The 10 best centre-backs in the world
Find out which stoppers come up trumps in our run-down of the greatest central defenders on the planet
10. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
It’s remarkable that nobody triggered Alderweireld’s paltry £25m release clause in the summer, after persistent links with Manchester United in previous transfer windows. The stylish stopper helped Tottenham record another top-four finish and reach a surprise Champions League final for the first time in 2018/19 – now he’s signed a new contract with the North Londoners too.
Alderweireld is rarely caught out of position and is equally comfortable playing in a back three or back four. He’s a terrific passer too, and is particularly adept at spraying long diagonals out to the flanks. He’s not at his peak anymore, but still a formidable defender.
9. Harry Maguire (Manchester United)
Being the world’s most expensive centre-back doesn’t make you the best, but Maguire deserves his place on this list after rising fast to show his consistent class with Leicester and England. Sure, £80m was a huge sum for Manchester United to spend on him in the summer, but he is exactly the player a weak backline had been crying out for.
The 26-year-old Sheffield native is commanding in the air but also one of football’s finest stoppers in possession, as his regular forays into midfield for club and country have demonstrated. Now the captain at United too, the man they call “Slabhead” has been solid enough this season to impress.
8. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Jan Vertonghen has developed into one of the world’s leading centre-backs over the last couple of years. Spurs don’t look the same side without him.
The Belgian is aggressive and an expert at wrestling the ball away from opposition strikers high upfield. He’s strong in one-on-one duels and comfortable when forced to defend in wide areas – and also surprisingly adept at left-back, as he proved with a stunning display against Borussia Dortmund in 2018/19.
7. Milan Skriniar (Inter Milan)
The word on many lips over the past few years has been which European giant the precociously talented Milan Skriniar will end up at in years to come. With Inter Milan on the ascendency this season under Antonio Conte, however, perhaps the aptly-named Milan will be staying put in Northern Italy, as he continues his development as one of Serie A’s most formidable defenders.
The Slovakian centre-back has always been a fantastic athlete capable of keeping up with even the paciest strikers, but over the last couple of seasons he’s become even better at reading the game. Playing in a back three with Diego Godin and Stefan de Vrij, he’s a member of one of the best defences in Serie A.
6. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Ramos won’t win (m)any popularity awards outside of the Bernabeu, and he’s slipping down this list now, but it’s tough to dispute his position as one of the best defenders in world football. The Real Madrid captain is still his team’s heartbeat and always rises to the big occasion, as he demonstrated during Los Blancos’ recent monopolisation of the Champions League trophy.
His antics may be a turn-off – or hilarious, with that purposeful yellow card against Ajax last season in mind – but his aerial prowess in both boxes and all-round fighting spirit can only be admired.
5. Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)
A classy yet understated operator in arguably the Premier League’s finest-ever team, Laporte is the atypical Guardiola centre-back: stylish, comfortable in possession and not afraid to put his head where it hurts when he needs to.
Manchester City run a tight ship in large part thanks to Laporte, who joined them from Athletic Club for £57m in January 2018. An ongoing international dispute – he could be eligible for Spain and France – means he hasn’t actually played for either yet, having previously represented Les Bleus at youth level. What gives?
4. Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
Admittedly, last year wasn’t the best for Varane: 2018/19 was less gold-tinged than the campaigns that preceded it, after an outstanding 2018 World Cup where the 26-year-old turned in superb performance after superb performance for winners France. That followed on from the four Champions League and two La Liga titles he’d previously won – not a bad haul for a player who only turns 27 in April.
Varane is the complete central defender. He reads the game expertly and possesses the recovery speed to cover for team-mates’ mistakes, while he’s adept at stepping into midfield with the ball and setting his side on the attack.
3. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
You’re going to need a bigger trophy cabinet. Pique hoisted aloft his eighth La Liga trophy with Barça in 2018/19, nudging aside the 11 other major prizes he’s clinched with the Catalans and Spain since 2008.
He may be 33 now, but Pique missed only three league games for Ernesto Valverde last season – and one of those was through suspension. He formed a blossoming partnership with France stopper Clement Lenglet which is likely to see Barça through again in 2019/20. Pique has never been perfect but remains a centre-back managers want to have around.
2. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
Somehow, Napoli managed to keep Koulibaly for another summer – although a release clause of £150m helps. “I think Koulibaly’s value is £250 million if they paid that much for that guy,” after Manchester United spent £80m on Harry Maguire in summer 2019. Koulibaly remains the man Napoli would least like to lose.
The Senegal sentinel is a commanding figure who’s difficult to get the better of either in the air or in a foot race, and is rarely outmanoeuvred by opposition strikers. Most impressive, though, is his ability with ball at feet; the centre-back is a magnificent passer who always manages to keep his cool in possession. This season, there’s only been defender better…
1. Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Football is a team game and even the most talented individual will struggle to shine if the collective balance of the team isn’t right. But everyone agrees that Van Dijk completely transformed Liverpool’s defensive fortunes after his £75m move from Southampton in January 2018, helping to fix a leaky backline that undermined a thrilling frontline.
The Dutchman is yet to turn out at an international tournament but finally lifted his first trophy outside of Scotland with a thoroughly deserved Champions League in June 2019. He’s taken giant strides since his move to Anfield (quite literally) and is a growing force for his country too – so much that the 28-year-old is often talked up as the first centre-back to win the Ballon d’Or since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.
Van Dijk has everything you’d want in a modern-day centre-back: strength, speed, aerial prowess, leadership qualities and ability on the ball. Five good reasons why he’s the world’s best.