It is the heart of the team.
Creativity flows from it; safety depends on it.
It’s the communications hub—the nerve centre. Quite often the smartest players in football make it their home.
The central midfield is typically where buildup originates or, conversely, where defense collapses. And it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Some managers prefer to have a pair of midfielders between the defense and attack in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Others favour a duo in the core of a 4-4-2. Then there are the trios that operate in each of a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, and more recently in a 4-1-4-1.
But whatever its composition, it can win and lose championships.
Following are the 20 best central midfield combinations from Europe’s top five leagues.
Only Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Hertha Berlin can boast better Bundesliga defensive records than Borussia Monchengladbach so far this term, and Granit Xhaka and Christoph Kramer are two of the major reasons why.
Xhaka—a former FC Basel prodigy—and Kramer—a former Germany U-20 international who only arrived at the club during the summer from Bochum—are equal parts ball-distribution and tough tackling and sit at the heart of manager Lucien Favre’s 4-4-2 formation.
Ahead of Saturday’s trip to Cagliari in Serie A, Fiorentina sit fourth in the Italian top flight and are just three points back of Napoli and the division’s final Champions League spot.
Manager Vincenzo Montella’s free-flowing brand of football originates in the middle band of his 4-3-3 setup, where Matias Fernandez, David Pizarro and Borja Valero operate behind an active front three of Juan Cuadrado, Alessandro Matri and Joaquin.
Of the teams in the top half of Serie A, only Lazio have scored fewer goals than Parma so far this season.
Manager Roberto Donadoni, who joined the club in 2012, has to keep things tight and organized in order to get results, and to that end he has put together a veteran midfield trio that features Walter Gargano, Marco Marchionni and Marco Parolo.
Lille are presently third in Ligue 1 despite the second-worst offensive record in the top half of the table. That said, they have also conceded the fewest goals in the division so far this season and look to be well-positioned for Champions League football next season.
All-rounder Rio Mavuba centres manager Rene Girard’s midfield trio, and to either side of him are the experienced Florent Balmont and tough-tackling Idrissa Gueye.
Given the long-term injury picked up by talismanic striker Radamel Falcao, it’s likely AS Monaco—presently second in Ligue 1—will become ever more reliant on their central midfield as they chase Paris Saint-Germain for the title and also look to secure Champions League football.
Defensive midfielder Joao Moutinho has given little away so far this season, and manager Claudio Ranieri also has ball-winners in Jeremy Toulalan and Morocco international Mounir Obbadi, as well as creative youngster Geoffrey Kondogbia, on which to call.
They may have lost three matches in succession, but Bayer Leverkusen are still second in the Bundesliga and have the division’s best defensive record outside Bayern Munich.
Simon Rolfes functions as the pivot of manager Sami Hyypia’s side, and the Fin can also count on the defensively programmed Lars Bender and action-man Gonzalo Castro to help form a serviceable midfield trio.
Athletic Bilbao have lost just twice in La Liga since September and go into Sunday’s match at home to Real Madrid in fourth place—five points above Villarreal.
Manager Ernesto Valverde has sometimes used a 4-2-3-1 formation since replacing Marcelo Bielsa, but more often than not his preference has been to employ a 4-1-4-1, with Ander Iturraspe in the anchor role and Mikel Rico and Ander Herrera just in front of him, between Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain.
Fourth-place Liverpool have typically used Steven Gerard and Jordan Henderson in the centre of midfield this campaign, but each of Lucas Leiva and Philippe Coutinho have slotted in alongside the pair from time to time as well.
In the Reds’ 4-0 demolition of Everton earlier this week, it was the sparkplug Coutinho who played from the start, joining goal-scorer Gerrard and ball-distributor Henderson, who completed 92 percent of his passes, according to WhoScored.
Ramires has been the only constant in Chelsea’s central midfield so far this term—playing, from one match to the next, with one of Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and David Luiz.
But the January acquisition of Nemanja Matic will likely add consistency to the position as the third-place Blues look to leapfrog Arsenal and Manchester City and finish atop the Premier League in the spring.
Ilkay Gundogan has been absent through injury for wide swaths of the 2013-14 season, and his absences have most certainly had more than a thing to do with Borussia Dortmund’s occasional struggles.
Because of various injuries, Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp was forced to use Sven Bender in the centre of defense and Sebastian Kehl and Nuri Sahin in midfield last weekend against Augsburg, but ideally he’d have the defensive-minded Bender alongside the playmaker Gundogan operating behind his attack.
No Napoli player touches the ball as often as Switzerland international Gokhan Inler, and no one outside the central defenders make as many tackles over the course of a match as the 29-year-old.
Inler has been central to Napoli’s impressive campaign that currently sees them third in Serie A, but countryman Blerim Dzemaili has also been effective for manager Rafael Benitez’ side and has so far scored four goals this season.
When he went down with a thigh injury in December, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey was playing at a higher level than any other midfielder in the Premier League.
His stats sheet currently boasts eight goals and six assists in the English top flight, and no doubt Gunners boss Arsene Wenger is keen to get the Welshman back alongside deep-lying Spaniard Mikel Arteta.
Daniele De Rossi.
AS Roma served notice that they’ll continue to be heard from this season when they beat Juventus (and a vaunted midfield trio including Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio) in the Coppa Italia earlier this month.
That they were able to do so had a lot to do with the pieces they’ve assembled in the centre of the park.
On either side of midfield destroyer Daniele De Rossi are playmaker Kevin Strootman and all-rounder Radja Nainggolan—a combination that pretty much ticks every box on manager Rudi Garcia’s list of expectations.
Paris Saint-Germain already had an elite midfield trio before the £23 million acquisition of Yohan Cabaye earlier this week.
The first-place Ligue 1 side typically lines up with Thiago Motta in the very centre of midfield with Marco Veratti and Blaise Matuidi to either side of him.
But with Cabaye’s purchase, it’s likely the former Newcastle man will displace Matuidi, although having the group of them to rotate will present intriguing options for manager Laurent Blanc.
Top-scorer Diego Costa has dominated the headlines coming out of Atletico Madrid so far this season, but equally important to Los Colchoneros’ cause have been the contributions of Koke and Gabi in the centre of midfield.
Gabi, 30, is enjoying his best season of club football and has blossomed since a 2011 move from Real Zaragoza. A midfielder ideally suited to a counter-attacking style, he has been the mainstay in the centre of the park for manager Diego Simeone as Koke and Thiago have alternated in the position alongside him.
But Koke, a rather more defensive presence when moved into the middle from the flank, has also caught the eye this term, and Atletico could have a battle on their hands if they hope to keep hold of him beyond the summer.
Manuel Pellegrini is hardly short of options in any position (with the possible exception of centre-back), but in recent weeks it’s become clear the Manchester City manager favours the tandem of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in the centre of his 4-4-2 setup.
Yaya, quite frankly, is playing at a level only a handful of other players from throughout Europe have been able to match so far this season, and his ability to do absolutely everything—win the ball, play through a teammate, strike from distance, pose danger from a set-piece—makes him the first name on Pellegrini’s teamsheet week in, week out.
But Fernandinho is quickly rising to prominence as well. Rather more defensively inclined than Yaya, he also possesses a good attacking sense and is already well near indispensible at Etihad Stadium.
Going into Sunday’s match away to Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid are the form team in Spain and find themselves just a point adrift of La Liga co-leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid after 21 rounds.
One of the reasons for Los Blancos’ run of form is a switch to a 4-3-3 formation under Carlo Ancelotti.
The manager has moved Angel Di Maria into the middle band of the setup alongside ball-winner Xabi Alonso and playmaker Luka Modric, and while the Argentine has yet to fully settle in the position, it’s become clear Madrid are a far more difficult side to break down than when they played 4-2-3-1.
Last season, as Bayern Munich won each of the Bundesliga, DfB Pokal and Champions League prizes, it was a midfield pairing of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez that helped drive the Bavarian giants to the historic treble.
This term, however, both players have spent extended spells in the therapist’s room, and both because of their absences and an instinct to be innovative, new manager Pep Guardiola has parted with predecessor Jupp Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of a 4-1-4-1.
Germany captain Philipp Lahm functions as the pivot in the system, and just in front of him are Toni Kroos and Thiago Alcantara—young midfielders who love to touch the ball and have the tactical nous to interchange positions with the wide attackers.
The midfield trio of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio was central to back-to-back Serie A triumphs coming into this season, and even though Paul Pogba has occasionally displaced Pirlo from the starting 11, the Bianconeri have hardly taken a step back.
Quite simply, Antonio Conte gets what any manager would want from a midfield trio from any combination of the four of them.
In Vidal he has a box-to-box action-man; in Marchisio an all-around midfielder with an eye for goal.
Pirlo, the maestro, is a ball-distributor extraordinaire, and Pogba offers physicality combined with an eye for a pass.
As long as Xavi continues to age so gracefully, Andres Iniesta stays fit and Sergio Busquets goes about throwing his weight around while developing an underrated passing game, Barcelona will take some beating.
There simply hasn’t been a better midfield combination than this trio in recent times. Together they have won four La Liga titles, two Champions League crowns and two Club World Cup championships.
Xavi is still the world’s best distributor of a ball at the age of 34; Iniesta’s movement and smarts make him world-class; and Busquets’ physicality helps shield a back four that has often been undermanned.
And to think they also play together internationally.