Modric, Xavi, Pirlo and the top 20 central midfielders in history

Comments()
Getty/Goal
Luka Modric has been crowned Goal 50 winner for 2018, so where does the Real Madrid and Croatia ace rank among the greatest centre-mids of all time?

We chose our list based on a player's overall quality for both club and country, trophies won, big-game performances, consistency and longevity.

We only included players who generally featured and excelled regularly in either a two-man or three-man central midfield. Midfielders who mostly played further up the pitch were not considered.

Therefore, the likes of Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane and Zico were not selected by our writers, Carlo Garganese and Mark Doyle.

  1. Getty Images

    #20 Graeme Souness

    As brilliant as he was brutal, Graeme Souness was the complete midfielder. He both scored and created goals. 

    The Scot was also one of the toughest, most uncompromising players in football history – a man who once broke the jaw of an opponent, Movila of Dinamo Bucharest, for having the audacity to beat him with an audacious piece of skill.

    Souness wasn't a man who made many friends on the pitch. He wasn't even universally popular among his Liverpool team-mates but he commanded respect.

    A pure winner, the former Reds captain won five league titles and three European Cups during his six-year spell at Anfield. As former team-mate Alan Hansen once mused, "Among midfielders, Graeme was the king."

  2. Getty Images

    #19 Jean Tigana

    The engine of the wonderful France team that won Euro '84 and heartbreakingly lost on penalties in the semi-finals of the 1982 World Cup, Jean Tigana was a member of arguably the best international midfield Europe has ever seen – at least, until Spain’s Golden Era – along with Alain Giresse, Jean Fernandez and Michel Platini.

    Tigana was a tireless runner who would hunt down opponents and win the ball off them to launch attacks. He was also extremely intelligent positionally and he played a crucial role in the legendary 3-2 extra time win over Portugal at Euro ’84, cutting back for Platini to score in the dying seconds.

    Tigana was also a key part of the wonderful Bordeaux side that dominated French football in the 1980s and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1985, only to lose narrowly to eventual winners Juventus.

  3. Getty

    #18 Roy Keane

    Roy Keane was such a troubled character that questions over his temperament regularly overshadowed his talent. He clashed with opponents and team-mates throughout his career on account of an insatiable thirst for success that proved both a blessing and a curse.

    Just like his manager at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, he demanded nothing less than 100 per cent commitment from himself and those around him. As a result, he effectively became United's on-field boss.

    Keane and Ferguson would later fall out, resulting in an acrimonious exit, but not before the Irishman had lifted seven Premier League titles and one Champions League.

    The Corkonian missed the final of the latter through suspension but, as Ferguson was at pains to point out, their treble-clinching triumph in Barcelona in 1999 would not have been possible without Keane, who produced a Herculean performance in the semi-final second-leg win over Juventus in Turin.

    “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field," the Scot enthused. "I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

  4. Getty Images

    #17 Didi

    Voted best player at the 1958 World Cup, Didi was one of the first Brazilian free-kick masters and, fittingly, the man believed to be responsible for coining the term 'The Beautiful Game'.

    The ex-Fluminense, Botafogo and Real Madrid star was the inventor of the ‘dry leaf’ free kick, so-called because it would dip and swerve in unpredictable directions. Of the 20 goals he scored for the Selecao, a dozen came from dead-ball situations.

    He was also a brilliant passer and dictator of the play, winning two World Cups and scoring the first ever goal at the legendary Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

  5. Getty Images

    #16 Paul Scholes

    Former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer once joked, "Paul Scholes is not the quickest, he doesn’t run the most, he never wins a header, he can’t tackle but he’s our best player!"

    Few of his old colleagues would disagree. David Beckham, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs all consider the diminutive Scholes the greatest talent they ever played alongside.

    They also all claim that his range of passing was so complete that he was never on the losing side in any possession drill in training. He was a serial winner in competitive games too, though.

    Scholes was a pivotal part of 11 Premier League title-winning teams, while he also lifted the European Cup twice, so even though he may not have been a big talker during his playing days, his record certainly speaks for itself.

  6. Getty

    #15 Mario Coluna

    The legendary Benfica and Portugal sides of the 1960s had two Mozambique-born superstars. One is still as well-known today as he was 50 years ago: the incomparable Eusebio. The other, Mario Coluna, is perhaps not as famous as he once was, but his impact on those great teams was immeasurable.

    Coluna was a brilliant midfield general and captain, a muscly powerhouse who was fittingly nicknamed ‘The Sacred Monster’. He would dominate teams and also scored a lot of goals – 127 in 16 seasons at Benfica, to be precise.

    A man for the big occasion, he found the net in successive European Cup finals as Benfica beat Barcelona in 1961 and Real Madrid a year later. He also captained Portugal to their best-ever finish in a World Cup: third in 1966.

    Forever tied to Eusebio in grace and greatness, the pair passed away just weeks within each other in 2014.

  7. Getty

    #14 Marco Tardelli

    Marco Tardelli's intense and moving screams of delight after netting Italy's second goal in the 1982 final win over West Germany perfectly summed up the passionate way in which the midfielder approached the game.

    "I was born with that scream inside me," he later mused. "That was just the moment it came out."

    Tardelli was as driven as they come, a player willing to do whatever it took to reclaim possession for his side. He wasn't just a brutal ball-winner, though. 

    He was also technically excellent and tactically intelligent, an integral part of not only the Italy side that conquered the world, but also the Juventus team that won every major European cup during Giovanni Trapattoni's decade at the helm.

  8. Getty Images

    #13 Gerson

    Brazil’s 1970 team is widely regarded as the greatest World Cup team in history; full of superstars such as Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivelino and Carlos Alberto.

    One player who is often overlooked from that triumph is Gerson (pictured, front row, third from left), who, for many experts, was Brazil’s most important player during that tournament.

    The brains of the team, Gerson controlled the midfield in every game in Mexico and delivered a man-of-the-match performance during the final win over Italy.

    A wonderful passer with a ferocious left foot, he blasted home a screamer from outside the area while the game was delicately poised at 1-1, opening the floodgates for the Selecao as they claimed the Jules Rimet Trophy for a third time.

  9. Getty Images

    #12 Johan Neeskens

    Total Football's complete midfielder, Johan Neeskens was an integral member of the Ajax and Netherlands teams that changed the game during the 1970s. 

    Indeed, Neeskens had an excellent understanding with the legendary Johan Cruyff, with the pair combining to win three successive European Cups, while they were both on the Oranje side that lost to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final. Neeskens even ended up following Cruyff to Barcelona, and then the US.

    Neeskens, though, was a great player in his own right, a tireless runner with a penchant for scoring goals. However, as a former right-back, he was also excellent defensively, a ferocious tackler who was nicknamed 'El Toro' by an adoring Camp Nou crowd.

    His exploits may have been overshadowed by those of Cruyff but as Neeskens once quipped, "I don’t mind being the second greatest player in the world!"

  10. Getty Images

    #11 Wolfgang Overath

    Wolfgang Overath was so good that he restricted the great Gunter Netzer to only 37 caps for his country.

    Overath was a genius on the ball, a masterful creator of chances with a beautiful left foot. He was an artist who was as good dictating the play from deep in midfield as he was threading balls through and unleashing shots outside the area.

    He spent his entire career at Koln, helping the club clinch their first league title, in 1964, while at international level he was voted as the best player at the 1970 World Cup – despite Brazil’s dominance in Mexico – and was inspirational as his country won the tournament on home soil four years later.

  11. Getty Images

    #10 Luka Modric

    This year's Goal 50 winner, Luka Modric has been one of the most consistently brilliant performers in world football since joining Tottenham 10 years ago. 

    However, it has been at Real Madrid where he has gone to a whole other level, playing a pivotal role in the Blancos' unprecedented run of three consecutive Champions League titles with his mix of industry and inspiration.

    His crowning glory, though, arguably came in Russia during the summer, when he claimed the Golden Ball as the World Cup's best player after leading his beloved Croatia all the way to the final.

  12. Getty Images

    #9 Clarence Seedorf

    One of the game's deep thinkers, Clarence Seedorf was so obsessed with the tactical side of the game even during his playing days that Massimiliano Allegri has admitted that the Dutchman used to drive him "mad" at AC Milan because the midfielder "wanted to discuss every detail and talk, talk and talk".

    It was hardly surprising. As a graduate of Ajax's famed academy, Seedorf was schooled in every facet of 'The Beautiful Game'. It was obvious every time he stepped foot on to the field.

    Seedorf was a midfielder of intelligence and ingenuity, a fantastic passer of the ball with knack for scoring spectacular goals.

    He was also hugely successful, the only man in history to win the Champions League with three different clubs: Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan. 

  13. Getty Images

    #8 Falcao

    Roma turned down the chance to sign Zico in 1980 in order to buy Falcao and the whole world laughed. They weren’t laughing for long, however, as Falcao soon showed himself to be arguably the most complete midfielder in world football during the early 1980s.

    Falcao was like a general on the field, brilliant tactically and technically, and was nicknamed the ‘Eighth King of Rome’.

    He won the Scudetto in 1983 and lost in the final of the European Cup a year later, while he also excelled for Brazil, playing in their legendary 1982 World Cup team alongside the likes of Socrates, Eder, Cerezo and Zico himself.

    Indeed, he scored a stunner in the classic 3-2 defeat to Italy during that tournament in Spain.

  14. Getty

    #7 Gianni Rivera

    The original ‘Golden Boy’ of Italian football, Rivera made his Serie A debut for hometown club Alessandria at the age of just 15. This prompted Milan to snap him up and in the next 19 years, he won three Scudetti and two European Cups among a host of other honours.

    A magnificent midfield playmaker with brilliant vision and intelligence, his display in the 4-1 European Cup final victory over Ajax in 1969 is regarded as one of the best individual performances of all time. It led to him winning that year’s Ballon d’Or.

    At international level, he often shared the limelight with Inter superstar Sandro Mazzola, but he played his part in Italy winning their first and only European Championship on home soil in 1968, while he scored the winner in the epic 4-3 World Cup semi-final victory over West Germany in Mexico two years later.

  15. Getty

    #6 Andres Iniesta

    One of the most universally respected players of all time, Andres Iniesta combines class with consistency, an extravagantly gifted talent who always delivered in the biggest games for Barcelona and Spain.

    As former club-mate Ivan Rakitic once said of the game's humble hero, "If you don't like Iniesta, you don't like football." 

    Blessed with remarkable vision, wonderful control and terrific dribbling skills, Iniesta was a key component in two different treble triumphs with Barca (2009 and 2015), as well as Spain's run of three consecutive major tournament wins (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012).

  16. Getty Images

    #5 Luis Suarez

    In the early 1960s, Luis Suarez was not only the best midfielder in the world, he was the best – and most expensive – player in the world. He was on the Ballon d’Or podium four times, winning the award once.

    Suarez was the deep-lying playmaker for Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter team that won successive European Cups, the creator and the brains of a brilliant team.

    Fittingly nicknamed ‘The Architect’, Suarez’s vision and passing helped Spain to the Euro 1964 title, while he was also a star for Barcelona, winning two Liga titles.

  17. Getty Images

    #4 Frank Rijkaard

    After signing Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit in 1987, AC Milan won their first Serie A title in nine years. After signing Frank Rijkaard the following summer, they won their first European Cup in 20 years.

    A tall, elegant player who was excellent in the air, fast off the mark and technically supreme, Rijkaard had spent most of his time playing as a central defender at Ajax. 

    However, at AC Milan, he was transformed into a defensive midfielder, albeit one with a habit of scoring crucial goals (see the 1990 European Cup final). 

    "Dunga, Marcel Desailly, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira all performed that role brilliantly," Ronald Koeman acknowledged, "but Frank is the best holding player ever."

    Rijkaard certainly has a strong claim on the title, having been the man who held arguably the greatest club side of all time together. He also starred as Netherlands won their only major title at Euro '88.

  18. Getty Images

    #3 Xavi

    Barcelona and Spain's remarkable period of sustained success around the turn of the decade would simply not have been possible without Xavi, the elegant playmaker that made both teams tick.

    His vision was as astounding as his ability to control the tempo of the game. There was no pass that he could not make. He simply saw the game like nobody else.

    "If football was a science, Xavi would have discovered the formula," Jorge Valdano once reasoned.

    "With a ball at his feet, no one else has ever communicated so intelligently with every player on the pitch."

  19. Getty Images

    #2 Andrea Pirlo

    When Gianluigi Buffon heard that Juventus had signed Andrea Pirlo, he exclaimed, "God exists!" 

    Certainly, his arrival in Turin felt a lot like divine intervention, as the free transfer from AC Milan – who had won two Champions Leagues during his time at San Siro  – immediately transformed a team coming off the back of consecutive seventh-placed finishes in Serie A into serial Scudetto winners.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pirlo, though, was the fact that he was as great as he was cool, a player of substance as well as style. 

    “I don’t feel pressure," he once wrote. "I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, 9 July, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. 

    "In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup."

  20. Getty

    #1 Lothar Matthaus

    How good was Lothar Matthaus? Well, Diego Maradona considers him "the best rival" he ever had. 

    Matthaus enjoyed a remarkably long and successful career, going from winning the European Championship in 1980 as a 19-year-old to being crowned Footballer of the Year in his native Germany exactly two decades later. 

    By that point, the Bayern Munich and Inter icon had converted himself into a sweeper thanks to his fantastic vision and reading of the game but, during his peak years, he was a box-to-box midfielder – arguably the best the game has ever seen. 

    Indeed, he was the driving force behind West Germany's World Cup win in 1990, scoring four goals along the way, which resulted in him being awarded the Ballon d'Or.