The 25 best centre-backs in world football - ranked

  • The role of the centre-back has evolved with changes in style and building play up from defence
  • Virgil van Dijk, David Alaba and Ruben Dias among the top performers in world football
  • 25 best players from around the world ranked as part of 90min's Welcome to World Class series
Image by Briony Painter
Image by Briony Painter /

A top central defender is like gold dust in the modern footballing climate. It's a role that not only requires exceptional mental and physical attributes, but the ability to lead and organise a defensive line.

There are so few who have mastered the role over the years; even fewer who are still playing. Picking the top 25, then, is quite the undertaking at 90min as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.

After plenty of debate, however, we've managed to come up with the definitive list. Please don't disagree, there's been enough of that already.

25. Jarrad Branthwaite

Jarrad Branthwaite
Branthwaite is wanted by some big teams / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

If a player emerges as a genuine world-beating defender at Everton, there's every chance they could be at one of Europe's giant clubs in the near future.

That's the case for Jarrad Branthwaite. While the Toffees continue to stave off relegation from the Premier League season after season, the former Carlisle United centre-back has barely put a foot wrong since breaking through at Goodison Park. The England international is rarely beaten in aerial confrontations and boasts plenty of threat in the opposition area.

A big move is certainly in the offing for Branthwaite sooner rather than later.

24. Jean-Clair Todibo

Jean-Clair Todibo
Todibo is another sought-after defender / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

Big things were expected of Jean-Clair Todibo at Barcelona. While he never got the chance to truly break into their starting XI, it looks to have worked out well for the France international, who has since established himself as one of Europe's finest centre-backs at Nice.

Comfortable on the ball and fearless defending his own box, Todibo has rightly attracted suitors and could be on the move for big bucks in the future.

He may have to join a truly elite side to nail down a starting position for France given their strength in that position, but that shouldn't detract from what he has achieved in the past two years.

23. Riccardo Calafiori

Riccardo Calafiori
Calafiori performed strongly at Euro 2024 / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

Riccardo Calafiori has taken the long route to reach the top at a relatively young age.

Shipped out by Roma to Basel, the centre-back re-emerged with Bologna and helped them shock the rest of Italy by qualifying for the Champions League.

He then became a breakout star at Euro 2024 with some assured performances despite the Azzurri's last-16 exit and is bound to be a regular presence for the national team over the next decade or so.

22. Matthijs de Ligt

BundesligaBorussia Mönchengladbach v FC Bayern Munchen
De Ligt is a star / ANP/GettyImages

When Ajax looked to be storming towards the Champions League final in 2018/19, it was Matthijs de Ligt performing like a colossus at the back as a teenager who caught the eye.

The talent is undoubted and though the Dutchman's progress stalled at Juventus, his move to Bayern Munich has helped him rediscover his potential.

21. Micky van de Ven

Micky van de Ven
Van de Ven has made an immediate impact at Tottenham / Mike Hewitt/GettyImages

Micky van de Ven settled at Tottenham Hotspur ridiculously quickly following his move from Wolfsburg, with the Dutch centre-back largely impenetrable thanks to his ridiculous pace.

An injury early in his debut campaign limited his game time but Van de Ven has looked sharp since returning from the sidelines.

20. Edmond Tapsoba

BundesligaBayer 04 Leverkusen v FC Bayern Munchen
Tapsoba has been brilliant in Leverkusen / ANP/GettyImages

Bayer Leverkusen's meteoric rise under Xabi Alonso has been aided by the impressive displays of Edmond Tapsoba.

The Burkina Faso international boasts the athleticism needed to thrive at the highest level and has vastly improved under the Spaniard's tutelage.

19. Lisandro Martinez

Lisandro Martinez
A battler / Michael Regan/GettyImages

Lisandro Martinez's start at Manchester United was pretty tough and fans and pundits alike were quick to label him too short to succeed in the Premier League.

However, he has bounced back from criticism and 'the Butcher' is winning supporters over in defence with his combative tackling and excellent passing skills.

It's just a shame about those persistent injuries.

18. Marquinhos

A key player for PSG / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

Marquinhos arrived at Paris Saint-Germain as a teenager with much hype around his potential.

He's switched from central defence to defensive midfield and back again, becoming the linchpin as PSG dominate - for the most part - in France.

Now entering his peak years as a defender, Marquinhos is only improving with age and is a vital presence at international level with Brazil.

17. Ibrahima Konate

Ibrahima Konate
The Liverpool defender has been a strong partner to Virgil van Dijk / Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/GettyImages

Ibrahima Konate has often found himself in Virgil van Dijk's huge shadow at Anfield, but his development has been superb since making the move to Liverpool.

The defender has fantastic recovery speed and is great in one-v-one duels, attributes needed when playing in the Reds' high line.

16. Josko Gvardiol

Josko Gvardiol
Talented / Nigel French/Allstar/GettyImages

2022/23 was a productive season for Josko Gvardiol as he helped Croatia to the semi-finals of the World Cup, won the DFB-Pokal and finished third in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.

A mammoth move to Manchester City followed last summer and Gvardiol has made a strong start to life in English football.

15. Manuel Akanji

Manuel Akanji
Akanji has impressed / Eurasia Sport Images/GettyImages

Once not that highly-rated while at Borussia Dortmund, Manuel Akanji is one of the many, many players who have benefitted from working with Pep Guardiola.

He's now a dependable performer at the Etihad Stadium in whatever position his manager picks him to play, whether that's centrally or out wide.

14. Cristian Romero

Cristian Romero
World Cup winner / Daniel Jayo/GettyImages

Tottenham fans quickly fell in love with aggressive right-sided Argentina international Cristian Romero.

A fiery tackler who links up well in possession, Romero won Serie A's defender of the year award for his displays with Atalanta before joining Spurs.

Now a World Cup winner, Romero is key for Tottenham.

13. Nathan Ake

Nathan Ake
Ake has been a success at City / Eurasia Sport Images/GettyImages

Nathan Ake performs a hybrid defensive role on the left for Man City and has boundless energy to make it work for Guardiola.

The Dutchman wasn't an immediate success at the Etihad but found form at the start of 2023. City fans can always count on Ake if a last-ditch tackle is ever required.

12. Eder Militao

Eder Militao
Top tier footballer / Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/GettyImages

Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane's exits from Real Madrid meant there were big boots to fill at the Bernabeu.

It was Eder Militao who initially stepped up and the Brazilian soon formed an excellent partnership with fellow new arrival David Alaba as Madrid won the La Liga and Champions League double in 2021/22.

An injury on the opening day of 2023/24 stalled his development, but he is fit again and ready to contribute.

11. Gleison Bremer

Gleison Bremer
One of the Serie A's best / Jonathan Moscrop/GettyImages

Gleison Bremer's growing influence at Torino culminated in the Brazilian winning the award for Serie A's best defender in 2021/22.

Juventus were suitably impressed and splashed out £45m for the defender. It was wise business from La Vecchia Signora, who have been pretty dodgy in the transfer market recently.

Signing Bremer was no misstep, however, with the Brazilian now a key member of the starting XI.

10. Alessandro Bastoni

Alessandro Bastoni
Bastoni is fantastic / Alessandro Sabattini/GettyImages

Alessandro Bastoni is an established presence in Inter's defence and enjoyed a brilliant 2020/21 campaign in their Serie A-title winning season.

The Italy international impresses with the timing of his challenges and boasts immense calmness under pressure.

He has big boots to fill on the international scene with Giorgio Chiellini out of the picture and Leonardo Bonucci approaching the same fate, but in Bastoni there's a worthy successor for the Azzurri.

9. Kim Min-jae

BundesligaBorussia Mönchengladbach v FC Bayern Munchen
Kim Min-jae is quality / ANP/GettyImages

Fans around Europe took notice of the indomitable Kim Min-jae as the South Korean led Napoli's defence in their 2022/23 Scudetto triumph.

Having secured a move to Bayern, the Bavarians have one of the world's best on their books. He'll be looking to improve in his second campaign after Bayern lost their grip on the Bundesliga title.

8. Gabriel Magalhaes

Gabriel has been superb for Mikel Arteta / Michael Regan/GettyImages

Gabriel Magalhaes was perhaps seen as the weak link in his partnership with William Saliba as Arsenal came close to the Premier League title in 2022/23.

However, that's no longer the case.

The Brazilian was immense the following campaign for the stubborn Gunners and also finds the back of the net more often than most defenders.

7. David Alaba

David Alaba
Alaba is one of the best of his generation / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

When all is said and done, David Alaba will be recognised as one of the greatest players of his generation.

The Austrian broke through at Bayern Munich as a teenager and played much of his football at left-back due to the Bundesliga side's beefy options in central defence.

However, his incredible skill set makes him an ideal centre back - even if he isn't blessed with the height of some - and the fact he's played in some of the most successful club sides in history tells you just how important he is.

He continues to impress with Real Madrid and at international level with Austria, where he'll play anywhere from left-back to attacking midfield.

6. John Stones

John Stones
A quality performer / Nikola Krstic/MB Media/GettyImages

There was a time when John Stones looked firmly out of the picture at Man City, with the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, Nathan Ake and even Eric Garcia all ahead in the pecking order.

However, he won favour again with Guardiola and his versatility at right-back and in midfield means he's a guaranteed starter when fit.

His ease in possession is a joy to watch and helped City to a brilliant 2022/23 treble.

5. Ronald Araujo

Ronald Araujo
The defender is very impressive / Quality Sport Images/GettyImages

During some pretty dark economic and playing days for Barcelona, the emergence of Ronald Araujo was one of their few bright moments.

The Uruguayan established himself under Ronald Koeman. While not the best with the ball at his feet, Araujo is always switched on at the back and likes to make the first move when winning the ball back.

His tactical awareness and presence in the air mark him out as a major force to contend with for the next decade.

4. William Saliba

William Saliba
Saliba is brilliant / Julian Finney/GettyImages

William Saliba has been a truly transformative figure in Arsenal's defence since returning from a few loans over in Ligue 1.

The Frenchman can match any Premier League attacker for pace and has already established a formidable partnership at the back with Gabriel.

Saliba remains one of the most graceful centre-backs you're likely to see.

3. Ruben Dias

Ruben Dias
Dias transformed Man City's defence / BSR Agency/GettyImages

Ruben Dias made an incredible start to his career at Man City and has only improved with time.

In his debut campaign, he was named FWA Footballer of the Year, Manchester City Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Season and the UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season.

The Portugal defender was a mainstay during the 2022/23 run-in as City completed a famous treble.

2. Virgil van Dijk

Virgil Van Dijk
Still one of the best / Visionhaus/GettyImages

Virgil van Dijk is not a defender opposition defenders relish coming up against.

With a gigantic frame and pace to match, the Netherlands international was a leading figure in a Liverpool side that became European and domestic champions in 2019 and 2020.

A few injuries and some dodgy performances affected his stock slightly around the world, but the Dutchman is back to his imperious best once again.

1. Antonio Rudiger

Antonio Rudiger
World class / Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/GettyImages

Having earned a move to Real Madrid thanks to his stunning performances for Chelsea, Rudiger has developed into a truly world class centre-back under Carlo Ancelotti.

If you're a regular for Madrid, you know you're big time.