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Every team needs a down-and-dirty central defender, or preferably two. Someone who’s going to put their body on the line when necessary to keep their goal intact. Old-school centre-backs were able to chop opponents in half but since the advent of the Premier League being physical has evolved and requires plenty of technical ability.
Here we pick our top 10 Premier League centre-backs of all time, all of whom are footballers, not just defenders. We've used a number of stats from over the seasons to quantify our rankings, as well as a player's overall contribution to the game in history. So who makes it into our top 10?
All stats come from premierleague.com and are correct as of the publish date.
A true Roy of the Rovers story, Steve Bruce started his footballing career as an apprentice with third-division Gillingham, working his way up to the first division which would become the Premier League. At Manchester United, he would team with Gary Pallister to form the foundations upon which three Premiership titles were won (1992/93, 1993/94 and 1995/96). Known to pop up at crucial moments to score key goals, no more so than his double against Sheffield Wednesday late in their first Premier League title season.
Brought to Chelsea by Gianluca Vialli in 1998, Marcel “The Rock” Desailly was already a World Cup winner, double Champions League winner with Marseille and AC Milan (where he also won two Serie A titles). He and fellow Frenchman Frank LeBoeuf provided the Blues with a rock-solid central defensive pairing, as well as a shining example for an 18-year-old prospect by the name of John Terry. “Desailly was virtually impossible to play against,” said former Liverpool striker Michael Owen. “He was strong, quick, and good on the ball. I tried kicking him once and hurt my foot – which shows what sort of game I had against him.”
Jaap Stam only spent three seasons in the Premier League but won titles in every one of them with Manchester United, including the famous treble in his debut season. With Steve Bruce having left two years earlier and Garry Pallister departing in the offseason, Alex Ferguson made Stam the world’s most expensive defender and got his money’s worth. Peter Schmeichel would go on to call the Dutchman the best defender he ever played behind at OId Trafford. In 2001, Ferguson, in what he’d acknowledge was his worst transfer regret, sold Stam to Lazio, because he thought he’d lost a step on return from injury.
When the skinny Serb Nemanja Vidic arrived at Manchester United from Spartak Moscow for £7million in 2005, his teammates weren’t blown away. But the 25-year-old, quickly acclimatised to the Premier League and to the weight room, forging one of the world’s best-ever defensive partnerships with Rio Ferdinand and bagging five Premier League winner’s medals. “He became a defender that was feared,” said Ferdinand. “He could fight with the most physical, he crunched into tackles, he attacked the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen. But as he will tell you with a smile, he could also play with the ball too, which made him complete and a great defender.”
“There are some players you wish played for your club,” said Gary Neville, not known for his appreciation of the noisy neighbours in blue. “Vincent Kompany was one of them.” Kompany spent 12 seasons at Manchester City having been bought by Mark Hughes from Hamburg and initially played as a defensive midfielder. It wasn’t long before he moved to his natural home becoming the heart and soul of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, winning four Premier League titles.
“I always dreamed of winning the league at White Hart Lane, so I left and joined Arsenal,” so said Sol Campbell when he left Spurs to join Arsene Wenger’s Gunners in 2001, compounding the fury directed at him by one half of North London. He did exactly that three years later, his second title with Arsenal.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool fans will know exactly how that feels. After the colossus that is Virgil Van Dijk helped the Reds to their first top-flight championship in 30 years, his injury in 2020 cratered any chance of repeating. “We all know Van Dijk is one of the best centre-backs in the world,” said Man City’s Sergio Aguero. “He’s strong, tall, and, because of his long legs, he can reach everywhere. He is so smart when defending. He’s not anxious when marking, he’s very careful and patient. That makes it difficult for strikers.”
A mark of Tony Adams’ greatness was his consistency under two very different types of manager – old-school George Graham and renaissance man Arsene Wenger. Graham called Adams, who spent 14 years as Arsenal captain and won league titles in three different decades, “my colossus”. Wenger, meanwhile, described him as a “professor of defence”. He was the captain of England’s most successful tournament team before Gareth Southgate and co’s summer exploits, the Euro 96 side. “Captain. A great defender and a great leader,” said former teammate Ian Wright. “He was so inspirational and was able to get the best out of those around him.”
“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with,” said Rio Ferdinand’s Manchester United teammate Paul Scholes about the defender. “I would say for a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with and play in front of. He made your job so easy.” Ferdinand blossomed under Alex Ferguson, winning six Premier League titles with United. Only Jamie Carragher played more games among defenders than Ferdinand, who captained his country seven times and was selected for four consecutive World Cup squads (albeit not playing in France 98 and missing South Africa 2010 through injury).
Despite his dubious behaviour – and there’s plenty to consider both on and off the pitch – there’s no questioning John Terry’s footballing ability. “John Terry is the toughest defender I’ve played against,” said Wayne Rooney, who sits at 491, one Premier League appearance behind Terry’s 492. “He reads the game really well, he’s physical, he’s big, good in the air and he’s powerful. You come off feeling like you’ve been in a real game.” A one-club player and Chelsea legend, Terry lifted the Premiership trophy five times and only eight men have captained England more times. Respected by his world peers, he was named to the UEFA Team of the Year on four occasions.
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