If a team has two world-class full-backs in one team, well, you’re probably going to be in for a tough 90 minutes.
Some iconic duos have disbanded in the last five years. Think Barcelona’s Dani Alves and Jordi Alba or Philipp Lahm and David Alaba at Bayern Munich.
But who’s stepped into their shoes? Who are the best full-back pairings in Europe’s top leagues right now? Below is a loosely ranked top-10 list outlining our take on the current state of affairs. If there’s anyone you feel we overlooked, we’d love to hear it. Let us know in the comments below or say hi on Twitter.
10. Jesus Navas and Sergio Reguilon (Sevilla)
Paris Saint-Germain’s aggressively attack-minded pair of Thomas Meunier and Juan Bernat initially held this spot owing mostly to their attacking contributions (because you don’t need to defend an awful lot in a team that averages 65% possession). But we made the call to nudge them out because, relative to impact on their respective teams, Jesus Navas and Sergio Reguilon seem more influential at La Liga’s third-place.
No one has played more minutes for Sevilla in La Liga than Navas (2,249 out of a possible 2,430) this season. Neither Bernat or Meunier, who is reportedly set to be allowed to leave on a free in the next transfer window, have broken the 1,500-minute barrier this season. Having set up four goals each, Navas and Reguilon account for around of third of Sevilla’s assist total in La Liga. Only Ever Banega (6) has more than each of the pair.
Once a thrilling winger, albeit one who ultimately disappointed at Manchester City, what Navas offers his team is pace along with expertise in one-on-one situations on the ground and delivery into the box. He averages 1.85 successful crosses from open play per 90 minutes in La Liga this season. No defender with 1,000 minutes playing time under their belt in the division this term has been more productive in this sense. He’s also created more chances than any La Liga defender overall (44), though the fact he hasn’t missed much football all season helps him here.
As for Real Madrid loanee Reguilon, only one regular-starting defender (1,000+ mins) in La Liga with a higher per-90-minute average for touches in the opponents box (Alex Moreno, of Real Betis). The same applies to chances created in open play (we’ll tell you who later).
9. Stefan Lainer and Ramy Bensebaini (Gladbach)
The likes of Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea may steal the headlines but Gladbach‘s full-back pairing of Stefan Lainer and Ramy Bensebaini play a huge role in their success.
Free to roam forward thanks to the defensive efforts of midfielder Florian Neuhaus, Lainer – who ranks sixth in the German top-flight for successful open-play crosses (19) this season – has managed four assists in Bundesliga and Europa League play so far this season, in which Bensebaini has also popped up with five goals in the Bundesliga.
8. Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens (Atalanta)
Has there been a more fun side to watch in Europe this season than Atalanta? Despite their status as relative minnows, the Bergamo outfit have scored more goals (70) than any other side in Serie A this season and have made waves both domestically and in Europe.
Full-backs Hans Hateboer and Robin Gosens have more than played their part. Wearing the No.8 shirt and looking like one, Gosens has managed a quite remarkable seven goals and five assists in Serie A play this season.
But while Hateboer has provided more defensive stability this season, that doesn’t mean you should write him off offensively. The Dutchman has still managed two goals and an assist in the Champions League as Atalanta went from looking down and out to sneaking into the knockout stages in the space of three games. He also scored the second-most goals (5) of any other defender in Serie A in 2018/19.
7. Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy (Real Madrid)
Remember our teaser in the Reguilon section earlier? The mystery La Liga defender with the highest per-90-minute average for chances created in open play is Carvajal (1.64). Also, no defender in La Liga has more assists this season than his total of five.
Over on the left, with Marcelo on the wrong side of his peak, there may have been fears among Madrid fans regarding who would take over from the Brazilian. Enter Ferland Mendy.
OK, so he hasn’t fully nailed down his starting spot just yet, instead rotating with Marcelo (hence the relatively low ranking). But when called upon, the 24-year-old Frenchman has played a big role in Real’s play both offensively and defensively. Mendy has created 14 chances from open play so far in La Liga this season, been dribbled past just three times and averages 2.47 successful dribbles himself per 90 minutes. That’s a higher rate than all other defenders to have played more than 500 minutes in La Liga this season.
With Achraf Hakimi and Reguilon returning from loan spells next season, these two might well find themselves under threat. This season, though, they’re certainly battling hard for their places.
6. Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba (Barcelona)
Under Ernesto Valverde, Nelson Semedo struggled to get regular game time at Barcelona, often coming on late as the Catalan club sought to see out games. This left many fans frustrated, with the Portgual international clearly the better defensive option over Sergi Roberto.
“Nelson Semedo is a player bursting with talent, but one who repeatedly saw his confidence chipped away by Ernesto Valverde constantly dropping him and never really giving him an extended run in the side,” Squawka’s Muhammad Butt said earlier this year, adding: “Semedo is a far more dynamic player than given credit for, especially in attacking zones.”
Since Quique Setien arrived to replace Valverde, Semedo has taken a firm grip on his place at right-back and as time has gone on, he’s looked more and more confident.
Meanwhile, on the other side, there probably hasn’t been a more consistent left-back in world football than Jordi Alba over the past decade, with the Spaniard mopping up titles and accolades at will.
Sure, this season he’s only managed one assist, but he remains the league’s pre-eminent playmaking full-back. He averages more successful passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes than any defender in La Liga (22.22) by some margin. In fact, Lionel Messi, Toni Kroos and Eden Hazard are the only players more productive in this season so far this season (500+ mins). This, with his eight assists last season also taken into consideration, convinced us to keep the Barca pair above their counterparts in Madrid.
5. Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell (Leicester City)
Mostly because Riyad Mahrez had just left for Manchester City and James Maddison had arrived from Norwich, Ricardo Pereira’s £22m arrival from Porto in May 2018 rather went under the radar. But what a right-back he’s become for the Foxes.
Tearing up and down the right flank, Pereira’s most important quality is his relentless energy, providing Leicester with a constant attacking threat – he ranks fifth in the Premier League for successful dribbles (128) since his arrival – and a defensive failsafe should they be hit on the break.
“I’ve got a brilliant player. He’s so low maintenance. The intensity he plays the game, that’s how he trains,” said Brendan Rodgers in March.
“He always wants to get better, he wants to learn, his defending has got better, and then going forward he’s such a threat, whether that’s his crossing or looking to come in behind.”
On the other flank, Ben Chilwell’s development from a naive youngster into an international quality left-back has been a joy to watch.
Ben Chilwell vs. Montenegro:
• Most chances created (4)
• Most tackles (4)
• Joint-most take-ons (3)
• Most assists (3)
A dominant display. 😍 pic.twitter.com/hC6KT6aveY
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 14, 2019
The 23-year-old has two goals and three assists in the Premier League this season.
Leicester have been one of the wonderful surprise packages of the 2019/20 Premier League season and look nailed on for Champions League football next term. The role of their full-backs in that success should not be overlooked.
4. Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro (Juventus)
Juan Cuadrado hasn’t even been a full-back all that long, so it’s incredible to see just how adept he’s looked in that position since replacing Joao Cancelo, who departed to Manchester City last summer.
“Cuadrado is defending and attacking in the right way, he never left us unbalanced,” Maurizio Sarri said back in October.
Alex Sandro, of course, has looked the part at left-back for years.
Juventus, like several teams on this list, dominate the ball in pretty much every game they play in their domestic division, so they aren’t tested defensively as much as other full-backs. However, Cuadrado has shown excellent reading of the game for a former winger, averaging 6.17 recoveries per 90 minutes this season. Sandro has been equally impressive defensively, making 38 interceptions in Serie A so far this season — more than any other Juve player and 11 clear of his nearest rival.
It’s going forwards, however, where Maurizio Sarri needs Cuadrado and Sandro to flourish, with the Italian’s system reliant on full-backs providing width.
Sarri needn’t worry here, either. Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala side, Cuadrado (31) and Sandro (30) have created the third and fourth-highest number of chances from open play among Juve players in Serie A respectively this season, notching a combined five assists so far.
3. Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies (Bayern)
Given Alphonso Davies’ youth and relatively recent rise to prominence, it may seem a little premature to rank him and Benjamin Pavard so high up on this list. However, that only illustrates just how brilliant they’ve been since the arrival of Hansi Flick in November.
Unlike some other pairings on this list, Benjamin Pavard and Davies and very much a ying-yang duo, with the latter pushing forward aggressively to support the attack, while the latter tucks into a back-three to keep Bayern solid and safe from counter-attacks.
Since Flick’s arrival, no Bayern player has completed more dribbles in the Bundesliga than Davies (49), while the Canadian has also won possession 141 times during that period, more than any other Bayern player. His excellent performance against Chelsea in the Champions League, meanwhile, has drawn even more admiring glances his way.
Pavard, meanwhile, has flourished thanks to the demands placed upon him by Flick to tuck inside once Davies roams forward — the Frenchman himself admitted recently he sees himself as more of a centre-back than a full-back anyway.
“I’m happy when I’m on the pitch – whether as a right-back or centre-back. But having said that, I prefer playing in the central defence,” he said.
“Generally, I see myself as a defensively thinking player, who can be used flexibly. I think it’s very important and helpful for a coach that I can play in all four positions in defence.”
That said, for all his defensive qualities, Pavard has still managed to contribute three goals and five assists across Bundesliga and Champions League play this season and can certainly hold his own in the final third.
After months of languid football under Niko Kovac, Bayern have been transformed under Flick, helped by the superb balance he’s found between his two full-backs.
2. Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro (Dortmund)
Lucien Favre’s switch to a back-five has worked wonders for Borussia Dortmund, putting them firmly in the Bundesliga title hunt. A large part of that is thanks to how it’s unlocked Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro. Hakimi has been sensational during his loan spell from Real Madrid but after initially lining up at left-back, has now been able to slot in on the right with Lukasz Piszczek moving in as a third centre-back. In turn, Guerreiro has taken his place on the left.
In possession, Dortmund often line up in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with any two of Jadon Sancho, Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt and Giovanni Reyna operating behind striker Erling Haaland. BVB’s defenders are superb at playing through the lines and into these playmakers, who tuck into the half-spaces and give Favre’s side total domination through the middle. Of course, what this does is create an immense amount of space for Hakimi and Guerreiro to charge into and with their relentless pace and expert delivery, they profit brilliantly.
Hakimi (30) and Guerreiro (23) rank fourth and fifth respectively at Dortmund for chances created in the Bundesliga this season, behind only Sancho (53), Hazard (44) and Brandt (33), while they have notched a combined 12 assists so far. Even more impressively, the pair have scored a combined 14 goals in Bundesliga and Champions League play throughout 2019/20.
Dortmund are a very possession-heavy side — only Bayern (63.2%) have a bigger average share in the Bundesliga than their 58.4% this season — but when called upon, both Hakimi and Guerreiro are defensively sound. Only Mats Hummels (181) has won possession more than Hakimi (156) and Guerreiro (135) in the Bundesliga this season.
With Hakimi’s loan spell from Real Madrid nearing an end, the days of this pairing appear sadly numbered, so enjoy it while it lasts.
1. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson (Liverpool)
It might feel like a cliche to put Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at the top of this list but there’s a reason for that; they’re so damn good.
Last season, the pair notched a combined 23 Premier League assists, adding a further five in the Champions League as Liverpool won the tournament for the sixth time. They’ve barely relented in 2019/20, either, with only Kevin De Bruyne (16) providing more assists than Alexander-Arnold (12) in the Premier League. Robertson hasn’t done badly, either, with seven.
Their attacking exploits are central to so much Jurgen Klopp’s side do well, pressing high up the pitch to provide width as forwards Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah tuck inside to link up with Roberto Firmino. As a result, Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation looks more like a 2-1-4-3, flooding the opposition half.
But to dismiss these two as purely attacking forces and disregard their defensive output would be unfair. Sure, Robertson is well-known as the more defensively sound of the two, but both full-backs become heavily involved in Klopp’s counter-pressing, winning the ball back quickly high up the pitch before launching fast attacks at disorientated opponents.
Furthermore, both have demonstrated expert reading of the game — something Alexander-Arnold particularly has improved on — covering right across the defensive line when their teammates are caught out of position. Alexander-Arnold has made more recoveries (182) than any Liverpool player in the Premier League this season, while Robertson ranks second among outfield players with 174.
Want further proof that the Liverpool pairing are the best around right now? Ex-Reds defender Luis Enrique said as much recently in an interview with the LFCTV.
“The same as I say with Andy Robertson, I say with Trent: he’s the best right-back in the world for the last two years as well and he’s only 21 still,” he said.
Honourable mentions: Thomas Meunier and Juan Bernat (PSG), Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi (Atletico Madrid), Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw (Man Utd), Angelino and Nordi Mukiele (RB Leipzig), George Baldock and Enda Stevens (Sheff Utd), Cesar Azpilicueta and Reece James (Chelsea).