8 Players Who Could Be the Next Lionel Messi of Defense
World football is short on quality defenders these days. The old guard of Carles Puyol, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Alessandro Nesta, Lucio and others are no longer at the top of their game, and the new generation has not been able to assert its dominance.
Sergio Ramos looked tremendous against Barcelona in this weekend's Clasico, but the horror show he put on against Bayern Munich highlighted his inconsistency. Gerard Pique was once up for consideration as the best center-back in the world, but he hasn't even been able to get games at Barca as of late.
Thiago Silva is generally the center-back considered by most to be the best in the world, but he made some major errors against Arsenal that allowed the Gunners to nearly overtake AC Milan in the Champions League.
Giorgio Chiellini was once regarded as one of the best, but the lack of Champions League football and his constant shifting between left-back and center-back has made it hard for Chiellini to maintain his reputation.
And the list goes on and on. For every defender that is or was once upon a time considered the best or one of the best in the world, there is at least one good reason to doubt the legitimacy of that title.
But there is hope. As the world's top teams continue to bring in new defenders from their youth system, there is always a chance that they will uncover the next Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi.
And so, with that chance in mind, we lay out eight defenders who we think could become legendary, or at least highly successful, by the end of their careers.
Note: All the players on this list are U-21, since the players above 21 are already established and well-known in the world football community.
The Greeks have always been known for their defensive exploits. Anyone recall 2004? That was the year Greece won the European Championships with one of the most defensive teams in competitive international history.
Kryiakos Papadopoulos is the latest prodigy to be produced from the country, and early signs indicate that he could have a long, prosperous career ahead of him.
At the age of 15, major clubs were already battling for Papadopoulos' signature. He'd shone brightly in the 2007 UEFA U-19 Football Championships, where he was the youngest player by 13 months, and was linked with Manchester United.
He was invited to train with Espanyol, and was instantly offered a contract upon impressing the team's management, but Olympiakos were well aware of Papadopoulos' talents and fought hard to sign him from their youth system.
They eventually succeeded, and Papadopoulos made his debut for Greece's biggest club on December 2nd, 2007, becoming the youngest player to ever play in Greece.
However, Papadopoulos' star quality wasn't really confirmed until he moved to Schalke in Germany. At his new club, he was quickly called upon to alleviate the team's lack of depth at center-back.
At the age of 18 (19 for the last quarter of the season), he made 30 appearances in all competitions for Schalke, including seven starts in the Champions League.
This year, he's taken the next step up, making 46 appearances (and counting), and scoring five headers as well, developing his aerial game as well.
It's a common cliche, but the sky is the limit for Kryiakos Papadopoulos. He's been a huge reason why Schalke have been so much better domestically this year than last year, and they'll only get stronger with Papadopoulos in defense.
How lucky are Schalke to have both Kryiakos Papadopoulos and Joel Matip at their club?
I'll start out by saying that of the two, I definitely consider Papadopoulos the better player, and the player with more upside.
However, if Papadopoulos were (hypothetically) good enough to one day be the "Lionel Messi of Defense," I'd expect Matip to be right behind him, as the "Arjen Robben of Defense" if you will.
Matip has been with Schalke since 2000 (age nine), and made his breakthrough with Schalke one year prior to Papadopoulos' arrival, in 2009.
He's been a consistent squad member since, making 45 appearances this season and more than 110 altogether.
Since the 2010 World Cup, Joel Matip has been a regular starter for the Cameroonian national team, collecting five caps to date.
A comparison of Matip and Papadopoulos shows that Matip is the less tenacious of the two. He averages an impressive 2.5 tackles, 4.5 clearances and 4.5 interceptions per game, but those numbers don't compare to Papadopoulos' 3.7 tackles, 4.1 clearances and 6.7 interceptions per game.
Nevertheless, Matip does have slightly better offensive stats than Papadopoulos, beating him in pass percentage, accurate long balls per game, assists and goals.
Both Matip and Papadopoulos will only continue to get better, and if Schalke can recruit solid, dependable full-backs, they could have the Bundesliga's best defense in two or three years time.
Well would you look at that. It's two of the world's most promising defenders fighting to get their heads on the ball!
Jon Aurtenetxe is probably the least hyped up defender on this list. For all the plaudits Athletic Bilbao have earned this season, and all the recognition their players have received, one player who has flown under the radar is 20-year-old Aurtenetxe.
After flirting with a breakthrough into the first team last season, Aurtenetxe has finally established himself as a member of the first-team squad this season, and has even become the team's starting left-back as of late.
Aurtenetxe came through the famed Bilbao youth system as a center-back, and as such is still adjusting to life as a left-back.
Early signs are promising though, and with Spain lacking depth at the left-back position, Aurtenetxe could find himself becoming a regular member of the Spanish national team if he continues to improve.
I spoke of David Alaba's greatness first in the aftermath of Bayern Munich's quarterfinal victory over Marseille. He's only gotten better since then.
Most 19-year-olds find themselves stuck in their club's reserves, hoping to break into their club's first team squad in two or three years time.
Especially at a club like Bayern Munich, only the best youngsters in the world earn any playing time with the first team. Just ask Takashi Usami, one of Japan's brightest U-21 stars.
Despite having been a regular and productive member of Gamba Osaka's squad for a year-and-a-half, Usami has found himself stuck in Bayern Munich's reserves throughout his loan spell with Bayern.
To date, he's seen only 49 minutes of first team action, and was substituted out in the league game which he was introduced in as a substitute.
But for Alaba, the story has been very different.
At the age of only 19, Alaba has already made 30 league appearances and 48 total appearances for Bayern Munich, and that isn't including the playing time he picked up while on loan with Hoffenheim.
Furthermore, at only 19, Alaba has already made 15 appearances for the Austrian national team, and looks set to easily break the 100-cap mark by the end of his career.
Against Marseille, Alaba didn't do anything too impressive from the left back position, but he outperformed his captain Philipp Lahm on the opposite flank, and picked up an assist when Olic converted his cross for Bayern Munich's second goal.
His ability to play as a left back, winger, or central midfielder is remarkable, and Alaba is sure to blossom from a useful squad player to a world-beater in the near future.
Raphael Varane is my pick to come closest to being the "Lionel Messi of Defense." Here's why:
This season, Varane has proven himself to be Real Madrid quality. Whenever asked about Varane's progress, Jose Mourinho has had nothing but good things to say.
In fact, Varane has been so good this season that Mourinho has selected him more times than either Ricardo Carvalho or Raul Albiol. For a kid that everyone expected to be buried on the bench this summer, that's pretty good.
Because he's proven himself to be a prodigiously talented youngster at one of the world's best clubs, Varane already has a huge edge on the rest of his colleagues.
With Real Madrid badly lacking in quality center-backs, Varane's time to become a starter will come sooner rather than later, and if he keeps improving at the rate that he has this season, he'll be world class in no time.
Steven Caulker has been on my radar since early in the 2011-12 season, when his quality was being clearly showcased week after week in Swansea's defense.
Steven Caulker has established himself at Swansea City and is a much better player than Garry Monk.
Caulker belongs in the Premier League and typifies what a successful loan is.
The youngster adapts in a new environment, beats out more experienced players to start, and then goes back to his parent club with invaluable experience.
It's much better than sitting on the bench at Tottenham Hotspur or playing in the reserves.
Caulker has a bright future at Spurs because Ledley King cannot play every game, Michael Dawson may not recover from his long term injury and William Gallas is not getting any younger.
The fact Caulker completes 86 percent of his passes shows how composed he is. He has won back possession 56 times but I'm more impressed with his positional awareness than his ball-winning ability.
He's also blocked 19 shots, which indicates he's willing to put his body on the line.
It wouldn't surprise me if he became one of the best centre-backs in the league in the next few years.
Couldn't have summed it up better myself.
From B/R's Yoosof Farah:
Mario Fernandes is a centre-back by trade, but has proven himself equally as effective at right-back.
The 21-year-old has great positional awareness, and has that eye for the right kind of pass which can set a winger free—a quality many defenders in world football lack, and one which could help bring out even more assists in the likes of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and even Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, Madrid's main weakness at the moment is their defensive ability on the wings, with Los Merengues giving away too many chances from the flanks.
Their main priority is a top-quality tackler and interceptor of the ball. Fernandes would be very much a signing for the future, as he needs to work on those aspects of his game.
But seeing as Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Juventus, Inter Milan, FC Barcelona, FC Porto, CSKA Moscow, Ajax and AS Roma have all apparently been linked with him, Real might want to snap him up soon.
I will add that it seems as though Fernandes' move to CSKA Moscow is all but confirmed. If that's true, it's highly unfortunate, because Fernandes will not reach the height of his potential playing in Russia.
I still remember Sebastian Coates' performance in the Copa America.
To have the poise and confidence to perform as well as he did alongside Diego Lugano despite being only 20 years old and highly inexperienced—I was impressed.
That's why I've been a bit disappointed by Coates' lack of playing time this season. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel are great, but Coates is far too good to be have made only three Premier League starts all season long.
Coates showed in the Copa America that he's ready to start for the best teams in the world. With Agger and Skrtel unlikely to be dropped anytime soon, I might start looking for a new team if I'm Coates.
The Uruguayan has the potential to be one of the best, but he'll never fulfill that potential if his best development years are spent rotting on the bench.