Gone are the days a centre-back is judged primarily on what they do defensively. Instead, the modern defender is expected to influence the way a team puts together an attack. They have to be confident on the ball, composed under pressure and, perhaps most importantly, have the mental strength to play risky passes.
This has been of increasing importance and Pep Guardiola has continued to change the way centre-backs are viewed. It started when he was at Barcelona and he decided to use Javier Mascherano, considered to be one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, as a centre-back. His simplistic yet progressive passing from the back helped Barça maintain pressure.
At Bayern Munich he moved Javi Martínez into a centre-back role to make the most of his ability on the ball. As revealed in Pep Confidential, it wasn’t an easy transition, but Guardiola wanted as many ball-players in his starting XI as possible.
During his first season in charge of Manchester City Guardiola signed John Stones for a reported £50million, and followed that up just last month by spending £57million on Aymeric Laporte. It’s pretty obvious: ball-playing centre-backs come at a cost but they’re vital to the way he wants his side to play the game.
Others, as expected, followed suit and slowly but surely it became accepted that most top teams need a defender who can break the lines when in possession. They’re not just there to keep play ticking over, they actually impact the way a team is looking to build from the back. Because of this there’s been a rise of ball-playing defenders in the Premier League.
It’s coincided with more managers opting to use a three-at-the back system. Is the change to combat the risk you take when looking to play out from the back, or is it to aid those ball-players? After all, those playing as wide centre-backs often have more passing lanes forward – they have an advantage over those playing in a normal four at the back formation.
We’ve decided to take a look at the ten best ball-playing centre-backs in the Premier League and detail just what makes them so good.
In isolation the pass success rate counts for very little as the majority of these could be balls played sideways or backwards. But it’s when combined with the forward passes per 90 stat, which can be found on the graph below, that you can paint a picture of a player.
The clear winner is Stones. The City defender is often criticised by the media for the way he operates in defence. He’s not yet a world-class ‘defender’ in the traditional sense but Guardiola doesn’t need him to be.
The Premier League leaders dominate possession, averaging 66 per cent, and conceded a lower number of shots on goal per 90 minutes (6.4) than any other team in Europe. City don’t have much defending to do, so it’s what Stones can do on the ball that’s important.
He averages 29 passes forward per 90 minutes. The more you play forward the harder they should be, but Stones maintains a 96 per cent pass success rate. He’s a progressive player and he doesn’t waste possession – no wonder Guardiola loves him. It’s no surprise to see Vincent Kompany and Nicolás Otamendi appear in the top ten list either.
Though the pair aren’t renowned for their ability on the ball, the Argentine has a 91 per cent pass success rate and attempts 27 passes forward per 90 minutes, while Kompany comes in at 25 passes forward with a 92 per cent success rate.
A surprise name on the list is perhaps Antonio Rüdiger. He’s not the most progressive Chelsea defender, that title belongs to César Azpilicueta, but the versatile Spanish full-back has been exempt because he’s played a few games at wing-back which would’ve skewed his data.
The Germany international benefits from playing as a left sided centre-back in Antonio Conte’s back three formation. But then Chelsea benefit from his use of the ball which helps them turn defence into attack in a matter of seconds.
Noticeable absentees include the world’s most expensive centre-back, Virgil van Dijk, and Toby Alderweireld. Both play fewer passes forward than those listed in the top ten and their pass success rate is slightly worse.
Dávinson Sánchez, Tottenham’s record buy, has settled into life in Mauricio Pochettino‘s starting XI relatively well and, at £42million, is looking like a potential bargain. He’s playing 24 passes forward and has an 88 per cent pass success rate, which isn’t too dissimilar from the more experienced Jan Vertonghen.
The Arsenal pairing of Skhodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny rank higher than most would have expected but, again, both benefit from playing as part of a back three. You shouldn’t take anything away from the pair, however, as they, on average, play a combined 52 passes forward per 90 minutes. It’s little wonder the Gunners average the second highest amount of possession in the Premier League behind City.
Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip often come in for criticism but the pair seemingly play a key part in the way Liverpool play football. You can see it in the picture above, taken during their 2-0 win over Southampton: Matip carries the ball forward and the Saints are slow to engage him. He has four passing options on, shown by the arrows. The passes to Sadio Mané and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the easier ones that others might opt to play.
The ball into Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn’t difficult but Southampton are well positioned to deal with it. The Liverpool centre-back, however, plays the pass to Mohamed Salah and this just obliterates the Saints’ backline. Wesley Hoedt is forced to press the Egyptian but isn’t quick enough. The Liverpool No.11 plays the ball to Roberto Firmino before running into the space Hoedt recently vacated. The Brazilian backheels the ball into his path and Liverpool score a second goal.
Matip’s choice of pass makes that goal; Mauricio Pellegrino’s men go from having seven outfield players behind the ball to being wide open.
When you see a pass like that you fully appreciate what a ball-playing centre-back adds to the team and why so many of the top coaches in the world are desperate to add them to their squad.
For now it’s clear that City have the best of those in the Premier League but the summer transfer window could change all of that.