The three-person midfield formation in football has created a lot of brilliant players in the last decade.
In this context, the central defensive midfielder and central attacking midfielder categories are exhaustive ones, with each type meriting dedicated articles. Similar to these two categories is the one about the central midfielder.
The players who have made the top 5 in this list all possess a set of attributes necessary in a modern-day midfielder. Vision, long-range and short-range passing, assists, ability to change a game with a moment of brilliance, ability to dictate the tempo of a game, and scoring goals from midfield are necessary elements in the arsenal of any successful midfield player. Apart from the qualities as mentioned earlier, it is always beneficial for a central midfielder to have an intangible feature about him called 'X-factor'.
Every player to have made this top 5 list has won multiple titles and trophies for their respective clubs and countries during the period 2010 to 2019. Each player has also won numerous player of the season awards, captained their respective club teams, and is adored by the fans of teams they play for.
Without any further ado, let us meet the five best central midfielders of the last decade.
# 5: Paul Pogba (Manchester United/France)
Paul Pogba is one of the most talked-about midfielders of the last decade. There are some fans who call themselves 'Pogba FC' and back him fervently, while there are others who do not miss an opportunity to criticise him; not always for the right reasons, though.
The Frenchman possesses every attribute that one could look for in a modern-day midfielder. Pogba has an impressive range of long passes, can score goals, has strength, speed, and agility. His vision, when on song, is exemplary.
But the only obvious criticism of his game is that he tends to go missing in big games. Consistency has never been Pogba's forte. And it is precisely for this reason that the Frenchman does not find himself higher than fifth on this list.
Pogba has had some standout performances for club and country in the decade that was 2010 to 2019. His performances in big games like the away game at Manchester City in 2018-19, the 2016-17 Europa League final, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup final for France are but a few such instances. But for a player of the Frenchman's pedigree, with 'world-class' written all over him, such big performances have been too few and far between.
The 27-year-old has won 9 major trophies in the last decade. Pogba's trophy haul includes the FIFA World Cup with France in 2018, 4 Serie A titles and 2 Coppa Italia titles with Juventus, and a League Cup and a Europa League title with his present club Manchester United.
The Frenchman has also won numerous individual honours like being named in the 2016-17 Europa League Team of the Year, 2018-19 Premier League Team of the year, and the Serie A team of the year in three consecutive seasons.
With age on his side, the Frenchman still has time to realise his potential and become a greater force to be reckoned with in the days ahead.
# 4. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City/Belgium)
Kevin De Bruyne and Pogba are like the central midfielder equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Each set of fans always considers their player to be better than the other. The fact is there isn’t much to separate De Bruyne and Pogba in terms of midfielder attributes.
De Bruyne has had the benefit of a world-class coach in Pep Guardiola who has allowed the former to blossom under his tutelage. Furthermore, the Belgian plays for a Manchester City team brimming with world-class players, which means that De Bruyne is not saddled by the burden of solely carrying the team's hopes on his able shoulders.
What also sets De Bruyne apart from Pogba is that the former is far more consistent, and isn't very active on social media, which seems evident in off-field issues rarely interfering with his game-play. The Belgian has a vision that only a few world-class players possess. De Bruyne has a deceptive speed and strength about him, and his Beckamesque crosses have vicious curl and deadly accuracy.
Like Pogba, De Bruyne has also garnered nine trophies during the last decade. The Belgian has won four FA Cup titles, two Premier League titles, and one FA Cup title for his present club Manchester City, a DFB Pokal title with Bundesliga club Wolfsburg, and a Belgian Pro League title with Genk.
Apart from team titles, the 28-year-old has also won numerous individual accolades. Besides being included in the team of the year in various competitions, De Bruyne was the 2014-15 Bundesliga Player of the Year, 2015 Footballer of the Year (in Germany), a two-time Manchester City Player of the Year, and 2015 Belgian Sportsman of the Year.
As a midfielder, De Bryune has scored 70 goals in over 300 league games in three different countries (Belgium, Germany, England), and presently averages a goal every four games in all competitions for Manchester City.
# 3. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid/Germany)
Toni Kroos was close to being a Manchester United player. What a signing that would have been! But as things eventually turned out, United's loss turned out to be Real Madrid's gain. And Kroos would not mind that.
The German played a key role in Madrid becoming the first club in the Champions League era to win a three-peat in the competition (2015-16 to 2017-18). Kroos is best deployed in the centre of midfield as a deep-lying playmaker, operating in a box-to-box role due to his prowess in breaking up play, retaining possession, and creating chances for teammates.
Kroos has a deceptively powerful long-range striking ability and is also adept in setpieces. Though the German's pace has receded in recent years, he is the engine room of his team's midfield. The 30-year-old possesses an uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time to either break up opposition play or to retain possession.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup winner for Germany has won a plethora of trophies in club football for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Major trophies won by Kroos include four Champions League titles (3 with Real Madrid, 1 with Bayern Munich), four league titles (3 with Bayern Munich, 1 with Real Madrid), two League Cup titles apiece for Bayern and Real Madrid, five FIFA Club World Cup titles (4 with Real Madrid, 1 with Bayern Munich), and 3 UEFA Super Cup titles (2 for Real Madrid, 1 for Bayern Munich).
Kroos averages a goal roughly every nine games in all competitions in club football, a return that might look underwhelming when viewed in isolation. But what makes Kroos an integral part of any team is his ability to churn out scoring opportunities for colleagues. The German tallies about two assists in club football for every goal he scores.
# 2. Luka Modric (Real Madrid/Croatia)
Luka Modric, the only Ballon D’or winner in this list, finds a place in the top two in this list.
The Croatian is a world-class midfielder. Modric is a pacy and creative playmaker who possesses a good vision, is adept off both foot, and can change the complexion of games with his deft passes and long-range efforts. The 34-year-old, blessed with immaculate positional awareness, has an underrated dribbling ability.
Modric might not score too many goals and direct assists but is instrumental in kickstarting attacking moves for his team. The Croatian is also proficient in wriggling out of tight spots in midfield, and rarely concedes possession to the opposition. In over 500 games in club football for various clubs, Modric, like Kroos averages roughly a goal every nine games in all competitions, and provides an assist once every six games.
The 2018 Ballon d'Or winner who reached the FIFA World Cup final for Croatia that same year, has won 17 of 23 trophies in club football for Real Madrid. It is a tally that includes four Champions League titles, as many FIFA Club World Cup titles, a Liga title, three UEFA Super Cup titles and five other domestic titles.
Apart from the prestigious Ballon d'Or, which he won in 2018, Modric has also been bestowed with other individual honours like the 2017-18 UEFA Men's Player of the Year, and the 2018 FIFA Men's Player of the Year awards.
# 1. Andres Iniesta (Barcelona/Spain)
Lionel Messi almost always grabs the headlines for his brilliance, but many of his goals may not come without a certain Andres Iniesta creating them.
Due to his versatility, Iniesta could play as a wide attacking midfielder, and sometimes as a second striker role at Barcelona. But the Spaniard made his name as a world-class player by being part of central midfield alongside Xavi Hernandez, at both club and international level.
The diminutive Iniesta is above anyone else on this list because of the fact that he was brilliant for both club and country. The midfielder, who famously scored Spain's winner against the Netherlands in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final, was once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as:
“He’s fantastic. He makes the team work. The way he finds passes, his movement and ability to create space is incredible. He’s so important for Barcelona.”
When arguably one of the greatest football managers of all time was so effusive in his praise of Iniesta, one can only fathom how good the Spaniard was. The 35-year-old twice finished second to teammate Lionel Messi in the prestigious Ballon d'Or shortlist during the last decade, which is a fabulous achievement.
In European club football, Iniesta won every major competition he played in, as is evident in his trophy haul of nine Liga titles, six Copa Del Ray titles, four Champions League titles and 13 other titles. Iniesta also has a rich haul of trophies in international football. The diminutive playmaker is a two-time European Championship winner (2008, 2012), and a FIFA World Cup winner for Spain (2010).
For his sterling achievements in club and international football, Iniesta is an indisputable choice for the best central midfielder of the decade that was 2010 to 2019.
# Other Honourable Mentions
Apart from the five central midfielders mentioned above, an honourable mention needs to be made of the following few players as well even though they did not make the top 5 of our list.
Cesc Fabregas (Monaco/Spain)
Only the brilliance of the above five players keeps Cesc Fabregas out of the top 5 in our list.
At Barcelona, he was mainly deployed in an attacking role, before Jose Mourinho turned him into a more deeper-lying box to box playmaker at Chelsea. In both positions, Fabregas gave a good account of himself.
During the 2010s decade in club football, the Spaniard won a La Liga title (Barcelona), two Premier League titles (Chelsea), and multiple domestic cup titles. Like his compatriot Iniesta, Fabregas is an also a two-time European Championship winner (2008, 2012), and a FIFA World Cup winner (2010) with Spain.
Arturo Vidal (Barcelona/Chile)
Arturo Vidal played for three clubs (Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona) in as many countries, and has won the league title in all three countries.
Vidal also has two Champions League titles and multiple domestic Cups. The Chilean finds a mention in this article because of his pace, power and flair he has exhibited for various teams.
Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona/Spain)
Xavi Hernandez had an outstanding first four years of the 2010s decade with Barcelona, before ending his club career at Al Saad in Saudi Arabia.
Xavi was the best midfielder of the 2000s decade, and a legend in his own right, winning multiple titles in club and international football.Published 23 Apr 2020, 00:10 IST