It is up to the players in the middle of the pitch to dictate the flow of the game, and the top central midfielders will pull all the strings and be the engine for the team. You cannot underestimate the importance of central midfielders, as they are key in stifling their opponents by breaking up their attack before they get into the final third, but they are also responsible for driving attacks forward and both setting up and scoring goals. Central midfielders must have excellent concentration, as for the full 90 minutes they need to be aware of what is happening around them in every direction and be ready to switch into defensive or attack mode at any given moment.
It has become common for many managers to abandon the role of box-to-box central midfielders, and instead opt for a defensive midfielder and an attacking midfielder. The defensive midfielder will drop back and act as a shield for the back-4, breaking up plays before they become dangerous and patrolling the area in front of the back-4. While they do this, the attacking midfielder will occupy a more advanced role and be responsible for providing support to the striker ahead of them. This style is not to every managers liking, and the central midfielder is still key to many teams systems and the top players will directly impact how the game is played.
Only the most intelligent, focused, creative, physically fit and skilled players can fill the role of the CM, and we have seen many legendary players occupy this position over the years. There is currently a crop of elite central midfielders playing in all the top leagues around the world, and it is worth taking a closer look at who these players are to see how they are so influential in games. Whether they are breaking up plays, using their vision and passing ability to unlock defences, igniting an attack through tearing through midfield or locking horns with their counterpoint, the central midfielder is the heart of the team and if they can boss this area of the pitch they will determine how the game is played out.
10 Xabi Alonso (Bayern Munich, Spain)
Everywhere Xabi Alonso goes he seems to win trophies, and this is certainly not a coincidence. He is a rock in the centre of midfield, and has proven this season that he is nowhere near finished at the age of 32. He has been superb at Bayern Munich since joining in the summer, making his presence felt straight away by picking up the Man of the Match award in the opening two games. He links defending and attack and will usually have the most touches and passes in a game, making him the focal point for a dominant Bayern team that you wouldn’t bet against lifting the Champions League trophy this year. It will not be the first time for the Spaniard, who lifted the trophy last year with Real Madrid and again with Liverpool in the 2004-05 season.
9 Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona, Spain)
Xavi may be nearing retirement and is in the process of being replaced by Ivan Rakitic, but it is impossible to talk about the worlds best central midfielders without including the Spaniard. He still possesses the ability to change a game in the blink of an eye, as he has incredible control and vision which will be missed once he retires. Iniesta is capable of providing this, but with the two of them commanding the centre of the pitch they provided the spark to all of Barcelona’s breathtaking attacking play over the years and Xavi brings a level of calmness whenever he is on the pitch.
In Xavi’s career he has proven himself to be a complete CM, with the ability to win the ball back and quickly move it forwards either with a clever pass to those ahead of him or through carrying the ball ahead himself. He is also a goalscoring threat and freekick specialist. An integral part to Barcelona’s success in recent times, Xavi has played a key role in seven league titles, three Champions League titles, two Spanish Cups for club, and for his country, as he has lifted the 2008 European Championship, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship.
8 Andrea Pirlo (Juventus, Italy)
Watching Andrea Pirlo play is like watching an artist at work, and he has been one of the best midfielders in the game for many years. Pirlo’s age (35) has done little to hold him back, as he can change the game with a sublime pass, stunning free kick or impeccably timed challenge. His deep lying playmaking ability and the way in which he controls the game has inspired a generation of players, and he will be sorely missed by the entire football world once he hangs up his cleats. He was awarded Best Player in Serie A for 2014, and this is largely for his integral role in helping Juventus to their 3rd straight title. No matter who your allegiance is with, everyone enjoys watching this artist firmly control games with his extraordinary vision and creativity.
7 Toni Kroos (Real Madrid, Germany)
At just 25 years old, Toni Kroos plays with the composure and assurance of a player 10 years his senior. He thrived at Bayern Munich and has shown his maturity by coming into an already hugely talented Real Madrid squad and playing at a very high level, and he seems to be still developing. Kroos is able to dominate midfield through his ability to tackle and make intelligent, accurate passes to advance the ball into dangerous positions. Kroos also had a sensational summer at the World Cup, getting the opportunity to showcase his talent and excel against all the best midfielders in the world. The future looks very bright for Kroos, who has proven that he can improve any team lucky enough to have him in their ranks.
6 Arturo Vidal (Juventus, Chile)
Arturo Vidal tooted his own horn by proclaiming to be the best central midfielder in the world last year, and although he does not top this list he is certainly up there. Vidal has developed to become an exceptional defender and attacker that also possess the all important character traits to command the centre of the pitch. He has earned his nickname “Il Guerriero” (The Warrior), which is fitting for his style of play.
The Chilean has endured a challenging period after undergoing surgery before the World Cup and his performances have been down, but he now appears to be coming back into form and recently scored a goal in stoppage time to clinch a win against Napoli. With a few impressive games back under his belt, “Il Guerriero” will be determined to show critics why he believes he is the best central midfielder on the planet.
5 Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea, Spain)
Cesc Fabregas has proven over the years that he is one of the greatest deep lying playmakers to play the game through his play at Arsenal, Barcelona and now Chelsea. He is an exceptional passer with terrific vision, allowing him to unlock defences in a second with a precise pass, but he is also a real goalscoring threat. He has ripped Premier League defences to shreds since his return and has played a huge factor in Chelsea’s dominance.
So far this season Fabregas has a staggering 14 assists to his name in 20 appearances, and he has controlled the tempo of the game from the middle of the park to perfection. His wizardry, composure and technical abilities make him a joy to watch.
4 Luka Modric (Real Madrid, Croatia)
Playing alongside the best in the world, Modric’s skill and importance to Real Madrid is often overlooked. Like he did with Spurs, Modric pulls all the strings and keeps things ticking over through his movement and passing ability, and he is also more than capable of helping out with defensive duties. Working as the engine for the team, it is Modric that determines the speed and flow of the game from the centre of midfield. A mini maestro, Modric’s main attribute is his intelligence, and he uses this to ignite attacks that will often begin with him before unselfishly finding the likes of Bale and Ronaldo ahead of him.
He now has a partner in crime in Toni Kroos, creating a formidable partnership in the middle of the park and the brains to Real Madrid’s play. Modric has been out since November with an injury, and although still winning, their performances have noticeably suffered as a result.
3 Yaya Toure (Manchester City, Ivory Coast)
Although he has not been as commanding this season, on his day Yaya Toure is completely unstoppable. His size, strength and speed give him all the physical attributes he needs, but he is also highly intelligent and an excellent passer with a thunderous shot. Often after breaking up a play you will see Toure storm through the centre of the pitch like a runaway freight train, casting aside any player that tries to dispossess him. A terrifying sight for any team, he can then pick the right pass or take it on himself with a thumping shot that no keeper can stop. Few players dominate the middle of the park like Yaya Toure; he is the driving force behind a star studded City team.
2 Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich, Germany)
For both club and country, Bastian Schweinsteiger commands the centre of midfield like few other players have done. Injury has limited his appearances after the World Cup, but when fully fit his tireless energy, leadership, hard nosed play and attacking ability make him one of the greatest box-to-box midfielders of his generation. This was evident during the World Cup this summer, where Schweinsteiger functioned as the “midfield motor” and led his team to victory. After the final against Argentina he was sporting a bloodied and bruised face, but he had emerged victorious and this perfectly summarises the type of player and character that Schweinsteiger is.
1 Andres Iniesta (Barcelona, Spain)
The epitome of class, Andres Iniesta has won it all and been an integral part of both Barcelona and Spain’s success in recent times. Barca fans affectionately call him “El Cerebro” (The Brain), which perfectly sums up the manner in which Iniesta plays the game. He possesses incredible vision for the game, and when he has this and fantastic dribbling and passing ability it makes him one of the most dangerous players in the world. He has excelled next to his partner in crime, Xavi Hernandez, who appears to be in decline but Iniesta certainly has a few years left in him.
The 30-year-old was recently included in the FIFA FIFPRO World XI for the 6th consecutive year, despite it not being a terrific year for Iniesta and Barcelona. With six La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey trophies, three Champions League titles and a World Cup and two UEFA European trophies for Spain, Iniesta’s greatness cannot be disputed.