When people talk about the best central midfielders in the Premier League they’ll refer to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and N’Golo Kanté in the same sentence, and that doesn’t sit right with me. One spends most of his game between the lines and rotating with the right winger whereas the other is typically a box to box destroyer. One has an attacking role with little defensive responsibility and one has a defensive role with little offensive responsibility. So how does it make sense to compare the two? Well, in short, it doesn’t, despite them both being ‘central midfielders’ in their respective teams. This suggests that a player’s role is a better parameter when comparing, or judging, central midfielders. So, what role is considered to be that of a traditional central midfielder, and who are the best players at that?
The central midfield is the middle of the park, so players who are judged within this criteria should primarily play there. The likes of Bruno Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne do not carry out most of their actions here, so they don’t fit the criteria. The likes of Henderson, Wijnaldum, Rice, Partey, Tielemens, Højbjerg, and McTominay (amongst many others) do. I also think it makes sense to include the likes of Rodri, Kanté, and Thiago in that list because although they often play in a single pivot in a midfield 3, they also regularly play in a double pivot. Grey area guys include the likes of Mason Mount and İlkay Gündoğan because of the role they play in (receiving the ball between the lines and attacking the box from deep). I’d be inclined to include Gündoğan as he has played in a double pivot on many occasions throughout his career, whereas Mount has only played in a double pivot on a miniscule amount of occasions in recent memory, so I’m not going to include him in the list. One could argue that De Bruyne should be included as a result of this logic, but when judging the requirements of a pivot player, you see that he’s not suited to the role.
So, what are the requirements of a pivot player, or a central midfielder?
I’m Irish, so I admit to probable bias when talking about him, but Roy Keane was the archetypal central midfield player once he advanced in his career and learnt to take part in the build-up. His simplistic viewpoint of the game as a pundit sees him have relatively controversial opinions on delicate matters but that same no-nonsense, simplistic attitude is why he was a world class central midfield player throughout the majority of his career. His whole game was centred around the basics – working hard, tackling, and passing the ball forwards if possible, but he wasn’t afraid to circulate play backwards or sideways if that was the right pass.
‘The priority for any midfielder is to ask themselves ‘can I pass it forward?’ Listen, sometimes it’s not and you go backwards or sideways.’ (@SkySportsMNF)
Thomas Partey is probably the most similar player to Roy Keane in the modern day, and he is the epitome of what it means to be a central midfielder. He demands the ball, he keeps the ball, he plays with intensity in and out of possession in an effort to receive and retrieve the ball, and finally he progresses play where possible. This is everything a top manager wants from his central midfielder. He cannot possibly ask for anything more. Klopp, Solskjaer and any other top manager worth their penny judges their midfielders on pass count, pass completion rates, positional discipline, physicality & work ethic. Anything else is a bonus. The majority of top midfielders like McTominay, Henderson, Wijnaldum and Partey can attack the box from deep to offer a goal threat but that’s an added bonus that comes with their quality and general determination – it’s not a requirement for the role. The below clips epitomise central midfield play.
Partey moves to receive possession and recycles play because it’s the most sensible option. He then moves intently to try to find space to receive a pass again, which he does.
He then plays a sensible low risk-high reward pass (if it works Lacazette is through on goal and if it doesn’t the ball lands in an area which enables Arsenal to counterpress which is a form of chance creation in itself). Play breaks down and he remains in position to stifle the offensive transition.
Upon receiving possession again, he aims to progress play but concludes it’s too risky to force the issue and recycles play to sustain the attack.
That is brilliant midfield play. These are the things the McTominay’s and the Henderson’s of this world do every single week but get ridiculed by fans who don’t know what a central midfielder is. This above video is exactly it. No nonsense – it’s all about efficiency.
Doing the basics to a reliable level is what made players like Roy Keane and Xavi so great. They could, and did, attack the box from deep enabling them to score goals, but their bread and butter was keeping the ball and working hard. The concentration and discipline required in carrying that level of efficiency out two or three times a week must not be scoffed at. It’s why the model professionals are typically the best central midfielders.
The problem players like Paul Pogba have is that they are ‘overly gifted’ and don’t specialise at the basics of midfield play as a result of that. Pogba can do literally everything on a football pitch – dribble in tight spaces, carry the ball large distances, play 60 or 70 yard wonder passes, score goals, you name it – he can do it. But with that brilliance comes needless errors in the middle of the park. These high risk-high reward (and in some cases low-reward) actions typically don’t outweigh the negative consequences. Dribblers, for example, are risk takers and central midfield is all about low-risk actions. You cannot afford to lose the ball in central midfield because if you do the opposition are running at your defence in open spaces and the general control of the game is lost or weakened. The average fans wants ‘ambitious’ players on the pitch to break down a low block, for example, but with that ambition in central midfield comes unnecessary ball losses which leads to the breakdown of the sustainment of attacks, control being lost in the game, and a dangerous attack for the opposition. The very best midfielders all do the basics to a high, high standard. However, we must be mindful that there are special midfielders out there like Toni Kroos who can be let off the hook for his lack of physicality but only because he performs the basics of passing to the highest standard in the world, but even at that he still ticks every other midfield principle, which is why he’s so good.
I think it’s safe to conclude that a simplistic conclusion to revert to when judging central midfielders is to ask ‘can you successfully play in a double pivot?’ Just because the likes of De Bruyne and Pogba do play there (although rarely for KDB), it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good there. I often get criticised and laughed at on Twitter for calling McTominay and Henderson world class but they tick every relevant parameter to the highest possible standard for a central midfield player. Pass count, pass completion rates, pass selection, progressing play, positional discipline, physicality, & work ethic are the requirements that matter. If dribbling and things like that mattered then Pogba would start over far more limited players in McTominay and Fred, but he doesn’t when it matters most, because he doesn’t carry out the basics of midfield play as well as them. Use these parameters to judge central midfielders and the way you see the game will change.