The Best Box-to-Box Midfielders of All-Time

Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira | Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The box-to-box midfielder – arguably the most demanding role on a football pitch.

Get it right and you look like a Swiss Army knife of footballing talent, powered by the legs and lungs of a marathon runner; get it wrong and you look like a headless chicken who is just desperate to touch the ball as much as possible.

Over the years we’ve been treated to some truly scintillating midfielders who offer both defensive protection as well as attacking prowess, while seeming to effortlessly cover the ground required to help out at both ends of the pitch.

Football is an ever-evolving sport, and not all of those changes are necessarily for the better. One thing that has become a rare commodity in today’s game is the box-to-box midfielder.

Unfortunately, the current fascination with possession-based football and playing out from defence has pretty much vacated the need for someone running 20km-per-game in the middle.

So, enjoy a bit of a trip down memory lane and remember what the complete footballer used to look like, as we give the rundown of the greatest box-to-box midfielders ever.

Roy KeaneRoy Keane
Midfield hard man Roy Keane in action for Manchester United | Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Perhaps better known for his tough tackling and ability to organise a side, Keane’s attacking prowess often goes unheralded.

87 goals in a career which spanned 17 years tells you the former Manchester United man was far from just a stopper.

Not only was the Irishman a threat in front of goal, he also had a knack of producing big goals at big moments. His double at Highbury in 1999 handed United the win over title-rivals Arsenal having trailed 1-0, while his header in Turin against Juventus sparked the comeback which ultimately saw his side reach the 1999 Champions League final before lifting the trophy.

A tireless work ethic combined with a tenacious will to win make Roy Keane one of the greatest box-to-box midfielders to play the game.

Patrick VieiraPatrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira representing Arsenal in the Champions League | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Often Keane’s ‘dance’ partner. Vieira was the central figure in both Arsenal’s double-winning side of 1998 and the 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’.

The World Cup winner possessed a grace and an elegance in his style of play which wasn’t quite befitting of the ferocious tackles he would thunder into.

Not afraid to stick his foot in but also adept in the opposition penalty area, Vieira was once described by Keane as ‘unplayable’, with the former United man going on to say, while he and Vieira would never be friends, the Frenchman certainly made him raise his game.

Nearly 15 years since he departed Arsenal, the club have yet to truly replace his immense presence in the heart of the midfield – a testament to the colossal midfielder.

The iconic Brazilian midfielder Sócrates | Getty Images/Getty Images

An absolute genius of a footballer.

While Zico may have grabbed many of the headlines for the Brazil side of the early to mid-80s – Sócrates was undoubtably the brains of the team.

Having started his professional football life as a striker, the Brazil international dropped into a midfield role early on in his senior career, yet his pedigree as a frontman was clear for all to see – a whopping 236 career goals reflect a substantial return for a midfielder.

Similar to Vieira, his rangy figure saw him able to cover immense amounts grass with ease, a feat made all the more astonishing when you consider his off-field antics. The former Botafogo man once described himself as an ‘anti-athlete’, regularly indulging in large quantities of alcohol and cigarettes.

His unkempt facial hair and long black hair saw him become a style icon, a look which is still to this day synonymous with the Brazil side of the early 80s.

 - Barcelona - Barcelona
Dutch maestro Johan Neeskens in action for Barcelona | VI-Images/Getty Images

Very much Johan Cruyff’s right-hand man at Barcelona, Ajax and for the Netherlands, Neeskens forged an unbelievable career as a tireless central midfielder.

Christened ‘Johan Segon’ (Johan the Second) by Barcelona fans during his time at Camp Nou, Neeskens’ ability to win possession and carry the ball saw him become a firm-favourite of the Barça fans, despite a relatively barren spell at the club.

While Cruyff’s success often saw Neeskens go unheralded, the midfielder was more than capable of grabbing the headlines himself; 17 goals in 49 games for his native Holland prove that much.

Steven GerrardSteven Gerrard
Liverpool-legend Gerrard raises the Champions League trophy aloft | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Often the first name that springs to mind when you think of a blood and thunder midfielder capable of covering every blade of grass.

Gerrard enjoyed 17 years at boyhood-club Liverpool before seeing out his career with a year in MLS. The former England man was named captain of the Reds at just 23 years of age – testament to the immense impact he had in the team, even at such a tender age.

Gerrard notched 191 goals in his 18-year career, including the goal which proved to be the catalyst for his side’s astonishing comeback in the 2005 Champions League final, having trailed AC Milan 3-0 at the break.

Bayern Munich's midfielder Bastian SchweBayern Munich's midfielder Bastian Schwe
Midfield enforcer Bastian Schweinsteiger representing Bayern Munich | AFP/Getty Images

Having started out as a winger, Schweinsteiger moved into central midfield early on in his senior career, and it was clear the German had found his calling.

During his time at Bayern Munich he was adopted in just about every midfield position imaginable, such was his immense talent and versatility. His ability to carry the ball and dictate the speed of play meant the Bayern and Germany team was built around him for many years.

His hammer of a right foot along with his ability to time late runs into the box saw him pick up more than his fair share of goals.

Paulo Vito Barreto, Clarence SeedorfPaulo Vito Barreto, Clarence Seedorf
Seedorf displays his strength as he holds off his man | New Press/Getty Images

The term ‘powerhouse’ can be thrown about all too readily when it comes to central midfielders – it couldn’t be more appropriate than in this scenario.

Having graduated from the Ajax academy, Seedorf combined the technical nous and ability the famed youth setup is renowned for with shear, raw aggression.

His tireless work ethic seemed to know no bounds, while his ability to win the ball back and skip past men with ease meant he represented some of the best sides in Europe for many years.

Lothar Matthaeus, Pierre LittbarskiLothar Matthaeus, Pierre Littbarski
Lothar Matthaeus holds the 1990 World Cup aloft | STAFF/Getty Images

When it comes to all-round footballers – it’s difficult to surpass this man.

Described by Maradona as ‘the best rival I’ve ever had’, Matthäus made a staggering 150 appearances for Germany, notching 23 international goals.

The German’s strong tackling and constant goal threat saw him considered one of the greatest midfielders ever to play the game, leading Bayern Munich to seven German titles, as well as leading his country to victory at the 1980 European Championships and the 1990 World Cup.

Matthäus’ 20-year international career – in which he competed in a record five World Cups – is testament to his immense ability.

Bryan Robson of Manchester UnitedBryan Robson of Manchester United
Bryan Robson wheels away in celebration | Simon Bruty/Getty Images

One of the toughest tackling midfielders you’re ever likely to see. Before a fresh-faced Roy Keane arrived at Manchester United, Robson ruled the roust for many years.

The former Manchester United man had a terrific eye for goal and consistently recorded double figures during his time at Old Trafford, while his stamina and work rate saw him able to compete at both ends of the field with ease.

Robson is widely considered one of the greatest midfielders that England has produced, a belief which is supported by his impressive record of 26 goals in 90 international games.

Ruud GullitRuud Gullit
The imposing figure of Ruud Gullit representing AC Milan | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

A mountain of a central midfielder, Gullit was the driving force in the Milan side during one of their most illustrious spells.

The former Dutch international’s poise, balance and elegance was unusual for a man of his stature, but meant he was capable of carrying the ball as well as distributing it effectively.

A rare specimen of a player, Gullit combined raw aggression with unbelievable natural ability and flare. His leadership in the centre of the pitch saw him become the complete midfielder, acknowledged by his 1987 Ballon d’Or win.