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The 10 Best Central Midfielders in Premier League History

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Steven Gerrard (left), Kevin De Bruyne (middle), and N'Golo Kante (right).

Steven Gerrard (left), Kevin De Bruyne (middle), and N'Golo Kante (right).

Who Are the Best Central Midfielders?

The perfect central midfielder must have a diverse set of physical, mental, and technical skills that cover all aspects of the game. However, they must excel in a few areas, such as their work-rate, teamwork, and how they pass and control the ball.

Other skills depend on the role they are expected to play. For example, the central midfield position includes defensive midfielders who must be strong, tenacious, and aggressive enough to shield the defenders behind them and to win back possession of the ball.

There are also attacking midfielders, whose creativity and technique allows them to play "through balls" behind the opposition defense for strikers to run onto. Finally, there are box-to-box midfielders, whose work-rate means that they show up in both penalty areas to score or prevent goals.

The following list of central midfielders only includes players who translated their natural ability in these domains into great success in the Premier League. It does not include players who typically played on the wings (e.g., David Silva). Videos and statistics are used to showcase their skills and justify their inclusion.

10. N'Golo Kanté

  • Type: Defensive midfielder (box-to-box)
  • Premier League clubs: Leicester City (2015-2016), Chelsea (2016–)
  • Appearances: 222
  • Goals: 12
  • Assists: 16

N'Golo Kanté began his career in the French third tier and had to work his way up. After a year in the top tier, he was signed by Leicester in 2015, where he became a crucial part of the remarkable team that won the 2015-2016 Premier League.

Kanté then transferred to Chelsea where he won the Premier League again in 2017. He also won an FA Cup, the 2021 Champions League, and the 2019 Europa League with the club, and the 2018 World Cup with France. Individually, he was the Premier League's Player of the Season in 2017 and has been in the PFA team of the year twice.

Kanté is known for his incredible work-rate and his ability to win possession of the ball by tackling, harassing, and intercepting the passes of opposition players. However, he also has an accurate shot and is known for driving his team forward with his runs toward goal.

9. Yaya Touré

  • Type: Attacking midfielder (box-to-box)
  • Premier League clubs: Manchester City (2010-2018)
  • Appearances: 230
  • Goals: 62
  • Assists: 32

Yaya Touré had already played in five different countries, including a three-year spell with Barcelona, before he signed for Manchester City at the age of 27. The move allowed him to play as a central midfielder (where Barcelona were overstocked), and he soon established himself as one of the best in Premier League history.

In his eight seasons at City, Touré won three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and two League Cups. He was also part of the Barcelona team that won a "sextuple" of trophies in 2009, including the Champions League. Touré has been named in the PFA team of the year twice and he has appeared 101 times for Ivory Coast, with whom he won the 2015 African Cup of Nations.

During his career, Touré's defensive strength, power, and athleticism combined with his sublime passing, dribbling, shooting, and technique meant that he could play anywhere in central midfield, and particularly in a box-to-box role. Since retiring, Touré has tried his hand at coaching.

8. Claude Makélélé

  • Type: Defensive midfielder
  • Premier League clubs: Chelsea (2003-2008)
  • Appearances: 144
  • Goals: 2
  • Assists: 4

When Claude Makélélé signed for Chelsea at the age of 30, he was already the best defensive midfielder in the world. A year earlier, he had won the 2002 Champions League with Real Madrid. In his five seasons with Chelsea, Makélélé won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and two League Cups.

Makélélé defined the defensive midfielder position to the point where it is still called the "Makélélé role." He embodied this role as a defensive shield in front of the back four, where he made tackles, intercepted passes, and generally broke up play, displaying tremendous work rate, tenacity, and composed aggression.

Makélélé also played 71 times for France and, after retiring in 2011, he has appeared in various coaching roles, including management.

7. Cesc Fàbregas

  • Type: Attacking midfielder
  • Premier League clubs: Arsenal (2004-2011), Chelsea (2014-2018)
  • Appearances: 350
  • Goals: 50
  • Assists: 111

If anyone is wondering why Cesc Fàbregas is 7th on this list, know that he accumulated the most assists of any central midfielder in Premier League history (and second overall after Ryan Giggs).

Fàbregas emerged from Barcelona's youth setup and signed for Arsenal as a 16-year-old. He became a regular in the team when Patrick Vieira left in 2005, but, it was the end of an era at Arsenal, and he only won an FA Cup in his seven seasons there.

After a three-year spell with Barcelona, Fàbregas joined Chelsea, winning two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, and the 2019 Europa League in four and a half seasons. Fàbregas also played 110 times for Spain and won the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2008, and Euro 2012. Individually, he was in the PFA team of the year twice.

Although Fàbregas sometimes played in a more defensive role, he was always known for his creativity, vision, and range of attacking passing, which included "balls over the top" and intricate "through balls."

6. Roy Keane

  • Type: Defensive midfielder
  • Premier League clubs: Nottingham Forest (–1993), Manchester United (1993-2005)
  • Appearances: 366
  • Goals: 39
  • Assists: 33

Roy Keane almost didn't sign for Manchester United in 1993. If Blackburn Rovers hadn't messed up their paperwork, Keane probably would have joined them instead. Ultimately, Alex Ferguson stepped in and Keane went on to become a United legend.

In his twelve seasons at Old Trafford, Keane won seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and the 1999 Champions League. He was also named in the PFA team of the year five times and played 67 times for Ireland.

Keane was known for his aggressive tackling and he was sent off seven times in the Premier League. He was especially effective at breaking up opposition plays, reading the game, and starting attacks either by carrying the ball himself or distributing it accurately. Since retiring in 2006, Keane has been employed as a TV pundit and a football manager.

5. Paul Scholes

  • Type: Attacking midfielder
  • Premier League clubs: Manchester United (1994-2013)
  • Appearances: 499
  • Goals: 107
  • Assists: 55

As a one-club-player, Paul Scholes didn't need to move to further his career. He started it where he belonged, coming through Manchester United's youth setup and making his debut as a 19 year-old in 1994.

In nineteen seasons at Old Trafford, Scholes played 718 times (overall), winning eleven Premier League titles (the 2nd most overall after Ryan Giggs), three FA Cups, two League Cups, and the 1999 and 2008 Champions Leagues. He also played 66 times for England and was twice named in the PFA team of the year.

Scholes was the complete midfielder, combining defensive strength and aggression with exceptional technique, intelligent movement, and accuracy in his passing and shooting. He could play anywhere in midfield due to his work-rate and link-up play. Since retiring, Scholes has become a successful TV pundit and has tried his hand at football management, coaching, and ownership (of Salford City).

4. Kevin De Bruyne

  • Type: Attacking midfielder
  • Premier League clubs: Chelsea (2013), Manchester City (2015–)
  • Appearances: 212
  • Goals: 58
  • Assists: 88

When Kevin De Bruyne signed for Chelsea in 2012, he endured several loan moves, a knee injury, and a manager (José Mourinho) who wouldn't play him enough. When De Bruyne left for Wolfsburg and came back to the Premier League less than three years later, Mourinho would regret letting him go.

Kevin De Bruyne has since established himself as the best central midfielder in the Premier League at Manchester City, where he has won four Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and five League Cups. He also has more than 90 caps for Belgium.

Individually, De Bruyne has been named Player of the Season twice and has been in the PFA team of the year four times. He also shares the record for most assists in a season (20, with Thierry Henry)

De Bruyne is the complete attacking midfielder. He is prolific at scoring and creating goals and he has exceptional vision, passing accuracy, dribbling, set-piece proficiency, and technique with either foot. Unlike the "advanced playmakers" of earlier eras, he is also athletic, direct, and works hard for the team.

3. Patrick Vieira

  • Type: Defensive midfielder (box-to-box)
  • Premier League clubs: Arsenal (1996-2005), Manchester City (2010-2011)
  • Appearances: 307
  • Goals: 31
  • Assists: 34

Patrick Vieira was Arsène Wenger's first signing in 1996. Wenger remarked in his autobiography that Vieira had made a "huge impression" on him during the player's time in France, but that he was being under-utilized by Milan in Italy.

Vieira was an instant success at Arsenal and was hugely influential during their most successful era. In nine seasons, he won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. He also captained the "Invincibles" team that went unbeaten for an entire Premier League season.

Vieira moved to Inter Milan and delivered four league titles in a row before coming back to England and winning another FA Cup with Manchester City. He also played 107 times for France, winning the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Individually, he was named Player of the Season in 2001 and has been in the PFA team of the year six times.

Vieira was a strong, domineering, and aggressive tackler who amassed eight red cards in the Premier League. His pace, athleticism, power, and technical ability also allowed him to operate as a box-to-box midfielder who contributed in attack. Since retiring, Vieira has become a successful Premier League manager.

2. Steven Gerrard

  • Type: Attacking midfielder (box-to-box)
  • Premier League clubs: Liverpool (1998-2015)
  • Appearances: 504
  • Goals: 120
  • Assists: 92

Steven Gerrard signed his first professional contract with Liverpool in 1997 and began featuring in the first team in 1998 due to injuries sustained by Jamie Redknapp. He became a regular starter in 2000 and quickly began to contribute to the team's cup successes.

If he had won more trophies, Gerrard might have been number one on this list. Still, he was highly influential when Liverpool won two FA Cups, three League Cups, the 2001 Europa League, and the 2005 Champions League. Indeed, Gerrard was named in the PFA team of the year eight times (a Premier League record) and played 114 times for England.

Gerrard's defensive and offensive attributes meant that he could play anywhere, but his work-rate and leadership meant that he was most effective as a box-to-box midfielder. In particular, Gerrard was known for his endurance, passing range, and shooting prowess.

Since his retirement from playing duties in 2016 (after a brief stint with LA Galaxy), Gerrard has become a successful Premier League manager.

1. Frank Lampard

  • Type: Attacking midfielder (box-to-box)
  • Premier League clubs: West Ham (1996-2001), Chelsea (2001-2014), Manchester City (2014-2015)
  • Appearances: 609
  • Goals: 177
  • Assists: 102

Ultimately, football is about scoring goals, and Frank Lampard was the most prolific goal-scoring central midfielder in Premier League history. He is also 6th overall (with the other top 20 players being forwards), and 4th overall for assists.

Frank Lampard had his best years at Chelsea where he scored more than ten goals in the Premier League for ten seasons in a row (2003 to 2013). Lampard also scored 29 times for England in 106 matches.

With Chelsea, Lampard won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, the 2012 Champions League, and the 2013 Europa League. Individually, he was named Player of the Season in 2005 and was in the PFA team of the year three times.

Lampard was known for his work-rate, passing, and his all-round combination of attacking creativity with defensive resilience. The key to his goal-scoring was his vision, timing, and anticipation of the best moment to make a late run into the penalty area. Since retiring, Lampard has become a successful football manager.

Honorable Mentions and Future Additions

Some worthy players were necessarily absent from this list. Many of the following midfielders might have been included if they had spent more seasons in the Premier League.

  • Luka Modric
  • Paul Ince
  • Emmanuel Petit
  • Xabi Alonso
  • Gilberto Silva
  • Michael Essien

They are also several current players who may break into this list.

  • Mason Mount
  • Jordan Henderson
  • Bruno Fernandes
  • Philippe Coutinho
  • James Milner

Thank you for reading and watching this compilation of the best central midfielders to appear in the Premier League.

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© 2022 Thomas Swan