The 25 best central midfielders in world football - ranked

  • Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have been the gold standard for central midfielders
  • Youngsters like Pedri and Eduardo Camavinga among the top performers in world football
  • 25 best players from around the world ranked as part of 90min's Welcome to World Class series

Image by Briony Painter
Image by Briony Painter /

Defining a 'central midfielder' in this day and age is no easy task.

The dissipation of fixed positions and increased prominence of 'roles' or 'functions' mean these folk in the middle of the park are tasked with an array of duties.

Nevertheless, central midfielders are often the cornerstones of elite-level sides. They can do it all and come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and profiles.

All of that makes ranking the best 25 in the world incredibly tough, but here's our crack at doing exactly that as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.

25. Pape Matar Sarr

Pape Matar Sarr
Pape Sarr has impressed for Tottenham / Richard Pelham/GettyImages

Few expected Pape Matar Sarr to become quite as important to Tottenham as he has this season.

Only his participation in the Africa Cup of Nations forced him out of Ange Postecoglou's team. He could prove to be a big player for a long, long time.

24. Teun Koopmeiners

Teun Koopmeiners
Koopmeiners is becoming more versatile / Emilio Andreoli/GettyImages

Teun Koopmeiners became one of the best players in Serie A last season thanks to a stunning ten league goals for Atalanta. He is well on his way to replicating that feat this term.

Don't be shocked to see him playing for one of Europe's elite clubs very, very soon.

23. Curtis Jones

Curtis Jones - Soccer Player
Jones is of underrated importance to Liverpool / Visionhaus/GettyImages

When a player is slowly introduced to the first team rather than arriving with a big transfer fee, they can go under the radar. That has been the case for Curtis Jones.

An increasing regular in Liverpool's starting XI, he produces some fine displays in Jurgen Klopp's midfield and deserves praise for it.

22. Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Mkhitaryan is ageing superbly / Danilo Di Giovanni/GettyImages

Certain players seem to age like fine wine, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is definitely one of them.

Having lost his way at Manchester United and Arsenal, Mkhitaryan headed to Italy and rebuilt himself at Roma. The move to Inter proved to be very smart, and despite being 35 years old, he plays almost every game and storms up and down the pitch.

21. Manuel Locatelli

Manuel Locatelli
Locatelli is very consistent / Marco Canoniero/GettyImages

Manuel Locatelli has been on the scene for a while now and he goes under the radar. He is very consistent and has every part of midfield play in his locker.

The boyhood Bianconeri fan has played almost every game for Juventus this season and may get more plaudits if he was in a more attack-minded team.

20. Piotr Zielinski

Piotr Zielinski
Zielinski is a gifted footballer / Silvia Lore/GettyImages

Piotr Zielinski is one of the world's most underrated performers. He doesn't blow you away physically or even technically, but he's such a smart footballer who's produced consistently for Napoli since his arrival in 2016.

The Poland international has appeared in at least 35 Serie A games every season since his arrival, which is a testament to his availability and importance to Napoli. Zielinski was another vital player in Napoli's Serie A title in 2022/23 and he upped his attacking output, scoring seven goals and getting 11 assists.

Despite his undoubted quality, it seems he will leave the club on a free in the summer, potentially joining Inter.

19. Vitinha

Vitinha is incredibly tidy / Xavier Laine/GettyImages

Vitinha has come on leaps and bounds at PSG since he joined from FC Porto.

The Portuguese midfielder is so tidy on the ball and has been chipping in with a healthy number of goals this season.

18. Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen
Eriksen is still a quality player / Catherine Ivill/GettyImages

Christian Eriksen's arrival was an incredibly smart piece of business by Manchester United as he joined on a free transfer from Brentford in 2022.

Considering his health issues, there were concerns Eriksen would not be able to cut it at the top end of the Premier League anymore but he has proved those doubters wrong.

Erik ten Hag has deployed Eriksen in a deeper role alongside Casemiro, allowing him to compensate for a lack of pace with his incredible passing range and immense intelligence.

His lack of mobility can cause issues and he does not play every game, but Eriksen is still quality on the ball.

17. Mateo Kovacic

Mateo Kovacic
Injuries have halted Kovacic at points / Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/GettyImages

If only this guy didn't pick up so many injuries. Mateo Kovacic is a wonderful player to watch and he came into his own at Chelsea following an indifferent start under Maurizio Sarri.

The Croatian is one of the most proficient ball-progressing midfielders in the world. Not only can he evade challenges like a prime Mousa Dembele and carry the ball in a similar vein to Lionel Messi, but he can also pick apart defensive structures with the most precise vertical passes.

He has hardly been a key player since joining Man City, but he does a very solid job when called upon.

16. Leon Goretzka

Leon Goretzka
Goretzka is a big presence in Bayern's midfield / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

Leon Goretzka's transformation from lean and skinny to mean and mighty helped him morph into one of the world's most destructive midfielders.

The German international certainly isn't the cleanest of technicians but is incredibly effective at what he does. He times his runs into the box superbly, while he's an indefatigable runner out of possession.

Despite enduring a sticky campaign, there is no doubting Goretzka's quality.

15. Ilkay Gundogan

Ilkay Gundogan
Gundogan is a regular at Barcelona / Soccrates Images/GettyImages

Ilkay Gundogan led City to a historic treble in 2022/23 and cemented his place as one of the best midfielders in the world.

He seems to have moved to Barcelona just as he had really hit his peak, and performances in Spain have not been at the same level as those with City last season. Nonetheless, he is still superb.

14. Lucas Paqueta

Lucas Paqueta
A new player under Moyes / West Ham United FC/GettyImages

Once a flair player, Lucas Paqueta has become a ball-winning box-to-box machine under David Moyes.

The time that West Ham have spent without Paqueta this season has shown just how good he really is.

13. Adrien Rabiot

Adrien Rabiot
Rabiot has rebuilt his reputation / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

Something of a redemption story, there was a lot of derision towards Adrien Rabiot when he was linked with a move to Manchester United from Juventus. He ended up staying with the Bianconeri and in what was a very hard campaign for the whole club, he stood out as arguably their most important player.

He seemed to maintain a level head amid the chaos at Juventus and became a real leader. The 28-year-old scored 11 goals and got six assists, showing his attacking ability. He is athletic and very useful in both boxes due to his height.

After some time where he was not very highly rated, Rabiot is clearly one of the best all-round midfielders in Europe.

12. Enzo Fernandez

Enzo Fernández - Argentinian Soccer Player
Fernandez is a World Cup winner / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Enzo Fernandez's reputation should further increase as the years go by. His first half-season at Chelsea did not go exactly to plan, but he was hardly alone in that regard.

The Argentinian showed at Benfica and at the 2022 World Cup he can develop into one of the best midfielders in the world. He's already one of the most expensive midfielders ever.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, he has started to show signs of improvement.

11. Warren Zaire-Emery

Warren Zaire-Emery, Pierre Lees-Melou
Zaire-Emery is going to be a star / Jean Catuffe/GettyImages

It is remarkable to think that Warren Zaire-Emery is still only 17 years old.

The Frenchman has quickly become one of Paris Saint-Germain's most important players and he comes across so much older than he actually is.

10. Nicolo Barella

Nicolò Barella, Angeliño
Barella is wonderful in full flight / Ivan Romano/GettyImages

Nicolo Barella and the right half-space is a deadly combination.

The tenacious Italian rose to prominence during Antonio Conte's reign at Inter as the Nerazzurri lifted the Scudetto in 2021, ending Juventus' decade-long reign as Italian champions.

The midfielder has continued to produce in a similar role under Simone Inzaghi and showed his quality time and time again during the run to the 2022/23 Champions League final.

Barella remains a player who grabs games by the scruff of the neck and will long be a staple of Inter's midfield.

9. Gavi

Pablo Paez Gavira alias Gavi
Gavi is key to Barcelona / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/GettyImages

Unfortunately for Gavi, he is going to miss the rest of the 2023/24 season thanks to a knee injury, but he has done enough to earn a high place on this list.

The little Spaniard has endless levels of energy and has become a crucial part of the Barcelona midfield, one that is already stacked with talent.

8. Hakan Calhanoglu

AS Roma v FC Inter Milan - Serie A
Calhanoglu is a goal-machine / Anadolu/GettyImages

Dead-ball specialist Hakan Calhanoglu was brought to life by Stefano Pioli at AC Milan before he opted to cross the Derby della Madonnina divide in 2021.

The Turkey international started brilliantly at Inter and was regarded by many as the star of the first half of the 2021/22 Serie A season. Calhanoglu seamlessly replaced Christian Eriksen in the Nerazzurri's excellent midfield three and emerged as one of Europe's most productive attacking midfielders.

As time has worn on, he has become a deeper-lying midfielder for Simone Inzaghi and actually took the place of Marcelo Brozovic for much of the 2022/23 season. Calhanoglu has immense technical ability and it seems that his fitness levels have increased as well, with more and more lung-bursting runs from deep coming into his game.

He scores so many goals for a midfielder and is only getting better.

7. Bruno Guimaraes

Bruno Guimaraes
Guimaraes is among the best in the world now / Catherine Ivill/GettyImages

Bruno Guimaraes was very good and perhaps underrated for a few years at Lyon, but his first season at Newcastle has cemented him as one of the best all-round midfielders in the world.

The Brazilian was arguably their most important player as they managed to qualify for the Champions League and reach the Carabao Cup final and the times when he missed a game through injury made it really clear how important he is.

He grabbed ten goals and six assists in 2022/23 from 57 games, a great return for a midfielder who is also very good in the tackle and does a lot of hard yards for the team.

He has continued to impress in 2023/24, and the sky is the limit.

6. Luka Modric

Botond Barath, Luka Modric
Modric is a Ballon d'Or winner / Denis Doyle/GettyImages

Luka Modric will go down as one of the best central midfielders to ever play the game, as few players could be as consistently creative as the Croatian.

He is coming to the end of his career now and it will be a sad day when he retires, but he will be high on a list like this right untill the end because his level does not seem to drop.

5. Pedri

Pedri Gonzalez
Pedri is a legend in the making / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

The comparisons are ubiquitous, but the similarities are too distinct to ignore; Pedri is the second coming of Andres Iniesta. 

The teenager's rise to the very top of the game has been swift. It wasn't too long ago when Pedri was toiling away in the Spanish second tier with Las Palmas. Barcelona knew the kid was special, however, and his performance away at Juventus in the Champions League during his first season at the club depicted just how talented the midfielder is.

Pedri's a genius with and without the ball. He ghosts into pockets of space that seemingly don’t exist, dazzles in possession and supplies teammates relentlessly. There's an aura surrounding the low-sock-donning Spaniard that's too strong to ignore. 

Injuries have stalled things slightly, but he is a key player at Barcelona.

4. Toni Kroos

Toni Kroos
Kroos runs games for Real Madrid / Alexander Hassenstein/GettyImages

You can't give Toni Kroos an inch of space with the ball at his feet. He'll pick you apart.

The elegant midfielder has been playing at the very highest level for a decade now and made up a third of arguably the greatest midfield trio the world has ever seen alongside Casemiro and Luka Modric.

Nevertheless, while Kroos is reaching the twilight of his career, he's still one of the world's most enjoyable midfielders to watch. The German has long played a crucial role for Real Madrid amid a wildly successful period for Los Blancos.

He'll go down as one of his generation's finest and remains one of the world's best central midfielders.

3. Frenkie de Jong

Frenkie De Jong, Sergio Ruiz
De Jong is an automatic starter for Barcelona / Pedro Salado/GettyImages

Forever desired by Manchester United, Frenkie de Jong boasts truly outrageous talent.

The Dutchman has endured the typical peaks and troughs of being a Barcelona player. The fresh-faced midfielder is as press-resistant as they come and has a knack for embarking on the maziest of dribbles that astound the demanding Camp Nou faithful.

The Barca man is proactive in possession, while his defensive instincts mean he can fill in at centre-back. Moreover, De Jong is incredibly athletic which allows him to cover a ton of ground in transition.

2. Eduardo Camavinga

Eduardo Camavinga
Camavinga is quality / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

20 years old and already a key man for Real Madrid, it's fair to say that Eduardo Camavinga is pretty damn good.

Be it as a full-back or a midfielder, Camavinga excels. He has only grown in importance to Real Madrid in recent months.

1. Federico Valverde

Federico Valverde
Valverde is brilliantly versatile / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

Often shuffled around from one position to the next, Federico Valverde had to do some hard yards to get recognised at Real Madrid.

That's exactly what the Uruguay international did, however, even with competition like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. His insatiable work ethic and risk-free approach in possession means Real's attacking stars are freed up to do damage in the final third.

Valverde assisted Vinicius Junior's winner in the 2022 Champions League, showing his accurate eye for a pass. He'll be a mainstay in Real's starting XI for as long as he's at the Bernabeu.