Thomas Swan has been an avid fan of the English Premier League and European football for more than 25 years.
Who Are the Best Right-Backs?
In football, a quality right-back (also called a right full-back or wing-back) is especially important to a team's defensive and attacking posture. Players in this position are typically required to cover the entire right-wing of the pitch, which requires incredible pace and stamina. However, they must also be strategists that are capable of sensing danger and not leaving space behind them when going forward.
Traditionally, the right-back position was more defensive, but it began to change in the 1990s with the success of players like the Brazilian right-back, Cafu, at the 1994 World Cup. By the end of the century, players like Dan Petrescu and Lee Dixon were flying down the wings at some of the biggest Premier League clubs.
This list of the 10 greatest Premier League right-backs includes players who translated their natural ability into great success on the pitch. Statistics and videos are used to justify their inclusion.
10. Bacary Sagna
- Appearances: 267
- Goals: 4
- Assists: 19
- Clubs: Arsenal (2007-2014), Manchester City (2014-2017)
Bacary Sagna was a consistent shining light during Arsenal's decline. Few attacking full-backs are as good defensively as Sagna was, and he used his strength, athleticism, aerial ability, and tackling accuracy to stem the tide. These qualities meant he was sometimes utilized as a center-back by Arsène Wenger. At the age of 31, and after winning an FA Cup with Arsenal, he was still desired by Manchester City, where he subsequently won a League Cup. Sagna was named in the PFA team of the year twice and has 65 caps for France.
9. Steve Finnan
- Appearances: 236
- Goals: 1
- Assists: 14
- Clubs: Fulham (2001-2003), Liverpool (2003-2008)
Steve Finnan took a while to reach the top of the game. Starting in the Football Conference with Welling United in 1993, he rose through the divisions, playing for Birmingham and Notts County before finally reaching the Premier League with Fulham in 2001. Two years later, he was recruited by Liverpool and spent five seasons there, winning an FA Cup and the 2005 Champions League.
Finnan's journey meant he is the only player to have played at every level of English football (down to the Conference), European football, and a World Cup (with Ireland in 2002). Finnan was a dependable, attacking full-back with tremendous stamina and excellent crossing ability (34% crossing accuracy, the highest on this list). He amassed 53 caps for Ireland, has featured in a PFA team of the year, but, after retiring from football, he has avoided the limelight.
8. Dan Petrescu
- Appearances: 215
- Goals: 23
- Assists: 33
- Clubs: Sheffield Wednesday (1994-1995), Chelsea (1995-2000), Bradford (2001), Southampton (2001-2002)
Dan Petrescu is often forgotten on lists such as these, but his goal/assist return speaks for itself. After an impressive 1994 World Cup for Romania, Sheffield Wednesday signed him before Chelsea recognized his talent and splashed the cash in 1995. Petrescu was one the earliest attacking right-backs to play in the Premier League, and his excellent technique, pace, and shooting ability helped Chelsea to an FA Cup, League Cup, and the 1998 Cup Winners Cup. Petrescu has appeared 95 times for Romania and, after retiring in 2003, he has had a successful career as a manager in European and Asian football.
7. Kyle Walker
- Appearances: 316
- Goals: 8
- Assists: 30
- Clubs: Tottenham (2009-2017), Manchester City (2017-)
Kyle Walker is notable for his lightning pace and stamina, which allows him to reach the byline to provide many assists. His strength and stature also mean he has been deputized at center-back on occasion. After an individually impressive 8 years at Tottenham that ended without a trophy, Walker moved to Manchester City and enjoyed opposite fortune, winning 3 Premier Leagues, an FA Cup, and 4 League Cups in 4 seasons. Walker has been in the PFA team of the year on 3 occasions and he has 55 caps for England
6. Cesar Azpilicueta
- Appearances: 297
- Goals: 9
- Assists: 33
- Clubs: Chelsea (2012-)
César Azpilicueta has been a mainstay at Chelsea since his arrival in 2012. He is an exceptionally reliable defender (who is almost never injured), with strength, pace, stamina, and a willingness to get forward. Like a few others on this list, he can also play center-back when required.
Azpilicueta's trophy haul has been substantial, with 2 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups, a League Cup, 2 Europa League triumphs, and the 2021 Champions League. The haul can partly be explained by the success of his Chelsea team, but also by his excellent long-range passing, as demonstrated by his assist-tally. Azpilicueta has 25 caps for Spain and has represented them since 2013, narrowly missing their peak (2008-2012).
5. Pablo Zabaleta
- Appearances: 303
- Goals: 9
- Assists: 21
- Clubs: Manchester City (2008-2017), West Ham (2017-2020)
Pablo Zabaleta started his career as a defensive midfielder but quickly became established as a right back in Argentina. After a few seasons with Espanyol in Spain, he won 2 Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and 2 League Cups in nine seasons with Manchester City before ending his career with West Ham. Zabaleta was a leader and captain from his earliest days, with a precise tackling ability and a willingness to reach the byline to provide assists for his team-mates. He has been in the PFA team of the year once and he has 58 caps for Argentina, winning an Olympic gold medal in 2008.
- Appearances: 184
- Goals: 6
- Assists: 8
- Clubs: Arsenal (2000-2007), Portsmouth (2007-2008)
Lauren may not have been the most exciting right-back, but he was the full package, which is why he was part of the Arsenal "Invincibles" team that went the entire 2003-2004 Premier League season unbeaten. Indeed, Lauren was a strong, intelligent, and reliable right-back with good technique, which may be why he is also an avid boxer.
In six seasons at Arsenal, Lauren won 2 Premier Leagues and 3 FA Cups before going on to win another FA Cup in his two seasons with Portsmouth. He featured once in the PFA team of the year and he has 24 caps for Cameroon, winning an Olympic gold medal (2000) and two African Cup of Nations titles, although he chose to retire from international football at the age of 25. Since retiring from all football in 2010, he has appeared as a pundit, commentator, and Arsenal's ambassador to Africa.
The Story of Lauren's Arrival at Arsenal
3. Trent Alexander-Arnold
- Appearances: 129
- Goals: 8
- Assists: 33
- Clubs: Liverpool (2016-)
Trent Alexander-Arnold is still a young man but, with 33 assists already to his name, he is clearly one of the best right-backs to ever play in the Premier League. Indeed, he has already won the 2019 Champions League and the 2020 Premier League, the latter ending Liverpool's 30-year wait. His ability to pass, cross, and place free-kicks is second to none, but few great passers have ever had the pace and stamina that makes Trent the best (currently) in his position.
In just 5 seasons, Trent has already been in the PFA team of the year twice and was a Ballon d'Or nominee in 2019. He has a long career with Liverpool and England ahead of him in which he could well rise to the top of this list. In his spare time, Trent plays chess and contributes to charitable causes.
2. Lee Dixon
- Appearances: 305
- Goals: 9
- Assists: 19
- Clubs: Arsenal (-2002)
Underrated by many, Lee Dixon spent his entire top-flight career at Arsenal, winning 4 league titles, 3 FA Cups, a League Cup, and the 1994 European Cup Winners Cup.
Dixon is from an earlier era to most on this list and was initially more defensive, being part of Arsenal's famous defensive line of the 1990s; however, he was forced into a modern attacking role when Arsène Wenger arrived as manager in 1996. Despite being 32 at the time, Dixon showed incredible stamina and fitness and ended up flourishing in the role, winning successive doubles in 1998 and 2002, and only retiring at the age of 38. These triumphs meant he had won league titles in three different decades.
Dixon may be the best defender on this list, but he knew how to attack and contributed many assists in his later years. He appeared 22 times for England and twice in the PFA team of the year. Since retiring, Dixon has been a pundit, commentator, and columnist.
1. Gary Neville
- Appearances: 400
- Goals: 5
- Assists: 35
- Clubs: Manchester United (1992-2011)
Gary Neville could have gone into cricket, but he chose instead to become one of "Fergie's Fledglings" and a Manchester United legend. He spent his entire career with United and contributed heavily to the club's greatest era, winning an enormous trophy haul of 8 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, and 2 European Champions Leagues (1999 and 2008). He was named in the PFA team of the year 5 times and has 85 England caps.
Like many of the most successful full-backs, Neville was a superb defender with precise tackling and positioning, combined with the stamina needed to contribute crosses and assists in attack. However, he was also a great leader on the pitch with the intelligence to read the game, cover spaces left by other players, and thus ensure victory for his team. These skills meant he could also play as a center-back when needed. Since retiring, Neville has been a pundit, coach, and investor (e.g., in Salford City).
How Good Was Gary Neville?
Honorable Mentions and Future Additions
So many talented right-backs have appeared in the Premier League over the years that I couldn't include them all. Honorable mentions go to:
- Hector Bellerin - Arsenal (2013-)
- Seamus Coleman - Everton (2009-)
- Branislav Ivanovic - Chelsea (2008-2017), West Brom (2020-)
- Stephen Carr - Tottenham, Newcastle, Birmingham (1993-2011)
- Gary Kelly - Leeds United (1992-2007)
- Glen Johnson - West Ham, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Stoke (2002-2018)
Current players making a case to be on this list in future include:
- Aaron Wan-Bissaka - Crystal Palace and Manchester United (2016-)
- Reece James - Chelsea (2018-)
- João Cancelo - Manchester City (2019-)
Thank you for reading and watching this compilation of the best right-backs to appear in the Premier League. If you think I have neglected to mention someone, or you disagree with these choices, please leave a comment below.
What About Left-Backs?
- The 10 Best Left-Backs in Premier League History
This list has statistics and videos for the best full-backs who have played on the other side of the pitch.
© 2021 Thomas Swan