UEFA Euro 2016, B/R 200: Top 30 Central Midfielders

Daniel Tiluk@@danieltilukFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2016

UEFA Euro 2016, B/R 200: Top 30 Central Midfielders

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    Midfield is perhaps football's most important territory.

    Without its control, one's tactics and game plans can be thrown in the nearest rubbish bin. Central midfielders, therefore, are the heartbeats of their respective squads. Made in endless varieties, some are defensively inclined, while others are more attacking; some are both.

    Possession invariably resides in midfield when teams are probing; having players in those areas capable of quick decision-making, economic passing, defensive tenacity and scoring goals makes the difference between winning, drawing or losing.

    Before the world's second-most prestigious international football competition—behind only FIFA's World Cup—Bleacher Report is asking which of UEFA Euro 2016's central midfielders are best.

    Some heavyweight names are absent. Ilkay Gundogan, Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are injured. The likes of Andrea Pirlo, Miralem Pjanic and Nemanja Matic will watch on television. It's a shame those players, and others, won't be attending, but Europe has more than enough talent to make up for their losses.

    Criteria are weighted for a best possible score of 100.

    The first 50 points are judged on a physical rating: This includes tackling, aerial ability, shielding possession, mobility and drive.

    The last 50 are measured by a technical rating: This includes mental acuity, passing range/vision, first touch and finishing.

    When added together, our overall score is made. In the event of a tie, we ask, using what we hope is common sense: "Who would I rather have at this competition?"

30. Marouane Fellaini, Belgium

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    Physical Rating: 38/50

    Manchester United are a changing enterprise. Louis van Gaal has been sacked as manager and Jose Mourinho hired to restore the Red Devils to their former glory, leaving several Manchester United players in limbo. Marouane Fellaini is one such footballer.

    A towering presence, the Belgium midfielder has qualities you cannot coach or teach. Whether the Portuguese wants them in his midfield/squad remains to be seen.

    Fellaini survived the David Moyes fall-out, but doing the same after Van Gaal is going to be difficult. Euro 2016 can either be a proving ground or an expose—whichever he chooses.

    Technical Rating: 37/50

    Fellaini has some redeemable qualities to offer Manchester United. Van Gaal seemed to enjoy his long-ball control. Using his head for flicks and chest for deft touches, the Belgian can produce moments worthy of zealous applause.

    Those do not arrive often enough, however, to justify his £28 million price tag. That said, taking expectation from the table and investigating simply the footballer, Fellaini is good, not great—but sometimes he makes you think he should be.

    Overall Rating: 75/100

    Belgium have an embarrassment of riches in central and attacking midfield. Sacrifices will be made in every area, and United's 28-year-old might enjoy super-sub status at Euro 2016.

    Belgium manager Marc Wilmots knows Fellaini can change games with one touch or pass, and if his team are losing, having that break-glass-in-case-of-emergency contingency plan is sagacious.

29. James McCarthy, Republic of Ireland

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    Physical Rating: 38/50

    Everton were shambolic last season; their former manager, Roberto Martinez, paid the price by losing his job. This summer is one of reflection and change at Goodison Park.

    A new manager will arrive with different philosophies, and some footballers will leave Merseyside's blue half for that new project to function, but a constant must remain James McCarthy in central midfield.

    The Republic of Ireland are not Europe's most talent-ridden squad, but they have quality. Arguably their best piece is Everton's 25-year-old. A willing runner and competent tackler, the Irishman covers ground and pinches possession for his club—only Gareth Barry made more league tackles for Everton last season.

    Technical Rating: 38/50

    Ross Barkley is the crown jewel of Everton's midfield. The English attacking option is a coveted young footballer, and his star tends to overshadow the steady, even-keeled performances of his more defensive Irish team-mate.

    The 5'11", 160-pound McCarthy can pick passes from just about anywhere. Completing passes at an 87 percent clip (second-best on his team), without that accuracy and precision, much of Everton's attacking play wouldn't be possible.

    Overall Rating: 76/100

    Ireland's Euro 2016 group is a monster. Italy, Belgium and Sweden are three quite different sides, but all possess considerable danger in their own ways.

    Controlling midfield, while difficult, is a must for the Irish. McCarthy's role in retrieving the ball and breaking through lines of packed defences or exploiting weaknesses is imperative for any chance of progression.

28. Jordan Henderson, England

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    Physical Rating: 38/50

    There are no "replacements" for legends, merely fill-ins. Steven Gerrard's departure from Liverpool left a void in the Reds' dressing room, and the man charged to follow in the now-Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder's steps was Jordan Henderson.

    Born and cultivated as a footballer in Sunderland, the Englishman moved to Anfield in 2011 and has featured 212 times. Learning from maybe the best at his position in the Premier League era, Henderson's education from Gerrard was substantial.

    Not the passer his predecessor was (no shame on his behalf), Henderson is more box-to-box midfielder than deep-lying playmaker; his conditioning is superb, and he doesn't give the football away easily.

    Technical Rating: 38/50

    In Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp's midfield, there is room for various styles and interpretations, but the one constant is technical prowess.

    It defeats the purpose of counter-pressing to deploy wasteful players in the pitch's heart. Henderson's energy should make him a Klopp favourite for seasons to come, but what will keep him a regular is the way he uses the ball.

    An able dribbler, passer and crosser, the longer he can stay healthy, the better for all involved.

    Overall Rating: 76/100

    Tearing a knee ligament in April, Henderson returned before the season's final Premier League match vs. West Bromwich Albion but missed the UEFA Europa League final.

    The Guardian's Andy Hunter reported England boss Roy Hodgson would only consider players who were "match fit." Henderson, therefore, just made the cut.

    As one of England's more experienced internationals, even at 25, his presence cannot be overlooked.

27. Jack Wilshere, England

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    Physical Rating: 37/50

    Jack Wilshere's body is his worst enemy. His ankles, legs and muscles won't cooperate.

    Not that Wilshere is the only athlete to go through setbacks—Arsenal's injury figures alone are a wonder of modern medical practice—but his are particularly vexing due to the obvious, world-class talent he possesses.

    The Gunners midfielder (when fit) is aggressive, agile and plays bigger than his 5'7" frame might suggest. It can get him into precarious situations, but removing his tenacity would destroy him.

    Technical Rating: 40/50

    Other than injury woes, Arsenal's other long-standing trait (at least from the Arsene Wenger era) are ball-playing, slick, visionary central midfielders. Even Patrick Vieira, who some point to as an exception, was an accomplished technical footballer.

    Wilshere is no different. His considerable time off, however, has dented his progression. Still young, the 24-year-old has time to paste things back together—not as much time as he'd like, but time nonetheless.

    Overall Rating: 77/100

    How Wilshere fits into England's Euro 2016 plans remains a mystery. Recently returned to the land of the living—only playing three matches in the Premier League last season—his status is unknown.

    Based on reputation and perceived quality, he made Roy Hodgson's squad (and, in turn, this list). But in truth, nobody knows what the Arsenal midfielder is capable of this summer, maybe not even him.

26. Emre Can, Germany

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    Physical Rating: 40/50

    Klopp's arrival at Anfield inspired a mostly positive response from Liverpool's players. Emre Can was no different. The Germany international, maybe connecting with his German manager, was able to find a rhythm under new management.

    During the 2015/16 Premier League season, Can was second in interceptions and fourth in tackles for Liverpool.

    His tough nature and anticipation works well with Klopp's counter-pressing ethos.

    Technical Rating: 38/50

    All of Can's great defensive work would be moot without the technical skill to use possession correctly and get his side moving forward.

    Thankfully for Liverpool supporters, the 22-year-old has those skills. Can ranked first in completed passes for his club in the Premier League, and his passing keeps the Reds fluid and sharp—even if backwards and sideways. Sometimes one has to move in other directions to create space in forward areas.

    Overall Rating: 78/100

    Where Can plays for Germany at Euro 2016 is dependent on others.

    Capable of playing at centre-back, central defensive midfield and slightly further forward in central midfield, that adaptability, for manager Joachim Low, was enough to retain the Liverpool man for France.

    There are better options for the Germans in every area as individuals but not in one package.

25. Axel Witsel, Belgium

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    Physical Rating: 39/50

    Despite the high levels of interest from Europe's more prestigious clubs, Axel Witsel has found a home at Zenit Saint Petersburg. How the Belgium international copes with the departure of manager Andre Villas-Boas, though, might be the opening talent scavengers need to procure his services.

    Starting his career as an attacking midfielder, even winger, for Belgian Pro League's Standard Liege, Witsel has become a more complete midfielder after stops with Benfica and his current station with Zenit.

    Whatever he has lost in an attacking sense, he has more than gained with positioning, tackling, game reading and overall mobility.

    Technical Rating: 39/50

    Standard Liege tailored his attacking sensibilities. His mental capacity, passing and finishing improved by miles. Scoring 23 goals during his last two seasons with Standard, the 27-year-old is accomplished in front of goal, but recent tactics and evolution have made him less offensively inclined.

    That said, one's offensive output is not always a signifier of technical quality. The things Witsel learned as an up-and-comer, though, are transferable in every midfield arena.

    Overall Rating: 78/100

    Depending on Wilmots' tactical setup, Witsel could usurp one of his more acclaimed team-mates—Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan being his competition.

    Versatile and complete with match-winning potential, the Zenit Saint Petersburg man could play spoiler at Euro 2016.

24. Alessandro Florenzi, Italy

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    Physical Rating: 39/50 

    Italy manager Antonio Conte, through injury and team selection, is without Marco Verratti, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo. Three massive blows.

    Currently used as a right-back or right midfielder for AS Roma (playing in midfield just 17 percent last season), Alessandro Florenzi's role might change this summer—the Azzurri need his midfield quality.

    Deployed centrally 69 times in his 258 senior appearances, the Roma man applies his tackling (honed as a defender) and mobility (polished as an attacking option) to great effect centrally.

    Technical Rating: 40/50 

    Florenzi's all-purpose style requires a certain dexterity. Physical traits are only applicable with the technical qualities to match. What good is being able to tackle as a wide midfielder or central midfielder if you cannot do anything once you obtain the ball?

    Luckily for Roma's occasional captain, he doesn't have to worry about that. His control, passing and shooting are magnificent for a player often found at full-back. He'll need them for Italy, just elsewhere.

    Overall Rating: 79/100 

    Likely battling with AC Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo for the third place in Italy's midfield, Florenzi's interchangeability seems advantageous for a nation already coping with injury. Quicker, rangier and more durable than his Milan counterpart, the 25-year-old is a much better option.

    All that said, managers love having versatile options on the bench.

    Conte has choices to make.

23. Sami Khedira, Germany

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    Physical Rating: 40/50 

    Injuries have robbed Sami Khedira. A 6'2", nearly 200-pound midfielder, his power and strength remain, but the ability to drive forward, make surging runs and (in layman's terms) boss a game have been handicapped.

    That is not to suggest the Germany international is useless. An experienced hand who has witnessed just about everything football has to offer at VfB Stuttgart, Real Madrid and Juventus, not having him in a squad would be to its detriment.

    Technical Rating: 39/50 

    In his last four matches last season, Khedira scored two goals and assisted once but was also issued a straight red card. That sporadic nature sums up the 29-year-old. He can be brilliant one week, disappear the next and then get injured in training and be out for two months.

    Managers and supporters live with those possibilities because when Khedira is on—spraying passes, winning challenges and contributing both ways—the list of better midfielders isn't long.

    Overall Rating: 79/100 

    Germany's attacking-midfield options are splendid but not so much in the central midfield.

    Khedira is not scheduled to start but could feature heavily at Euro 2016. His only problem is that if the Germans are weak in any area, it's full-back. That weakness drags centre-backs and defensive midfielders to wide areas.

    If possession is switched quickly enough, does the Juventus man have enough legs/stamina to last a full 90 minutes? It's plausible he won't be asked to, but manager Joachim Low must ponder the situation.

22. Yohan Cabaye, France

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    Physical Rating: 37/50

    Yohan Cabaye's short-lived adventure at Paris Saint-Germain—though trophy-filled—was rather uninspired. It seemed the Frenchman wasn't loved in the Parc des Princes' big pond. His former Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew moved clubs to Crystal Palace, PSG felt like selling and Cabaye switched capital cities last summer.

    £10 million was a relatively high number for the Eagles, but considering Cabaye's pedigree, international standing and English experience, Palace could have landed few better players than the 30-year-old.

    A well-rounded midfielder who doesn't do anything on a world-class level but does nothing poorly, the France international's physical strengths are his tackling, reactions and balance.

    Technical Rating: 43/50

    What was attractive to Newcastle, PSG and Palace about Cabaye was not his ability to run for miles and make 20 tackles in a match—that's not his game. They wanted, and paid for, his on-ball quality.

    One of the Premier League's best distributors, his vision and technique extend to passing (whether short or long), free-kicks, corner kicks and penalties.

    Overall Rating: 80/100

    France's midfield talent is overwhelming. There isn't much space, except for those at the high end. In that respect, Cabaye should be flattered by his inclusion. That said, getting game time at Euro 2016 is dependent on injury, suspension or fatigue.

    Then again, the Palace star has amassed 45 French caps, so maybe (at his manager Didier Deschamps' behest) this summer could be his. Cabaye won't have a better stage in his life.

21. Eric Dier, England

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    Physical Rating: 44/50

    Tottenham Hotspur's most aggressive midfielder, Eric Dier—who returned to England from Sporting Lisbon two years ago—was the steel manager Mauricio Pochettino required in his 4-2-3-1 dynamic.

    Known for his tackling, aerial presence and plain defensive ability, the England international's game was instrumental to Spurs' relative UEFA Europa League success, their 2015/16 Premier League campaign and subsequent qualification for the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League.

    Playing alongside attacking midfielders like Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, Dier's stay-at-home, no-nonsense style is more than needed—it's mandatory.

    Technical Rating: 37/50

    Dier can get away with his hard-man ethos because of his continental background. In Sporting Lisbon's youth academy from 2003 to 2012, the Englishman's upbringing was steeped in technical, flamboyant football from one of Portugal's big three.

    That education, when combined with the Premier League's fast-paced and combative style, creates a paradise for technically sound midfielders who love a big tackle; Dier is that player.

    Overall Rating: 81/100

    England's best central defensive midfielder by some distance, the 22-year-old has a massive role to play at Euro 2016.

    Manager Hodgson's squad requires balance—much like Spurs—and with four of his club-mates headed to France this summer as well, Dier is required to continue his last 10 months of work.

20. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany

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    Physical Rating: 38/50

    Only four Manchester United players looked worth their salt last year: Anthony Martial, Chris Smalling, David De Gea and Marcus Rashford. The rest of the players' form got their manager fired.

    One would like to show Bastian Schweinsteiger the respect he commands, but whether due to injury, adaptability or just the circus around him, the German looked unsure at Old Trafford. Maybe new management will spruce him up, getting the best from his drive and leadership.

    For the better part of a decade, Schweinsteiger has been one of Europe's top central midfielders, using his strength and frame to hold possession and find the same-coloured shirt.

    Technical Rating: 44/50

    At Bayern Munich with Van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola, the now-31-year-old was annually among Germany's best controllers and owns the hardware to prove the assertion.

    Schweinsteiger's best qualities are vision and passing range. Those are made possible by the time he gives himself with world-class touches and his supreme footballing intelligence. That wasn't displayed for the Red Devils in 2015/16, but Germany's setup should be a wonted oasis.

    Overall Rating: 82/100

    Amassing 114 caps, Schweinsteiger is unquestionably his nation's leader. Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose and Per Mertesacker are retired, leaving the central midfielder as Germany's new captain.

    The 2014 FIFA World Cup was more a culmination than new beginning. Die Mannschaft are handing their next generation the castle's proverbial keys this summer—Schweinsteiger being their guardian of sorts.

19. James Milner, England

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    Physical Rating: 40/50

    In many respects, James Milner is weighed down by the one thing that makes him unique.

    The Englishman is a brilliant player to have—because he can play almost anywhere and do whatever his manager requires—but his adaptability means he's never perfected a single position; Milner has simply mastered being versatile.

    The qualities that make him a serviceable full-back, wing-back, central midfielder, wide midfielder or secondary striker (not sure about goalkeeper) are an untiring engine, the self-determination to put himself about and, most importantly, the requisite footballing skills.

    Technical Rating: 42/50

    Milner's technical abilities are unrivalled in England's central-midfield department. An excellent crosser, long passer and dead-ball specialist, he has just about everything one demands centrally.

    Goals do not come from his boots, but assists do. In 417 Premier League appearances, the now-Liverpool man has 70 assists; attempting to compile his "pass before the pass" number would take days, given his vision and longevity.

    Overall Rating: 82/100

    Only Wayne Rooney has more England caps than Milner in Hodgson's 23-man squad. As an elder statesman, the 30-year-old's responsibility increases. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are retired, so it is up to Milner, Rooney, Joe Hart and Gary Cahill to squeeze the best from England's talent.

    Where Milner plays doesn't matter too much—just that he's on the pitch and regulating tempo.

18. Mousa Dembele, Belgium

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    Physical Rating: 41/50

    Mousa Dembele ended his season in the worst way possible.

    It started with poking Chelsea's Diego Costa in the eye, devolved into Tottenham Hotspur's failure in the Premier League title race and concluded with a six-game suspension for his untoward actions on the Spanish centre-forward.

    That behaviour might allow some to forget just how brilliant the Belgian was in 2015/16. Without their central midfielder, Spurs were rudderless; as the connection between the best defence in the Premier League and their attack, Dembele's physical qualities were crucial.

    Technical Rating: 41/50

    An equally adept technician, Dembele's touch and control are superb. His ability to retain the ball stems from those two factors.

    His technique isn't necessarily used to create his own offence but more often functions in giving his team-mates more time to find space and keep continuity—defusing pressure on his defence and throwing pressure on the opposition.

    Overall Rating: 82/100

    A telling stat: When the 28-year-old started, Tottenham's EPL winning percentage was 56 percent; when he was injured, suspended or benched—44 percent.

    Far more important to Spurs' success than Belgium, Dembele must compete for relevance with a plethora of world-class talent, but playing without pressure probably suits him better.

    That didn't work out great for him the last time.

17. William Carvalho, Portugal

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    Physical Rating: 44/50

    Hailing from Angola, moving to Portugal as a youth, William Carvalho has represented his adoptive home country from the U17 level. Earning 18 caps for his country since 2013, Sporting Lisbon's defensive midfielder is a coveted prize.

    Not harbouring too many thoughts about getting forward, the 24-year-old can play in a holding role (either by himself or with a partner) and is comfortable at centre-back.

    A great tackler with tenacity and anticipation, Carvalho is probably his club's most important player. To that end, he wore the captain's armband on five occasions last season. Moving forward, he'll become accustomed to wearing the extra piece of kit.

    Technical Rating: 39/50

    An underrated passer with a more than serviceable touch, the Portuguese linchpin is far more than a midfield destroyer.

    Schooled in the technical (and tactical) art of Portuguese football—which invariably connects with Brazil—it would have been near-impossible for Carvalho not to develop an accommodating first touch and keen awareness for his surroundings.

    Overall Rating: 83/100

    Portugal's Euro 2016 must be built around defensive solidarity first and then expanding outwards to the likes of Ricardo Quaresma, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. That process might not start with Carvalho, but it certainly involves his particular, individual skill set.

    Being the foundation might not earn plaudits, but it should make the young defensive midfielder millions over his career and, with some luck, earn him trophies.

16. Morgan Schneiderlin, France

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    Physical Rating: 42/50

    Morgan Schneiderlin, while still playing central midfield, had different jobs for Van Gaal's Manchester United and Ronald Koeman's Southampton. We shouldn't, therefore, become prisoner of the last 10 months just yet.

    At Old Trafford, Schneiderlin was asked to break up play and stay at home, protecting his back four. At St Mary's Stadium, however, that job was for Victor Wanyama. The Kenya international did the more defensive side of Saints midfield, leaving his French team-mate to be a more box-to-box option, still breaking up play but allowed to get forward and connect with his attacking options.

    Manchester United paid more than £25 million for the best version of Schneiderlin—under new management in Mourinho, maybe he can sort that out.

    Technical Rating: 41/50

    A great passer for his position and intelligent in possession, the 26-year-old should be tasked with more than just shielding his centre-backs; his overall game is shackled that way.

    His anticipation and game-reading are better served in a midfield three, with an outright CDM at the base and Schneiderlin asked to contribute defensively but also allowed to use his technique and ball skills further forward.

    Overall Rating: 83/100

    Missing from France's original 23-man squad, Schneiderlin was not in the picture for Euro 2016, but Lassana Diarra's injury setback opened the proverbial door.

    Les Bleus have all the world's attacking-midfield talent but need players who can shut others down. With the vibrant, colourful N'Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba in France's central midfield stable, Schneiderlin offers a more calming influence—something necessary during a chaotic tournament.

15. Daniele De Rossi, Italy

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    Physical Rating: 44/50

    Daniele De Rossi has been a mainstay in the Italian national team since 2004. Capped 102 times for his country, he is reliable, diligent and a vocal leader.

    Euro 2016 could be his last international outing—unless the 32-year-old has eyes on the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia—and manager Conte will require every minute of experience from his steely veteran.

    Playing 31 matches for AS Roma last season, the vice-captain (behind Francesco Totti) was used partially at centre-back but was mostly in his preferred central-defensive midfield role. Using his brain to read the game and impeccable tackling to acquire possession, there aren't too many better at the position.

    Technical Rating: 40/50

    Born in Rome, having only ever played for one club, De Rossi's 521 Roma appearances (over 15 seasons) are a testament to his quality.

    Furthermore, directly responsible for 99 goals, his goal and assist tallies from defensive midfield are remarkable, especially for a man not charged with taking set pieces and/or penalties.

    Overall Rating: 84/100

    Gianluigi Buffon captains the 18-yard box. Giorgio Chiellini directs the defence. De Rossi is the last member of Italy's spine. He controls Conte's outfield balance.

    Filling gaps, finding space and playing passes to open men, De Rossi's generalship of his midfield is without question. The only item worth examination: How long can the veteran midfielder last with multiple games in quick succession?

    Italy (and Europe) will be made to find out.

14. Granit Xhaka, Switzerland

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    Physical Rating: 42/50 

    Born in Basel, Switzerland, and birthed at his hometown club (FC Basel), Granit Xhaka left for Borussia Monchengladbach in summer 2012. He played 140 games for the Bundesliga's fourth-best side and will move to Arsenal next season after four years in Germany.

    Xhaka was Gladbach's captain for the majority of last season. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger (seemingly pressed by the departures of Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini) bought the footballer his team has needed for years.

    A midfield stalwart and leader of men, Xhaka is what the Gunners have been missing—he is, therefore, exactly what they need.

    Technical Rating: 42/50 

    The 23-year-old stands 6'1" and weighs 180 pounds. Not blessed with pace or acceleration, his combination of game-reading, intelligence and positioning sets him apart.

    A brilliant passer—especially long, raking passes—and capable of thunderous shots from outside his 18-yard box, the Swiss midfielder is an undoubted talent. £30 million to the Emirates Stadium was about right.

    Overall Rating: 84/100 

    Eligible to have played for Albania, Xhaka eventually settled into Switzerland's national hierarchy. Somewhat ironically, his first match in his first UEFA European Championship will be against Albania (whom he's played twice before, it should be noted).

    Buoyed by his big-money transfer and eager to prove himself on Europe's biggest international stage, Xhaka has every ounce of motivation before heading to France this summer.

13. Grzegorz Krychowiak, Poland

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    Physical Rating: 45/50

    Born in Poland, Grzegorz Krychowiak began his career with Girondins de Bordeaux and then moved to Stade Reims, where Sevilla spotted him. It seems an interesting progression, but the defensive midfielder has made his French excursion work.

    Joining the freshly crowned UEFA Europa League champions two years ago, Krychowiak's job was adding a solid, workmanlike presence to the heart of head coach Unai Emery's midfield. Losing several key players like Alberto Moreno, Carlos Bacca and Ivan Rakitic, Sevilla have continued their winning ways nonetheless.

    Krychowiak's midfield game of ball-retrieval, shielding, tackling and monstrous aerial ability is invaluable.

    Technical Rating: 39/50

    An enormous presence, the 26-year-old might be confused for an out-and-out bruiser. Although he is entirely capable of performing that role, there remains an endearing, if not elegant, quality about him.

    Not tasked with making or creating goals, when in possession there aren't many who can get the ball off Krychowiak. His aforementioned shielding is (in part) due to the French and Spanish technical work he's done over the past eight seasons.

    Overall Rating: 84/100

    Most squads are built from the bottom; Poland might be an exceptional case. Striker Robert Lewandowski's ability makes him the primary focal point. In that sense, the mission is keeping goals out to make his scoring (and/or the attention he distracts from others) worth something.

    Is Krychowiak's job protecting his back four or making sure his attacking options have the most possible opportunities in the final third?

    Maybe the answer is both, but the Sevilla midfielder might take a more nuanced approach at Euro 2016.

12. Radja Nainggolan, Belgium

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    Physical Rating: 45/50

    Radja Nainggolan has dynamism. With controlled aggression, the Belgium international can affect change most central midfielders cannot.

    A heavy tackler, AS Roma's man can often be labelled reckless. That fortitude, however, is something his club and country require to function at their respective peaks. Almost as a barometer, when he's trying too hard, it is usually a reflection of his team-mates' ennui.

    Short of electric pace and/or an impressive leap, Nainggolan's energy, drive and determination are winsome characteristics.

    Technical Rating: 40/50

    It should not be asserted, however, that the 28-year-old has the first touch of a brick.

    An accomplished footballer in his own right who can direct his midfield, pick passes and score the occasional goal, Nainggolan is more complete than some would give him credit for. The Belgium international scored six Serie A goals last season.

    Overall Rating: 85/100

    With their abundance of attacking, ball-playing talent, Belgium were always in need of a hard man—someone who can stand up technically with his team-mates but is not fussed about his goal tally or assist figures.

    Nainggolan is he.

    His grafting allows Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and others to play their free-flowing style, not worrying too much about the game's dirtier side—that job is mostly covered.

11. N'Golo Kante, France

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    Physical Rating: 48/50

    Leicester City bought N'Golo Kante from SM Caen for £5.6 million last summer. Not registering an international appearance for France (neither at senior nor youth level) until March 25, the Parisian has experienced a rise nothing short of spectacular.

    Last September, Foxes manager Claudio Ranieri told reporters Kante could "play like a central midfielder, like when I had [Claude] Makelele," via the MailOnline's Laurie Whitwell. The fruition of that praise was never expected to materialise—but it did. Both the Italian manager and his famed group of players have the Premier League winners' medals to show for it.

    Kante is an indefatigable, diligent, one-man wrecking crew. A brilliant tackler, and capable of doing so without fouling, the 25-year-old led England last season with 175 tackles, besting second place by 31.

    Technical Rating: 39/50

    While his athletic ability and marathon-runner-like stamina are what jump out, the France international isn't desperate in possession. Fleet of foot, a capable dribbler and possessing an eye for passes, Kante is technically sound.

    Assisting four times last season and scoring once, there is room for improvement, but would Ranieri or another club/manager accept a diminished defensive role to establish him further forward?

    Probably not.

    Overall Rating: 87/100

    Barrels of ink were spilt over Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, but Kante should not be overlooked. Leicester City's miraculous story would not have been possible without the diminutive Frenchman's buzzing around, shutting down trouble.

    His story—despite being somewhat delayed—has only just begun; Euro 2016 (in his home country, no less) is another chapter.

10. Thiago Motta, Italy

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    Physical Rating: 43/50

    In a midfield trio with Blaise Matuidi's energy and Marco Verratti's tenacity, Thiago Motta is Paris Saint-Germain's calming influence. Making sure Laurent Blanc's ship sails smoothly, the Brazilian-born Italy international is a much-needed veteran presence.

    Speed was not given to the 33-year-old naturally, but Motta's frame keeps his protecting and shielding of possession pristine.

    The central midfielder's strength and balance are ideal for his skill set, and they aid his ability to find passes and keep Paris Saint-Germain moving.

    Technical Rating: 46/50

    Where Motta shines is his technique. Always in the proverbial pocket, never playing outside himself, the Italian has every technical quality a central defensive midfielder needs. Short passes, long passes, ball retention and control—they are all there.

    Add those to his experience, and one has the makings of a world-class (albeit older world-class) midfielder.

    Overall Rating: 89/100

    Without New York City FC's Andrea Pirlo for Conte's Italy side, Motta's role as a deep-lying playmaker at Euro 2016 appears integral for the Azzurri's sustainability.

    The defensive work done by Conte's back five should take a load off Motta's plate, leaving him free to dictate play and connect defence with midfield and midfield with attack.

9. Blaise Matuidi, France

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    Physical Rating: 48/50

    If underrated is a concept, Paris Saint-Germain central midfielder Blaise Matuidi fits the definition. In a PSG squad filled with the world's best talent, the Frenchman is manager Blanc's glue.

    Possibly Europe's best box-to-box midfielder, Matuidi covers ground, links defence with attack and uses his athleticism, combined with intuition/intellect, to move around the pitch, putting out fires and collecting possession.

    Technical Rating: 43/50

    More than just "an athlete," the 29-year-old is an excellent passer and crosser. Finding the mark on 92 percent of his passes in Ligue 1 last season, the France international registered six assists and had 28 key passes in 23 league starts.

    Marco Verratti takes most headlines in Paris Saint-Germain's midfield, but Matuidi's role in connecting the field and making runs—not always from himself but to create real estate for Lucas Moura, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Zlatan Ibrahimovic—is invaluable.

    Not to be overlooked, in 240 PSG appearances, the Frenchman has scored 26 goals. His movement makes offence.

    Overall Rating: 91/100

    France have Euro 2016's best midfield from top to bottom. Their defensive options are great. Their attacking options are great. In wide areas, the same story. Manager Deschamps is more than spoiled.

    For each company to function at their peak, they need a governor, a footballer willing to graft and who's capable of creating for others—look no further than Matuidi.

8. Toni Kroos, Germany

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    Physical Rating: 44/50

    When leaving Bayern Munich, there are not too many better places.

    In the current footballing climate, there might only be one—Barcelona's Camp Nou. Just behind their Spanish rivals are Real Madrid, and former Bayern midfielder Toni Kroos landed there after the 2014 summer transfer window.

    At the Santiago Bernabeu, the Germany international has displayed his on-ball prowess, which was expected, but his schooling in the Bundesliga (at Bayer Leverkusen and Munich) afforded the steely qualities needed for his move to Spain.

    Technical Rating: 48/50

    Kroos is not employed to make tackles, though—his job is creating chances.

    In 32 La Liga games, the 26-year-old made 57 key passes. Playing with Luka Modric and forward-thinking full-back Marcelo, Kroos competed 241 more passes than any other Real Madrid player.

    Barring Cristiano Ronaldo's 11—who does his damage around goal—Kroos led Madrid in assists with 10 (tied with Gareth Bale).

    Overall Rating: 92/100

    Manager Joachim Low's answer to the declining Bastian Schweinsteiger and injured Ilkay Gundogan, Kroos becomes increasingly important to Germany's tactical setup.

    The Real Madrid midfielder can pick locks and is a dead-ball specialist. His playing well puts Die Mannschaft in the driver's seat against any side Euro 2016 has to offer.

7. Cesc Fabregas, Spain

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    Physical Rating: 42/50

    Chelsea's offensive engine for the past 24 months has been Cesc Fabregas. When he plays well, the west Londoners follow suit. Slotted alongside Nemanja Matic in the double pivot two seasons ago, the Spanish maestro was able to conduct play and moderate tempo as (and when) he saw fit.

    What former Blues manager Mourinho gained by moving Fabregas back, he lost in defensive areas.

    Not a rampaging, lung-bursting footballer, the 29-year-old moves around the pitch looking for places to receive the ball and then pass it, not necessarily to win it back. The Spain international leaves defensive work to whichever players are paid for it.

    Technical Rating: 50/50

    Possessing the technical ability and mental nous to dictate for 90 minutes from a deeper role, though, Fabregas' game in the double pivot has found an added dimension.

    When playing in a quarterback-like role, Chelsea's string-puller has maybe the best vision and foresight of any midfielder in Europe.

    Able to see passes others don't, it sometimes leads to miscommunication, but when done right (as seen in 2014/15), double-digit assist totals can be written down, with permanent marker, in August.

    Overall Rating: 92/100

    Spain boss Vicente del Bosque has an embarrassment of central-midfield riches from which to choose before Euro 2016.

    The toxic fumes of a horrific 2015/16 could have followed Fabregas into Spain's dressing room. Finding himself in the season's second half, though, any combination of Spanish midfielders involving Chelsea's No. 4 is sure to flourish.

6. Sergio Busquets, Spain

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    Physical Rating: 48/50

    Even if Nemanja Matic and Serbia had qualified for Euro 2016, the Chelsea man would probably fall just short of the competition's best central defensive midfielder. That honour would still be bestowed upon Barcelona's Sergio Busquets.

    Bluntly put: Barcelona would not function without him. Another footballer could attempt his role, and the Catalan giants would function, but no player—especially when considering Europeans—has the art of defensive midfielder down quite like the Spaniard.

    As a crude footballer, Busquets has the tackling, aggression, build/frame and just enough speed to protect his team-mates. Without those, his intelligence would be wasted.

    Technical Rating: 45/50

    Paid weekly to seek and destroy danger and kill counter-attacks, the Spain international is a gifted technician and tactician. Whereas other defensive midfielders use their raw physical attributes to move around the pitch, Busquets is cerebral, employing anticipation and foresight to gauge brewing trouble.

    Things like weight of passes, first touch and one's presence of mind are not always didactic qualities—you can practice and improve upon them but only to a point. The Spaniard started miles before most had learned to lace their boots.

    Overall Rating: 93/100

    On the winning 2012 side, Busquets and his Spain team-mates are attempting something unprecedented this summer: winning their country's fourth UEFA European Championship.

    The only midfielder on Del Bosque's squad who can be called a world-class defensive midfielder, Busquets is a balancing force. The 27-year-old responsible for protecting Spain's back four, and filling holes, is a vital instrument.

5. Ivan Rakitic, Croatia

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    Physical Rating: 47/50

    Bought from Sevilla two summers ago for an undisclosed fee (thought to be around €20 million, via Sky Sports' Lucas Brown), Ivan Rakitic has become one of FC Barcelona's most important players.

    Along with Busquets, the 28-year-old provides manager Luis Enrique's side with much-needed balance. An indispensable member of Barcelona's treble-winning 2014/15 side, Rakitic is able to contribute in attacking areas, but the Croatian's game is tailored to allow Enrique's attacking talent to flourish.

    Without his vital defensive steel—and subsequent team shape—the Catalan giants would not be able to play with the freedom they enjoy.

    Technical Rating: 46/50

    This should not make Rakitic seem like an out-and-out destroyer. The central midfielder is a brilliant technician, with exceptional on-the-ball prowess. His technique allows him time, space and vision to find passes and then launch attacks from deeper midfield.

    Having the South American trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez as options makes the Croatian's job easier—but simple? By no means.

    Overall Rating: 93/100

    Croatia's midfield is world-class. The partnership of Rakitic and Real Madrid's Modric is probably Euro 2016's best. Is that enough, though, to overcome a less-than-enviable defence and not-quite world-beating strike force?

    In a one-game scenario, sure, but over the course of an entire international tournament? That is stretching the boundaries of luck, but we've seen crazier things at the Euros.

4. David Alaba, Austria

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    Physical Rating: 48/50

    Where can't David Alaba play? Goalkeeper and maybe centre-forward? Anywhere else you want to deploy Austria's superstar, he is either world-class or just short.

    At club level, Bayern Munich's former manager Pep Guardiola used Alaba in many positions, mostly left-back and centre-back last season. A natural full-back, the 23-year-old has branched out and expanded his game from the touchline to midfield.

    Internationally—with captain Christian Fuchs as Austria's first-choice left-back—that midfield progression has been a wonderful development. Taking advantage of his pace and tackling (among other honed attributes), Alaba's complete game translates just about anywhere.

    Technical Rating: 46/50

    Playing in midfield offers less time and space and more moving parts than full-back, but an excellent dribbler and passer, the Bayern Munich man is effective from anywhere.

    Schooled with one of Europe's most technically skilled and drilled sides, the four-time defending Bundesliga champions cannot afford weak links, and Alaba learned to carry his weight early. Often charged with breaking down packed defences, knowing when to make runs and quickly controlling possession are some of Alaba's many strengths.

    Overall Rating: 94/100

    Where Austria's Euro 2016 goals are coming from seems a mystery. Marko Arnautovic and Marc Janko are their nation's forward threats, but for any prolonged campaign to last, Alaba must create offence.

    Alaba isn't the greatest routine finisher (although capable of madness from distance); the only way Austria can advance is if he finds through balls and/or takes matches over.

3. Luka Modric, Croatia

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    Physical Rating: 47/50

    Luka Modric is a player who doesn't always stand out; when you watch him, though, he is brilliant.

    Sometimes the Croatia international leaps off the pitch/screen, but—more times than not—he is a consistent, dependable footballer, meaning he doesn't receive his warranted credit.

    Real Madrid are indebted to their Croatian midfielder. Manager Zinedine Zidane does not have a recognised box-to-box midfielder, but Modric is the closest player he has. Able to play anywhere in central midfield (from defensive to central attacking), the 30-year-old is a willing runner, tackler and/or playmaker when required.

    Technical Rating: 49/50

    What gives Modric the capacity to play virtually anywhere is his abundance of technical ability.

    In attacking areas, he has the serenity to find passes and/or shoot. In central midfield, his vision and passing are tremendous. In defensive areas, the Croat sees the picture and passes with composure, keeping his sides well-oiled, fluent machines.

    Rarely caught out, scarcely misplacing a pass, Modric is a smooth operator.

    Overall Rating: 96/100

    In a midfield with Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic, how the Real Madrid controller and his team-mates fare at Euro 2016 determines the longevity of their stay in France.

    Other than right-back Darijo Srna's 129 caps, Modric is his country's most experienced international footballer—and maybe its most decorated. His quality, therefore, is mandatory for the slightest semi-final chance.

2. Andres Iniesta, Spain

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    Physical Rating: 46/50

    Receiving the proverbial torch from Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta became Barcelona's dressing-room leader last summer. While not repeating their treble exploits of 2014/15, retaining the Copa del Rey and La Liga crown made for a fantastic season—albeit soured by their UEFA Champions League exit.

    Iniesta has taken a more central role in recent years. Thought of by many as an attacking midfielder, as he's gotten older and wiser, the Spaniard has retreated to central midfield and is Barca's metronome.

    The Spaniard's game is predicated on ball-retrieval, quick passing and unselfish forward play. Iniesta is no Paolo Maldini with his tackling, but his intelligence to know where possession is going, and where his opponent wants to go, is otherworldly. He made 57 tackles in 28 La Liga appearances last season.

    Collecting the ball and then protecting it with deft touch and body positioning, Iniesta is incomparable.

    Technical Rating: 50/50

    What would that skill be worth without quality and technique? The world will never know. The 32-year-old is quite possibly, regardless of one's continent, the best technical central midfielder football has.

    Body shifts, feints, footwork—Iniesta has the complete set. He doesn't best players with pace; he beats them with his dribbling prowess. Moves like the "croqueta" were made for the Spanish midfielder to create space, and he mastered the book; his perfect weight of pass and spectacular field vision stem from that technique.

    Overall Rating: 96/100

    A member of Spain's 2010 FIFA World Cup-winning side (scoring the winning goal in the final) and the 2008 and 2012 European Championship-winning sides, the Barcelona midfielder is essential to his national team's success.

    In a midfield with Busquets and Fabregas, Iniesta makes Spain's trio of midfielders the best in Europe—and probably the world.

1. Paul Pogba, France

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    Physical Rating: 49/50

    Serie A's methodical, slower-paced game tends to be dominated by powerful, striding midfielders. Consequently, Paul Pogba has no better league to showcase his vast skill set.

    Receiving time on the pitch and an environment to thrive, the 23-year-old is a massive fish in a relatively large Juventus pond.

    A powerful, imposing presence, Pogba has everything one desires in a central midfielder. Standing 6'3", the Frenchman almost glides across the pitch. Always playing at the right tempo, covering ground, tackling, finding passes and making runs, he has his positional requirements more than covered.

    Technical Rating: 48/50

    Combined with his natural attributes, France's poster boy is one of central midfield's best technicians.

    Known for his skillful play, trickery and an immaculate first touch, Pogba uses his frame to ward off defenders but his technique to create separation.

    In 35 Serie A matches last season, the central midfielder scored eight goals and assisted 12 for Juventus. His vision, finishing and composure in the attacking third (especially for such a young player) are magnificent but still developing, which is a rather scary proposition.

    Overall Rating: 97/100

    There are many positions, many roles and different pressures for every player heading to Euro 2016.

    It's difficult to gauge which player is Europe's best (given the variance), but when playing to his level, Pogba is virtually untouchable.

    Carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, Pogba isn't quite Atlas—not with the assistance he should receive from a talented Les Bleus side—but if he stumbles, the whole of France will quake.

    ICYMIUEFA Euro 2016, B/R 200: Top 30 Centre-Backs

    *Stats and transfer fees via WhoScored.com, Transfermarkt and Soccerbase where not noted.


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