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Strikers score goals, whilst goalkeepers and defenders will do their best to keep them out. But it is the middle men who have generally dictated the tempo of a Premier League game in years gone by.
This list of my all-time Premier League top 10 central midfielder’s vary – some have been the creative fulcrum of their side, whilst others are a more disciplined base for attacking quality. One of them has even had a midfield position named in his honour!
To clear things up, attacking midfielders, such as David Silva, Juan Mata and Matt Le Tissier, are not included in this list. In the early years of the Premier League, picking a team of the season was easy to slot into an old fashioned 4-4-2 formation. But that would seem impossible now, mainly due to the innovation of the playmakers, who have tended to become the more creative players of a side.
In short, whilst the aforementioned players are defined as midfielders, I view them as almost second strikers. Also, whilst the man at No. 6 on this list has spent part of his career in a more slightly forward role, the bulk of it was also as a box-to-box type player.
After whittling down a list of 4 or 5 players to complete my top 10, it was reasonably easy to then place numbers 10-6 into position. Rating numbers 5-1, however, was a more difficult task. There is a case for every member of these top 5 to easily be at the top of the tree.
Again, as with previous lists, a mixture of attributes were taken in account to pick the top 10, including talent, longevity, individual honours, goals and assists.
10. Claude Makelele - Club: Chelsea (2003-2008) - Prem apps: 140
Underrated and unappreciated at Spanish giants Real Madrid, Claude Makelele completed a near £17m move to Chelsea in the summer of 2003. The Frenchman was a key member of a side that won back to back Premier League titles in ‘05 and ’06, as well as the F.A Cup in 2007; his unfussy, consistent displays at the back of midfield the perfect foil for the attacking talent on show at Stamford Bridge.
Under the management of Avram Grant, Makelele’s appearances in the Premier League became progressively limited, and he returned to his homeland to sign for PSG on a free transfer in 2008.
Such was the ease in which he mastered and defined the defensive midfield position, it is invariably now known as the ‘Makelele role’.
9. Gary Speed - Clubs: Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton (1992-2008) - Prem apps: 534
Gary Speed made over 530 Premier League appearances in a career well known for its high level of consistency and admired longevity. The Welshman made his debut for Leeds United in 1988, and in the first ever Premier League season (1992-93), he was named in the PFA Team of the Year.
In 1996, Speed completed a £3.5m move to his boyhood club, Everton. As with his spell at Leeds, Speed was a consistent performer, winning the club’s Player of the Year award in his first season at Goodison Park. However, he was to last only 18 months in Merseyside, before signing for Newcastle, with whom he was twice an F.A Cup runner up.
A supremely fit, box-to-box midfielder, Speed was very rarely injured, making over 200 league appearance in six seasons at Newcastle, scoring 20 goals, before signing for Bolton in 2004. A three year stay at the Reebok Stadium was followed by a spell as player and manager at then Championship side Sheffield United, and he had progressed to become the manager of the Welsh national team, before his tragic death in November 2011.
Such was the shock of Speed’s passing that, more than 12 months on, it still resonates clearly within the football fraternity.
He was the ultimate professional, revered by so many, for his qualities on and off the pitch.
8. Xabi Alonso - Club: Liverpool (2004-2009) - Prem apps: 143
One of the best passers the Premier League has ever seen, Xabi Alonso was one of manager Rafael Benitez’s first signings at Anfield in 2004.
The Spanish international helped Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005, despite missing the majority of the second half of the season through injury.
In September 2006, Alonso scored from almost 70 yards out in a league game against Newcastle, having done similarly in a previous F.A Cup tie at Luton.
In the summer of 2008, Alonso was linked with a transfer away as Benitez lined up Gareth Barry to take his place in midfield, but the move never materialised. The following season, Alonso was instrumental in helping Liverpool to a 2nd place finish in the Premier League, just 4 points behind Manchester United.
Whilst the free scoring Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard took the plaudits for Liverpool’s attacking play, Alonso’s calming presence alongside Javier Mascherano in a 4-2-3-1 formation was just as key to their success.
Alonso made a return to Spain by signing for Real Madrid in 2009, for a fee of £30 million, and Liverpool have struggled to adequately replace him since.
7. Cesc Fabregas - Club: Arsenal (2003-2011) - Prem apps: 212
After progressing through Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Cesc Fabregas was allowed to join Arsenal just 4 months after his 16th birthday in 2003.
In 2004/05, Fabregas made his Premier League debut, going on to make 33 appearances, as well as helping the Gunners to F.A Cup success. Following the sale of the influential Patrick Vieira in ‘05, the Spaniard became more and more the fulcrum of Arsenal’s midfield. Between 2006 and 2008, Fabregas made almost 35 Premier League assists, establishing himself as one of the divisions’ most creative talents.
He became club captain in 2008, and scored 15 goals and made 13 assists in just 27 games in 2009/10, but Arsenal were slipping further and further from the Premier League elite. In 2011, Fabregas, by now a European Champion and World Cup winner, returned to his boyhood club in a £35m deal.
He is 5th on the all-time list of Premier League assists with 71.
6. Tim Cahill - Club: Everton (2004-2012) - Prem apps: 226
At just £1.5m to Everton from Millwall in 2004, Tim Cahill has to be the ultimate bargain signing in the Premier League!
In his first season at Goodison Park, the Aussie international was stationed in an attacking midfield role, behind one striker, and finished as top scorer with 11 goals as Everton finished 4th.
With his amazing aerial prowess, Cahill was a menace from set-pieces. In 2005-06, he reverted to a more central midfield role, but his performances were just as consistent, so much so that he made the short-list for the Ballon D’or towards the end of ’06. He was also a serial Merseyside derby scorer, netting 5 league goals against Liverpool, the most of any post-war Everton player.
Towards the end of his Everton career, Cahill was sometimes used as a striker, due to injuries. He netted over 50 Premier League goals and made nearly 30 assists in a hugely successful 8 year spell, before joining New York Red Bulls in 2012.
5. Steven Gerrard - Club: Liverpool (1998- present) - Prem apps: 426
Steven Gerrard is undoubtedly one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A one-club man, he made his Liverpool first team debut in late 1998, and quickly became a key man in the centre of their midfield.
In 2000-01, Gerrard, by now fully established for England, contributed to Liverpool’s fabulous treble season of F.A, League and UEFA Cups, scoring in the final of the latter. He also developed a knack of scoring superb goals from long distance, including a stunner at Anfield against rivals Manchester United that season, and his performances earned him the Young Player and Fans’ Player of the Year award, as well as a place in the team of the season.
Gerrard became Liverpool captain in 2003, and led the club to Champions League glory in 2005. But domestic success was at a premium, and for two successive summers, he flirted with the possibility of a transfer to the newly Roman Abramovich funded Chelsea. Gerrard remained loyal to his hometown club, however and, in 2005-06, was to experience arguably his finest season, netting 23 goals in all competitions, including a stunning 30 yard strike in the F.A Cup Final.
Gerrard has featured in the team of the season on 6 successive occasions, has netted over 90 Premier League goals and made nearly 85 assists, and won the PFA Player of the Year award for the second time in 2009.
4. Roy Keane - Clubs: Nottingham Forest, Manchester United (1992-2005) - Prem apps: 366
Roy Keane completed a move to Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1990, following an impressive debut season in the Irish First Division. A double cup runner-up in his first two seasons at the City Ground, Keane was a near ever present in the Premier League’s first campaign, making 40 appearances and earning a place in the PFA Team of the Year, though Forest were ultimately relegated.
His performances alerted the attention of the then Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish in 1993, but Manchester United nipped in at the 11th hour to sign him for a fee of £3.75 million, a then British record transfer.
Success came instantly for the combative midfielder in 1993/94, Keane winning the Premier League and F.A Cup with his new club. United were domestically dominant in the early/mid-90’s, and Keane was a mainstay in a side that won back to back league titles in ’96 and ’97, as well as another F.A Cup.
Keane became club captain in 1997, and helped United to the glorious treble of League, F.A Cup and Champions League success two years later, despite missing the dramatic Nou Camp final through suspension.
Due to his pugnacious style, only 3 players have picked up more than the 7 red cards Keane amassed in his Premier League career. After suffering a cruciate ligament injury following a clash with Alfe Inge Haaland in 1997, Keane got his revenge four years later with a knee high challenge on the same player in the latter stages of a Manchester derby. He later admitted his intent to injure Haaland, and received a 5 match ban and £150,000 fine.
In 2000, Keane won his 5th Premier League title, and was awarded the FWA Footballer and PFA Players’ Player of the Year awards for his performances.
Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal had emerged as serious title challengers to United, and one of the main highlights of these clashes was the engrossing midfield battles between Keane and Gunners skipper Patrick Vieira. The pair clashed on numerous occasions, including in the tunnel before a league game at Highbury in February 2005, and their rivalry remains one of the greatest subplots in Premier League history.
After criticising some of his team-mates in a TV broadcast, Keane departed Old Trafford in the autumn of 2005, but his legacy in English football is secure. He won the Premier League 7 times, as well as the F.A Cup on 4 occasions.
He also featured in the team of the season in 3 successive years (99-01), and, in 2002, was named in the Overseas Team of the Decade at the Premier League 10 Seasons awards.
3. Patrick Vieira - Clubs: Arsenal, Manchester City (1996-2005, 2010-2011) - Prem apps: 307
Patrick Vieira completed a £3.5m move to Arsenal in September 1996, at the behest of the soon to arrive Arsene Wenger.
Vieira made over 30 league appearances in his first season in English football, and in the following campaign he helped Arsenal to a League and Cup double.
Over the following years, Vieira, a World and European champion with France, established himself as the Premier League’s best midfielder, with his strong tackling, creative talent and fine passing, for the most part alongside Emmanuel Petit, aiding the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars. He won the Premier League Player of the year award in 2001, and won his second League and Cup double a year later.
Similarly to Roy Keane, with whom he engaged in numerous clashes, Vieira struggled with discipline in the early part of his Arsenal career. He was sent off 9 times, including in consecutive league games in 2000, but these problems soon cooled.
Long term skipper Tony Adams retired in 2002, and Vieira took the armband for the 2002/03 season. After dramatically losing out on the Premier League title to Manchester United, Arsenal bounced back in devastating style. Vieira enjoyed arguably his finest ever Premier League season as the Gunners reclaimed their trophy, remaining undefeated along the way. While Thierry Henry took the plaudits with his 30 goals, Vieira was just as influential from the centre of midfield.
Vieira was strongly linked with Real Madrid in the summer of 2004, but opted to stay at Highbury, and went on to help the Gunners set a new unbeaten league record of 49 games. In his final Arsenal game, he scored the winning penalty in the shootout to lead them to F.A Cup victory over United.
In 2005, Vieira left Arsenal to join Juventus for £13.75m, before signing for Inter a year later. After an eventful 4 and a half years in Italy, Vieira returned to the Premier League to sign for Manchester City. He made just short of 30 league appearances in his 18 month spell at Eastlands but, like with Arsenal, did help City to the F.A Cup in his final match in 2011.
Vieira was named in the team of the season on 6 straight occasions between 1998-2004, and won 3 Premier League titles as well as 5 F.A Cups. In 2002, he was named in the Overseas Team of the Decade in the 10 Seasons Awards.
2. Frank Lampard - Clubs: West Ham, Chelsea (1996- present) - Prem apps: 534
The highest scoring midfielder in Premier League history, Frank Lampard made his debut for West Ham in January 1996 following a brief loan spell at Swansea.
A broken leg saw his early progress stagnate at Upton Park, but he bounced back to become a key player between 1998 and 2001, playing a key role as the Londoners won the Intertoto Cup and qualified for the UEFA Cup.
Lampard was very close to signing for Leeds, to join his former club-mate Rio Ferdinand, in 2001, but instead moved to Chelsea for a fee of £11m. A real box-to box midfielder, with a knack of getting into goal scoring positions, he missed just one league game in 2001/02, but was an ever present in the following two campaigns. Lampard reached double figures for the first time in 2003-04, which included two superb 25 yard strikes against Wolves, and helped Chelsea to a 2nd place finish behind unbeaten Arsenal.
2004/05 was the season in which Lampard became a player of world repute. After a fine showing at Euro 2004, scoring 4 goals for England, he was outstanding as Chelsea cruised to their first ever Premier League title under Jose Mourinho. He was again a league ever present, netting 13 goals and making 16 assists, and he won the PFA and FWA Player of the Year Awards for his efforts.
A Ballon D’Or runner up in late 2005, Lampard helped Chelsea to back to back league titles, scoring 16 league goals and winning the Premier League player of the season award for the second successive time.
Lampard netted in two finals, the Champions League defeat to Manchester United in 2008 and the F.A Cup win over Everton the following year, and in 2009/10, he scored 22 and made 17 as Chelsea won their third league title. In 2012, he captained Chelsea to Champions League glory in the absence of the suspended John Terry.
His list of individual Premier League honours makes for impressive reading. His tally of 156 league goals is the 5th most in Prem history, and the highest of those still playing. He is 2nd behind Ryan Giggs for all-time assists, with 89, made the team of the season 3 times between 2004-06, and was named the player of the 2000’s at the end of ’09.
It seems likely that Lampard’s 12 year stay with Chelsea will come to an end next summer, with a reluctance from the club’s hierarchy to offer him a new contract.
It looks a strange decision from the outside, with the player still fit and good enough for 2 more years at the top level at least, and, while a move to the MLS has been mooted, is it entirely inconceivable he will pitch up at Old Trafford for the start of the 2013/14 season?!
Stranger things have happened…
1. Paul Scholes - Club: Manchester United (1993- present) - Prem apps: 497
The most decorated player in Premier League history, bar none, Paul Scholes is rated by many as the best midfielder of his era.
Scholes was one of a clutch of young players, nicknamed Fergie’s Fledglings, who went on to serve Manchester United with distinction in the 1990’s and beyond. He made his debut in a League Cup tie at Port Vale in September 1994, scoring twice, and made 17 appearances in the Premier League as United were pipped to the title by Blackburn.
Scholes started the 1995/96 season as first choice, following the sale of a number of the more experienced players. Alongside his youth contemporaries, such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, Scholes was invaluable as United won back to back Premier League titles, as well as the F.A Cup in 1996.
Blessed with wonderful passing and vision, Scholes was lauded as one of the world’s finest midfielders as the decade came to a close. He was a key member of United’s famous treble winners in 1999, though missed the Champions League Final through suspension.
Scholes won his 6th Premier League title in 2002/03, scoring 14 league goals, and after retiring from international football in 2004, he was able to prolong his club career. He suffered a serious eye injury in 2005/06, but bounced back the following season to help United to their first of three consecutive league championships. He also picked up his 2nd Champions League medal in 2008, scoring a beauty in the semi-final win over Barcelona.
After winning the 2010/11 title, Scholes ended his playing career, but came out of retirement six months later to provide cover for United’s decimated midfield.
As well as 3 F.A Cups, Scholes has won the Premier League on 10 separate occasions – bettered only by long term club mate Ryan Giggs.
It’s very hard to look past Scholes as the number 1. It’s not just for the vast accolades he has accumulated, but more so for the quality of his game. Aside from his tackling – he is the 3rd most booked player in Prem history – he is pretty much the complete player.
He was described as ‘an all-round midfielder who possesses quality and character in abundance’ by World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi, whilst former team-mate Roy Keane viewed him as ‘an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being’.
Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players of all time, still laments the fact he was a never a club-teammate of a man he called ‘almost untouchable’, and Pep Guardiola and Xavi, key men in establishing the current Barcelona side as one of the finest ever seen in Europe, have lauded the career and ability of the 38-year old.
It was tough to separate Keane and Vieira, with the latter’s more attacking talent outweighing the ‘dog of war’ qualities of the former to edge just ahead. I’m a massive fan of Lampard; the goals and assists are there for all to see and speak volumes for his career; his consistency year in, year out can only be admired.
Gerrard is a wonderfully gifted player, but I couldn’t see who would have dropped out of the top 4 to accommodate him. It’s testament to the standard of midfielders of the Prem era that he finds himself at 5th; not necessarily the fact that he has never won a Premier League title.
But Scholes tops the lot. For me, the best central midfielder of the Premier League era!
Players who missed out
There was a big list of players who just missed out on making the top 10. The likes of Arsenal duo Emmanuel Petit and Ray Parlour were not far away, Gary McAllister was very close, whilst Paul Ince would probably have been number 11. Other narrow absentees include Gilberto Silva and Michael Essien, and while Yaya Toure had a fabulous 2011/12, he has a long way to go to be regarded as one of the league’s greats.
Written by Nick Wall
Follow him on Twitter @NickWolf89
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