7 Best Ball-playing Centerbacks right now
The modern game of football continues to evolve with each passing season and the latest rage in football are ball-playing defenders. These players are tasked with initiating the attack from deep within the own half, they can pass, they can assist and they can move forward like a midfielder. Some of them are even blessed with dribbling skills, but there’s one thing that binds them all – the ball-playing defenders are changing the image of modern football.
With more attacking formations and tactics being utilized by football managers these days, the onus is on the players to improvise and the ball-playing defender perhaps had its roots in Cruyff’s total football. Presently, every team wants a centre-back who can join in the attack, who is comfortable on the ball and who can take up the responsibilities of a midfielder while also carrying out the duties of a defender. Unfortunately, not all teams are blessed with such rare gems.
Football has always produced defenders who were good with the ball at their feet and the present generation is no different. As such, we look at 7 of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the football world right now.
#7 Leonardo Bonucci (Italy, Juventus)
The Italian was perhaps one of the best defenders in the planet before his disastrous move to AC Milan last season, which brought him little success but caused him a lot of negative publicity. However, at the start of the 2018/19 season, Bonucci made a return to Juventus and will be looking forward to winning his fans over again.
As a defender, he is as good as it gets. Strong and alert, Bonucci has all the qualities of a top centre-back – perfect tackles, good anticipation skills and great positioning. But one of Bonucci’s strongest points is that he is extremely good on the ball, he wants the ball played to him and he knows what to do with it. He is perhaps the most underrated ball playing defenders around because the Italian possesses a fantastic range of passes in his repertoire. In the 3-man defensive unit of Juventus, he used to be the one with playmaking duties. He is equally effective in a two-man central defensive pair and likes to play the ball from deep in the midfield, where he can orchestrate the game or play one of his inch-perfect long balls. Bonucci has the ability to control the tempo and such is his assurance on the ball, that he can play the ball out of the defence even under extreme pressure.
His season at Milan was a disappointment and it is the only reason that Bonucci is ranked a little lower in this list. However, back at the Old Lady now, it is only a matter of time before Bonucci gets going again.
#6 Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal, Napoli)
Serie A has the habit of producing some fabulous defenders over the years and Kalidou Koulibaly is another feather to the league’s cap. The big Senegalese is strong in the air, intercepts passes, blocks shots and always seems to win the 50-50 challenges. He is also a constant threat in the opposition box from set pieces. Koulibaly joined Napoli in 2014, but it was only under Maurizio Sarri that his qualities came into the fore, especially last season.
What makes him a rare breed among defenders is his ability to play the ball out of the defence. It is said that even Pep Guardiola admires him because he is the kind of defender that fits into Pep’s system, just like he was fabulous in Sarri’s system. Koulibaly is extremely composed with the ball and his distribution is also very good – he has attempted more passes than any defenders in the Serie A last season. As a defender, Koulibaly was extremely impressive. He averaged 2.3 tackle, 1.3 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per game. He also attempted approximately 88.7 passes per game, completing 91.3% of them.
Koulibaly mixed his gutsy physic with a poise and calmness on the ball that makes him one of the finest ball-playing center backs around.
#5 Jan Vertonghen (Belgium, Tottenham Hotspurs)
It is no surprise that Vertonghen is a part of this list, because the Belgian is not just a fabulous defender, but is also extremely gifted with the ball at his feet. When Vertonghen joined Tottenham from Ajax in 2012, he hit the ground running and had a fabulous season that earned him a place in the PFA Team of the year. However, his form dipped in the next two years, but like a true champion, the Belgian has returned to his best. He is the backbone of Tottenham’s recent defensive discipline and he was also instrumental in Belgium reaching third place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Even though he shies away from the limelight, Vertonghen has been the stand out star in the Spurs defence in recent times. He has the most interceptions, clearances and aerial duel won among the defenders at his club. He has also completed the most passes and take-on among his defender teammates. The reason for this is simple, Vertonghen is tutored in the ball playing ethics at Ajax and is a talented footballer who reads the game very well.
Vertonghen possesses the dribbling skills of a midfielder and even though he has restrained himself from his old habit of venturing forward on an adventure every now and then, he still is very good on the ball and also likes to run the game from deep, spraying passes and trying to set up his teammates, qualities that make him one of the best ball playing center backs right now.
#4 John Stones (England, Manchester City)
The Englishman had a great 2018 FIFA World Cup and was the architect in Southgate’s defence. He was extremely composed and at ease with the ball at him feet, which made it very easy for him to seamlessly slot into the young English Coach’s tactics. Stones regularly played the ball out of the back, threaded beautiful balls for his attackers and showed his offensive capabilities from set pieces as well – scoring two goals, as England finished fourth in the tournament. Stones earned a lot of praise, but he had already been doing it since last season for Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola has high demands from his defenders and he expects nothing less from the English youngster, which is why there are several learning instances for Stones from last season, especially when playing the ball out of the defence. But even with his mistakes, Stones still had a fabulous passing record last season, averaging 83 passes per game with almost 98% accuracy. What makes him special is that almost one-third of his passes are played forward, indeed, he averaged almost 29 forward passes per game last season. He endured a difficult end to the 2017/18 season but should be getting even better this season.
John Stones has abilities unlike any English defenders at present, especially his ball playing skills, and he certainly is one of the finest ball-playing center backs around at the moment.
#3 Sergio Ramos (Spain, Real Madrid)
Love him or hate him, but do one can deny that Sergio Ramos is a talented footballer. He is extremely strong, sometimes a little too strong for liking, but he likes to impose himself in the game. He is an aggressive tackler, something that has earned him a lot of red cards, 19 in the La Liga alone to be precise, and even more hatred in his playing career, but Ramos is also extremely gifted on the ball.
He started his career as a right back, which is why he is so good at crosses and running with the ball. His distribution is also quite good and he often ventures out of his defensive area with his ball to initiate the play. He has good technical ability and is quite strong and comfortable with the ball at his feet, and he is an attacking center back who loves to set up his teammates and score some goals himself. He is particularly lethal from set pieces because he is commanding in the air and heads the ball very accurately.
He is the player who has received the most cards in both La Liga and the Champions League, but even with a larger than normal dark side, Ramos is still one of the finest ball-playing center backs around at present.
#2 Gerard Pique (Spain, Barcelona)
Pique is the very definition of a ball playing center back, he combines his defending abilities very well with his technique and range of passing. His rise at Barcelona has been because Pique has been able to adapt his game to that of a playmaker from defence, which allows him to be an essential part of Barcelona’s free-flowing style of play.
Pique has a fantastic passing record in La Liga, averaging almost 90% pass completion. The number of passes he attempts on an average per game is also quite good for a defender – approximately 59. He is also very efficient with his long balls. Apart from this, Pique can be often found venturing forward when the opponents are defending deep and he becomes a very important outlet for Barcelona when breaking down such compact teams. Pique has been equally effective while playing for Spain, which saw him win the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Championship 2012.
Pique also chips in vital goals for club and country, which makes him a vital part of both teams. Even though he has had a few bad days at the office, Pique makes very few defensive errors on an average and also concedes fewer fouls, because he uses his technique and ball playing skills to full effect. He also wins more take-on than the average defenders.
Gerard Pique, as such, is one of the greatest ball playing center backs right now and would have certainly topped this list, had it not been for one exciting center back who has won almost everything at a young age.
#1 Raphael Varane (France, Real Madrid)
Perhaps the best young prospect in football – he is still just 25 – and also one of the best defenders in the world, Raphael Varane won the 2018 FIFA World Cup with France and the Champions League with Real Madrid this year and he was one of the standout performers of both teams. Varane has a very composed head on his shoulders and his ability on the ball is uncanny. He was the defensive rock for France in the World Cup, and at Real, even with the eccentric yet strong Ramos beside him, Varane managed to shine throughout the season.
Varane, even with all the success in the world at his footsteps, prefers to stay away from publicity and it is the same character that is reflected in his football. He is not a rough tackler, neither is he an old school defender. Varane is the latest breed of defenders who think like a complete footballer, who has the confidence on his own abilities and goes about his business while managing to stay under the radar. He is even better than his Real teammate Ramos when it comes to ball playing, yet it is never appreciated.
A good point to note is that Varane has never lost a final in his career. He has appeared in 10 finals and won all then. That is some record and it is all because of his abilities on the ball.
Varane is technically gifted and he uses his technique and ball playing skills to defend with extreme ease. The fact that he is very efficient with his tackles makes it easy for him to win the ball back. However, it is his abilities with the ball which makes him the best ball-playing defender in the world right now.