Who’s the best centre-back in the world?
I’m sure you’ve got an idea.
A top central defender is like gold dust in the modern footballing landscape. It’s a role that not only requires exceptional mental fortitude and physical attributes, but also the ability to lead and organise a defensive line.
Hence, it is one of the most difficult jobs to judge that particular part of the pitch, simply because some defenders are better than they seem and are simply playing in a difficult system, while others are not necessarily the best players but get protected by their side’s excellent shape and structure.
There are very few who have mastered the craft over the years; even fewer who are still playing in the elite end of the spectrum. Picking the top ten, thus, was quite the undertaking here at SportsKhabri.
After a lot of deliberation, fact-checking and analysing n number of footage, I’ve managed to come up with a definitive list.
So, without any further ado, let’s dive into it and take a look at the top 10 centre-backs in world men’s football right now.
Note: While preparing the list, only players who have played as a centre-back – either a back-3 or a back-4 – were considered. Metrics like performance over the last 12 months, impact, technical ability and leadership were taken into account.
#15 Fikayo Tomori
#14 Matthijs de Ligt
#13 Jules Koundé
#12 Raphaël Varane
#11 Cristian Romero
The top ten
#10 Antonio Rüdiger
29 years old • Real Madrid CF • Germany
Coming into a team like Real Madrid and asserting your authority in central defence is never easy. However, Antonio Rüdiger has taken to the challenge like a duck to water. While he’s had to share responsibility with Éder Militão, Rüdiger is slowly cementing his place as the standard choice alongside David Alaba.
A lightning-quick centre-back who reads the game very well and carries the ball forward with relentless intent, Rüdiger has been exhibiting world-class performances over the last 18-24 months, and while he is yet to touch those heights for Real Madrid, his exploits for Chelsea lands him in tenth on my list.
#9 Lisandro Martínez
24 years old • Manchester United FC • Argentina
The 24-year-old Argentinian didn’t have the best of starts in a Manchester United shirt as he was ridiculed and dismissed as a quality centre-back simply because of his diminutive stature. However, the former Ajax man has put all those doubts aside with a string of commanding and combative performances to become one of the fan favourites at Old Trafford.
Although I had this urge to rank him as high as #7, there are certain aspects of his game that remain untested and can only truly be answered during the second half of this season or even perhaps the next season, like: how good he is when United are dominating possession, how good he is against a higher back-line like Arsenal’s or Manchester City’s, and whether he has the temperament to lead United’s defensive line. Until these questions are answered, his half-a-season with United and his previous campaign with Ajax warrants him a ninth place on my list.
#8 Dayot Upamecano
24 years old • FC Bayern Munich • France
Dayot Upamecano is becoming the player fans hoped he would be when he first broke through the RB Leipzig setup. The now 24-year-old is increasingly becoming more of a leader in Bayern Munich’s defence, having cemented his place as the first-choice centre-back under Julian Nagelsmann.
The 6″1′ imposing defender is athletically and physically unsurpassable, while his tactical awareness and decision-making are improving by the day. The France international, who was once touted as a prodigy and a future star, has now fully announced himself on the big stage and is currently one of the best centre-backs in world football.
#7 William Saliba
21 years old • Arsenal FC • France
The youngest defender on the list, and arguably one with the highest ceiling of all. Still just 21, Saliba is consolidating his place as a starter for the France senior national team, which is some achievement on its own, while he has represented everything positive about Arsenal’s hugely impressive start as the Gunners currently sit on top of the Premier League table with a five-point cushion.
The 2021/22 Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year is an aggressive and commanding centre-back but maintains composure on the ball in tight spaces and frenetic situations. Saliba’s transition into the heart of Arsenal’s defence has been seamless, while his performances during the first half of the season have been faultless and of an incredibly high standard, making him the standout young defender in world football right now.
#6 Éder Militão
24 years old • Real Madrid CF • Brazil
Despite sharing responsibilities with Antonio Rüdiger, Éder Militão played a big part in Real Madrid securing the league and Champions League double last season. A strong centre-back with an impressive leap who attacks the ball with intent, the 24-year-old Brazilian compliments David Alaba perfectly in the heart of Real Madrid’s defence.
A proactive defender, who also possesses an excellent recovery pace, Militão is rarely caught out with balls in behind; if he is, his recovery runs regularly allow him to get back goal side and defend his lines.
Make no mistake: the departure of the ever-present duo of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane meant somebody had big boots to fill, and it was the Brazilian who initially stepped up his game and formed an excellent partnership with Alaba.
#5 Thiago Silva
38 years old • Chelsea FC • Brazil
It is extraordinary when you think of the fact that Thiago Silva is soon entering his 40s. More remarkable is the fact that Chelsea look completely lost at the back when the Brazilian is not around. Silva’s masterful positioning and leadership over the years inspired his former sides AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain to league glory, while he finally got his hands on the Champions League trophy with Chelsea in 2021.
Although fitness and injury concerns have plagued the Brazilian in recent years with age catching up, Silva hardly puts a foot wrong whenever called upon. Moreover, amid the chaos and uncertainty in Chelsea’s back-line recently or even during those odd calamities at the back over the last 12 months, the Brazilian workhorse has always stood out as one of the top performers week in, and week out.
#4 Virgil van Dijk
31 years old • Liverpool FC • The Netherlands
Once the undisputed best centre-back in world football, the Netherlands international’s fall from grace this season has been gargantuan considering the ridiculously high standards he has set for himself over the past half-decade. However, that doesn’t mean Virgil van Dijk is past his prime, for Liverpool still rely on their Dutch talisman in some of the biggest games in world football.
With a gigantic frame and pace to go with it, the 31-year-old has been one of the primary cornerstones on which Liverpool won the 2019 Champions League title and followed it up with the Premier League title in 2020. Although a few injuries and some dodgy performances have affected his stock slightly, Van Dijk will return to his unquestionably high standards in due course. Of that, there’s hardly any doubt.
28 years old • Paris Saint-Germain FC • Brazil
Marquinhos is someone like Saliba, who arrived at PSG as a teenager with much hype around his potential. He switched from central defender to defensive midfielder and back again, becoming the lynchpin of a PSG side that’s become ever so dominant—mostly in France—over the last decade.
Entering his peak years as a central defender now, the Brazil international is only going to improve with age. The PSG skipper has been imperious since taking the armband from compatriot Thiago Silva at the beginning of the 2020/21 season and has become more of a threat in the opposition box, while some of his key attributes like positioning, physicality and passing ability have kept on improving over the years.
#2 Rúben Dias
25 years old • Manchester City FC • Portugal
Rúben Dias made quite the start to his Manchester City career. In his debut campaign, the Portugal international was named the FWA Footballer of the Year, the Manchester City Player of the Year, the Premier League Player of the Season and the UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season.
However, such has been the goal-scoring prowess and flamboyance of some of his teammates further up the pitch, that the 25-year-old has somewhat gone under the radar this season, with many of his teammates grabbing the headlines.
Dias is calm on the ball, a positional supremo, and one of the best in the business when it comes to defending one-on-one situations — a trait essential when playing for a Pep Guardiola team. The Portuguese defender has produced exceptional performances playing in City’s defence this year and is a formidable presence, offering steel and security to his attackers to scurry forward in search of goals.
#1 David Alaba
30 years old • Real Madrid CF • Austria
When all is said and done, and David Alaba hangs up his boots, he’ll go down in history as one of the best players of his generation. He is not only one of the best centre-backs in the world, but he’s also one of the best left-backs, a very good midfielder for his country, and a decent left-winger. The Austrian has been ever-present in a back-line that took Real Madrid to Champions League and LaLiga glory last season, and he has started this campaign as strongly as he finished the last one.
Granted, Alaba made his name by breaking through at Bayern Munich at an early age as a left-back, with the Bavarian side stacked in the centre-back department. However, his incredible skill set makes him an ideal centre-back — despite not being blessed with the height of one. Yet, the fact that he has played in some of the most successful clubs in football history tells you just how important Alaba is. Such is his remarkable ability, he is as much of a goal threat as he is strong in keeping the ball out of his net.