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The 10 Best Centre-Backs in Premier League History

Who is the greatest Premier League centre-back? Pictured are John Terry, Vincent Kompany, and Rio Ferdinand (left to right).

Who is the greatest Premier League centre-back? Pictured are John Terry, Vincent Kompany, and Rio Ferdinand (left to right).

Who Are the Best Centre-Backs?

In football, a quality centre-back (or central defender) must have a particular blend of physical and mental attributes. By far, the most important attribute is their strength (something that every player on this list has). Strength often comes with height, which is important for winning headers and reaching into tackles.

Mentally, the best centre-backs are brave and influential leaders who have the awareness to anticipate the movements of opposition strikers and to place themselves in the most effective defensive positions. The extraordinary positional sense of some centre-backs (e.g., John Terry) mitigates the need for them to have blistering pace.

Although the position has evolved technically over the Premier League's 30-year history, with centre-backs now expected to be more "comfortable on the ball" (i.e., to control and pass the ball), the attributes described above are still paramount.

The following list of centre-backs only includes players who translated their natural ability in these domains into great success in the Premier League. Videos and clean-sheet statistics are used to justify their inclusion.

10. Ricardo Carvalho

  • Premier League clubs: Chelsea (2004-2010)
  • Appearances: 135
  • Games won: 95 (70%)
  • Clean sheets: 63 (47%)

When Ricardo Carvalho signed for Chelsea in 2004, he was reunited with his former manager, José Mourinho. Previously, they had worked together at Porto, winning the 2003 Europa League, the 2004 Champions League, and three league titles.

In his six seasons at Chelsea, Carvalho won three Premier League titles and a League Cup before leaving for Real Madrid in 2010. He also amassed 89 caps for Portugal in his career.

Carvalho was a quick, tenacious, and tough-tackling defender. He was the least physically-imposing player on this list, which he compensated for by being technically-gifted (e.g., to pass or carry the ball into midfield). Since retiring in 2017, Carvalho has gone into coaching.

9. Martin Keown

  • Premier League clubs: Everton (1992-1993), Arsenal (1993-2004)
  • Appearances: 323
  • Games won: 161 (50%)
  • Clean sheets: 108 (33%)

Martin Keown was part of Arsenal's famous defensive line in the 1990s. In the middle of that line, Keown established a highly-effective partnership with Tony Adams that saw them play together for England in the same role.

During his Arsenal career, Keown won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and the 1994 Cup Winners Cup. Keown's final year with the Gunners was in 2004, in which he made 10 league appearances during Arsenal's "Invincibles" season (2003-2004).

Keown was known as a strong and combative defender who was good enough technically to play under Arsène Wenger and to amass 43 England caps. After retiring in 2005, he has become a successful TV pundit.

8. Steve Bruce

  • Premier League clubs: Manchester United (–1996)
  • Appearances: 148
  • Games won: 91 (61%)
  • Clean sheets: 61 (41%)

Steve Bruce had been at Manchester United since 1987 when the Premier League began in 1992. In his four Premier League seasons, he won three of them. He also added three FA Cups (as part of "doubles" in 1994 and 1996), one League Cup, and the 1991 Cup Winners Cup during his United career.

Incredibly, Steve Bruce never played for England, although this would have been during Graham Taylor's reign as manager, when many players were unjustly overlooked.

Bruce was known as a calm and composed influence in defense. Although he wasn't quick or technically-gifted, this was compensated for by his bravery, leadership, goal-scoring, and his positional sense and timing when making interceptions and tackles. After retiring in 1999, Bruce became a successful football manager.

7. Sol Campbell

  • Premier League clubs: Tottenham (1992-2001), Arsenal (2001-2006), Portsmouth (2006-2009)
  • Appearances: 503
  • Games won: 212 (42%)
  • Clean sheets: 154 (31%)

Sol Campbell's career began with the inception of the Premier League in 1992. After only winning a League Cup in his nine seasons with Tottenham, Campbell spent his best years at Arsenal, winning two Premier Leagues and three FA Cups in his five seasons there, as well as reaching the 2006 Champions League final. He later won an FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008.

Sol Campbell won 73 England caps and appeared in the PFA team of the year three times. His defensive qualities were widely recognized. Indeed, Arsène Wenger said that he signed Campbell precisely because his attackers could not get past him. He went on to become the key defender in the "Arsenal Invincibles" team.

Campbell was incredibly strong, powerful, and athletic, which made him the perfect defender, although his passing was not at the same level. Since retiring, Campbell has tried his hand at coaching, charity work, and politics.

6. Nemanja Vidic

  • Premier League clubs: Manchester United (2005-2014)
  • Appearances: 211
  • Games won: 149 (71%)
  • Clean sheets: 95 (45%)

Nemanja Vidic signed for Manchester United on Christmas Day, 2005, and he was their greatest gift for almost nine years. He helped to deliver five Premier Leagues, three League Cups, and the 2008 Champions League before departing for Inter Milan in 2014. He also played 56 times for Serbia in his career

Vidic formed an effective partnership with Rio Ferdinand in his time at Old Trafford. Consequently, he appeared four times in the PFA team of the year and was even named as the Premier League's Player of the Season in 2009 and 2011.

Vidic was a highly-consistent, strong, tall, tough-tackling defender, who focused more on defending than on playing with the ball. Much like Steve Bruce, he also lacked pace, especially toward the end of his career, and he retired from football in 2016.

5. Virgil van Dijk

  • Premier League clubs: Southampton (2015-2017), Liverpool (2017–)
  • Appearances: 197
  • Games won: 124 (63%)
  • Clean sheets: 82 (42%)

With a few years to go before retirement, Virgil van Dijk's position on this list may still change. Since his move from Southampton to Liverpool in 2017, van Dijk has established himself as the best defender in the Premier League.

As well as delivering Liverpool's first league title in 30 years, van Dijk has won an FA Cup, a League Cup, and the 2019 Champions League. He was also named Player of the Season in 2019 and has been in the PFA team of the year on three occasions. He was even a runner-up for the Ballon d'Or award.

Van Dijk was only moved to centre-back from right-back after a growth-spurt when he was 17. Since then, he has used his 1.93 meter height (6 ft 4 in) to great effect with his aerial prowess, tackling reach, and all-round strength. What makes van Dijk the complete centre-back is the combination of these defensive attributes with good technique, passing ability, and pace.

4. Vincent Kompany

  • Premier League clubs: Manchester City (2008-2019)
  • Appearances: 265
  • Games won: 167 (63%)
  • Clean sheets: 94 (35%)

When Vincent Kompany signed for Manchester City from Hamburg as a 22 year-old, most people had never heard of him. Indeed, he was still establishing himself as a centre-back and he began his City days as a midfielder.

Of course, Kompany went on to become a master defender, winning four Premier Leagues, two FA Cups, and four League Cups. Individually, Kompany was named Player of the Season in 2012 and was in the PFA team of the year three times. He also played 89 times for Belgium.

Despite Kompany's height (1.94 m) and strength, he struggled with injuries during his career. Nevertheless, he was a complete centre-back who was "comfortable on the ball" as well as defensively excellent. Since retiring in 2020, Kompany is already becoming a successful football manager.

3. Tony Adams

  • Premier League clubs: Arsenal (–2002)
  • Appearances: 255
  • Games won: 132 (52%)
  • Clean sheets: 115 (45%)

Despite his Arsenal team only winning 52% of the time, Tony Adams has the second best clean-sheet rate on this list (45%). After beginning his career in 1983 and reaching the first team in 1986, Adams captained Arsenal's famous defensive line of the 1990s as well as their two "double" wins (Premier League plus FA Cup) in 1998 and 2002.

Adams or "Mr. Arsenal" signed for the club as a schoolboy and is the only player to have captained a team to league titles in three different decades. These include two Premier Leagues and two earlier league titles (one in the 80s). He also added 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, and the 1994 Cup Winners Cup. Individually, he was named in the PFA team of the year four times.

Adams made 66 appearances for England and was known as a man-marking, physical defender who liked to beat attackers to the ball. Although he was a traditional centre-back, he adapted during the Wenger-era and became more comfortable on the ball. Since retiring in 2002, Adams has contributed to charitable causes and has had a few stints as a football manager.

2. Rio Ferdinand

  • Premier League clubs: West Ham (1996-2000), Leeds United (2000-2002), Manchester United (2002-2014)
  • Appearances: 504
  • Games won: 291 (58%)
  • Clean sheets: 189 (38%)

If Leeds United hadn't run into financial trouble in the early 2000s, Rio Ferdinand may never have been sold to Manchester United. He went on to become a legendary captain at Old Trafford, winning six Premier Leagues, two League Cups, and the 2008 Champions League.

Individually, Ferdinand was named in the PFA team of the year on six occasions. He also played 81 times for England and was the youngest defender to ever play for the national side at the time (19 years old).

Ferdinand was a modern centre-back who was quick and comfortable on the ball. However, he was also strong, tall (1.89 meters; 6 ft 2 in), and had all the traditional defensive attributes. Managers recognized Ferdinand's modern qualities, and his transfers to Leeds United and Manchester United were both for record fees.

Since retiring in 2015, Ferdinand has financed or contributed to various media ventures and charitable causes, and he regularly appears as a TV pundit.

1. John Terry

  • Premier League clubs: Chelsea (1998-2017)
  • Appearances: 492
  • Games won: 311 (63%)
  • Clean sheets: 214 (43%)

Much like Virgil van Dijk, John Terry had a growth-spurt in his late teens that cemented his future as a centre-back. Always a Chelsea man, Terry established himself in the first team in 2000 and captained them for the first time a year later.

In his 19 years at the club, which included 717 appearances in all competitions, John Terry won five Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, three League Cups, the 2012 Champions League, and the 2013 Europa League. He also made 78 appearances for England. Individually, he was in the PFA team of the year four times.

John Terry was a defender who compensated for his lack of pace with superb anticipation, positioning, timing, and leadership. He also had a level of physicality, bravery, and aggression that ruffled opponents. His technical ability, passing accuracy, and ability to play with both feet may also have been underrated throughout his career.

Since retiring in 2018, John Terry has been working as a coach and may soon enter the world of football management.

Honorable Mentions and Future Additions

The following centre-backs deserve to be mentioned, but they could not justifiably supplant any of the names on the above list.

  • Jamie Carragher
  • Marcel Desailly
  • William Gallas
  • Kolo Toure
  • Sami Hyypia
  • Gary Pallister
  • Jaap Stam
  • Ledley King
  • Laurent Koscielny

There may be additions to this list in the future. The following centre-backs need more time to establish their Premier League legacies.

  • Ruben Dias (2021 Player of the Season)
  • Antonio Rudiger
  • Ibrahima Konate

Thank you for reading and watching this compilation of the best centre-backs to appear in the Premier League.

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© 2022 Thomas Swan