Defining a ‘central midfielder’ in this day and age is no easy task.
The dissipation of fixed positions and increased prominence of ‘roles’ or ‘functions’ mean these folk in the middle of the park are tasked with an array of duties.
Nevertheless, central midfielders are often the cornerstones of elite-level sides. They can do it all and they come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and profiles.
Thus, ranking the best 25 in the world is incredibly tough, but here’s our crack at doing exactly that!
Tonali has immense potential / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages
The woefully mis-profiled Sandro Tonali begins our list after he starred during Milan’s Scudetto win in 2021/22.
Tonali was regarded as the ‘next Andrea Pirlo’ during his time at Brescia but barring the flowing locks and impressive ball-striking, there are few similarities between the two Italian midfielders.
Tonali instead resembles former Roma idol Daniele De Rossi in profile. He’s an aggressive, all-action midfielder who contributes in every phase. He’s not quite there yet, but fervent Rossoneri supporters believe Tonali will blossom into one of the world’s best midfielders.
The potential is undeniable, and he played way beyond his years down the stretch last season as he came up with a couple of huge Serie A goals.
Anguissa is an attacking threat for Napoli / Marco Canoniero/GettyImages
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s stint with Fulham left little impression on Premier League followers, but he’s since enjoyed a successful loan at Villarreal before impressing at Napoli.
The Cameroon international charges forward from the Partenopei’s midfield to help out attacking stars like Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
Anguissa has plenty of experience in Europe and is starting to deliver consistent performances in a Napoli side eyeing Serie A glory.
Sabitzer is finding his feet at Bayern / Stefan Matzke – sampics/GettyImages
Marcel Sabitzer struggled during his debut campaign at Bayern but is starting to make his mark again under Julian Nagelsmann.
Previously one of the world’s most underrated midfielders, Sabitzer underwent a pretty severe transformation at RB Leipzig as Nagelsmann converted him from an enigmatic creator into an industrious, all-action workhorse.
The Austrian is a midfielder who contributes in every phase and is willing to do the dirty work to ensure his teammates shine. That’s his current role at Bayern, and he’s performing it superbly.
Parejo is a La Liga stalwart / Nicolò Campo/GettyImages
Former Valencia stalwart Dani Parejo has continued to ooze class since his 2020 move to Villarreal.
Parejo was nothing short of brilliant during his near decade-long spell at the Mestalla, and it’s criminal how underused he’s been by the Spanish national team.
He has honed his craft and established himself as one of the world’s most well-rounded midfielders, being excellent over short distances and positive with the ball.
While it almost looks like he saunters across the pitch, the midfielder is sneaky in and around the opposition’s box. The Spaniard will go down as one of his generation’s most underrated midfielders.
Bissouma impressed at Brighton before joining Spurs / Julian Finney/GettyImages
The Tottenham new boy is yet to startle Lilywhite supporters, but it won’t be too long before he’s dazzling in north London week in, week out.
Yves Bissouma was long in the ‘best players outside of the big six’ conversation during his spell at Brighton, and it was his majestic performance in a 1-0 win over Spurs in April 2022 that convinced Antonio Conte to move for the Mali international.
Bissouma is a well-rounded midfielder who plays with a ton of freedom. He’s a majestic technician who uses his body so well to evade pressure. Thus, he’s invaluable in the build-up phase, while he is partial to scoring a rocket from distance.
Central midfield? Attacking mid? Right back? It doesn’t matter to Llorente / Eric Alonso/GettyImages
Marcos Llorente’s impressive versatility renders him tough to categorise, but we’ve slotted him into our central midfielders ranking.
While his output has declined, Llorente was in glorious form when Atletico Madrid were crowned La Liga champions in 2020/21. The Spaniard scored 12 times and added 11 assists. During that period, many were claiming that Llorente was La Liga’s best player and one of the very best midfielders in the world.
That is no longer the case, but he remains an excellent player who combines brawn with brains.
Ruiz is a newcomer at PSG / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages
Paris Saint-Germain have got a good one in Fabian Ruiz. Sure, he might not be the most athletic or the savviest defensively, but boy does he know his way around a football.
The Spaniard is a sumptuous technician who can progress play with ease, use his long frame to evade pressure and strike a ball as well as just about anybody.
Napoli will undoubtedly miss Fabian’s class in the middle of the park, but it’ll be nothing short of joyous to watch the Spaniard in tandem with Marco Verratti every week in the French capital.
Locatelli helped Italy to Euro 2020 glory / Gualter Fatia/GettyImages
Roberto De Zerbi has to take credit for re-igniting the career of former AC Milan hotshot Manuel Locatelli. The tall, swaggering midfielder excelled under De Zerbi’s meticulous tutelage at Sassuolo and he earned a dream move to Juventus as a result.
His switch to Turin came after he’d helped Italy to Euro 2020, but Italy’s abundance of superstar midfielders meant he didn’t feature too much during the latter stages of the competition.
Nevertheless, Locatelli’s brilliance is undeniable, and he was one of Juve’s standout performers during his debut campaign in Turin as Max Allegri utilised him in multiple functions.
The Italian boasts a fantastic passing range and is underrated defensively.
Pogba is back at Juventus / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages
How can you possibly assess the maverick that is Paul Pogba?
On his day, some would claim he’s the best midfielder in the world and there was certainly a point where he was in the conversation. However, we haven’t seen Pogba in full cry – especially at a club level – for quite some time now, with much of his good work coming for France.
The World Cup winner is as talented as they come and his return to Juventus should do his career the world of good despite the ancient ideals of Max Allegri. It’s where Pogba made his name, and the Frenchman could be the saviour to their midfield woes.
Football deserves a fit and firing Paul Pogba. He’s a great entertainer and one of the world’s best, no doubt.
Bentancur is thriving at Tottenham / Paul Harding/GettyImages
After a tricky spell at Juventus where he attracted more criticism than admirers, Rodrigo Bentancur has found a home at Tottenham and is showing his quality.
With an indefatigable engine and an emerging eye for goal, the Uruguayan is cool and composed in possession and played a pivotal role as Spurs secured their return to the Champions League.
There’ll be plenty of chopping and changing in north London if Antonio Conte stays long-term, but Bentancur looks like he’s nailed down a starting spot for as long as he wants it.
Vitinha is one for the future / Soccrates Images/GettyImages
Vitinha’s stock has risen exponentially over the past year following a forgettable spell in the Premier League with Wolves.
The young Portuguese midfielder joined Paris Saint-Germain from Porto in the summer and has slotted seamlessly into the starting XI. He’s a dynamic double-pivot player who’s capable of dictating play, orchestrating attacks, and contributing in the final third himself.
Vitinha’s an incredibly intelligent creator who anticipates well in the defensive phase. He’s a wily defender and, despite his slight frame, is able to brush off opposing challenges because of his elusiveness and majestic technique with both feet.
Vitinha is certainly a player to keep an eye out for in the French capital.
Kovacic is brilliant for Chelsea when fit / MB Media/GettyImages
If only this guy didn’t pick up so many injuries…
Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic is a wonderful player to watch, and he’s come into his own in north London following an indifferent start under Maurizio Sarri’s tutelage.
The Croatian is one of the most proficient ball-progressing midfielders in the world. Not only can evade challenges like a prime Mousa Dembele and carry the ball in a similar vein to Lionel Messi, but he can also pick apart defensive structures with the most precise vertical passes.
Kovacic is a special footballer who, over the past year or so, has started to be recognised as one of the world’s premier midfielders. Chelsea aren’t the same side without him and if it wasn’t for his injury woes, he’d certainly make our top ten.
Goretzka is a big presence in Bayern’s midfield / Soccrates Images/GettyImages
Leon Goretzka’s transformation from lean and skinny to mean and mighty helped him morph into one of the world’s most destructive midfielders.
The Germany international certainly isn’t the cleanest of technicians, but he’s incredibly effective at what he does. He times his runs into the box superbly, while he’s an indefatigable runner out of possession.
Goretzka’s a one-man pressing juggernaut and he played a starring role for Hansi Flick’s all-conquering Bayern during the 2019/20 season. Injuries have slowed him down somewhat in recent times, but he remains one of the world’s most powerful and unique midfielders when he does take to the field.
Milinkovic-Savic has enjoyed some wonderful highlight reel moments / Paolo Bruno/GettyImages
The marauding mezzala Sergej Milinkovic-Savic continues to produce staggering numbers in the Italian capital.
The Lazio midfielder has perpetually been linked with a mammoth move away, but the Serb has long remained loyal to the Biancocelesti. His freakish profile has intrigued many members of Europe’s elite over the years, but it’s Lazio who continue to enjoy SMS’ unique talent.
The Serb can dominate physically but also dazzle with the ball at his feet. He’s a 6’3 ballerina.
Camavinga helped power Real Madrid to the 2021/22 Champions League title / Denis Doyle/GettyImages
Eduardo Camavinga is nothing short of a phenomenon.
The Frenchman’s rise to stardom felt inevitable after his performance against Paris Saint-Germain as a mere 16-year-old did the rounds of social media. Never before had we seen a player of Camavinga’s age perform as he did against a side of PSG’s quality – in central midfield, no less!
The teenager eventually joined Real Madrid and while he’s still to nail down a regular starting spot, he had a huge say in their unlikely Champions League triumph. The dynamic midfielder changed the course of four knockout ties off the bench as Real completed a gauntlet of a journey to reach the final.
It’s difficult to pick out any flaws in the Frenchman’s game, with many convinced that Camavinga will eventually develop into the world’s best midfielder further down the line.
Will De Jong last at Barcelona? / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages
Let’s not go over what happened with Frenkie de Jong in the summer and instead focus on the Dutchman’s outrageous talent.
De Jong has endured the typical peaks and troughs of being a Barcelona player. The fresh-faced midfielder is as press-resistant as they come, and he has a knack for embarking on the maziest of dribbles that astound the demanding Camp Nou faithful.
The Barça man is proactive in possession, while his defensive instincts mean he can fill in at centre-back for Xavi. Moreover, De Jong is incredibly athletic which allows him to cover a ton of ground in transition.
While our praise for the Dutchman is high, we’ve still got the feeling that there’s plenty more to come from him.
Barella is wonderful in full flight / Pier Marco Tacca/GettyImages
Nicolo Barella and the right half-space is a deadly combination.
The tenacious Italian rose to prominence during Antonio Conte’s reign at Inter as the Nerazzurri lifted the Scudetto in 2021, ending Juventus’ decade-long reign as Italian champions.
The midfielder has continued to produce in a similar role under Simone Inzaghi, but he has endured consistency issues over the past year. Still, Barella remains a player who grabs games by the scruff of the neck and will long be a staple of Inter’s midfield.
The dynamic Gundogan in action / James Gill – Danehouse/GettyImages
You can bet your bottom dollar that Ilkay Gundogan will make a world-class coach once he decides to hang up his boots – which is still a few years away yet.
The German, who won two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund, was Pep Guardiola’s first signing as Manchester City boss back in 2016. The genius manager has since labelled the German as “one of the most intelligent, wisest players” he has ever seen.
Gundogan is the ultimate Guardiola player and his importance to the Spaniard’s majestic City side can’t be overstated. He can perform multiple roles to an elite standard and his goal record in recent years has been very impressive.
It took some time for Gundogan to garner the recognition he deserves at the Etihad, and he’s seemingly only getting better!
Verratti is a mainstay at PSG / Jean Catuffe/GettyImages
Watching Marco Verratti in the build-up phase is nothing short of an exhibition. The composure he emanates even in the most hostile of environments up against the fiercest of presses is staggering. He backs himself to wriggle out of any situation, bypass any opponent; and so often he does. It’s remarkable.
But Verratti isn’t a midfielder that’s merely reliant on his outrageous technical quality to thrive. Far from it. The diminutive Italian is a gritty defender who loves to dive in – he’s partial to a booking or two, that’s for sure.
Verratti is an amalgamation of some of Italy’s great midfielders from yesteryear. He boasts Andrea Pirlo’s serenity, Daniele De Rossi’s grinta and Gennaro Gattuso’s combativeness.
Injuries have prevented the midfielder from reaching the absolute apex of the game, but he’s been one of the world’s best central midfielders for a very long time.
Thiago is a glorious playmaker / Michael Steele/GettyImages
The Spanish midfielder has quite the resumé. From Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides to Jurgen Klopp’s Merseyside juggernaut, Thiago has forever surrounded himself with the very best.
The Liverpool midfielder is nothing short of joyous to watch. His technical ability is off the scale, while he boasts the requisite aggression without the ball to have an impact in the defensive phase. He’s pretty underrated in that regard.
Thiago’s a stellar controller in the middle of the park; one that can efficiently circulate possession and alter the tempo of attacks with a sequence of technical virtuosity. There isn’t a pass he hasn’t got in his locker.
Injury woes have hamstrung him throughout his career, but the Spaniard is undoubtedly one of the world’s best central midfielders.
Kroos runs games for Real Madrid / Angel Martinez/GettyImages
You can’t give Toni Kroos an inch of space with the ball at his feet. He’ll pick you apart.
The elegant midfielder has been playing at the very highest level for a decade now and made up a third of arguably the greatest midfield trio the world has ever seen alongside Casemiro and Luka Modric.
Nevertheless, while Kroos is reaching the twilight of his career, he’s still one of the world’s most enjoyable midfielders to watch. The German has long played a crucial role for Real Madrid amid a wildly successful period for Los Blancos.
He’ll go down as one of his generation’s finest, and he remains one of the world’s best central midfielders.
Bellingham is an incredible prospect / Lars Baron/GettyImages
We can all agree that Jude Bellingham is a potential future Balon d’Or winner, right? The talent is obscene, and his stock will only continue to rise once he makes the inevitable move to one of Europe’s behemoths in the next year or so.
Once Bellingham took to the field for Borussia Dortmund, it was easy to understand why boyhood club Birmingham City retired his #22 shirt. He’ll eventually be regarded as the world’s best midfielder by many.
The English teenager has got everything required to reach the very top: a wide-ranging skill set, an infectious personality, and an indefatigable mentality. Bellingham’s a monster between the boxes, and he’s been carrying the Dortmund midfield for quite some time.
Pedri is a legend in the making / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages
The comparisons are ubiquitous, but the similarities are too distinct to ignore: Pedri is the second coming of Andres Iniesta.
The teenager’s rise to the very top of the game has been swift. It wasn’t too long ago when Pedri was toiling away in the Spanish second tier with Las Palmas. Barcelona knew the kid was special, however, and his performance away at Juventus in the Champions League during his first season at the club depicted just how talented the midfielder is.
Pedri’s a genius with and without the ball. He ghosts into pockets of space that seemingly don’t exist, dazzles in possession, and supplies teammates relentlessly. There’s an aura surrounding the low-sock-donning Spaniard that’s too strong to ignore.
This kid’s a generational talent and already one of the world’s best central midfielders.
Modric is a Ballon d’Or winner / Angel Martinez/GettyImages
With just over ten minutes to go in their Champions League quarter-final tie against Chelsea, Real Madrid were heading out despite claiming a 3-1 victory on the road in the first leg.
Then, Luka Modric happened.
The Croatian innocuously picked up possession midway through Chelsea’s half before picking Rodrygo out at the back post with the most audacious of outside-of-the-boot passes. The technique was obscene, while the touch and precision of Modric’s instinctively crafted ‘trivela’ allowed the Brazilian to finish first time with aplomb.
That sequence sparked Los Blancos into life amid their whirlwind of a journey to Champions League glory last season.
It was Modric’s fifth European title, and the described assist epitomised the Croatian’s quality. He’s one of a kind, and still one of the world’s finest.
“Who’s the best, Kevin?” / Dean Mouhtaropoulos/GettyImages
There isn’t a debate, right? Kevin De Bruyne is the best central midfielder in the world.
The Belgian combines pace and power with ingenious technical quality to create a near unstoppable force. De Bruyne’s game has evolved considerably since he first joined Manchester City and under Pep Guardiola he’s developed into arguably the Premier League’s best footballer.
He’s a statistical phenomenon whose creative capacity is off the charts. De Bruyne amassed a monster 20 assists during the 2019/20 Premier League season, while he scored 15 times last season as he claimed his fourth league title at the Etihad.
De Bruyne has modernised the central midfield role and made Pep’s ‘free eight’ function his own. Nobody can replicate what the Belgian does in the final third from a playmaking perspective.
The total midfielder, and the world’s best: Kevin De Bruyne.