Best young football defensive midfielders
Brief scouting reports on some of our favourite emerging defensive midfielders
Defensive midfielders – or the number 6 – are the lynchpins of teams. They come in all shapes and sizes, with all sort of different skills – from the destructive ball-winner to the talented passer. Some combine those different skills as well. Here’s a little list of our favourite young defensive midfielders that are currently breaking onto the scene.
More profiles can be found in the goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, wingers and strikers sections. Below, you’ll find profiles covering backgrounds, styles, strengths and weaknesses, while providing links to where you can find out more about them.
For full in-depth analysis of some of the best young players from all over the planet, check out our profiles page. We have countlesss profiles on players there, focussing on a range of talents from across the world. There are also exclusive interviews too, and plenty more.
Without carrying a huge reputation into the 2020/21 season, despite an €18 million move from Bordeaux to Monaco six months earlier, Aurélien Tchouaméni quickly developed into one of the hottest properties in Europe after an excellent stint in the principality. It was recognised by Didier Deschamps too, with the French manager handing the midfielder his first caps for France.
And then in 2022/23, the big move finally arrived, as Tchouaméni landed himself at Real Madrid, seemingly as the natural successor to the departing Casemiro.
Aurélien Tchouaméni's style of play
Tchouaméni’s skillset is intriguing. He is very versatile: not positionally, but in the fact that he can do a lot of things competently. He is a decent if unspectacular passer, an average final third contributor, and a pretty good dribbler when he is on the move.
Above all though, he is an elite ball-winning midfielder that combines his willingness to hunt the ball down with high level athleticism akin to a slightly thicker set version of a young Paul Pogba.
The Frenchman’s main concerns are his unwillingness to push forward and receive the ball in more attacking areas, though this could partly be due to his lack of confidence manoeuvring himself in tight spaces.
This limits him to playing his best football in a double-pivot, where the threat of being pressed at the base of midfield as the primary ball progressor is reduced, and where he does not have to assume the role of between-the-lines technician should he function as an interior.
Aurélien Tchouaméni is an elite ball-winner with a top physical profile who is continuing to develop as a ball progressor.
Tchouaméni can struggle when intensely pressed, both as a receiver and dribbler, which can force him into being conservative with his ball progression.
Bilal Hussein has led a fairly routine development so far in his career. He joined Stockholm giants, AIK, as a 13-year-old and worked his way up the age groups. A couple of months on loan at a fourth-tier team preceded more involvements with the first-team, before breaking into the side as a starter in 2020.
Since then, Hussein has established himself as a key starter next to the veteran Sebastian Larsson in midfield, helping the club mount a valiant title push in 2021. He’s also been a regular with Sweden at under-21 level.
Bilal Hussein's style of play
Hussein is a high-volume passer, and that’s his standout skill in his current stage of development. He helps his AIK team build out from the back with intelligent positioning and quick movements to receive the ball in any situation. Once he gets it, his touch is clean and his passing is crisp – Hussein rarely needs more than two touches to receive and release possession.
That quick, two-touch style is the basis of his game. It keeps the ball moving in a valuable way, finding gaps to exploit in the opponent’s defensive structure. He can penetrate through lines with his passing as well, especially from deeper positions and over 15-20 yards. Moreover, he’s shown some skill as a passer into depth.
As a defender, Hussein’s game is predicated on speed of though and movement. He reads sequences intelligently and is quick to pounce on passes into a receiver or cut in ahead of them to intercept. While his slender frame affords him great sharpness, he can be overwhelmed in contact situations by bigger, stronger opponents.
After a couple of impressive seasons as a starter in Sweden, Hussein is ready to take the next step in his development. That will be best served in leagues like the Eredivisie.
Bilal Hussein plays an up-tempo passing game and combines that with sharp mobility that underpins the defensive side of his game.
While his mobility is a big help, he does lack overall physicality to compete effectively in duels. It’s something that could be further exposed at higher level leagues.
Pape Matar Sarr
Pape Matar Sarr is the latest exciting product of FC Metz’s fruitful link with Senegalese academy club, Génération Foot. After moving to north-east France from Dakar in the summer of 2020, he needed little time to break into the first-team and grab the attention straight away.
So much so, Tottenham Hotspur moved quickly to sign one of the big breakout talents of 2020/21’s Ligue 1 season, immediately loaning him back to Metz for another season.
That season was an underwhelming one as Metz were one of the worst teams in the top-five leagues. Having returned to Spurs, he now struggles for minutes under Antonio Conte.
Pape Matar Sarr's style of play
What immediately stands out about Sarr is his borderline elite range of mobility. He covers huge spaces with relative ease; his speed going both ways is excellent, as is his engine to maintain a strong intensity throughout the full ninety. His physique only accentuates it: he’s tall and slender with rangy legs and skinny arms, a frame which catches the eye when moving as freely as it does.
He maximises that mobility in defensive situations. When he first broke onto the Ligue 1 scene, Sarr put up extraordinary ball-winning numbers – he tackled and intercepted to a league-leading level. He reads the game pretty well on the front foot and he makes the most of his rangy size to overwhelm players in contact and effect the ball in unlikely situations.
His long-range mobility is also useful in carrying the ball forward from deep, particularly in transition. Sarr has a great burst off the back foot and, once he hits full stride, is difficult to stop, carrying the ball over long distances.
His skillset in more structured phases of build-up has its issues but is promising all the same. He can be a bit clumsy under pressure and he can lack accuracy with his passing, but his basic techniques are of a solid level. There’s more than enough glimpses of quality to suggest that he can develop into a very capable ball-player.
Pape Matar Sarr’s best strengths are currently on the defensive side of the game, where he is an elite ball winner that can cover huge amounts of ground off the ball. Ball progression is a developing side of his game.
Sarr does struggle under intense pressing scenarios that can jumble up his technique and coordination. He also has a habit of taking too many long shots.
After a tough first season in Milan, Sandro Tonali has grown into his role patrolling the Rossoneri’s midfield. Tonali arrived at Milan with a big reputation derived from his performances with Brescia, where he guided them from Serie B into Serie A with consistent performances and comparisons to his childhood idol Gennaro Gattuso.
He played a pivotal role in Milan’s title win in 2021/22, providing drive in Milan’s midfield and attacking intent that was unsighted in his first season with the club.
Sandro Tonali's style of play
Like Gattuso, Tonali is an aggressive and defensively active midfielder that does not shirk a challenge and will throw himself into any physical duel without hesitation. He is a strong and robust athlete despite not being overly big. He is pretty quick too, making him a useful defender of space, as well as someone that can nip into passing lanes to break up play.
He is growing as a player in possession, but it still feels as though he lacks a real weapon in his game going forward, especially for a player that arrived on the scene with the reputation he had built when he left Brescia in 2020. In saying that, he has shown far more intent since his poor first season in Milan; while he still might not be an elite ball carrier, he does not hesitate to attack space and kick-start transition opportunities.
He is a decent passer and a decent ball carrier, he chips in with a goal every now and then, he can deliver a good set piece, and he has his occasional spurt of creativity in the final third. It is a strong base to work with as he moves into his prime.
Sandro Tonali is an aggressive midfielder that looks to kick-start Milan’s attacks with his ball-winning and direct attacking style.
Tonali does lack a bit of attacking variety in his game and he can be a bit too careless with his long range distribution.
Boubacar Kamara is very experienced for a young player. Since breaking into the first-team in the 2017/18 season, Kamara has amassed over 150 appearances and 12,000 minutes played for OM.
While he has not experienced a conventional breakout season, Kamara gradually developed into one of the higher-valued defensive prospects in European football while he was at Marseille, before his move on a free transfer to Aston Villa in the summer of 2022.
A knee ligament injury just a couple of months into his Villa career threaens to keep him sidelined for a long time, and almost certainly rules him out of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Boubacar Kamara's style of play
Boubacar Kamara is adept both as a centre-back and as a defensive midfielder, but has been used more as the latter since he played under Jorge Sampaoli at Marseille. He is a destroyer; great in the air, a brute in physical duels, but he also possesses great instincts for when to time his interventions.
While he is strong when contesting for the ball out wide too, he can be susceptible when isolated against faster, trickier wide players in space. His penchant for making clean challenges from behind allows him to make some crucial interventions, but he needs to get better at keeping players in front of him.
On the ball, he receives the ball cleanly with a great first touch that helps him evade pressure. His ball progression is also quite competent, although he can struggle when burdened with too much pressure to create play from deep.
A better ability to recognise when to recycle possession and when to try to break down the opposition will help Kamara take more care of the ball and ensure he does not turn it over in compromising positions.
Aurélien Tchouaméni is the hottest property of the young defensive midfielder. He’s been excellent over the past year, establishing himself as one of Ligue 1’s best and as a strong newcomer in the French fold. Declan Rice is another, althought his role has evolved into more of a box-to-box presence. Teun Koopmeiners has been a standout as well.
Aurélien Tchouaméni: as evidenced by his big money move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2022.