Evidence to confound the hackneyed trope that defending just isn’t what it used to be is ample, if you want to look for it.
Performers that twin physical supremacy with majestic control of the ball are no longer true rarities.
Not that the previous generation are going quietly into their dotage as 2018/19 has featured a renaissance for Barcelona’s Gerard Pique, among others.
But where do these sublime centre-backs stack up? Take a look in our tiered rankings.
Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool
If the perfect centre-back was concocted by scientists, late bloomer Van Dijk would be the result.
The statuesque Netherlands centre-back is unbeatable in the air, calmness personified when the ball is on the deck, an inspirational leader of men and expert passer. It is no wonder the 27-year-old’s first full season on Merseyside after a contentious – and belated – landmark £75 million transfer in January 2018 from Southampton has produced a leading 19 clean sheets and 20 goals conceded.
Liverpool scored goals galore last term. But this campaign’s relentless push to end a 29-year wait for Premier League glory has been built from the back.
His expert shepherding of Moussa Sissoko with the Reds on the ropes versus Tottenham Hotspur is, arguably, the campaign’s critical moment.
Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli
A force of nature bestrides the defences of Napoli and Senegal.
Koulibaly’s 6 ft 5 in frame and swift speed gives him the physique of an elite NFL linebacker, yet his elegance in possession befits a quarterback.
An eventful end to 2017/18 saw him head home a winner against Juventus to edge towards Serie A glory, before being sent off at Fiorentina to see it all fall apart. Uncowed, the 27-year-old’s emphatically set new standards in 2018/19 under Carlo Ancelotti.
If he is sold to Manchester United this summer for a world-record £110 million, a near 1,600-per-cent profit will be made on the astute £6.5m paid to Belgium’s Genk in July 2014.
Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
Ramos still commands attention more than any other centre-back.
This has not been a vintage campaign from Real Madrid – not by a long shot. Yet their all-action 33-year-old’s indefatigable display in the round-of-16 opener at Ajax showcased a performer still at the height of his powers.
How Los Blancos missed their – wilfully – suspended skipper in the ruinous return defeat that heralded the end of an era. This underlined an enduring worth, plus irremediable reckless side.
Along the way, his extraordinary technical ability and will for victory has made him a winner of four Champions Leagues, four La Ligas, Euro 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010. What a competitor.
Gerard Pique, Barcelona
Barcelona’s pursuit of an unprecedented treble of trebles in 2018/19 has been a tour de force for the rejuvenated Pique.
Last summer, he was cast as an all-time great whose preternatural gifts were on the wane. A decision to retire from Spain duty in the wake of World Cup 2018’s dispiriting round-of-16 exit – after 102 caps and three major trophies – has proven inspired.
Debilitating injury to France’s Samuel Umtiti has barely been noticed after Pique, 32, formed a formidable new pairing with post-season purchase Clement Lenglet.
Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City
Laporte lives in parallel worlds.
The 24-year-old is the sole indispensable in Manchester City’s backline and the living manifestation of manager Pep Guardiola’s visionary style of defending. Last-ditch tackles are anathema to both, instead finely calibrated positioning and starvation tactics by denying the opposition possession are key.
This is why his calamitous display in the Champions League quarter-final decider with Tottenham was greeted with such surprise. There had not been a previous misstep since January 2018’s £57 million move from Athletic Bilbao.
This rarefied approach, however, is not universally accepted. France head coach Didier Deschamps has eschewed the uncapped Basque’s phenomenal talents, either side of success at World Cup 2018.
Laporte has cited “personal reasons” for the snub, Deschamps insists it’s sporting…
Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham
Understated brilliance has defined Vertonghen throughout his meritorious career.
The 31-year-old, as expected from a product of Ajax’s famed finishing school, is utterly unflappable and a master of the defensive arts. This is the case whether positioned at centre-back, left-back or even at left wing-back by Belgium or Tottenham.
An intuitive partnership with Toby Alderweireld for club and country only bolsters this standing.
Even into his fourth decade, new benchmarks continue to be set. A goal and assist in February’s emphatic 3-0 routing of Borussia Dortmund was key to progression from the Champions League’s round of 16.
Raphael Varane, Real Madrid
Scrolling this far down for a man of Varane’s talent could appear incongruous.
This stationing, however, speaks of the draining effect that continued injury – although his 28 run-outs in 2018/19 is already one more than 2017/18 – can have.
Grace and lightning pace have been the defining aspects of Varane’s, often exemplary, game since being snapped up by Real Madrid in June 2011.
A bravura summer of 2018 saw him claim a fourth Champions League, then score in the quarter-finals along the way to France lifting the World Cup – some recompense for missing Euro 2016.
Varane was ruffled by Ajax in this term’s Champions League round-of-16 humiliation. But there will be no shortage of suitors if the 25-year-old’s desire for a new experience actualises.
Milan Skriniar, Inter
Sampdoria continues to be a profitable hunting ground for Inter.
After the headline-grabbing successes and excesses contained in Argentina striker Mauro Icardi’s six-year stint, a less complex addition has been making waves in the past two seasons.
The granite Skriniar is the rock at the heart of Luciano Spalletti’s defence.
A natural-born leader, keen tackler and sharp passer was recruited by the Nerazzurri for just €15 million in June 2018. With a new contract in the offing to disappoint admirers such as the Manchester giants plus Real Madrid and Barcelona, one can only say molto bene to Inter’s oft-derided recruitment team for this adroit pick-up.
Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Cardiff on Sunday moved them on to 88 points, two more than title rivals Manchester City with three games left to play.
But City can reclaim pole position by winning their game in hand against neighbours Manchester United – who were thrashed 4-0 at Everton on Sunday – at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Boss Klopp said: “Some people up in Liverpool might ask us if we are thinking about Barcelona (in the Champions League semi-final).
“We will be completely focused on Huddersfield (on Friday), but up to then we have to rest and recover and prepare.
“On Wednesday there is a game as well. When we played Manchester United, they were in a much better moment than they are now and that was 0-0. We will see what comes out of that game, but we have no influence on other games.
“If United get a point and we go to Newcastle thinking we have it, then we could get knocked there.
“We just have to stay focused on our things, that’s what has worked so well so far and there is no reason we should change that.”
Second-half goals from Georginio Wijnaldum, only the Dutch midfielder’s third of the season, and a late James Milner penalty secured Liverpool victory over relegation-threatened Cardiff and clinched a ninth successive win in all competitions.
Furthermore, Liverpool set a new club points record in the Premier League – eclipsing the 86 that Rafael Benitez’s side managed 10 years ago in finishing runners-up to Manchester United.
“The points total is like a bill,” Klopp said. “You don’t know what it’s going to be, but when it comes, you pay it.
“In the end, we will see how many points we have and then we get what we get. If you are only motivated to win the holy grail then something is wrong with you.
“We are motivated to play for this club, we want to win football games because we enjoy the ride with the fans.”
Klopp described the dry Cardiff City Stadium pitch as “dangerous”, an accusation which his Cardiff counterpart Neil Warnock strenuously rejected.
Warnock said the pitch had been watered before kick-off, but his primary concern remains the relegation battle and closing games against Fulham, Crystal Palace and Manchester United.
Cardiff are in the final relegation spot and three points adrift of Brighton, who have a game in hand.
“We got over the 11-points target (Derby’s fewest points record) for the season,” Warnock said.
“One by one we still keep surprising people, so who is to say what is around the corner?
“There are so many twists and turns. Fulham have won two on the trot, so that’s not going to be easy.
“Then we’ve got Palace, who are probably the best away team in the league below the top six with the strikeforce they’ve got.
“It’s going to be difficult, but right exciting.”
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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp described the Cardiff City Stadium playing surface as “dangerous” after his team reclaimed top spot in the Premier League.
A rare Georginio Wijnaldum strike in the 57th minute eased Liverpool nerves before substitute James Milner slotted home a penalty nine minutes from time as Klopp’s men defeated relegation-threatened Cardiff 2-0.
The victory means they have a two-point advantage over title rivals Manchester City, who have a game in hand.
The Reds have also set a new club-record points tally in the Premier League, reaching 88 and passing the total of 86 set in 2009.
Klopp, whilst delighted with the victory, was unhappy with the dry playing surface on a warm day in south Wales.
“The ball didn’t roll like normal. Everybody saw it,” he said. “It doesn’t make football easy when the pitch is dry. It makes it dangerous as well because of injuries.
“Dry pitches are dangerous for players injury-wise. I don’t know exactly why the pitch was dry – the ball doesn’t roll that quickly.
“It’s difficult for the fluency of the game. If you ask footballers what they want, they would say a wet pitch, let’s go, let’s pass, let’s play football.
“You can slide better, everything is better. But we were prepared. I am happy with the outcome.”
Reflecting on a ninth successive win in all competitions, Klopp added: “It’s really massive. It was not a game for a little bit playing around.
“It was a game for a 100 per cent fight, a battle of will, who wants it more, and difficult circumstances – circumstances that were all a bit in favour for the team who doesn’t have the ball that often.
“In the end, we will see how many points we have and then we get what we get.
“We will see what comes out of that game on Wednesday (between Manchester United and Manchester City), but we still have games after that. If United get a point and we go to Newcastle next weekend thinking we have it, then we could get knocked there.
“We just have to stay focused on our things. That is what has worked so well so far, and there is no reason we should change that.”
On Liverpool’s opening goal, he said: “We used a set-piece in a fantastic way. They (players) were so smart, they used the experience from the first half from a corner for a corner in the second half.
“It’s not from the training ground; it’s from the dressing room at half-time, when the boys decided to do that. I love that.”
Cardiff’s defeat leaves them three points from safety, but rivals Brighton’s daunting run-in includes fixtures against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City.
Asked about Klopp’s assertion that the pitch was dangerous, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock said: “No it wasn’t. It was watered before the game.
“I see where he (Klopp) is coming from. As far as I’m aware, he (groundsman) watered the pitch before the kick-off.
“They are just a good side, aren’t they? There is not a weakness in their team or the bench. It’s a fabulous Premier League title race this year because both sides are unbelievable.”
On the penalty, which was awarded following Sean Morrison’s challenge on Mohamed Salah, Warnock added: “I thought it was a soft one. He’s got his arms around him and everything.
“I think the end of it was a 9.9 Tom Daley job. I don’t think he could have got much higher off the diving board at the end of it. I am sure you will be saying Warnock’s a moaning so-and-so again.
“We are still fighting. The players really gave their best. When you are coming up against such quality like that it’s great to give them a game and give the fans one or two exciting moments.”
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