The 2020/21 Premier League campaign is approaching its final furlong and while teams themselves will be focusing on their individual finishes, it’s also the perfect time to start looking at the players of the season.
On paper, it’s often the attackers who get most of the credit, given the easy identifiers of goals and assists. But at the heart of every great team is a solid defence, and excellent defenders. And the 2020/21 campaign is no different.
But who have been the best defenders in the Premier League so far this season? We’ve broken them down into four categories (centre-backs, right-backs, left-backs and wing-backs) based on their recorded minutes per position and the impact they’ve made for their respective clubs, picking a best player for every category (plus a list of honourable mentions).
Despite all the criticism and international snubs, Trent Alexander-Arnold has more assists (four) and chances created (51) than any other right-back and is finding form at the right moment as Liverpool chase Champions League glory.
Leeds’ Luke Ayling has made more tackles (80) than any other right-back and has played all but 20 minutes so far this season (2,680 minutes played).
Reece James has set in an incredible 5.92 crosses per-90 minutes in the Premier League and has managed to establish himself as Chelsea’s first-choice right-back and a contender to start for England at Euro 2020.
When it comes to pure defending no one can touch Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The Man Utd man has the second-most tackles (77) and second-most interceptions (48) among all right-backs and routinely locks down his entire flank.
1. Joao Cancelo
- Age: 26
- Club: Manchester City
Due to his performances in recent weeks, some may see Joao Cancelo as more of a left-back, but the Portuguese defender has more game time on the right. Regardless of which flank he fits into, Cancelo has been the best this season. The 26-year-old has truly thrived in Pep Guardiola’s system which allows him to move into the midfield and make the most of his passing abilities, with the versatile defender’s 4.69 expected assists (xA) second only to Alexander-Arnold in the Premier League this season. You’d think his movement further up the pitch would make Cancelo defensively open, but the Portuguese averages 2.49 tackles per 90 minutes as part of the best defence in the league, with City conceding just 21 goals.
Andrew Robertson was the undisputed best left-back for years but has felt the burn of Liverpool’s poor season quite acutely. He’s still been good, curling in 234 crosses (first among left-backs) and picking up five assists (third), but he’s not been exactly himself.
Speaking of assists, no left-back has more than Aaron Cresswell does (seven) and no left-back has created more big chances (nine) either. The West Ham man has been genuinely brilliant.
Everton’s Lucas Digne has had to contend with injuries limiting his appearances but the Frenchman has 0.4 big chances created per-90 minutes (more than any other left-back).
Kieran Tierney has been absolutely sensational for Arsenal. In fact if you were to argue he had been their best player this season there’s not many people who would disagree with you, which is probably bad for the Gunners but reflects Tierney’s excellence.
And Leicester’s James Justin deserves special praise. A right-back by trade, this 23-year-old was reborn this season as an incredible left-back. Despite picking up a season-ending injury in the middle of February, his 61 tackles was such an impressive total that it was only beaten this past weekend, two months after he last played. Get well soon, James!
1. Luke Shaw
- Age: 25
- Club: Manchester United
There were so many people who wrote Luke Shaw off in the past, including former Manchester United managers, but the Englishman has proven them all wrong this season to become one of the top full-backs in the Premier League. Solid defensively, for Shaw it’s all about what he adds to the attack and the 25-old has been Man Utd’s most creative player not called Bruno Fernandes, creating 53 chances in the Premier League so far this season (more than any other left-back), notching five assists (third among left-back) and creating seven big chances (fourth). The ‘Luke Shawshank Redemption’ has been truly complete, and it’s wonderful!
Bobby Decordova-Reid has played all up and down the right-flank for Fulham but has seen significant game-time as a wing-back and his five goals and 29 shots are more than any other wing-back. He’s also Fulham’s top goalscorer this season.
Wolves’ Nelson Semedo hasn’t been a massive success since joining from Barcelona but he has more take-ons completed (50) and tackles (62) than any other wing-back so far this season.
Marc Albrighton won the Premier League with Leicester half a decade ago in midfield, but now has been transformed into a wing-back. From there he’s managed an impressive four assists, more than any other wing-back.
Meanwhile Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey has won hearts and minds the Premier League over with his dynamic and intense style of play. Lamptey is a phenomenal force both offensively and defensively (his 1.92 interceptions per-90 is top among wing-backs).
1. Solly March
- Age: 26
- Club: Brighton and Hove Albion
On the other side of Brighton’s team to Lamptey (and replacing him at times) has been Solly March. An attacking player by nature, March has slotted seamlessly into the wing-back role over the past few seasons, hitting his peak in 2020/21. The 26-year-old has created 1.45 chances per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, second only to Albrighton among wing-backs, while his expected assists (xA) of 2.53 also ranks second, and his 2.36 take-ons completed tops the charts. March has also been very good defensively, making 1.18 interceptions and 2.63 tackles per-90. March does it all.
Manchester United’s Harry Maguire has suffered the expectations brought on by his massive price tag but despite playing with a less than ideal partner most of the time, the United captain has been quietly excellent this season. Maguire has an immense 125 aerial duels won (second among centre-backs) and 79 headed clearances (also second). And while he’s not the quickest to turn, he’s also effective on the deck in cutting off counter-attacks, with 54 interceptions also second among all centre-backs.
Aston Villa’s centre-back duo of Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings both need recognition as they have been superb individually and as a duo. Together they have helped Aston Villa to the third-best defensive record in the league.
Michael Keane has come on leaps and bounds under Carlo Ancelotti and is now leading the Everton defence. An impressive 108 long passes completed and 123 clearances shows the breadth of his skill-set.
Leicester’s Wesley Fofana is only 20 years of age yet has more interceptions per-90 minutes (2.51) than any other centre-back with more than 1,000 minutes played this season.
Manchester City have the best defence in the league so it’s no real surprise that they have the best centre-backs too. John Stones is back in top form this season. The Englishman has completed a ridiculous 93.14% of his passes in the Premier League this season and his calming influence at the back has had a massive impact on Man City’s ability to defend with the ball.
1. Ruben Dias
- Age: 23
- Club: Manchester City
We’ve spoiled ourselves in putting that image above, but in Stones and Ruben Dias, Guardiola has almost identical centre-backs, with the Portuguese coming out just a little bit better. The summer arrival from Benfica has been arguably the best defensive signing in the Premier League since Liverpool bought Virgil van Dijk, and he is having the same impact on Man City’s defence.
Like Stones, Dias is best with the ball at his feet, and he has completed 93.52% of his attempted passes in the Premier League this season, misplacing just 157 of 2,421. The Portuguese defender also deals with more of Man City’s aerial defensive duties, and has won 62.5% of his 88 aerial duels. He is quite simply a top-class defender, one who Guardiola values for more than what he can do on the ball.
“He’s not just a player who plays good, he’s a player who makes the other guys play good too,” Guardiola recently said of Dias.
“It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes leading, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.
“When that happens, it’s difficult for me because he is undroppable. It’s quite similar like Eric (Garcia), Eric has this mentality to play 90 minutes and talk, lead the other ones.
“Hopefully the other central defenders – John, Aymer (Laporte), Nathan (Ake) – can learn and not just play for themselves and what they have to do, see what happens close to them. That’s why it’s a football game as a team, not just individuals.”
And with Ruben Dias in defence, City have been an incredible defensive team. They’ve conceded a league-lowest 21 goals but only 15 of those have come with Dias on the field. So 15 goals in 28 games, with 14 of those games ending in a clean sheet.
Unquestionably the best this season.