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You can’t watch a Premier League game today without seeing a lightning-fast full-back fly past his winger on the overlap and send in a pinpoint cross – such is the nature of the modern game. But who are the best ever to play the position in the Premier League?
Here we pick our top 10 Premier League right-backs of all time – a mix of those blessed with offensive and defensive ability. We've used a number of stats 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.
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This spot could just have easily gone to Bacary Sagna, who was a more natural player at the position and continued the production line of quality right-backs later in Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger era. But it’s Lauren, part of the Invincibles that gets the nod thanks to his two Premier League titles and his status among Gunners fans. The Cameroonian’s success was a mark of his ability (and Wenger’s genius), having been switched from midfield to defence on arriving in North London, something he wasn’t up for. “I signed him as right-back,” said Wenger. “He just didn’t know it.”
Not unlike Lauren, Gary Kelly’s Leeds career didn’t have the most auspicious start as the Irishman, suffering from homesickness, was on the verge of calling it quits. Howard Wilkinson saw something in the youngster and installed him at right-back to start the 1993/94 season. That was the beginning of 14 seasons in the Leeds line-up (11 in the Premier League) and saw him selected for Jack Charlton’s fun-to-watch 1994 Irish World Cup squad that beat Italy en route to the Round of 16. Scored only two goals in his Premiership career but his FA Cup volley from outside the box against Wigan in 2006 burns brightly in Leeds fans memories.
There were those that balked when Manchester City sent £45 million Spurs’ way for a 27-year-old Kyle Walker, suggesting that we’d already seen the best of the Sheffield lad under Mauricio Pochettino. Since then he’s won three Premier League titles and was a key member of Gareth Southgate’s Euro 21 runner-up side. "The way he gets up and down the pitch is why for me he's probably the best in the world, and I keep telling him that," said England and City teammate John Stones. "That's why he's the player he is and the person he is, he wants to keep on getting better.”
The second of three Irishmen on this list, Stephen Carr was signed by Spurs’ Ossie Ardiles as a 15-year-old before establishing himself in the senior side five years later. The Dubliner was chosen at right-back for the PFA Team of the Year twice with the North Londoners (2000/01 and 2002/03) before moving to Newcastle under Bobby Robson then Graeme Souness, who was a fan of his inherited player. “Stephen Carr is one of the best right-backs around and he could play for any club in this country," said the Sky Sports pundit. “Stephen is the modern-day full back and I'm delighted we have him."
Consistency was the quality that Rafa Benitez prized in the Limerick-born Steve Finnan during his Liverpool reign. “Finnan is a player who will always play at a consistent level,” said the Spaniard. “He will be seven, eight, nine or even 10 out of 10 every week. Some players find a good level for individual games but don't do the same every week. Finnan does it for a whole season.” One of the heroes of Istanbul, Finnan holds the odd distinction of being the only player to have played in the World Cup, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup, Intertoto Cup, FA Cup, all four levels of English league football and the Conference.
By some way, the most prolific goalscorer on this list, Branislav Ivanovic’s knack for important goals was an added bonus that sat alongside the rock-hard presence he brought to Chelsea’s right-hand side. “An unbelievable defender for us over the years and a great and big character and presence in the dressing room,” said John Terry when Ivanovic left the Blues. “A proper legend.” It was that aura that enticed Slaven Bilic to bring the 36-year-old Serbian to West Brom for one last, ultimately ill-fated, Premier League go-around in 2020. "He's a great addition for us, a team who are newly promoted," said Bilic on signing Ivanovic. "He adds quality and experience on the pitch and off the pitch, plus the influence he will have on not just defenders but the whole team around him."
Although his time as Manchester City boss was short, Mark Hughes was the manager that brought in two of the building blocks that were key to his Premier League-winning successors Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini’s achievements. Nine days after signing Vincent Kompany, Hughes added Pablo Zabaleta, who would go on to make 230 appearances for the Sky Blues and win the title under two different managers before becoming the first Argentinian to reach 300 in three seasons with West Ham.
Just 23, Trent Alexander-Arnold already has a Premier League title, Champions League and a Ballon d’Or nomination to his name, which has drawn praise from another member of this list. “I’ve not seen something like him since Cafu,” said Gary Neville. “He’s out of this world. The quality he produces is out of this world.” As evidence of his ability and the evolution of the position, in September, Alexander-Arnold recorded his 35th Premier League assist, something that took Neville 400 appearances to achieve.
With Tony Adams and David O’Leary, Martin Keown or Steve Bould in the middle, Nigel Winterburn on the left and Lee Dixon on the right, Arsenal’s back four was the envy of English football. Under George Graham, Dixon would win the First Division in 1988/89 and 1990/91, in the latter conceding just 18 goals and losing only one league game. When Arsene Wenger took over in 1996, Dixon was given more freedom to employ his ability to get forward and deliver quality crosses, helping Arsenal to the double in 1997/98 and 2001/02.
While Jaap Staam may have described Gary Neville as a “busy c**t” there is no doubt his approach personified the work ethic and the doggedness that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson preached. Not blessed with the natural speed or footballing ability of others who played his position, Neville’s approach was to outwork peers and opponents and win battles through sheer bloody-mindedness. His post-football career has demonstrated a sharp football brain and his trophy cabinet is decorated with eight Premiership trophies.