The Best Attacking Midfielders of All Time

Diego Armando Maradona
Maradona is the best attacking midfielder of all time | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Attacking midfield is the sexiest yet hardest to define position on the football pitch.

Trying to find similarities between Steven Gerrard, Diego Maradona and Thomas Muller is a challenging task – and yet all three have been considered attacking midfielders at some point in their career.

This elusiveness tells you a great deal about the role. It’s meaning has changed over time, mutating depending on whatever tactical system was in vogue at that point in footballing history.

One thing has remained constant throughout the position’s evolution though. It’s produced some legendary players. Here are some of the very best.

Diego Armando MaradonaDiego Armando Maradona
Diego Maradona toasts his World Cup win in 1986 | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Diego Maradona’s god like genius kick-started the Argentine obsession with the Enganche – a position which roughly corresponds to the attacking midfield role. It also led to him earning quasi-religious devotion from a generation of football fans.

Maradona linked the midfield and attack in ways previously thought unimaginable. His majestic close control and silky footwork terrorised defences in three separate decades and at times he just did not seem human.

During his tumultuous seven year spell with Napoli, he helped the unfashionable club win two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup, becoming a Naples deity in the process. At international level he won the 1986 World Cup and despite his off-field problems he is still regarded as the prince of people’s hearts in his homeland.

Johan CruyffJohan Cruyff
Johan Cruyff was a wonderfully gifted player | R. Powell/Getty Images

Perhaps the most influential figure in the history of the modern game, Johan Cruyff’s first successful attempt at changing the world came when he was deployed as an attacking midfielder (of sorts) in Rinus Michels’ Ajax team in the 1970s.

At times Cruyff led the line, but he was anything but a conventional centre-forward. The free-thinker darted between the lines with a carefree attitude fitting of his bohemian surroundings in Amsterdam.

Total Football only worked because Cruyff was the complete attacking midfielder, capable of performing all that was required of him with absolute ease.

Zinedine ZidaneZinedine Zidane
Zinedine Zidane won the Ballon d’Or in 1998 | Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The most naturally gifted footballer on the planet during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zinedine Zidane’s first touch was a thing of beauty.

As was his passing. As was his dribbling. As was pretty much everything else about the Frenchman’s technique.

Zidane’s performances were not always consistent at club level or the international stage but even during one of these downturns, a moment of mind-boggling magic was never far away. Case in point, his volley in the 2002 Champions League final. A big goal for the big stage from one of the ultimate big game players.

Michel Platini was banned from football in 2015 | -/Getty Images

Prior to being shunned as a disgraced football administrator, Michel Platini lived a previous, more fulfilling life as the best number ten in the world.

It’s easy to forget amid the flurry of corruption allegations that Platini once won three consecutive Ballons d’Or and is easily one of Juventus’ best players of all times.

He also showcased the best individual tournament performance of the modern era during Euro 1984. During the competition Platini bagged a ridiculous nine goals in five games playing at the tip of Michel Hidalgo’s infamous Magic Square as France lifted the trophy.

Roberto BaggioRoberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio won the Ballon d’Or in 1993 | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

They will be no missed penalty jokes here. That would do a disservice to one of the great Italian number tens of all time.

Baggio had a rocky relationship with managers who tried to restrict his freedom by shoehorning him into a 4-4-2 and you can understand why. He was a creative genius who played by his own rules and needed to be indulged.

One of the coaches liable of mistreating Baggio was Carlo Ancelotti, who has since admitted that he was crazy to turn down the mulletted playmaker when he was at Parma. Yes, Carlo – that is crazy.

Alfredo Di Stefano is considered the greatest Real Madrid player of all time | STAFF/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s obsession with winning the European Cup began at its inception in 1955 and the club lifted the famous trophy in each of the first five seasons of the competition.

At the forefront of this swaggering Los Blancos team was Alfredo di Stefano. A freakishly versatile player, the Argentine could play pretty much anywhere – including in attacking midfield.

Wonderfully two footed and blessed with a delightful technique, Di Stefano was Real’s creative and attacking focal point for many years, knitting the club’s fearsome front line together expertly.

Arthur Antunes Coimbra, ZicoArthur Antunes Coimbra, Zico
Zico starred for Brazil during the 1980s | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

In a pre-Youtube goal compilation world, viewers of the 1982 World Cup must have been completely blown away when they watched Zico play for the first time.

At first glance, this skinny midfielder sporting a messy head of hair looked unassuming alongside the more imperious figures of Socrates, Eder and Falcao in that famous Brazil side.

However, looks can be deceiving and Zico was anything but unassuming. He was nothing short of footballing genius, able to evade the ferocious tackles that often came his way with the balance and poise of a galloping gazelle. A truly joyous player.

Raymond Kopa won the Ballon d’Or in 1958 | STRINGER/Getty Images

If Alfredo Di Stefano weaved Real Madrid’s forward line together, Raymond Kopa provided the creative spark.

Capable of operating anywhere along the forward line but most commonly used in a right forward berth, Kopa’s graceful dribbling and intelligent reading of the game allowed him to regularly fashion out chances for his prolific teammates.

He rightfully earned his place among the game’s greats by scoping the Ballon d’Or in 1958, a trophy that must have looked nice alongside his three European Cup medals.

Bobby CharltonBobby Charlton
Bobby Charlton was part of Manchester United’s Holy Trinity | Express/Getty Images

What Bobby Charlton lacked in hair he more than made up for in footballing ability.

One of a handful of Englishmen to win the Ballon d’Or, Charlton was also the star of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, bagging a brace in the semi final to knock out a much fancied Portugal featuring Eusebio.

A wondrously mazy dribbler, the midfielder also excelled at club level as part of Manchester United’s Holy Trinity – alongside Dennis Law and George Best – who helped the club win its first European Cup in 1968. Charlton nodded United in front in the final because, well, of course he did. He’s Bobby Charlton.

Ruud GullitRuud Gullit
Ruud Gullit lifted two European Cups with Milan | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Nailing Ruud Gullit down to a single position is like trying to catch a slippery water balloon. It’s hard. That’s what we’re trying to say.

The Dutchman was the archetypal total footballer, just as comfortable leading the line as he was as a libero. His best football probably came when he acted as Marco van Basten’s foil at second striker for Milan.

That particular combination of Dutchmen brought Milan back-to-back European Cup wins, just two of the many honours that Gullit earned during his glittering career.


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