Football Features

Best Premier League defensive midfielders in 2023

By Squawka News

Published: 14:14, 27 October 2023

Who are the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League in 2023?

The Premier League has been home to some of the best defensive midfielders in world football since it’s inception in 1992. From Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane battling it out for Arsenal and Manchester United to Claude Makelele having a new role named after him, each big side  has always looked to find that one world class player for that position.

In today’s game, that is still the case, with Enzo Fernandez, Moises Caicedo and Declan Rice all moving clubs for north of £100m during this calendar year and players such as Yves Bissouma and Rodri, who Manchester City really missed during his suspension, getting rave reviews in recent months.

More Premier League player rankings:

But who are the standout defensive midfielders in England’s top flight in 2023? Here are the top five based on their Squawka Score:

5. Moises Caicedo

  • Club: Chelsea
  • Squawka Score: 71%

After helping Brighton qualify for European football for the first time in their history last season, Moises Caicedo finally got his dream move to Chelsea in August for a reported £115m (including add-ons). The Ecuadorian’s ability to win the ball back, use it wisely and cover every blade of grass has been a huge asset to new boss Mauricio Pochettino, as he settles into his new club alongside Conor Gallagher and Enzo Fernandez in midfield.

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4. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg

  • Club: Tottenham
  • Squawka Score: 72%

Despite losing his place in the starting XI in the Tottenham side this season, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has been an integral part of the Spurs side in 2023. Finally given his first start against Fulham, the Dane took his chance with both hands and impressed in the middle of midfield in Yves Bissouma’s absence, having been given the role of coming on late and seeing out matches with his calmness on the ball and Viking qualities in the early part of the campaign.

But in 2023 as a whole, the midfielder ranks in the top 5% for aerial duel win % and accurate switches of play, which he showed in abundance against Fulham. He also ranks in the 80th-95th percentile per 90 for clearances, passes into the opposition half, pass accuracy and passes into the final third, with his progressive passing one of his most underrated abilities.

3. Yves Bissouma

  • Club: Tottenham
  • Squawka Score: 77%

After struggling to keep his place in the side under Antonio Conte, Yves Bissouma has proven his former manager wrong with some incredible displays under new manager Ange Postecoglou. The 27-year old was the first player to win 20+ duels and make 10+tackles in the Premier League in 2023/24 and at the time of writing, is the only midfielder in the division to win 60+ duels, complete 15+ take-ons and make 15+ tackles.

He also ranks in the top 5% per 90 for pass accuracy, take-ons completed and ground duels won across 2023.

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2. Thomas Partey 

  • Club: Arsenal
  • Squawka Score: 80%

Thomas Partey’s ability to put his head up and look for a pass into the opposition half as well as the final third combined with his ball recovery numbers in the defensive and midfield third gave the midfielder an impressive all round score of 80%. He ranks in the 95th percentile or above for final third entries, passes into the final third completed, take-on success, number of sequences with 10+ passes featured in and passes into the opposition half completed, making him the perfect partner alongside Declan Rice in the Arsenal midfield.

Honourable mentions

After a positive start to life in the Premier League, Casemiro has struggled in recent months. His defensive numbers are still impressive, but his ball retention rate and passing stats means the Brazilian’s score falls down. The Manchester United man ranks in the 20th-40th percentile or below for ball retention rate, pass accuracy, long ball accuracy, as well as take-ons completed and ground duels won.

In the previous rankings that we carried out before this season, the Brazilian finished in the top 5% for 10 of the 14 stats used for comparison, including tackles, open-play expected assists, passes into the opposition half, final third entries, ball recoveries, duels won, aerial duels won, passes attempted, shots and long passes attempted. Showing just how much his performances have dropped so far in 2023/24.

Declan Rice just missed out on the top five, coming in with a Squawka Score of 67%. However, despite this the Englishman has been one of the best midfielders in the Premier League during this calendar year for both West Ham and now Arsenal, who paid £100m for his services in the summer. The 24-year-old is one of those players that stats don’t do justice to how good a player they are, with the midfielder’s ability to read the game and always be in the right position not being able to be measured.

However with metrics than can be looked at, the Englishman has an impressive all-round game and was the only player In Europe’s top five leagues to hit 30+ for the following metrics in 2022/23 – interceptions, clearances, successful take-ons, chances created, aerial duels won and shots.

1. Rodri

  • Club: Man City
  • Squawka Score: 83%

Rodri finished off an incredible 2022/23 season by scoring the winning goal and being named MOTM in the Champions League final in May, as the Citizens finally got their hands on the famous trophy. The Spaniard has won possession more times in the midfield third than any other player in Europe’s top seven leagues since the start of last season, while only Kylian Mbappe (9.7) has been involved in more open play shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes across Europe’s big five leagues this season than the Spaniard (9.4).

The 27-year-old has been phenomenal during this calendar year, living up to the hype after being named as Pep Guardiola’s Sergio Busquets by Luis Enrique in 2018.

“It’s not good to give too much praise and he is very young, but Rodri comes across as very professional and prepared mentally. “He can reach Busquets’ level and maybe surpass it. Who knows what limits he has?”

Since joining City in 2019, Rodri has missed just 16 Premier League games in that time, including his recent suspension, with City losing 37.5% of their matches without him, compared to 13% of the games when he does play.

Showing just how vital he is to Pep Guardiola and how happy he will be that he has returned in time for the Manchester derby.

How did we rank the Premier League’s best defensive midfielders?

We used Twenty3 Sport’s Discovery Tool to run a customised search. The Discovery Tool rates a player’s per 90 output in the following 20 stats to produce a percentage score, referred to above as the Squawka Score.

Each player’s stats are compared to the average output of defensive midfielders across the past three seasons of big-five European league football. To be awarded a score, a player must have reached the automatically calculated minutes threshold. In this case, 900 minutes in the Premier League during 2023. The more they rank in the 95th percentile and above for each metric, the higher the score. We have also weighted each stat from 1 to 5 to highlight the most important aspects of a defensive midfielders’ play style.

To be clear only players that have played 900+ minutes of Premier League football in 2023 have been included.

Squawka right-back ranking metrics Weighting
Total duels | Open-play expected assists | Shots | Take-ons attempted | Clearances | Dispossessions | Fouls committed (-) | Challenge lost (-) | Non-penalty expected goals 1
Passes into the final third attempted | Passes into opposition half attempted | Fouls won | Take-ons completed | Switches of play | Duels won | Aerial duels won 2
Final third passes completed | Passes into opp. half | Tackles | Interceptions | Pass accuracy | Accurate switches of play | Long ball accuracy | Dispossessions in own half| % of a team’s passes | Number of sequences with 10+ passes featured in 3
Aerial duel % | Ground duel % | Final third entries | final third pass % | Take-on success 4
Retention rate % | Forward Pass Accuracy % | Number of sequences ending in the final third | Ball recoveries 5
(-) indicates a weighting that favours fewer instances within the relevant metric (e.g. fewest fouls conceded from tackles made)