A top central defender is like gold dust in the modern footballing climate. It’s a role that not only requires exceptional mental and physical attributes, but the ability to lead and organise a defensive line.
There are so few who have mastered the role over the years; even fewer who are still playing. Picking the top 25, then, was quite the undertaking at 90min.
After plenty of debate, however, we’ve managed to come up with the definitive list. Don’t disagree, there’s been enough of that already.
He may be a bit slight and can be targeted for that frame, but Andreas Christensen feels tailor-made to play for Barcelona.
The Denmark international impressed in long stretches for Chelsea and while his exit irked a lot of fans at Stamford Bridge, he did help the Blues to an unlikely Champions League title, which has to count for something.
Gabriel Magalhaes’ form at Lille marked him out as a star for the future. Arsenal decided to fork out for him and – a few rogue moves aside – have been repaid with some aggressive and proactive defending.
He also possesses a wonderful passing range and his partnership with William Saliba is developing nicely.
Gleison Bremer’s growing influence at Torino culminated in the Brazilian winning the award for Serie A’s best defender in 2021/22.
Juventus were suitably impressed and splashed out £45m for the defender. It was wise business from La Vecchia Signora, who have been pretty dodgy in the transfer market recently.
It remains to be seen when Juve will reemerge as the main Italian powerhouse, but in Bremer they have a versatile, quick and
Alessandro Bastoni is an established presence in Inter’s defence and enjoyed a brilliant 2020/21 campaign in their Serie A-title winning season.
The Italy international impresses with the timing of his challenges and boasts immense calmness under pressure.
He has big boots to fill on the international scene with Giorgio Chiellini out of the picture and Leonardo Bonucci approaching the same fate, but in Bastoni there’s a worthy successor for the Azzurri.
There was a time when John Stones looked firmly out of the picture at Manchester City, with the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake and Eric Garcia all ahead in the pecking order.
However, he won favour again with Pep Guardiola and his versatility at right back means he’s never too far away from the starting XI at the Etihad.
The England international probably hasn’t quite hit the heights expected after his move to City from Everton, but four Premier League titles ain’t half bad, right?
Known for his composure on the ball and gangly 6’3 frame, Pau Torres has been a target for Europe’s elite for a few years now.
He thrived under former Villarreal manager Unai Emery and impressed as they won the Europa League in 2020/21, being named in the competition’s team of the tournament.
A big move will boost his profile even more – it’s just who comes calling first.
Leaving Chelsea has done wonders for Fikayo Tomori. AC Milan gave him plenty of game time on loan before making the move permanent.
He was a regular feature in the Rossoneri side that won the 2021/22 Serie A title, though that hasn’t quite been enough to thrust him into England’s starting lineup.
However, if the former Blues defender keeps performing at such a high level, it’ll just be a matter of time before he’s turning out regularly for the Three Lions.
Lucas Hernandez probably suffers in rankings like these because he’s so comfortable playing both out wide and in central defence.
His versatility helped him boss proceedings at Atletico Madrid before Bayern Munich came calling in 2019. That move has improved his international prospects, even if he had already broken into the France side as a left back for the 2018 World Cup success.
Hernandez gets to play with his brother, Theo, for Les Bleus, too.
Lisandro Martinez’s start at Manchester United was pretty tough and fans and pundits alike were quick to label him too short to succeed in the Premier League.
However, United have bounced back under Erik ten Hag and ‘the Butcher’ in defence is winning supporters over with his combative tackling and excellent passing skills.
When Ajax looked to be storming towards the Champions League final in 2018/19, it was Matthijs de Ligt performing like a colossus at the back as a teenager that caught the eye.
The talent is undoubted but the Dutchman’s progress stalled at Juventus, while his latest move to Bayern Munich is yet to bring the best out of him.
De Ligt was once seen as a generational talent and could still fulfil that potential, but there’s some work to do right now.
Milan Skriniar is excellent at sniffing out danger and has impressed at Inter since signing from Sampdoria in 2017.
He thrived as the Nerazzurri won Serie A in 2020/21, forming a formidable partnership at the back with Alessandro Bastoni and Stefan de Vrij,
Paris Saint-Germain have been sniffing around the Slovakia international for a few windows now and a big move could be on the cards in the future.
During some pretty dark economic and playing days for Barcelona, the emergence of Ronald Araujo was one of their few bright lights.
The Uruguayan established himself under Ronald Koeman. While not the best with the ball at his feet, Araujo is always switched on at the back and likes to make the first move when winning the ball back.
His tactical awareness and presence in the air mark him out as a major force to contend with for the next decade.
Jules Kounde was at Sevilla for so long that it seemed like a big money move to Chelsea or Barcelona would never materialise.
However, he eventually got his move to Camp Nou and should be a core presence in central defence for years to come.
Kalidou Koulibaly seems to have left Napoli just as they are primed to make a serious Serie A title bid. Talk about poor timing, eh?
The Senegal international has taken his dominating performances to Chelsea in the Premier League. He’s yet to really click into action under Graham Potter due to a few injuries, but it won’t be long before he’s back to his best and keeping clean sheets for fun.
It’s yet to really work out for Raphael Varane at Manchester United, with the club’s tumultuous off-field antics and a few injuries of his own hampering his progress.
However, trophy-laden years with Real Madrid are hard to ignore and Varane’s importance to Los Blancos during his ten years at the Bernabeu keeps him among the very best centre backs in world football.
William Saliba has been a truly transformative figure in Arsenal’s defence since returning from a few loans over in Ligue 1.
The Frenchman can match any Premier League attacker for pace and has already established a formidable partnership at the back with Gabriel.
However, it’s Saliba who holds the key to the Gunners- rock-solid defence and he is starting to earn recognition at international level with France.
Tottenham fans have quickly fallen in love with aggressive right-sided Argentina international Cristian Romero.
A fiery tackler who links up well in possession, Romero won Serie A’s defender of the year award for his displays with Atalanta before joining Spurs.
Now playing in a back three under Antonio Conte and a Copa America winner internationally, Romero still has room to improve.
When Aymeric Laporte first arrived at Manchester City in January 2018, Pep Guardiola needed a strong defender to provide support for John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, with Vincent Kompany’s fitness issues sidelining him.
The Spain international provided the security needed in defence as City romped to 100 points.
Laporte still falls victim to Pep roulette on occasion but his versatility and ease on the ball make him a valuable asset.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane’s exits from Real Madrid meant somebody had big boots to fill in the Spaniard’s exit.
It was Eder Militao who initially stepped up and the Brazilian went on to form an excellent partnership with fellow new arrival David Alaba as Real did the La Liga and Champions League double in 2021/22.
A proactive defender who possesses excellent recovery pace, expect Militao to improve even further at the Bernabeu.
Thiago Silva is still going strong as he approaches his 40s and it’s remarkable to see just how lost Chelsea look at the back when the Brazilian is not around.
Fitness and injury issues have plagued the Brazilian in recent years but he hardly puts a foot wrong when available, even if the Blues suffer the odd calamity at the back.
Silva’s masterful positioning and leadership in defence has inspired his former AC Milan and PSG sides to league glory, while he finally won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2020.
By the time Antonio Rudiger’s 456th long shot at Stamford Bridge (roughly) had ballooned out of Stamford Bridge, a few Chelsea fans let out a sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to see such audacious shooting from distance anymore.
That’s Real Madrid’s problem now, but given the world-class nature of the Germany international’s performances over the last few years, it’s a wonderful problem to have.
Los Blancos are stacked in central defence and Rudiger is yet to truly make his mark at the Bernabeu, but his displays for Chelsea still help him rank among the best defenders in the world.
Marquinhos arrived at Paris Saint-Germain as a teenager with much hype around his potential.
He’s switched from central defence to defensive midfield and back again, becoming the lynchpin as PSG dominate – for the most part – in France.
Now entering his peak years as a defender, Marquinhos is only improving with age and is a vital presence at international level with Brazil.
Virgil van Dijk is not a defender opposition defenders relish coming up against.
With a gigantic frame and pace to match, the Netherlands international was a leading figure in a Liverpool side that became European and domestic champions in 2019 and 2020.
A few injuries and some dodgy performances have affected his stock slightly around the world, but Liverpool fans don’t care. His record at Anfield is incredible and he can’t be beaten on form.
Ruben Dias made quite the start to his career at Manchester City. In his debut campaign, he was named FWA Footballer of the Year, Manchester City Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and the UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season.
He and City are still searching for that elusive Champions League crown, but Dias has helped Pep Guardiola’s side establish dominance in the Premier League since his arrival.
The Portugal international is the leader City have needed at the back since Vincent Kompany’s departure.
When all is said and done, David Alaba will be recognised as one of the greatest players of his generation.
The Austrian made his name by breaking through at Bayern Munich as a teenager and played much of his football at left back, due to the Bundesliga side’s beefy options in central defence.
However, his incredible skill set makes him an ideal centre back – even if he isn’t blessed with the height of some – and the fact he’s played in some of the most successful club sides in history tells you just how important he is.
He continues to impress with Real Madrid and at international level with Austria, where he’ll play anywhere from left back to attacking midfield.