Football Features

From 15 to 1: The greatest centre-backs in Premier League history

By Squawka News

Published: 9:30, 6 July 2023

The Premier League era has seen some absolutely world-class defenders.

Whatever else you think of the elite Premier League sides and their ability to thrill (or not thrill) with their attacking play, the quality of their centre-backs cannot be questioned.

The Premier League’s centre-backs have scaled some enormous heights, but which one ranks highest of all? Squawka have ranked the top 15.

If you’d make any changes to the order below, we’d love to hear them. Get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.

15. Ledley King

Club: Tottenham Hotspur

Years active: 1999-2012

Games played: 268

Trophies won: 2007/08 League Cup

Ledley King was a monumental centre-back when fit. The problem is that he just wasn’t fit very often. King could do it all, defend 1v1, defend space, mark tightly, be aggressive, sweep up and make recovery tackles. But those injuries, man… King is the Crown Prince of “what could have been.”

14. Kolo Toure

Clubs: Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool

Years active: 2002-2016

Games played: 354

Trophies won: FA Cup (2), FA Community Shield (2), Premier League (2)

It’s easy to forget as he morphed into something of a meme (especially when his brother, a genuine world-class superstar, joined the league in 2010) but Kolo Touré was spectacular once upon a time. A phenomenally athletic defender, he was a key part of Arsenal’s “Invincibles” season.

13. Sami Hyypia

Club: Liverpool

Years active: 1999-2009

Games played: 317

Trophies won: FA Cup (2), League Cup (2), FA Community Shield (2), 2000/01 UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup (2), 2004/05 UEFA Champions League

A decade of destruction from this Finn who was a rock at the back for Liverpool through good seasons and bad. Won everything except a Premier League title, but that should not diminish his stature as there were times when he genuinely looked impassable.

12. Jamie Carragher

Club: Liverpool

Years active: 1996-2013

Games played: 508

Trophies won: FA Cup (2), League Cup (3), FA Community Shield (2), 2000/01 UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup (2), 2004/05 UEFA Champions League

Carragher learned his trade as a right-back before shifting to centre-back. He was never the most glamorous of players and his penchant for own goals (and his lack of Premier League medal) knock him down this list, but he was an incredible defender and key to Liverpool’s 08/09 title challenge that fell short because of attacking woes, not any issue with him.

11. Jaap Stam

Club: Manchester United

Years active: 1998-2001

Games played: 79

Trophies won: Premier League (3), 1998/99 FA Cup, 1998/99 UEFA Champions League, 1999 Intercontinental Cup

Beloved by Manchester United fans probably because, in addition to being excellent, he was really “hard” and his exit was followed by a slew of United centre-backs that were anything but. Yes, he was excellent for two years, but it was just two years. So let’s not go nuts.

10. Vincent Kompany

Club: Manchester City

Years active: 2008-2019

Games played: 265

Trophies won: FA Cup (2), Premier League (4), FA Community Shield (2), League Cup (4)

Captain. Leader. Legend. Vincent Kompany was an absolute colossus at the back for Manchester City, playing a huge role as the club emerged from the shadows to become a genuine force in England (backed by billions, but still!) – the only reason he’s so far down is because he missed so much time due to picking up various injuries and City were often hideous without him. The King of “what could have been.”

9. Steve Bruce

Club: Manchester United

Years active: 1992-1996

Games played: 147

Trophies won: FA Cup (3), FA Community Shield (3), 1990/91 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, 1991 UEFA Super Cup, 1991/92 League Cup, Premier League (3)

A brilliant all-action centre-back and the first ever Premier League-winning captain. Bruce even managed to score the goal that sealed the title way back in 1993. He led United to two further triumphs before leaving after his second double in 1996. Old-school, but absolutely mighty.

8. Ricardo Carvalho

Club: Chelsea

Years active: 2004-2010

Games played: 135

Trophies won: Premier League (3), League Cup (2), FA Community Shield (2)

Brought an air of class and skill to Chelsea in 2004/05, helping turn the Blues into bonafide title winners. His composure, skill and winning mentality were superb and he taught John Terry everything he knows. Left after helping Chelsea win their third title in six years.

7. Gary Pallister

Clubs: Manchester United, Middlesbrough

Years active: 1992-2001

Games played: 262

Trophies won: FA Cup (3), FA Community Shield (5), 1990/91 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, 1991 UEFA Super Cup, 1991/92 League Cup, Premier League (4)

A magnificent centre-back, Gary Pallister could do everything. He was powerful, he was tall and yet he was also fast. He possessed an incredible skill level and was absolutely essential for Manchester United as they established their dominance over the early years of the Premier League.

6. Nemanja Vidic

Club: Manchester United

Years active: 2006-2014

Games played: 211

Trophies won: League Cup (3), Premier League (5), FA Community Shield (5), 2007/08 UEFA Champions League, 2008 FIFA Club World Cup

After some initial jitters, this Serbian powerhouse fit perfectly into Manchester United’s defence and was the powerful presence they needed as they ran roughshod over the Premier League for nearly a decade. Would be higher up the list but the routine eviscerations he suffered at the hands of anyone with pace and skill (Milan Baros, Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, etc.) knock him down.

5. Virgil van Dijk

Club: Southampton, Liverpool

Years active: 2015-present

Trophies won: 2018/19 Uefa Champions League, 2019 Uefa Super Cup, 2019 FIFA Club World Cup, 2019/20 Premier League, 2021/22 League Cup, 2021/22 FA Cup

Virgil van Dijk arrived at Southampton from Celtic in 2015 and was an instant hit at the heart of the Saints defence, but it’s safe to say it’s his move to Liverpool which has really elevated him.

“I think he’s the best centre-half of all time. He’s bigger than everyone, he’s faster than everyone, he’s stronger than everyone, he’s brilliant on the ball, he scores goals. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Michael Owen on Virgil van Dijk in 2022

The Dutch giant his been imperious in the air, unbeatable on the ground and has completely changed the fortunes of Jurgen Klopp’s side. Van Dijk picked up the PFA Player’s Player of the Year and Premier League Player of the Season awards at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, as well as lifting the Uefa Champions League title. But he would go one step further the following year, helping Liverpool win their first league title in 30 years in 2019/20, conceding just 33 goals. In doing so, he also became just the fifth outfield player to play every minute of a Premier League title-winning campaign. (joining Pallister and one other centre-back on this list).

You could argue for him to be even higher, but right now any movement has been hampered by a bit of drop from his high standards after suffered an ACL injury in 2020/21 that seems to have affected him a bit.

4. Tony Adams

Club: Arsenal

Years active: 1992-2002

Games played: 255

Trophies won: 1992/93 League Cup, FA Cup (3), 1993/94 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, Premier League (2), FA Community Shield (2)

Mr Arsenal was perhaps the embodiment of Arsene Wenger’s transformative effect on the Gunners. Had big success before the Premier League era began, but once it had he was still the leader of Arsenal’s legendary back four, the peerless defensive platform that allowed Wenger to build one of the best attacks in England in such a short time. Also: that goal against Everton.

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3. Sol Campbell

Clubs: Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Portsmouth

Years active: 1992-2009

Games played: 503

Trophies won: 1998/99 League Cup, Premier League (2), FA Cup (3), 2004 FA Community Shield

During his 17-year career, Sol Campbell won trophies for Spurs and Portsmouth. In between that he was Arsenal’s best defender as they won the Premier League unbeaten. But seriously, he won trophies for Spurs and Portsmouth.

His 2008 FA Cup prevented a Manchester United Treble, and his 1999 League Cup stopped United’s Treble from being a Quadruple. He was an absolute colossus.

2. Rio Ferdinand

Clubs: West Ham, Leeds, Manchester United, QPR

Years active: 1995-2015

Games played: 503

Trophies won: 1999 UEFA Intertoto Cup, Premier League (6), FA Community Shield (6), League Cup (3), 2007/08 UEFA Champions League, 2008 FIFA Club World Cup

A Rolls Royce of a defender. Often looked as though he wasn’t trying, but that was mostly because he was just that goddamn good. Incredibly gifted with the ball at his feet, his presence at the back allowed the Uniteds (West Ham, Leeds and Manchester) to play with the ball from back to front. Despite his reputation as a joker, he was an incredible leader who was pivotal to a young Leeds side to the 2001 Champions League semi-finals.

Later, he even captained Manchester United to their 2008 Champions League triumph; playing particularly well in the semi-final where, despite Vidic’s absence, they blanked Barcelona twice. He was simply magnificent.

1. John Terry

Club: Chelsea

Years active: 1998-2017

Games played: 492

Trophies won: FA Cup (5), Premier League (5), FA Community Shield (4), League Cup (3), 2011/12 UEFA Champions League, 2012/13 UEFA Europa League

Terry had the pleasure of being a leading part of some of the Premier League’s great sides at Stamford Bridge. His laundry list of wrongdoings must be acknowledged, but his on-field defensive excellence is unquestionable. John Terry has the most clean sheets of any single defender in Premier League history and is also the highest-scoring defender in Premier League history. He also played every minute of the 2014/15 Premier League season en route to the title. Whatever else he is, he was very good at defending on a football pitch.