The list of the top 10 most expensive transfers of all time looks a little different now.

Neymar is still in first place and Kylian Mbappe second.

But there is a new order below them and, some would say, it is a sign of the changing face of modern football on the pitch. Others will argue it is more of a reflection of Chelsea’s financial muscle off the field and a nine-figure deal around the turn of the year that distorted the transfer market.

Either way, there is no question that the N0 6 position is in vogue right now and valued — literally — like never before. Three players have been transferred for more than £100million ($127.1m) in 2023 and all of them are deep-lying midfielders.

Enzo Fernandez was the first, joining Chelsea from Benfica for £106.8million on deadline day in February on the back of winning the World Cup with Argentina. Declan Rice moved from West Ham to Arsenal for £100m last month, and Moises Caicedo signed for Chelsea on Monday for £115m.

The fees are astonishing. In the case of Fernandez and Caicedo, both are now in the top six transfers in the history of the game. As for Rice, he is the ninth-most expensive player of all time — remarkable given that he had entered the final 12 months of his contract with West Ham when Arsenal signed him and therefore could have moved for nothing in 2024.

Intriguingly, No 8s — the goalscoring and traditionally more creative midfielders who tended to command the biggest fees in the past — are moving for about half as much.

Newcastle paid AC Milan £60.5m for Sandro Tonali this summer. Mason Mount cost Manchester United an initial £55m. James Maddison, who scored and assisted 52 Premier League goals across the previous three seasons, joined Tottenham Hotspur for £40m, and Alexis Mac Allister moved to Liverpool for £45m rising to £55m (due in part to a clause in the contract renewal he signed in October).

Even Jude Bellingham, who switched from Borussia Dortmund to Real Madrid for £88.5m in June, was significantly cheaper than Fernandez, Caicedo and Rice.

So what is behind the rise of the No 6? Is this just a phase that will come and go? Could the No 6 skill set be more central to the way that football is played now compared to any other position on the pitch? Or are Chelsea responsible for inflating prices?

To answer those questions and more, The Athletic spoke to a Premier League sporting director, one of the game’s leading agents, a scout for one of the top clubs in Europe, a former England international midfielder and television pundit, and a data scientist who specialises in player recruitment and valuations.

In the 2022 World Cup final, when Argentina beat France on penalties, one player had more touches, registered more successful passes and made more tackles than anyone else: his name was Enzo Fernandez.

Aged 21 at the time, the Argentina international was one of the stars of Qatar and Chelsea were hell-bent on signing him. Their decision to trigger Fernandez’s release clause at Benfica, and pay £106.8m (€120m) for a player who had made only 70 career appearances and cost as little as €10m five months earlier, raised eyebrows across the world of football.

It also raised the valuation of other No 6s and that ripple effect continues to be felt in the Premier League (the £58m that Southampton demanded Chelsea pay for 19-year-old Romeo Lavia this week serves as another example) and beyond.

“The numbers are pretty wild for that type of player,” Jermaine Jenas tells The Athletic. “I wouldn’t look at any of these players and say, ‘You’re better than Xavi, you’re better than Claude Makelele, you’re better than Sergio Busquets’. But when one player goes, it seems to determine the price of that particular type of player in the market.

“Premier League clubs are so powerful these days that Brighton can afford to turn down £90million. They can say, ‘We don’t need that money. We know what he’s worth, we think he’s better than Declan Rice so we’re going to demand this price and if you want him, come and get him. If not, he can stay here’. That never used to happen.”

Jenas, who won 21 caps in England’s midfield in the 2000s, is right about Brighton’s stance and the financial power of Premier League clubs more generally. It is also true that the transfer of one high-profile player can dictate the price for a specific position. When Manchester United signed Harry Maguire for £80m in 2019, Leicester used the £75m fee that Liverpool had paid Southampton for Virgil van Dijk 18 months earlier as a benchmark.

In that sense, the money that Chelsea paid for Fernandez at the turn of the year gave West Ham and Brighton more leverage in the transfer market this summer. A bidding war on the back of that — Manchester City and Arsenal trying to sign Rice, and Chelsea and Liverpool competing for Caicedo — created the perfect storm.

Others looked on with a genuine sense of bewilderment. “I couldn’t believe the price of Rice or Caicedo,” says a Premier League sporting director, who was talking to The Athletic on condition of anonymity.

According to Transfermarkt, which relies on the “wisdom of the crowd principle” to value players, Caicedo is worth €75million. Clearly, that figure means little in the grand scheme of things. Or does it?

“I’d be lying if I said I never look at them (the values on Transfermarkt),” the sporting director adds. “If we’re looking at a player, you always have a look because they’re not a million miles away a lot of the time. So €75m for Caicedo, aged 21, playing a season and a half in the Premier League — you would say that’s reasonable. But then Enzo Fernandez moves, Brighton tie him (Caicedo) into a new contract and don’t need the money, and Declan Rice moves.”

There is another factor in all of this too and it comes down to something as simple as supply and demand. “One of the reasons they (No 6s) are moving for a lot of money is their skill set is actually quite scarce,” the sporting director adds, referencing how Casemiro, at the age of 30, moved to Manchester United last August for £70million.

To illustrate his point further, the sporting director reels off a long list of options at No 8 this summer and the slim pickings available at No 6, including PSV Eindhoven’s Ibrahim Sangare, who has been linked with clubs across the Premier League and Europe.

“Sangare is €30million. He is really good against the ball. But Sangare can’t take the ball,” he explains.

“Moises Caicedo, for example, playing out from the goalkeeper, dealing with the ball under pressure when heavily marked 25 yards out, he’s got the bollocks and the technical ability and the awareness to help you build in the first phase. Sangare hasn’t (got that).

“So when you get one who’s got the physical ability, the defensive acumen to do what those guys can do and they’re good with the ball, even though none of the ones that you’ve mentioned score or create goals on a consistent basis, that’s why you have the premium.”

The scout, who works for one of the top clubs in Europe, agrees with that description of Sangare. “Loose in possession,” he adds.

But he also explains how most clubs (and, to be clear, we are still talking about top clubs) will have “to sacrifice a bit of quality on the ball for someone who can get around the pitch”.

The alternative — technique over athleticism — will be less appealing to many Premier League clubs and, in the eyes of the scout, goes some way to explaining why the highly regarded Turkey international Orkun Kokcu ended up leaving Feyenoord for Benfica this summer for €30m rather than moving to England.

Cheick Doucoure at Crystal Palace is another player who has been on the scout’s radar — a midfielder he rates highly and who would have been a target for his club in a normal market. But £60-70million for Doucoure isn’t a normal market.

“I like Doucoure,” the scout, who didn’t want to be identified for obvious reasons, says. “He can do a bit of everything well… without being elite at anything.”

The key difference is that Fernandez, Rice and Caicedo are elite in several departments.

The table below shows how they measure up against one another.

Retaining the ball is a prerequisite for a No 6, and the next chart shows how all three were in the top 15 for their ‘turnover rate’ last season (which denotes possessions lost as a share of total touches) among all central and defensive midfielders with 900-plus minutes played in 2022-23.

In the case of Rice and Caicedo (Fernandez is a less destructive deep-lying midfielder), it is hard to overstate how good both of them are out of possession too.

Rice, to put it simply, loves a tackle and Caicedo is no different.

The first grab is from the Community Shield earlier in the month and shows Rice hunting down Bernardo Silva.

Invariably, opponents end up in a heap when Rice wins the ball, as is the case with Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos below.

With Caicedo, there are times when it feels like he has no right to get to the ball first. In the photo below, there are two Brighton players better placed to challenge Bournemouth’s Dango Ouattara.

But Caicedo surges across and makes an outstanding tackle.

Ouattara is floored and Brighton can break.

Palace’s Jean-Philippe Mateta is outmuscled in the image below, despite having a head start on Caicedo.

Being an elite No 6 is one thing though — the bigger question is whether they are worth £100m-plus.

Football has changed.

In the top five European leagues, successful passes have, with the exception of one season, been constantly on the rise for the last 15 years, increasing by 25 per cent from 2008 to 2023.

Guardiola alone is not responsible for that change — teams were possession-based and playing attractive football long before the Spaniard’s Barcelona side would, to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson’s phrase, “get you on that carousel and make you dizzy with their passing”.

Equally, it is clear that Guardiola’s influence on the game, and in particular on a generation of coaches, has been huge.

Not surprisingly, the deep-lying midfield role has evolved over the last couple of decades too. For many, Claude Makelele will be seen as the start of it all.

“Makelele was a bit more interception-based and short passing,” recalls Jenas, who played against the former Chelsea midfielder. “And then you had the Xavi types, and even Guardiola himself, where every single thing goes through them.”

The latter seems to be the default setting for a No 6 now, especially in an era when building from the back is so prevalent — a development that was aided by the law change four years ago that allows players to pass to a team-mate who is within their penalty area when taking a goal kick.

But how much do No 6s really influence a game?

The data gathered on defensive midfielders by Twenty First Group, a company that provides consulting and technology services to help clubs gain a competitive edge, paints a picture of the No 6 as the linchpin, or compass, of the team.

“You have the key stat right, in terms of Enzo Fernandez and touches during the World Cup final (118),” says Aurel Nazmiu, a senior data scientist at Twenty First Group.

“Touches is quite a simple metric but it tells a good story in terms of who’s actually being involved in a team’s actions. And defensive midfielders stand out massively in that statistic. They have — and this is looking only at the top-10 players according to our model — about 77 touches per game compared to about 68 for central midfielders.

“They’re receiving the ball a lot more — they’re obviously deeper. But they’re receiving about 5 percent more passes and they’re completing 18 percent more of their passes. There’s a case to be made here in terms of how risky some of those passes are, but they’re still safe options to redistribute possession for a team.

“It’s interesting as well looking at passes into the final third — and, again, this is looking only at the top-10 players. But defensive midfielders had about 27 per cent more passes into the final third than central midfielders. So it’s probably a case that if you’re one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, you’re actually equally effective, if not more in some cases, at getting the ball into the final third for your attacking players than central midfielders.

“Again, I imagine if we looked at a bigger pool, that difference would probably be smaller. But players like Rodri and Busquets, they’re elite because they have that ability to get the ball into attacking positions and not lose possession.”

What also comes across through the statistics — and a reminder that this is at the elite end — is how the No 6 role is viewed as a more specialist position. For example, the data shows that the top defensive midfielders are spending 80 per cent of their minutes in the No 6 role. In contrast, the top-performing central midfielders play about 50 per cent of their minutes as a No 8. “Sometimes they’re playing as a No 6, sometimes they’re playing as a No 10, or even in some cases playing out wide,” Nazmiu adds.

But what about their value? Is there a way to determine whether clubs are overpaying or underpaying for a player in a certain position? To put it another way, on paper are Fernandez, Caicedo and Rice worth £100m-plus?

“We looked at the top 20 most expensive transfers of defensive midfielders and then the top 20 most expensive transfers of central midfielders in the last two seasons,” Nazmiu explains. “And then we have a model that estimates a player’s transfer fee, and some of the factors that model takes into account are things like contract length, international caps, a player’s ability. So we use our player performance model to gauge how good a player is, and (also take into account) things like inflation and the strength of the buying league.

“And what we tend to find, which is really interesting, is that among these 20 players across both groups, clubs have been paying about 21 per cent more than we would predict for defensive midfielders. Whereas for central midfielders it was a lot closer — we estimated about a 4.6 per cent underpayment.”

On the face of it, the £100million fee that West Ham got for Rice was the most surprising. That has nothing to do with Rice’s ability — he is a mandatory pick for England and has proven himself to be an exceptional and consistent performer in the Premier League. But this is a player whose contract with West Ham expired next summer.

“The Rice one is the outlier,” adds a leading agent, who asked to remain anonymous. “The logic used to be: ‘We don’t want our players’ contracts to run down because we’ll have less leverage in the market, so with two years to go we’ll sell them or offer them big deals’. But actually, that’s proved completely wrong with Rice. West Ham have still got true value for the player even though he’s only got a year left on his contract.

“Will clubs look at that and think, ‘Well, actually, if he’s that good, even if he runs down his contract to the last year, we can still get a tremendous fee for him?’.”

Harry Kane’s move to Bayern Munich comes to mind.

“The way he’s operating that role right now is the golden standard, in my opinion, and that’s what Fernandez, Declan and all these guys need to get to.”

Jermaine Jenas is talking about Rodri, the Manchester City midfielder.

But what about Caicedo? “He’s got everything,” Jenas replies. “The only thing I would say, I remember years ago when you used to play against Swansea in the Premier League and they had this tiki-taka style of football that was brought to them by (Roberto) Martinez and taken onto another level by Brendan Rodgers, and as good a team as they were, I did look at them and think, ‘If you took a lot of individuals out of that team and put them in bigger teams, they will struggle’. They were very good players but the system protects them.

“With Caicedo, I’m not saying he’s not a top, top player — I think he is and I’m not surprised he’s gone for £100m-plus — but he played in a certain system with Graham Potter and Roberto De Zerbi that maybe made his skill set shine a lot more. He might find himself a bit more isolated at times (with Chelsea) and not with as many bodies (team-mates) around him when he receives the ball.

“Mauricio Pochettino might get hold of him and say, ‘Listen, you stay in here and anything that comes through, you just stop’. And he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t do that, that’s not what got me the move’. But that’s what happens when you move. You’re at a bigger club now, you’ve got better players around you, and they’re asking you to do different things, and all of a sudden you’re getting a bit of a shock to the system.

“For example, when Spurs signed (Yves) Bissouma, I used to watch him and go, ‘He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to (Mousa) Dembele’. He can get out of a cupboard, type of thing. You can close him down and he’ll drop a shoulder and find a pass. Then he came (to Spurs) and he wasn’t doing it and I was like, ‘What’s this?’. And then at the weekend against Brentford, ‘Boom’. He’s doing it again.”

The point about Caciedo adapting is interesting. Brighton’s style of play is certainly unique. Guardiola has described them “as the best team in the world” at finding the ‘free man’ via their movement and the way in which they bait opponents before passing through or around them. Caicedo was a key cog in that process, often receiving the ball under pressure, with his back to goal, from the Brighton centre-backs.

Below is a perfect example. It is taken from the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in April. Adam Webster, the Brighton centre-back, has the ball at his feet and Caicedo (circled), with Christian Eriksen pressed up against him, looks uninterested.

Suddenly, Caicedo pushes off his back foot…

… and that element of disguise, together with his physical strength, enables him to gain two yards on Eriksen in the blink of an eye.

Crucially, Caicedo also knows his next pass — and not just any pass. He plays a superb left-footed ball around the corner that…

… totally wrong-foots Bruno Fernandes, who is circled below, and…

… releases Pervis Estupinan on the far left, taking six United players out of the game and launching a Brighton counter-attack.

Clearly, Chelsea’s build-up play under Pochettino will be different to De Zerbi at Brighton, where a lot of the moves were choreographed and ‘playing out’ felt almost non-negotiable at times.

At Chelsea, the likelihood is that Caicedo and Fernandez will line up in a double pivot, with the Argentinian given licence to break forward, which is his natural game anyway. On paper, they could be a perfect combination.

As for Rice, he brings leadership and personality to Arsenal on top of all of his in and out-of-possession attributes.

Indeed, the more you watch the modern No 6, the more they feel like the most complete footballer in the team — and so they should given what they cost now.

(Top photos: Getty Images)