Modern football has seen a generational shift away from traditional centre-backs as the position has embraced renewed responsibilities, with clean sheets and successful tackles no longer the only measures that matter in the defensive game.
Today, the centre-back serves as a multi-functional figure who no longer sees attack or defence as independent entities. He is expected to put an attacking build-up in motion to create easier passes in the midfield and is also required to be alert enough to track the movements of the opposing attacker without losing focus on the way the game is unfolding.
Rather than direct and one-on-one man-marking in open play, modern central defenders are now encouraged to use their mobility to mark zonally in open play. Apart from marking, intelligent positioning and aerial superiority, the centre-back should also possess ball-playing abilities to be able to make progressive yet risky passes from the back and help maintain attacking pressure.
With the growing prominence of attacking football in recent years, the centre-back must essentially be comfortable with taking up the responsibilities of a midfielder while also balancing them with his duties as a defender.
The current Premier League season might be on a hiatus but we have already seen many nuanced performances from centre-backs at the heart of England’s best defences. These players now command massive fees in the transfer market, and rightly so, as their importance to their respective teams are regularly highlighted throughout the campaign.
Having said that, we will now take a look at three of the best centre-backs in the Premier League this season.
#1 Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Virgil van Dijk‘s revolutionary impact on the Liverpool defence since he set foot at Anfield is undeniable, with the staggering £75 million fee paid for his transfer from Southampton more than two years ago now looking like a drop in the bucket.
In less than two seasons, the towering centre-back inspired the Reds to two Champions League finals- winning the elite European competition last season- and was also named the PFA Player of the Year after a campaign that saw the Merseysiders miss out on the Premier League trophy by a single point.
The Dutchman’s influence within Jurgen Klopp’s set-up has still not waned this season as he remains an omnipresent and ever-reliable figure at the heart of his team’s defence, constantly instigating attacking moves from the back while regularly keeping things organised in his defensive line.
The 28-year-old has 12 clean sheets to his name so far this season and is as unbeatable in the air as he is on the ground, having won 143 of his 190 attempted aerial duels (75.2%). He also has an uncanny ability to find a teammate when in possession, with his tally of accurate passes this season (2210) being the highest in the Premier League.
Liverpool boasts of having the best defensive record in the English top flight this term, with only 21 conceded goals, and much of the credit should go to Van Dijk, who has not only restored order in their defence with his poise and natural authority but whose quality has facilitated the rapid evolution of his younger teammates like Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
In addition to his defensive contributions, the former Southampton man has tallied one assist and four goals in the Premier League this season, and his numbers are likely to increase as the Reds continue their relentless title charge once the campaign resumes.
#2 Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester City)
Many believed that Harry Maguire’s departure to Manchester United last summer was going to leave Leicester City with a significant void at the centre of their defence. Little did anyone know that the Foxes already had a defender waiting in the wings, who not only went on to allay any fears following the Englishman’s move but whose services also required no big transfer fee.
Caglar Soyuncu may have failed to live up to expectations in his first season at the King Power Stadium, playing only eight games in all competitions, but he has since established himself as a colossal figure in Brendan Rodgers’ squad and is even considered to be in better form than the man he replaced.
The 23-year-old, who joined Leicester City in the summer of 2018, is an assertive presence on the pitch, who is more than comfortable with the ball at his feet and is icily composed in possession, proven by the fact that he has only been dispossessed once this entire season.
The Turkish centre-back is not considered tall enough compared to his big-name Premier League counterparts but he has still managed to win 86 of his 138 aerial duels this term. He has registered 10 clean sheets for the Foxes so far and is the only player in the English top-flight who comes close to Virgil van Dijk’s tally of accurate passes with 1663.
Soyuncu, who also has a goal and an assist to his name in the Premier League, is steadily gaining the required confidence to establish his identity as a player and it won’t be long before Europe’s elite clubs will start making their moves for him, with reigning champions Manchester City already leading the line.
#3 Harry Maguire (Manchester United)
Manchester United paid a decisive £80 million for the transfer of Harry Maguire last summer, making him the most expensive defender in the world.
The England international endured an indifferent start to his career at Old Trafford, with an error in their defeat to Crystal Palace last year and a series of reckless performances initially giving the impression that the Red Devils may have overpaid for his services.
The 27-year-old defender has, however, turned his fortunes around in the latter stages of the season, establishing himself as the foundation of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s renewed defence and proving that his credentials perfectly match his new club’s big ambitions.
Maguire formed a lethal partnership with Victor Lindelof at the heart of the defence, which is something the United have been missing in recent years. The duo has not made a single error leading to an opposition shot on goal in the 26 Premier League games they have started together this season.
Individually, the former Leicester City man has kept eight clean sheets in the Premier League this term and boasts incredible numbers in the air, having won 136 of his 190 aerial battles. His technical ability was never doubted upon his arrival but it was his commanding presence and his leadership skills that have impressed his manager, who did not hesitate to give him the captain’s armband after Ashley Young’s departure.
Maguire has registered a goal and an assist in the Premier League this season, and while his involvement in the final third is not as efficient as Virgil van Dijk’s, he more than makes up for it with his defensive nous.