If Pep Guardiola’s line-ups this season have taught us anything (or, come to think of it, Pep’s line-ups in any season), it’s that the midfielder is the most important player on the pitch.
The Manchester City boss opted to play five – yes five midfielders – against both Crystal Palace and Atalanta, deploying Rodri and Fernandinho at the back, while the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva ran riot in front of them.
Often considered the heartbeat of any functioning side, the midfielder’s role can range from anchorman to playmaker, and anything in between. But, which midfielders have so far caught the eye and been most impressive in the Premier League this season?
We’ve ranked ten of the best this season but there are some notable exclusions – such as Bruno Fernandes – as we are only including those who have played in this season from the start.
10. Todd Cantwell
Whatever Norwich City’s fate (they currently sit bottom albeit six points adrift of safety), there will be no shortage of interest for some of their star performers. Most notable among those are Max Aarons, Emiliano Buendía, Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell, the latter of whom has impressed so much he’s been linked with Liverpool.
And you can understand why Jurgen Klopp might be interested given he’s such a tireless performer, one capable of playing in different roles and in possession of a keen eye for goal. That last attributed is illustrated by his six Premier League goals for the Canaries to date, which places Cantwell second in the club’s leading scorer chart behind the aforementioned Pukki.
Key stat: Todd Cantwell is the joint-third most prolific goalscorer from midfield in the Premier League this season (six goals).
It wasn’t so long ago Fred was being cast as a big-money flop. But to his credit, the Brazilian midfielder has resurrected his Manchester United career. So much so, he’s now among the first names on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team sheet.
Often utilised as a box-to-box midfielder, his verve and energy have been the foundation of United’s recent upsurge in form. He’s still got a long way to go before matching his predecessors at Old Trafford, but Fred’s future looks a lot brighter than it was 12 months ago.
Key stat: Fred is the only Man Utd player to make 30+ tackles and goalscoring chances in the Premier League this season.
8. Oliver Norwood
Man Utd continue to prove first rate regarding youth development, and they’re not the only club to benefit. Not everyone makes the grade, but those who don’t can often look forward to a productive career nonetheless. Someone currently fitting that billing is Sheffield United’s much-underrated midfielder Oliver Norwood, whose quiet performances are a big factor as to why the Blades find themselves inches away from a Champions League berth.
Norwood is one of five players Chris Wilder has selected in every Premier League game to date, and though he’s only popped up with one goal, it’s what he does off the ball that makes his teammates appreciate the Burnley-born footballer.
Key stat: Oliver Norwood has made the most passes into the final third (313) of any midfielder in the Premier League this season.
7. Mateo Kovacic
At one point it seemed Chelsea were not going to exercise the clause in Mateo Kovacic’s loan deal to turn his temporary stay at Stamford Bridge into a permanent one. His performances, truthfully, did not justify a long-term association with the former Real Madrid midfielder, but they must be glad he remained in west London.
With the plethora of midfielders at Frank Lampard’s disposal, it’s the Croatian international who has shone the brightest this season. Consistency has been the name of his game and Kovacic is even starting to score goals, which is no doubt the result of those training sessions with his boss (who just so happens to be the club’s all-time leading marksman).
Key stat: Mateo Kovacic has completed the most take-ons (69) of any central midfielder in the Premier League this season.
6. Georginio Wijnaldum
No longer underrated or under-appreciated, there’s a sense Georginio Wijnaldum is now firmly among Europe’s finest central midfielders; it’s hard to argue against his presence on this list given how wholly important he’s been in Liverpool’s transformation from pretenders to English football’s dominant force, and not forgetting his exploits with his national team.
It’s funny looking back at the fact the Feyenoord academy graduate initially joined the Reds – following a chaotic single campaign with Newcastle United – having been used in a wide range of positions, but is now solely thought of as a solid link between attack and defence.
Key stat: Wijnaldum loses possession at a per-90-minute average of 7.87, the lowest rate of any outfield Liverpool player in the Premier League this season.
5. James Maddison
Maddison is a major reason behind Leicester’s ascent up the Premier League table. The dead-ball specialist has established himself as one of the top-flight’s leading creators, and has also drawn speculation of a move to one of England’s ‘Big Six’, with Manchester United mooted as a possible destination.
It is a credit to his current form that such rumours have emerged, but a departure is no guarantee as Leiciester are on course to secure Champions League football and post their best league finish since Claudio Ranieri’s champions.
Key stat: James Maddison has had the joint-third-most shots of any midfielder in the Premier League this season (68).
4. Wilfred Ndidi
You may have been struck by Wilfred Ndidi’s importance to Leicester City during his recent spell on the sidelines. Across those five matches he missed, due to a troublesome knee injury, Brendan Rodgers’ men picked up just two points from 15 available while shipping seven goals
He is without doubt the glue which binds everything together in perfect harmony and there’s a strong case his presence allows everyone around him to excel, as we saw in those big wins over Newcastle United (3-0), West Ham (4-1) and Aston Villa (4-0), which happen to be his only league appearances in 2020 so far.
Key stat: Wilfred Ndidi has made the most tackles (92) and interceptions (61) of any Premier League midfielder this season.
3. Jack Grealish
For all his potential, there was a time when many thought Grealish would fade into oblivion and spiral down the footballing ladder. However, the 24-year-old Brummie refused to yield and set about fulfilling that burgeoning potential. And, well, he now captains his boyhood club in the Premier League – a competition in which only Kevin De Bruyne (72) has created more chances from open play than Grealish (57) this season – and is on the verge of an England call-up.
Such has been his imposing form that Guardiola recently waxed lyrical about his ability, telling reporters: “He’s incredible. A top player. I’m happy he (initially) stayed in the Championship to defend his club.
“He’s a talented player who always creates something. An exceptional player.”
Need I say more about his season?
Key stat: Jack Grealish has won the more fouls than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues this season (127).
2. Jordan Henderson
Captain, leader and (soon to be) legend. Liverpool are within touching distance of ending a 30-year championship drought and playing more than a vital role is their inspirational skipper Jordan Henderson, whose game-winning performances at the heart of midfield have earned him widespread plaudits as well as a good chance of becoming the PFA Players’ Player of the Year (though a certain Belgian could have something to say about that).
Again, this is a perfect illustration of why you should never write someone off too early. No one was ever going to fill Steven Gerrard’s shoes but Henderson – with a little help of Jurgen Klopp – reinvented himself and in the role he plays, alongside deep-lying midfielder Fabinho (who would be on this list if not for his injury and subsequent form) and Wijnaldum a little closer, there are very few who do it any better.
Key stat: Jordan Henderson is unbeaten in his last 39 league appearances for Liverpool (35 wins and four draws).
1. Kevin De Bruyne
Not only has De Bruyne been the best midfielder this season, he has arguably been the best player outright. The Belgian creator has simply been on another level, demonstrating an intrinsic relationship between brain and ball, while conjuring up consistent pinpoint deliveries us mere mortals couldn’t pick out even with the capacity to pause time.
Though Manchester City are seemingly unable to win the league, with Liverpool requiring at least two more wins, De Bruyne’s relative fitness – which seemed to be a major issue last term – has been encouraging for the former champions, who’ll no doubt come back strong next season.
Key stat: Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances in the Premier League this season than any other player (96).