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.
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