The holding midfielder position has, in some ways, never been more popular. It is routine for teams to play with a double pivot. But with all of the modern requirements placed on midfielders, is it accurate to even use the term “holding midfielder” anymore? And just who are the best players in this position in 2023?
Using stats, FootballCoin fantasy results, and the all-important eye test, we have assembled a list of the best holding midfielders in the world, together with an explanation of the player’s role today.
What is and what isn’t a holding midfielder?
“Holding midfielder” on the surface is another word for “defensive midfielder,” right? Well, there are certainly plenty of these players. And in 2023, more than ever, top clubs were willing to spend on players that could fulfil this role as much as on a star striker.
Declan Rice signed for Arsenal for £105m. And Chelsea successfully battled Liverpool for the signings of Romeo Lavia and Moises Caicedo. All three play in central midfield and in a relatively defensive role. But are they holding midfielders?
If we go by the book, a holding midfielder is a central midfielder with almost exclusive defensive responsibilities. This player will play in front of the central defenders, occasionally joining their ranks. Such a player will rarely engage in attacking manoeuvres, will prefer the short, sideways pass to a direct one, and, if all goes right, will be the unsung hero of the team.
Famous holding midfielders of the past include Claude Makélélé, Sergio Busquets and, more recently, N’Golo Kanté and Fabinho.
Ok. So that’s the same as an anchor player or defensive midfielder? Yes and no. While in a broad sense, all of these players are central midfielders with defensive duties, there are some distinctions.
Then there are the positions made famous, particularly, by their use in the Football Manager franchise.
Anchor players tend to play in front of the defence in a very rigid role and will use their physicality to earn back the ball. In some ways, they are central defenders who play a more advanced role.
A ball-winning midfielder’s primary trait is tackling. This is the role most similar to the classic definition of a holding midfielder. A mezzala likes to drift out on the wing. And, a carrilero acts as link between defense and midfield in wide areas.
When speaking of “defensive midfielders”, it is likely that we’re suggesting a player with more tactical versatility. They may cover more ground and are encouraged to play direct passes, taking on a role similar to that of a playmaker. Yes, essentially, these are minute distinctions. Arguably, on-the-field positions have been replaced by roles. And more versatile players have a higher likelihood of ending up playing for a top club.
The best holding midfielders in the world in 2023
So, just who is the best holding midfielder in the world? For the purpose of our study, we’ve included players who have been active throughout 2023 in such a role.
Yes, going by our strict definition, some of the players on the list can also take on other positions and roles. Today, however, we are focusing on a reduced list of traits.
10. Martin Zubimendi (Real Sociedad)
Martin Zubimendi has been making a name for himself playing for Real Sociedad, the neutral fan’s favourite when it comes to Spanish football. While there is more that Zubimendi can learn, his undeniable ability to pick loose balls, intercept and get on the winning end of a header make him one of the best-holding midfielders in La Liga.
9. Declan Rice (Arsenal)
Declan Rice cost a fortune and, in many ways, signalled the rise in importance of the holding midfielder. Was he worth the money? Arguably, Rice has greatly helped Arsenal’s chances of finally winning the Premier League for the first time since the glory days of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Rice makes 1.7 interceptions per game and inspires teammates through his courage. His stats, however, are not yet enough to warrant a place among the world’s very best, but this may soon change.
8. Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)
Saul Niguez’s career was on the rocks at the end of 2022. But this year, he has not only salvaged it, but added greatly to his reputation as an elite holding midfielder. Niguez averages 3.10 successful tackles per 90 minutes, as well as 2.81 clearances and 2.69 aerial duels won. He also likes to keep passing simple and to a minimum, the characteristic of any great defensive midfielder in the style of the legendary Claude Makelele.
7. Stanislav Lobotka (Napoli)
A great holding midfielder helps make everyone around them look great and rarely gets the praise himself. This is the story of Stanislav Lobotka an unlikely hero for Napoli in a year in which the Partenopei won the much coveted Scudetto.
6. Aleix Garcia (Girona)
Girona are the feel-good story in La Liga this season. And Aleix Garcia, a former Man. City youth is one of their best players. Yes, Garcia is the kind of imaginative passer that you’d expect from a former Pep Guardiola student. But while his tackling isn’t great, his excellent positioning and knowledge of the game have made him one of the best holding midfielders in Spain this season. Does that stop him from also being a regista? No, not really. But such distinctions, in modern football, are often quite slim.
5. Casemiro (Manchester United)
Casemiro, sure, has had an underwhelming second half of 2023. But, at the time of his arrival, the Brazilian holding midfielder nearly single-handedly solved Manchester United’s problems. While age may indeed catch up with the player, it would be unfair not to note that overall, Casemiro had a good 2023 and showed, once more, that none of those trophies won throughout his career happened by accident.
4. Yves Bissouma (Tottenham)
Yves Bissouma has had quite the opposite 2023 trajectory to Casemiro. It was only during this season that the talented midfielder finally lived up to all of the hype about him. Bissouma is the archetypal holding midfielder with a 90% success rate for tackles and 99% when it comes to passes, most of them short ones. At 27 years of age, the Mali defensive midfielder is hitting his prime.
3. Aurélien Tchouaméni (Real Madrid)
Aurélien Tchouaméni is further proof that Real Madrid continues to sign the best players in the world by virtue of reputation and financial force. The 23-year-old is a tremendous talent. This has allowed him to shift naturally into both Real and France’s setups. Following injury concerns, the Frenchman’s form as oscillated in recent months. However, with 1.85 interceptions, 2.28 aerials duels won, and 2.44 tackles per game, it would be unfair not to include him on our list.
2. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munchen)
Joshua Kimmich has long been Germany’s Golden Child when it comes to football. Often compared to the legendary Philipp Lahm, Kimmich is also able to move between roles seamlessly. He is a great holding midfielder, although this is far from the only thing that the Bayern player can do. His strong tackling and ball interception are impressive, but it is his intelligence that truly helps make Kimmich an elite player.
1. Rodri (Manchester City)
Rodri is, perhaps, the best-holding midfielder in the world. But, as most football fans will know, he can be so much more. The fact is that Rodri can play in a number of positions, has plenty of freedom on the field, and makes a colossal number of progressive passes. But, in a strictly defensive role, he is also an incredible asset to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. His absence during this season proved costly for the UCL champions’ defence.