league and Henderson’s immense contribution has been key.
Following Fabinho’s injury, he had to step into a defensive midfield role and Liverpool hardly conceded for almost three months. Overall, Henderson has averaged 74.4 touches per game, playing 52.7 passes per game at 84% success rate. He has contributed 3.4 tackles + interceptions per game while creating 8 big chances from midfield. Ashley Westwood is the only player in Henderson’s position that has created more in the league.
By his final league game of the season in February, no midfielder had won possession more times than Henderson in the attacking third all season, the second highest in the league behind only Roberto Firmino.
3. Thiago Alcantara (Bayern)
By far the best midfielder in Germany this season, Thiago Alcantara is finally getting the credit he deserves for his excellence. This season, he has been on fire alongside Kimmich in midfield for Bayern, showing extraordinary ball retention while being defensively solid (4.0 tackles + interceptions per game). He has averaged 91.6 touches per game, playing 69.5 passes per game at 91% success rate.
His 79% long ball accuracy while averaging 6.5 long balls per game is excellent. He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; long balls per 90, long ball accuracy per 90, short/medium passes per 90, pAdj interceptions, deep progression, etc.
2. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
Just when everyone thought Toni Kroos was in decline, he has stepped back into form emphatically this season. So far, he has averaged 81.6 touches per game with 62.7 passes at 94% completion. Real Madrid have played some delightful football and Kroos has been at the heart of it, helping to control the flow of the game while being influential in the attacking third.
His 87% long ball accuracy while averaging 7 long balls per game is absolutely bonkers. He has also created 7 big chances. He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; final third influence, long balls per 90, long ball accuracy per 90, short/medium passes p90, etc.
1. Marco Verratti (PSG)
Verratti has had a great season for PSG, one that this writer believes to be significantly better than any of his peers. Defensively, he has been solid; 3.7 tackles + interceptions per game is evidence. In possession, he has been excellent, orchestrating things for his club from controlling the flow of games to opening up the field offensively for his more attacking teammates.
He has averaged 99.4 touches per game in the league this season, with a 92% pass completion (79.1 passes per game). His long ball accuracy is also great (70%) at 3.2 per game. Add to this, he has also created 8 big chances this season in 20 league games. Verratti’s Champions League stats are also identical to his league numbers, from touches to passes to pass accuracy to tackles + interceptions. He is in the highest echelon of midfielders in multiple statistical categories; deep progression, pressure regains, passing, xGbuildup, pAdj tackles, final third influence, etc.
In fact, he has averaged more passes per game than every footballer in Europe’s top 5 leagues.