Every good defender must master the fundamental technique of tackling. So surely the world's best defenders must be the world's best tacklers as well, right?
Having analyzed the statistics of more than 500 footballers playing in the top six to eight teams in Europe's top five leagues, I've narrowed the list down to the 32 best tacklers in world football today.
In order to do this, I've limited the list to only footballers with three or more tackles per game and only footballers who've played at least 15 league games this season.
I'll say it right now: This list will surprise you. Even the most ardent of world football followers won't recognize many names on this list, and many of the names you'd expect to be on this list won't be there.
That's the beauty of it. Often, we base our "best of" lists largely on our preconceived notions of who the best at a certain activity is. Rather than get our analysis to fit our research, we get our research to fit our analysis.
So consider this going back to basics. We're letting the stats do the sorting, and we'll do the analyzing. Join us as we statistically break down and analyze the best 32 tacklers of the 2011-12 season.
All stats provided by WhoScored.com.
Stats: 3.1 Tackles Per Game, 52 Tackles in 17 Games
Cheick Tiote is a man who needs no introduction to EPL fans.
Last year was Tiote's first season in the Premier League with Newcastle, and he quickly won Newcastle fans over with his no-nonsense approach in tackling and controlling the midfield area.
His biggest problem in his first season with Newcastle was bookings. Even though he still picks up many of them, he has shown signs of improvement and is first choice at the club when available and fit.
Stats: 3.1 Tackles Per Game, 81 Tackles in 26 Games
Many regard Xabi Alonso as one of the best passers and playmakers from deep in world football.
But who knew he was a great tackler as well?
This may actually surprise you, but according to the stats, Alonso puts in more tackles per game than any of Real Madrid's starting defenders.
Only Lassana Diarra puts in more tackles than Alonso with 4.2 per game, but he misses out due to only making 14 league appearances for Madrid this season.
Stats: 3.1 Tackles Per Game, 83 Tackles in 27 Games
Cristian Ledesma has always been a no-nonsense midfielder. Playing for one of the rougher teams in Serie A—one of the roughest leagues of Europe—it's no surprise that he puts in 3.1 tackles per game.
Ledesma records 2.5 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. He has been a big part of Lazio's push for Champions League qualification this season.
Stats: 3.1 Tackles Per Game, 87 Tackles in 28 Games
Inter Milan may be struggling badly this season with their performances in the league, but it certainly hasn't been Cambiasso's fault.
In addition to being the team's second-highest goal scorer behind Diego Milito, Cambiasso has kept up an impressive tally of 3.1 tackles per game to go along with his 2.1 interceptions and 2.3 clearances per game.
Stats: 3.2 Tackles Per Game, 68 Tackles in 18 Games
Michael Carrick is on this list?
Yes, the Manchester United midfielder that just can't seem to ever get any love—even from his own team's fans—indeed makes this list for his impressive 3.2 tackles per game.
But I'm going to go even further and say that, more than just being one of the best tacklers in the world, Carrick is a solid all-around central defensive midfielder.
His 2.8 interceptions per game are very respectable, and 1.7 clearances per game are nothing to scoff at either.
Carrick gets way more flack than he deserves simply because Manchester United's midfield as a whole often fails to come up with the goods.
However, that has way more to do with the lack of a good creative midfielder than Carrick or anybody else.
Put someone like Luka Modric or Wesley Sneijder beside Carrick, and you'll quickly realize Carrick is one of the best in the business at making tackles, interceptions and breaking play up.
Stats: 3.2 Tackles Per Game, 70 Tackles in 22 Games
Only those who watch La Liga regularly will likely know who Gabi is, so I'll provide a little background.
Gabi is a defensive midfielder who has spent his entire career in La Liga. This product of the Atletico Madrid academy had a two-year spell with the club before moving to Zaragoza, where he played for four seasons.
At the start of the 2011-12 season, Gabi came back to Atletico and he has excelled in his return.
Though he has not managed to replicate the explosive goal-scoring form he showed in his final season at Zaragoza, Gabi still has the ability to produce numerous assists from midfield and displays the grit you'd expect from a good defensive midfielder.
Gabi may not possess the instant name recognition that Diego, Falcao and his other teammates possess, but he is a crucial member of the 2011-12 Atletico Madrid team.
Stats: 3.2 Tackles Per Game, 71 Tackles in 22 Games
Any good Chelsea fan probably could've anticipated that Ramires would have a place on this list.
Ramires takes pleasure in doing the dirty work for his team.
Ramires is not a defensive midfielder, and plays better further up the pitch than he does closer to the back. His willingness to get physical is an asset that has served him well throughout his career, and helps him earn recognition on this list.
It should be noted that Ramires' 3.2 tackles per game is a team best.
John Terry only records 1.9 tackles per game, a poor total for a central defender most consider to be one of the best in the world. His 5.7 clearances per game are impressive though, and act as a redeeming factor for Chelsea's captain.
The same applies to David Luiz. He only records 1.6 successful tackles per game, but his 3.1 interceptions and 3.9 clearances per game somewhat help his reputation.
Stats: 3.2 Tackles Per Game, 83 Tackles in 26 Games
By now, you've discovered that this list is a mix of some of the best players in the world with some of the best up-and-coming players of the world. Neustadter falls into the latter group.
Many uneducated world football fans take one look at Borussia Monchengladbach and attribute their success this season solely to Marco Reus.
The reality, however, is that Gladbach's success this season has been built on many pillars, and Neustadter is one of them.
At 24 years old, Neustadter has a long road ahead of him in his career, but he's off to a solid start. This year, as a defensive midfielder, he's recorded 3.6 interceptions to go with his 3.2 tackles per game.
Quality stuff from the German who surely must be in line for an international call-up in the near future.
Stats: 3.3 Tackles Per Game, 75 Tackles in 23 Games
What can Dani Alves not do? The guy runs up and down the pitch with excellent speed and stamina, puts in crosses, records assists in bunches and even scores the occasional spectacular goal.
On top of it all, he still has the ability to do what a defender needs to be good at: tackling.
His 2.2 interceptions per game are nothing to scoff at either, especially considering he plays out wide and not in the center like most of the defenders and midfielders on this list with high interception tallies.
It should be noted that although Barca have one better tackler than Alves, that tackler's name is not Pique or Puyol.
In fact, unlike Terry and Luiz—whose interception and clearance totals per game explain their lack of tackles—Pique and Puyol have rather poor defensive stats.
Neither defender averages more than 1.7 tackles per game, 1.5 interceptions per game or 2.5 clearances per game, making them very unspectacular on a statistical level.
The question that must be asked is this: Does Barcelona's dominance leave Puyol and Pique with little defensive work to do, or are they simply not the amazing defenders we've been led to believe they are?
Stats: 3.3 Tackles Per Game, 75 Tackles in 23 Games
Ignazio Abate is AC Milan's one quality full-back. AC Milan have always had a problem with full-backs, but Abate gives them at least one full-back who they can always rely on to confidently and ably perform his duties as a defender.
In addition to being a good tackler, Abate's 1.7 interceptions and 3.1 clearances per game act as confirmation of his reputation as an all-around good defender.
Compared to his teammates at AC Milan, Abate is the most consistent tackler on his team. Sulley Muntari has averaged 4.6 tackles per game in his five games with Milan, but it remains to be seen if he'll continue to be as effective as he plays more games.
It may come as a shock that Mark van Bommel—often regarded as one of the roughest, meanest tacklers in world football—only records around 2.6 tackles per game, and a rather low 1.4 fouls per game.
Clearly his level of aggressions seems to have dropped as he has entered the final years of his career.
Finally, neither Alessandro Nesta nor Thiago Silva have impressive tackling stats, with the pair recording 0.9 and 1.3 respectively per game.
However, as has proven to be the case with many of the centre-backs on this list, their saving grace is that they are excellent clearers of the ball, recording an astronomical 6.2 and 7.5 clearances respectively per game.
Stats: 3.4 Tackles Per Game, 57 Tackles in 17 Games
Malaga have been flying high—as expected—because of their new signings, but on the defensive end, it's one of their oldest players who has gotten the job done.
Chipping in with a very commendable 4.2 interceptions per game to add to his 3.4 tackles per game, Gamez has been Malaga's most impressive defender, outshining Joris Mathijsen and Nacho Monreal.
Martin Demichelis does deserve credit though for keeping up with Gamez. Though he averages "only" 2.9 tackles per game—still a very impressive per-game total—he more than makes up for it with his 4.4 interceptions and 3.6 clearances per game.
Stats: 3.4 Tackles Per Game, 79 Tackles in 23 Games
Javi Martinez has impressively done it all for Athletic Bilbao this season. Even though he's a central midfielder by trade, he has played as a centre-back for Bilbao this season and done well in the position, indicating just how well-rounded of a player he is.
If you think Martinez's 3.4 tackles per game are impressive, then be prepared to be blown away as it only gets better from the 23-year-old. Averaging 5.4 interceptions and 3.1 clearances per game makes him one of the best defenders La Liga has to offer.
Stats: 3.4 Tackles Per Game, 81 Tackles in 24 Games
Jeremy Morel is a left-back who quietly goes about his business for Marseille. He was brought in as a replacement for Taye Taiwo when the Nigerian left for AC Milan in the summer, and his stats certainly indicate that he's been a very able replacement at the French club.
At the age of 27, Jeremy Morel is at his peak and unlikely to transform into a world-beater before the end of his career.
However, he is consistent, and he currently performs at a high enough level to contribute three interceptions and 2.4 clearances per game to go along with his 3.4 tackles per game.
Stats: 3.4 Tackles Per Game, 88 Tackles in 26 Games
The great thing about going by stats to make a list like this is that it becomes truly diverse. No EPL bias, no La Liga bias...you get a list of the best tacklers almost evenly spread out across Europe's top five leagues.
In any case, the Bundesliga's finest defender earns himself a spot on this list with 3.4 tackles per game, which coupled with his 5.1 clearances per game explains his recognition as one of the best all-around defenders in the modern game.
In addition, his 6.8 long-ball passes per game help explain why Borussia Dortmund have been so successful utilizing a 4-2-3-1 formation that most clubs struggle to utilize with their own set of players.
Stats: 3.5 Tackles Per Game, 73 Tackles in 21 Games
Udinese have always had a potent offense, thanks to the ageless Antonio Di Natale. What they haven't always had is a solid defense, but since the arrival of Benatia in central defense, Udinese have been one of the most defensively solid teams in Serie A.
With averages of 3.5 tackles, 2.8 interceptions and 7.2 clearances per game, there's little doubt that at the age of 24, Benatia has every chance of becoming a world-class centre-back if he remains disciplined and makes the right moves in his career.
Stats: 3.5 Tackles Per Game, 74 Tackles in 21 Games
Pep Guardiola's decision to repeatedly play Javier Mascherano as a centre-back instead of Gerard Pique has drawn much criticism, but the stats would indicate that his decision makes sense.
Not only does Mascherano record 2.1 more tackles per game than his Spanish teammate, he also averages 2.3 more interceptions.
Mascherano even has Pique beat as a passer, showing up Pique's impressive 86 percent pass success rate with a 90 percent pass success rate of his own.
And this comes despite the fact that Mascherano records an average of 22 more passes per game than Pique.
Maybe Guardiola does know what he's doing after all...
Stats: 3.5 Tackles Per Game, 80 Tackles in 23 Games
Paolo Cannavaro is Napoli's leader, but Napoli's grittiest defender is definitely Hugo Campagnaro.
Like Benatia, Campagnaro is a machine. Averages of 3.5 tackles, 3.3 interceptions and 7.1 clearances make him the most impressive centre-back we've come across so far.
At the age of 31, Campagnaro likely won't climb to the highest heights of world football, but he probably still has a couple good years in him to keep performing at his highest level for Napoli.
Stats: 3.5 Tackles Per Game, 84 Tackles in 24 Games
There was a reason Lyon were hardly reluctant at all to allow Jeremy Toulalan to leave when Malaga bid for the experienced Frenchman.
That reason was Maxime Gonalons.
With Toulalan gone, Gonalons has been free to make the defensive midfielder position at Lyon his, and he has done so to great effect.
Thus far, Gonalons has proven to be more effective than spectacular, excelling as a tackler and passer. However, at the age of 23, there is definitely room for Gonalons to develop overall as a more impressive defensive midfielder, possibly by recording more assists and clearances.
Stats: 3.5 Tackles Per Game, 87 Tackles in 25 Games
Another Borussia Monchengladbach player you've most likely never heard of.
Jantschke is a right-back who is only 21 years old. He's probably the greatest talent you've never heard of.
At present, his 2.8 interceptions and 2.6 clearances are more solid than remarkable, but of all the players on this list, Jantschke is the player with the greatest amount of time to grow.
It'll be a crime if Jantschke doesn't find himself called up to Germany in the near future.
Stats: 3.6 Tackles Per Game, 90 Tackles in 25 Games
Lars Bender is the first Bender on this list. Unlike many of the guys on this list, Bender has a solid offensive aspect to his game; he's scored four goals and has three assists this season for Bayer Leverkusen.
In addition, Bender finds himself fouled frequently in the Bundesliga; he draws almost two fouls a game for Leverkusen.
Stats: 3.6 Tackles Per Game, 90 Tackles in 25 Games
Lucio averages 3.6 tackles, 4.7 interception and 10.3 clearances per game.
I shudder to think how bad Inter Milan would be right now without Lucio in the lineup putting up monster numbers like the ones above.
Many are quick to attack the quality of Inter Milan's defense based on its age, but even at the age of 33, Lucio is a monster at the back for Inter and Brazil.
Stats: 3.8 Tackles Per Game, 60 Tackles in 16 Games
Remember Mohamed Sissoko? He hasn't been heavily featured in the media since leaving Liverpool, but he's gone on to have a successful career with the likes of Juventus and now Paris Saint-Germain.
With 3.8 tackles per game, tackling is clearly Sissoko's forte. However, Sissoko is also a good passer, and has an 84.4 percent pass success rate. His 3.3 long balls per game is an impressive stat for any midfielder, let alone a defensive midfielder.
Stats: 3.8 Tackles Per Game, 64 Tackles in 17 Games
I find it almost mind-boggling that a winger can perform his duties and yet manage to record 3.8 tackles per game.
Arda Turan has six assists to his name, and records 1.3 key passes per game in addition to the 2.5 interceptions he puts in on the defense end.
After Dani Alves, Turan may be the best example of a player with the rare gift of being able to perform excellently at both ends of the pitch.
Stats: 3.8 Tackles Per Game, 95 Tackles in 25 Games
Whereas Cheick Tiote is often painted as the no-nonsense battling midfielder, Yohan Cabaye is often painted as Newcastle's smooth operator in midfield.
However, as his 3.8 tackles per game would indicate, Cabaye may be just as vicious Tiote, if not more so.
Cabaye is one of those guys whose value just doesn't quite show in stats. Averaging 1.6 key passes is solid, but it doesn't highlight just how much Cabaye contributes to Newcastle. The same applies to his assist total.
There's a reason Cabaye was on a title-winning team in the fifth-best league in Europe prior to moving to Newcastle. He's world class, and always ready to prove it if doubted.
Stats: 3.9 Tackles Per Game, 74 Tackles in 19 Games
The second of the Bender brothers comes in near the top of this list.
Sven Bender may not be as good offensively as his brother, but defensively he has the edge, contributing 2.9 interceptions in addition to his 3.9 tackles per game.
Most importantly, Bender plays on a Borussia Dortmund team set to win their second consecutive Bundesliga title, while Lars Bender plays for a Leverkusen team that finds themselves well outside the top four in the Bundesliga.
That should settle any disputes the brothers have on which of them is the better player.
Stats: 3.9 Tackles Per Game, 89 Tackles in 23 Games
So it appears I lied. Earlier I said that Jantschke was the player on this list with the most time to grow.
But having just turned 20, Kyriakos Papadopoulos holds that distinction.
Papadopoulos is well on his way to becoming one of Greece's best-ever defenders. He made the bold move of transferring from Greece's best club, Olympiakos, to one of Germany's biggest clubs in Schalke in 2010.
Though playing time was hard to come by and scattered in 2010-11, by the end of the season he began to establish himself as a starter. In 2011-12, he has been a starter for Schalke all season long.
Papadopoulos has rewarded Schalke's faith in him with five goals in all competitions, as well as 3.9 tackles, four interceptions and 6.4 clearances per game. Those kinds of stats from a 20-year-old? Just crazy, really.
Stats: 4 Tackles Per Game, 100 Tackles in 25 Games
Fernando Navarro is straight-up quality, and has been for a number of years now. The Barcelona youth product has been at Sevilla since 2008, and has been producing the same consistency for more than three-and-a-half seasons now.
It's really a shame that he was not seriously considered for the Spanish national team throughout his career, especially since Spain's one weak spot over the years has always been the left-back position.
In any case, Navarro is 29 years old and at the tail end of his career. Though he has a bad tendency to concede more fouls than he should, his rough style has allowed him to be one of the best tacklers in the business, with four successful tackles per game.
Stats: 4 Tackles Per Game, 100 Tackles in 25 Games
Another Atletico Madrid player coming up with the goods.
Filipe Luis is best remembered for his Deportivo La Coruna days, when his goal-scoring exploits and involvement in his team's offense made him one of the world's most desirable left-backs.
Since his move to Atletico Madrid from Deportivo, Filipe's attacking tendencies have lessened, but his defense remains as sharp as ever.
With four tackles, four interceptions and two clearances per game, Filipe Luis has been an asset for Atletico Madrid this season, and will continue to be one in the Madrid club's pursuit of a league finish that guarantees European football next season.
Stats: 4.1 Tackles Per Game, 94 Tackles in 23 Games
Scott Parker is the model defensive midfielder in English football.
He's tough, gritty and not afraid to get dirty. He breaks up play effectively, and tackles hard and often throughout each game he plays in.
Scott Parker doesn't stop there though. His 89.5 percent pass success rate is one of the best in England, and comes despite the fact that he sprays about 60 passes across the pitch game in, game out.
It's a shame Scott Parker was a late bloomer, because his career for England and at the club level probably could've been so much brighter had he moved to a top club at an earlier stage in his career.
Stats: 4.8 Tackles Per Game, 86 Tackles in 18 Games
Most non-Serie A fans will be unfamiliar with Giampiero Pinzi.
Pinzi is an experienced Serie A veteran. After coming from Lazio's youth academy, Pinzi has spent almost 10 seasons with Udinese. He also spent two seasons on loan with Chievo from 2008-2010.
Pinzi is a relatively unremarkable midfielder, with one small exception: He's a hell of a tackler. If you didn't notice, his 4.8 tackles per game is massive step up from Parker's 4.1 tackles per game, and puts him in the discussion of some of the best tackling midfielders of all time.
As expected, Pinzi's high number of tackles per game brings with it a high number of fouls per game, but six yellow cards in 18 Serie A matches indicates that he's able to avoid picking up too many bookings and hurting his team in the process.
Stats: 5.1 Tackles Per Game, 107 Tackles in 21 Games
To be honest, I always knew that Vidal was a good defensive midfielder, but I had no idea he was this good.
Vidal's ability to record 5.1 tackles per game while committing only 2.1 fouls per game is very impressive, but Vidal's game doesn't stop there.
Vidal also records 2.5 interceptions and 1.6 clearances per game, and is an asset on offense, having recorded three goals and two assists this season. He records 1.4 key passes per game, and boasts an impressive passing success rate of 85 percent.
All this for only the €12.5 million Juventus splashed on him this summer? That's excellent value, if you ask me.
Stats: 5.3 Tackles Per Game, 132 Tackles in 25 Games
Who'd have thought that the French midfielder offloaded by Lyon for only €10 million this summer would prove to be the best-tackling midfielder in the world?
That's how it's turned out, as Toulalan has been an absolute monster in midfield for Malaga. Averaging 5.3 tackles, 5.3 interceptions and only 1.3 fouls per game, there's not a player in the world with better defensive stats right now.
And if that isn't enough for you, Toulalan also has the ability to chip in with the odd goal every so often. He has three to his name this season—three more than he recorded in five seasons with Lyon.
Don't let the grey hair fool you either—Toulalan is only 28 years old, and will prove an asset for a developing Malaga team for at least another two or three seasons.
Stats: 5.7 Tackles Per Game, 68 Tackles in 12 Games
According to the rules, Leiva shouldn't be allowed to be considered for this list, but I felt it was cruel to leave the guy off the list because of an injury that ruled him out for the season.
As such, I've given him an honorable mention, since he would actually have led the list by some distance if he had reached the necessary amount of games played with the same number of tackles per game.
It will be interesting to see if Lucas can return to Liverpool at the same level he was playing at before his injury, as it seemed that he had finally taken the next step in developing his game before a cruciate ligament rupture ended his season.
In any sports, stats aren't everything, and rarely do they paint a complete picture.
As you've probably discovered reading through this slideshow, a good all-around defender ought to average a good number of tackles per game, a good number of interceptions per game and a good number of clearances per game.
It would also be helpful to be a good passer of the ball as well.
But as we saw by looking at Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique (see: Dani Alves' slide), some of the world's best defenders don't have especially impressive stats in any of the usual standout categories for defenders, and yet are still regarded as the best of the best.
Stats can never give you a 100 percent indicator of who is the best and who isn't, but they can help shape the discussion, create trends and provide indicators for determining who is good and who isn't, or help you compare two players with each other.
Secondly, you may have noticed that although I ordered this list from the player with the lowest number of tackles per game to the player with the highest number of tackles per game, I didn't rank the players.
That's because over the span of just a couple of games, many of the players on this list will likely move up or down a few spots, which would render this entire list invalid in just a couple of weeks.
That isn't my goal. My goal is to have this list still be relevant and applicable one or two months down the line, or even at the end of the season.
I expect a significant amount of movement moving between the rankings of first through 32nd between now and Euro 2012—but I don't expect very many players at all to fall out of these top 32 spots.
Finally, it is important to note that had I simply listed the usual names here—Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, John Terry, etc.—only a few readers would doubt the quality of the article, or the legitimacy of my claims.
While this is not necessarily a call for readers to be more skeptical of what they read, it is a call on writers and readers alike to be open-minded with the topics they approach, and try to move away from talking about the same batch of players for every type of list that comes along.
Indeed, football is an ever-changing sport, and with it, the best players are constantly changing as well. Without a doubt, the best of the best are able to withstand the test of time and stay at the top, but sometimes we do the job for the players and allow their reputation rather than their play to keep them on our "best of" lists.
So stay inquisitive, and avoid stagnation. Because we all know what happens in football when you get stagnant as a club, as a national team or as a player on the pitch.
You get tackled hard by the opposition.