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10. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Now in the 21st year of his career, Chiellini can perhaps go under the radar somewhat due to his lack of non-domestic honours – Juventus haven’t won the Champions League since 1996 and, despite having made his international debut in 2004, the 36-year-old wasn’t part of Italy’s victorious 2006 World Cup squad. That’s no mark of the player he is, though.
His quality and durability have ensured he’s been a mainstay if the Juve back line for well over a decade. Strong, aggressive and able to play in a back three or four, as well as at left-back, he is, in many ways, the archetypal Italian defender. If this is to be his last season in Turin – his contract is up in the summer – Chiellini will go down as an all-time great at the club where he’s fifth on the record appearances list.
9. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
Barcelona may have dropped off this season – even Lionel Messi hasn’t been his usual, sensational self – but Pique remains as important to the cause as he has been for the last decade plus. The 33-year-old has been sidelined with a knee injury since November, but he recently spoke of his desire to play on “for three or four more years” – something you wouldn’t put past a player who’s generally kept himself in excellent shape and racked up over 600 appearances for club and country.
A commanding and technically adept defender, Pique’s most memorable years came alongside the legendary Carles Puyol. The two formed a formidable partnership in the tiki-taka era under Pep Guardiola at the Nou Camp and for Vicente del Bosque’s World Cup and European Championship-winning Spain side. The game’s moved on now, but Pique’s quality has endured.
8. John Stones (Manchester City)
There’s a case to be made for John Stones being England’s best centre-back – certainly in a ball-playing role. Perhaps breaking through so young – 2020/21 is the 26-year-old’s seventh season in the top flight – put added pressure on the former Barnsley and Everton man, who seems to have become more associated with calamitous errors than anything else.
He’s arguably in the best shape of his career right now, though. Having come back into favour under Pep Guardiola, he’s reminding us of what he’s all about. Whether he can keep it up over the second half of the season remains to be seen, but on form he firmly deserves a place on this list – and in Gareth Southgate’s side, for whom he hasn’t played since November 2019.
7. 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 – before consolidating and building on that at Manchester United. Sure, £80m was a huge sum for the Old Trafford club to spend on him in the summer of 2019, but he’s gone some way to repaying that as a big part of their recent revival.
The 27-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. It’s easy to forget that ‘Slab Head’ didn’t join Leicester until two years after their 5,000/1 title win, but he could finally get his hands on the Premier League trophy in 2021 – as United captain.
6. Milan Skriniar (Inter)
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. The 25-year-old is still a key player for Antonio Conte’s Inter for now, though, 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. He’s a member of one of the best defences in Italy – and possibly the only player plying his trade in a city he shares his name with?
5. 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 a couple of years ago coming to mind – but his aerial prowess in both boxes and all-round fighting spirit can only be admired. Oh, and there’s something special about a centre-half who takes his teams penalties, isn’t there? At least when they’re not fluffed Panenkas anyway.
4. Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)
A classy yet understated operator in arguably the Premier League’s finest-ever team, Laporte is the typical 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. A nightmarish time with injuries means the 26-year-old Frenchman still hasn’t made his full international debut, although the dispute over whether he would represent France or Spain at senior level seems to have abated now.
3. Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
After something of a slump in the season following the 2018 World Cup, where he was consistently superb as France took football’s greatest prize, Varane has reaffirmed his status as one of the world’s best in his position. A third La Liga title rounded off a great 2019/20 for him.
The 27-year-old 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.
2. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
Somehow, Koulibaly is still a Napoli player – although a £100 million price tag helps. “I think Koulibaly’s value is £250 million if they paid that much for that guy,” said president Aurelio de Laurentiis 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 29-year-old a magnificent passer who always manages to keep his cool in possession. Man United are rumoured to be lining up a summer bid; let’s see if Napoli can manage to keep hold of their star man once again.
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 back line that undermined a thrilling front line.
The Dutchman is yet to turn out at an international tournament, with the Netherlands failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, while he’s in a race against time to be fit for this summer’s Euros, but Champions League and Premier League medals will have gone some way to making up for that. He’s taken giant strides since his move to Anfield (quite literally) and has become equally immense for his country – 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.