Let’s face facts. In modern football, emphasis lands squarely on the attack. En masse, the focus has shifted to producing flowing, uninhibited football that is easy on the eye, maximizing the aesthetic potential of the beautiful game. Fouls have become softer, full-backs venture higher up the pitch with each passing week and the checks for the world’s most expensive players are written to acquire the services of men up front. The art of defending has become almost an afterthought, even if it remains as essential as ever despite the attacking inclination of contemporary sides.
Look no further than the list of record transfers in history, fast becoming a behemoth of previously unbelievable proportions. Not until tenth position does a central defender even factor in – it’s David Luiz, who only just moved to Paris St. Germain for £50 million this past summer. This can be looked at from one of two angles. Either the premium on center backs has become so high that clubs are unwilling to pay it, or the preoccupation with goal tallies and creative capacities has blunted the marketability of defenders. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Consider that for Luiz, an error-prone central defender often more interested in getting forward than closing down, paying £50 million was an act of lunacy. For the financially well-endowed such as PSG, there were far better options out there. But most of those would-be targets haven’t moved on, citing their current employers’ desire to keep hold of them above the allure of money.
While the likes of Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez have their price, the world’s best central defenders seem to exist in a sphere beyond mere dollars and cents. The best at the back are forged by fire, not by the glory and high approbation that their attacking counterparts have fawned upon them.
The focus of world football may be firmly on star strikers, mystifying midfielders and wing wizards, but true success is built on the solid bedrock of central defense. Following are the top 15 center backs in the world at present.
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15 Laurent Koscielny
Koscielny had his best season to date for Arsenal last term, providing the perfect foil to physically imposing central defense partner Per Mertesacker. Aggressive yet measured, the Frenchman’s best trait is his ability to read the game and step up to cut out impending danger at the source. Despite relying on the brawn of Mertesacker in some sense, Koscielny is no shrinking violet himself and also relishes the chance to get stuck in. Arsenal’s defensive output in the Premier League has been rather disappointing this term and much of it is down to the fact that Koscielny has missed a significant amount of action with a calf issue. When on his day, the Frenchman can almost single-handedly make up for the Gunners’ lack of a top class holding midfielder, choosing his battles wisely at the back.
14 Sokratis Papastathopoulos
The Greek was fans’ overwhelming choice as the top right-sided center back in the Bundesliga last season, garnering 60% of the vote, leaving Jerome Boateng and Dante in the dust. Sokratis followed up his superb season for Borussia Dortmund by starring at the World Cup for his country, forming a formidable partnership with youngster Kostas Manolas as Greece were denied the quarter-finals only by penalties. Matters back at the Westfalenstadion this season have been a horror show with Dortmund in the relegation zone, but the 26-year-old has held his own. Furthermore, Sokratis was an absolute rock in the Champions League group stage, in which Die Schwarzgelben conceded just four goals.
13 Raphael Varane
Most telling about Varane’s talent is the fact that it took Real Madrid just one season of sending scouts to watch him play top flight football at Lens to make a move for him. To the tune of €10 million, the Frenchman arrived in the Spanish capital as a raw 18-year-old. Just a few years later, he remains one of the most coveted talents around. Varane was a regular for France at the World Cup and even became the youngest player to captain Les Bleus in a November friendly against Sweden. At Real Madrid, he remains mired behind Pepe in the race for the second center back spot alongside Sergio Ramos, but it shouldn’t be long before he overtakes the volatile Portuguese. The Frenchman started five out of Los Blancos’ six Champions League group stage games this season to make up for just eight La Liga appearances, and despite his age has already solidified his spot amongst the game’s elite.
12 John Terry
Terry may be 34 and his days of pulling on the England shirt long behind him, but the Chelsea man is still more than equal to the task of leading a top side at the back. After a resurgent campaign last time out in Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge, Terry has consolidated his comeback this term. The Englishman has played every minute on offer in the Premier League thus far to devastating effect, Chelsea storming to the top of the table while conceding just 13 times. Terry continues to be the Blues’ spiritual leader in his advancing years, and will be one of the side’s main reasons for success should they bag a bundle of silverware in what may be his final season in west London.
11 Ezequiel Garay
For a sizeable portion of his career, Garay was something of an enigma. First arriving in Europe with Racing Santander in 2005, the Argentine earned himself a dream move to Real Madrid in 2008, but was something of a flop at the Santiago Bernabeu. In 2011, Garay moved on to Benfica to rebuild his reputation, winning the Portuguese league title and twice falling just short in the Europa League final. Despite an uptick in the quality of his performances at the Estadio da Luz, however, questions remained over whether he was simply overachieving in inferior competitions. Garay put this suspicion to bed at the World Cup in Brazil, marshaling a surprisingly stout Argentine defence and leading the Albiceleste to the final. Before the knockout rounds were even underway, Zenit St. Petersburg had moved to secure his services, and Garay has flourished thus far in the unforgiving Russian climate.
10 Giorgio Chiellini
Perhaps the prevailing image of Chiellini is the hulking defender pulling down the collar of his shirt at the World Cup to reveal bite marks left by a certain Luis Suarez only moments before Italy were eliminated from the competition. But to leave it at that would be doing the Juventus man a disservice. The Italian has been a driving force in a Juventus side that have claimed the last three Serie A titles and are currently leading the league in the hunt for a fourth consecutive crown. Chiellini was also a crucial component in the Bianconeri’s progression to the Champions League knockouts, part of a defensive unit that surrendered just four goals as Juventus largely struggled in front of goal. Now 30, Chiellini is an undisputed veteran leader of the squad alongside Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.
9 Leonardo Bonucci
Once hailed as Italy’s defender of the future, Bonucci looked to be stalling somewhat after his first two seasons at Juventus were quite fruitful. Despite the Bianconeri securing two more titles in the following two years, the former Bari man appeared to be regressing, not quite reaching the same highs and failing to fully assert himself at the international level. This term, however, Bonucci has turned around his slide. Unquestionably Juventus’ best center back – even ahead of the more experienced Chiellini – Bonucci has finally come into his own as a top defender. More impressive is that Bonucci has done so in a season of transition in Turin, with Antonio Conte replaced by Massimiliano Allegri in the summer and the latter showing signs of making a permanent switch to a four-man back line.
8 Mehdi Benatia
Sometimes heartbreaking rejection is exactly what a player needs to fuel him in his rise to the top. Benatia’s beloved Marseille offered him just that when they sent him packing to Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot in 2008. Benatia later joined Udinese in Italy and developed into one of the most underrated center backs in Europe, one of the stars of a side that regularly punched above its weight. At Roma last term, the Moroccan proved just how brilliant a defender he had developed into, powering the Giallorossi to new heights under boss Rudi Garcia and being named in the Gran Gala del Calcio’s team of the year. Benatia’s acrimonious departure to Bayern Munich left a somewhat sullied legacy for him in Italy, but there’s a reason the German powerhouse moved to sign him – he’s simply one of the best around.
7 Jerome Boateng
For a consistent starter for one of Europe’s most dominant clubs, it’s taken Boateng quite a long time to garner the respect he deserves. A less-than-stellar single campaign at Manchester City as a 22-year-old – during which he played mostly at right back – dented his reputation as a youngster, but Bayern Munich clearly had faith in his talent. Now in his fourth campaign at the Allianz Arena, Boateng has a full trophy case that includes two Bundesliga titles, a Champions League winner’s medal and two DFB-Pokal triumphs. The Germany international firmed up his case as one of the world’s top center backs by playing a key role in guiding his nation to World Cup glory over the summer in Brazil. Boateng’s remaining detractors thus have a rather weak case against him given that at 26, he’s accomplished nearly everything possible and has years of high-level play to look forward to.
Not until he was an experienced 27-year-old did Miranda find his way to one of Europe’s big boys. The Brazilian spent a rather disappointing sole campaign at Sochaux as a youngster, quickly returning to his homeland after struggling to settle in eastern France. Miranda popped up at Atletico Madrid in 2011 to try his hand at one of La Liga’s historic giants – and this time around has been a resounding success. Los Colchoneros won the Europa League in his maiden campaign at the club. One year later, Miranda scored the winning goal against Real Madrid as Atletico won the Copa del Rey, simultaneously ending a winless streak against their city rivals that stretched back to 1999. Continuing his brilliant run at the Vicente Calderon, Miranda started 32 games as Atletico secured the league title last term against all odds, coming within minutes of winning the Champions League as well. Luis Felipe Scolari somewhat shockingly omitted Miranda from Brazil’s World Cup squad despite the center back’s knack for silverware at Atletico, a decision that was vehemently questioned in the aftermath of the Selecao’s 7-1 semi-finals thumping at the hands of Germany. It was a better option to play David Luiz apparently...
5 Diego Godin
Uruguay is most cited for its production of top attacking talents in the contemporary era – Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez the most recognizable – but Godin has been the most successful product of the tiny South American nation in terms of titles of late. An integral part of Atletico Madrid’s rise back to prominence under the guidance of Diego Simeone, Godin is one of the world’s best center backs in the air, giving Los Colchoneros an almost impenetrable defense against crosses and providing a significant threat on set pieces. Only Thibaut Courtois, Juanfran and Gabi clocked more minutes in league play than the Uruguayan as Atleti won the La Liga title last season, Godin scoring six goals between the Spanish top flight and Champions League. The giants of Europe have been clamoring for his services since, but Godin has always maintained that he feels comfortable at the Vicente Calderon – and it’s clear he’s found a home there.
4 Vincent Kompany
Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero have written themselves into the history books for their exploits at Manchester City, but Vincent Kompany nonetheless may be the most important signing the club have made to date. Matching competitive fire with all-around skill at the back, the City captain has been there every step of the way to guide the Eastlands club on the way to becoming one of Europe’s elite. It’s thus no wonder why the Citizens chose to hand Kompany a new six-year contract in July 2012 – he’s the foundation upon which Sheikh Mansour’s project at the Etihad Stadium is built. The Belgian has brought a pair of Premier League titles and the FA Cup to City after joining from Hamburg in 2008, and for all the talent in the Premier League, he is undoubtedly unsurpassed in the English top flight at his position. The £6 million originally paid for him over six years ago now looks to be one of the great bargains of recent times, especially for a club accustomed to paying top dollar on the transfer market.
3 Sergio Ramos
Love him or hate him, Sergio Ramos has proved himself to be one of modern football’s elite defenders. While even the most talented center backs often have inherent weaknesses, the Spaniard’s pace, devastating aerial ability, and superb tackling ability make him the complete package. The greatest knock against Ramos has always been indiscipline – 19 red cards in his Real Madrid career – but it’s this aggression which makes him such an intimidating adversary for opposing strikers. Not only is Ramos fearsome at the back, however. Since joining Real Madrid in 2005, the 28-year-old has racked up 51 goals and 30 assists across all competitions. Perhaps the most important goal he ever scored came in the form of his late equalizer in the 2014 Champions League final, which allowed Real Madrid to go on to claim a 4-1 win – at last securing La Decima. Ramos boasts two European Championship titles and a World Cup crown from Spain’s era of dominance to go along with his achievements at the club level.
2 Mats Hummels
Hummels is the symbol of the new Germany, the unstoppable production line of talent the central European nation has rolled out in the wake of failing to win the 2006 World Cup on home soil. A Bayern Munich youth product, the Bavarian club saw fit to sell off the Bergisch Gladbach native for just €4 million after he shone on loan with rivals Borussia Dortmund. Hummels came back to haunt his former side by winning two Bundelsiga titles at their expense by the age of 23. The seminal moment of Hummels’ career to date, however, has to be his unrivalled performance for Germany at the World Cup in Brazil. Hummels stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Lionel Messi and corralled all comers, scoring two goals en route to winning the tournament. Dortmund may have been dreadful so far this season, but Hummels quality has never been called into question, with vultures circling hoping to steal him away for themselves.
1 Thiago Silva
When AC Milan agreed to sell Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain for a reported €42 million alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the summer of 2012, a sense of impending doom settled over San Siro. A year prior, Pippo Inzaghi had anointed the Brazilian as the best defender in the world, going on to say that he is the caliber of player "born once every 100 years." The legendary striker was right. Phenomenal on the ball, strong in the air, and an intelligent tackler, Silva has broken the traditional paradigm that Brazilian center backs struggle when the ball leaves the deck. PSG have gone on to win two consecutive Ligue 1 titles with Silva serving as captain, the Parisian side now eying up Champions League glory. Look no further than Brazil’s 7-1 loss against Germany in the World Cup semi-finals to see how important Silva is to his country as well. David Luiz looked lost without the 30-year-old by his side, the Selecao falling to pieces without their leader.
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