The best midfielders of all time

  • The world's greatest midfielders have come in all shapes and sizes
  • Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini and Lothar Mattheus among the best ever
  • Barcelona and Real Madrid have been blessed with superstar midfields in contemporary times
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were the beating heart of Real Madrid for almost a decade
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were the beating heart of Real Madrid for almost a decade / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

Since the establishment of 'modern football' in the 1860s, evolution has been a perpetual theme.

The sport is pretty unrecognisable from when England faced Scotland in the first international match recognised by FIFA in 1872.

Sure, there were similarities to the contemporary stuff with a spherical-shape object being kicked around by 22 players, 11 on each team, but the idea of a 'midfielder' operating between the goal-getters and stoppers hadn't yet come to fruition. The 22 players performing in Partick that day were split into goalkeepers, backs, half-backs and forwards.

Half-backs were the closest thing the Victorians had to the modern-day midfielder, but their function was pretty primitive and focused on serving the more talented stars ahead of them.

The 'midfielder' concept has taken on many forms during the sport's evolution, with players being slotted into sub-categories based on their profile. Some are defensive, others are box-to-box, while the more glamorous are regarded as attacking midfielders - perhaps not quite a 'number ten'. The likes of Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona have been excluded from this ranking as a result.

Here are 90min's greatest midfielders of all time.

25. Jean Tigana

French Soccer Player Jean Tigana
Tigana was part of the French 'Magic Square' / Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/GettyImages

Tactical evolution means most modern candidates for the greatest midfield of all-time honours are usually triumvirates. Four-man midfields are a concept from yesteryear and the French national team of the 1980s undisputedly had the finest in Europe.

Jean Tigana was a key corner of 'Le Carre Magique' ('The Magic Square) that dazzled on the international stage, particularly at Euro 84. This was a golden quartet whose primary energy source arrived from the lungs and legs of Tigana.

The diminutive midfielder was a relentless player who operated as the perfect foil for the grace and class of his swashbuckling teammates in France's engine room.

He was perhaps the best box-to-box midfielder of his generation and his success at club level only adds to his unassuming legacy. Tigana won three league titles and three domestic cups with Bordeaux.

24. Gunter Netzer

Gunter Netzer
Netzer was West Germany's swashbuckling playmaker in the 70s / Keystone/GettyImages

Germany certainly aren't shy of legends and Gunter Netzer's a name that seemingly gets lost amid the litany of Mannschaft icons.

Netzer, though, deserves just as many flowers as Germany's all-time greats. It was Netzer who functioned as Helmut Schon's key man during the West German Euros success of 1972, not Franz Beckenbauer or Gerd Muller. Netzer could dictate games from an advanced number 10 position, roaming across the turf to affect play as much as he could.

He boasted regista qualities as an efficient playmaker, with his aesthetic, flowing locks and all, only adding to his suave playing style.

Netzer conquered Germany twice with Borussia Monchengladbach, was named his country's player of the year in 1972 and went on to lift two league titles with Real Madrid.

23. Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard
Lampard is the highest-scoring midfielder in Premier League history / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

Harry Redknapp knew what he had in Frank Lampard all those years ago. As the pair sat at a West Ham fans forum in 1996, Redknapp confidently asserted the babyfaced teenager was "heading right to the very top".

Redknapp certainly wasn't wrong.

Lampard perhaps wasn't the most refined of midfielders but he was typically English and his ability to crash the box with the utmost precision meant he ended his career as the Premier League's highest-scoring midfielder.

The modern-day Chelsea icon finished with a whopping 177 goals in the top flight, as well as three league titles and a Champions League crown in his back pocket.

22. Patrick Vieira

Patrick Vieira of Arsenal
There were few better all-rounders than Vieira / Stuart Franklin/GettyImages

Few midfielders fit the 'all-rounder' profile more than Patrick Vieira. Revered on English shores for his work with Arsenal, Vieira was the beating heart of Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles'.

Boasting a gazelle-like stride, Vieira could cover ground at a canter which allowed him to contribute to every phase. The Frenchman was able to sniff out counters via premier recovery running, drive through the heart of his opponents with spearing ball-carries and score his fair share of goals once he arrived in the box.

Vieira was the prototypical box-to-box performer and a stint at Inter following his Arsenal exit would see him add four league titles to his impressive trophy haul.

21. N'Golo Kante

N'Golo Kante
N'Golo Kante had a remarkable impact in the Premier League / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

N'Golo Kante was more Tigana than Vieira in size, but the loveable midfielder has drawn comparisons to the latter in terms of legacy. While Vieira may have longevity over France's future box-to-box terrier, Kante's apex was arguably superior.

His impact in England was utterly remarkable,and he became the first outfielder to lift back-to-back Premier League titles with two different clubs. Deployed alongside a positionally adept holder, Kante was let loose in a bid to hassle and terrorise opponents. At his very best, there may have been nobody better at putting out fires in the middle of the park.

Injuries saw his career at Chelsea wane, but he still had time to produce a standout performance in the 2021 Champions League final against Manchester City. He's also a World Cup winner.

20. Steven Gerrard

Liverpool's England's captain and midfie
Gerrard inspired Liverpool's miraculous comeback in the 2005 Champions League final / TARIK TINAZAY/GettyImages

Spoiler alert: there's no Paul Scholes in this top 25 list, so here's the definitive answer to the perpetual Scholes, Lampard or Steven Gerrard debate.

It's Stevie G. He was the best. He was always the best.

If Lampard was the prototypical English midfielder, Gerrard was the archetype. Bullish, brutish and powerful but technically majestic, the Scouse superstar spent his entire career dominating opponents at Anfield.

He could inspire and galvanise his team unlike any of his contemporaries and there's no doubt there would have been no 'Miracle in Istanbul' if it wasn't for Liverpool's local hero.

The absence of a Premier League title undoubtedly hinders his legacy, but as a 'pure' footballer, Gerrard tops the great English performers of his day.

19. Andrea Pirlo

Andrea Pirlo
Pirlo dazzled during his twilight at Juventus / Claudio Villa/GettyImages

Beppe Marotta knows a shrewd bit of business when he sees it and acquiring Andrea Pirlo on a Bosman transfer in 2011 is self-regarded as the great operator's best bit of work.

Pirlo, a trequartista turned regista, had established himself as one-of-a-kind midfielder at Milan, forming a wonderfully balanced partnership alongside tenacious tackler Gennaro Gattuso. Pirlo's class and overwhelming technical proficiency helped Italy to World Cup glory in 2006 and Milan to multiple Scudetti and Champions League crowns.

However, the Rossoneri erroneously believed the timeless midfielder to be approaching his demise in 2011, opting against extending his deal which allowed Juventus to pounce. Pirlo was a player who underwent constant evolution and his twilight iteration in Turin was perhaps his finest. He was far from done as the Italian became a staple of the Bianconeri midfield that secured back-to-back-to-back league titles.

Never flustered and seemingly unable to feel pressure, there have been a mere few able to conduct, dictate and orchestrate like Pirlo.

18. Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets
"Watch Busquets, you see the whole game." / Alex Caparros/GettyImages

There are probably superior athletes in midfield on a Sunday morning down at the local playing fields, but Sergio Busquets' physical deficiencies only add to his genius.

The Spaniard was so positionally astute at the base of Barcelona's midfield that only rarely and only towards the end of his time in Spain did his distinct flaw manifest itself. He's never been a runner, but the speed at which his brain operated continues to compensate.

Busquets' brilliance lies in the ease at which he makes everything look. "Watch Busquets, you see the whole game," former Spain manager Vicente del Bosque once claimed.

The Spaniard's magic often went unnoticed but his unique gift allowed all-conquering Spain and Barca teams to tick over without any hassle. He served as the fulcrum at the base; the towering figure who must have seemed unflappable in the eyes of his opponents.

17. Frank Rijkaard

Frank Rijkaard, Arrigo Sacchi
Rijkaard was an integral piece of Arrigo Sacchi's Milan / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

Arrigo Sacchi had brought the Dutch 'Total Football' revolution to the catenaccio-adoring Italy, but the former shoe salesman required a number of pieces to ensure his counter-culture style would succeed in Serie A.

Crucial to Milan's success under both Sacchi and successor Fabio Capello was Frank Rijkaard. An astute, tenacious and consistent holding midfielder, the Dutchman was in need of a new challenge having won a bucketload of titles with Ajax.

Milan, via Sporting CP and Real Zaragoza, provided Rijkaard with the perfect opportunity. Rijkaard shone during his five years in Italy, with his physical stature, aggressive nature, and ease in possession seeing him dominate in the middle of the park for the Rossoneri.

He scored the game's only goal in the 1990 European Cup final, of which he won two with Milan, and would return to win the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 having dropped into a deeper position.

16. Kaka

AC Milan's Kaka celebrates scoring again...
Kaka was a Ballon d'Or winner at Milan / ANDREW YATES/GettyImages

Nothing short of unstoppable at his apex, there's a slight feeling of 'what could've been' with Kaka's career.

Based on first impressions, Carlo Ancelotti thought Milan had signed a "college student" or a "Jehovah's Witness", but it took just one training session for Kaka to convince his new boss that the Rossoneri had signed a "phenomenon".

"The Jehovah's Witness was actually someone who spoke directly with God. And, I'm sure in one of those conversations, they talked about football," Ancelotti would poetically say.

Some of the sport's defining clips from the 2000s include Kaka driving through defensive structures like a knife through butter. There was no slowing him down at full speed and Kaka's turbo-charged assaults through midfield helped him to the Ballon d'Or in 2007.

15. Johan Neeskens

 - Barcelona
Neeskens worked in glorious tandem with Johan Cruyff / VI-Images/GettyImages

Cruyff this, Cruyff that. Sure, Cruyff was half-decent, but there was more to 'Total Football' than the bloke with the turn.

Johan Neeskens operated as Cruyff's Robin. The pair played together for three years at Ajax and four at Barcelona before jetting off on their respective American ventures.

Neeskens was never the most imposing of midfield operators having initially broken through at Ajax as a right-back, but his talents in the middle of the park were too distinct to ignore. He was a dogged runner who epitomised the term 'box-to-box', scoring his fair share of goals, too.

While Cruyff operated as the undisputed genius, Neeskens was the necessary balancer in the middle of the park. He brought the legs required to ensure the fluid 'Total Football' ideals manifested with the utmost efficiency. Neeskens' Ajax were three-time European champions and the Dutch midfielder was a fan favourite in Catalonia despite the team struggling for collective success.

The midfielder also netted five times at the 1974 World Cup, including a second-minute penalty in the final.

14. Kevin De Bruyne

Kevin De Bruyne
De Bruyne is a modern-day great / Michael Regan/GettyImages

There may be some reservations about including Kevin De Bruyne among the all-time greats given the Belgian is still going at the highest level, but the Belgian's work in Manchester certainly warrants such a lofty ranking.

Once discarded by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, De Bruyne returned to the Premier League in 2015 with a monstrous chip on his shoulder. He's since gone on to define a dominant era for Manchester City. While geniuses have come and gone during City's reign of terror, De Bruyne has remained a constant.

So powerful when he drives with the ball and ridiculously pinpoint with his delivery from the right half-space, the Belgian is a creative marvel. Only Ryan Giggs can lay claim to more Premier League assists than City's number 17, while De Bruyne also has six English league titles to his name and a Champions League medal.

13. Michael Laudrup

Michael Laudrup
Laudrup is the greatest Danish footballer ever / Shaun Botterill/GettyImages

Michael Laudrup was destined for superstardom right from the very outset of his senior career. He was named Danish Player of the Year as a teenager in 1982, and would swiftly depart his homeland in favour of the mighty Juventus in 1983.

It wasn't until he landed in Spain, however, when Laudrup's majesty started to garner greater recognition. He had shone at the 1986 World Cup, but his time in Italy was ultimately disappointing.

At Barcelona, though, Laudrup rediscovered his masterful creative juices under the guidance of hero Johan Cruyff and emerged as a crucial pillar of the Dutchman's 'Dream Team' in Catalonia. His departure in 1994 having not been selected in the Champions League final (a 4-0 defeat to Milan) left many in Catalonia devastated and his subsequent move to Clasico rivals Real Madrid made the pill even tougher to swallow.

Laudrup, perhaps in a bid to get back at Cruyff, then inspired a previously struggling Madrid to the La Liga title in 1995.

'The Prince of Denmark' remains his country's finest footballing export and the greatest player of all-time in the eyes of Andres Iniesta.

12. Toni Kroos

Toni Kroos
Kroos was a staple of an all-conquering Real Madrid outfit / Yasser Bakhsh/GettyImages

It perhaps took a premature retirement for the masses to truly appreciate Toni Kroos. Since he revealed Euro 2024 would be his last dance, Kroos has been appreciated like never before.

The German has even timed his retirement superbly, leaving fans wanting more.

The quarterback-like midfielder has long been revered for his supreme passing range and tranquility under pressure, with not even the most sophisticated of pressing schemes able to fluster Kroos and his adored 11Pros.

Kroos undoubtedly had a few more years at the top left in him but exited having won seven league titles and six Champions Leagues for Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. He was also a World Cup winner in 2014.

11. Xavi Hernandez

Xavi Hernandez
Xavi was one part of a magical midfield triumvirate at Barcelona / Denis Doyle/GettyImages

The end of his managerial stint at Barcelona was pretty brutal, but Xavi will still be regarded as an icon in Catalonia due to his work as a player during the club's golden era.

Barcelona through and through, Xavi emerged amid a period of financial turmoil - sound familiar? - and quickly settled at the highest level. His leadership was valued from an early age and the midfielder came into his own following Pep Guardiola's arrival as manager in 2008.

Xavi had dazzled at Euro 2008 with winners Spain, earning player of the tournament honours, before returning to a new-look Barcelona with an unproven new manager at the helm. Xavi was always going to play a key role.

The Spaniard's passing was precise and his ability to dictate games not merely from a deep-lying midfield position was unique. While not particularly dynamic or explosive, Xavi was ever so smart with his movement and his ability to ghost in behind defences meant he scored his fair share of significant goals for club and country.

There was no honour he didn't get his hands on.

10. Socrates

Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira
More than a mere philosopher / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

Typically, the folk remembered by just one name were pretty handy. Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, or merely Socrates for short, was pretty handy.

He may not have been quite as wise as his Ancient Greek counterpart, but the Brazilian was nonetheless a deep thinker on the pitch. He wasn't the most flamboyant of creators, but one who performed with the utmost poise.

Socrates was revered for his intelligence on the pitch, with author Jonathan Wilson labelling the midfielder as "the brain" of the Brazilian teams of the early 1980s.

His trophy cabinet isn't stacked and individual honours were fairly sparse, but Socrates' legacy thanks to his character and off-field work transcends his on-field eccentricity.

9. Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez
No, not that Luis Suarez / Central Press/GettyImages

The Luis Suarez modern day fans probably know was no midfielder, but the Spanish Luis Suarez operated as Barcelona and Inter's accomplished playmaker for the best part of 15 years.

The 1960 Ballon d'Or winner was regarded as a genius by teammates and contemporaries, with the great Alfredo Di Stefano labelling Suarez 'El Arquitecto’ ('The Architect') which paid homage to his creative qualities.

Suarez added the spark and watchability to Helenio Herrera's Inter, ending his career in Italy with three league titles and two Champions League medals. A pair of La Liga successes had preceded those honours with Barca.

He was also a part of the 1964 Spain squad that were crowned European champions and to this day Suarez remains the only Spanish-born player to win the Ballon d'Or.

8. Andres Iniesta

Andres Iniesta
Iniesta struck the winner in the 2010 World Cup final / Jamie McDonald/GettyImages

Busquets was the serene metronome and Xavi was the masterful controller and clutch goalscorer, but Andres Iniesta, the dynamic ball-carrier with genius playmaking instincts, was the Barcelona midfielder of that era who got fans off their seats.

There were perhaps more imperfections to Iniesta compared to his midfield teammates, but that's not to say Iniesta wasn't an utterly supreme technician.

The Spaniard broke out at Barca just after Xavi, with Louis van Gaal handing the precocious teen his debut in 2002. His development from that moment on was fairly linear, but the heights Iniesta would go on to reach were expected by only a few.

A diminutive, unassuming creator who always seemed to have an eternity in possession, Iniesta was the midfield driving force for arguably the greatest club team ever. Amid his starring performances in Catalonia, Iniesta scored the greatest goal in Spanish football history to win the 2010 World Cup.

7. Luka Modric

Luka Modric
Modric broke the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d'Or duopoly in 2018 / David Ramos/GettyImages

Success in Madrid wasn't always inevitable for Luka Modric, who endured a difficult first year in La Liga having joined the club following a dazzling spell in the Premier League with Tottenham.

Had any Madrid supporter been told in 2013 that Modric would eventually spend over a decade at the Bernabeu and blossom into arguably the greatest midfielder in the club's history, chuckles would have greeted that foreshadowing.

After a tough debut season, the Croatian maestro didn't take long to find his groove and his status in Madrid's midfield hasn't been doubted since. His irresistible work in the middle of the park helped the club to Champions League title after Champions League title, but it's his efforts with Croatia that have elevated his legacy into another realm.

Captain since 2016, Modric has racked up 176 international appearances and appeared in eight major tournaments. His brilliance thrust Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final and he broke the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo Ballon d'Or duopoly off the back of it.

6. Ruud Gullit

Ruud Gullit, Gerald Vanenburg
The larger than life Gullit was impossible to slow down / Getty Images/GettyImages

Well, there is certainly only one Ruud Gullit.

A street footballer of Surinamese heritage, Gullit would develop into the ultimate Total Footballer without ever playing in Amsterdam at a senior level. The Dutchman could play anywhere, initially starting out in defence before venturing upfield.

His most notable contributions came in a midfield role, with Gullit rising to prominence alongside Rijkaard for Sacchi's Milan having won the Ballon d'Or in 1987. Success with the Netherlands at Euro 88 would also follow, with Gullit blossoming into somewhat of a cultural phenomenon thanks to his unique aesthetic and mesmeric performances.

He was a tough character to manage and appease, but those who coached Gullit knew their talismanic powerhouse would pretty much always deliver. The Dutchman was worth the hassle.

Gullit won league titles at Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven before joining Milan, where he'd emerge as the leading figure in a superstar-studded squad that conquered the toughest division in Europe, as well as the continent itself.

5. Zico

Leovelgido Lins Da Gama Junior, Arthur Antunes Coimbra Zico, Diego Armando Mardona
A Brazilian icon / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

Zico would eventually resort to managerial journeymanship in the wake of the most stellar of playing careers. His work on the sidelines will never be eulogised despite claiming an Uzbekistani double with Bunyodkor in 2008, but his on-pitch brilliance certainly has and will continue to be.

A nimble playmaker with wondrous ability with both feet, Zico could dribble as well as anybody and often dazzle with his unpredictability. The Brazilian could rarely be second guessed, whether it be a no-look pass, a slaloming dribble, or a pinpoint free-kick. Spectators were always guaranteed their money's worth while the 'White Pele' was in action.

Flamengo's greatest-ever player was a master of the sport in its purest form. Zico built a legacy which transcends stats and honours.

4. Sir Bobby Charlton

England may have struggled to claim silverware on the major international stages, but that's not due to a lack of talent.

The nation has produced the likes of Lampard, Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Bobby Moore, Alan Shearer and Bryan Robson among a legion of others, but Sir Bobby Charlton is the country's greatest ever player.

The rampaging midfielder appeared 758 times for Manchester United during a lengthy career, lifting multiple domestic and continental honours along the way, but Charlton's finest hour arrived with England in the summer of '66.

Sir Geoff Hurst's name has been etched into English folklore thanks to his heroics in the World Cup final, but Charlton's efforts in helping the Three Lions reach the pinnacle will never be overlooked.

The inside-right-turned-midfielder memorably scored twice in the semi-final to down Eusebio's Portugal in what was arguably the finest performance of his career. Charlton was never the most glamorous of performers, in both aesthetic and profile, but he was a "master footballer" in the eyes of Pele.

3. Lothar Matthaus

Lothar Matthaus
Der Panzer was an all-encompassing midfielder / Getty Images/GettyImages

The younger generation may only recall Lothar Matthaus for his inflated ego and bullish opinions, but the great German midfielder certainly has two legs to stand on when decrying the limitations of today's managers and players.

Matthaus was an exceptional player. Der Panzer is one of just seven players to win the World Cup and Ballon d'Or in the same year, with Matthaus doing so in 1990.

Before inspiring Germany's success at Italia 90, Matthaus had conquered his homeland on multiple occasions with Bayern Munich and played a key role in Inter's German-inspired Scudetto success of 1988/89.

Matthaus was the complete midfielder; one that could man-mark the world's best - as he did in the 1986 World Cup final, stymying Diego Maradona - and break the game open with surging midfield runs and strikes from distance. There was nothing he couldn't do and he'd evolve into an astute sweeper in defence towards the end of the his career.

2. Michel Platini

Michel Platini
Platini typified French elegance / Getty Images/GettyImages

Younger folk will only remember Michel Platini as a rather shady UEFA politician, but those fortunate enough to watch the Frenchman take to the field will doubtlessly overlook his post-playing career antics.

France's 'Magic Square' was special and Platini was the shining light at Euro 84. While primarily a creative midfielder, Platini had a remarkable eye for goal. He scored nine times at the Euros that summer - a tournament record - on his way to player of the tournament honours amid France's triumph.

Platini performed with all the grace, elegance and panache expected from a Frenchman. He won titles with Nancy and Saint-Etienne before joining Juventus in 1982. His five years in Turin were magical, with Platini dominating calcio after a tricky start to his Serie A career.

He was crowned Capocannoniere three times and won three consecutive Ballons d'Or between 1983 and 1985. He was definitively Europe's best for a prolonged period and many would regard Platini as the greatest midfielder there's ever been.

1. Zinedine Zidane

Zizou lit up the biggest stages / PIERRE VERDY/GettyImages

Zinedine Zidane was never the most consistent at club level but his penchant for manifesting his apex on the grandest stages typified his greatness.

The Frenchman's talent was otherworldly, so good, in fact, that Carlo Ancelotti adopted a completely new thesis in order to facilitate the majestic playmaker. His rigid 4-4-2, one Roberto Baggio couldn't break into, became a 4-3-1-2 solely for Zizou.

"Zidane changed everything, I built the team around him; I made him a tailor-made suit. I changed my style of football and for that I owe everything to him," the great Italian coach once said, speaking about his stint at Juventus.

Zidane inspired his country to World Cup glory in 1998, claiming the Ballon d'Or off the back of it, and lit up the knockout stages at both Euro 2000 and 2006 World Cup.

Such an infamous departure was fitting for a player's of Zidane's magnitude and enigma.