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The top 5 defensive midfielders in the world 2021 - ranked

Matt O'Connor-Simpson
These are the best of the best
These are the best of the best / 90min
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We know what you're thinking.

Jorginho? Kante? Defensive midfielders? Blasphemy!

Defensive midfield is a hard position to define, there are grey areas, and players who can fit in this category as well as others. But as part of 90min's Welcome to World Class series, we had to think about it...and we came up with this.

We've judged defensive midfielders as players who either primarily occupy a position on the pitch sitting in front of the defence - whether anchor, destroyer or playmaker - or are primarily in their team to perform defensive actions.

It may be the most tactically demanding position in modern football.

Elite teams often opt to press high, with those left guarding the needing a combination of physicality, intelligence and anticipation to stop the opposition ripping through the middle. And then there's all the work they do on the ball - often the starting point of attacks with a distinct ability to recycle possession when necessary or execute a line-breaking pass.

And then there's how to define world class? We've gone on enough already, so you can read about it in full here - but just know that it's top five in your position in the world, and all players are judged across 10 categories we believe make a player world class.

Got it? Good. Without further delay, on with the list...


All statistics are provided by StatsPerform over the period of January 1, 2021 to November 30, 2021 (inclusive of domestic and continental cup competitions).


5. Rodri (new entry)

Rodri
Rodri made the cut in our YouTube video / 90min

Games played: 48
Goals: 4
Assists: 5
Chances created: 43
Passing accuracy: 92.3%
Tackles: 91

Rodri has developed into exactly the player Pep Guardiola would have hoped when the Catalan brought him to Man City from Atletico Madrid in 2019.

The pass-master has become the undisputed anchor of the Cityzen's midfield ahead of W2WC 2020 entrant Fernandinho, combining his sublime ball-playing ability with physicality and robust tackling. He's even proved to be more creative than his Premier League rivals in this section.

The 25-year-old enjoyed an imperious 2021, winning the Premier League title and reaching the Champions League final with City. Who knows, had he started that match, maybe they would have won it.


4. Fabinho (down 2)

The lighthouse in the middle of Liverpool's chaos
The lighthouse in the middle of Liverpool's chaos / 90min

Games played: 35
Goals: 1
Assists: 1
Chances created: 11
Passing accuracy: 89.1%
Tackles: 63

Jurgen Klopp has described Fabinho as a "lighthouse" who provides clarity in Liverpool's high-octane system. It is hard to think of a more apt description of the Brazilian.

Providing the Reds with a rock solid base to dominate games with his expert reading of the game and flawless passing, he even added another string to his bow in 2021 by filling in at centre-back during the club's unreal injury crisis.

Liverpool signing Fabinho over Manchester United back in 2018 was a real sliding doors moment in Premier League history. Since then he has developed into one of the best in the world, while United's midfield issues continue to haunt them.

3. Joshua Kimmich (down 2)

The all-rounder
The all-rounder / 90min

Games played: 45
Goals: 6
Assists: 9
Chances created: 125
Passing accuracy: 88.3%
Tackles: 63

The total football philosophy may have its roots in the neighbouring Netherlands, yet no player in the modern game sums up its principles better than Germany talisman Joshua Kimmich.

Stick Kimmich anywhere on the pitch and he is bound to impress, but it is in defensive midfield - where he is afforded a full view of the game - that he is most imperious.

A frighteningly effective presser and a devilishly intelligent defender, the Bayern Munich man's technique is what makes him stand out above all else. He is capable of putting the ball on a sixpence for his teammates and it is little surprise he led the way for assists when we compiled our stats pack.

2. Jorginho (new entry)

Almost a Ballon d'Or winner
Almost a Ballon d'Or winner / 90min

Games played: 44
Goals: 8
Assists: 2
Chances created: 39
Passing accuracy: 90.0%
Tackles: 101

Jorginho has divided opinion among the Chelsea fanbase and further afield since he joined footballing father figure Maurizio Sarri at Stamford Bridge in 2018.

However, in 2021 he managed to convert even his most fervent detractors, starring for the 'best' club and international team in Europe.

Understanding what makes Jorginho such a marvel takes patience, but when you do start the notice his incredible work both on and off the ball it is impossible to argue against him being one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet.

1. N'Golo Kante (up 3)

The understated all-star
The understated all-star / 90min

Games played: 37
Goals: 2
Assists: 1
Chances created: 28
Passing accuracy: 85.2%
Tackles: 68

It seems ludicrous looking back but in 2020 it was being whispered that N'Golo Kante's magical powers might be waning. Flash forward 12 months and he is deservingly sitting atop of our list.

Kante is a tough man to dislike, even for Chelsea's fiercest rivals. Unassuming and humble off the pitch, he is every midfielder's nightmare when he crosses the white line.

A lot is made of the Frenchman's logic-defying stamina but unstoppable lungs alone is not enough to make you the best defensive midfielder on the planet.

During his time at Chelsea, as well as at international level, Kante has developed into an understated creative force too. Combine that with those unstoppable defensive qualities and you have a recipe for a truly astounding footballer.


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