European Football's 25 Best Defenders Right Now

Allan JiangTransfers CorrespondentMarch 18, 2013

European Football's 25 Best Defenders Right Now

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    Here are European football’s 25 best defenders right now.

    This article isn’t a list based on reputation, it will only include defenders in Europe’s elite leagues who’ve performed consistently at a high level this season.

    The next slide will explain to you the notable omissions, which should set the tone about what this article is trying to achieve—I want you to be able to differentiate between hype and reality.

Explaining Notable Omissions

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    Adriano, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba (Barcelona)

    All of Adriano’s best moments this season have been in the attacking third. Piqué and Puyol are in steep decline. Dani might not even be at the club when Neymar arrives. Mascherano went from a world-class defensive midfielder to a run-of-the-mill centre-back. Alba has been the best of the Barça back line, but he leaves too many gaping holes.

     

     

    Jerome Boateng (Bayern Munich)

    I don’t rate Jerome at all because he’s too impulsive; his positioning isn’t exceptional; he doesn’t lead by example, and he’s profiting from playing on the most complete team in Europe.

    My bold prediction is that Jan Kirchhoff (if fully fit) will relegate Jerome to the bench next season.

    Well, why isn’t Jan on this list? He’s only started 53.3 percent of Mainz’s games and has played portions of the season in midfield.  

     

     

    Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus)

    I’ve decided not to include wing-backs as they have a safety net with three at the back. In essence, wing-backs are part-time defenders. With that said, Lichtsteiner and Asamoah are two of the best wing-backs going around.

     

     

    Álvaro Arbeloa, Fábio Coentrão, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Pepe (Real Madrid)

    Álvaro’s tendency to lunge and miss the ball often leaves the back line exposed. Fábio is nowhere near the version that played for Benfica. Marcelo’s defending isn’t reliable enough. Ramos has been a liability for Real. If Pepe was in form, why can’t he win back his position from a 19-year-old?   

     

     

    Branislav Ivanovic, César Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea)

    Branislav is better going forward than defending. César is still getting acquainted to Premier League conditions. Luiz is too inconsistent. Take Gary out of a deep-back four, and you have an average defender. Terry is on borrowed time. Bertrand’s defending has been woeful as Darijo Srna will testify to.

     

     

    Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Phil Jones (Manchester United)

    Jonny is a decent CB, nothing else. Vidic still isn’t the Vidic of old. Evra scoring and creating a combined nine league goals is as improbable as Lilian Thuram netting a brace in a FIFA World Cup semi-final. Defensively, Patrice is behind the eight-ball. Jones has spent parts of the season in midfield, not to mention he has only started 55.6 percent of his league games this season.

     

     

    Aleksandar Kolarov, Joleon Lescott,  Maicon, Micah Richards, Vincent Kompany (Manchester City CB)

    Kolarov went from respected Serie A footballer to Premier League laughing stock. Joleon is mediocre. City signed an out-of-shape and out-of-form Maicon; gee, wonder what other results they were expecting? When Vincent is consistently getting bailed out by a 19-year-old playing his first season in the EPL, you know the Belgian isn’t having a good season.

     

     

    *Insert hoard of CBs*, Ignazio Abate, Kevin Constant, Luca Antonini (AC Milan)

    There’s a reason why the Rossoneri have tried a billion different CB pairings. I don’t see it from Abate and hope he gets permanently replaced by a certain 20-year-old. Constant has drastically improved as a footballer but makes too many gaffes at the back (he's a make-shift left-back). Antonini should only be a squad player.

     

     

    Lukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic and Marcel Schmelzer (Borussia Dortmund)

    Lukasz was one of the last players cut; I would be interested to see how Kevin Großkreutz goes in an extended run at RB. Hummels is having his worst season in a B.V.B. shirt. Subotic has been OK. Schmelzer’s performances this season haven’t been better than any of the LB included ahead of him.

     

     

    Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal)

    Sagna is past it. Carl’s development has been hindered by Bacary. Gibbs was one of the last players cut from this list—he's had major improvement from last season. Kos hasn’t been good at all. Mertesacker is OK, but the Gunners signing him is the equivalent of Manchester United buying Laurent Blanc. Vermaelen has been as hopeless as William Gallas. 

     

     

    Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Kyle Naughton, Kyle Walker, Michael Dawson, Steven Caulker, William Gallas (Tottenham Hotspur)

    B.A.E. hasn’t played enough, and when he did, he was ordinary. Dawson and Naughton haven’t been anything special. Walker is going through a sophomore slump. Caulker’s decision making hasn’t been good. Gallas is an accident waiting to happen. 

     

     

    Andre Wisdom, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, José Enrique, Martin Skrtel (Liverpool)

    Wisdom isn’t a RB. Agger’s performances aren’t acceptable. Carragher is counting down the days to retirement. Enrique went from great defender to awful defender, and now he’s just OK. Skrtel has made too many mistakes.

     

     

    Andrea Ranocchia, Cristian Chivu, Javier Zanetti, Juan Jesus, Walter Samuel and Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan)

    Ranocchia’s early season form has nose dived. See John Terry’s reasoning for Chivu and Zanetti. Juan has been erratic. Samuel will be a welcome return to Inter—he didn’t do enough when he did play to be included on this list. Yuto’s defending has improved but is still not good enough.

     

     

    Diego Godín, Juanfran, Miranda (Atlético Madrid)

    Godín misplaces too many passes and has questionable positioning. Juanfran is serviceable but not exceptional. Miranda is a better player than D.G. though not better than any of the CBs on the primary list.

     

     

    Atsuto Uchida, Joel Matip, Benedikt Höwedes, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Christian Fuchs (Schalke)

    Uchida is a clean tackler and is constantly improving; however, he hasn’t played consistently at a high enough level to warrant a place in the 25—the same reason applies to Matip. Höwedes hasn’t been able to assert his leadership qualities on an S04 back line prone to leaking goals. K.P. has hardly played this season, and when he did, he was kamikaze-like in gunning for the ball (think Lucio’s last season at Inter Milan). Fuchs is great going forward but has been terrible at the back.

     

     

    Jesús Gámez, Martín Demichelis, Weligton (Málaga)

    Jesús wasn’t as good as the full-backs included on the main list. Demichelis and Weligton narrowly missed the cut.

     

     

    Ezequiel Garay (Benfica)

    No. 26 on the long list, Garay's, a great defender, level of competition was a factor in him being cut. Major clubs should have him higher on their transfer big board than Eliaquim Mangala, Nicolás Otamendi and Maicon (Porto’s CBs).

     

     

    Timm Klose (Nürnberg), Angelo Ogbonna (Torino) and Nicolas N'Koulou (Marseille)

    They were the last batch of players cut from the long-list, all impressive defenders.

     

     

    Ömer Toprak and Philipp Wollscheid (Bayer Leverkusen)

    Ömer and Philipp haven’t played as well as Demichelis and Weligton, and the Málaga pair didn’t even make the list.  

     

     

    Daley Blind (Ajax)

    Impressed by his mental strength to overcome the nepotism jibes, Blind's level of competition factored heavily against him. 

     

     

    Seamus Coleman (Everton)

    Coleman has been one of David Moyes’ best players this season. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a place in the 25 for Seamus.

     

     

    Bastian Oczipka and Sebastian Jung (Eintracht Frankfurt)

    Bastian’s positioning is hit-and-miss, but he’s so potent going forward. With regards to Jung’s omission, see Seamus Coleman.

     

     

    Cicinho (Sevilla)

    Cicinho started the season on fire and looked like a world-class right-back. However, he hasn't been able to live up to the same standard since.

25. Raphaël Varane, CB, Real Madrid

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    Raphaël Varane has composurea vital attribute that Álvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Pepe lack.

    Arbeloa is a thug and may lose his position to Daniel Carvajal next season (assuming Real Madrid trigger Dani's buy-back clause at Bayer Leverkusen).

    Ramos is central to the club's inability to defend set pieces. He's also carried himself in a disgraceful manner (no surprise).

    For someone who is a supposed hard-man, he goes down at every given opportunity as if he's been knocked out by Anderson Silva.

    The Spaniard was lucky not to have been sent off when he blatantly elbowed Jonny Evans.

    Pepe is the modern incarnation of João Morais, whose horrific double-assault on Pelé is relived every four years.

    Raphaël better not sink to those depths because he seems like a well-mannered individual.

    The one time he did make a howler, pulling down Patrice Evra who was through on his goal, referee Felix Brych made a non-call.

    The German's decision will be lost in the annals of history, because 21 days later, referee Cüneyt Çakır made sure his name will be remembered in infamy.

    This time next year, Varane should be in the top 10 of this list.

    Here's a lovely anecdote about Zizou convincing Real Madrid management to sign Raphaël (via Sid Lowe at The Guardian):

    When Zinedine Zidane recommended his signing from Lens for a fee of about £9 million due to competition from Manchester United, he told the president Florentino Pérez that Varane would be the finest French centre-back since Laurent Blanc, but he did not expect it to happen this quickly.

24. Glen Johnson, RB/LB, Liverpool

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    We live in a prisoner-of-the-moment society, and Glen Johnson's recent performances have been the old Glen Johnson.

    Yes, the key phrase in this article's title is "right now," but I'll add a bit of a creative license—right now, as in this season.

    You cannot deny that for most of the 2012-13 Premier League season Glen has been one of the best defenders in the league.

    His 73 tackles to 23 fouls is a superb ratio for a full-back; he's a creative threat (has four EPL assists, tied with Chelsea's Oscar), and is vital to Liverpool's offensive-minded philosophy (they play some brilliant attacking football).

    Johnson's dip in form is the reason why he's ranked No. 24 rather than higher up on the list.

    A few months in football is eons.

    Glen Johnson is so Underrated. Best RB in England by far. #LFC

    — Total LFC (@TheTotalLFC) November 25, 2012

     

    Glen Johnson wishing Joe Allen was still on the pitch. Now Joe's gone, he's got the worst player on the pitch award this second half

    — Mark Richmond (@Markrichmond71) March 16, 2013

23. Aurélien Chedjou, CB, Lille

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    Aurélien Chedjou has been Lille's stalwart this season.

    He's a powerful tackler evidenced by him having an 85 percent chance of winning the ball, such is his defensive prowess.

    Aurélien has a good connection with Rio Mavuba and Florent Balmont with the key connection being that all three are pass masters.

    The Cameroonian takes the ball out of the back four and offloads it to the aforementioned midfielders.

    Chedjou has been with Lille since 2007 but he wants a new challenge (per France Football via Sky Sports):

    "I don't want to sound pretentious, but I feel ready to join a top European team. Then it will be up to me to make a name for myself there.

    "I have always wanted to play in England. There are great players there, and you play at a high level.

    "I won't say it is my dream, and, if I don't find a club there, I will refuse another country. There are other attractive destinations, such as Germany, Spain, three or four Italian clubs and maybe Turkey."


    You can throw Russia into the mix because they generally always offer lucrative contracts to in-form players in Europe's top leagues.

    The sad thing about Aurélien is that most people outside of France don't even know his name.

22. Rafael, RB, Manchester United

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    Rafael used to be perceived as Manchester United's weakest link with opposing managers instructing their players to lull the Brazilian into low-percentage tackles.

    He has greatly improved his defensive aptitude in recent times according to Sir Alex Ferguson.

    Rafael is brave, athletic, handy in joining the attacks and a hard-as-nails tackler.

    Did he have bad games against Real Madrid? Well, not many players can defend Cristiano Ronaldo.

    Even in the eventful second leg where Cristiano was caught up in the emotion of returning to Old Trafford, he still sneaked in a goal whilst Rafael despondently hugged the post thinking "FML."

    Rafael is 22 years old. If he can continue to develop upwards, he will be a world-class right-back.

21. Ashley Cole, LB, Chelsea

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    Respect to Ashley Cole's agent for negotiating a wage over £120,000 a week, which was the number he agreed to back in 2009 (via David Hytner at The Guardian).

    Neil Ashton and Charles Sale at The Daily Mail have speculated that Cole is earning £200,000 per-week, though that's ridiculous even by Chelsea's standards.

    A guesstimate would be £130,000 every seven days.

    The Blues are paying him based on his CV.

    Sure, he's an elite left-back: does he do anything that other LBs of similar quality can't do? No.

    Ashley is impotent in the final third (10 percent crossing percentage and 0.6 shots created per game).

    He's solid defensively but so are a few other left-backs that aren't getting paid in excess of £120,000 a week.

    The LB quandary is another flaw in CFC's upper management.

    They've overloaded at right-back:  Branislav Ivanovic, César Azpilicueta, Wallace, Tomás Kalas (turned into a RB on loan at Vitesse) and Kenneth Omeruo (looked immense as a CB at the AFCON but has played at RB whenever I've had the chance to watch him [1]).

    Who do Chelsea have at left-back? Ashley. A nervous wreck in Ryan Bertrand. Then there's Patrick van Aanholt (Vitesse loanee), who is dynamite, but his defending leaves a lot to be desired.

    There are zero world-class centre-backs. There are a bunch of right-backs, but who is the No. 1? There's no long-term future at LB. Chelsea's playing an attacking midfielder and a box-to-box midfielder in the two pivot positions, misusing a £25 million valued Brazilian, not giving a precocious German talent a chance, letting go of two No. 9s who are substantially better than your current No. 9 and hiring a manager who sunk a UEFA Champions League winning team—just another season of the reigning Champions League winning Chelsea Football Club.

     

    [1] Just a caveat here. I've only seen Kenneth in two league games and wasn't overly impressed. His AFCON displays were helpful, but the standard of play wasn't that great. I don't know enough about him to judge.

20. Nacho Monreal, LB, Arsenal

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    Nacho Monreal arrived at Arsenal as La Liga's second best left-back, and he's already building the foundations for a run as the Premier League's No. 1 LB.

    In five league games for the Gunners, he has made a combined 23 tackles and interceptions yet has only conceded two free kicks.

    He completes 88.3 percent of his passes and has been helpful in the attacking third as Swansea City found out.

    One word sums up Monreal's game: efficient.

    You can't help but feel sorry for Kieran Gibbs, who was in stellar form before succumbing to injury, and now may never win back his starting position.

19. Rio Ferdinand, CB, Manchester United

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    Rio Ferdinand isn't a razzmatazz ball winner who asserts his authority on the game.

    He is economical in his tackling (0.3 fouls per game), a brilliant passer (completes 90.2 percent of his league passes), and you'd think he goes through a game unnoticed.

    Except, when he sarcastically applauded referee Cüneyt Çakır (Italian official Gianluca Rocchi once sent off Wesley Sneijder for doing the same thing), or bullying a mentally fragile Fernando Torres. Then there's that run against Reading.

    With the game at 0-0 and Rio only completing one dribble in league-play, he gutted the Royals with an ungainly foray into the attacking third before laying it off to Wayne Rooney, who scored via a deflection-assist to Ferdinand.

    He was the bigger man for letting go (but not forgetting) his previous history with Roy Hodgson as the MUFC CB accepted a re-call to the national squad.

    So much for Hodgson saying (from John Cross at The Mirror; October 3, 2012): "It is over for him [Rio] and England. It has got to be the end of the road. He is pushing 34 and hasn’t played for England for a long, long time."

     

    Breaking News: Rio Ferdinand is back in the England squad - going to be interesting when he is told he has to room with Ashley Cole!

    — Joe Morrison (@joefooty) March 14, 2013

18. David Alaba, LB, Bayern Munich

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    David Alaba's slip came at the most inopportune moment as Olivier Giroud netted Arsenal's first on route to the London club's surprising 2-0 win in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg—"thank goodness for the away goals rule," should have been the statement uttered by Bayern Munich supporters after the game. 

    It's difficult to gauge how good Alaba really is when he has a world-class goalkeeper behind him, is playing alongside the best centre-back in the world, has a world-class double pivot partnership and is on a team that controls 64.5 percent of the possession per league game.

    He'll do his time at left-back before moving into midfield to replace Franck Ribéry.

    David has enough time to become an elite LB, but there is so much potential in a more advanced role.

    During the 2009-10 Premier League season, Gareth Bale scored three goals from left-back—look at him now.

    Alaba is skillful; he is a great passer and has shown intuition in goal scoring situations.

    There was the double against Schalke, a goal against BATE Borisov and scoring a penalty past the in-form Kevin Trapp.

    Speaking of penalties, he stepped up when it counted against Real Madrid last season (you wonder what would have happened if he played in the final versus Chelsea [1]).

     

    [1] He's pretty darn good from 12 yards out—ask Timo Hildebrand, Trapp, Iker Casillas, Marc-André ter Stegen and Christian Abbiati.

    D.A.'s penalty-taking career seems headed down the path of Massimo Oddo. (That's a good thing.)

17. Gaël Clichy, LB, Manchester City

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    Gaël Clichy recently said (per Jeremy Cross at the Daily Star): "Everyone is saying United have to lose four games. That’s not true. If they draw a few matches, we can make up points."

    Manchester City won't be making up points if they continue to start Aleksandar Kolarov ahead of Clichy.

    Another mind-numbingly stupid decision from Roberto Mancini.

    You can't make a case subjectively or statistically for Kolarov.

    If Roberto uses his eyes, how can he claim that this Kolarov is anywhere near the Lazio Kolarov? If it's an inferior version (which it is), why start the Serbian?

    Statistically, it's no contest—Gaël, KO first second of the first round.

     

    LEAGUE ONLY TPG TPF IPG
    Clichy 3.4 4.9 2.5
    Kolarov 1.8 1.6 1.0

     

    TPG = tackles per game; TPF = tackles per foul; IPG = interceptions per game

     

    Seamus Coleman conquered Aleksandar just like Gareth Bale ordering a taxi for Maicon.

16. Chico, CB, Swansea City

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    Swansea City spent £2 million on Chico (via BBC Sport), a discard from Genoa, who spent last season on loan at Mallorca.

    He is now one of the Premier League's most dominant centre-backs.

    Is his 3.3 tackles and interceptions per EPL game a surprise? No. His defensive productivity is actually down by 1.8 from last season.

    Mallorca Chico or Swansea Chico?

    The latter because he's an elegant ball-playing centre-back—completing 89.8 percent of his league passes—a 180 from the unsophisticated hoofer at Mallorca, who used to give away the ball 29 percent of the time he attempted a pass.

    It should be an embarrassment to Chelsea management that the Swans' £2.4 million-valued CB pairing (Chico and Ashley Williams) have performed better than all of CFC's centre-backs this season.

15. Jan Vertonghen, CB/LB, Tottenham Hotspur

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    Arsène Wenger's habitual tendency to change a new signing's preferred position turned Jan Vertonghen away from signing with the Gunners (from NUsport via Sky Sports):

    "They [Arsenal] wanted me to be a controller in the midfield, an Emmanuel Petit-type.

    "Ultimately, I just came to play at centre-back. I see myself as a centre-back.

    "The overall picture of Spurs appealed to me more.

    "Gareth Bale had to play left-back, but it did not work so he pushed forward and I moved to full-back.

    "I'm not agile enough to play against players like Nani and Sterling [at LB]."

    Wenger will need to strip Thomas Vermaelen of the captaincy and sell him.

    Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur have Jan, who has the potential to replicate Vincent Kompany's 2011-12 campaign next season.

    With Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, the Hazard brothers, the Musonda brothers (and the next batch of Belgians the Blues plan to sign), why didn't CFC make a concerted effort to convince Vertonghen in joining the Stamford Belgian brigade?

14. Mattia De Sciglio, RB/LB, AC Milan

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    Not only do AC Milan have a trident with the highest upside in European football (M'Baye Niang; 17, Mario Balotelli; 22 and Stephan El Shaarawy; 20), 20-year-old Mattia De Sciglio has been playing at an elite level.

    Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani believes Mattia can be Paolo Maldini 2.0 (from Forza Italian Football):

    "De Sciglio is a player that can use both feet, just like Paolo Maldini. If he manages to bulk up a bit and get some muscles, then he will be like Maldini. In my opinion, Mattia plays better on the left."

    De Sciglio has the potential to be one of the best crossers in European football, and playing on the left negates that attribute.

    His tactical nous of the game is unusually high for someone with so little experience.

    M.D.S. can also win back possession (3.1 tackles per league game) and is comfortable playing across the back—he started as an emergency centre-back versus Siena.

    If  Mattia starts several more games at centre-half [1], he could have the rare distinction of being the club's best RB, CB and LB.

     

    [1] A tongue-in-cheek reference.

13. Filipe Luís, LB, Atlético Madrid

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    Jordi Alba's unpredictable nature should hold him back from having the title as La Liga's best left-back.

    Most weeks, he leaves gaping holes at the back charging forward.

    Then there are games like the second leg against AC Milan where he just stayed back, essentially playing as a centre-back (via Zonal Marking).

    Filipe Luís is compact at the back, a clean tackler (2.8 tackles to 0.9 fouls per league game), generally always meets expectations and is easily the best LB in Spain right now.

    It was ridiculous that Adriano, a player with well-known defensive deficiencies, started ahead of Filipe in Brazil's 2-1 loss to England.

12. Daniel Carvajal, RB, Bayer Leverkusen

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    Daniel Carvajal must have been playing at a similar level for Real Madrid B, and for him to not get a chance for the first team shows you the lack of opportunities afforded to Los Blancos' youth products.

    He is a world-class ball winner (3.8 tackles and interceptions per game) and superb in the attacking third (1.3 shots created per game; 0.1 better than Kaká).

    Have Real Madrid lost Dani? Nope.

    Real inserted a buyback clause in his contract (via MTNFootball.com), and, given that he's better than Álvaro Arbeloa, Carvajal will be back at the Santiago Bernabéu next season.

11. Leonardo Bonucci, CB, Juventus

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    Leonardo Bonucci doesn't have Giorgio Chiellini's brute ball-winning ability or Andrea Barzagli's positional awareness.

    Though, Bonucci isn't a freeloader because he deserves plaudits for making the transition from error-prone defender to an integral part of Juventus' back three.

    The Bianconeri have the best defensive and midfield triumvirate in Europe.

    Two things Leonardo needs to cut from his game: the comical diving and shooting from distance.

10. Leighton Baines, LB, Everton

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    From left-back, Leighton Baines has scored and created more league goals (9) than Papiss Cissé (8), Stewart Downing (6), Oscar (5), Samir Nasri (4) and Andy Carroll (3).  

    Baines' 55 tackles in return for 0.8 fouls per league game illustrates how clean of a tackler he is.

    His 31 crossing completion percentage is in the top percentile.

    This is why Leighton is a more complete LB than Ashley Cole.

9. Matija Nastasić, CB, Manchester City

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    In this season's UEFA Champions League, Matija Nastasić won back the ball 18 times and didn't commit one foul.

    Whenever he goes in for a tackle in Premier League play, he has a 93 percent chance of winning the ball.

    Vincent Kompany has regressed after signing a six-year contract (per The Telegraph). Whereas, Matija went from meek Serie A defender to a footballer who is playing beyond his years in his first season of Premier League football.

    Next season, Nastasić will have expectations of replicating this season's form—can he do it?

8. Marquinhos, CB, Roma

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    Marquinhos is keen to repay Roma's faith in him (from Gazzetta dello Sport via Football Italia): "I’m not thinking about a transfer because I owe Roma a lot for the opportunity that they have given me," so don't expect a transfer away in the summer.

    Marquinhos' talent certainly went over Corinthians' head as they relinquished such a precocious talent.

    He's a leader, relentless in winning back possession 5.0 times per game (he very rarely makes mistakes), makes 88.6 percent of his passes and is already a world-class centre-back.

7. Carlos Martínez, RB, Real Sociedad

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    Are you sick and tired of watching big-teams? Why not root for an underdog like Real Sociedad who play up-tempo attacking football?

    Carlos Vela, Xabi Prieto and Antoine Griezmann are a wonderful attacking three.

    Though, it's Carlos Martínez at right-back that is attracting attention with his ball-hawk like attitude to defending.

    He's an agile, brave and tough 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) tall RB who should be playing for one of Europe's best clubs.

    Centre-back Iñigo Martínez and defensive midfielder Asier Illarramendi are also two names to keep an eye on.

6. Thiago Silva, CB, Paris Saint-Germain

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    When you have Gregory Van der Wiel on the right, an unhappy Mamadou Sakho, a mediocre Alex and Maxwell who prefers playing in midfield, Thiago Silva isn't going to look like the Thiago Silva people want to see.

    Paris Saint-Germain's defending in the 2-2 draw against Saint-Étienne was poor to say the least.

    From an individual perspective, Silva has been playing well, but he needs to ensure his teammates don't switch off.

    If Silva can do this, then P.S.G. will win Ligue 1, and he'll make the UNFP Team of the Year.

5. Pablo Zabaleta, RB/CB, Manchester City

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    The Guardian's David Conn perfectly described Pablo Zabaleta's contributions to Manchester City this season: "That encapsulates Zabaleta's approach for his steady progress on an extraordinary football trajectory: give your best, make the most of your talents."

    As City are capitulating (two wins in their last six league games), Zabaleta is still fighting on.

    He makes more tackles per game (3.9) than James Milner, Javi García and Yaya Touré combined (1.4 + 1.3 + 1.1 = 3.8).

    For parts of this season, I was leaning towards Rafael as the league's best right-back, but now Pablo has that mantle.

4. Giorgio Chiellini, CB, Juventus

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    Giorgio Chiellini's all-or-nothing breakneck way of defending is unsustainable.

    In a few years' time, he'll end up like Carles Puyol whose body has already waved the white flag.

    This season, Giorgio has made 52 tackles and intercepted 54 passes in 17 Serie A games—now, that's a proactive centre-back.

3. Andrea Barzagli, CB, Juventus

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    One word to describe Andrea Barzagli: boss.

    He predicts where the ball lands; he generally knows where the opposing player is going to move, and he makes the right decision.

    Andrea isn't the biggest, strongest or quickest defender in Italy, but he's the best defender in Serie A by a landslide.

    Barzagli's road to redemption is an example to footballers who've experienced failure that you can bounce back.

2. Dante, CB, Bayern Munich

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    Clumsy, foolhardy, takes unnecessary risks, error-prone and doesn't seem to know how to defend would have been the scouting report of Dante in his early days at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

    In his first season with BMG, he was Titus Bramble bad in a 5-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen and a 4-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt.

    Dante was the 74th ranked defender according to Kicker ratings at the end of the 2008-09 campaign.

    Last season, he was No. 7. This season, he's No. 2.

    Strong, commanding, athletic, beast in the air, brilliant passer, takes control of the game and has the heart of a champion should be the current scouting report of Dante.

    Can you imagine how dominant a Dante-Jan Kirchhoff centre-back pairing would be?

    Kirchhoff has Gary Pallister speed, and the German's measureables are off the chart, but it remains to be seen if he can get it altogether. 

1. Philipp Lahm, RB/LB, Bayern Munich

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    Philipp Lahm won the ball 99 times in the Bundesliga this season, and do you know how many yellow cards he has received? Zero [1].

    He is tied with Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller and Szabolcs Huszti for most league assists (9).

    You expect nothing less from Philipp who is world-class in both the defensive and attacking third.

     

    [1] He does have two bookings in UEFA Champions League play, but his 2.7 tackles and interceptions per game to 0.6 fouls per game proves how efficient of a ball winner he is.

     

     

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    Ranking European Football's 20 Most Improved Players This Season

    Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, EPLIndex.com and Squawka.com.