For many, greatness stops at one goal, one pass, one save. For the few, greatness is a default setting.
It’s time for reflection as the chapter closes on the decade. In this series, we examine the very best players, coaches, managers, teams, signings and more that have shaped the last 10 years in world football.
In this edition, we focus on the foundations on which any great team is built – defenders.
Whether it’s the hard-nosed centre-backs who are determined to let nothing by or the liberating forward play of attacking full-backs, only the best of the best over the last 10 years make our list.
The old school Italian centre-back is a dying breed and Giorgio Chiellini is one of the last of his kind. With quick and athletically supreme defenders rising to the top in the modern era, the Juventus man has shown remarkable consistency and discipline to set the bar.
The Bianconeri skipper has led his team to an unprecedented eight consecutive Serie A titles, also securing eight domestic trophies along the way. No-one marshals a defence quite like him. He’s renowned for being hard but clean in a tackle and infallible in the air.
When it comes to fundamentals of defending, Chiellini has been king – certainly over the last 10 years at least.
The very fact that he’s earned the nickname ‘Piquenbauer’ should tell you everything you need to know about the Catalan. His ability to thrive with a high line, sweep up at the back and occasionally sniff out a goal has drawn similarities with German legend Franz Beckenbauer.
After being groomed at La Masia, Gerard Pique spent his formative years at Manchester United where he would win his first Champions League title before returning to Barcelona at the start of a trophy-laden era.
He is one of the most technically gifted centre-backs in the game while his passing and ability to carry the ball out from defence has made him indispensable to Barca. Pique has also remained a permanent fixture for Spain, winning the World Cup and European Championship.
If you had to engineer a centre-back perfectly suited to the modern game, you’d end up with something pretty close to Sergio Ramos. The Spaniard has been at the top of his game in the last decade, winning 18 trophies with Real Madrid in that time including four Champions League titles. He also won the World Cup in 2010 and a second European title two years later.
Ramos is a fine athletic specimen, blessed with the pace and agility that strikers would be proud of. A supreme leap makes him dominant in the air but while his positioning has improved, it’s still a slight weakness.
However, his pace compensates sufficiently as he has great ability to track back swiftly while his recovering tackles are second to none.
With his flair, natural aggression and confidence Ramos is the kind of player Real identify with. He’s less fundamentals, more flash, but ultimately formidable.
Like Chiellini, Diego Godin is not your typical modern-day centre-back. But in the absence of pace and mobility, an unwavering discipline manifests. He still boasts some impressive physical traits though, having been blessed with a naturally powerful frame while his sheer commitment to the cause goes a long way.
Godin keeps up with forwards much faster than him by reading the danger early. He’s a magnet for the ball when it flies into the box and his impeccable positioning is the reason for that.
He was Diego Simeone’s general for years before moving to Inter this summer and was the rock on which the Atletico Madrid manager built a successful team that won eight trophies.
The Uruguayan has been a stalwart for his country as well, leading them to a Copa America triumph in 2011.
Think of the most complete full-back and then add a whole lot of class and innovation into the mix – that was Philipp Lahm.
He was an outstanding defender and so clean were his tackles that he retired without ever being sent off. Going forward, his passing was exemplary and his crosses of the highest quality.
Capable with both feet, he had the versatility to play on either flank. His tactical understanding was so advanced that Pep Guardiola once labelled him the ‘most intelligent’ player he ever coached, with the German regularly featuring in a deep-lying midfield playmaker role at the time.
He was also an inspirational leader, winning the 2014 World Cup with Germany after securing the Champions League with Bayern Munich the year before.
Such is Jordi Alba’s desire to get forward and ability to hurt the opposition when he does that his combination with Lionel Messi has become one of the deadliest in Europe.
Despite operating from left-back, Alba’s overlapping runs and frequent cut-backs have become one of Messi’s best supply lines over the last few seasons.
The Spain international can understandably then be caught out of position but he usually boasts the pace and energy to recover.
His height, or lack thereof, accompanied with his slight frame is always a concern especially in aerial duels but he remains an excellent defender one on one.
With five La Liga titles, one Champions League and a Euro 2012 medal to his name, Alba has proved hugely successful.
Before Alba for Barca and Messi, there was Dani Alves. The Brazilian thrived within the Catalans’ possession-based system as he often operated as an auxiliary winger, winning three Champions Leagues – two in the last decade.
Alves would generate width on the right while Messi tucked into the half-space or drifted further into the middle. His overlapping runs were frequent and effective while he also masterfully timed his diagonal runs in behind the defence.
Defensively, Alves remained strong and difficult to beat but most of his contributions off the ball came high up the pitch as Barca would press the opposition into surrendering possession.
The right-back has a great ability to adapt and, at Juventus, was a playmaker of sorts. He would launch deep crosses or long diagonal balls targeted at Mario Mandzukic on the far side. After success at the San Siro more silverware would follow at Paris Saint-Germain.
Marcelo is a mainstay in a Real Madrid side that has enjoyed a phenomenally successful era in the Champions League, winning four of the last six tournaments.
Such is the flair he offers that he would fit into any five-a-side team rather comfortably. His defending may not be up to the mark at times but among full-backs, his technique, trickery and eye for goal is unparalleled.
In 2012, legendary Brazil left-back Roberto Carlos labelled Marcelo his heir and called him the world’s best left-back. He even went as far as to say that Marcelo’s technical ability was better than his.
Perhaps what truly makes him one of the all-time great full-backs is his ability to perform in the big games and produce telling contributions.
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