With the 2019-2020 Premier League season almost a third of the way over, enough time has passed to start analyzing some of the key trends in English football. While much attention has already been paid to the role of the fullback, this mostly comes from the meteoric rise of Liverpool’s duo Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who have been heralded as the reason for Liverpool’s recent dominance in Europe and England. Instead, I believe the position that is defining this and recent seasons in the Premier League is the central defensive midfielder (CDM).
The CDM role is a challenging one; the player must act as a shield for the defense, closing down opposition attacking players before they reach the final third of a game and dispossessing them of the ball before launching counter-attacks. A good CDM can simultaneously take the load off a team’s defense while helping to generate offensive momentum.
For the past few seasons, the best CDM in the Premier League has undoubtedly been French star N’Golo Kanté. After signing with Leicester City for £5.6 million in 2015, Kanté became the lynchpin for the Leicester midfield en route to an improbable Premier League title. After his selection as the Player of the Year for Leicester, Premier League giant Chelsea snapped up Kanté for just over £30 million.
To me, this deal will go down as one of the bargains of the century. In Kanté’s three seasons so far at Chelsea, he has won the Premier League title, the FA Cup and the Europa League; he was chosen as the Premier League Player of the Year in 2017 and played an integral role in the French national team that won the World Cup in 2018. In an era where a decent striker costs over £60 million, to get the best CDM in the world for £30 million is a coup.
Kanté’s work rate, vision with the ball and tackling ability have been so key for Chelsea’s midfield over the past few seasons that teams across the Premier League have been looking for their own Kanté, seeking to emulate that midfield success. Almost all other top clubs in England are playing CDMs that they have signed within the past two years, a sign that they are looking to replicate Chelsea’s success with Kanté.
Current league leaders Liverpool signed Brazilian CDM Fábio Henrique Tavares, known on the field as Fabinho, in May 2018, only days after losing the UEFA Champions League final to Spanish giant Real Madrid. Fabinho became a regular starter in Liverpool’s midfield three, and the team finished its next season with the third-highest point total in Premier League history – all by exorcising its 2018 demons to win the 2019 Champions League title. While Liverpool already had an excellent squad, Fabinho was the decisive midfield player it needed to put it over the edge.
Manchester City is another one of the few teams that has also consistently used a CDM effectively, with Brazilian player Fernando Luiz Roza, aka Fernandinho, acting as a defensive stalwart anchoring Manchester City’s midfield over the team’s past few title-winning campaigns.
Leicester City understandably struggled to repeat its excellent form the year after it won the title, but it has since resurged and sits at second place in the Premier League. The loss of Kanté weakened Leicester’s midfield in 2016 and left its backline beleaguered and exposed. To remedy this, the club signed Nigerian CDM Wilfred Ndidi in 2017, and the midfielder has been instrumental in the club’s rebuild. Ndidi’s league-leading 58 tackles this season is a more impressive feat. Dovetailing with Belgian midfielder Youri Tielemans, Ndidi has helped Leicester hold five clean sheets this season, tied for best in the league.
Other big clubs have also splashed the cash recently on CDMs, notably Tottenham Hotspur with its signing of French CDM Tanguy Ndombele for £55 million in 2019 and Arsenal with its £25 million purchase of Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira after the 2018 World Cup.
Manchester United, on the other hand, has struggled, as Serbian CDM Nemanja Matic ages and loses a step, and the club is discovering just how pricey the market for CDM talent has become. The best CDM available over the summer, Spanish midfielder Rodrigo Hernández Cascante signed not with United but with United’s crosstown rivals Manchester City for a club-record £62 million fee. For Manchester United, its failure to fill the gap at CDM this summer may prove costly for years to come.
Of course, the popularity of the CDM in the Premier League is not without precedent. French CDM Patrick Vieira anchored the midfield of the infamous “Invincibles” Arsenal side that won the 2003–2004 Premier League undefeated.
The idea that the CDM is the most important position in the Premier League might seem counterintuitive in an era with more scoring than ever: three of the league’s top five highest-scoring teams have all played in the last five years. A look at the top four teams, however, shows that each club has invested heavily in a top quality CDM in recent years. Meanwhile, the typical big clubs that are struggling – Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United – are all either lacking a quality CDM or have one they won’t regularly start.
Overall, the versatility and two-way abilities of the dynamic CDM mean that it has become the sine qua non for good teams. I can promise that whoever wins the Premier League this season will have done so behind excellent CDM play.