Who are the world's best central defenders?
It's a difficult question to answer. As the game has changed, so has the criteria by which defenders are judged. Twenty years ago, a good central defender might have been someone who hoofed the ball clear any time it fell within 10 feet of the penalty area and whose elbows were as vital to his game as his feet.
Nowadays, top defenders are expected to be able to pass and control the ball as well as midfielders. Being able to move the ball fluently from defence to attack is vital to the success of any team competing for the highest honours, and aimless punts up the field simply won't do any more. Timely interceptions, as much as last-ditch tackles, are seen as a mark of a world-class defender, while a smattering of goals is also expected from players who should be dominant in the air.
The following list tries to rank the world's best central defenders as of early 2012. In particular, it looks at those players who have recently contributed to their club or national team's success rather than just old stalwarts of the game. As such, there are a few players on this list who might come as a surprise.
Joleon Lescott? One of the world's best central defenders? Are you mad?
Possibly. But I think he's a very underrated player having a very good season.
Lescott has established himself as the starting partner for Vincent Kompany in the Premier League's meanest defence. In doing so, he has displaced the more experienced Kolo Toure and forced out Jerome Boateng (although whether that was entirely the right move by City is another matter).
He has presence in the air. He can pass the ball neatly. And he has also developed a knack of scoring crucial goals, as evidenced by his recent winner against Aston Villa.
He has versatility, being able to fill-in at left-back when needed, and, given John Terry's recent legal trouble, may well end up as part of England's starting XI in this year's European Championships.
As I said, underrated.
When you asked to captain your side at the age of 17, you're clearly something pretty special.
Still only 22 years old, Sakho has been a fixture of the Paris Saint-Germain team for around four years now and has also fought his way into the French national squad.
That he has kept his place in the PSG side despite the club's recent takeover by the mega-wealthy Qatari Investment Authority speaks volumes about Sakho's ability. Not only have the club not moved to find a replacement for him, they've been able to fend off the advances of other clubs who would have surely signed him without the protection that the Qatari money now gives the squad.
Another player who is versatile enough to play at left-back as well as centre-back, Sakho is known for his energetic yet composed displays. With many of France's old guard nearing retirement, and with PSG undoubtedly set for qualification for the Champions League next year, 2012 may well be the season that Sakho becomes a real star.
Despite Ajax's poor display in this season's Champions League, Jan Vertonghen's reputation for assured defensive displays continues to be noted around Europe.
Part of the superb current crop of Belgian players, Vertonghen won the Eredvisie with Ajax last season, and he will undoubtedly be hot property this summer once the transfer window opens.
While Vertonghen can tackle well, he can also be counted upon to make vital clearances for his club in what has been a difficult domestic campaign for Ajax so far.
A brilliant passer of the ball, Vertonghen is superb with the ball at his feet. Indeed, his ability to distribute the ball is so good that he is often played as a defensive midfielder for the Belgian national team. Vertonghen thus personifies one of the most important traits of the modern centre-back: He has the ability to start attacks as much as prevent them.
When Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United enter into a bidding war for you at the age of 19, you've clearly got something about you.
That Jones picked the team where he would be guaranteed the least playing time and where he would face the biggest battle to prove himself says a great deal about his ambition as a player. He wanted to play at the highest level and to win a place in a side which already boasted the likes of Vidic and Ferdinand.
Jones is good defensively, but managers like him because he is good enough to maraud forward and starts attacks. He can play at right-back and has also played as a defensive midfielder. He is also a big unit who will not be easily brushed off the ball.
This combination of strength and tackling prowess, combined with an ability to make timely interceptions, marks Jones out as a superb prospect. He has been vital to Manchester United's campaign so far this season. However, due to his age, he is still prone to lapses in concentration and is not as dominant in the air as he might be for someone of his size. Were he to iron out these faults in the future, he may move up this list in years to come.
Subotic has had an interesting career so far, to say the least.
After moving from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Germany in 1994, Subotic's family emigrated to America in the late '90s. While his sister was attempting to pursue a tennis career in Florida, Subotic was spotted by a coach of the US under-17 national team. Subotic subsequently played for the University of Southern Florida before making his way back to Germany to play for Mainz 05. All this happened before his 20th birthday.
After signing for Borussia Dortmund, Subotic's life has become slightly more stable, although he remains on the radar of many of Europe's top scouts. He was an important part of the Dortmund team that won the Bundesliga in 2011, although his performances in a Serbian shirt have not always been as impressive as his domestic form might suggest.
Regardless of his international form, Subotic continues to impress in Germany and has reportedly become a transfer target for Chelsea of late. That the Blues were reportedly willing to pay up to £17.5 million for Subotic's services shows that he has already established himself as a leading defensive talent. His main strengths lies in his composure on the ball, although, like Phil Jones, he is slightly weak in the air for a player who stands at 6'4".
While not necessarily an out-and-out centre-back, Ramos has proven himself to be be world-class in this position each time he has been asked to play there during his career at Madrid.
It's often forgotten now, but Ramos didn't start his career with the Merengues. Instead, he made the move to the Spanish capital from Sevilla as a 19-year-old for the considerable sum of €27 million. Yet he has proved to be worth every penny during the seven years he has spent with Real so far.
His ability to play in multiple defensive positions with equal ease are part of what makes Ramos such a strong addition to both the Madrid and Spanish national team squads. The plethora of medals he has won with both, where he has often filled in with consummate ease in the centre of defence when called upon, ensures him a place in our top 20.
Strong with the ball at his feet and in the air, it's easy to see why Ramos is shifted so frequently between full-back and central defence.
Despite being only 23 years old, Boateng has already played for several of Europe's top clubs.
After working his way up the youth ranks at Hertha Berlin, Boateng secured a move to Hamburg in August 2007. His impressive performances for the latter saw him break into the German national squad in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and also attracted the interest of nouveau riche Manchester City, who paid £10.4 million for the 22-year-old in June 2010.
Despite impressing in preseason friendlies, Boateng's time at Manchester City was largely an unhappy one. Due to his versatility, he was often asked to play at right-back, and he also suffered a series of injuries.
Fearful for his place in the German national side and unhappy at having to play at right-back, Boateng secured a move back to Germany in the summer of 2011, when Bayern Munich paid €13.5 for him. That Manchester City were able to recoup most of their original fee showed the high esteem in which he was still held in Germany.
Since moving to Munich, Boateng has shown why both they and City were willing to pay such large sums for such a young player. He has been a rock at the centre of the Bayern defence which is currently challenging for the German title. His combination of power and technique will likely ensure him a place in Germany's national side for many years to come.
Pepe might be higher up this list if it were not for the controversy which appears to have followed him on a regular basis in recent years.
Born in Brazil, Pepe secured a transfer to Portuguese side Porto in 2004. He became a Portuguese citizen in 2007 and has represented the Portugese national side on multiple occasions since then, being named as part of the Euro 2008 side of the tournament.
His brilliant performances in central defence helped drive Porto to two league championships and also caught the eyes of scouts from Real Madrid. So impressed were they with Pepe that Madrid shelled out a whopping €30 million for the defender in 2007, a fee he began to almost immediately repay when he helped Real to the Spanish league title in 2008.
Unfortunately, since then, Pepe has been a player who has appears to have been affected by Barcelona's rise to dominance and has been at the centre of several controversies in meetings between the two sides. While he may have been unlucky to have seen red in the semifinal of the 2011 Champions League, his apparent stamp on Leo Messi's hand during the quarterfinal of the 2012 Copa del Rey drew less sympathy. Pepe was even moved to apologize on Madrid's website due to the stinging criticism the incident drew in the media.
A composed player on the ball and particularly strong in the tackle, Pepe's main weakness is in the form of aerial duels. Still, if Madrid do take the championship from Barcelona this season, it will be in no small part due to the strong performances of Pepe in the centre of the Merengues defence.
There is perhaps no central defender playing in Europe whose star has risen so far and so quickly as Laurent Koscielny's during the last two years.
As late as 2009, Koscielny was toiling in the French second division. But after an impressive season with first division Lorient in 2009-10, Arsene Wenger decided to pay around €10 million for the French player of Polish descent in the summer of 2010.
Koscielny's Arsenal career got off to what can only be called an inauspicious start: He was red-carded on his debut against Liverpool.
Yet after a patchy first season for Arsenal, Koscielny now seems to have hit his stride and has been an outstanding performer for the Gunners this in 2011-12, both at home and in Europe. Koscielny has particularly played well when paired with Arsenal's gentle giant Per Mertesacker. Mertesacker's ability to read the game and make timely interceptions has contrasted nicely with Koscielny's all-action approach to the game.
He leads Arsenal in almost every defensive category this season, and it's no surprise that Arsenal's recent collapse against Milan truly began once Koscielny had been forced off the field with injury.
His break-out performances have been rewarded with a call-up to the French national squad. Should his current form continue, he will likely be a strong candidate to start for France in the coming European Championships and may even force himself into the PFA team of the year.
It is a testament to Mascherano's considerable defensive talents that he can justifiably be included in a list of the world's best centre-backs without it even being his favoured position.
Mascherano arrived in Europe with much fanfare on the deadline day of the summer 2006 transfer window, when he "joined" West Ham in a complicated move marred by issues relating to third-party ownership . Unlike Carlos Tevez, Mascherano never settled at West Ham, and he soon moved to Liverpool, where he established himself as a vital part of The Red's midfield.
Since joining Barcelona in 2010, Mascherano still prefers to play as a defensive midfielder whenever possible. But his regular appearances in the centre of defence have been a revelation and have perhaps done more to justfiy his £22 million transfer fee than those in midfield. In particular, his performance in central defence during the 2011 Champions League final will live long in the memory of Barcelona's socios.
Indeed, given Barcelona's commitment to passing, it is perhaps no surprise that a midfielder would play so well in the heart of their defence, highlighting yet another way that Pep Guardiola has helped to revolutionize the modern game.
Terry's career has been blighted by so many off-field controversies that it's sometimes easy to forget that he is a phenomenal defensive talent. A natural leader, there's a reason why Fabio Capello was willing to lose his job over Terry's position within the England team.
Coming from the prolific 'Senrab F.C' stable of youth players in London—which has also produced such talents as Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe and Ledley King—Terry briefly featured for West Ham as a youngster before moving to Chelsea while still a teenager.
Despite all the money that Abramovich has thrown at Chelsea and all the managers that have come and gone since the Russian oligarch took over, Terry has been a mainstay at the heart of the Chelsea defence since he broke into the first team during the 2000-01 season. His partnership with Ricardo Carvalho under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho was the foundation of one of the meanest defences in English football history,and saw Chelsea win the league in both 2005 and 2006, and again in 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti.
Terry's displays are usually all-action affairs, characterised by aggression, last-ditch clearances and tackles and ruthless determination. He is also a fairly decent passer of the ball. His level of performance has slipped in recent years, explaining why he is not higher up the list, and there has been a persistent suspicion throughout his career that without a calmer figure next to him Terry can sometime become a liability. However, he remains one of the world's best defensive talents.
One of the most decorated defenders still playing, Lucio remains a phenomenal talent even if his powers have waned in recent years.
Thanks to his considerable defensive ability, particularly in the air, he has helped to bring sucess to almost every club he's played for. He was part of the Bayer Leverkusen side that lost to a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid in the Champions League final of 2002. His disappointment at this defeat was short-lived, and he was part of the Brazilian side that won the World Cup later that year.
His success at a domestic level began after a move to Bayern Munich in 2004, which saw him win three Bundesliga titles. This was followed by even greater success under Jose Mourinho's leadership at Inter Milan, where he was part of the side which won the treble in 2010.
Indeed, he was at the heart of the Inter defence which produced one of the greatest defensive displays in recent European history in the second leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final.
Now 33, Lucio has lost most of his speed and is not the dominating figure he once was. He remains a force to be reckoned with, however, and deserves his place among the world's elite central defenders.
Simply put, Puyol is a once-in-a-generation defender. He has won everything there is to win in modern football, and one could argue that he is the defensive foundation upon which Barcelona has built their recent success.
Like all top defenders, Puyol is known for his versatility and can play almost anywhere across the back line. He's a player who you can rely upon to win those crucial 50-50s upon which the biggest games are decided due to his incredible concentration level and the sheer speed of his reaction time.
But Puyol is perhaps a towering example of how strength of character does matter at the highest level of world football. As his long-term teammate, Xavi, put it: "Puyol is the key, not just because he is one of the best defenders in the world but because of his character. He never lets up."
Injuries and age have begun to lessen Puyol's powers. And it is maybe telling that he didn't take part in either of the 2009 or 2011 Champions League finals. But his record of 18 domestic competition wins since 2004, allied to leading Spain to victory in both the European Championships and the World Cup, is simply phenomenal. A competitor for the ages, Puyol will remain among the world's elite central defenders until his retirement.
Unlike the protracted mess that surrounded Cesc Fabregas's return to Barcelona, Gerard Pique quietly returned to Spain from Manchester United in 2008 after only a handful of first team performances for the Red Devils. Despite the success that United have achieved since then, Alex Ferguson must still rue the day he let the talented Catalan slip out of his hands.
Pique's strengths lie in his combination of physical presence and technical ability. Indeed, he is more comfortable with the ball at his feet than many leading midfield players, and members of the Catalan press have sometime noted comparisons between Pique and Franz Beckenbauer.
Despite not being the quickest player in the world, nor the most dominant in the air, Pique has still managed to nullify most of the world's most fearsome attacking players at one point or another, whether it be the Manchester United strike-force in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League final or Robin van Persie during the 2010 World Cup Final.
Still only 25, the only question facing Pique is whether he can maintain his current level of excellence in the years to come. Here's hoping Shakira isn't his Yoko.
At only 23 years old, there is already considerable evidence that Hummels is one of the world's best central defenders and probably the most exciting young defensive talent in Europe.
Starting his career at Bayern Munich, Hummels gambled and left the club when he was only 18 years old in order to guarantee himself first-team football. His gamble paid off, and together with Neven Subotic, he helped Dortmund to the 2011 Bundesliga title, with Dortmund achieving the best defensive record in the league in the process. As Dortmund are currently first in the Bundesliga and have only conceded 14 goals so far this term, Hummels seems to be leading Dortmund to another title from the back.
Hummels stands at an imposing 6'3" and is dominant in the air, yet he is also superbly assured with the ball at his feet. He loves to tackle and can be counted on to maintain his concentration.
After winning the European Under-21 Championships with Germany in 2009, he has begun to establish himself as a full international, and his partnership with Jerome Boateng in the centre of the German defence may well be vital to any success the national team achieves in the future.
Already linked with a move to the likes of Manchester United, Hummels' position in the list of the world's best central defenders is likely to rise still further in the coming years.
For a country better known for its attacking football, Brazil has still produced its fair amount of superb defensive talents. Indeed, despite the plethora of talent from which to choose, one could make a strong argument that Thiago Silva is one of the best defenders currently playing in Italy's Serie A.
Silva had a difficult start to his career, which saw short-lived, uninspiring stints at Porto and Dynamo Moscow. Yet since joining Milan in 2008, Silva has been central to the Rossoneri's recent success, helping them to the Italian league title in 2010. In particular, Silva's partnership with Alessandro Nesta can be deemed one of the most balanced in Europe, with Nesta providing the calming presence beside Silva's considerable speed and ability to make superb tackles and interceptions.
With his contract at Milan recently extended until 2016 and his position as a starter in the Brazilian national team now a certainty, Thiago Silva deserves to be included in any discussion of the world's best defenders.
When a list is made of the all-time greatest transfer bargains in Premier League history, Nemanja Vidic's £7 million move from Spartak Moscow to Manchester United must be placed very near the top of it.
Put simply, Vidic has dominated the Premier League since he joined it in 2006. He has won the league on multiple occasions and was an integral part of the United defence that won the Champions League in 2008. In a league renowned for its physicality, Vidic is considered one of the most aggressive and brave players in the English game and was rewarded with the United captaincy in 2010.
However, his performances have not always been without blemish. He was part of the United defence that was unable to cope with Leo Messi and company in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals, and until recently, he had an unfortunate habit of committing agonizing mistakes against United's biggest rivals, Liverpool, particularly when up against Fernando Torres.
For these reasons and the question marks over his future due to his recent, severe knee injury, Vidic cannot be considered as the world's greatest central defender, as he perhaps could have been only a few years ago. However, there is every chance he will return next season stronger than ever, and for that, he deserves his elevated position among the world's elite central defenders.
It seems odd to say that someone is the third-best central defender in the world in one breath and then to say they are underrated in the other, but I would argue that Carvalho has been consistently underrated by members of the mainstream media for much of his career, particularly in England.
After winning everything with Porto between 2001 and 2004, including an unlikely European Cup, Carvalho's signing was one of the less remarked upon moves by Jose Mourinho during his first year at the club despite the considerable €30 million fee. That he settled immediately into the frantic pace and physicality of the Premier League was a considerable testimony to his quality, yet his performances were often overlooked due to his higher-profile partner, John Terry.
It's perhaps not surprising that Chelsea suffered a poor season when Carvalho was dropped in favour of Alex in 2008-09 and that they went on to win the title when Carvalho returned to the side on a regular basis in 2009-10.
Despite his age, the €8 million that Mourinho paid for Carvalho in 2010 was an absolute bargain, and he has proved to be a superb addition to Real's defence. Indeed, despite again being overshadowed by the antics of his partner, Pepe, Carvalho's quiet solidity has helped Madrid to the top of La Liga, and if they win the league this season, he deserves all the plaudits that will hopefully come his way.
A phenomenal competitor who has won trophies everywhere he has played, Carvalho remains one of the world's best central defenders, even at the age of 33.
Chiellini is a player for whom the word "uncompromising" was probably inventented. The briefest of Internet searches will produce photos of either him diving into tackles or with blood dripping down his head. As Chiellini said himself, a defender must "take the ball away from the opposing team, no matter what."
This is the man who put Fabio Cannavaro out of the Euro 2008 championships due to an overzealous challenge in a training session.
While Chiellini is one of Europe's most dominant defenders in the air, the fact he can be employed as a fullback shows that he is more than a knuckle-dragging stopper. He is neat and tidy when on the ball and even produces a good deal of goal-scoring opportunities. Indeed, his comfort with the ball at his feet testifies to his versatility as a player.
The fact he won Serie A Defender of the Year three years in a row (2008-10) demonstrates that he is one of the world's greatest defensive talents. Yet the fact Chiellini has often been employed as a left-back for Juventus this season means that one might question if he is still the force in central defence that he once was. It is only for this reason that I am reticent to name him the best central defender in the world at present.
A controversial pick? Maybe. But based on the performance of players this season, I think it's very hard to argue that anyone has been better than Vincent Komapny.
In years to come, Kompany will surely be seen as one of the most important buys in the transformation of Manchester City from perennial losers into one of the dominant forces in European football. After being included in the 2011 Premier League team of the year, Kompany's brilliant form has continued this season, and he has been a crucial part of City's superb defence, which has, thus far, conceded the least goals in the Premier League.
Kompany has almost everything required of the modern-day central defender. Despite a slight weakness in the air, he is almost completley unflappable in all other departments. He is a superb tackler, his concentration almost never wavers and he has a superb range of passing, helping the team quickly relieve pressure and start attacks.
Put simply, if I could buy any defender in the world, at this exact moment, I would buy Kompany. He may not have the medals of a player like Carvalho or Pique, but he has proved himself beyond doubt in the most uncompromising league in the world, and unlike a few others, I think it is beyond doubt that he will improve still further in the future. Accordingly, he is the best central defender in the world at present.