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While defense and attack lines have the most straightforward job description, the midfield line is assigned to a more complicated task. Midfielders should support both lines and offer playing options. It must be both, a sword, and a shield. In order to have the most objective judgment in this article, I decided to divide the best midfielders into three categories.
Best Defensive Midfielder – Claude Makelele
The Frenchman’s outstanding performance in different leagues redefined the role of defensive midfielders. In England, a fitting tribute to his legacy and unique style, the defensive midfielder position is known as ‘the Makelele Role’. In fact, after departing Real Madrid in 2004, the void he left was a headache for every Merengues coach until Casemiro arrived at Santiago Bernabeu. Another great defensive midfielder and the only player who filled that void according to Claude himself. Back then after completing a move to Chelsea, Real Madrid icon Fernando Hierro commented the transfer saying: ‘We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makelele was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.’
Due to Makelele’s aggressive tackling, as well as his ability to read the game, break down plays, mark opponents, and time his challenges, his more offensive teammates were given the freedom to advance and showcase their attacking capabilities. He had a great positional awareness which allowed him to win the ball back and cover for his teammates superbly.
He won league titles in France, Spain, and England, as well as the 2001–02 UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid. As a defensive midfielder, Claude Makelele has scored only 25 goals during his club career. Until 2008 when he announced his retirement from the national team, he played a total of 71 matches for France. He represented his nation at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cup, two UEFA European Championships and the 1996 Summer Olympics. He never scored a single goal for his country.
As a member of the France squad competing at the 2006 World Cup, Makelele’s performances as a tireless midfield spoiler were invaluable to France’s progress to the final as they defeated Spain, the defending champions Brazil and Euro 2004 finalists Portugal in the knock-out rounds. His partnership with Patrick Vieira, arguably one of the best defensive midfielders for many, proved effective as the team conceded only three goals in seven games and took four clean sheets, a tally only bested by world champions Italy. Makelele’s national team career had so many ups and downs, despite starting his French career in 1995, but until the early months of 2000, he had only played 3 matches for his country, missing out on 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs.
Ligue 1 winner 1994–95
La Liga winner 2000–01, 2002–03
Supercopa de España: 2001, 03
Premier League winner 2004–05, 2005–06
UEFA Champions League winner 2001-02
UEFA Super Cup winner 2002
Intercontinental Cup winner 2002
FA Cup winner 2006–07
Football League Cup winner 2004–05, 2006–07
FA Community Shield winner 2005
Coupe de France: 2009–10
FIFA World Cup runner-up 2006
FIFPro World XI: 2005
Chelsea Players’ Player of the Year: 2006
ESPN World Team of the Decade: 2009
UNFP Trophée d’honneur: 2010
Best Central Midfielder – Xavi Hernandez
Xavi is, statistically speaking, the most successful player in Spanish football history. With such tremendous success under his belt, it was only a matter of time before he secured the top spot in the record books of his club Barcelona and his country. But this is not why he is the best central midfielder of all time in my opinion. While statistics and titles tally crucially matter, Xavi checks, literally, every box on the list of criteria including off pitch persona and popularity.
Xavi joined Barcelona’s youth system in 1991-92 and worked his way up until he debuted for Blaugrana first team in 1998. He held onto his first team place for a remarkable seventeen seasons in which his legend was set in stone. Xavi’s 767 appearances were a club record until surpassed by Lionel Messi in March 2021. 2008-09 was remarkably Xavi’s best season. He was a main part of Barcelona’s treble and scored the fourth goal in the 4–1 win in the 2009 Copa del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao, with a free kick. In La Liga, among many games, one of the most significant is the 6–2 El Clásico victory vs Real Madrid.
Though not physically strong, he used his wily knowledge to outwit opponents time and time again. There was no safer guarantee in the middle of the park than this exquisite player. He was astonishingly creative and was the veritable brain in the Barça engine. Xavi’s vision, pinpoint accurate passing and world class ball control allowed him to dictate the flow of play while rarely relinquishing possession. He was a perfect midfielder who would look for space throughout the game and worked on one principle which is to take the ball and give the ball, not wasting time. This principle is seemingly conflicting with one of his best techniques ‘La Pausa/ The pause’. In short, this technique he mastered was seen when he received the ball and deliberately chose to keep it for longer than usually needed. In these seconds he is inviting pressure from opponents to create space behind and looking for the best positioned teammate to pass to. After some years, players picked up on his cues easily and were able to make runs in spaces left vacant by opponents advancing to press Xavi. La Pausa and his signature 360 feint, are undoubtedly a major part of his playmaking abilities and the secret sauce behind his unique style. Together with his ability to control matches tempo, such skillset has earned him the sobriquet, “The Puppet Master”. Many described his ball control skills as ‘A real life game of Pac Man’.
Since making his senior team debut in 2000, he has been capped 133 times for the Spanish national team and has been seen as an influential figure in the team’s tremendous success. He played an integral role in Spain’s victory at the 2010 World Cup, as well as their successes at both Euro 2008 and Euro 2012. His magical assists, creative passing techniques, and breathtaking performances earned him Player of the Tournament award at the Euro 2008. Xavi had a 91% passing success rate at the 2010 World Cup and was named in the World Cup All-star Team. In the 2014 FIFA World Cup Spain entered the tournament as both World Champions and the European Champions but unexpectedly poor performances by Spain led to early elimination during the group stages of the tournament. Following the elimination, he announced his retirement from International Football after winning 4 gold medals on world stage for La Roja including U20 FIFA World Cup.
La Liga: 1998–99, 2004–05, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2012–13, 2014–15
Copa del Rey: Winner 2008-09, 2011-12, 2014-15 – Runner up 2010-11, 2013-14
Supercopa de Espana: winner 2005, 06, 09, 10, 11, 13 – Runner up 1998, 1999, 2012
UEFA Champions League: 2005-06, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2014-15
UEFA Super Cup: Winner 2009, 2011 – Runner up 2006
FIFA Club World Cup: Winner 2009, 2011 – Runner up 2006
Qatari Cup: 2016-17
Qatar Stars League: 2018-19
FIFA World Cup: 2010
UEFA Euro Championship: 2008, 2012
Summer Olympics Silver Medal: 2000
FIFA Confederations Cup Silver Medal: 2013
FIFA World Youth Championship: 1999
UEFA Best Player in Europe Award Second place: 2011
Onze de Bronze: 2011
FIFA Ballon d’Or Third place: 2010, 11
World Soccer Player of the Year: 2010
IFFHS World’s Best Playmaker: 2008, 09, 10, 11
La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year: 1999
La Liga Spanish Player of the Year: 2005
La Liga Player of the Year: 2nd place 2010, 3rd place 2011
La Liga Midfielder of the Year: 2009, 2010, 2011
FIFA/FIFPro World XI: 2008, 09, 10, 11, 12, 13
UEFA Team of the Year: 2008, 09, 10, 11, 12
Ballon d’Or Bronze Award: 2009
FIFA World Player of the Year Third place: 2009
UEFA Champions League Final Man of the Match: 2009
UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year: 2008–09
FIFA Club World Cup Silver Ball: 2011
FIFA World Cup Dream Team: 2010
FIFA Club World Cup Bronze Ball: 2009
Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament: 2008
Euro Team of the Tournament: 2008, 2012
Spanish Sportsman of the Year: 2009
Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit: 2010
Best Attacking Midfielder – Zinedine Zidane
Talk about the talismans in the soccer world and the list would be incomplete without mentioning the name of the much skilled and talented Zinedine Zidane. A magnificent professional, Zidane is one of the greatest players in the history of soccer. Zinedine Zidane has created a legacy of his own in soccer with his many achievements and coveted awards such as the FIFA World Player of the Year thrice, and the Ballon D’Or once. In 2004, he was named the best European soccer player of the past 50 years by the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll. This, subsequently, led to his name being included in the FIFA 100, Pele’s List of the 125 greatest living soccer players of all time.
It was during his early days that Zidane was influenced by Olympique Marseille, his hometown team, players like Blaz Sliskovic, Enzo Francescoli, and Jean-Pierre Papin, who were his idols. Zidane started his career at Cannes before establishing himself as one of the best players in the French Ligue 1 at Bordeaux. After a series of standout performances for both Bordeaux and France, Zidane had offers to join Europe’s top clubs in the spring of 1996, but Torino was where he eventually landed. With Juventus, Zidane’s impact was immediate, winning the 1996–97 Serie A title and the 1996 Intercontinental Cup. He was named Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year in his first season. From that year onwards, Zidane’s parabolic curve has seen no slowdowns.
He is known for his excellent control and dribbling skills, his magic ball touch, his focused vision, and great leadership traits. A rangy midfielder, he had exceptional upper body strength and footwork skills that were complemented by his superior field vision. He could use either foot, despite being naturally right footed. During his active soccer years, no player would surpass the way he controlled and received the ball. At the 1998 World Cup, Italian manager Cesare Maldini said, “I would give up five players to have Zidane in my squad.” Such quotes were a mix of admiration, respect, fear, and inspiration. His charm and influence were even beyond soccer world limits. Dazzled by Zidane’s goal in Deportivo La Coruna in 2002, basketball icon Magic Johnson stated, “One of the most inspiring nights of my life. Zidane is a phenomenon.”
Before 1998 FIFA World Cup, all eyes were set to watch Zizou with the French national team. Shortly after, excited soccer world was flooded by doubts and questions. Zidane stomped on an opponent in the second game of the first round against Saudi Arabia and was suspended for two contests. Yet he managed to steer Les Bleus through the campaign. Showcasing his heading abilities, another unique trait uncommonly found in midfielders, he scored two goals for France against Brazil in the final. He became a national hero, by shutting down Brazil in the 3-0 win World Cup final. His team’s performance at the FIFA 1998 World Cup inspired the likes of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Thomas Lemar, Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Alexandar Lacazette to take football more seriously during their youths. In 2000, he once again spearheaded the French team to international glory at the European Championship after a 2-1 win against Italy culminated the campaign and Zizou was named player of the tournament.
Zidane joined Real Madrid in 2001, and the following year the team won the UEFA Champions League title and the European Super Cup. He scored the unforgettable match-winning goal, a volley hit with his weaker foot, in Madrid’s 2–1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 UEFA Champions League final. Though Zidane could not win any trophies for Real Madrid during his final season for the club, his personal statistics were still good. He scored his first ever hat-trick against Sevilla FC in a 4–2 win in January 2006 and was the second-highest goal-scorer for Real Madrid during the season.
He made a comeback after announcing his retirement to lead France in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It was a fairytale finish to a fantastic career as France reached the final under his meticulous guidance. However, his team could not win the World Cup due to his absence in the penalty shootout. After a heated argument followed by a headbutt to knock Marco Materazzi down earned Zidane a red card minutes before the final whistle only to deprive France from a guaranteed penalty.
Serie A Winner: 1996–97, 1997–98, Runner-up: 1999–00, 2000–01
Supercoppa Italiana Winner: 1997, Runner-up: 1998
La Liga Winner: 2002–03, Runner-up: 2004–05, 2005–06
Supercopa de España Winner: 2001, 2003
Copa del Rey Runner-up: 2001–02, 2003–04
UEFA Intertoto Cup Winner 1995, 1999
UEFA Cup Runner-up: 1995–96
UEFA Champions League: Winner 2001-02, Runner-up: 1996–97, 1997–98
UEFA Super Cup Winner: 1996, 2002
Intercontinental Cup Winner: 1996, 2002
FIFA World Cup: Winner 1998, Runner up 2006
UEFA Euro Championship Winner 2000, Third Place 1996
Tournoi de France Third Place:1997
Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year – 1994
Ligue 1 Player of the Year – 1996
Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year – 1997, 2001
UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year – 1998
World Soccer Awards Player of the Year – 1998
Ballon D’or – 1998
French Player of the Year – 1998, 2002
FIFA World Player of the Year – 1998, 2000, 2003
FIFA World Cup All-Star Team – 1998, 2006
World Soccer 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century – 1999
UEFA Euro Player of the Tournament – 2000
UEFA Euro Team of the Tournament – 2000, 2004
Serie A Footballer of the Year – 2001
UEFA Team of the Year – 2001, 2002, 2003
La Liga Best Foreign Player – 2002
UEFA Club Footballer of the Year – 2002
FIFA World Cup Dream Team – 2002
FIFA 100 Greatest Living Footballers – 2004
UEFA Best European Player of the Past 50 Years – 2004
FIFPro World XI All-Star Team – 2005, 2006
IFFHS World’s Best Playmaker – 2006
FIFA World Cup Golden Ball – 2006
UEFA Champions League best player of the last 20 years – 2011