Attack is king in modern football, but a great defence is key to success and a great defence relies on its centre-backs.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City can steamroll Premier Leagues for fun but besides Ruben Dias their defenders are all capable of erratic moments and in the high-pressure environment of the Champions League, they succumb to pressure and fold, which is why City are yet to win the big cup despite being arguably the best side in the world since 2017.
Conversely Liverpool’s centre-backs are mostly unflappable, and as a result they’ve made three Champions League finals since 2017. Another great example was this year’s Europa League where Barcelona had the best team on paper but were completely torn apart by Eintracht Frankfurt because Eric Garcia made key errors at key junctures in the tie.
You need centre-backs to succeed. At every level. Look at Burnley finally getting relegated because captain Ben Mee missed the last 13 games of the season through injury. They’re essential, so we’ve had a look around Europe’s top seven leagues (the big five plus Portugal and the Netherlands) and come up with a list of names that will be divided into the two kinds of centre-back.
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With modern football’s focus on possession and match control, almost all elite teams around the world require their centre-backs to be capable with the ball at their feet. They have to be able to participate in the build-up, often in risky systems that see them playing higher up the pitch than a traditional centre-back would like to.
The Argentine defender is an absolutely immaculate footballer with a tremendous passing range. In 2021/22 he played 46.18 passes per 90 minutes inside the opposition half. Lisandro brings the ball to you! Defensively he’s also aggressive, with 4.48 possessions won in the middle third, and 0.47 successful offside traps triggered per 90.
Staying in the Eredivisie there is PSV’s Frenchman Boscagli. An elegant defender, the 24-year-old has 4.7 possessions won in the middle third as well as 0.34 offside traps triggered. He’s not as prolific as passer as Martinez, but he still dominates further up the pitch with 39.98 passes per 90 in the opposition half and 30.2 forward passes through the season.
Over in the Bundesliga at RB Leipzig is another ball-playing wonder in Josko Gvardiol. The 20-year-old Croatian joined Leipzig a year ago and has had a very impressive debut campaign, playing 28 times in the Bundesliga. Over the course of the campaign, he won possession in the middle-third 3.95 times per 90 while making 32.37 passes in the opposition half. He is fierce and combative and at such a young age has an immensely bright future ahead.
Of course, Gvardiol may cost a fair bit given he only just arrived at Leipzig, and so a more budget-friendly option would be Brighton’s Adam Webster. The 27–year-old saw his season limited by injury but his quality is such that Brighton won just one of the 12 games he missed through injury. While he doesn’t press as much (a function of Brighton’s shape and system) he has triggered 0.63 successful offside traps per 90, attempted 31.76 passes per 90 in the opposition half and a very direct 33.96 forward passes per 90.
The standout ball-playing centre-back on the market, however, has to be back where we started at Ajax: Jurrien Timber. This young dynamo really emerged into a starter this season and has already been rumoured to be following Erik ten Hag to Manchester United.
Whether Timber goes there or to another big club, whoever ends up with his services will be getting a top-class ball-playing centre-back. At the age of just 20, Timber won possession in the middle third 3.91 times per 90, made 39.75 passes per 90 in the opposition half while playing 26.96 forward passes per 90. He is perhaps not as polished as Martinez, but is younger and has a higher ceiling due to his explosive athletic ability.
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Of course sometimes you just need a centre-back to defend. Nothing fancy, just get that damn ball away from the goal.
If you’re a fan of such an approach, then David Garcia of Osasuna might appeal. The 28-year-old helped the side from Pamplona to a 10th-placed finish in La Liga last season, attempting 4.81 clearances per 90, winning 3.94 aerial duels and making 0.35 interceptions inside his own box.
Also accustomed to defending deep is Brentford’s Jamaican international. Pinnock helped the Bees to an impressive 13th-placed finish in their first Premier League season. Pinnock is a tough, no nonsense defender who helped them claim some serious scalps along the way. Pinnock won 4.77 aerial duels per 90, attempted 4.94 clearances per 90 and made 0.27 interceptions in his own box.
Ethan Pinnock has won more duels than any other defender in the Premier League this season and has the best duel win rate of any player to win 150+ duels:
◉ 207 duels won
◉ 68.5% duel success
He's only committed seven fouls in 29 league appearances. 👏 pic.twitter.com/KSeZNU90ny
— Squawka (@Squawka) March 25, 2022
Staying in the Premier League, relegated Burnley provide an interesting old-school centre-back option. While a move for James Tarkowski is obviously, it could also be expensive. However, young Nathan Collins, who stepped into the side last season when Mee was injured and performed so admirably Burnley were happy to let Mee leave for free this summer, could be a smarter pick-up. In his 1,669 minutes of Premier League play the 21-year-old attempted 4.37 clearances and won 3.18 aerial duels while making 0.05 last man tackles per 90 minutes.
The last two options, and comfortably the biggest and best players here, are Eintracht Frankfurt pair Evan Ndicka and Martin Hinteregger. At just 22 years old, Ndicka has mountains of potential to go with his already potent skill level. The Frenchman won 3.53 aerial duels and attempted 4.16 clearances per 90 in the Bundesliga last season. He’s mobile, powerful and excels in 1-v-1 situations.
Hinteregger isn’t quite as dominant and is older at 29, but if you watched his display against Barcelona in the Europa League it was a masterclass of last ditch old-school defending. In the Bundesliga he attempted 3.12 clearances per 90 and won 2.43 aerial duels; but across two legs against Barcelona he made six tackles, four interceptions and a whopping 15 clearances.
Martin Hinteregger's game by numbers vs. Barcelona:
12x possession won
9 duels contested
8 duels won
7 final third entries
4 accurate long balls
— Squawka (@Squawka) April 7, 2022