Xavi (Barcelona and Spain) ***
Arguably the player most impacted by Barcelona’s rotation this season has been Xavi. Normally the fulcrum of the team, Guardiola has chosen to rest his star midfielder on a number of occasions resulting in a marginal decline in the fluency of his play. While his passing remains exceptionally accurate and his goalscoring has slightly improved, there has been a fractional reduction in his creativity. Given Xavi’s phenomenal consistency over the last four years it was inevitable that he might dip at some stage, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll be back to his best by the end of the season.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich and Germany) ***
Despite being injured since the start of November, the quality of Schweinsteiger this season has been impossible to ignore. The beating heart of Bayern’s midfield, the German international continues his transition from underwhelming winger to top class central midfielder. Following his injury Bayern suffered a serious drop in form, underlining just how important Schweini is to the Bavarian giants.
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus and Italy) **
When Milan allowed Pirlo to move to Juventus in the summer it appeared to most that his best years were behind him. Instead Pirlo has been back in peak form this season as he conducts the Juve midfield. As ever his elegance on the ball and range of passing make him a joy to watch, and he has brought his customary calm to the Old Lady. In this sort of form there is barely a midfielder in world football who can hold a candle to Pirlo.
Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur and Croatia) **
The disappointment at missing out on a £40m transfer to Chelsea might have weighed heavily on most players. Instead Modric has set about demonstrating just why the West London club were so keen on securing his services. His partnership with Scott Parker in central midfield has been the best in the league this season by a distance, with Modric providing the finesse to match Parker’s steel. If he continues this level of play then there are sure to be many more suitors this summer.
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid and Spain) **
For all of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals there is probably no more influential player for Real Madrid than Xabi Alonso. His metronomic control of the game makes him the key in establishing the patterns of play which have left Madrid in pole position at the turn of the year. So far this season only Xavi averages more passes per game than the Basque and it is a measure of his influence that he has only missed one league game this season.
Claudio Marchisio (Juventus and Italy) *
Not previously noted for his goalscoring, the start of the season saw Marchisio stun the league with his potency in front of goal. Unquestionably, playing alongside Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal has been a help for him, but Marchisio’s energy and drive have been essential to Juve’s excellent performances so far this year. Italy appear to be bouncing back from their disaster at South Africa 2010 and in Marchisio have an ideal figure to base their midfield around.
Yaya Toure (Manchester City and Ivory Coast) *
Signed for his defensive capabilities, Yaya Toure now often finds himself the most advanced of Manchester City’s trio of central midfielders. Regardless of quite where he plays, Toure is always influential as he uses his height and power to good use. A valid criticism of him this season has been that he shows marked signs of fatigue late in games, but his contribution in the early stages is enough to offset that. City’s credentials as title favourites will be severely tested during his African Cup of Nations absence.
Gokhan Inler (Napoli and Switzerland) *
Inler’s introduction at Napoli (he famously wore a tiger mask at his unveiling) certainly gave the watching media a shock. His surety of performance has left them with few surprises though as he has emulated his form from his time at Udinese. Strong in the tackle, energetic and an accomplished passer he is a great example of the complete central midfielder, one whom Napoli were astute to sign.
Rasmus Elm (AZ Alkmaar and Sweden) *
At the half-way point in Holland AZ sit top of the league with much of the credit going to their young Swedish midfielder. With 8 goals already this season in the league he has shown an ability to get into dangerous positions on a regular basis and has an excellent shot. Long rumoured to be a target for Premier League clubs, there would be many interested in taking the Alkmaar player in the January window.
Yoann Cabaye (Newcastle United and France) *
Moving from the French champions to a midtable English side was a bold move from Yoann Cabaye. The early stages of the season indicated he had made a good choice though as he was to the forefront of all of Newcastle’s good attacking play. Admittedly his form has dipped (along with that of the rest of the team) in recent weeks, but he remains as an impressive figure for club and country.
Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan and Italy) *
An early contender for the signing of the season, Nocerino has surprised many in Milan with the way he has adapted to life at the San Siro. Certainly he showed much promise at Juventus but never gave an inkling of the goalscoring prowess which has so far marked his time in Milan. A hat-trick against Parma in October was the pick of his performances for his new club and they will hope that his midfield partnership with Kevin Prince-Boateng continues to bear fruit.
Alain Traore (Auxerre and Burkina Faso) *
Among the most consistent players so far in Ligue 1 has been central midfielder Traore. Having provided 7 goals already this season, the Burkina Faso man has netted more than a quarter of Auxerre’s league goals, no mean feat given his midfield role. To step up to the next level he probably needs to add more to the defensive side of his game, but for Auxerre he remains vitally important.
Stijn Schaars (Sporting Lisbon and Holland) *
There were not many in Holland who expected Stijn Schaars to have quite the impact that he has so far enjoyed in Portugal. The former AZ midfielder has been on the fringes of the Dutch national team for a number of years but he had never previously looked like making such a step up in class. As it was he has shown himself to have an eye for goal and in tandem with Fito Rinaudo had been a driving force behind Sportings strong early season form.