Thomas Swan has been an avid fan of the English Premier League and European football for more than 25 years.
Who Are the Best Left-Backs?
Playing the left-back position (also called left full-back or wing-back) requires a particular blend of physical and mental skills.
Physically, the best left-backs are quick and have tremendous stamina, which allows them to run up and down the wing for 90 minutes. Mentally, they have to read the game, sense danger, and anticipate the best moments to venture forward. In terms of technical ability, they must be capable of both defending (tackling, playing offside, and "tucking in" to block spaces) and, especially in the modern era, attacking (crossing, getting assists, and breaking into the opposition penalty area).
Only right-backs require the same array of skills, however, given the need to play with their left foot, great left-backs are a scarce commodity. This may be why several players on this list spent many years at some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League. These clubs simply didn't want to let them go!
The following 10 left-backs exhibited all of the skills that are required to excel in the position. They were chosen based on raw ability and success at their clubs. Statistics and videos are provided to showcase their abilities and justify their inclusion.
10. Phil Neville
- Appearances: 505
- Goals: 9
- Assists: 25
- Clubs: Manchester United (1994-2005), Everton (2005-2013)
Phil Neville was never the most exciting left-back, nor was he exclusively played in that position, but that doesn't matter when you consider his defensive ability and his incredible trophy haul. This Manchester United legend played under Sir Alex Ferguson, winning 6 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, and the 1999 Champions League. Neville went on to become a regular at Everton and he played 59 times for England. After retiring, Neville has tried punditry, commentating, and is now a manager.
9. John Arne Riise
- Appearances: 321
- Goals: 21
- Assists: 30
- Clubs: Liverpool (2001-2008), Fulham (2011-2014)
John Arne Riise is best known for his seven years at Liverpool where he won an FA Cup, a League Cup, and the 2005 Champions League. He is also Norway's most capped player (110 appearances). Riise was a modern left-back with a will to get forward and attack the opposition goal. This required great stamina, although he was sometimes played as a midfielder to spare him his defensive duties. That said, he was a strong and capable defender too. Riise had a powerful shot and scored some magnificent goals (see video). He retired from playing in 2017 and is trying his hand at being a manager.
Incredible Goals Scored by John Arne Riise
8. Leighton Baines
- Appearances: 420
- Goals: 32
- Assists: 53
- Clubs: Wigan (2005-2007), Everton (2007-2020)
Leighton Baines spent nearly all of his career at Everton where he was never likely to win many trophies. He has runners-up medals for an FA Cup and a League Cup. However, he featured in the PFA team of the year on two occasions, he was a reliable defender who played 30 times for England and, of course, he was a free-kick specialist, which may be what he is best remembered for (see video). Baines' 32 goals and 53 assists (the most on this list) are testament to his incredible ability to land the ball on a six-pence if required.
Leighton Baines: The Free-Kick Master
7. Stuart Pearce
- Appearances: 202
- Goals: 20
- Assists: 7
- Clubs: Nottingham Forest (-1997), Newcastle (1997-1999), West Ham (1999-2001)
Stuart Pearce didn't play for the biggest clubs, but his quality as a traditional, defensive left-back was never in doubt. After all, he was in the PFA team of the year 5 times! The first half of Pearce's career was before the Premier League came into existence in 1992, and he made over 500 league appearances in total. He won 2 League Cups with Nottingham Forest and played 78 times for England. Pearce was notoriously difficult for opposition attackers to play against due to his strength, effort, and tackling ability. After retiring in 2002, Pearce has built a career as a manager.
6. Nigel Winterburn
- Appearances: 352
- Goals: 5
- Assists: 19
- Clubs: Arsenal (-2000), West Ham (2000-2003)
Much like Pearce, Nigel Winterburn began his career before the Premier League's inception. Winterburn was remarkable for two reasons: he was part of Wimbledon's "crazy gang" that rose through the divisions, and he was the left-back in Arsenal's famous defensive line of the 1990s, helping the club to 3 league titles, 2 FA Cups, a League Cup, and the 1994 Cup Winners Cup. Winterburn spent 13 years at Arsenal where, known more as a traditional left-back, he nevertheless made the transition to attacking left-back when Arsène Wenger arrived at the club in 1996. Even though Winterburn was 33 at the time, he showed remarkable stamina and excelled in his new role. After retiring in 2003 he has appeared as a football pundit.
The Unlikely Story of Nigel Winterburn
5. Graeme Le Saux
- Appearances: 327
- Goals: 12
- Assists: 44
- Clubs: Blackburn (1993-1997), Chelsea (-1993, 1997-2003), Southampton (2003-2005)
Graeme Le Saux is best remembered for his time with Chelsea and it's sometimes forgotten that he was integral to the Blackburn team that won the 1995 Premier League. As one of the earliest marauding left-backs, Le Saux also won the 1998 Cup Winners Cup and a League Cup with Chelsea. He appeared twice in the PFA team of the year and has 36 England caps. Despite being a happily married man, Le Saux had to deal with malicious abuse questioning his sexuality for much of his career. After retiring in 2005, he has appeared as a pundit.
4. Denis Irwin
- Appearances: 328
- Goals: 18
- Assists: 25
- Clubs: Manchester United (-2002), Wolves (2003-2004)
Denis Irwin was Manchester United's left-back for many of their greatest triumphs. During the 1990s, he won 7 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups, a League Cup, the 1999 Champions League, and the 1991 Cup Winners Cup. He also has 56 caps for Ireland. Irwin was a dead-ball specialist in the same mold as Leighton Baines, with a superb penalty-kick record (7/8 in the Premier League, bettered only by Eric Cantona with 14/14) and many assists from corners and free-kicks. He was a reliable defender too with Sir Alex Ferguson regarding him as his greatest signing. Since retiring in 2004, Irwin has worked as a pundit and columnist.
3. Andrew Robertson
- Appearances: 189
- Goals: 5
- Assists: 39
- Clubs: Hull (2014-2017), Liverpool (2017-)
Andrew Robertson is the only left-back in this list who is currently playing (although others are staking a claim; see below for future additions). Once considered "too small" to make it, Robertson now has 39 Premier League assists to his name and he has already surpassed the attacking contributions of most of his peers. Furthermore, unlike some in his famous Liverpool squad, he has been reasonably solid in defense. Robertson has an excellent ability to find his team-mates with crosses and forward passes, and he was pivotal in Liverpool winning the 2019 Champions League and the 2020 Premier League. He also has 43 caps for Scotland and has been captaining their recent resurgence.
2. Patrice Evra
- Appearances: 278
- Goals: 7
- Assists: 21
- Clubs: Manchester United (2005-2014), West Ham (2017-2018)
Patrice Evra was one of the most reliable and talented left-backs to ever play the game. With his excellent defensive positioning, leadership, anticipation, athleticism, acceleration, and timely attacks, Evra won 5 Premier League titles, 3 League Cups, and the 2008 Champions League with Manchester United. He has been in the PFA team of the year 3 times and he played 81 times for France, although he was excluded from international duty for almost a year after leading a player protest during the 2010 World Cup. That incident (among others) has contributed to a dislike of Evra outside the clubs he has played for. In 2019, Evra retired to pursue a career in coaching.
1. Ashley Cole
- Appearances: 385
- Goals: 15
- Assists: 31
- Clubs: Arsenal (1998-2006), Chelsea (2006-2014)
Ashley Cole was such a talented left-back that, even without playing for Manchester United, he may be the most decorated player in this list. After getting some pointers from Nigel Winterburn, Cole won 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cups with Arsenal and he was part of the "Invincibles" team that went unbeaten for the entire 2003-04 season. With Chelsea he won another Premier League title, 4 FA Cups, the 2012 Champions League, and the 2013 Europa League. Cole has also been in the PFA team of the year 4 times and has 107 England caps.
Much like Evra, Ashley Cole was the complete, modern left-back: great at going forward but still able to do his defensive duty as well as any traditional left-back. He had a natural ability to get his positioning correct and to anticipate danger. Cole is also widely disliked outside the teams he played for due to his numerous off-field shenanigans and, in 2019, he retired to go into coaching.
Honorable Mentions and Future Additions
While this list covers the most notable left-backs in Premier League history, there are a couple of names that didn't quite make the cut. Honorable mentions go to:
- Celestine Babayaro - Chelsea (1997-2005)
- Wayne Bridge - Southampton and Chelsea (1998-2009)
Players making a case to be on this list in future include:
- Ben Chilwell - Leicester and Chelsea (2015-)
- Luke Shaw - Manchester United (2014-)
- João Cancelo - Manchester City (2019-)
- Kieran Tierney - Arsenal (2019-)
Thank you for reading and watching this compilation of the best left-backs to grace the Premier League. If you disagree with these choices or you think I have missed someone out, please leave a comment below.
What About Right-Backs?
- The 10 Best Right-Backs in Premier League History
This list of the greatest Premier League full-backs who played on the other side of the pitch also includes statistics and videos.
© 2021 Thomas Swan