Centre-backs are of huge importance to a team in both attack and defence. Whereas before defenders were seen to be purely defenders, Pep Guardiola’s 2008
Centre-backs are of huge importance to a team in both attack and defence.
Whereas before defenders were seen to be purely defenders, Pep Guardiola’s 2008 revolution popularised Johan Cruyff’s belief that centre-backs should be the team’s first playmakers. Now everyone wants defenders who can play, but those rugged stoppers haven’t gone out of fashion either, no matter how much people want to lament there being “no good defenders” around anymore.
The best centre-back duos often combine one of each type of player to create a robust and fully covered defence. And where better to see the best centre-back duos than the Champions League? We’ve had a look and come up with a list of some of the most interesting defensive duos left in the competition and seen how they functioned.
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Niklas Sule and David Alaba
As always, there’s nowhere better to start than the champions and their centre-back pairing. Jerome Boateng does also play occasionally but it’s clear that when everyone is fit, Sule and Alaba are the choices. And who could blame Hansi Flick?
Sule is an absolute monster. Considering how big he is, he doesn’t really dominate in the air but is phenomenal on the deck, stepping into passing lanes to thwart opponents and absolutely devastating opponents in the tackle. Meanwhile, Alaba has taken his ball-playing skills into centre-back and sprays passes all around the field to kick start Bayern’s attacks. They are the perfect duo.
Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe
PSG’s centre-back pairing have taken their time to find their feet as a pairing but showed against Barcelona why they are coming into their own. Neither is an expansive passer, with Marquinhos being the epitome of an old-school “shut it down” stopper who excels in defensive duels. Kimpembe is even more restrained with his passes, however, the Frenchman is fond of dribbling out from the back and driving it up the field that way. For a team full of star forwards, it’s apt that PSG’s centre-backs are strictly defence-first.
“The Unlikely Lads”
Ozan Kabak and Jordan Henderson
This next partnership is very new, and has only played one game together in the Champions League (two counting the Premier League) but had to be mentioned for two reasons. One: Liverpool have an impressive record in Europe this season with five clean sheets and just three goals conceded. And Two: it’s a perfectly balanced partnership.
Henderson is a midfielder but is settling nicely into playing defence, with his phenomenal range of passing giving the Reds a real thrust to their build-up play from the very start. His ability to launch it over the top is such a dangerous weapon. Kabak, meanwhile, is almost the complete opposite; an aerial powerhouse who protects the Liverpool defence in the air and carries the ball out from the back.
We’re not saying this is 2021’s version of Piqué and Mascherano, but we’re not not saying that either.
“The Pep Method”
John Stones and Ruben Dias
Pep Guardiola likes passing. He likes it a lot. In fact, he likes it so much that his team’s primary mode of defending is through passing and controlling possession. As a result, John Stones has almost no presence in defensive metrics and Ruben Dias is only a minor presence. With the ball, however, these two are incredible.
Both men play a staggering number of passes forward, nearly always short, and start City’s attacks with laser-guided precision. And it’s clearly worked so far as City have won their last 16 games across all competitions and are unbeaten in this season’s Champions League having conceded just once.
It’s this sort of form which sees the Premier League leaders as favourites to secure their first-ever Champions League title according to SkyBet, who give them an outright price of 11/4. (18+ only. Odds correct at time of publication. T&Cs apply. BeGambleAware.)
Chancel Mbemba and Malang Sarr
In a shocking twist, Porto have had one of the best defensive records in this season’s Champions League and these two centre-backs are a big reason why. Eased into the competition playing in a three with veteran Pepé, they’ve since established themselves as a partnership. Like Manchester City, they’ve done so primarily through their passing play on the ball (albeit not at the same level) and have led Porto to an impressive five clean sheets with just three goals conceded.
They’re both adept passers but Mbemba shows his experience by also being more comfortable bringing the ball out from the back, while Sarr sticks to passing. Bizarrely, Porto’s defensive record in the Primeira Liga is poor; they’ve shipped 21 goals which is only the sixth-best in the division so maybe they just get really hyped for the Champions League anthem?
“The Old Men”
Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini
No list of centre-backs duos could be complete without these two old stagers, could it? Juve tend to play a back three these days but these two are always in it if fit and when Juve play a two, both (or usually one, given fitness) is in there despite the emergence of Matthijs de Ligt. They’re both exceptional passers with Bonucci in particular launching long-range efforts like he’s an ICBM silo.
While both men avoid duels by sticking to the Paolo Maldini rule of “if I have to make a tackle, I’ve made a mistake,” they’re both keen interceptors of the ball, reading passing lanes like Tumblr reads fanfiction. Voraciously.
These old men are still doing the business for the Old Lady.