SRINIVAS SADHANAND|17th December 2019

Not all sports can boast of having a role that opens doors as wide as the midfield does for a legion of its creators. Whether it’s the orchestrators that pull strings for an entirety of the 90 minutes, the destroyers that leave it all out on the pitch to protect the backline, the enforcers that set the ball rolling or the playmakers that wreak havoc and ensure the forwards do the same in the danger area of the opposition, the middle of the park has it all to offer. What goes beyond the criterions that define the ideal midfielder are aspects such as perception and the will to carve one’s own identity.

After all, if an N’Golo Kanté did not idolize one of the game’s most understated visionaries in Claude Makélélé and was instead drawn to his more glamorous compatriots, would we ever witness the talents of the former Leicester City dynamo? The question remains rhetorical and keeping with this sentiment, the end of the 2010s has led to More Than A Game have nitpicking their top 10 midfielders of the decade; with each and every player mentioned being a stalwart in their own sense and going about their business in their very own way.

10. Cesc Fàbregas

Among a host of his mesmeric attributes, Cesc Fàbregas safely belongs in the mecca of midfield royalty mainly due to his uncanny ability of unlocking defences to make the perfect assist. The Spaniard could not have registered a more poignant pass to kickstart his decade, assisting Andrés Iniesta who scored the all-important goal to seal La Roja’s status as world champions in 2010.

As Cesc made his £35 million move to Barcelona the following year, things were certainly not as rosy as his return. While the slight midfielder showed moments of magic during his time on the pitch and even briefly deputized as a ‘false 9’ under Pep Guardiola, an inability to unchain the iconic Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta trio in midfield along with injury troubles meant Fàbregas simply could not exhibit his vintage best in Catalonian colors.

However, the former Arsenal captain was crucial in playing as a pseudo striker under Vincente Del Bosque as Spain defended their Euro 2008 crown in 2012 and Fàbregas proved to be potent, both as a starter as well as off the bench, chipping in with 2 goals during the tournament.

Fàbregas certainly redeemed himself after making a return to the English capital for Chelsea, especially after a dream 2014-15 campaign in which he registered a brilliant 18 assists to his name.

Currently working his magic at the Stade Louis II, the Spanish magician will never cease to amaze.

9. Yaya Touré

Many would say that the acquisition of a Champions League winner for none other than Barcelona’s class of 2010 in the form of Yaya Touré gave Sheikh Mansour’s financial takeover the footballing weight it needed. People started to sit up and take notice of Manchester City as other exciting talents followed suit and as they say, the rest is history. Both City as well as Yaya would attest to the age-old expression.

Despite his often-languid body language, the Ivorian was perhaps English football’s most devastating gamechanger in his heyday. Capable of brushing past defenders as if they weren’t there in the first place, the sheer power and brute force of Yaya Touré made him impossible to stop as he would run past the entire opposition and slot the ball with venom into the back of the net.

A man tailor-made for the big moments, whether it’s Yaya’s winners against Manchester United and Stoke City en route to their 2011 FA Cup triumph, his vital brace against Newcastle United that kept the Citizens alive in the title race during the 2011-12 campaign or even his emphatic equaliser against Sunderland in the 2014 League Cup final, the former Barcelona midfielder stole the headlines for all the right reasons.

Touré’s sublime 20 goals and 9 assists in the 2013-14 season have gone down in history as one of the greatest individual campaigns in English the Premier League and while the big man faded away soon after, there is no taking away from his simplistic genius.

8. Casemiro

Signed from São Paulo in 2013, Casemiro has firmly established his presence among Real Madrid’s most important purchases over the past decade. The Brazilian is the antithesis of the philosophy of the Spanish giants which focuses on dipping into the transfer market and merely handpicking poster boys, keeping aside their actual suitability to the site itself.

Casemiro entered the fray as a relatively unknown commodity and 7 years down the line, not many would argue that he has perhaps been the standout defensive-midfielder in world football during this period. Unlike Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić that linked in tandem as the puppet masters in midfield, the ex-Porto loanee offered a steeliness in screening the back four that was vital to the Los Blancos’ ascendancy over European football as they roared to 4 Champions League triumphs during this period of unrivalled dominance.

Tasting glory in Seleção colors as Brazil were crowned the champions of the Copa America earlier this year, Casemiro was fully worthy of a shout in this list in what has truly been an excellent decade.

7. Kevin De Bruyne

Kevin De Bruyne started this decade by making waves for Genk in Belgium and ends this decade as the best midfielder in world football, bar none. After signing on the dotted line for Chelsea, the Belgian was just one of many prospects that the West Londoners would incorporate as a part of their never-ending loan system and at the end of it, simply cast away. De Bruyne enjoyed a promising spell at Werder Bremen, but after merely warming the bench under José Mourinho and seemingly failing to see eye-to-eye with the Portuguese.

After reaching his final straw, the prodigious midfielder entered the Wolfsburg waters and made the world feast their eyes on his neglected talent as he enjoyed a stunning campaign with 16 goals and 27 assists across all competitions. Returning to the Premier League two seasons after, the Belgian international was hell-bent on riding on this wave of redemption for Manchester City in a £55 million move.

What seemed like a hefty fee initially has proven to pocket change by ‘KDB’ as he has been simply unplayable during his time in England. Blessed with perhaps the greatest crossing skillset after David Beckham in the Premier League era along with the ability to spray passes along the gaff, drive his team forward and score belters at will, the former Chelsea man truly is the complete midfielder. His evolution under Guardiola has made De Bruyne a different beast as his incredible 2017-18 campaign showcased.

Any skeptics of De Bruyne’s skillset can simply revisit his heroics against Arsenal to witness the bonafide superstar in full flow.

6. N’Golo Kanté

Out of all the masterful midfielders to have made it into this list, Kanté is perhaps the only one to be a part one of the most unique sporting achievements till date. The odds were stacked at 5000/1 for Leicester City to lift the Premier League trophy and one would have to be a serious betting man to even be aware of the stakes for the Foxes, out of everyone.

N’Golo Kanté was at the heart of the milestone, hounding players, seemingly omnipresent and anchoring the back four like his life depended on it. While the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez made the back pages for their exploits up front, it was the smiling midfield general in the Frenchman who tied it all together.

Making his move to Chelsea in 2016, Kanté showed that he wasn’t done as he was at his brilliant best under Antonio Conte, bagging the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and the Football Writers Footballer of the Year and most notably, another successive Premier League trophy.

A World Cup winner in 2018, the Le Havre youth graduate is a generational find and is possibly one of the most influential midfielders to emerge this decade.

5. Toni Kroos

There aren’t too many midfielders in world football that can boast of a more decorated decade than Toni Kroos. Winning the Champions League 4 times for two different clubs in Bayern Munich and Real Madrid as well as a World Cup in 2014 truly proves that Kroos has had the midas touch over the past 10 years.

The German broke into Bayern’s first-team at the start of the decade and has never looked back since then. After being a vital cog in the Bavarian juggernauts’ run to the Champions League final in the 2011-12 season, Kroos tasted bitter defeat and that too in Bayern’s backyard as the Allianz Arena witnessed a brilliant Chelsea comeback that saw them lift the coveted trophy against all odds. However, the icy midfielder’s progression continued as he firmly solidified his presence among the best in his position and redemption arrived in sweet fashion for Kroos as he won the trophy in 2014, despite missing the business end of the competition due to injury.

Silverware followed the same year as Germany bossed their way to winning the World Cup and it was Kroos’ ability to dictate play in his deep-lying role and display a passing rage as vast as anyone’s, which was major driving force behind Die Mannschaft’s triumph.

When Real Madrid came calling the following campaign, Kroos took to the Spanish capital like a fish to water and set the tone for Los Merengues’ three Champions League triumphs on the trot from 2016 to 2018.

Despite not being at his very best the previous campaign, one always expects the German to be in Kroos control at the end of the day.

4. Sergio Busquets

“You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”

Vicente Del Bosque was succinct in his summary and high in his praises of Sergio Busquets as Barcelona’s midfield anchor was indispensable to Spain’s domineering start to the decade in the form of the World Cup and European Championships in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

Despite sitting atop of the footballing world, Busquets embodied the basics; week in and week out that made him succeed in making the complexities look simple. Whether it was stealing the ball off an attacker, making the right pass, picking the perfect weight of pass and remaining positionally disciplined, these are areas that take players their entire careers to master while Busquets has been affording lessons in mastering the crafts that make the midfield role, well and truly an art form.

At 31 years of age, Sergio Busquets isn’t the same operator he once was. But that does not impede him in any way, shape or form in continuing to be a class apart to this day as well a legacy that will remain untouchable forever.

3. David Silva

Arriving onto English shores in 2010, David Silva was stepping foot in a league that vouched for principles such as physicality, tirelessness and hard graft from their midfielders. The Spaniard ticked none of those boxes and instead, created a lane for himself.

Waving his wand in front of the Sky Blues faithful, Merlin, as he is popularly addressed was as easy as one could be on the eye; gliding across the pitch, roaming his way to find open spaces and picking the most exquisite of passes to either set a goal up or ignite the start of one; possessing a football brain that is immensely rare, much like Silva himself.

Numbers and even words do not do justice to the unique genius of David Silva. Instead, his jaw-dropping assist to Edin Džeko in City’s iconic 1-6 demolition of United or his silky flicked finish against Swansea City in the 2017-18 season would describe the Spaniard and his magisterial ways better.

Arguably the Citizens’ most crucial weapon during this decade of domestic dominance as well as one of Spain’s finest, as La Roja’s 4th highest-ever goalscorer with 35 goals to his name, David Silva has been in a league of his own over the past 10 years.

2. Luka Modrić

While being in the presence among the esteemed company of an elite caliber of midfielders, Luka Modrić is the only recipient of the prestigious Ballon d’Or award. While the validity of decisions surrounding the accolade have met with certain sections of the footballing fraternity turning their noses up at the accolade, the manner in which the silky midfielder won is certainly one for the ages.

Breaking the Messi-Ronaldo monopoly by emerging triumphant, the former Spurs man dragged a lionhearted Croatian team to the 2018 World Cup final, a feat nobody truly expected, despite their ‘dark horses’ tag and led his troops by example.

Dictating play, bypassing tacklers with ease, delivering pinpoint set-pieces and also putting a shift in midfield, Modrić was as masterful as he was calculated in Russia. However, admirers of the unassuming midfield maestro were hardly surprised.

While Modrić was excellent at White Hart Lane, it was the Bernabeu where he grew into his own. Initial struggles meant the Croatian wasn’t a regular starter for Madrid and at the end of his debut campaign, readers of Spanish publication, ‘Marca’ voted Modrić and Alex Song as the worst signings of the season. The fates of the two gentlemen since then will paint an accurate picture of their respective talents.

Along with Toni Kroos, Xabi Alonso as well as Casemiro, Modrić has been the key cog in the middle of the park that has been a vital ingredient in Real Madrid’s reign over Europe and with his fairytale in the checkered Croatia strip being well-documented, not many have enjoyed a more fruitful decade than Lukita.

1. Andrés Iniesta

A true proponent of the beautiful game, Andrés Iniesta’s artistry knows no bounds. Whether its dancing past opponents with the ball glued to his feet, bamboozling tacklers with his signature ‘La Croqueta’ move, igniting the most inch-perfect one-two’s, making a Hollywood pass or simply keeping things ticking, it almost seems as if Iniesta has a blueprint of the contest beforehand.

There is not a midfielder on this list that started the decade in more blockbuster fashion than the diminutive midfielder who struck the unforgettable winner that crowned Spain world champions in a pulsating final against the Dutch and cemented his side’s status as the generation’s most dominant national team.

Alongside Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in the most revered midfield trio the game has ever seen, Iniesta was captivating and grew further into life when he took the mantel of the main man during the onset of Euro 2012. Emerging as the Player of the tournament, El Illisionista was unplayable as La Roja were crowned European champions, once again.

While Ivan Rakitić emerged as a successor to Xavi during his final season at the Nou Camp, Iniesta’s place in the side remained unharmed and even at 31 years of age, the Spaniard called the shots against Juventus in the 2014-15 Champions League final, earning the Man of the Match as Barcelona ran out 3-1 winners.

As Iniesta departed Barcelona in 2018 with more honors (20 trophies in the last 10 years) over the past decade than most footballers earn over the span over their entire careers, an aspect that must not be forgotten is the fact that the World Cup winner continued to be excellent and was simply making way as he felt it was his time and also for the club to move forward.

Andrés Iniesta is the ultimate midfielder and there is no disputing simply how otherworldly he has been on his day, which is almost all the time.

Best of the Rest

Andrea Pirlo

The embodiment of the fact that a footballing brain is perhaps the one tool that differentiates the good from the great, Andrea Pirlo’s perception of the sport in itself made him special. What he did with the ball at his feet proved he was special.

Winning 5 back-to-back Scudetti with Milan and Juventus, Pirlo’s role as the regista was one that truly defined a midfield role as he pulled strings from deep and dictated the tempo of an entire contest. Despite his inarguable excellence, the Italian legend departed the Vecchia Signora for New York City in 2015 and as a result, chose not to play at the highest level for a long time over the past decade which meant he missed the mark.

Xavi Hernández

There is no denying that Xavi Hernández is right up there in the conversation for the greatest midfielders the world has ever laid eyes upon. Winning 2 Champions League trophies as well as 3 La Liga medals for the Barça, Xavi was brilliant during the early part of the decade, but eventually took a backseat for Rakitić to succeed his presence.

Much like Pirlo, Xavi also bid farewell to the big time in favor of a move to Al-Sadd in Qatar in 2015.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

Schweinsteiger’s legendary status can never be in doubt. Starting the decade off in fine fashion by winning the Bundesliga, Bastian Schweinsteiger went on to win 3 more titles in which one of the triumphs was a part of a historic treble in the 2012-13 season. However, Schweini wasn’t done with his Bundesliga and Champions League medals as he also won the 2014 World Cup.

In 2015, the German international made his move to Manchester United, however his English adventure collided with the torrid spell the club has been undergoing since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. And also, United were getting a version of Schweinsteiger that wasn’t at his peak.

While Schweinsteiger enjoyed a decade that was full of silverware, a poor time in the Premier League as well as his transfer to the MLS’ Chicago Fire meant there were other candidates that were just a cut above the Bayern icon.

Thiago Alcântara

At the start of the decade, Thiago Alcântara was pipped to be the ideal Xavi replacement; a La Masia graduate that had been instilled with the Barcelona DNA since he joined the club as a child. However, Thiago was unwilling to wait and became Pep Guardiola’s priority signing at Bayern Munich.

Injury troubles hampered the Spanish midfielder’s initial spells at the club, however as time has progressed, so has Thiago’s fitness levels and there is no denying his brilliant talent. Capable of operating as a No.8 or even in the hole, the man simply makes Bayern tick.

However, there needs to be more from Thiago, especially at international level for him to warrant a spot in such a list in the future. Doubt him at your own risk, however as the former Barcelona star is simply too talented.