Football Features

Ranked: The top 10 Premier League centre-back partnerships

By Squawka News

Published: 12:17, 22 April 2019

As we reach the closing weeks of the 2018/19 Premier League season, it has been another year of heartbreaks and breakthroughs.

Liverpool and Manchester City are currently battling it out at the top of the table for domestic dominance, with both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp locking horns in one of the most fiercely competitive title races for many a year.

We’ve seen both teams more cautious in their approach to matches at times. The 0-0 draw between the pair at Anfield right at the start of the season was a perfect example of this. It wasn’t the open, end-to-end encounter that many expected after the thrilling battles between the two sides last season.

Of course, the basis for a good defensive record is a solid centre-back partnership.

Some managers feel they have the strength in depth to rotate the players they use at centre-half at times, but there are certain defenders that the manager trusts more than others.

We’ve been having a good think about the Premier League’s very best centre-back partnerships and have come up with our own top 10 below.

We should mention that, because we’re focusing on partnerships here, we’re not including Wolves, Newcastle or Arsenal, who all predominantly play a back three.

10. Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk (Brighton)

Brighton are enduring a woeful spell at the minute, cautiously peering over their shoulders as they precariously languish just outside the bottom three, though it hasn’t been a sloppiness at the back that has caused their relegation battle, but rather a lack of edge in the final third.

Were it not for Duffy and Dunk, the Seagulls would likely be sitting alongside Huddersfield at the foot of the table.

The dynamic duo began the season in fine form, with the latter impressing so much that he received a first England cap against the United States.

Granted things haven’t gone according to plan this season, but their exploits at the back have seen Brighton concede the least number of goals of any club below 13th, as well as conceding less goals than West Ham in 11th.

Both Dunk and Duffy also rank in the top five for most blocks made by any centre-back in the league this season with 39 shots blocked and 33 respectively. Duffy has also scored the most goals (five) of any centre-back and won the second-most aerial duels (175).

9. Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan (Leicester)

When fully available this pairing appears to be the Foxes go-to partnership, with the duo forming an industrious and tenacious acquaintanceship over the past two years.

Jonny Evans has played a key role this season, but the Maguire-Morgan partnership has kept more clean sheets than any other Leicester combination, such is the understanding between two players who were the foundation of the club’s top-half finish last term.

At 35 Morgan may not be a regular feature at the back for the East Midlands club next season, but for now the seasoned centre-back continues to produce authoritative displays as well as demonstrating his leadership qualities.

Maguire (308 clearances, 44 blocks) and Morgan (387 clearances, 62 blocks) are also the only two players for Leicester in the Premier League this season to have made 300+ clearances and 40+ blocks.

The former will be instrumental to Brendan Rodgers’ style of play going forward, with Maguire making the third-most key passes (10) of any centre-back in the league this term.

8. Craig Cathcart and Adrian Mariappa (Watford) 

Javi Gracia has appeared to have settled on a centre-back partnership of Mariappa and Cathcart of late, and his decision has paid huge dividends with the club recently reaching only a second FA Cup final in their 138-year history.

The Hornets are also enjoying a stellar campaign in the Premier League with the club currently eighth; and that has been in no short part thanks to the defensive resoluteness of both Mariappa and Cathcart.

Christian Kabasele was the in-form man at the start of the season, but Mariappa has been able to fight for his place and cement a starting berth at Vicarage Road, displacing the Belgium international as a result.

Cathcart has scored more headed goals than any centre-back in the Premier League this season (three).

7. Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof (Manchester United)

Jose Mourinho utilised Smalling and Lindelof at the start of the season, but his team selections were far too sporadic and volatile.

However, since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the helm, Smalling and Lindelof have blossomed, forging a very formidable partnership, which saw them keep clean sheets against Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as keeping PSG to just one goal during their famous European  win at Le Parc des Princes.

It can therefore come as no surprise that United’s recent slump has coincided with Solskjaer tinkering with his tactics and breaking up the partnership.

No team has made fewer errors leading to goals by defenders in the Premier League this season than Man United (one).

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6. James Tomkins and Mamadou Sakho (Crystal Palace)

Prior to Sakho’s injury in February, which ruled him out until the end of the season, the Frenchman was enjoying a very productive campaign alongside Tomkins.

Such was Sakho’s form at the back for Palace that he earned a recall to Didier Deschamps’ Les Bleus squad in November.

Tomkins, meanwhile, has been an ever-present under the watchful eye of the evergreen Roy Hodgson, helping the Eagles to climb up to 12th in the league and secure their top-flight status for a seventh consecutive year.

Outside the top four, Sakho has made the fourth-most short passes of any centre-back in the league this season (1112).

5. Kurt Zouma and Michael Keane (Everton)

When Yerry Mina pitched up at Goodison Park from Barcelona many Evertonians would have been expecting the mountainous Colombian centre-back to revolutionise the club’s defence.

However, injuries have hampered his maiden campaign on Merseyside, but Toffees fans need not worry, as Chelsea loanee Zouma and England international Keane have been sensational in recent outings.

Marco Silva has transformed his season after an extremely tentative start to his tenure, and integral to that upturn has been the centre-back partnership of Zouma and Keane.

The duo have formed a devastating bulwark of late, keeping three clean sheet in the previous four matches they have been deployed together, including against Man Utd and Liverpool.

Keane has been involved in the second-most aerial duels this season of any Premier League centre-back (279).

4. David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)

Many were unsure which Chelsea centre-backs would emerge as Maurizio Sarri’s first-choice pairing this season.

The likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen impressed as part of a back three under Antonio Conte last season.

But Sarri has put his faith in Rudiger and Luiz and they’ve certainly not let him down.

Both players have started 32 league games each for Chelsea and the Blues have leaked just 37 goals with only Liverpool, Man City and Spurs bettering that defensive return.

The pair seem to be the ideal centre-back duo for Sarri. Both are physical and positionally intelligent but are also very good with the ball at their feet.

Only Virgil van Dijk has attempted more passes than Rudiger of any centre-back in the league this season (2509).

3. John Stones and Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)

Pep Guardiola has tinkered with his defensive tactics on numerous occasions this campaign, but the partnership of Stones and Laporte has flourished whenever the Catalonian has opted to utilise them.

Laporte has come of age this season, forming a key part of Guardiola’s well-drilled defensive line, with his ball-playing skills proving indispensable to the Citizens’ high-octane style of play.

City have conceded just 22 goals this campaign, keeping 17 clean sheets in that time. Their defensive resoluteness has often been overshadowed by the club’s world-class brilliance in the final third, but the form of Stones and Laporte should not be trivialised.

Laporte has completed more successful passes of any centre-back in the league this season (2448) while Stones has completed the sixth-most (1648).

2. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham)

Two centre-back’s who have established themselves as two of the Premier League’s best and two of Europe’s best in recent years.

Last season was a difficult one for Alderweireld. He didn’t play as much football as he’d have liked and he was expected to move on in the summer transfer window.

No move was forthcoming, though, and he has since returned to form and, once again, become an essential cog in the heart of the Spurs backline alongside his countryman Vertonghen.

Together the Belgian duo have helped Spurs reach the Champions League semi-finals as well as thrive in the Premier League. Mauricio Pochettino also has the luxury of switching to a back three should he choose, with Davinson Sanchez a more than capable option for the Argentine.

1. Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip (Liverpool)

The defence has been a real problem area for Liverpool in recent years so it’s no surprise a lot has been made of their much-improved record at the back this season.

Van Dijk has well-and-truly justified the £75m fee that the Reds splashed on him in January 2018. It’s his presence at the back that has been the main factor in the Reds’ excellent defensive form this season.

Dejan Lovren finished last season as Van Dijk’s centre-back partner, but his injury issues at the start of this campaign gave Joe Gomez a chance to step forward and he really took his opportunity.

However, injury soon struck the Charlton academy graduate down and Matip has since stepped in. His awareness, distribution from the back and aggression are perhaps his most impressive attributes and he has proven an astute acquisition since joining the club on a free in 2016.

Since Matip has stepped in, the Liverpool defence has continued to prosper, proving imperious with Matip and Van Dijk at the heart of operations, helping the club reach the Champions League semi-finals as well as the distinct possibility of clinching a first ever Premier League title.