The most successful Premier League teams of the modern era are blessed with elite defenders from across the globe. This is arguably the most important department for any manager, as no striker in the world can consistently cover for a leaky defence. With that in mind, these are the top five defenders plying their trade in the top tier of English football right now:
- Raphaël Varane
Varane has won the World Cup, four Champions League titles and three La Liga titles during his illustrious career thus far. He moved from Real Madrid to Manchester United last summer after the club offered him wages of £275,000 per week.
Red Devils fans are yet to see the best of the Frenchman, whose first season in the Premier League was blighted by injuries and the general gloom hanging over the team. We have included him in this list on the basis of his past exploits rather than any scintillating displays in a Man Utd shirt.
When he is operating at the peak of his powers, Varane is easily one of the best defenders of his generation, blessed with phenomenal speed and timing. If he can get back to full fitness for Man Utd, he has the potential to transform their fortunes under Erik ten Hag in the 2022-23 campaign.
They are currently huge underdogs for Premier League glory in the spread betting, and that is largely down to their woeful defensive record last season. If Varane is firing on all cylinders, they stand a much better chance of success next term.
- Andy Robertson
Gary Neville recently claimed that Robertson is the best full-back in the Premier League “by a mile”, both from a defensive perspective and an attacking perspective. Neville knows a thing or two about the full-back role, so we have to take his comments seriously.
Modern full-backs need to get forward on a regular basis, provide width in attacking areas and whip dangerous balls into the box. However, for the purposes of this article, we are strictly interested in a player’s defensive attributes, so we have omitted the supremely talented duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold and João Cancelo from our list.
Robertson is arguably not quite as effective as Alexander-Arnold going forward, but he is the superior defender. If you want proof, just watch a replay of Liverpool’s game against Arsenal in March. Robertson had Bukayo Saka in his pocket for the entire game. Saka was shortlisted for the Premier League Player of the Season thanks to his goals and assists, but he found the Liverpool left-back to be an immovable object.
The Gunners switched things up and moved Gabriel Martinelli to the right, but Robertson also kept him quiet. That game is just one of many examples of Robertson excelling from a defensive standpoint.
- Reece James
With all due respect to Neville, we would slot in the Chelsea full-back ahead of Robertson in this list. James is phenomenal going forward, as he can score goals, deliver pinpoint crosses and pass like a playmaker, but he is also extremely strong at the back.
This was clearly evident in the 2021 Champions League final, when James was a man mountain at the back for the Blues. He repelled wave after wave of attack down Man City’s left flank, helping Chelsea keep a clean sheet against one of the most formidable attacking teams in history.
With Antonio Rüdiger moving to Real Madrid and Thiago Silva in the twilight of his career, James is now the best defender at Chelsea. The England squad is stacked with talent in this position, including Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for Gareth Southgate to justify leaving James out of his starting 11 at the upcoming World Cup.
- Rúben Dias
Dias has been Man City’s strongest and most consistent centre-back over the past two seasons. Aymeric Laporte and John Stones have both enjoyed strong spells, but Dias is City’s most reliable presence at the back.
He was signed in the summer of 2020, after Pep Guardiola’s men had just finished 18 points behind Liverpool in the title race, and he instantly rejuvenated their struggling backline. Since he joined the club, City have won back-to-back titles, and no team has conceded fewer goals than them.
Dias’ potential was clear from an early age. He was named Primeira Liga Young Player of the Year following his debut season at Benfica and he led them to glory before earning a €68 million move to the Etihad.
In his first season at the club, he was named FWA Football of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season. His strength, aerial ability and positional awareness are all impressive, and he is also a leader for City at the back. Dias is still just 25 years, and he should remain one of the world’s best defenders for many years to come.
- Virgil Van Dijk
There could only be one winner in this rundown of the best defenders in the Premier League. Liverpool can trace their renaissance back to the day they signed Van Dijk from Southampton in what was then a world record deal for a defender. The fact that Man Utd broke that record to sign Harry Maguire now seems ludicrous, such is the gulf in quality between the two players.
Van Dijk has led Liverpool to three Champions League finals in five years, and he also helped them end their 30-year title drought. He has everything you could ask for in a centre-back – blistering pace, aerial dominance, the strength to muscle any striker off the ball, superb tackling ability, positional awareness, mental fortitude and a fantastic range of passing.
Rio Ferdinand sparked controversy when he named himself as the best defender in Premier League history, ahead of former teammate Nemanja Vidić, with Jaap Stam in fourth and John Terry in fifth. Terry did not take kindly to it, but the main issue was that he did not put Van Dijk at the top of the pile.
The Dutchman may not have won as many trophies as Ferdinand and Vidić, but their Man Utd team never racked up as many Premier League points as Liverpool did in three of the past four seasons. Van Dijk combines the best attributes of both men, forming the most dominant defender in Premier League history.