Football Manager 2016: The best defensive midfielders

With the beta version of Football Manager 2016 having been out for a week, I’ve had a chance to learn about  some of the best defensive midfielders in the game; I’ve been planning my transfers for my Manchester United save, and since I haven’t actually bought the game yet, I’ve had a LOT of time to compare some of the best ball-winners in the business, using resources such as YouTubers, fellow FM fanatics and other websites devoted to FM. I’ve also fallen on my experience playing FM14 and FM15, and compiled a thorough list of 12 excellent defensive midfielders. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of some of the best defensive midfielders in FM16, most of whom are very high on my shopping list. You’d be hard-pressed to find better midfield prospects out there.

The players featured on this list are: Victor Wanyama, Sven Bender, Thiago Maia, Danilo Cataldi, Ruben Neves, Kristoffer Ajer, Matias Kranevitter, Lucas Romero, Blaise Matuidi, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Joshua Kimmich, and Andres Cubas.

Update: To see how some of the teenagers on this list have done in my 8-year save on FM16, check this article out! It should help you understand the players’ strengths and weaknesses, how they develop until age 26-28, and how you can best out of them should you choose to buy them.

Victor Wanyama
Age – 24 | Club – Southampton | Nationality – Kenyan | Contract end – June 2017

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I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Southampton’s midfield giant Victor Wanyama, and consider him one of the most under-rated defensive midfielder on Football Manager (I wrote an article on five under-rated CDMs, which you can read here). I look forward to signing him in the 2016 version of the game.

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. With just two years on his current contract at Southampton, I think he’s an excellent target for a top, top team, and with a decade of football to play, any amount of money would be well worth it.

Sven Bender
Age – 26 | Club – Borussia Dortmund | Nationality – German | Contract end – June 2017

Screenshot courtesy FullTimeFM.
Screenshot courtesy FullTimeFM.

Bender has long been a highly sought-after name in German football, and Arsenal were linked to him (or was it Lars they wanted? I couldn’t say) for a couple of years. However, the German international has been with Borussia Dortmund since 2009, and has matured into the perfect ball-winning defensive midfielder. I mean, just look at his attributes: a 16 in Marking, 18 in Tackling, 19 in Aggression, Bravery and Teamwork, 17 in Determination, 18 in Natural Fitness, and 20 in Work Rate and Stamina; I doubt I’ve seen a better combination of ratings for the core attributes for a defensive midfielder.

Bender has been described as a tenacious midfielder in the game, and should be available for around £12 to 14 million in the 2015 summer transfer window; he can play in most roles required of a defensive midfielder, and can be relied on to produce crunching tackles. I must mention that he has a penchant for picking up bookings; however, this should not discourage you from putting him on your shortlist, since he still has at least five years of solid performances in him.

Thiago Maia
Age – 18 | Club – Santos | Nationality – Brazilian | Contract end – February 2016

Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace.
Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace.

For an eighteen year old, Santos midfielder Thiago Maia has a stunningly well-rounded set of attributes that indicates the potential for the Brazilian to mature into a top-class performer. Determination and Bravery stand out as particularly well-developed Mentals, with all other important Mentals in the 12-14 range. With Tackling (15), Marking (15), Fitness (14), Strength (14), and Work Rate (13) also incredibly high, Maia is an all-round versatile midfielder who can plug gaps in midfield all day, winning the ball back and helping to launch attacks.

One of the most exciting youngsters in the game, I would imagine Maia will fit into most top teams quite easily, and should easily achieve 7.20+ average ratings throughout a season. Despite being just 18 years old with no international caps at senior or youth level to his name, he will get a work permit on appeal, and thanks to the short-term contract, he should be available for around £5 to 7 million if you swoop for him straight away; don’t balk at the fee if you’re in charge of a smaller team, since it will cost you at least thrice as much if you wait for a couple of seasons.

Danilo Cataldi
Age – 21 | Club – Lazio | Nationality – Italian | Contract end – June 2017

Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace.
Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace.

At 21, the Italian midfielder has a reasonably well-rounded set of attributes, with solid Mentals, Physicals, and Technicals in the 12 to 15 range. He doesn’t particularly stand out in any category, but that may just be his selling point; you have a player technically versatile enough to play in most roles in the defensive, central and attacking midfield roles. In fact, with scouts indicating his best roles are Deep-Lying Playmaker, Roaming Playmaker and Regista, he could just be in the mould of Andrea Pirlo rather than Gennaro Gattuso.

Cataldo will probably cost between £15 to 20 million, and while he might be a tad over-priced at that range, he is well worth keeping an eye on. I’m very interested in seeing how he progresses in FM16 and in real life.

Ruben Neves
Age – 18 | Club – Porto | Nationality – Portuguese | Contract end – June 2019

FM-2015-profile-Ruben-Neves-2014-profile-800x341

Ruben Neves was a scary 17-year-old prospect in FM15, but in the year that has passed, his reputation has gone up to a whole new level, and I believe he will be one of the absolutely best midfielders in FM16. After all, when you consider that he has been compared to Joao Moutinho, are linked with most big clubs just about every other week, and recently became the youngest-ever captain in the history of the UEFA Champions League, there is no saying what the Porto midfielder will achieve in the game.

UEFA.com describe him as “not afraid to go forward and prompt attacks, showing great maturity combined with an accurate passing skill, great vision and an astute sense of positioning”, and they haven’t even mentioned the defensive side of his game. With excellent attributes for Determination, Concentration, Tackling, Positioning, and Work Rate, Neves can marshall the midfield, dictating the tempo and distribution of the ball, while making telling contributions in the final third of the pitch as well. I expect he will be extremely expensive in the first transfer window of FM16, but I would gladly pay any amount of money Porto ask for, because Neves is guaranteed to become a world-class performer over the next 15 years.

Kristoffer Ajer
Age – 17 | Club – Start | Nationality – Norwegian | Contract end – December 2016

FM-2015-profile-Kristoffer-Ajer-2014-profile-800x320

Ajer will come as no stranger to the seasoned FM2015 manager. Possibly the most technically, physically, and mentally well-rounded player on this list, and potentially even in the entire game, the Norwegian — who recently became the youngest EVER first-team captain in the history of the Norwegian first division — would cost you anywhere between £1.6K and £9.66K starting out in FM15. However, he’ll cost you a little more in FM16, but is well worth whatever price Start demand, which should be below £1 million if you swoop in for him immediately.

I have never managed Ajer before, and will make him one of my first signings when I take charge of Manchester United; after all, has there ever been a player more similar to the fallen United hero Duncan Edwards? Ajer is technically gifted, can tackle, pass, head the ball, run in possession, and dominate the midfield like few other seventeen year olds. Already a giant among men, he floats across the pitch, making his presence felt with every tackle. He can also play in just about every role as a defensive midfielder, central midfielder and even behind the striker, giving you versatility and tactical flexibility.

Watch highlights of one particularly impressive performance here. His Mental attributes are off the charts, and I can see him becoming a captain of any team he plays for. I can’t quite remember which Football Manager simulation video I saw this in, but one AI simulation had Ajer go on to make more than 170 senior appearances for the Norwegian national side, such is his quality.

If there is one player on this list you don’t want to miss out on, Ajer is your man.

Matias Kranevitter
Age – 22 | Club – River Plate (on loan from Atletico Madrid) | Nationality – Argentinian | Contract end – June 2020

FM-2015-profile-Matias-Kranevitter-2014-profile

I haven’t actually ever signed the Argentinian midfielder, but from what I’ve heard and seen, the man who has already been compared to Javier Mascherano is certainly one to watch out for. Kranevitter excels at breaking up play, shielding the defense and setting the tempo of the game. His ability to make interceptions and time his tackles to perfection makes him the perfect ball-winning midfielder, and he has the technical attributes and passing ability to support the transition from defensive shapes to attack. Watch this excellent video to see Kranevitter in action.

Kranevitter is set to join Atletico Madrid on a four-and-a-half-year deal in December 2015, and while that rules him out as an immediate target, I would keep an eye on his progress in Spain. He develops into an absolutely fantastic all-round midfielder capable of playing in a variety of roles, and is guaranteed to become world-class.

Lucas Romero
Age – 21 | Club – Velez Sarsfield | Nationality – Argentinian | Contract end – June 2016

Screenshot courtesy FullTime FM.
Screenshot courtesy FullTime FM.

Another in a serious of young, strong, hard-working South American anchormen, Lucas Romero comes no less highly recommended. The Argentinian possesses super attributes across the board: Passing, First Touch, Marking, Tackling, and Technique stand out, while his Mentals are almost all in the 13-16 range. Given Romero’s age, there is still room for improvement, which makes him quite a scary prospect.

A typical hard-working yet technically gifted defensive midfielder in the mould of Mascherano and Cambiasso, Romero also possesses super Physicals, with Work Rate married perfectly with Stamina, Strength, and Natural Fitness. As with a couple of other South American midfielders on this list, Romero isn’t quite suited to an aerial game; partnering him with the likes of Fellaini, Wanyama or Pogba would create a formidable duo. He’s capable of playing in just about every role as both a defensive and central midfielder, and should be relatively affordable for a player of his quality, given he only has two years left on his contract.

Blaise Matuidi
Age – 28 | Club – Paris Saint-Germain | Nationality – French | Contract end – June 2018

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Given the Frenchman turned 28 in 2015, I’m very surprised I hadn’t heard of him before the FIFA World Cup in 2014, when he starred in a very impressive French side. He seemed to cover every blade of grass on the pitch, and was one of the tournament’s standout players in my eyes. He has achieved fantastic success at club level, winning nine trophies at Paris Saint-Germain, and I would think he has at least three or four years of high-level performances still in him.

With three years on his current contract, I expect it will take some money to pry him away from the French champions, and his wage demands make him a target for only a select few clubs. However, I think he possesses the Technical and Mental attributes, not to mention his outstanding Physical stats, to fit into any midfield immediately. With his Stamina, Fitness, and Work Rate, Matuidi is absolutely perfect for a high-intensity pressing game, and his Anticipation and Tackling make him an ideal ball-winner.

I am planning to bring him to Old Trafford in my save, and I would thoroughly recommend him to anyone who values an aggressive and dependable ball-winning midfield general. His experience will be invaluable for a manager looking to blood in some of the other youngsters on this list.

Geoffrey Kondogbia
Age – 22 | Club – Inter Milan | Nationality – French | Contract end – June 2020

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If this article was about FM14 or FM15, Kondogbia would possibly have been one of the most highly sought-after players on this list; as seen in the screenshot, he was valued at £3.9 million in June 2014, and I actually bought him for $8 million in 2016  during a Manchester United save in FM14. However, following his €35 million move to Inter Milan in the summer, and his five-year contract, he will be an incredibly expensive player in FM16, making it impossible for all but the biggest clubs to make acceptable bids for him.

However, given how physically, mentally, and technically impressive Kondogbia is, it would be extremely unfair to leave him out of this list. Standing at 6’2”, Kondogbia is a towering and physically imposing presence in the middle of the park, and possesses the athleticism and consistency needed of a midfielder general. In addition to having Physicals in the 13 to 18 range that complement his excellent Marking (14) and Tackling (13), the Frenchman also has the technical ability to play in a box-to-box role and as a Roaming Playmaker. This versatility makes him a very useful presence to have in the first team, especially when your team needs to push men forward late on in games.

Joshua Kimmich
Age – 20 | Club – Bayern Munich | Nationality – German | Contract end – June 2020

Screenshot courtesy StatApp.
Screenshot courtesy StatApp.

A product of Stuttgart’s youth academy, Kimmich moved to Bayern Munich in January 2015, and has already made seven league appearances for Pep Guardiola’s side. His Technical attributes are sensational, and he could potentially be one of the most positionally versatile players in FM16 — his position map is reminiscent of Steven Gerrard’s, and with time and training he could become a proficient right-back as well. He is slightly let down by sub-par aerial ability (Heading, Jumping Reach), Pace and Strength, but more than compensates for this thanks to his superb Aggression, Composure, Determination, Team Work and Work Rate, making him an excellent long-term choice for a deep-lying playmaker capable of taking on defensive duties as well.

I doubt he’ll be available for a transfer in the first window, but I would certainly go in with a bid or two come the January 2016 transfer window, should he not get enough game time in a star-studded Bayern side. I can see him anchoring the midfielder and forming the core of a technically proficient, possession-oriented team for well over a decade.

Andres Cubas
Age – 19 | Club – Boca Juniors | Nationality – Argentinian | Contract end – December 2018

Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace
Screenshot courtesy WorkTheSpace

Yet another Argentinian defensive midfielder with the ability to play for most top sides, Cubas possesses excellent Mentals, with each category bar Leadership rated in the 11 to 15 range; his Work Rate (18) stands out, and his combination of Marking (14), Passing (13), Tackling (13), and Technique (14) show he can potentially combine a more offensive play-maker role with his defensive duties. The glaring weakness in his game is clearly his aerial ability, or total lack thereof. He’ll potentially need to be paired with a more physically imposing midfielder to protect him and bring the best out of him.

The beauty of these young defensive midfielders is that they have at least four or five years of potentially rapid all-round development ahead of them, and can effectively be moulded into whatever type of midfielder you need for your team. At around £5 million, Cubas is a steal, and a proper top-class midfielder in the making. I’d also take a closer look at Boca’s other young players; the club has a knack of producing sensational talent, and with the plethora of talented up-and-coming South American players, I would expect to unearth a few more gems.

 

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