The role of a defensive midfielder in modern day football is absolutely crucial. A good defensive midfielder always finds themselves in the right place at the right time and not only do they help relieve pressure, they pick the right pass to convert defence into attack.
There are countless examples across football where an entire generation of success would not have been possible without the influence of the cog in the middle of the pitch holding it all together. Think Fernandinho at Manchester City, Sergio Busquets at Barcelona or Cambiasso at Inter Milan. Even before formations such as the 4-2-3-1 were widely adopted, there were players like Patrick Viera who was an absolute lynchpin for Arsenal during their glory years.
Fast forward to 2021 and the modern day defensive midfielder is the engine that runs the whole machine, and no team can win a title or tournament without that vital component.
N'Golo Kante (France)
N’Golo Kante is without doubt one of the best in the world at what he does. Few show the defensive acumen that N’Golo Kante possesses, but the energetic Frenchman is also incredibly good at linking the play. His boundless energy and relentless harrowing of opposition attackers was essential to Leicester City’s title winning season.
His raw pace and clever decision making often allowed him to turn defence instantly into attack and spring the likes of Mahrez and Vardy on the sort of devastating counter attack Leicester’s title winning campaign was built on.
His performances soon caught the eye of Chelsea and just 12 months after lifting the title with Leicester, Kante was again crowned a Premier League winner. It’s a blueprint that fits France perfectly and regularly sees Kante nipping in to pinch the ball in midfield before a quick incisive release sets the likes of Mbappe and Griezmann on the counter.
Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
At the age of just 26, Joshua Kimmich has yet to peak and you’d think has at least a few more tournaments left in him. Arguably the undisputed best in his position, his versatility has seen him deployed in other positions including right back for both Bayern Munich and Germany.
As useful as his versatility may be, it’s clear Bayern are a class above when he anchors their midfield. His reading of the game and breaking up of play allows both Bayern and Germany to implement their high intensity, possession based game to full effect. But he isn’t just a tough tackler. Kimmich has been directly involved in 53 goals across the past three seasons for Bayern Munich.
An increasing number of his assists are coming from superb free-kick and corner delivery. Given how competitive tournament football can be, having one of the best deliveries in world football on your side is quite a weapon. With Germany likely to operate a 4-3-3 system with Toni Kroos in the middle, Kimmich should be given the opportunity to utilise all of his talents.
Unlike the above pairing, you wouldn’t describe Rodri as an all-action midfielder. He’s very much a natural defensive midfielder who protects the back four, plugs the gaps and closes down the channels. His speciality is breaking up play and he’s one of those special players who makes football look easy.
His pass success rate of 91.3% across 210 appearances for club and country shows why he instantly became a perfect addition to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City squad. Much like Spain, possession is key and Rodri has a knack for identifying and executing the most simple passes whenever he’s on the ball, and that’s OK. His role in this Spanish line-up is not to create, but to feed the players who can.
Rodri will be especially crucial to Spain this summer as Sergio Busquets is set to miss at least the first game and has an unknown prognosis due to his positive COVID test. As well as being a tough-tackling, almost mind-reading distributor of the ball, Rodri is also particularly useful in the air and ranks amongst some of the top defenders in the Premier League with 2.6 headers won per game
Marcelo Brozovic (Croatia)
Marcelo Brozovic should be in and around his prime at the age of 28 and true to form, his performances over the past two seasons for Inter Milan have been some of his best yet. He’s been involved in 17 goals in that time despite being deployed primarily as a defensive midfielder, but he’s happy to stride forward and can play in wider areas.
He’s hard working, intelligent, reads the game well and uses the ball incredibly effectively. For the past three seasons he’s averaged a successful pass rate around the 90% mark and tends to make a couple of key passes leading to opportunities per game. The 2020/21 season was his most impressive in terms of clearances and interceptions.
Technically speaking, Brozovic has not played as an out and out defensive midfielder for the majority of the season, but he is always the deepest lying of a midfield three and that’s how he’s been utilised by Croatia in their warm-up games. Brozovic is likely to get on the ball and drive forward often whilst Kovacic drops in to cover
Declan Rice (England)
If you follow the Premier League, you may have noticed that fans on social media have very mixed opinions on Declan Rice. Truth be told, there’s no other reason other than the age-old English tendency to criticise the country's best talents as if we all know better. The truth is, Declan Rice is one of the best players in the Premier League in this position, and definitely top of the list among English players.
In the 2019/20 season, Rice started every game, played every minute and made more successful interceptions than all but one other Premier League player. He was only dispossessed once every other game and only two players made more successful tackles. His importance to West Ham cann not be underestimated.
Despite being just 22 years old, Rice has been crucial to the Hammers for years and outside of what can be measured statistically, he’s been their glue and their leader. and is a ready-made fit for the soon to be retiring Hammers legend, Mark Noble. He now has the potential to offer England the same thing for the decade to come. Rice has averaged 3.5 tackles and 3.5 interceptions per game in world cup qualifiers to date and has rarely given the ball away in an England shirt