Football Manager: Top five underrated, value-for-money defensive midfielders

NOTE: If you are interested in reading about under-rated, value-for-money players in other positions, you must check this out: an article on ten (twelve) dirt-cheap and extremely underrated British full-backs.

NOTE: For anyone playing Football Manager 2016, you MUST check out THIS article on 12 excellent defensive midfielders in the game, with detailed analyses of players including the likes of Kristoffer Ajer, Lucas Romero, Thiago Maia and lots more!

I’ve never enjoyed breaking the bank to sign big-money players, especially when the transfer market contains a plethora of of hidden gems waiting to be unearthed for relatively dirt-cheap transfer fees and wages. Granted, signing a striker or attacking midfielder for 30 or 40 million dollars can result in the extra 10 to 15 goals a season needed to make an efficient, well-polished side world-class, and an expensive center-back may just be the player needed to provide long-term stability at the back. However, I’ve never quite taken to the idea of splashing the cash to sign goalkeepers or defensive midfielders.

It’s pretty fair to say that bigger transfer fees generally guarantee better attributes across the board, but my view on defensive midfielders is that you don’t need a Pogba or a Gundogan to get the job done where a Jay Spearing or James McArthur will do. It might sound controversial, but I’ve found that if you want a strong, ball-winning presence in the middle of the park who can help connect your defense to your midfield with simple yet efficient distribution, a five million pound player bought from a lower division side can be just as effective as a 50 million pound signing from a top European team. Perhaps it’s to do with the way I play (a 4-1-2-1-2 with a narrow diamond in midfield, and wing-backs instead of full-backs), with the attacking impetus coming from the wing-backs and front three, but I’ve never looked at my defensive midfielder for anything more than basic ball retention and distribution; the goal-scorers can enjoy the 7.80 average ratings. Average attributes on the Technical and Physical fronts can be compensated for, and then some, by strong Mentals, which are generally not as visibly reflected in transfer values.

And so, given that I’m always on the lookout for bargains in the transfer market when searching for defensive midfielders, I have come across a fair few excellent players who have shone in my teams, but would have gone unnoticed had I been looking for the most recognizable name or the biggest transfer value. Some of the following players might have slipped under the radar for many FM players, most may never even have been considered, but you won’t find too many players who represent value for money the way these players have for me.

5. Radja Nainggolan

The 27 year old Belgian midfielder signed a permanent contract with AS Roma earlier this summer after spending the second half of the 2014-15 season with them on loan, and so won’t come cheap in the first season of Football Manager 2016. But in FM14 and FM15, for around 11 to 13 million euros, you’d get a tough-tackling  and reliable midfielder whose excellent mental attributes mean he can slot into any team in any league and deliver consistent performances throughout a league campaign.

Tackling, Aggression, Determination, Teamwork, and Work Rate stand out.
Tackling, Aggression, Determination, Teamwork, and Work Rate stand out.

I signed him for 13.5 million dollars for my Man United team in FM14, and during his two seasons he made 77 appearances as either a defensive midfielder (ball-winning/half-back/anchor man) or central midfielder (ball-winning/box-to-box), with equal effectiveness, putting in solid if not spectacular performances, with average ratings of 7.01 and 7.13. With excellent tackling, solid passing, top-notch physicals that allow him to play 90 minutes twice a week without noticeable dips in performance, Nainggolan is, in a word, reliable. He can sit deep and control the momentum of the game, and his natural fitness, work rate and determination give the team another option further up the pitch when necessary. For that price, what more can you ask for?

4. Maxime Gonalons

Another member of my Man United squad in the FM14 save I mentioned (you can read about the first three seasons of that save here, here, and here; there might just be an FA Cup, Premier League and European Champions Cup treble in there somewhere), Gonalons is cut from the same cloth as Nainggolan: decent Technicals and above average Physicals make him a fine player, but fantastic Mental attributes are the icing on the cake, making him exactly the kind of player you’d want in the heart of your midfield, making the right choices in distributing the ball to the players dealt the responsibility of being influential in the final third of the pitch. A reliable head on a fantastic set of shoulders, Gonalons is more than just an engine in midfield. He is slightly cheaper than Nainggolan on FM15, but I paid almost exactly the same price for him (14 million dollars) at United, and while he isn’t as tough a tackler as the Belgian, his Bravery, Determination, Teamwork and Work Rate make him an excellent engine in the middle of the park, functioning either as a ball-winning midfielder or deep-lying playmaker. At 26, he still has six or seven years of consistent performances in the 7.10-7.30 range each season, and his wages are more than reasonable, leaving enough funds to replenish the squad in other areas. If you use tactical setups that require little more from your central midfield than winning the ball early and ensuring quick and effective distribution, someone like Gonalons could be perfect for you.

3. Victor Wanyama

Wanyama is by far the most expensive player on this list, given it cost me 26 million pounds to bring him to Old Trafford at the start of the 2014-15 campaign in an FM15 save. However, one look at his attributes, and any experience with him in your sides, will leave you in no doubt that he is under-priced even at that price tag.

Arguably the best defensive midfielder I've seen in Football Manager.
Arguably the best defensive midfielder I’ve seen in Football Manager.

He’s tall, strong in the air, fantastic in the tackle, determined, has fantastic work rate, strength, determination, balance, bravery, aggression, and positioning. He physically dominates the midfield in any game he plays, and dispossesses players with consummate ease. Having a player so complete in every way allows you to outplay opponents physically, technically, and tactically. Does your opponent use a deep-lying midfielder as a regista? Well, use Wanyama as a ball-winning central midfielder with instructions to mark him, and you could effectively eliminate the opposition’s main threat at the source. Does your opponent like to play the ball out on the ground from goal-kicks? Well, ask your strikers to press high and prevent short distribution, and their keeper will be forced to take a long goal kick; with Wanyama’s physicality and aerial ability, you can expect him to dominate his man, bring the ball down and recycle possession.

Even though he’s not the greatest passer, his ability to win the ball back allows you to play more creative-minded midfielders than you would normally like to for the sake of balance. In the United save from which I took the screenshot, Wanyama formed a great partnership with Marouane Fellaini, Angel di Maria and Juan Mata in a narrow midfield diamond, and buying him gave our team the perfect combination of physicality and creativity. Click here to read about the fantastic balance of that team, and how Wanyama helped create it. Granted, the Kenyan might cost a lot, but guarantees great performances throughout a season. If I remember correctly, he averaged above 7.50 over more than 45 games in the United save. What a player.

2. Jay Spearing

You’ll struggle to find less fashionable players than the Liverpool Youth Academy graduate. But you’ll also be hard-pressed to come across more consistent performers in the middle of the park. Don’t let his size and the fact that Liverpool didn’t have a long-term place for him in the squad fool you: Spearing can be incredibly useful in the middle of the park.

Fantastic Mental and Physical Attributes
Fantastic Mental and Physical Attributes

Where he lacks in Technical attributes (frankly, I’d say a 13-rated First Touch and a 12 for Passing are just fine for a defensive midfielder; Roy Keane wasn’t known for raking 60-yard passes, and Rino Gattuso would be applauded by his team-mates for making a pass over more than five yards in training), he more than makes up for a solid 13-17 range in every important Mental quality, and can play 90 minutes of high-intensity football thanks to his Natural Fitness (18) and Stamina (17).

While at Wigan in an epic FM14 save, I signed him at 25 for 1.7 million dollars, and he made 314 appearances over six seasons, scoring 17 goals at average ratings of between 7.05 and 7.30. Not only does that return represent fantastic value given the transfer fee, his wage demands are incredibly manageable, and his Mental attributes make him an excellent captain, and certainly a figure you’d want to build your team around. Not as fashionable as a Nemanja Matic or a Daniele de Rossi, but very effective when used well.

To be fair, I know that the attributes Spearing was given in the screenshot are from FM2012, and FM16 will assign him markedly lower numbers, but I would expect him to still be a standout player for most Championship sides, and a bargain for newly-promoted sides looking to establish themselves in the Premier League.

1. Josip Radosevic

Another member of the Wigan save I mentioned earlier, Radosevic was one of those delightful FM transfers where a player you’ve never heard of turns into a cult figure and someone you couldn’t imagine a particular save without. I bought Radosevic from Dinamo Zagreb in 2016, and over the next seven years, he formed a formidable partnership with the likes of Spearing, Ryan Ledson, James Ward-Prowse and others.

A great midfield enforcer with bundles of energy, a nasty tackle and fierce shot from distance.
A great midfield enforcer with bundles of energy, a nasty tackle and fierce shot from distance.

Perfectly acceptable ratings of 13 for Passing, Marking, Tackling, and Technique are complemented with the some of best Physical and Mental attributes of any player on this list. With ratings of 17 across Work Rate, Aggression, Determination, Stamina and Natural Fitness, Radosevic is, on paper and in my experience on the screen as well, the most ideal player you could hope for to fill the ball-winning and box-to-box roles without emptying your pockets.

For a 21 year old with those attributes to be valued at 2.4 million pounds with two years left on his contract (see the screenshot) can only mean he is criminally under-priced, and I would suggest you sign him up as soon as possible. Another factor that makes this a no-brainer is his wages. From a return-to-investment perspective, there can’t be too many better deals out there than Radosevic.

The contenders

Geoffrey Kondogbia — tremendously underpriced in FM14 — I bought him for 8 million dollars in 2016 — and FM15 — valued at 3.9 million pounds in July 2014, although his 35 million euro move to Inter Milan in the summer transfer window will have changed all that in FM16.

James McArthur — solid, reliable, useful in a box-to-box role as well as as a ball-winning defensive midfielder; James McCarthy, an old favourite in FM2012, would have made this list before his big-money move to Everton.

Jordan Rossiter — 19 years old in 2015, he’s available on loan for the first couple of years, and I’d suggest bringing him in on loan and laying the foundations for a permanent transfer, since he could grow into a stunning all-round midfielder if managed properly and given the game time a young player needs to fully realize his potential.

Egidio Arevalo Rios — a bald Uruguayan hatchet-man with fantastic work rate, stamina and concentration; he’ll be 34 in 2016, with certainly enough in the tank for a season or two.

Full disclosure: I’ve never managed well-known FM stars like Sergei Samper, Kranevitter or Lucas Romero, so I can’t speak for how good they are. Their attributes relative to their price sure look excellent though!

NOTE: As a reminder, if you found this interesting and useful, and would like to read about my recommendation on underrated, value-for-money players in other positions, you must check this out: an article on ten (twelve) dirt-cheap and extremely underrated British full-backs.

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