As football continues to evolve year after year, there is a certain position that is becoming more and more critical regardless of the tactic used by managers: the defensive midfielder. Or better, as said by our friends at L’Ultimo Uomo, the “midfielder that plays ahead of the defence”. Because modern defensive midfielders are more than just that; they can carry the ball, leading their team’s offence and strategically moving across the pitch to prevent the opponent game, even before tackling and winning the ball back. So, let’s take a look at some of the best defensive midfielders that you can find around Europe these days.

 

Rodri – Atlético Madrid
by Daniele Manusia

The midfield is a variable area of the pitch, that often looks too big when the ball is in the opponent’s’ possession, and suddenly shrinks when having the ball on the feet, with the pressure that can come from any direction. That’s why most of the managers are very attentive to the structure of their team in all phases of the game, to never leave the midfield uncovered and the players distance between each other. And there are just a few pure midfielders that, like Rodrigo Hernández, or “Rodri” if you prefer, are able to shrink the midfield during the defensive phase and stretch it out during the offensive one.

At 22, after making Atlético Madrid change its mind – they firstly sold him to Villareal for free after his years in the academy, and they bought him back for €20M – Rodri is playing his third competitive season in LaLiga and it’s now unanimously considered as one of the most talented midfielders in the word. If Simeone’s team is particularly attentive to never lose its structure, with and without the ball, Rodri has become critical both for granting the defensive balance and organizing the offensive phase.

With his 1.90M of height and his ability to read the game, Rodri is one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe, with an above-average football IQ, both when it comes to choosing on which man closing forward and when covering while running back. His skills in winning the ball back are even more exceptional when considering that, athletically speaking, he’s neither explosive nor particularly fast. It’s his pure defensive technique – the quality and elegance which he always tackles the ball with – and his long legs – which allow him to reach the ball even when covered by the opponent’s body – that make the difference.

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An example of the extraordinary quality with which Rodri defends even large areas of the pitch, reading the progression of the play and positioning himself in the right place at the right time.

Rodri matches to the body size of the hardest defensive midfielders in the aerial duels and in the 1v1s, the calm and rational passing game of a classic midfielder. He’s a facilitator of the game, with the head-on and a clean style in every moment. He’s not creative, nor particularly sensible when it comes to passing the ball in narrow spaces, but he’s quite comfortable when in the offensive midfield.

He manages many balls every game (averaging 61.2 per 90min) with the highest accuracy of the entire Atlético squad (90.2%). In Cholo’s intense and hyper-athletic football, Rodri finds the time and a way to think with a natural fluidity that says much about an uncommon charisma. He’s already an extremely mature footballer and, yet reaching a high level at a young age, he creates lots of expectations. His future depends on Simone team’s one, on the ability of the Argentinian manager to renovate his system to support his most technical players’ qualities (Lemar, Griezmann, Correa, Saúl, and Rodri himself), and on his role in the Spanish National Team (where he has a lot of competition). If someone asks: “How should a Defensive Midfielder play in 2019”? You have to think about Rodri before answering.

 

Miralem Pjanic – Juventus
by Emanuele Atturo

Miralem Pjanic is 29 and just a few seasons ago, not so many people would’ve believed that he could’ve turned into a playmaker. The Bosnian is one of those players born as trequartistas but that, trying to adapt to the evolution of football, have progressively lowered their game range. To play on the last quarter of the pitch, it takes the ability to avoid pressure at high intensity, in narrow spaces, working hard with the goal behind and in physical duels; that’s why Pjanic has initially been played as inside midfielder at Roma and then, once at Juve, Allegri played him as a playmaker.

In his first games, Pjanic looked in trouble but the manager was still positive – “I’m certain he will soon become one of the world’s best in that position”, he said. Indeed, today Pjanic is one of the best playmakers in the world, with a unique ability to influence the style and pace of his team’s offence. He’s the Serie A player – after Brozovic, another trequartista turned into playmaker – that completes the most passes per 90/min (77): this is the season in which Pjanic has completed the most passes, a testimony of how Juventus wants to dominate games through ball possession. On the other hand, Pjanic lowered his offensive production’s stats in the last seasons – from the 10 goals and 12 assists of his last season with Roma to the 5 goals and 8 assists registered last year.

In front of the defence, Pjanic can hide his physical limits and exalt his intelligence. Among the defensive midfielders, Pjanic is the one who needs to overcome his athletic deficiencies the most, mainly trying to think before everyone else. In this Juventus team that chose the ball as the heart of its technical project, Pjanic regulates all the game flows, particularly helping in pulling off the ball forming a useful and effective triangle with Bonucci and Cancelo. As often happens, Pjanic’s importance has been more obvious when he hasn’t been on the pitch and Juventus had to play Emre Can in that position, losing its ability to pull off the ball with ease.

Thanks to his past as inside midfielder, Pjanic lacks a pure playmaker’s game pace and he’s not very good at organizing the team with possession. He likes to play the ball using his perception, creatively alternating short and long passes, dribbles and one-touch passes. Pjanic is a good architect of the midfield but he becomes truly exceptional when he can focus on giving his team’s offences rhythm and fluidity.

One of Pjanic’s best games of his career was a few weeks ago, in the Champions League second leg against Atlético at the Allianz Stadium. Within an extreme proactive Juventus, Pjanic shined with the high rhythms he imposed to Juventus’ possession but also for one of his most underestimated qualities: his ability to read the game without the ball, to defend forward, cutting off the opponents’ lines of passing.

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Against Sassuolo, Pjanic keeps defending on Locatelli until he realizes that Peluso is turning his body to seek a more vertical position; at that point, he changes the direction of his run, closes the central space and intercepts the ball.

When talking about Miralem Pjanic, people always highlight the sensitivity of his right foot and his free-kicks precision, but he a way more complex player than that, able to survive in an ultra-physical football mainly thanks to the brilliance of his ideas.

 

Tiemoué Bakayoko – Milan
by Federico Aquè

After the first game played with AC Milan, when he was subbed in for Lucas Biglia in the 3-2 defeat against Napoli during Serie A second gameday – Tiémoué Bakayoko simply looked unfit for playing as a playmaker in a three-man midfield. Gennaro Gattuso criticized him by targeting a critical feature of every footballer: «He has to learn to receive the ball, with the right posture. We’re working on this but it won’t be easy».

It’s not surprising, then, that in his first months at Milan, Bakayoko has been a reserve. At the end of October, Gattuso still thought that the lack of minutes for the French midfielder was, first of all, a tactical problem: «I haven’t been able to tactically access his mind yet, to let him understand the movements». Bakayoko became a starter only after Luas Biglia’s severe calf injury and his performances have improved so much in so little time that Gattuso wanted to praise him by comparing him to Desailly, also saying that “he may have a better technique”.

Desailly was a defender that become a midfielder at Milan. He wasn’t only able to recover the ball, but he also made the difference by opening the opponents’ formation with the ball at his feet. Bakayoko, even having different skills, stands out in the same aspects that made Desailly shine in the midfield: he’s good at breaking the opponent play and he’s hard to stop him when he carries the ball. In Serie A, he attempts an average of 4.18 dribbles per 90/min, and he has a success percentage of 74.4%. Impressive numbers for a defensive midfielder.

Gattuso initially considered him too aggressive to be played at the lower vertex of the midfield and so, Bakayoko had to learn to defend in a more intelligent way, to read the passing lanes and to give stability to the defensive structure by moving to cover his teammates, limiting the exits from the line to face the opponents in possession. The improvements he has made in reading the opponent game are perceivable through his interceptions, considerably increased since when he’s at Milan.

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His ability in protecting the spaces in front of the defence gave the Rossoneri more solidity without the ball. In the 17 games Bakayoko played as a starter in Serie A, Milan only conceded 11 goals and Donnarumma got 7 clean sheets. Not only Bakayoko is tough to surpass when he presses forward and faces the opponents (even if he suffers more agile players than him), but he’s also good at running back towards his goal and he has a good positioning when he runs sideways, a quality that allows him to recover the ball by predicting the opponents’ moves. More, he added height and strength in the penalty area, an important aspect considering that AC Milan defends with a quite low line.

On the other hand, while in possession Bakayoko often looks for the duel with his opponent, gambling on his ability to protect the ball and winning the physical challenge. When he receives the ball, he usually let the ball go by, in order to orientate the control towards the opponent goal and sometimes exposing himself to the pressure, risking to lose the ball in dangerous areas. When carrying the ball, he doesn’t make the difference only when he has plenty of space to run to, as he moves with agility in narrow spaces as well and he has the skills to control the ball in complicated situations.

His ball distribution is not particularly creative and, especially when under pressure, he just stretches the play out on the wings or gives the ball back. If he has teammates around him, he’s capable of participating in quick one-twos without slowing the action down. To find more complex passes, the ones that cut the opponent line, he needs space and time to see and prepare the play, and he doesn’t like long balls. So, he’s not a defensive midfielder with a particularly refined technique or vision that can be the leader of a game based on passing, but he’s a landmark to advance the ball quickly, both if receiving when the play starts or in the opponent half.

Bakayoko builds his game around the awareness of his physical strength, that allows him not only to be dominant in the defensive phase but also to open the opposition lines when he has the ball at his feet. At the end of the Coppa Italia 2-0 win against Napoli, one of the best games played this season by the Frenchman, Gattuso perfectly synthesizes his skills: “He’s an uncharacteristic defensive midfielder, he engages you and pass you every time. He has the physicality and gives us superior numbers. In the beginning, he used to make a lot of mistakes in the interceptions, but now he moves diagonally and closes the passing lines. He’s a very important player for us.”

 

Lucas Torreira – Arsenal
by Dario Saltari

Even if he’s been at Arsenal only for six months, and after just two seasons in Serie A, Lucas Torreira has already stood out as a fundamental player in Unai Emery’s Arsenal. If his ascent is surprising by itself, especially considering that his debut in Serie B was just four years ago, is even more surprising that he’s imposing himself as a defensive midfielder, rather than an offensive one. Jonathan Wilson, for example, compared him to Gilberto Silva, while Arsenal supporters readjusted for him an old song dedicated to Patrick Vieira: “He comes from Uruguay, he’s only five-foot high”.

You just have to picture the body size of the two players to understand the singularity of Torreira’s impact on the Premier League, a league that, regardless of the tactical evolution of the last years, is still defined by the long phases of transition in the long spaces and uncontrolled intensity. And yet, even if his short legs don’t allow him to cover big areas of the pitch only running and he doesn’t seem to have the physicality to face the hardest tackles, Emery gambled on his very defensive skills, and his bet paid off.

At Arsenal, Torreira is played in a two-man midfield most of the times – in a 3-4-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 – sided by a more creative midfielder (like Guendouzi or Xhaka) with the task of getting the ball to the opponent box, while Torreira usually limits himself to conservative choices. For Italian fans, used to see him carrying the ball in the maniacal ball possession of Giampaolo’s Sampdoria, it might be a surprise but that doesn’t mean that Torreira is somehow adapting to a position that doesn’t belong to him. Actually, his defensive talent is obvious and is what highlights his intelligence the most.

The Uruguayan midfielder compensates the inability to cover dozens of meters within a few seconds with his reading of the game, and he can often be seen anticipating the opponents way before they can think about a way to protect themselves with their body. His ability in preventive coverings and management of the half-spaces if critical for Arsenal’s solidity in the moments of the games when the teams stretch and the energies lack, with a contribution that comes from the concentration more than the running, and that is very different than other defensive specialists in that position like Kanté or Casemiro. Torreira is the man that always knows where to be and when to leave his position to recover the ball, while the other players scatter on the pitch when the game starts to look like a pitched battle.

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In this case, Torreira left his position to meet the ball, surprising the opponent from the back and stopping Burnley’s counter-attack right away.

On Torreira’s ability, particularly on his technique in defending the ball with the goal at his back, is also based Arsenal’s resistance to the opponent pressure. Emery’s playmaker has a massive strength in his legs, that he hammers to the ground to keep the opponent away, and an exceptional ability to always find a way to use his body to defend the ball, using his pelvis as a basketball player would do while preparing for shooting with the basket behind him.

None of these aspects of Torreira’s talent is a surprise by itself, but the fact that he’s showing them at those levels, in a different tactical context, and in a more direct and vertical game that he was used to, is another confirmation of his completeness.

Torreira is not a creative playmaker and he won’t ever break the rhythm of a game with an improvised play. On the contrary, his talent, both with and especially without the ball, is shown in the repetition of a game pattern, in the industrial continuity in replicating determined plays with the same precision. And this is why he looks like an essential part of the super-organized game of modern top clubs, that wants to limit the freedom of the individual to support interiorized mechanisms.

 

Frenkie De Jong – Ajax
by Daniele V. Morrone

Frenkie de Jong earned his notoriety thanks to his European performances with Ajax but also with Koeman’s Netherlands NT. And yet, de Jong doesn’t have these many appearances at a high level. Even if coming from a league that has no fear of debuting young players, de Jong became a starter for Ajax only in the 2017/18 season.

Grown by his choice outside of the big academies, specifically at Willem II, he came to Ajax in 2015, at the age of 18, when he already debuted for Willem II‘s first team. His first game with the Lancers arrived lately for the league’s standards, as only after an entire season with the second team he got his debut in November 2016, during a season spent half the time with the second team and the other half on the bench. So, de Jong became a starter only last season but his ascent has been rapid: it just took him one and a half year to sign for Barcelona for €75M (he will move at the end of this season).

Frenkie de Jong eludes the categorizations of the positions we are used to in this hyper-specialized football, he can cover every position on the pitch by adapting his game to the tasks he has to execute. He played in front of the defence, as an inside midfielder – both on the left and the right – and also as a centre back with a license to move forward.

He can also change his position during a game and his performance won’t be affected by it. He’s tall and slim, more rapid than quick, he has excellent control of his body while running and ability to keep the balance, that allows him to keep the control of the ball and to survive all tackles. He has great reflexes that, alongside with his readings without the ball, makes him a great ball recover. He defends better forward than behind, attacking the ball quickly and playing it immediately. So, he’s not the classic positional player in front of the defence, he has to move freely.

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Here de Jong receives the ball in the midfield with a lined-up defence and carrying the ball he manages to split the team in two before creating the 2v1 chance with a deep pass.

De Jong has to be left free to create because otherwise, he risks creating chaos: because he moves where he thinks that the team’s play has to develop, that’s why his touches of the ball cover all the pitch and his movements are actually unpredictable for those who don’t play with him frequently. Sometimes, he distances himself so much from the ball that he looks disinterested, while other times he looks the ball so much that he almost cuts his closest teammates’ passing lines.

Either way, de Jong always finds a way to carry the ball forward, either carrying it himself or with a deep pass or a long ball if his teammates move well. He does it in his own unorthodox way of interpreting the position, in which he doesn’t play with one-touch passes but prefers to keep the ball until he has found the right pass to the man behind the pressure line. De Jong not only resists to the opponent pressure, but he seems to seek it to take advantage of it for his own purposes.

His talent in breaking the opponent pressure lines is maybe the most obvious, but it’s hard to find a technical fundamental for his position in which he doesn’t stand out: starting from his ability to always place his body in the right way before receiving the ball to his oriented control, and also the precision of his long passes. If contemporary midfielders are requested to resist the opponent pressure and help in carrying the ball forward, then we have a special player in Frankie de Jong on that matter.

 

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