Following my blog post on the greatest English premier league strikers of the past thirty years, I decided to do one for central midfielders. Deciding who is the greatest central midfielder in the English premier league for the past 20 years was trickier than deciding the G.O.A.T striker because central midfielders have very different skill sets and perform a wider variety of roles as compared to strikers.

I needed some help, so I convinced my friend Ernest (@nestokeyo23) to help me with this. Ernest is a long time friend whom we have grown up footballistically together, watching dozens of games and discussing them afterwards. We agreed on the following parameters to decide who the greatest midfielder in the EPL of all time:

We were only going to look at midfielders who played between 2000 and 2019. We would only look at central midfielders who play number 6 and 8 in a 4-4-2 formation.

We would look at the following skills:

  1. Passing (the maestro)
  2. Goalscoring (the marksman)
  3. Defensive ability (the warrior)
  4. Leadership (the general)
  5. The legacy of the player (legend)

This is what our combined effort came up with:

  1. THE MAESTRO

KIM: Midfielders’ bread and butter are their passing. Keeping the ball, distributing it to the forwards, rotating possession, these are the most important roles of midfielders. In the English premier league, there has been no better maestro than Paul Scholes. Witness Manchester United’s collapse after his retirement, and how he improved them when he returned to the side.

Great midfield maestros of the past 20 years or so, in order of ranking, are;

Kim’s Top 5

  1. Paul Scholes (5 points)
  2. Xabi Alonso (4 points)
  3. Cesc Fabregas (3 points)
  4. Michael Carrick (2 points)
  5. Michael Arteta (1 point)

ERNEST: Scholes was always going to be a no brainer in this category. There is a glaring omission from your list and that is David Silva. He was a forward for most of his early career but he has done enough for me, ever since Pep arrived, as a deeper lying midfielder to be in this conversation. Steven Gerrard in his twilight years was also a quarterback in his own right.

Ernest’s Top 5

  1. Paul Scholes (5 Points)
  2. Xabi Alonso (4 Points)
  3. Cesc Fabregas (3 Points)
  4. David Silva (2 Points)
  5. Steven Gerrard (1 Point)

2. THE MARKSMAN

ERNEST: A midfielder who scores goals is like the goose that lays golden eggs. You’re lucky if you have one and once they’re gone they are not exactly easy to replace. Over the last 20 years, nobody has done it better than Frank Lampard. There won’t be another midfielder in this list who can boast to being their club’s all-time top scorer. No other midfielder can also claim to have scored more premier league goals than the Chelsea legend. He did take a lot of penalties though. Scoles has 107 EPL goals and he scored almost 10 goals a season for a purple patch in his career. Yaya Toure also deserves a special mention for scoring 20 goals in the 2013/14 campaign.

Ernest’s Top 5

  1. Frank Lampard
  2. Steven Gerrard
  3. Paul Scholes
  4. Yaya Toure
  5. Kevin Nolan.

KIM:  the best marksman in the English Premier League midfield was always going to be won by Frank Lampard in a landslide. So decisive was he, that after him it is a relative free for all. No one comes close to matching his goals output from central midfield, although as you stated, Yaya Toure was excellent in that one season. The rest of the quintet is trickier to fill. I think Aaron Ramsey, Steven Gerrard and Christian Eriksen were all important in terms of volume, consistency and importance of goals.

Kim’s Top 5

  1. Frank Lampard
  2. Steven Gerrard
  3. Paul Scholes
  4. Yaya Toure
  5. Aaron Ramsey

all-time goalscoring midfielders in EPL (www.premierleague.com):

goalscoring midfielders

3. THE WARRIOR

KIM: The second most important weapon in a great midfielder arsenal is his defensive ability. A midfielder must keep the shape, cover his central defenders and intercept, tackle and track back. There have been some awesome midfielders in the engine room who were great in defensive roles.

Claude Makelele is for me the greatest in this role, so good that his departure from Real Madrid was mourned by the likes of Zinedine Zidane. his joining Chelsea established them as possibly the best defensively drilled midfield in English premier league history. Other great defensively minded midfielders were N’Golo Kante, Michael Essien, Gareth Barry and Patrick Vieira.

Kim’s Top 5

  1. Claude Makelele
  2. N’Golo Kante
  3. Roy Keane
  4. Gareth Barry
  5. Gilberto Silva

 

ERNEST: The style and nature of the English game makes this the toughest category because there are so many midfielders whose game suits this style of play. Makelele made it look easy and N’golo Kante has perhaps added a new dimension to it. That said, a list like this cannot be complete without two names; Keane and Viera. They are the poster boys of the box to box midfielders. Gareth Barry absolutely deserves a mention here as well, merely for doing it longer than anyone else.

Ernest’s Top 5

  1. Claude Makelele
  2. Patrick Viera
  3. Roy Keane
  4. N’golo Kante
  5. Gareth Barry
makelele vs kante
Kante vs Makelele infographic from thesportreview.com

4. THE GENERAL

ERNEST: These are the men who made other men. The captains who never needed armbands to lead. At the height of the Man Utd’s rivalry with Arsenal two men set a standard of leadership that we rarely see reached anymore. Viera and Keane are obvious candidates in this category. It’s hard to leave Steven Gerrard out of any list that has natural born leaders; nobody set an example better than he did. I also remember Yaya Toure dragging City to the title just by sheer will and determination. This category just writes itself.

Ernest’s Top 5

  1. Roy Keane
  2. Patrick Viera
  3. Steven Gerrard
  4. Yaya Toure
  5. Frank Lampard

KIM:  Agreed. Midfielders tend to be the heartbeat of any great side, and the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United was marked by two all-time greats. However, there is something to be said for leadership by example, and no one exemplified this more consistently, quietly and professionally than Frank Lampard for Chelsea. He was the metronome for that great Chelsea side. Mikel Arteta was also a great captain for Arsenal and Everton and deserves inclusion.

 

Kim’s Top 5

  1. Patrick Vieira
  2. Roy Keane
  3. Frank Lampard
  4. Steven Gerrard
  5. Mikel Arteta

keane vs vieira

  1. THE LEGEND

KIM: This is perhaps the most subjective part of the debate. What defines a legend? The way Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, even Cesc Fabregas, left their clubs sullied their legend in my eyes, yet they achieved so much for their clubs, as leaders, as captains and as footballers. I think the love of fans is very important to be considered a legend. That is why Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard are legendary in my opinion. They were excellent on the field, retain the love of their clubs, and achieved great honour and accolades.

Kim’s Top 5

  1. Paul Scholes
  2. Steven Gerrard
  3. Roy Keane
  4. Patrick Vieira
  5. Frank Lampard

ERNEST: I’d like to see the legend in a different light. For me, a legend takes what he does to a new level. They become the embodiment of what they were the best at. They become the standard. The ‘Makelele Role’ is now a staple in football lingo. Before Paul Scholes, we never thought of midfielders as quarterbacks.  When you think of a leader you think of Roy Keane lifting the trophy 7 times (no captain has done it more times). When you think of Midfielders arriving late in the box, you think Frank Lampard. These midfielders left their mark on a game we so dearly love.

 

Ernest’s Top 5

  1. Paul Scholes
  2. Roy Keane
  3. Steven Gerrard
  4. Claude Makelele
  5. Frank Lampard

Totals

maestro marksman warrior general legend TOTAL
Paul Scholes 10 6 10 26
Xabi Alonso 8 8
Cesc Fabregas 6 6
Michael Carrick 2 2
Mikel Arteta 1 1 2
David Silva 2 2
Steven Gerrard 1 8 5 6 20
Frank Lampard 10 4 2 16
Yaya Toure 4 2 6
Kevin Nolan 1 1
Aaron Ramsey 1 1
Claude Makelele 10 4 14
N’Golo Kante 6 6
Roy Keane 6 9 7 22
Gareth Barry 3 3
Gilberto Silva 1 1
Patrick Vieira 4 9 2 15

The results in graph form are as follows:

GOAT EPL Charts

One can see that there are six midfielders with exceptional totals: Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes all garnered exceptional tallies. Whoever one’s G.O.A.T midfielder is, he must come from that list of 6 extraordinary gentlemen, I think.

My unscientific poll on Twitter seemed to confirm that, with Paul Scholes being the favourite of a plurality of voters.

What are your thoughts? Tell me in the comments below. Follow me on twitter here and like my facebook page here.