FIFA World Cup 2018: From enforcer-in-chief Casemiro to Julian Brandt's artistry, 10 midfielders to watch out for in Russia
With the grand tapestry of the FIFA World Cup 2018 ready to be unfurled in eight days, we take a look at ten of the best midfielders of the tournament for your viewing pleasure.
In the 1958 World Cup which Brazil won, the greatness of Pele was hoisted for the world to see on the wide shoulders of midfielder Didi – still thought of to this day as the ultimate manifestation of the midfield general, who could do everything and more, but chose his teammates interests over his. He was known by journalists as The Black Napoleon.
'If God existed, he'd be a solid midfielder' is an essay written by Aleksandar Hemon – a Didi loyalist and a frequent writer for The New Yorker. Demystifying the role of the midfielder, the essay speaks to you on an almost spiritual level. It propounds that a good midfielder can and should, be everywhere at once, thinking three moves ahead, forever scheming – while the passive spectator sees a move turn into a goal, it is the midfielder who sees the stitch-work behind the embroidery.
With the grand tapestry of the FIFA World Cup 2018 ready to be unfurled in eight days, we have the pleasure to pick ten of the best midfielders of the tournament for your viewing pleasure.
Real Madrid have a habit, in Zinedine Zidane's words, of putting "another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine." As a player Zidane saw Claude Makelele being sold to Chelsea in front of his eyes, powerless to stop it. As a manager, he brought Casemiro back to Real from the wilderness of a loan spell away at Porto, and helped the Brazilian defensive midfielder realise his potential as one of the best in the world. Still only 26, and already deemed the enforcer-in-chief of Real Madrid's midfield; he will have the experience of doing the dog-work for the wealth of creative players ahead of him and maintain the balance of the team. While the likes of Phil Coutinho, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus will be laying waste to the opponent defence, he'll be waiting patiently for the ball to break loose.
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Come one, come all, for one final time, to see one of the most graceful midfielders to grace the game. Watching Andres Iniesta play is an education on minimalism and this will be his last World Cup for Spain. He confessed last week of always having played a 'little within himself' partly out of responsibility and partly due to his subtlety. It'll be interesting, to say the least, to witness the Spanish maestro play with the reckless abandon of someone who has nothing left to prove or win, and ride into the sunset with one last flourish.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
Growing up as a Liverpool fan, he cried inconsolably watching England crash and burn against Argentina in World Cup '98. Twenty years later, the Manchester City man is one of the most complete box-to-box midfielders the Premier League has seen since the departure of Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard to America. Be it taking the game by the collar, pinging a 50-yard pass, firing a howitzer into the top corner of the net from outside the box, or sliding the final ball into his teammate to score, he can do it all.
Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Ndidi is a surprise entry but well worth his place. As a 20-year-old he was brought in by Craig Shakespeare at Leicester City and tasked to replace Premier League's best defensive midfielder, N'Golo Kante. The boy who escaped the military camps of Lagos met the challenge head-on and came out as one of Europe's finest ball-winners. While his distribution requires improvement, it's his endurance and combative streak that will make him stand out in any midfield on show. Watch out for his telescopic legs intercepting passes that would have, in other circumstances lead to a goal.
Saul Niguez (Spain)
Saul Niguez is Spain's next midfield monster. With the ability to play right-wing, right-midfielder, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder and second striker, Niguez can be anything he wants to be. He's a hurricane with his cleats on and a potential captain for Spain in upcoming campaigns. He famously walked into Atletico Madrid's manager, the ruthless Diego Simeone's office and demanded that he play more, even stating that the right wing wasn't his best position – all at the ripe old age of 18. Since then, he's been played more centrally, and has made trophy-laden veterans look up to him to pass the ball to.
Julian Brandt (Germany)
Here's Julian Brandt in his own words – "I like when a player does something instinctive. That wow factor that gets you off your seat. That's the reason I play football: to surprise people. I've promised myself that I'll always retain that in my game, in spite of tactical responsibilities."
Twenty-two year old Brandt sees himself as an artist after a fashion. In the German team that lives on stoicism and measure, he is a breath of fresh air; that's why he makes this list ahead of Toni Kroos. The slight and nimble-footed number 10 is the reason why 2014 World Cup winning goal scorer Mario Gotze has been left out of Joachim Lowe's side.
N'Golo Kante (France)
Midfielders are enablers and there will be very many kinds on show in Russia. But very few enable more than Kante for France. He's the sling in the slingshot of France's supremely athletic midfield, allowing Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Nabil Fekir, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, and Thomas Lemar to attack with abandon. Zidane's international legacy with France was built on the brickwork of Didier Deschamps, and later Makelele – with Kante, France have someone who could redefine the defensive midfield role, and be a primer for their next golden generation.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
Savic deserves Lazio and Lazio deserve Savic. Very few top clubs in Europe would have had the patience to accommodate the extremely temperamental Serbian and watch him mature as the most sought-after midfielder in Europe. Standing at 6'3'', the Serie A sensation combines power and panache with an eye for goal, and starting alongside Nemanja Matic, he has the capacity to boss some of the best midfielders in the world. The Sergeant, if he keeps his head, will justify his €100m price tag and the sacking of Serbian coach Slavoljub Muslin for falling out with him.
Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Side-step, side-step, side-step, feint, pass and goal. That's usually Coutinho's signature move. Oftentimes he doesn't care for the pass if he angles to shoot from some 25 yards away, cutting in from the wing. Magico is seen at Barcelona as the heir to Iniesta, and having seen him play in the red of Liverpool and the canary yellow and blue of Brazil, it's easy to figure out why. He's the man Brazil will turn to when the midfield is packed like sardines in a can, to carve that can opener of a pass that bewilders and bewitches in equal measure.
Luka Modric (Croatia)
The Johan Cruyff lookalike is perhaps the most understated midfielder in Europe, if not the world. The things Modric does on the pitch are often invisible to the not-so-discerning eye. His stats will tell you that he's a possession monster, which is to say that when he has the ball it's next to impossible to conspire it off him, unless he lets you. Earlier in his career, he was a dynamic number 10 for Tottenham, and now in the twilight of his career, he plays deeper and has made a reputation for himself as the one to play the pass before the assist. For Real Madrid, he plays the divine fulcrum alongside Toni Kroos, and is the inception point of their attacks. For Croatia, he's their star, which is to say, the minor planets of Brozovic, Kovacic and the likes revolve around him, looking for a sense of order.
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