Ranking the 20 Best Defenders in World Football

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor IJuly 30, 2013

Ranking the 20 Best Defenders in World Football

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    Picking the 20 best defenders in world football is far from an easy task, with opinions ranging wildly depending on personal preference.

    Across different leagues and different playing styles, the expectations of defensive players alter somewhat and that is why I have chosen to focus on central defenders.

    The full-back is, in many ways, an attacking player in some footballing cultures and therefore it is difficult to decide where to draw a line as to who to include.

    What follows, then, is a ranked list of those who I believe to be the 20 best central defenders in world football.

20. Benedikt Howedes (Schalke)

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    Schalke club captain Benedikt Howedes is often overlooked when it comes to naming leading members of the wonderful current German generation, but has been a consistently important presence for the Gelsenkirchen-based side.

    A wonderfully old-fashioned centre-back, Howedes reads the game magnificently and, besides being a physical match for any opponent, shows great technique in dispossessing opponents.

    While not as accomplished on the ball as many on this list, nor particularly quick across the ground, there is no doubting that the German is one of the better central defenders in world football at present.

19. Marquinhos (PSG)

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    Recently bought by Paris Saint-Germain for a remarkable €35 million according to ESPNfc, Marquinhos may not be the finished product, but he is already an outstanding central defender of ever-increasing repute.

    The 19-year-old plays with astounding maturity for someone with just one season of regular first-team football to his name. His ability to pre-empt the pattern of play is second to none among young defenders worldwide, while he is blessed with impressive physical attributes despite his slight build.

    How he copes with the pressure of joining an ambitious PSG side will decide just how high he can make it on any future such list, but he is well deserving of a place in the lower reaches at the moment.

18. Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)

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    Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane is another of the younger players on our list at just 20 years old, but has already shown his abilities in both domestic and continental action for Los Merengues.

    Over the course of the 2012-13 season, the young Frenchman stole a march on the more experienced trio of Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and Raul Albiol to become a first-team regular and did not disappoint.

    When joining the Spanish giants in 2011, there were worries that his promise would be lost amid the club's collection of expensive recruits. The physically imposing youngster, though, has taken his time and earned himself a first-team place.

17. Nicolas Otamendi (Porto)

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    Having now spent three years in European football with FC Porto, Nicolas Otamendi has developed into one of Argentina's best central defenders and played an important role in his club's recent successes.

    While he may be out of favour with national team coach Alejandro Sabella at present, Otamendi has improved the positional side of his game to match his impressive physical attributes. Quick and strong, he has always had the capability to succeed, but is now one of the most rounded defenders in Portugal.

    Comfortable on the ball, although not outstanding, he is attracting interest from Atletico Madrid this summer according to Marca. Should he enjoy another similarly good season in 2013-14, then more clubs will no doubt be circling in the near future.

16. Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund)

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    Alongside Germany international Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic is part of a Borussia Dortmund central defensive partnership that has played a major role in the club's title wins and European runs of recent seasons.

    Just 24 years old, Subotic has a wealth of experience to his name at the highest levels of European football and while lacking the ball-playing ability of Hummels, he compensates with unerring reliability in the defensive aspects of his role.

    Given his lack of pace, Subotic has learned to position himself effectively to deny much faster opponents, while he is also a physical match for any of Europe's most powerful centre-forwards. Against Bayern in the 2013 Champions League final, he was a major thorn in the side of the eventual champions throughout the clash.

15. Inigo Martinez (Real Sociedad)

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    The next leading Spanish central defender? Inigo Martinez has long been touted as a potential successor to Carles Puyol with the Spain national side and, considering his performances at club level over the past 12 months, his ascension could come sooner rather than later.

    Although under six foot tall, Martinez is an excellent header of the ball and has enough strength to compete with much bigger opponents. Left-footed and comfortable in possession, he is able to mix his combative instincts with the technical standards that Spain have come to expect of their defenders.

    At La Real, Martinez has been a crucial component of a young side that earned qualification to next year's Champions League. A good season in 2013-14 and the chance of a big move and place at the World Cup become real possibilities.

14. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)

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    Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny has been part of one of the Premier League's most error-prone defences in recent years, but has seen his own personal reputation increase over that time.

    One of the most elegant centre-backs in the Premier League, Koscielny has fitted Arsenal's possession-based strategy like a glove, offering calm distribution from defensive areas and the ability to carry the ball out of defence.

    An accomplished technical defender, Koscielny has also proven more than able at matching the English league's top strikers physically and has attracted admiring glances from many of Europe's best clubs.

    If Arsenal are to challenge for trophies once more, they will need the Frenchman to play a major role.

13. Andrea Barzagli (Juventus)

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    Part of the Juventus centre-back trio that have been so successful over the past two seasons, Andrea Barzagli has seen his own personal reputation increase dramatically over that period.

    While the rugged Italian was already an international, he had not played for Italy for three years before joining the Old Lady for what was effectively a nominal fee in 2011 (€264,000 via Transfermarkt). He now looks almost certain to be a key player for his country at the 2014 World Cup.

    Barzagli, despite being a strong and powerful defender, has also proved to be more than capable of playing with the ball at his feet as part of Juventus' 3-man defensive line.

    He may not always get the credit he deserves, but there is no doubting Barzagli's importance to both club and country.

12. Ezequiel Garay (Benfica)

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    According to Goal.com, Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay has been heavily linked with a £17 million move to Manchester United this summer and, based on performances over the past few seasons, it is not difficult to see why.

    Following a false start in European football with Real Madrid, Garay has since set about fulfilling his early potential in Lisbon. Now 26, he has progressed considerably over his two years at the Estadio da Luz and made himself an undisputed first choice with both club and country.

    What sets Garay apart from most of his compatriots is his comfort at distributing the ball from defence—a quality which makes him an attractive potential acquisition. While also an assured defender, he has a level of skill and composure on the ball that few centre-backs can dream of.

    Whether he will move or not, we don't yet know. However, it is clear that Garay is already considered one of the best defenders around by Europe's elite.

11. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

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    Gerard Pique has not had the easiest of times on the field over the past 12 months, with both Barcelona and Spain having found themselves overrun in defence on the biggest of occasions.

    However, when in a side that offers better protection to its central defenders, Pique is the epitome of the modern centre-half. Strong in the tackle, a good reader of the game and an excellent distributor, he has proven the ideal partner to the less refined Carles Puyol for several years.

    It remains to be seen how Barcelona will approach life under new manager Tata Martino, or whether they will invest in a new regular centre-back partner for Pique. Whether they do or not, it is clear that the young Catalan will continue to be an integral figure for the Camp Nou side.

10. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)

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    The second member of Juventus' regular centre-back trio to feature in our list is the imposing Leonardo Bonucci, who has become a major player with both his club and the Italian national side since moving to Turin from Bari in 2010.

    Dominant aerially and an excellent man marker, Bonucci is a master of the arts of centre-back play. However, on top of his prowess in defensive situations, he is also comfortable joining in with his side's possession play.

    Should he ever leave the Juventus Stadium, Bonucci would have no shortage of suitors. For now, though, he is part of a unit that is proving to be one of the best around at both club and international level.

    He is, indeed, another that falls firmly into the category of "modern centre-back" on the list.

9. David Luiz (Chelsea)

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    Wherever David Luiz ended up on this list, his inclusion was always going to be contentious. There are those who believe he is simply a hopeless defender, while, on the other hand, there are those who would place him at the very top level.

    He may not be at that level quite yet, but it should not be overlooked that he is a masterful defender. Yes, there have been mistakes since his arrival in England, but Luiz has every attribute needed to be a leading centre-back in world football.

    There has been significant improvement also and, while his comfort on the ball saw him used in midfield last campaign, it would be a major surprise to see him anywhere other than in central defence this year.

    Tall, strong, skilful and determined, Luiz will be among the world's best defenders for some years yet. His performances at the Confederations Cup while under enormous pressure will have done a lot to silence his doubters.

8. Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)

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    Rio Ferdinand may have lost the pace that he possessed in his former years, but he remains one of the most graceful and effective defenders in world football.

    Manchester United won the Premier League title by some distance in 2012-13 and, in the extended absences of Nemanja Vidic, it was Ferdinand who ensured that the club dramatically improved on their defensive record to charge clear of their rivals in early 2013.

    Ferdinand has always been excellent at spotting danger before it occurs and his excellent disciplinary record is testament to his impressive understanding of how play will proceed.

    In possession, he is also an assured presence with the ball at his feet and has long been an important figure for United in terms of building attacks from deep.

    A few years ago, he would have been higher on this list. For now, though, he is well deserving of a place in the top ten.

7. Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)

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    Tottenham Hotspur took a real step forward in their progress towards challenging for titles last summer, with the capture of Belgian international Jan Vertonghen immediately improving their defence considerably.

    Vertonghen, who is able to play in a number of positions, offered Spurs an assured presence in defence who could also contribute to the side in attacking areas, either by bringing the ball out from the back or scoring from set pieces.

    Although not particularly quick, Vertonghen is positionally excellent and is among the better readers of the game on this list. On top of that, he has also shown himself to be brave when required to put his body on the line to stop a shot.

    Tottenham will need to qualify for the Champions League this year to avoid advances being made for their star defender, with Vertonghen approaching prime age at 26 years old.

6. Dante (Bayern Munich)

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    One of many players on this list who also have experience at full-back, Dante's rise to prominence has been rapid over recent Bundesliga seasons—now used almost exclusively at centre-back.

    A giant figure at the heart of the defensive line, Dante's arrival at Bayern from Borussia Monchengladbach last summer was one of the major factors behind their treble-winning season. Bayern won the league title at a canter, with a remarkable record of just 18 goals conceded over the course of the campaign.

    His experience on the left side of defence means that he has been well suited to Bayern's possession-based style of play, and that should continue to be the case under the incoming Pep Guardiola.

    Another top season for Bayern and Dante could easily challenge David Luiz and Thiago Silva's first-team place for Brazil.

5. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)

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    Real Madrid and Spain defender Sergio Ramos has long been heralded as one of the best in his position anywhere in the world and, despite being just 27, has over 100 caps for his country.

    As a young player, while his talent shone through, he was often impetuous and picked up an extraordinary number of cards for overstepping the mark. While that side of his game still exists, there is no doubt his disciplinary record has improved a fair amount.

    When not getting himself into trouble, Ramos is exceptional. He is strong and fast, thrives in one-on-one battles with opponents and, if needed, can be a threat in attacking areas.

    Another who has played large chunks of his career at full-back, the length of time he has spent as first choice at Real Madrid says much of his quality and standing within the game.

4. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)

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    The third and final of Juventus' centre-backs on our list is Giorgio Chiellini, the rock on which the Turin side have built their all-conquering Serie A side of recent years.

    Chiellini may lack the on-ball qualities of his two colleagues, but is the best defensive player of the three. With outstanding positional awareness and tackling technique, Chiellini is one of the most respected one-on-one opponents in world football.

    He may not be quick or gifted in possession, but the Italian provides balance in a world of ball-playing centre-backs. He does his job effectively and, in the process, makes it very difficult for opponents to threaten his goal through any means necessary.

    One of the most old-fashioned defenders on our list, but also one of the best.

3. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)

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    Vincent Kompany may not have matched his previous performance levels in a Manchester City shirt last season, but he remains one of the best defenders anywhere in world football.

    A wonderful all-around player who spent much of his early career in midfield, Kompany offers a stubborn, powerful and technically complete presence at the heart of the defence. On form, he is the best defender in the Premier League.

    What also sets apart the Belgian from many others is his leadership qualities, with Kompany often seen barking instructions at his teammates. He is an organiser, with a fine understanding of the game around him.

    Should Man City return with a bang this season in an attempt to regain the Premier League title, it would be no surprise to see Kompany leading the charge.

2. Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund)

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    Germany international Mats Hummels is another to be consistently sought after in the transfer market over recent years, but has instead helped Dortmund in their rise to the top of the European game.

    Another who relies more on game intelligence than pace, Hummels is the elegant ball-playing half of the Dortmund central defensive pairing, with the aforementioned Subotic supplying the brawn.

    That is not to say, though, that Hummels cannot mix it with physical opponents. The German combines his clever positional play with a rugged side that allows him to get the upper hand on many elite strikers.

    Excellent at bringing the ball out of defence, he has become an important figure when it comes to starting attacks from deep for his club. He is truly a great all-around central defender.

1. Thiago Silva (PSG)

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    The undisputed best central defender in world football at present is PSG and Brazil star Thiago Silva, captain of his victorious side at the recent Confederations Cup.

    The former Fluminense and AC Milan star is one of the most rounded players in football, combining physicality, intelligence and high levels of skill to form an astoundingly good defensive player.

    His leadership qualities will be tested in the coming season when he will be expected to guide the youthful Marquinhos through any challenges ahead, but it would be no surprise to see the Brazilian pair emerge with flying colours.

    It's unusual to see a defender move for a fee of €42 million (Goal), but the fact that his first year at the club ended with speculation of an even bigger move to Barcelona (Fox Sports) says much of his standing within world football at present.

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