In terms of progression, center-backs plying their trades with Europe’s biggest sides are enjoying a transformative phase.
Football’s best now put an emphasis on playing from the back and a mastery on the ball, and now a position that once prioritized industry values enterprise and eloquence equally. Some clubs are blessed with a harmonious pairing of center-backs, while other sides profit from a rotation of three or more that helps mitigate the perils of injury and dalliances with a back-three.
Placing priority on form this season over pedigree, here’s a ranking of the best 15 central defensive groups in Europe’s top tiers:
1. Manchester City
John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany
Stones and Laporte are options at the back for Pep Guardiola to go along with his countless choices in attack. The disciplined and deft ball-playing duo have snatched first-pick duties from Otamendi and Kompany, with the latter two capable of filling in the cracks as Manchester City appears set for lengthy forays on four competitive fronts. Guardiola’s system helps, with Stones and Laporte afforded the luxuries of a side outscoring opponents 30-4 in the league.
2. Atletico Madrid
Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, Stefan Savic
The modern definition of a reliable, no-nonsense center-back pairing, Uruguayan international brethren Godin and Gimenez have become models of consistency for Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. It doesn’t hurt that Savic has been a dependable deputy as Gimenez nurses a hamstring injury, with Atleti boasting La Liga’s best defensive record based on a scant six goals conceded in 11 outings.
Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Medhi Benatia, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele Rugani
Max Allegri’s Juventus sit atop the Serie A standings with 10 wins and a draw, and for all the chatter Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala are generating through their explosive exploits, a notoriously disciplined backline merits praise. Chiellini and Bonucci give The Old Lady an excess of riches as a first-choice duo, and last season’s relief star Benatia is capable of filling in, along with Barzagli and Rugani.
Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip
With Van Dijk arguably Europe’s best central defender this season, it’s remarkable what Liverpool’s ponytailed purveyor of measured tackles and towering headers has gotten out of Gomez and Lovren. Initially a right-back, Gomez has thrived alongside the Dutchmen, something Lovren knows about after transforming from a mistake-prone liability into a dependable player last year. Matip isn’t a bad fourth option, either.
Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij, Miranda
Luciano Spalletti’s Inter have conceded just six goals in 11 league outings – the best in Serie A – and while the addition of Radja Nainggolan to a rigid ball-stopping spine is helping, the defensive duo of Skriniar and de Vrij deserve loads of praise. Dutchman de Vrij’s free move to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza from Lazio was one of the summer’s best steals. Meanwhile, Skriniar is maturing into a disciplined tackler, and Miranda is a reliable third option.
Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez
Sanchez hasn’t had much trouble acclimating to life in the Premier League since last summer’s move from the Eredivisie, and while forming a trio with fellow former Ajax standouts Vertonghen and Alderweireld, the Colombian’s addition has strengthened Tottenham’s back-line. Sanchez’s signing has also ended the unfruitful experiment of putting Eric Dier at the back for Mauricio Pochettino’s characteristically shrewd set-up.
7. Paris Saint-Germain
Thiago Silva, Presnel Kimpembe, Marquinhos, Thilo Kehrer
Thomas Tuchel’s move to the French capital has inspired an already lethal attack, and while Paris Saint-Germain boast an obscene 41-goal haul over a dozen league affairs, the club has also only conceded on seven occasions, tied for the fewest goals allowed with Montpellier. Kimpembe’s emergence has helped cover for Marquinhos’ move to the midfield, and the summer addition of Kehrer is providing insurance for Silva’s waning physicality.
8. Borussia Dortmund
Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo, Dan-Axel Zagadou
Like PSG, Borussia Dortmund’s high-flying attack hogs the headlines, and Lucien Favre’s lot has a stingy backline. Swiss international Akanji, former Mainz man Diallo, and ex-PSG kid Zagadou are all 23 years old or younger and among the continent’s most promising young defenders. BVB currently sit atop the Bundesliga standings, and the club hasn’t allowed a goal in three Champions League group-stage matches.
9. RB Leipzig
Dayot Upamecano, Willi Orban, Ibrahima Konate
Dortmund’s budding defensive core provides the perfect segway for a glance at RB Leipzig’s strength in the same area. It’s the Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme. Orban, 26, is the eldest of a crew that features Konate, 19, and Upamecano, 20, two Espoirs who should soon figure into Didier Deschamps’ plans. The same is true for 21-year-old French full-back Nordi Mukiele. Leipzig lead the Bundesliga in clean sheets and have conceded the fewest goals.
Antonio Rudiger, David Luiz
Beneficiaries of Maurizio Sarri’s possession-based ethos, Rudiger and Luiz have shined this season at Chelsea after the gaffer traded in predecessor Antonio Conte’s back-three for a rigid 4-3-3. Unbeaten through 11 matches with just eight goals allowed, the performances of the once-erratic duo have made Gary Cahill and Andreas Christensen redundant, with the Dane last seen handing out CVs at the Butcher’s Hook kitty corner Stamford Bridge.
Pedro Mendes, Hilton, Daniel Congre, Damien Le Tallec
A year after shocking Ligue 1 with the division’s second-best defensive standing, Montpellier saw full-backs Jerome Roussillon and Mukiele leave for greener pastures. Still, La Paillade are tied for the fewest goals conceded in the league and sit second in the table. Hilton, 41, continues as the ageless rock in the middle of a back-three, while Congre, Mendes, and the versatile Le Tallec fill in the cracks. Michel Der Zakarian, take a bow.
Samuel Umtiti, Clement Lenglet, Gerard Pique
When not banging his noggin off bus mirrors, Pique can be found in decline, but still in demand because untimely injuries to World Cup winners Umtiti and Vermaelen have left Ernesto Valverde’s cupboard bare following the Yerry Mina sale. Lenglet has been a sage signing, however, and despite the occasional struggles at the back, Barcelona have a four-point buffer on Sevilla atop the La Liga standings.
13. Real Madrid
Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Nacho
If you’re seeking the primary reasons for Real Madrid’s disastrous start to the domestic campaign, divert your eyes to the top of the pitch and not the back, where trusted trio Ramos, Varane, and Nacho continue to provide reliable resistance in front of newcomer Thibaut Courtois. It’s all gone pear-shaped for Los Blancos despite keeping two clean sheets on the spin, as the capital city colossus face an unenviable transition courtesy of an aging core.
Jose Fonte, Adama Soumaoro, Kouadio Dabila
Really? Yes, really. Lille have had a brilliant start to the campaign a year after narrowly escaping relegation, and it’s come thanks to the attacking exploits of Nicolas Pepe, and the Jonathans, Bamba and Ikone, though the team has also been unexpectedly sound at the back under Bond villain cosplayer Christophe Galtier. Fonte, a former Southampton stud turned Chinese league afterthought, has enlisted with Les Dogues and brother Rui, forming a solid duo with Soumaoro.
Oscar Duarte, Mario Hermoso, Naldo
Espanyol, the Catalan capital city’s other top-flight team, currently sit second in La Liga and are on a six-match unbeaten stretch thanks to a thrifty backline that’s conceded just eight league goals. While the rest of Spain’s top-six sides benefit from high-profile center-backs, Rubi’s lot consists of an overlooked motley crew featuring Costa Rican international Duarte, Castilla castoff Hermoso, and Naldo. No, not that Naldo, just another towering Brazilian defender.