FC 100 best men's soccer central midfielders, 2022-23

Illustration by MASA

The engine room. The metronome. The straw that stirs the drink. Central midfield is the nerve centre of any successful team but the beauty of the position is that high class can come in many different forms.

There are tough-tackling marauders who cover plenty of grass and win the ball every time. Or how about the maestro, adept on either foot and at their best when dribbling through opponents and threading the right pass? Then there are the guys who set the tone for their teams through the strength of their distribution, always aware of their teammates' movements and constantly able to pick them out on the run. Whatever your preference, your team fails without quality in the middle of the park.

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This year's ballot had 50 entries from all over the globe and from all areas of ESPN FC, from writers to reporters, from editors to producers, from behind-the-scenes staff to on-air talent. Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden and Luis Miguel Echegaray were just some of the key voters, along with their FC TV counterparts Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop.

Voters were encouraged to take the following things into consideration when casting their votes: who are the best men's players right now, weighted toward their 2022-23 seasons. Voters were given discretion as to how much injuries played in votes; several players made the cut despite missing chunks of the season given the scale of their contributions and performances when healthy. Equally, performances in individual competitions (aka Champions League, World Cup) were considered, but were not the overarching factor, in casting a vote. Players whose efforts spanned the largest sample size of games should naturally rank higher than those who excelled in short tournament formats.

Gab and Juls get heated in Bellingham v Rodri debate

Julien Laurens and Gabriele Marcotti joined by Mark Ogden debate Jude Bellingham's first place as best central midfielder over Manchester City's Rodri.

All player copy written by Bill Connelly, Constantin Eckner, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler.

10. Bruno GUIMARAES, Newcastle/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

Midfielders are tasked with action; that is, they're the ones who translate the solid geometry of their defenders into the multidirectional chaos of attack. Guimaraes speaks both attack and defense well, but plays with an improvisational spirit; he breaks rules, he breaks defenses and he breaks well-organized back lines into pieces with his passing.

Arriving at Newcastle only in January 2022, the former Lyon midfielder has gone from strength to strength as the Magpies' midfield pivot, capable of receiving the ball under pressure and distributing it with precision into the attacking third. Four league goals and five assists hint at his influence on the ball, but the Brazil international is also strong and stubborn when trying to win the ball; he rates highly for tackles and interceptions compared with most who play his position, and he's unafraid to dribble directly upfield after winning the ball.

Guimaraes is a player who makes things happen.

Expectations for 2023-24:

With Champions League action secured after a superb season, Guimaraes should continue to put up big numbers in a Magpies midfield that is reportedly set to add Sandro Tonali (from AC Milan). The extra games and European nights will add some pressure, but Guimaraes has made pressure his playground. -- Tyler

9. Frenkie DE JONG, Barcelona/Netherlands

Why he's on the list:

After having to share the Barcelona dressing room with bad De Jong (aka Luuk), good De Jong (aka Frenkie) finally had the season we've been expecting from him since he moved from Ajax in 2019. He was a key member of Barca's title-winning side, turning in some stellar performances as a deeper-lying playmaker.

Xavi has used him a lot (29 starts, 33 appearances in LaLiga) in different roles, which is a credit to De Jong's intelligence and football IQ. The Dutch midfielder, 26, fluidifies the game so much. He can dictate the pace of the game as Xavi wants, and he's capable of unlocking the creativity to Gavi and Pedri next to him and Ousmane Dembélé out wide.

Expectations for 2023-24:

De Jong is going to be even more important for Barcelona next season now that Sergio Busquets has left the club. The place and the time are there for the Dutchman to take over the very famous and important holding role for Barça. He is ready for it, too, having waited years to play in his preferred position. With Ilkay Gundogan arriving at the club after several brilliant seasons with Man City, the two can find really good chemistry and form a great duo in central midfield. We can, and should, expect a big season from De Jong as a result. -- Laurens

8. Joshua KIMMICH, Bayern Munich/Germany

Why he's on the list:

The 2022-23 season was a frustrating one for Kimmich, simply because he has become the face of both Bayern Munich and the German national team and both struggled. The former nearly saw its Bundesliga title streak ended, while the latter bowed out quickly in the World Cup and seem a shell of their former selves. But that really had only so much to do with the 28-year-old star. He nearly set career highs with five Bundesliga goals and 73 crosses completed, and his 84 chances created were his most ever. He continues to produce for his national team, too.

Kimmich remains one of the best pivot-style midfielders in the world, one capable of initiating attacks with safe ball progression and both pushing and finishing in more dangerous areas. He does whatever his team needs, even if his respective teams needed far more than usual this season.

Expectations for 2023-24:

There is not yet a light at the end of the tunnel for the German national team, but Bayern will head into the new season with the same expectations as ever, and potentially with a little less off-the-field chaos involved. And the expectations for Kimmich never change. He will remain the string-puller for Germany's biggest club. -- Connelly

7. Alexis MAC ALLISTER, Liverpool (formerly Brighton)/Argentina

Why he's on the list:

The Argentina international has enjoyed an ascent so dizzying it would give mere mortals a nosebleed. Since joining Brighton in 2019 from Argentinos Juniors, Mac Allister has gone from bit-part midfielder to an all-action force responsible for pushing Brighton into Europe and helping vault his country to victory at the 2022 World Cup.

Mac Allister is a dream of a midfielder, a player as capable of breaking the press when in possession as he is leading it into the opposition third. It's no surprise his stats from the past season compare to the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Luka Modric, three of the best midfielders of the modern era. And yet, that trio have very different styles... only Mac Allister covers all three. Scoring big goals against Manchester United and Liverpool, as well as leading the Seagulls in league goals with 10, he's only getting better with age -- and is only 24 years old.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Despite signing a new long-term deal in Brighton back in October, Mac Allister completed a move to Liverpool and will join the Reds for the start of preseason. Given their midfield issues last season, Mac Allister projects to be an immediate and profound upgrade to whatever Jurgen Klopp is cooking up. (As soon as the window opener, Dominik Szoboszlai moved from RB Leipzig to Anfield as well.)

Mac Allister will be the new focal point of the Reds' midfield and will be expected to put up similar numbers as the Reds look to shrug off a disappointing season and clinch an immediate return to the Champions League at the first opportunity. -- Tyler

6. CASEMIRO, Manchester United/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

Casemiro had won everything at Real Madrid, but the 31-year-old still showed enough ambition last summer to take up a new challenge at Manchester United. It's a position United have been trying to fill for years and the Brazilian's arrival at Old Trafford instantly lifted the level of Erik ten Hag's team.

He had a few disciplinary problems during his first season in the Premier League, picking up a pair of well-deserved red cards, but he was still one of United's players of the year along with Marcus Rashford and Lisandro Martinez. Ten Hag focused on signing good characters last summer and Casemiro fits the bill perfectly.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Casemiro helped United get back into the Champions League and won the Carabao Cup in his first season in England but says he's only just getting started. "I read you and I hear everyone say that Manchester United is back, but this is only the beginning of our journey," he wrote on social media. "The greatness of this club and this shield must force us to demand more of ourselves. Much more."

His extensive experience in the Champions League will be especially vital for Ten Hag on United's return to the competition in 2023-24. -- Dawson

5. Luka MODRIC, Real Madrid/Croatia

Why he's on the list:

Because he's Luka Modric. And even at 37, he's still one of world football's best and most influential midfielders. Modric played in 33 of Madrid's 38 LaLiga games last season -- albeit as a substitute in 14 of them -- but more notably, he started nine Champions League games, including all six in the knockout stages. When it really matters, Madrid still turn to Modric. And there's nobody else you'd rather have in your midfield.

Modric was last seen playing 120 minutes for Croatia in their UEFA Nations League final against Spain on June 18 before effortlessly dispatching a penalty in the shootout. He should have looked exhausted after a draining season; he didn't.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Modric has said he wants to stay at Real Madrid for one more season, despite the temptation of a late-career payout from Saudi Arabia. The midfielder will play less next season than he did last -- "the youngsters will have more of a role and the veterans will have a little less, that's normal," manager Carlo Ancelotti has said -- but Modric will still be important.

And guess who can't wait to play alongside Modric? Jude Bellingham. "The things I'll gain, especially from [Modric and Toni Kroos] will be unbelievable," Bellingham said when presented as a Madrid player. "I'll be like a sponge, trying to steal anything they've got. They'll probably be annoyed with me after the first week or so." -- Kirkland

4. Ilkay GUNDOGAN, Barcelona (formerly Manchester City)/Germany

Why he's on the list:

He's 32, and it seems like he's still getting better. He was the steadiest player in the lineup for each of Manchester City's back-to-back-to-back Premier League winners, averaging 10 league goals per season after never topping six before that.

Gundogan continues to be one of the most adept leak-pluggers in the world -- wherever his team has a weakness, he's there to strengthen it. He's a pivot when City need a pivot, he's a goal scorer when City need a goal scorer, and his soccer brain makes him a natural future coach if he chooses to be one. After two finals failures (at Borussia Dortmund in 2013 and Manchester City in 2021), he finally got to take part in a Champions League win in June. He has checked just about every box you can check as a midfielder at this point.

Expectations for 2023-24:

With his contract expiring and all to-do list items completed in Manchester, Gundogan will now move to Barcelona to see what LaLiga has to offer.

Before we can determine expectations, though, we have to find out where he's playing. With his contract expiring, he continues to weigh his options. City still want him. So do Barcelona and any number of other big clubs. His advancing age hasn't been a hindrance to date, and it still seems he has plenty to offer. But he has to figure out what he wants first. -- Connelly

3. PEDRI, Barcelona/Spain

Why he's on the list:

Pedri was, in many ways, Barcelona's cheat code this season. Playing an advanced midfield role and tasked with knitting together attacks, the Spain international was again sensational as Xavi's side cruised to their first LaLiga title since 2019. And he's still only 20.

Putting up elite per-90 numbers for progressive passes, progressive carries, successful take-ons and penalty area touches, Pedri helps keep the tempo of Barcelona's attacking play where it needs to be. He's the maestro of the orchestra despite rarely getting a solo.

Expectations for 2023-24:

After a couple of injuries in 2021-22 held him back, Pedri made 26 LaLiga appearances last season and looked quickly back to his best. It will likely take some time for Xavi to figure out the right midfield balance now that Pedri, Gundogan and De Jong will be in the same XI. No longer having the human metronome, Sergio Busquets, in the XI will be a challenge too -- he left as a free agent, joining Lionel Messi at Inter Miami CF -- but if anyone can figure it out, it's Pedri. -- Tyler

2. RODRI, Manchester City/Spain

Why he's on the list:

Pep Guardiola is fond of saying that players who don't rack up loads of goals and assists often don't get the recognition they deserve, and that's true of Rodri this season. He has been so important for Manchester City, playing almost every game because Kalvin Phillips didn't have the impact he expected after his move from Leeds United.

Rodri ended the campaign with winners' medals in the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League and Nations League. He has been superb all season and you can argue that he should be on the short list for the Ballon d'Or, although Guardiola won't be holding his breath.

Expectations for 2023-24:

There is likely to come a point in his career when Rodri wants to return to Spain and join one of LaLiga's biggest clubs but for now, he's far too important to Guardiola for the club to contemplate his departure. The City boss has two more years at the Etihad Stadium to win as many trophies as possible and Rodri will be central to that in a similar way to Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and Ruben Dias.

The Spain international is one of the premier players in his position in the world and he will look to demonstrate it again next season. -- Dawson

1. Jude BELLINGHAM, Real Madrid/England

Why he's on the list:

He was just 16 years and 38 days old when he made his debut for Birmingham City in 2019. He was just 17 years and 77 days old when he made his debut for Borussia Dortmund. He just turned 20 years old, and has already played over 10,000 minutes at the top-division level, enjoyed 23 Champions League matches and captained a Bundesliga contender.

Bellingham started out as a high-level defensive midfielder, but he has become one of the most dangerous midfield scorers on the planet. It will always be a bit of a what-if that he wasn't at full strength (and wasn't able to start) in BVB's 2022-23 season-ender, a draw with Mainz (when a win would have given them the league title). He set career highs in both goals and defensive interventions in 2022-23.

The England international accumulates skills at a rate that we see only rarely, and now he will don the white shirt of Modric, Toni Kroos and all the great former Real Madrid midfielders.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Bellingham is the most proven, biggest-name Real Madrid signing since Eden Hazard, only he's eight years younger and has far fewer miles on the odometer. Better yet, he arrives in a midfield that is crowded enough with talent -- Modric and Kroos are sticking around, and fellow youngsters Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga are still getting their feet wet -- that expectations might remain tamped down a bit.

He doesn't arrive as an immediate savior, just another incredibly fun, high-upside player who could dominate in Madrid for years to come. -- Connelly