‘Defence wins championships,’ as the saying goes. So which clubs have the difference-making guns down back; the best defenders in the Premiers League?
They are arguably the most important position on the pitch; the leaders at the back who knit a side together and create a solid foundation the rest of their team is able to flourish off.
Long gone are the days where centre backs’ paramount priority was to defend their box with the bravery of a knight defending his kingdom. In the modern game, these men have more on their plate than a charcuterie board.
Defending is, of course, important. But so too is breaking lines with passing and the ability to operate within both an aggressive high press and conservative low block.
So we’ve undertaken the difficult task of breaking down the five best defenders, or more specifically the greatest central defenders in the Premier League, as season 2023-24 unfolds.
Best defenders in the Premier League, 2023-24: Top 5 centre backs
Let’s unpack our choice for the five best defenders in the Premier League, starting at the top.
1. Virgil van Dijk – Liverpool
He may not boast the same aura as when he first burst onto the scene at Liverpool a few years ago, but make no mistake, the Dutch giant remains one of the league’s toughest walls to crack. Van Dijk is the prototype modern defender; the perfect cocktail of speed, technical ability, strength, physicality, and aerial prowess. Perhaps the greatest compliment you could pay him is that his game would seamlessly translate into any generation of football.
Assuming the role of club captain vacated by Jordan Henderson’s departure to Saudi Arabia will place extra responsibility on the Dutchman’s sturdy shoulders. And yet, something suggests he may relish, not shirk, from his added leadership and guide a young, exciting, but unfinished Liverpool through a potential turbulent season.
2. Ruben Dias – Manchester City
When fully fit, the Portuguese defender is one of the few City players – alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland – who can stake a claim to being a locked-on starter for Pep Guardiola each week. And rightly so. Not only is Ruben Dias a consistent defender who operates with the grace and class of a ballerina, but in possession he is the perfect cog in the Guardiola machine.
Early into the season, Dias boasts averages of 4.5 recoveries, 1.5 tackles, and 1 clearance per game, whilst also maintaining a 96 per cent pass accuracy from over 90 passes per game. If City have any chance to replicate their achievements from last season, their talismanic Portuguese rock must remain fit and firing for as many games as possible.
3. John Stones – Manchester City
I know what you’re thinking; is John Stones truly a centre back anymore? Across the 2022/23 season he played an equal number of matches in the heart of defence (16) as he did at right back and defensive midfield combined (16). Despite this, he remains one of the finest defenders in the Premier League and one of Pep’s most trusted lieutenants. His nomination for PFA Player of the Year and inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year attest to this.
Would City have won the treble without the former Everton plugging holes and putting out fires across the pitch throughout the season? Who knows, but it seems unlikely.
4. William Saliba – Arsenal
If, at the start of the season, you’d suggested to any football fan that Arsenal’s title challenge in the 2022/23 Premier League season hinged on the health of their 21-year-old French centre back, almost all would’ve dismissed you as crazy. And yet, that was the case. At such a young age William Saliba not only cemented himself as the most important defender at the club but also one of the finest in the Premier League.
In 27 games last season, the Frenchman made over 1 tackle and 3 clearances per game while maintaining a high pass completion rate (91%). His physical attributes, including his outstanding pace and aerial prowess, were the perfect fit for an Arsenal side that in previous seasons had been considered far too soft at the back for any kind of silverware charge. If the Gunners’ upward trajectory is to continue, Saliba will undoubtedly be at the heart of it.
Levi Colwill – Chelsea
An argument can be made that the 20-year-old isn’t even the best centre back at his own club, given the presence of the experienced and ever-reliable Brazilian, Thiago Silva. However, what can’t be disputed is the supreme talent the Englishman has displayed not just throughout the early stages of this season, but also the back end of his loan spell at Brighton last season.
In Mauricio Pochettino’s back-three system, the young central defender is tasked with covering for marauding left wing back Ben Chilwell. This led to Colwil averaging 4.3 ball recoveries over the opening three games of this season and his 1.3 tackles and 2.7 clearances further highlights his incredible defensive solidity. On the other side of the ball, the 6-foot 2 centre back is comfortable in possession, capable of playing line breaking passes and pushing high up the pitch to engage in Chelsea’s build up. Already this season, the young defender has created one big chance for his teammates.
If you don’t agree he’s in the top five best defenders yet, fine. But it won’t be long.