Defensive midfield is one of the most underrated and undervalued positions in modern football.
These pivots are so often crucial to the success of their teams but can so often be overlooked for individual recognition, or in Manchester United’s case just overlooked entirely from the squad.
So we’ve looked over the 2021/22 Premier League season and, taking into account the players enduring class in the years prior as well as their performances this season, come up with a list of the 10 best defensive midfielders in the Premier League.
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10. Douglas Luiz (Aston Villa)
Aston Villa have endured a weird season full of ups and downs, but one of the most consistent factors has been the defensive midfield play of Douglas Luiz. The Brazilian has anchored the Villa midfield with aplomb and alongside John McGinn thrown in more tackles than you can shake a stick at. Douglas Luiz’s 57 tackles and 33 interceptions are hallmarks of an impressive season for the Aston Villa’s anchorman.
9. Ruben Neves (Wolves)
While technically listed as a “central midfielder” by Opta, Ruben Neves plays as part of a double pivot so we’re counting him here. The Portuguese doesn’t rank as highly as his ability should see him rank (remember he was captaining Porto in the Champions League as a teenager) as Wolves have endured a strange year where they’ve relied more than ever on their goalkeeper to bail them out.
Still, Ruben Neves has shone, especially with the ball. No defensive midfielder has attempted as many through-balls as him (14) and only N’Golo Kanté has completed more than his 5.
8. Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester)
Wilfred Ndidi has been held back by both his team’s underperformance but also his own struggles with injury. The Nigerian has played just 1,619 minutes in 2021/22 and Leicester have suffered for it.
Still, Ndidi’s 60 tackles ranks second among defensive midfielders and his 42 interceptions places top. Whenever he’s been fit, he’s been exceptional. Leicester’s issues have been with keeping him fit, and they will know they need to do more of that if they’re to climb back up the table and get back into Europe.
7. Tomas Soucek (West Ham)
Declan Rice has received all the praise this season for his all-action displays but his dominance is now down to him becoming more of a box-to-box central midfielder; this has been possible because Tomas Soucek has shifted his own game to become more of a holding midfielder.
Soucek has foregone his usual attacking instincts (mostly) to hold the fort in midfield and allow Rice to rampage forward. This has had tremendous effects for West Ham who have been a dynamic and delightful side to watch.
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6. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea)
“He is our Mo Salah, he is our Van Dijk, he is our De Bruyne, he is our Neymar, he is our Kylian Mbappe,” said Thomas Tuchel in his pre-match press conference. “He is simply that player, the guy who makes the difference and if you only have him 40 per cent of the time it’s a huge problem.”
It seems absurd for Tuchel to say those things about a defensive midfielder, but if you have ever watched Chelsea with a fit N’Golo Kanté and without a fit N’Golo Kanté, you’ll know that Tuchel is being brutally honest.
Kanté has missed massive amounts of time this season, and even when he’s been fit he’s not really looked his usual self. This is why he’s only in sixth. But he is still N’Golo Kanté, so we couldn’t drop him down too far. But Chelsea will be praying he can stay fit next season.
5. Thomas Partey (Arsenal)
Arsenal began and ended the season in absolutely hilarious fashion, but for a while there they looked like the genuine article. A young side that played good football and, while a couple players short of being real class, had immense potential for next season’s Champions League.
Not coincidentally, that time aligned with Thomas Partey being fit. With the Ghanaian at the base of midfield winning the ball back and driving it forward, the Gunners had real balance and quality. They were class. Without him? They’ve won just five of 13 games, illustrating his importance to the side.
Thomas Partey in the Premier League for Arsenal this season:
◉ Most ball recoveries (153)
◉ Most tackles (43)
◉ Most successful take-ons (35)
◎ Second most duels won (118)
◎ Second most interceptions (23)
◎ Second most through balls (9)
A big miss for the Gunners. https://t.co/lzwtKoCl8y
— Squawka (@Squawka) April 7, 2022
4. Christian Norgaard (Brentford)
Listed as a central midfielder by Opta, Norgaard is nevertheless Brentford’s anchor man in midfield and one of the most ferocious defensive presences in the Premier League. Part of why Christian Eriksen has been able to slot in so seamlessly for the Bees is because Norgaard has defended midfield with an almost legendary discipline.
Norgaard’s 109 tackles top all defensive midfielders, and his 64 interceptions are only behind Josh Brownhill. Norgaard has been kept busy by the Bees, but he’s been up whatever challenge Brentford have thrown his way. A worthy inclusion in the top 5.
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3. Pierre Emile Hojbjerg (Spurs)
One of the most important areas on the pitch for Antonio Conte is defensive midfield. He likes to have a blance of midfielders, one who passes more and another who defends and harries more. For Spurs that second man, the defensive midfielder, is Pierre Emile Hojbjerg.
The second Dane in the top 5, Hojbjerg has been magnificent since Antonio Conte came into the Spurs dugout. Hojbjerg can sit back and screen in a rearguard, but what’s so great is that he can also push up and press opponents when Spurs are trying to be a bit more bold and his distribution is also quite simply fabulous. A real stud.
2. Fabinho (Liverpool)
If you need convincing of Fabinho’s quality there can be no greater example than how Liverpool fans, who have been ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ-ing all season, broke down into a blind panic when the Brazilian got injured and had to leave the FA Cup final early.
Fabinho is Liverpool’s anchor. While everyone else bombs forward to attack, he hangs out with Virgil and Joel (or Ibou) and guards the net ahead of Alisson. Without him as the defensive counterweight who so effortlessly cuts out passing lanes there’s just no way Liverpool’s high line wouldn’t get cut to ribbons any time it had to handle a quality passing team. Fabinho makes Liverpool work.
A chart showing a player’s stats compared to a position group (defensive midfielders), where the outer and most inner boundaries represent the top and bottom 5% figures of the wider footballing population. Rodri’s output is in blue.
1. Rodri (Manchester City)
While Fabinho makes Liverpool, the second-best team in the world, work. Rodri makes Manchester City, the best team in the world, work. So Rodri goes top. Here is a sweeping midfielder who handles a ridiculous amount of defensive work for his side. His 70 tackles are impressive enough but consider that he’s also won 80 aerial duels, nearly twice as many as the next ranked defensive midfilder (Fabinho with 44).
Rodri isn’t so much a counterweight as his predecessor Fernandinho was, but a wholly integrated part of City’s structure. His probing passes so important to their build-up, his long-shots to their ability to sustain pressure, his headers to their goalscoring and then, yes, his impeccable output in terms of defending. No defensive midfielder has won possession in the attacking third (29 times) and middle third (162 times) as often as Rodri. No defensive midfielder has dominated the Premier League as well as Rodri.
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