A top central defender is like gold dust in the modern footballing climate. It’s a role that not only requires exceptional mental and physical attributes, but the ability to lead and organise a defensive line.
There are so few who have mastered the role over the years; even fewer who are still playing. Picking the top 25, then, is quite the undertaking at 90min as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.
After plenty of debate, however, we’ve managed to come up with the definitive list. Please don’t disagree, there’s been enough of that already.
Welcome to World Class is back for another series across 90min’s Youtube Channel, social media accounts and 90min.com. The guys will be returning through the week as they agree on their 25 man squad and debate the Welcome to World Class XI.
If you can’t see the embed, click here to watch the show!
The new PSG defender has been one of the most consistent performers in Europe for quite some time.
Skriniar is dependable, and that’s probably the main thing you want from a centre-back.
Marquinhos arrived at Paris Saint-Germain as a teenager with much hype around his potential.
He’s switched from central defence to defensive midfield and back again, becoming the lynchpin as PSG dominate – for the most part – in France.
Now entering his peak years as a defender, Marquinhos is only improving with age and is a vital presence at international level with Brazil.
France are well stacked in central defence and Dayot Upamecano is among their top options thanks to his strength, speed and anticipation.
The centre back is always on the lookout for the right pass forward to get Bayern Munich moving, having impressed under Julian Nagelsmann at former club RB Leipzig.
Newcastle were defensively porous under former boss Steve Bruce but Eddie Howe has made them tough to beat and Sven Botman has played a major role.
A £32m purchase from Lille, the Dutchman has formed a sturdy partnership with Fabian Schar and is ready for another season of Champions League football.
A player who can play both right-back and centre-back, Kounde is a brilliantly dynamic footballer.
He’s a key man at Barca for a reason.
Once not that highly-rated while at Borussia Dortmund, Akanji is one of the many, many players who have benefitted from working with Pep Guardiola.
He’s now bloody brilliant.
Gleison Bremer’s growing influence at Torino culminated in the Brazilian winning the award for Serie A’s best defender in 2021/22.
Juventus were suitably impressed and splashed out £45m for the defender. It was wise business from La Vecchia Signora, who have been pretty dodgy in the transfer market recently.
Signing Bremer was no misstep, however, with the Brazilian now a key member of the starting XI.
Tottenham fans quickly fell in love with aggressive right-sided Argentina international Cristian Romero.
A fiery tackler who links up well in possession, Romero won Serie A’s defender of the year award for his displays with Atalanta before joining Spurs.
Now a World Cup winner, Romero is key for Tottenham.
When Ajax looked to be storming towards the Champions League final in 2018/19, it was Matthijs de Ligt performing like a colossus at the back as a teenager that caught the eye.
The talent is undoubted and though the Dutchman’s progress stalled at Juventus, his move to Bayern Munich is bringing the best out of him.
He may be a bit slight and can be targeted for that frame, but Andreas Christensen feels tailor-made to play for Barcelona.
The Denmark international impressed in long stretches for Chelsea and while his exit irked a lot of fans at Stamford Bridge, he did help the Blues to an unlikely Champions League title and then played a key role as Barca won La Liga.
Lisandro Martinez’s start at Manchester United was pretty tough and fans and pundits alike were quick to label him too short to succeed in the Premier League.
However, United have bounced back under Erik ten Hag and ‘the Butcher’ is winning supporters over in defence with his combative tackling and excellent passing skills.
Alessandro Bastoni is an established presence in Inter’s defence and enjoyed a brilliant 2020/21 campaign in their Serie A-title winning season.
The Italy international impresses with the timing of his challenges and boasts immense calmness under pressure.
He has big boots to fill on the international scene with Giorgio Chiellini out of the picture and Leonardo Bonucci approaching the same fate, but in Bastoni there’s a worthy successor for the Azzurri.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane’s exits from Real Madrid meant somebody had big boots to fill in the Spaniard’s exit.
It was Eder Militao who initially stepped up and the Brazilian soon formed an excellent partnership with fellow new arrival David Alaba as Real did the La Liga and Champions League double in 2021/22.
A proactive defender who possesses excellent recovery pace, expect Militao to improve even further at the Bernabeu.
Nathan Ake performs a hybrid defensive role on the left for Manchester City and has boundless energy to make it work for Pep Guardiola.
The Dutchman wasn’t an immediate success at the Etihad but found form at the start of 2023. City fans can always count on Ake if a last-ditch tackle is ever required.
Thiago Silva is still going strong as he approaches his 40s and it’s remarkable to see just how lost Chelsea look at the back when the Brazilian is not around.
Fitness and injury issues have plagued the Brazilian in recent years but he hardly puts a foot wrong when available, even if the Blues suffer the odd calamity at the back.
Silva’s masterful positioning and leadership in defence has inspired his former AC Milan and PSG sides to league glory, while he finally won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2020.
2022/23 was a productive season for Josko Gvardiol as he helped Croatia to the semi finals of the World Cup, won the DFB-Pokal and finished third in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.
A mammoth move to Manchester City has now followed during the summer, and Gvardiol looks set to only get better and better.
William Saliba has been a truly transformative figure in Arsenal’s defence since returning from a few loans over in Ligue 1.
The Frenchman can match any Premier League attacker for pace and has already established a formidable partnership at the back with Gabriel.
However, it’s Saliba who holds the key to the Gunners’ rock-solid defence and he is starting to earn recognition at international level with France.
During some pretty dark economic and playing days for Barcelona, the emergence of Ronald Araujo was one of their few bright moments.
The Uruguayan established himself under Ronald Koeman. While not the best with the ball at his feet, Araujo is always switched on at the back and likes to make the first move when winning the ball back.
His tactical awareness and presence in the air mark him out as a major force to contend with for the next decade.
It’s yet to really work out for Raphael Varane at Manchester United, with the club’s tumultuous off-field antics and a few injuries of his own hampering his progress.
However, trophy-laden years with Real Madrid are hard to ignore and Varane’s importance to Los Blancos during his ten seasons at the Bernabeu keeps him among the very best centre backs in world football.
Fans around Europe took notice of the indomitable Kim Min-jae as the South Korean led Napoli’s defence in their 2022/23 Scudetto triumph.
Having now secured a move to Bayern, the Bavarians now have one of the world’s best on their books.
Virgil van Dijk is not a defender opposition defenders relish coming up against.
With a gigantic frame and pace to match, the Netherlands international was a leading figure in a Liverpool side that became European and domestic champions in 2019 and 2020.
A few injuries and some dodgy performances have affected his stock slightly around the world, but Liverpool fans don’t care. His record at Anfield is incredible and he can’t be beaten on form.
Having earned a move to Real Madrid thanks to his stunning performances for Chelsea, Rudiger has developed into a truly world class centre-back under the Carlo Ancelotti.
If you’re a regular for Madrid, you know you’re big time.
There was a time when John Stones looked firmly out of the picture at Manchester City, with the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake and even Eric Garcia all ahead in the pecking order.
However, he won favour again with Pep Guardiola and his versatility at right back and in midfield means he’s never too far away from the starting XI at the Etihad.
His ease in possession is a joy to watch and helped City to a brilliant 2022/23 treble.
When all is said and done, David Alaba will be recognised as one of the greatest players of his generation.
The Austrian broke through at Bayern Munich as a teenager and played much of his football at left back due to the Bundesliga side’s beefy options in central defence.
However, his incredible skill set makes him an ideal centre back – even if he isn’t blessed with the height of some – and the fact he’s played in some of the most successful club sides in history tells you just how important he is.
He continues to impress with Real Madrid and at international level with Austria, where he’ll play anywhere from left back to attacking midfield.
Ruben Dias made an incredible start to his career at Manchester City and has only improved with time.
In his debut campaign, he was named FWA Footballer of the Year, Manchester City Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and the UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season.
The Portugal defender was a mainstay during the 2022/23 run-in as City completed a famous treble. There are no better centre backs around right now.