Defensive Midfielder in Soccer: The Ultimate Guide

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Eight out of ten soccer coaches will tell you that the center defensive midfielder is the most important player in a soccer team.

Pep Guardiola started as a soccer defensive midfielder. His manager at the time, the late great Johan Cruijff, wanted a midfield pivot who was great at winning duels but even better at preventing them by anticipating them.

Guardiola was the man Cruijff found. Guardiola then became a coach and applied this same philosophy in the teams he coached.

Let me show you why the DM is probably the most important role in soccer.

What is a Defensive Midfielder in Soccer?

In basketball, there is a position called the Point Guard. This player’s role is to make the other team’s attack as ineffective as possible.

This is exactly what the center defensive midfielder exists to do in soccer.

The CDM or DM sits in front of the defense to stifle any attacks. The defenders stand ready to mop up the spills from his failures or the opponent’s brilliance, but if the DM is having a good game, the defenders will have little to do.

Their role is a thankless one, like the goalkeeper’s role, because they are meant to be invisible.

How Do You Play a Defensive Midfielder?

As I pointed out earlier, a coach should place a defensive midfielder directly in front of the defense. Their position will be in the middle of the center backs.

Coaches are liable to train them into ball-winning machines because their role as the defensive pivot is to make the job of the defenders easier.

Another thing is that a DM should be able to know what to do with the ball before it gets to them. By training, they are midfielders, so being able to scan the pitch with one or two looks over their shoulders is also important.

The Best Central Defensive Midfielders of All Time

Let me introduce you to some of the best central defensive midfielders of all time.

Claude Makelele

Claude Makelele

Claude Makelele is often referred to as the original defensive midfielder. This is because he made the role important with the way he played.

He was so good in his role that the defensive midfielder position was famously called the ‘Claude Makelele role.’

As an excellent disruptor, Makelele would pop up in front of opponents and steal the ball from them.

Many were surprised at how he did it before managers realized that the Frenchman had an acute sense of the game.

Every opponent’s passing patterns were very visible to him before they were made, and he would immediately pop up at their final destination. If he had to make a tackle, he would keep the ball moving.

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets

Sergio Busquets once said: “I play in a position that demands hard work and generosity and little glamor, but I like it. It’s my job, and I like it. I’d rather intercept and steal 10 balls than shoot. That’s what I’m here for, to make everyone’s job easier.”

His emergence was key to the ultimate Barcelona team that is now regarded as one of the best teams in soccer history.

His ability to read the game, intercept passes with ease, and then restart play all in one breath was coveted by many coaches. To this day, a player of his profile is rare.

Xabi Alonso

Xabi Alonso

Xabi Alonso thrived more as a deep-lying playmaker than a proper defensive midfielder.

He was adept at winning duels, but his successes lay in his ability to direct play. He did this by covering attacking lanes and forcing opponents into a box from where he or his teammates could claim the ball.

He would then restart play with an amazing pass into space for the attacker to chase after. His vision was impeccable, and as a coach, he is proving why he is regarded as an all-time great.

Alonso also had perfect timing, which is one of the key qualities a center-defensive midfielder must possess.

N’Golo Kante

N’Golo Kante

Gus Poyet, a soccer player turned coach, once called N’Golo Kante the best central defensive midfielder in the world, and it is easy to see why.

The smiling Frenchman had only one language: winning the ball. Nothing else mattered to him.

He was like a bull who chased down anything when it saw red. As long as the ball was in play and it was in the middle of the park, Kante would chase it down and get it back.

This is peak defensive midfield play, and this is why he is regarded as an all-time great in the position.



Did you know that Casemiro wanted to be a striker? He only became a midfielder when the club he wanted to try out for as a young striker announced that they had found their striker and only wanted midfielders.

While others left, he stayed and is now one of the best midfielders in the world. He can also function as a box-to-box midfielder (a midfielder who can run the full length of the field to participate in both attack and defense).

His biggest strength is in his ability to make interceptions. This is thanks to his high football IQ. 

The Best Central Defensive Midfielders Right Now

Here are the stars of central defensive mids that are dominating the game right now.



Rodri is the player who has been described as being the closest to Sergio Busquets. They have a key difference, however.

Rodri is more aggressive and is not afraid to carry the ball beyond his role as a pivot into more offensive areas of the pitch.

He goes into tackles, wins the ball, and then makes a split-second decision to either carry the ball forward or make a quick pass to a midfielder waiting to continue the attack.

He is incredible in his physicality and is also a great threat aerially. His anticipation is a key facet of his game.

Declan Rice

Declan Rice

Declan Rice has been compared to N’Golo Kante for his work-rate. The Englishman is a ball-chasing and winning defensive midfielder, who then carries the ball forward like Rodri.

What he lacks in anticipation, he makes up for in his work ethic and his ability to read his teammates. This helps him understand what to do, where he should be, and how to win the ball back.

He is also one of the better dribblers among modern defensive midfielders. He is good with the ball at his feet and can quickly change his direction to throw off opponents – much like Busquets.

Joshua Kimmich

Joshua Kimmich

Joshua Kimmich learned from the best in Philipp Lahm who was a right-back who played in the defensive midfield role suite often (see our article on right-backs to learn about Lahm).

As a DM with a smaller frame like Kante, he made sure to increase his output by focusing on anticipation and tackling.

Kimmich is a strong tackler and a brilliant passer of the ball who can dictate the tempo of a game.

Aurelien Tchouameni

Aurelien Tchouameni

This young Frenchman is elegant on the ball and could easily be a winger if he was not so in love with his role as a midfielder.

Aurelien Tchouameni has similar qualities to Busquets, Rodri, and Alonso, which is why he is another rare profile in the world of defensive midfielders.

His main strength is in ball carrying, which is very useful in transitions from defense to attack. He is also fast in comparison to other DMs.

Bruno Guimarães

Bruno Guimarães

Bruno Guimarães is a Brazilian, unlike Casemiro, with a bit of flair to him. His dribbling is his greatest weapon and it helps him open up spaces in the middle of the field.

He wins the ball with his tackling, dribbles his way into space, and releases the ball to the attacker best placed to finish the move.

He is also a quick player who is mostly used as a deep-lying playmaker.

Defensive Responsibilities Of A Defensive Midfielder

Winning back the ball remains their primary responsibility. When they cannot make tackles, read passing lanes, intercept key passes, and force opposing attackers into positions, and they have to restart their play, it is considered a failure.

This is why they must be physical and must have the average IQ of a soccer midfielder, which allows them to understand how attacks can be built up. These are the basics that help them stop any attacks in their tracks.

Sometimes, they need to press from the front, like Kante is known to do. This makes it easier to start an attack.

Attacking Responsibilities Of A Defensive Midfielder

Like a Point Guard who makes sure to start attacks with key passes, calls the plays, and drives the ball forward to the offensive areas, the central defensive midfielder is on the pitch to dictate the plays of a soccer team as well.

This is why the role is a box-to-box one. This is also why coaches like to use them as deep-lying playmakers, except there is a central midfielder with a better IQ and passing range than them.

Transitions start with them, so they need to be able to understand their teammates’ movements.

One pass is all it takes.


What is expected of a defensive midfielder?

A defensive midfielder is expected to:

Be agile to make unpredictable changes in direction, be disciplined enough to stay in position, and be good passers of the ball.

How do you position yourself as a defensive midfielder?

A center defensive midfielder should always be found in the following zones: In front of the defense, which is their primary area of operation in any soccer formation, and in the half-spaces between the midfield and attack, where counterattacks tend to start to reduce the chances.

How do you become a good defensive midfielder in soccer?

Discipline, professionalism, and the basic midfield talents of anticipation, vision, and game reading, as well as incredible concentration, are the core qualities of a good defensive midfielder. 

Others are positioning and great technique. Pair all of these with a constant drive for excellence.

Final Thoughts

Every defense feels at peace with someone like Busquets, Rodri, Makelele, or Kante in front of them. They are the true last line of defense.

This is why DMs make more tackles than any player in a match—stats say the average is 8.7 tackles per game. 

When you next watch a soccer game, whether at home or live, pay attention to the player who sits in front of the defense. You will appreciate the sport a little more.

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