The Premier League has had some outstanding defensive midfielders in its history, from tough-tackling midfield generals to deep-lying conductors at the base of the midfield.
Midfielders are categorised now more than ever before with the days of expected box-to-box influence replaced by more specialist roles. Defensive midfielders are among the most fundamental parts of a successful team, tasked with screening the defence and serving as a conduit from back to front.
We’ve decided to look back at some of the division’s greatest defensive midfielders, a collection of stars who stamped their authority on Premier League pitches.
Roy Keane has said himself that the defensive midfielder is a modern concept, with the Irishman at home in an era where central midfielders were required to do it all and 4-4-2 was the go-to shape for sides.
Keane could, and did, do it all. The former Manchester United midfielder was ferocious in the challenge, made his side tick and powered forward into the opposition box when the time was right. The defining characteristics of his games were defensive however, as he snarled into tackles, demanded the best from those around him and set standards for effort and commitment.
— Premier League (@premierleague) July 19, 2020
Keane’s career was one of decorated success as he won seven Premier League titles and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on five occasions, the captain of the division’s dominant force under Sir Alex Ferguson.
He was named as the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year as Manchester United won the 1999/2000 title in then-record-breaking fashion, following a campaign of combative excellence in the Red Devils’ engine room.
His reputation as a Premier League hard-man was well-earned after running battles with other enforcers of the era, with Keane’s clashes with names such as David Batty, Gary Speed, Steven Gerrard and, most notably, Patrick Vieira often box-office viewing.
Patrick Vieira was on the opposite side of the Manchester United-Arsenal rivalry that was perhaps peak Premier League across the turn of the millennium, with the Frenchman involved in a long-running battle with the aforementioned Keane that still recalled with fond nostalgia.
Vieira at his best was a complete midfielder, a monster in the middle who drove on the best Arsenal teams of the modern era. Signed for a fee of just £3.5m from AC Milan, he made an immediate impact with his presence a pivotal part of the Gunners rise under Arsene Wenger.
Domestic doubles were secured in 1997/98 and 2001/02, the first of which saw Vieira form a formidable midfield partnership with Emmanuel Petit. He replaced Tony Adams as captain after the defender’s retirement and captained Arsenal to a third title success in 2003/04, this time in historic fashion as the club completed an entire Premier League campaign without defeat.
Vieira was the leader of Arsenal’s Invincibles side, a towering presence whose long legs ate up the turf and came from nowhere to hook the ball away from opposition players.
Add in the odd important goal and Vieira was the complete package. It was battle whenever he crossed the white line and opponents soon knew about it.
Arguably the man who pioneered the anchor role, with Claude Makelele so good that the term ‘Makelele-role’ became a part of every day football vocabulary.
Makelele was the under-appreciated glue of the Real Madrid side, but president Florentino Perez’s desire for glamour over graft saw the Frenchman squeezed out at the Spanish capital. His exit was much to the disappointment of Zinedine Zidane, who likened the sale of Makelele – and purchase of David Beckham – to adding another layer of gold paint to a Bentley that had just lost its engine.
When Claude Makelele scores and you lift your first @PremierLeague title on the same day…
An afternoon we will never forget, 14 years ago today! 🏆 pic.twitter.com/tbkrNu9Cdi
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) May 7, 2019
Chelsea benefitted from Madrid’s lack of appreciation for the midfield destroyer, who went on to spend five seasons at west London and win a wealth of honours. Makelele formed part of the Chelsea teams that won back-to-back Premier League titles under Jose Mourinho in 2004/05 and 2005/06, the first achieved with an all-time record low of just 15 goals conceded.
Makelele’s influence was a major factor in that record-breaking defensive record, with the France international so often in the right place to snuff out opposition attacks. Intelligent, alert, and positionally perfect, he was the backbone of the Blues’ team that dominated the division under Mourinho.
If Makelele brought endeavour to the defensive midfield role, then Xabi Alonso certainly brought the elegance. The Spanish star was one of Rafael Benitez’s first signings after being appointed as Liverpool manager in 2004 and proved to be arguably his best.
Alonso was an excellent addition to the Liverpool midfield and went on to win the Champions League during his debut campaign, with the midfielder scoring the equaliser in the dramatic final win over AC Milan in Istanbul.
— Premier League (@premierleague) March 3, 2020
Alonso’s arrival allowed Steven Gerrard to move into a more advanced role, with the former dictating the game from deep with technical quality and an expansive passing range. The Basque-born midfielder was one of the best long-range passers English football has seen with unerring accuracy when spreading the ball across the pitch, always available to receive possession from the backline before launching Liverpool forward with pinpoint precision.
He made 210 appearances in all competitions for Liverpool and also won the FA Cup and UEFA Super Cup, forming a fine partnership with Javier Mascherano in his latter time with the Reds that offered a brilliant balance of bite and poise.
Alonso departed for Real Madrid after a fall-out with Benitez and left a gaping hole in the Liverpool engine room, one which began a period of decline for the club that took several seasons to address.
Michael Carrick spent more than a decade collecting major trophies at Manchester United, but it was arguably only in his latter period with the club where the midfielder was given his flowers.
Carrick signed for the Red Devils from Tottenham after impressing during spells with the north Londoners and West Ham, though arrived under pressure as a replacement for departed club legend Roy Keane.
The comparisons, particularly stylistically, made his early time with the club challenging but Carrick evolved into one of the most influential and effective midfielders in the Premier League. Alongside Paul Scholes, the duo dictated games with class and control, dominating possession as dual metronomes at the base of the midfield.
— Premier League (@premierleague) July 31, 2021
Carrick was a deep-lying conductor, confident on the ball and assured in his passing, and one criminally underused with England when his game appeared tailor-made for the demands of international football.
He called time on his career at the end of the 2017/18 campaign, having had an instrumental role in five Premier League titles, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, Europa League, Community Shield and Club World Cup success. He is one of just two Englishman, alongside Wayne Rooney, to have won each of those honours.
Fernandinho’s near decade at Manchester City saw the Brazilian place his name in the conversation of the Premier League’s greatest defensive midfielders, an argument given weight through sheer consistency of performance.
Signed from Shakhtar Donetsk there was scepticism upon his initial arrival, aged 28, with just a handful of international caps and no experience of one of Europe’s top five leagues. His first season saw Fernandinho emphatically answer any doubts, with his arrival unleashing Yaya Toure from his shackles as Manchester City won the Premier League in 2013/14.
— Premier League (@premierleague) May 25, 2020
Fernandinho was composed, combative and occasionally cynical, demonstrating all the hallmarks required of an elite defensive screen. He remained integral at the Etihad until his late thirties, by which time he had amassed 383 appearances and won five league titles and seven domestic cups.
An irreplaceable presence for the most successful side of the modern Premier League, his technical and tactical excellence saw Fernandinho thrive as the pivot of Pep Guardiola’s standard-setting side.
N’Golo Kante has been a magnet for major trophies during his career to date, a midfielder who has been firmly at the centre of his side’s successes.
Leicester unearthed the midfielder at Caen and secured a £5.6 million deal for Kante, a figure the Foxes would recoup five-fold after a debut season that saw the Frenchman star in the club’s shock Premier League title success. His all-action presence was central to Leicester’s incredible tale as Kante led the league for tackles (175) and interceptions (157).
Chelsea came in for Kante after his box-to-box brilliance for Leicester and soon felt the benefits of the bustling one-man midfield, securing the Premier League title in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
🎬 Kanté’s 2021 final masterclass…
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) March 29, 2023
Kante became the first player since Eric Cantona to win consecutive top-flight titles with different teams and was named as the PFA Player of the Year for his role in Chelsea’s triumph.
Since then the midfielder has won the World Cup with France, alongside FA Cup, Europa League and Champions League winners’ medals with Chelsea. At his best he was a near unstoppable force of tenacity and timing, appearing to be in multiple areas of the pitch and once and frustrating opposition midfielders with clean challenges and perfect interceptions.
The heartbeat of the current Manchester City side, Rodri has emerged as arguably world football’s best defensive midfielder since swapping Atletico Madrid for the Etihad.
Rodri’s evolution in the Premier League has seen the Spaniard replace Fernandinho as the fulcrum of the side, a defensive pivot who oozes confidence and calm at the base of the midfield. Rodri rarely wastes possession and consistently ranks among Europe’s leaders for pass completion, a metronomic figure for the Citizens who often monopolise possession under Pep Guardiola.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 23, 2022
Guardiola has unearthed and nurtured the perfect pivot for his side, with Rodri exceptional under pressure, dominant in duels and able to pick passes over a range of distances off either foot.
The modern Manchester City are packed full of world-class talents, but arguably no player is as indispensable as Rodri. He has been the centre-piece of a side that has won three consecutive Premier League titles and claimed a historic continental treble in 2022/23.
Spain have produced no shortage of star midfielders across the past two decades and Rodri is among the best of the current generation.