Story of the decade: Xavi and Kevin De Bruyne among best midfielders

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  • For many, greatness stops at one goal, one pass, one save. For the few, greatness is a default setting.

    It’s time for reflection as the chapter closes on the decade. In this series, we examine the very best players, coaches, managers, teams, signings and more that have shaped the last 10 years in world football.

    The remit of the modern midfielder is an unenviable one. They must both create and destroy, take risks without losing the ball, charge down their opposite numbers while avoiding the same treatment. It takes some seriously special players – and we’ve found eight.

    Andres Iniesta

    AndresIniestaBarcelona (1)

    It is fitting that Andres Iniesta is the first player on this roll of honour, as he captured the most honourable trophy of them all with a swish of his right foot in the 2010 World Cup final.

    The Netherlands had hacked and slashed at Spain all game, but Iniesta delivered the coup de grace without so much as harming a hair on a Dutch head.

    The irresistibly elusive playmaker had one of his finest seasons immediately after his iconic intervention, as Pep Guardiola extracted the very best out of him, Xavi and Lionel Messi to deliver a famous treble for Barcelona.

    His quicksilver feet barely diminished with age, nor with the departure of his legendary partner Xavi in 2015. Though gradually used more sparingly, the Blaugrana will have wished they had ended the decade with a now 35-year-old Iniesta, who instead took his undimmed wares to Japan with Vissel Kobe.

    David Silva

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    Many may well disagree that David Silva is the best midfielder of the decade, but in many ways he is the midfielder of the decade.

    The pocket-sized Spaniard arrived at the Etihad Stadium in 2010 and will take his leave at the end of the 2019/20 season, having helped transform Manchester City from a club with a lot of cash to a dynasty with an embarrassment of riches on the pitch.

    Silva will finish his time at City averaging nine assists a season in the Premier League, an absurd rate that places him on a pantheon alongside Cesc Fabregas, Dennis Bergkamp and David Beckham. Yet the left-footed playmaker is far more malleable than those players, capable of producing luxury goods as a No10, winger, false nine, or central midfielder when needed.

    Underappreciated on a global level next to Xavi and Iniesta, not so in Spain. His 125-cap career places him as the second-highest assist-provider (28) and fourth-most for goals (35) – maybe speaking of him as the ‘best’ is not a big a stretch as it first seemed.

    Kevin De Bruyne

    KevinDeBruyneManCity (1)

    Unlike his Manchester City team-mate, Kevin De Bruyne started the decade rather inauspiciously. A fine teenage talent at Genk who was snapped up by Chelsea before impressing in a loan move to the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen, his progress eventually hit a road block named Jose Mourinho.

    De Bruyne’s pleas for more first-team football at Stamford Bridge fell on deaf Portuguese ears. Now Mourinho is sick to death of hearing about his mistake.

    City only needed to see KDB light up the Bundesliga one more season with Wolfsburg before taking out the chequebook, and he’s been worth every penny of that £58 million.

    While not a monster phyiscally, the 28-year-old plays like one with an unsatiable hunger to breach the 12-yard box, be it with his forceful dribbles, savvy runs or mind-bending crosses from his customary position tucked just inside from the right-hand touchline. The current best midfielder in the world… when he’s fit.

    Luka Modric

    LukaModricCroatia (1)

    Someone’s flicked the light switch on Luka Modric’s star over the past season, but that can scarcely dim his status as one of the defining midfielders of this decade.

    The scrawny string-puller didn’t look the part when he arrived at Tottenham in 2008. By the turn of the decade, though, Modric proved he was more than game for the rough-and-tumble of a physical Premier League allied to his preternatural ability on the ball, having been couched deeper in midfield.

    No6, No8, N010 or in combination, numbers are elementary to Modric. Which is why Real Madrid came calling in 2012, where he flourished on arguably the grandest stage of them all. In the 2013/14 season, the Croatian somehow managed to make the most tackles by a Real player and maintained the highest pass accuracy in La Liga.

    It is no coincidence that Modric has started in all four of Madrid’s Champions League triumphs this decade but his greatest achievement is shepherding Croatia into the 2018 World Cup final. That he won the Ballon d’Or off the back of it has been a source of mirth for some due to a nosedive in form. Don’t forget that at his best, it was he who toyed with opposition for fun.

    N’Golo Kante

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    Five years into the decade, N’Golo Kante was chewing up ground for newly-promoted Caen in Ligue 1. Such was his breakneck rise from that summer onwards, it would be remiss to exclude him as one of the most impactful midfielders in recent history.

    Leicester City, forever the 5000-1 shot, were at least a known quantity within the Premier League. Conversely, outside the French top-flight and Europe’s most resourceful scouting departments, you’d be met with quizzical looks if you mentioned Kante’s name.

    In his last year with Caen he won the ball back the most times in Europe, but it took just £5.6 million for the Foxes to complete the most cunning bit of business. His league-leading tackles and interceptions were the fulcrum of that remarkable title in 2015/16, but make no mistake – Kante was, and is, no simple Makelele clone.

    His foraging high up the pitch, intelligent darts into space and tidy distribution make him a far more well-rounded player than initial impressions suggest. Chelsea were the immediate beneficiaries of that when he took the title with him from Leicester to London in 2016/17.

    There is no other midfielder like him on this list – that he is so unique shows that he belongs.

    Sergio Busquets

    SergioBusquetsBarcelona (1)

    Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets. It is an immense compliment to his ability that Busquets forms part of the conversation without anyone so much as blinking an eye.

    In arguably the most complex position in modern football – the midfield pivot responsible for protecting the defence, transitioning into attack and recycling the ball – a 20-year-old Busquets supplanted Yaya Toure, who would go onto tear up the Premier League with Manchester City, in the starting XI for the 2008/09 Champions League final.

    He took the measure of control that Barcelona’s midfield exerted from superior, with Xavi and Iniesta, to downright superhuman. Since 2009 for both club and country, the Catalonian’s pass uccess rate stands at a staggering 91.7 per cent.

    The Catalonian reads the game like a bookworm and at 6ft2in he is a physical presence too, even if – especially earlier in this career – his presence too often ended up cynically on the floor.

    Barcelona now hope Frenkie De Jong is their Sergio Busquets of the next decade.

    Toni Kroos

    ToniKroosRealMadrid (1)

    In many ways, Toni Kroos’ career progression reflects the path that Andrea Pirlo took as he retreated deeper into midfield and consequentially deeper into folklore.

    They are different players, no doubt, as Kroos for Bayern Munich at the top of the decade fortified his pristine technical qualities with power and energy in the final third.

    Yet the comparison with Pirlo is apt because as soon as Carlo Ancelotti got his hands on him at Real Madrid, just as he did with the lustrously-maned compatriot, he turned Kroos into a deep-lying playmaker.

    Before Casemiro came onto the scene, that dynamism allowed him to be deployed in midfield two alongside Modric. With fewer defensive responsibilities in the trio, his wonderful passing range was amplified and helped set Madrid on their way to those three consecutive Champions League titles.

    The most consistent performer for Germany in this timeframe – a force in the win of 2014, the best of the lot in 2018’s flop – the 29-year-old is young enough to lead both a Die Mannschaft and Real reboot.


    XaviBarcelona (1)

    “Think quickly, look for spaces, that’s what I do. All day. Always looking. Space, space, space.”

    If Xavi had been born in a different era, the Russians would not have been the first to travel into space. Mercifully, for football fans, Xavier Hernandez Creus was born in Terrassa, Catalonia, 30 kilometres away from his spiritual home of La Masia.

    There he would become not just a disciple of the Barcelona ethos but its greatest-ever proponent, and did he ever practice what he preached.

    The man who set and re-set so many passing records is often lumbered with espousing ‘tiki-taka’, an often derogatory phrase associated with keeping the ball in midfield for the sake of it. But the No6 was a man of action as his incredible 184 assists for the Blaugrana, despite so many times playing the first vital pass rather than the final, attest to.

    It was, as he says, because of his obsession for space. Wiping opposition midfielders out of it, setting forth others into acres of it. No midfielder in the history of football has had a deeper understanding of his craft.

    His time at Barcelona only lasted five years into this decade, but just like his obsession with space, he made every second count.