There is perhaps no player in modern football that is required to do as much as a modern center-back. They are expected to fulfill their traditional duties of solid positioning, resolute tackling and aerial prowess on both attacking and defending set-pieces. In addition, they are also required to fulfill their more "modern" responsibilities of pressing and being accurate distributors of the ball. These myriad responsibilities are why having an excellent pair of center-backs will be crucial for any team to be successful in the upcoming World Cup. After all, winners this century have needed the defensive solidity (and occasional goals) of the likes of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique, Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi.
Even when including 20 center backs in this list, there are many excellent central defenders that had to be left off.
When Davinson Sanchez was signed by Tottenham Hotspur, even the Colombian’s biggest supporters would not have expected such an excellent debut season. Sanchez’s quality was such that Mauricio Pochettino permanently switched to a three-man defense (a formation that he previously flirted with) to accommodate the 22-year-old. Tottenham was far better defensively with the Colombian in the side as they only conceded 0.83 goals per game in the Premier League. When Sanchez didn’t start, Spurs conceded 1.33 goals per game. This difference illustrates Sanchez’s importance to the London side. The Colombian is also an excellent passer with an average pass success percentage of 89.4% (13th in the Premier League). While Sanchez’s defensive stats are unimpressive, his overall impact has been positive for Tottenham. Colombia will need such performances if they are to fulfill their potential as a dark-horse candidate. Interestingly, Sanchez is more experienced than his likely partner Yerry Mina (the Barcelona prospect) despite himself being 22 years old.
Maguire looks like the typical English center-back: tall, strong, tough and aerially dominant. The latter skill was very important for Leicester on both ends of field as Maguire managed to win 65.3% of his aerial duels (3.1 per game), scored two goals and provided four assists (mainly from set-pieces). Maguire’s defensive statistics are also excellent, as the 25 year old made 1.7 tackles and 1.3 interceptions per game. More importantly, Maguire has been incredibly consistent as the centre back started all 38 games for Leicester City this past season, while achieving an average WhoScored player rating of 7.08. These attributes are why Maguire has managed to establish himself as a first-choice player for Gareth Southgate’s England. Nonetheless, limitations remain in Maguire’s game as he struggles when it comes to distributing the ball- a must for a modern centre-back. The defender’s pass success percentage is a lowly 78.4%. Fortunately for Maguire, he is likely to play in a three-man defence surrounded by Manchester City duo John Stones and Kyle Walker- both excellent passers. Hopefully for England, the trio will gel by the Three Lions’ last group game where they face Belgium- one of the best attacks in the tournament.
Christensen’s likely partner at the center of Denmark’s defence, Simon Kjaer had an up and down first season at Sevilla in 2017-18. The Denmark captain missed 20 games with a variety of knee and back issues. However, when the 28 year old did play, his performances were commendable. Kjaer averaged 1.8 tackles and 1.6 interceptions in La Liga, while also pitching in with two goals in eighteen games. Kjaer’s excellent defensive stats bode well for Denmark as it suggests how he can help cover for Christensen’s weaknesses. Unfortunately, the lack of playing time and a paucity of excellent center-backs prevent Kjaer from making this list.
One of the brightest young prospects in Europe, Sule was brilliant for Bayern Munich last season. As first choice centre-back Jerome Boateng missed time due to a variety of injuries, Sule made 32 appearances in all competitions for the German giants. The 22 year old is an excellent passer with a pass success percentage of 92.7%. Perhaps more telling than any statistic are Sule’s usually understated manager Jupp Heyncekes’ comments where the German coach described Sule as “world class” and claimed that “in a couple of years, he’ll be the most sought-after central defender in Europe”. Indeed, perhaps in the 2022 World Cup, Sule will rank near the top of such a list. Unfortunately for the Bayern Munich defender, he will probably not be the first choice for Germany in this World Cup and that along with his inexperience are why he was left off these rankings.
The much-maligned centre back has been consistently underrated. A rare centre-back who is decent aerially, has significant pace and is a decent passer of the ball. Statistically, Jones was one of the best central defenders in the Premier League last season as he had a WhoScored player rating of 7.21. He made 1.1 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game, along with an excellent 5.6 clearances per game. Nonetheless, his frequent errors make him unlikely to start at the World Cup and also prevent him from making this list.
An underrated player, Glik will be entrusted with providing defensive compactness to a Polish team led by Robert Lewandowski. The Pole was excellent for Monaco last year as he won 61.4% of his aerial duels. He also used this prowess to help score 3 goals and provide four assists for the French side. Unfortunately, his defensive statistics (1 tackle and 1.7 interceptions per game) are too low for him to make this list.