This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Disclaimer: when compiling and ranking this list, I was struck by the fact that our commonly-used linguistic terms for footballers and positions have been rendered obsolete by the rapid evolution of the modern game. What position does Andrea Pirlo play? “Defensive midfield”? What does that even mean?
“Defensive midfield” traditionally refers to first midfield band; the second overall when listing formations. But Pirlo, a player whose function is to recycle possession of the ball and launch attacks with probing passes, can hardly be defined primarily as defensive. He is a playmaker – an attacker – regardless of his location on the field of play.
Similarly, take Park Ji-Sung’s role in Manchester United’s Champions League games between 2007 and 2011, or Alexis Sánchez’s deployment at Barcelona. They have most certainly been played high up the pitch but was their primary role attacking? Obviously not. They were defenders, applying pressure to the ball wherever it went. Nonetheless, they will always be listed, at least positionally, as attackers.
After a great deal of thought, I decided to dispense with these linguistic and positional ambiguities and focus on listing the top ten midfielders who were undeniably defensive. Therefore, there are no deep-lying playmakers – no Andrea Pirlo, no Xabi Alonso, no Bastian Schweinsteiger – and no dynamic box-to-box runners like Sami Khedira, Ramires, and Arturo Vidal. They are outstanding players but they do not belong here.
So, the top ten defensive midfielders are:
10. Nigel de Jong [Milan and the Netherlands]
Most famous as the man who nearly killed Xabi Alonso in a World Cup Final, De Jong’s career will go down in history as the one that perhaps best illustrates the death of the old-style midfield anchor. Widely praised as a mature and versatile youth-teamer at Ajax, De Jong was seen as a jobbing jack-of-all-trades rather than the next Claude Makélélé.
A transitional stint under Huub Stevens in Hamburg saw him converted to an anchorman to incredible effect, leading to concrete interest from most of Europe’s elite sides. De Jong eventually signed for Manchester City, where after three-and-a-half years and two major trophies, Roberto Mancini decided that, despite his obvious excellence in his role, midfielders with little to no attacking ability were passé and ultimately a burden on their side.
Sold to Milan for a cut-price £3.5m in August 2012, De Jong faces a battle to prove that anchors of his type still have a place at the top of the game.
9. Sandro [Tottenham Hotspur and Brazil]
Sandro’s time in North London has seen his reputation rise not only as an excellent footballer but as a great guy to have in the dressing room to boot. Aside from giving martial arts demonstrations on YouTube and showing off his considerable aptitude with an acoustic guitar on Instagram, the former Internacional man has impressed spectators with the kind of all-action displays that are now expected as standard from members of the first midfield band.
Not the most positionally-inclined of midfielders on his arrival in England, the Brazilian was memorably admonished by then-manager Harry Redknapp after abandoning his defensive berth to smash home a thirty-yard howitzer during a six-pointer at Stamford Bridge. Nevertheless, he has curbed his tendency to charge forward and the sheer amount of his defensive activity sees him influence every match in which he plays.
Only Morgan Schneiderlin made more tackles and interceptions per game than Sandro in last season’s Premier League but Southampton’s lynchpin could not match his on-ball quality and simple physical dominance. The knee injury sustained by Sandro in January 2013 was arguably the turning point in last season’s race for fourth.
8. Blaise Matuidi [Paris Saint-Germain and France]
While most of Europe’s top managers seem to share Mancini’s view that the tenacious tackler with limited technical qualities is a relic of the recent past, holding midfielders are still highly prized in France, where most teams play with two as a standard. None in Ligue 1 are better than Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi, whose relentless dominance of the central third was a key factor in his club’s title win last season.
No Ligue 1 midfielder made as many interceptions as Matuidi in 2012-13, only two made more tackles and only four completed more passes. His remarkable campaign was the continuation of what has been a remarkably consistent career. His development at Saint-Étienne was closely monitored by the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Juventus before the influx of Qatari oil money enticed him to the French capital.
Now entering his prime, Matuidi will figure prominently in PSG’s much-anticipated assault on the Champions League over the coming years. How the likes of Arsenal could have done without the Qatar Investment Authority’s intervention.
7. Gökhan İnler & Valon Behrami [Napoli and Switzerland]
It is obviously unfair to have a list purporting to rank the top ten individuals at a given job and then name two players together, but for anyone who has seen İnler and Behrami together last year it is impossible to name one without also mentioning the other. Only the all-conquering Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta can hold a candle to the Naples-based Swiss duo when it comes to telepathic midfield relationships.
The two are somewhat fortunate in that they have been coached by three of football’s most excellent tacticians in Ottmar Hitzfeld, Walter Mazzarri and Rafa Benítez, but their instinctive understanding and insistent supremacy is something to behold regardless.
As Borussia Dortmund found in their opening Champions League group stage match, İnler and Behrami present an unbreakable challenge even when theoretically outgunned. While they could not match their opponents’ level of dynamism and technical quality, they sensibly made a number of tactical fouls and stopped last season’s beaten finalists from establishing any kind of attacking rhythm. If Napoli are to match Juventus in this season’s Serie A title race, the İnler/Behrami axis will be key to their success.
6. Michael Carrick [Manchester United and England]
It has taken a long time for the majority of English fans to catch up with the rest of the world’s view of defensive midfielders – and particularly of those whose main attributes are positional sense and simple, calm distribution. Indeed, we only have to go back a year to find most Manchester United fans demanding that a more imposing figure than Michael Carrick be purchased to dominate the central third.
Now, Carrick is one of the main men at Old Trafford: his awareness, composure and passing provided the platform for a comfortable Premier League victory in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge. He is United’s reigning Players’ Player of the Year and was a unanimous selection in the PFA’s 2012-13 Team of the Year.
English football was stunned when Ferguson paid Tottenham £18.6m for a midfielder who did not score goals, get high numbers of assists or make lung-busting surges through the middle of the park, but with Carrick decisive in five title wins over the next seven years – as well as a starter in three Champions League finals – we can see that the Scot was, as ever, one step ahead of the game.
5. Lars Bender [Bayer Leverkusen and Germany]
Lars Bender is a high-achieving graduate of the new European school of defensive midfielders. For Bender, relentless pressing for the entire match is the standard and tackles and interceptions high up the pitch are cold, hard currency. Even in a recent cameo appearance versus Manchester United, for example, Bender made more tackles in half an hour than any other player did during the entire match.
More talented than his twin brother – Sven, of Borussia Dortmund – Bender has settled into the German national team with such ease that many observers are struggling to see how Sami Khedira, a more rounded and experienced player but a cumbersome technician, will get back into the side. Typically, Jogi Löw has encouraged Bender to focus on box-to-box play with the national team, but he is capable of playing a more considered game when asked.
Arsenal’s interest in Bender is well-known and the Gunners had a bid of £19m rebuffed by both club and player in July this year. Many observers expect the player to be more open to moving after the 2014 World Cup. If Arsène Wenger can convince him to join the growing German contingent at the Emirates, then the Gunners will fancy their chances of challenging hard for the title in 2014-15.
4. Javier Mascherano [Barcelona and Argentina]
Another high-class performer who nearly fell by the wayside in Europe due to a perceived lack of technical ability, Mascherano found himself converted to a centre-back under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. For his country, however, he remains an integral part of the setup in his natural position, anchoring the midfield.
It seems unthinkable now that Mascherano was regularly left out of West Ham United’s starting eleven in favour of Hayden Mullins. Admittedly, Alan Pardew’s reasons for such selections were totally unrelated to footballing ability, with the language barrier and match fitness proving immovable obstacles when the Argentine arrived in East London.
Mascherano’s potential had been proven by numerous stellar performances for River Plate, Corinthians and Argentina, and it was at Liverpool that he began to prove himself to be among the best around at that time. He has won the silverware his ability merits in Catalonia, but it has not always been easy for him there. He can consider himself extremely unfortunate to have moved to one of the only clubs in the world with a better player in his position – on whom there will be more shortly.
3. Daniele De Rossi [Roma and Italy]
One of the most talented members of Italy’s current generation of players, De Rossi is, along with Francesco Totti, ‘Signor Roma’. Regrettably best known to British audiences as a permanent fixture of the rumour mill, he has been linked with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and even Tottenham Hotspur over the last few years. At no point, however, has leaving his hometown genuinely appealed to De Rossi, now in his thirteenth season in Rome.
He is the type of player England simply does not produce – the type that we naively hoped Steven Gerrard would become during the early years. Perfectly coached from a young age, De Rossi is technically flawless and effortlessly understands the demands of whichever system he is deployed in. Over the years he has featured as an anchorman, as a playmaker, in a box-to-box role and even at centre-back, and he has never looked out of place.
The only thing missing from De Rossi’s CV is a Serie A title win with Roma. It would be a great shame if he retired without righting that wrong.
2. Javi Martínez [Bayern Munich and Spain]
The final piece of the jigsaw at Jupp Heynckes’ unstoppable Bayern Munich machine, the signing of Martínez from Athletic Bilbao proved the decisive factor not just in last season’s Bundesliga title race but in the Champions League as well. While Barcelona baulked at paying the Basque’s €35m release clause, the Bavarians were more than happy to activate it and by doing so they effectively bought three trophies at once.
Martínez added steel and purpose to Bayern’s already dominating midfield and his partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger almost immediately ranked among the most complete in footballing history. For many, watching the two overpower Barcelona’s exhausted and comparatively flimsy midfield marked the end of the Catalans’ era.
Understandably, there has been a growing clamour for Martínez’ achievements to be recognised with a starting role in the Spanish national team. For any other country, he would be a certain pick and one of their best players, period. Then again, no other nation currently has the best defensive midfielder of all-time to call on.
1. Sergio Busquets [Barcelona and Spain]
Sergio Busquets is the best at his job by such a huge distance that it seems cruel to compare the other players on this list to him. Positionally perfect, peerless in terms of tactical understanding and in possession of a first touch that would make Dimitar Berbatov green with envy, Barcelona’s pivote is quite simply the perfect defensive midfielder.
The first time Lionel Messi saw Busquets in training, the Argentine immediately walked over to Pep Guardiola and asked if the two could be paired on the same team in the session’s eventual small-sided game. César Luis Menotti, manager of Argentina’s World Cup-winning side of 1978, was so impressed when he saw Busquets play that he simply had to phone a friend and tell him what he had just witnessed.
Perhaps most persuasively of all, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has gone on record as saying that if he could be reincarnated as any player, he would choose Busquets. Guardiola later agreed.
Despite these high-profile endorsements, Busquets remains unappreciated in many quarters. He suffers at the hands of English fans in particular for his play-acting in the 2010 Champions League semi-final, which infamously resulted in a red card for Internazionale’s Thiago Motta.
Since that evening, Busquets has won two La Liga titles, his second Champions League, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship. After the latter, he was named in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament. That these achievements remain overshadowed by one televised instance of cheating is absurd.
It says everything that before his twenty-fourth birthday, Busquets had won everything there was to win in football while seeing off the challenges of Yaya Touré and Javier Mascherano for his starting berth. Barça have such confidence in his ability, not only to continue at the base of midfield but to one day replace Xavi further forward, that they were happy to allow Thiago Alcântara to leave Camp Nou.
Indeed, the scariest thing about Sergio Busquets is that he is one of the greatest players of all-time and still only twenty-five years of age. His very best could be yet to come.