Ranking the Top 22 Defences in Europe Right Now
Goals win games; defences win championships.
So goes the saying, lending weight and credence to the thought that although strikers and attacking players are generally the players who command big transfer fees, managers need to get their lower end of the pitch sorted first if they have aspirations of success.
Some of the most recognisable and best attackers on the planet are forwards, of course, but they don't score every game—and the reason for that is that sooner or later, they come up against a defence that proves their match.
A look at the best defences in Europe at this moment in time throws up some interesting team names but the vast majority of them have one thing in common—they are up in the higher reaches of their respective domestic leagues.
These are the best 22 defences right now, so if you're expecting Barcelona to be up there on account of having the best side when everybody is fit and available, you'll be disappointed.
Defensive records and quality of opposition have been taken into account.
22. Sunderland and 21. Schalke
We kick off with a couple of honourable mentions who didn't quite make the top 20, as it were.
Yes. The Black Cats are languishing in 16th place in the Premier League in England, but their miserly defence has let in an average of just one goal per game. In fact, only one team in the entire division has a better defensive record than them—though Sunderland have played a game less than most other teams.
On-loan Danny Rose has been one of their standout defenders, playing at left-back, averaging 2.6 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game.
Then there is Schalke, second in the Bundesliga and with only two defeats this season.
An enviable home record of four wins and one defeat is thanks in part to a strong defence, conceding just three times this season so far.
Away from home, the German side concede an average of less than nine shots per game, a quite excellent feat given some of the attacking talent on show in the division.
20. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
Like a rocket, we shoot over to Eastern Europe and the Ukranian league.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk have conceded 12 goals in their 14 league games to date, enough to propel them to second in the top flight.
This is largely thanks to their imperious home form where they have a 100 percent record after eight games, having let in just four goals in the process.
Dnipro aren't doing too shabbily in the Europa League either, where they had conceded three goals in their first three matches—before Napoli put four past them in Italy in their most recent meeting.
Off to the Jupiler League now, where Belgian side Anderlecht hold court.
Thirteen conceded in 14 matches for the side from Constant Vanden Stock, their local fortress where they have seen just three goals put past them by the opposition.
In a tough Champions League group containing Zenit, AC Milan and Malaga, Anderlecht have conceded just four times in their four matches.
Anderlecht could continue their excellent defensive record this season at the weekend when they face Kortrijk, who have the fewest goals scored in the top half of the league.
18. Inter Milan
Andrea Ranocchia is the impassable rock upon which Inter Milan are building their defence; the Italian defender has won four tackles per game this season (a league high for a centre-back) and completes an average of more than three interceptions to boot—not to mention making 96 clearances in 11 games so far.
Truly, a defender in form.
The rest of his teammates have pitched in too, to the extent that Inter have improved from some miserable early-season form—conceding five in their first two home games—to now stand at 10 goals conceded in 11 games.
Inter have kept four clean sheets on the road this season from their six games, conceding only twice.
Benfica are known for their attacking flair players as much as anything, but in Jardel and Ezequiel Garay they have some super defenders doing their job just as well.
The Portuguese league is still in its infancy this season with only eight games played, but Benfica—currently second—have conceded just six goals: three home and three away.
Benfica are in the Champions League group with Barcelona, Celtic and Spartak Moscow and retain hope of qualifying for the next stage. They have conceded four in four in that competition; a couple of clean sheets would go a long way toward helping them achieve their targets.
16. Steaua Bucuresti
The runaway leaders of the Romanian first division, Steaua Bucuresti might not be one of the names who spring to mind when you think of top defences, but their successes this season are built primarily on being mean at the back.
Steaua have an eight-point gap between themselves and second-place Csm Ploiesti, and have conceded only 11 goals in 14 matches domestically. Just three of those goals have come at home, where they have won eight out of eight.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Romanian league might not test the true level of a strong defence—but in European football, Steaua have been equally impressive.
Playing in the Europa League, they top Group E after four games, conceding only three goals. Again they have a 100 percent home record in this competition and have kept clean sheets in both matches in Bucharest.
Centre-backs Lukasz Szukala and Vlad Chiriches (pictured) have been the stars at the back, both completing at least two tackles, two interceptions, eight clearances and one blocked shot per match in Europe.
Steaua deserve their place in this list, no doubt about it.
15. Zenit St. Petersburg and 14. CSKA Moscow
Back all the way to Russia now for our next two teams, who are neck and neck in the defensive record stakes.
CSKA Moscow currently top the first division with 33 points, with Zenit St. Petersburg in third on 30 points.
The two share identical records in the goals conceded columns; six at home and six away each, giving 12 conceded in 14 matches.
Rather helpfully, we'll get a close-and-personal look at exactly which one of these sides is better than the other defensively in just a week or so; the Zenit vs. CSKA Moscow fixture takes place on November 26.
Who's putting money on a 0-0 draw?
Into some serious business now.
Greek side Olympiacos Pireus lead the Super League with eight wins from their first nine games—five points clear of their nearest challengers.
To say they have been stingy, domestically at least, would just about cover it.
Only five goals have been put past the defence, which is manned by talented youngster Kostas Manolas. At home, just one goal in five games has been conceded.
In Europe, Olympiacos still have a real chance of qualifying for the knockout phase of the Champions League in a tight group containing Arsenal and Schalke, though they will have to improve on their record of conceding seven goals in their four fixtures if they are to make it.
12. St. Etienne
St. Etienne have a very good defensive record in France's Ligue 1 this season and are the first team on the list since Sunderland to not be challenging near the very top of their division.
ASSE currently lie in sixth place, though they are just four points off top spot in what is a very tight early-season league. A drop in form is just as perilous as a good run could be season-making; only four points away in the other direction lie Bastia in 12th place.
Conceding only eight goals in 11 games has been key to the good start to the season for St. Etienne, with only three of those goals coming at home.
Loic Perrin has been one of their top performers, playing both on the right and in the centre of defence.
11. Twente Enschede
Back to more league leaders now and over to Holland, where Twente Enschede lead the Eredivisie by a single point after 11 matches.
During those 11 games the Twente defence has been breached just six times, with a single one of those coming at the De Grolsch Veste stadium.
Douglas has once more proven himself a highly capable central defender, and with his contract due to run out next summer, it is likely there will be no shortage of offers for the Brazilian to try his hand at a new club. He has yet to miss a single minute of league action this season.
Considering the complete meltdown of Thomas Vermaelen's game this season and the fact they've had to play the mostly untested Vito Mannone in goal for much of the season, it is quite impressive that Arsenal manage to have the best defensive record in the Premier League to date.
The Gunners have conceded eight goals in 10 games so far, along with six in the Champions League in a fairly tough group.
Arsenal concede an average of only 10 shots per game and make an average of 21.7 tackles per match—both the second-best records in the league at present.
At the Emirates, Arsene Wenger's men limit opposition to just eight shots per match.
Nicolas Otamendi and Maicon are the reliable duo for Porto to build on, with the two combining in all eight league games in the centre of defence and three out of the four Champions League matches they have played. Maicon missed just the other one game.
Porto have conceded only five times domestically—with clean sheets in all four games played at home in a very impressive start to the season.
Otamendi completes 3.3 interceptions per game in the Champions League, where Porto sit top of a very tough group having let in only two goals in four matches. PSG, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb are their opponents.
Needless to say, Porto also sit top of the Liga Sagres and are level on points with Benfica.
The fantastic Juventus have conceded eight goals in 11 games in Serie A, which they currently top after just one defeat so far.
Juve have actually conceded fewer goals away from home than at home this term, with just three goals getting past them outside their home in Turin.
A fearsome trio protect the Juventus goal as they play a 3-5-2 system, with Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci averaging eight interceptions between them per game. The three defenders have between them made 210 clearances in the league during this campaign.
With just 10.7 shots conceded per game on average, it's clear to see why Juventus' defence has been so hard to breach.
In the Champions League, Juve have conceded four in four.
One goal better off than Juve at this stage are Napoli, with seven conceded in 11 games.
Napoli lie third in the table, five points off top spot and are undefeated at home so far in the Calcio.
Having rested some players in the Europa League fixtures to help sustain their impressive league form, it's no surprise to see a somewhat skewed defensive record on the continental side, where they are conceding at a rate of two goals per game (eight in four matches).
The 32-year old Hugo Campagnaro has been the standout defender with a club-high 36 interceptions, along with 45 tackles made and 89 clearances.
6. Paris St. Germain
Big signing Thiago Silva has just about been the standout defender for PSG this season in Ligue 1, where the Parisian side top the division on goal difference from Marseille.
The slight edge that PSG have at the top shows just how crucial a good defence can be.
Only seven goals conceded in the first 11 games of the season is no mean feat for a side quickly assembled.
Mamadou Sakho has started 10 games in the league, but Thiago Silva and Alex have been the preferred partnership in the Champions League, where PSG have shipped only two in four games and need just two more points to seal qualification.
Despite the good record in conceding goals, PSG are actually one of the clubs who concede the highest amount of shots per game—12.5 on average in the league. Only four clubs allow more shots.
Like Juventus, Fiorentina have conceded eight goals in 11 matches in this season's Serie A. Also like Juve, they employ a three-man defensive system.
For La Viola, a heavy Argentine presence can be detected in the back line, led by Gonzalo Rodriguez and Facundo Roncaglia. They have made 136 clearances between them and the latter leads the way in tackles (3.8 per game) and interceptions (three per game) for defenders.
As an entire defensive unit, Fiorentina present an extremely difficult barrier to get through. The team concede just 8.9 shots per match on average.
That is the lowest in the Italian league by far, and indeed better than any club in the English Premier League, all but two clubs in Spain's La Liga and all but one in the Bundesliga.
4. Real Madrid
In one of the toughest leagues in Europe, Real Madrid have one of the best defences.
That defence, led this season in no small part by Sergio Ramos, has conceded just seven goals in 10 matches thus far and allows a miserly 8.8 shots per game on Iker Casillas' goal.
With Jose Mourinho in charge, you wouldn't expect Real to be exactly open, but even so that is an impressive record.
In the Champions League, seven goals in four matches have found their way into the Madrid net.
Even so, Real are off top spot in both competitions; Borussia Dortmund lead the way in Europe, a point ahead of the Madrid side, and they "languish" in third place in La Liga. At present, they trail the leaders Barcelona by eight points.
In terms of defenders, Alvaro Arbeloa has made the most tackles domestically for Real Madrid with 2.6 per game. Ramos, on 2.4, is close behind, while the former Sevilla man has made the most clearances with an average of 6.4 per game.
There are no doubts about the star of the Malaga defence: Argentine centre-back Martin Demichelis has been a real rock for them.
He has made an average of 3.8 tackles, 2.5 interceptions and 6.3 clearances per game in helping Malaga to keep out opponents on five occasions already this season.
In total they have conceded just seven in the 10 games—along with just one solitary goal in the Champions League.
Not bad considering it is their debut campaign in the tournament and their group contains AC Milan, as well as Anderlecht and Zenit.
The entire team are clearly putting in a shift for Malaga as they allow just 9.5 shots per game in La Liga, along with making a division-best 19.2 interceptions per match.
2. Shakhtar Donetsk
Domestically dominant and continentally impressive, Shakhtar Donetsk are a real force both at home and, increasingly, abroad.
Olexandr Kuchar is the main man in defence as he makes five tackles, 2.8 interceptions and 5.3 clearances a match for his team in what is an extremely tough-looking Champions League group.
Along with Shakhtar, it features Chelsea, Juventus and Danish side Nordsjaelland—and Shakhtar top the lot on seven points.
So far they have conceded five times in the four games, and in the Ukrainian Premier League their record reads just six goals conceded in 14 matches, a quite superb set of numbers. Just two of those goals have been conceded on the road.
1. Bayern Munich
The best defence in Europe right now belongs to Bayern Munich.
Ten matches into their Bundesliga campaign, the Bavarians have conceded just four goals in one of the most competitive leagues around.
Strangely, these four goals have all come at home—not one single goal has been let in during their five matches on the road, where they enjoy a 100 percent record.
Five conceded in four games in the Champions League is only marginally less encouraging in a group with Valencia and BATE Borisov, as well as Lille.
Unsurprisingly, Bayern have the meanest defence in terms of conceding shots per game—with just 7.1.
That's the best out of any top-flight team in England, Spain, Italy or France, as well as Germany.
It's very much a collective effort from Bayern with no individual recording significantly more than two tackles, two interceptions or three clearances per game in the league—and it's quite clearly working spectacularly well.
Comprehensive statistical data provided by whoscored.com