THE TOP 10 DEFENDERS OF THE DECADE
We have been blessed to lay our eyes on some of football’s finest sides in the 2010s, and as has always been the case in the beautiful game, the foundations for these ensembles were laid down by their defences. These defenders are proof that theirs is not a dying art form, as they provided the backbone for their teams on the path to glory. Paying homage to those generals that add steel to their sides from the back, these are More Than A Game’s top 10 defenders of the decade.
10. Vincent Kompany
Captain, Leader, Legend. When the last relic of the pre-Sheikh Mansour era called time on his Manchester City career earlier this year, he did so having led the club’s transition from just another side to the undisputed kings of England. Sergio Agüero will forever be remembered as the man who won City their first Premier League title on an unforgettable final day in the 2011/12 title race. But it was Kompany’s towering strike that ricochet off his shoulder into the back of the net in the Manchester derby weeks before that which proved to be just as pivotal in swinging the title race in his side’s favor, and signaling the start of the power shift from red to blue.
Although injuries hampered the Belgian’s involvement in the latter half of the decade, his influence remained as enduring as ever. Last season, Kompany’s 30-yard stunner in the 1-0 win over Leicester on the penultimate weekend all but secured their fourth, and perhaps most hard-fought league title. With this final, glorious act, Kompany cemented his legend in the blue half of Manchester.
9. Mats Hummels
Borussia Dortmund’s double Bundesliga title winners under Jürgen Klopp were rightly lauded for their ‘heavy metal’ attacking style, but it was Mats Hummels who was the defensive cornerstone for their success. The stylish German was a brick wall that soaked immense amounts of pressure, before his enviable passing allowed Reus and co. to pile forward and do the damage on the counter.
In the colors of the national team, it was much of the same story for Hummels. He played every minute of his side’s run to the semi-finals at the 2012 Euros and developed a fine partnership with Jérôme Boateng two years later as his side were crowned world champions in Brazil. One of Die Mannschaft’s greatest defenders, Hummels racked up 70 caps since his debut in early 2010.
After a few near misses with Dortmund, Hummels returned to his boyhood club Bayern Munich where his rekindled partnership with Boateng helped deliver a hat-trick of Bundesliga titles before returning to the Westfalenstadion.
8. Diego Godín
The beating heart of arguably the greatest defensive club and country teams of this decade, there is a growing fear that Diego Godín is the last of a dying breed of old-school, no-nonsense defenders. The man who heralded a new era at Atlético Madrid when he signed in 2010, Godín went on to become the living embodiment of Diego Simeone’s rugged, steely, infallible Colcheneros.
It was Godín’s goal on the final day of the 2013/14 La Liga season, at the Nou Camp, of all places, that secured Atleti’s first league title in 18 years. It was going to take something herculean to break Real Madrid and Barcelona’s duopoly, and it was only fitting that Godín was the man to do it.
A veteran of 135 caps for Uruguay, el Flaco enjoyed three excellent World Cup campaigns. And while the strength of his individual performances alone warranted silverware for his country on the biggest stage, he did get his just reward when he led the side to a Copa América triumph in 2011.
All in all, this defensive titan amassed over 500 appearances over the course of this decade, and left everything behind on the pitch in each one of them.
Taking over from Roberto Carlos was never going to be easy, but Marcelo not only did justice to his predecessor’s legacy, but became a Real Madrid legend in his own right, establishing himself as one of the greatest modern-day full-backs over the course of the decade.
As Carlos did with Zidane, Marcelo owned the left flank, sparking one of football’s great two-man shows with Cristiano Ronaldo upon the Portugese’s arrival to the Spanish capital. Together, the two won many a game for Los Blancos. Such was his understanding with Ronaldo, that Marcelo too raised his game a notch on those famed Champions League nights, delivering a catalogue of iconic moments on the continental stage on the way to four winners’ medals.
While not the greatest ‘defender’, Marcelo’s role in revolutionizing the role of the attacking full-back can simply not be undermined.
6. Raphaël Varane
Raphaël Varane shot to fame as the 19-year-old who shut down Barcelona with a maturity well beyond his years when he made is El Clásico debut in January 2013. Since then, there has simply been no looking back for the Frenchman.
Varane is the poster boy for the new age of centre-back – calm and composed on the ball yet not afraid to mix it up, a neat tackler who rarely goes to ground and indomitable in the air. As skill sets go, the Frenchman has it all, as he has demonstrated time and again on his way to a trophy-laden career thus far at Real Madrid.
For all the silverware at club level, his finest moment undoubtedly came with the national side. Simply in a class of his own at Russia, Varane played every minute en route to lifting the World Cup. Still only 26, there is every chance that Varane’s name features again in this list’s next rendition in 10 years’ time.
5. Giorgio Chiellini
A list such as this just wouldn’t be complete without an old-school Italian defender and this decade’s finest example is Giorgio Chiellini, the man quite literally at the heart of Juventus’s utter dominance of Italy’s domestic landscape.
At a time when most teams struggled to effectively implement the 3-man defence, Chiellini, alongside Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli perfected the art. And yet, when asked to make the switch to a back 4, be it under Antonio Conte or later on under Max Allegri, Chiellini did so seamlessly.
A steady mix of one of the finest footballing brains and a brutal physicality, expertly masked by his slight frame, he was unfortunate to suffer a series of heartbreaks at the biggest stages with the national side and in European competition with Juventus. Nevertheless, Giorgio Chiellini walks into the Italian defenders’ hall of fame, which history tells us is no mean feat.
4. Gerard Piqué
An ever-present for one of, if not the greatest club and national sides in the history of the game, Gerard Piqué’s genius will garner full appreciation only once he departs the stage.
From learning on the job alongside Carles Puyol, Piqué has gone on to become his own man, providing the defensive bedrock on which Barcelona built their success this decade. As for Spain, his ability to put aside his differences to forge an all-conquering partnership with Sergio Ramos was one of the key ingredients of La Roja’s golden era.
His tendency to be in the headlines with his controversial claims off the pitch may have undermined his place among the greats of the game, but make no mistake, Piqué remains one of the best to ever do it.
3. Philipp Lahm
One of the game’s most intelligent and consistent players of all time, few players have helped mould the footballing identity of a club and country as Philipp Lahm did with Bayern Munich and Germany.
Alternating between both full-back spots during the initial years of his career, Lahm owned the right side, having been named captain for both his teams at the start of the decade. His partnerships with Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben on the right flank, and peerless reading of the game in defence made him the complete player. As captain, he led Bayern Munich to the unprecedented treble in the 2012/13 season, setting in motion an era of dominance that is still ongoing.
For Die Mannschaft, he maintained staggering levels throughout a glorious career that culminated with him lifting the World Cup. Like every great champion, he knew when his time was up, as he bid farewell to the international stage shortly after the win in Brazil.
2. Dani Alves
“We are just kids playing in the rain, man. If it goes wrong, so what? Is it the end of the world? No, man. We’ll just go find somewhere else to play.”
Dani Alves, in his own words. Like Marcelo, Alves redefined what it meant to be a full-back, particularly in an attacking sense. Such was his attacking impact, that it’s he, not Xavi or Iniesta, who sits 2nd behind Luis Suarez in the all-time list of assists to Leo Messi. A true disciple of joga bonito, Alves had as much grit to go with the Samba flair.
After leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons, Alves went on to enjoy domestic success with Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain before signing off from the top level of the game with a Man of the Tournament performance as Brazil’s captain in their Copa América 2019 win.
Djalma Santos, Carlos Alberto, Cafu – Brazil have produced some of football’s best right-backs, but Alves’s stunning 43-trophy haul might just make him the greatest of them all.
1. Sergio Ramos
A player who you would hate to see lining up against you but would happily go to war with by your side, Sergio Ramos is more than a defender, a captain, a master of the dark arts – he is a serial winner. And he won’t let anything get in the way of that.
Transitioning from a right-back to a left-sided central defender following Carles Puyol’s injury before the 2012 Euros win, Ramos went on to play his best football in the same spot for Real Madrid. As Iker Casillas began to be phased out of the side by Jose Mourinho, Ramos emerged as Real’s next captain, a responsibility under which his game reached the next level.
It was his last-gasp equaliser against Atlético Madrid that ended the wait for ‘La Decima’, and kick off an era of unprecedented continental dominance. Ramos lifted his next three Champions League trophies in as many seasons as captain, cementing his status among the all-time greats.
BEST OF THE REST
Among the best defenders in the world at the peak of his powers, Boateng was a key figure in Bayern and Germany’s successes this decade. His tall, bulky frame belied an excellent range of passing and a swift turn of pace that gave him the upper-hand against opposition forwards.
Football is a harsh game, and unfortunately for Boateng, the image of him being put on the seat of his pants by Lionel Messi is the one he will be most commonly associated with. It would be a disservice to remember his immense talents of this World Cup and treble winner in such a manner, however.
A third of the best back 3 this decade has seen, Bonucci was the perfect foil to Chiellini’s hard man. With Barzagli and Chiellini providing cover behind, Bonucci was free to play sweeper, stepping up to spray passes, owing to his ability on the ball.
Leonardo Bonucci has been the perfect blend of brute and brawn and is yet another excellent example for the next generation of Italian defenders looking to keep the legacy going.
Another flying full-back unlucky not to make the cut, Alba has forged a fruitful partnership with Messi much like Alves before him. His impressive contribution to Spain’s 2012 Euros win was the perfect audition for the former La Masia graduate to return to Barcelona, where he has gone from strength to strength.
Yet to be displaced as an indispensable cog in the Barcelona juggernaut that has yielded a series of titles, it’s safe to say Blaugrana faithful can look forward to Alba’s marauding runs down the left flank for a couple more years.
Chelsea’s best ever defender may not have been the dominant force in this decade that he was in the 2000s, and yet he was testament to the fact that class is indeed permanent. His most crowning achievement of the decade has to be paying every minute of their Premier League title triumph in the 2014/15 season.
And this is after also being the captain of the club at 34 years of age. Ability aside, Terry’s leadership, longevity and unrivalled consistency makes him one of the greatest to grace not just English football, but the game itself.