Since its inauguration in 1992, the Premier League has become renowned across the world for its brand of exciting football. Some of the most entertaining games of all time have taken place in the competition. But England’s top-flight should be equally recognised for its tremendous defenders as much as it is for its attackers.
Over the course of the last two decades, Premier League sides like Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have become renowned for their solid back-lines.
Some of the greatest central defenders in the history of the modern game have called the Premier League home – but these are the best 10.
#10 Colin Hendry
A criminally underrated defender from the Premier League’s early years, Colin Hendry was part of Blackburn Rovers’ backline for six seasons. The Scottish international reached the pinnacle of his career in 1994-95 when he helped Rovers to win their first – and only Premier League title.
That season saw Hendry form a solid partnership with Norwegian international Henning Berg; the duo missed just 8 league games between them. Along the way, ‘Braveheart’ scored four goals, including the winner in a key 0-1 victory over Aston Villa. When the season ended, Hendry was named in the PFA Team of the Year for his tremendous performances.
While he wasn’t the greatest ball-playing defender, the Scottish international instead offered a 100% commitment to the cause. Hendry was known for his willingness to put his body on the line. Due to this attribute, Hendry was considered a precursor to the full-blooded defending that John Terry would popularise in the 2000s.
His style might not be en vogue today, but in the early days of the Premier League, there were no better defenders around.
#9 Toby Alderweireld
Toby Alderweireld might not have won any trophies during his time in the Premier League, but he should definitely be marked out as one of its greatest ever defenders. The Belgian initially moved to England with Southampton on a loan deal in 2013-14. He then instantly made his mark. That season saw the Saints finish 8th – letting in just 46 goals in the process.
Alderweireld was so impressive that Tottenham Hotspur swooped for him before the Saints could make his loan permanent. This happened after Spurs appointed Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino as their manager.
Alderweireld had an instant impact at White Hart Lane. The Belgian formed a formidable partnership with countryman Jan Vertonghen and gave Spurs a tough spine they’d lacked for years.
2015-16 and 2016-17 both saw Spurs concede the least goals in the Premier League, with Alderweireld being a near ever-present in both campaigns. Unsurprisingly, the Belgian was named in the PFA’s Team of the Year for his exploits in the former season.
Since then, Alderweireld has remained a constant in the centre of Spurs’ defence – signing a new contract in 2019 to keep him at the club until 2023. He remains one of the Premier League’s strongest defenders. All of this is in addition to his ability to play accurate long balls that make him one of the more creative, too.
#8 Nemanja Vidic
Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic joined Manchester United in the summer of 2004 for a fee of £7m. To say that fee would turn out to be a bargain would be an understatement. The ultra-tough central defender went onto form a partnership with Rio Ferdinand in United’s back-line. The duo helped to usher in a period of massive success for United.
Over the course of his nine seasons at Old Trafford, Vidic won 10 major trophies – including five Premier League titles. The 2007-08 season saw him help the Red Devils to win the Champions League too. 2008-09 saw him start every league match, with United going on a run of 14 clean sheets at one stage.
A no-nonsense, aggressive defender who was somewhat of a throwback, Vidic was renowned for his willingness to throw himself into challenges. That got him into trouble on occasions. He was red-carded six times for United, including four times against Liverpool. He was also criticised at times for his somewhat clumsy nature.
Despite this, in his prime, there was no tougher defender in the Premier League than the Serb. Named in the PFA’s Team of the Year on four occasions, Vidic also won United’s Players’ Player of the Year award in 2008-09. Departing for Inter Milan in 2014, it could be argued that the Red Devils have never truly replaced him.
#7 Virgil van Dijk
Widely recognised as the best defender on the planet right now, Virgil van Dijk has completely changed Liverpool’s fortunes since joining them in January 2018. Prior to the signing of the Dutchman, the Reds were renowned for a paper-thin back-line. Since he arrived at Anfield, their defence has been near-impenetrable.
Van Dijk helped the Reds to make the Champions League final in 2018 – and then win the trophy in 2019, being named Man of the Match in the final. An ever-present in the 2018-19 season, he was named the PFA Player of the Year.
In the process, he became the first defender to win the award since 2005. Van Dijk seemed to be on his way to repeating the feat in 2019-20 before the suspension of the campaign.
What makes him so good? Essentially, he has it all. He’s composed on the ball and rarely makes an error. Additionally, he’s near-impossible to dribble past whilst being fast, athletic, and also offers a goal threat – scoring six in 2018-19.
More incredibly, van Dijk is still only 28 years old. This means that there’s every chance that he could continue to play at the top for at least another five years.
If he can continue to play the way he currently does, there’s every chance he could end up being remembered as the Premier League’s greatest-ever defender.
#6 Tony Adams
Perhaps no other defender on this list made as much of a journey during their Premier League career as Tony Adams. An Arsenal player for his entire career, the England international won four top-flight league titles with the Gunners. Adams captained them to victory in three different decades, but it’s his evolution as a player that truly marks him out.
In the early years of the Premier League, Adams was already well-established as one of the competition’s strongest defenders. Part of a famous Arsenal back-line alongside Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, he was named in the PFA Team of the Year in 1993-94, 1995-96 and 1996-97. But when Arsene Wenger arrived in North London in 1996, everything changed.
Adams – an old-school, physical defender – cleaned up his lifestyle off the pitch and suddenly evolved into a more modern, ball-playing centre-back. The changes extended his playing career by many years. As a result, he was a massive part of the team’s early successes under the Frenchman.
Arsenal won the Premier League title in 1997-98, and repeated the feat in 2001-02, with Adams acting as captain in both campaigns. Both of those seasons also saw the Gunners win the FA Cup too. The England international retired at the end of the latter – going down as an Arsenal and Premier League legend in the process.
#5 Jaap Stam
Jaap Stam might’ve left Manchester United on bad terms, but it’s hard to dispute that the Dutchman remains one of their greatest-ever defenders. He also stands as one of the Premier League’s best defenders of all time, too. At his best, attempting to get past Stam was like attempting to run through a brick wall.
Signed in the summer of 1998 from PSV Eindhoven, Stam had an immediate impact at Old Trafford. Playing alongside either Ronny Johnsen or Henning Berg, the Dutchman was undoubtedly the key man when it came to United’s back-line. He helped the Red Devils to win a famous treble during his first season at the club.
United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League with Stam in the back-line and the Dutchman never really looked back.
The Dutch international remained United’s key defender in 1999-00 and 2000-01, helping them to win another two Premier League titles. In all three of his full seasons at Old Trafford, he was named in the PFA’s Team of the Year. His unexpected departure in 2001 meant that he won the league title during every campaign he played in England.
Powerful in the air, deceptively quick and incredibly intimidating, Stam was arguably the best defender on the planet in his prime. In 2007, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that he’d made an error in selling the Dutchman. This was a rare admission from the legendary manager but one that showed Stam’s worth.
#4 Vincent Kompany
The last player signed by Manchester City before the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008, Vincent Kompany cost just £8m – but went onto become a Premier League legend. The Belgian spent a decade at the Etihad – becoming club captain in 2011 – and helped them to win 10 major trophies.
Named in the PFA’s Team of the Year on three occasions, Kompany was a leader in every sense of the term. More of an old-school, physical defender than the men who often partnered him, the Belgian’s sense of timing was phenomenal. Rarely beaten by opponents, Kompany was also excellent in the tackle and in the air, and his range of passing was underrated.
In his later years, the Belgian was hampered by various injuries, but that only made him more important. City were simply not the same team without him. And when he was available, the side instantly looked far stronger and far more robust.
During Kompany’s time as captain, City won four Premier League titles, something that would’ve seemed impossible at one point. Their attacking talent naturally gained the most plaudits. However, without the Belgian’s stewardship at the back, would they have seen so much success? Not likely.
#3 Sol Campbell
Considered persona non grata at Tottenham due to the way he departed the club for bitter rivals Arsenal, Sol Campbell remains one of the Premier League’s greatest-ever defenders. An incredible natural athlete, Campbell’s blend of pace and power marked him out from practically the moment he emerged onto the scene with Spurs in the early 90’s.
Largely an ever-present for Spurs for eight seasons, Campbell won the EFL Cup at White Hart Lane, but his biggest successes came later. The summer of 2001 saw him move to Arsenal. And, he was an instant hit, largely replacing the outgoing Tony Adams in the centre of the Gunners’ defence.
Arsenal won the Premier League title that season, as well as the FA Cup, but in 2003-04 they did even better. That was of course the famous campaign that saw the Gunners go unbeaten throughout the season en route to another title win. And, Campbell played a massive part, missing just three league games. The season saw Arsenal concede just 26 goals.
2004-05 saw him get his hands on the FA Cup again, while 2005-06. In what was his last season with Arsenal, Campbell scored their goal in the Champions League final, which they went on to lose to Barcelona. Campbell went on to spend three seasons in the Premier League with Portsmouth, but then returned to Arsenal for a brief spell in 2009-10. He was past his best, but was still hailed – quite rightly – as a returning legend.
#2 John Terry
Despite departing Chelsea in 2017, a banner still hangs at Stamford Bridge that reads ‘John Terry: Captain, Leader, Legend’. That says a lot about how well-regarded the England international was during his time with the Blues. And despite a somewhat chequered career, there have not been many better defenders in the Premier League era.
A product of Chelsea’s academy, Terry broke into the Blues’ first team in the 2000-01 season. By 2001-02 he was a regular. And, when boss Jose Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2004, the defender was chosen as his new captain.
Almost immediately, an era of unprecedented success was ushered in. Terry captained the Blues to the Premier League title in 2004-05, with the team keeping the most clean sheets in the competition’s history. They conceded just 15 goals all season, and Terry was named as the PFA Player of the Year. In the process, he became the first defender to win the award in over a decade.
The England international went onto captain Chelsea to a further 13 major trophies, including four more Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2012. Incredibly brave, crunching in the tackle and willing to put his body on the line, Terry was also brilliant from a technical standpoint. He will go down as one of the best English defenders of all time.
#1 Rio Ferdinand
Of all the Premier League’s defensive legends, nobody epitomises the way that the role changed over the years quite so much as Rio Ferdinand. He was symbolic of the transformation from the bruising physicality of the competition’s early years to the refined style of today.
Ferdinand was the archetype of what you'd expect from a modern-day centre-back. And, from an aesthetic point of view, there have been fewer better in the game’s history.
A product of West Ham’s youth system, Ferdinand’s £18m transfer to Leeds in 2000 broke the world record fee for a defender. After two tremendous campaigns there, Manchester United broke the record again to bring him to Old Trafford, paying nearly £30m.
The fee would turn out to be a bargain. The England international won the Premier League title in his first season with United and spent 12 seasons at the club. During that time, he won a further five league titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League in 2008, and was named in the PFA’s Team of the Year on five occasions.
At his best, Ferdinand was essentially the complete defender. He could tackle hard and make blocks and interceptions like the physical defenders of the 90’s. Although, he was far more comfortable on the ball. His skills and passing range – as well as his ability on the ball – led more than one observer to suggest he’d have been more than adequate in midfield.
Ferdinand retired from football in 2015, and in all honesty, the Premier League hasn’t seen a better defender since.