Combative defensive midfielders are an essential part of any football team. It is said that most games are won in midfield. The battles that happen in the middle of the pitch go a long way towards determining the outcome of a game.
A good defensive midfielder has to do a little bit of everything
Defensive midfielders are tasked with disrupting the opposition’s game, turning over possession and asserting control over the midfield realms. They shoulder the responsibility of bringing the ‘bite’ into the game.
However, it’s not enough for them to be belligerent as they also need to be able to pass the ball around with precision. Most attacks that start after a possession loss are initiated by defensive midfielders.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at five of the greatest defensive midfielders of the 21st century.
#5 Claude Makelele
Despite playing a starring role in Real Madrid’s successes in La Liga and the Champions League in the early 2000s, Claude Makelele remained underappreciated.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez even refused to give the Frenchman a contract extension in 2003 despite the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Raul recommending it. The players knew just how incredible Makelele was.
He made everyone’s job easier with his excellent positioning and tackling skills. The Frenchman was a force of nature in the middle of the park, and Chelsea struck gold when they signed him for £16.8 million in the summer of 2023.
Claude Makelele’s importance to the teams he played for is best summed up by his Real Madrid teammate Fernand Hierro. He said:
“I think Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years, but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about, and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important.”
He was so good that the role of the defensive midfielder who swept right in front of his defensive line came to be known as the ‘Makelele role’. Over the course of his career, Makele won one Champions League, two Premier League titles, two La Liga titles, one Ligue 1 title, one FA Cup and one League Cup.
Casemiro is one of the most aggressive defensive midfielders of the 21st century. The Brazil international has had an illustrious career and is still going strong. Casemiro has formed one of the best midfield trios of the modern era alongside Luka Modric and Toni Kroos at Real Madrid.
While he is not a very technically gifted player, he more than makes up for with his game reading ability. He is an extremely intelligent defensive midfielder whose positional awareness and tactical intelligence makes him one of the best midfield destroyers of all time.
Casemiro has also massively improved his all-round game as well in recent times. His distribution has definitely undergone an upgrade and he has played a pivotal role in Real Madrid’s triumphant La Liga campaign this term. He has also been crucial in Los Blancos’ run to the finals of the Champions League this season.
Casemiro has won four Champions League titles, three La Liga titles, three FIFA Club World Cups and one Copa Del Rey.
#3 N’Golo Kante
N’Golo Kante took the world by storm as Leicester City’s midfield lynchpin in their fairytale Premier League campaign in 2015-16. The Frenchman’s tenacity and relentlessness were key to the Foxes’ exploits as they pipped the Premier League giants to the league title.
Kante is not only a disruptive force in midfield but he is also tidy in possession and his link-up play has also improved massively this term. The 30-year-old has been one of Chelsea’s most important players over the last six seasons or so.
He was the Blues’ best player as they won the Champions League title in the 2020-21 season. Kante was named ‘UEFA Best Midfielder of the Year’ in 2021 as well.
The diminutive midfielder also notably played a big role in France’s World Cup triumph in 2018. He is inarguably one of the best defensive midfielders of the 21st century.
#2 Xabi Alonso
Xabi Alonso is one of the most decorated Spanish players of all time. He was a versatile midfielder who could play anywhere across midfield. Thanks to his creativity and game-reading ability, Alonso was not only exceptional at turning over possession, but he was also able to dictate play from deep to great effect.
His long-range passing in particular is simply astounding to watch. Alonso also had a wonderful shooting range and has scored some absolute scorchers from range over the course of his illustrious career. He has won the Champions League title with both Liverpool and Real Madrid.
He was also a vital cog in the Spanish national team that won the 2010 FIFA World Cup and two back-to-back European championships in 2008 and 2012. Alonso finished his club career at Bayern Munich in 2017.
By then, he had won one World Cup, two Euros, two Champions League titles, one La Liga title, one FA Cup, two Copa Del Rey titles and one DFB Pokal.
#1 Sergio Busquets
Xavi and Andres Iniesta are two of the greatest midfielders of all time. They were the superstars of the Spain and Barcelona teams that dominated football in the early part of the 21st century. But the contributions of Sergio Busquets, who operated behind them in defensive midfield, cannot be overlooked.
Busquets is one of the greatest defensive midfielders of all time. Not only was he excellent at stealing the ball from the opposition, but he made it look easy with the nonchalant manner in which he went about things.
Busquets is one of the most technically blessed footballers of all time. He is excellent with the ball at his feet and could send opponents for a sandwich with his outstanding dribbling ability.
The Spaniard’s spatial awareness, positioning and ability to keep a cool head in adverse circumstances make him one of the most reliable midfielders of all time. Busquets is now in the twilight of his career and will go down in history as one of the most decorated players of all time.
Busquets has won one World Cup, one Euro title, three Champions League titles, eight La Liga titles, seven Copa Del Rey titles and three Club World Cups. He is easily one of the best defensive midfielders of all time.