The centre-halves are essential members of any team. Their job is to stop the opposing players, in particular the strikers, from scoring and to bring the ball out from their penalty area. Here we take a look at some of the Premier League’s most impressive centre-halves this season.
Virgil van Dijk
Before this season, just two teams have ever conceded fewer goals in an entire Premier League season. Liverpool has massively improved in this respect in recent years. In 2015/16, Jurgen Klopp’s first in charge, they conceded 50 goals, so far this season they have conceded just 20.
A large part of this improvement is down to Virgil van Dijk. He has worked brilliantly in partnership with Joe Gomez in the first half of this season and in the later stages has worked just as well with Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Fabinho. All of these players are talented in their own right, but they have all been working under one defensive leader who has not only improved himself, but also improved those around him. There is no doubt that Van Dijk is currently one of the best three centre-halves in the world and he is likely to go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
While Aymeric Laporte runs the risk of being remembered this season for his poor Champions League quarterfinal performance, in many ways this would be highly unfair given how impressive he has been.
Speaking in October, Pep Guardiola said about Laporte that “It is difficult to find a better left central defender than him in the world” and in terms of City’s needs, this is very true. He has been one of the most consistent players in the team’s forever changing central defence. He has started in ten more Premier League games than John Stones, more than twice as many as Nicolas Otamendi and more than three times that of Vincent Kompany. Throughout it all, he has upheld the highest levels of fitness, temperament, and play.
Adding to how impressive he has been is the fact that he has played together with four different left-backs, none of which have started in more than ten Premier League games. Usually a defence will improve over time through stability as the players learn to work with one another and how best to complement each other, but Laporte has managed to excel while things have changed around him. No other outfielder has played more minutes for the team that is on its way to becoming the first to defend the Premier League title in a decade.
In some ways, this season has been a strange one for centre-halves. While Liverpool and Manchester City have conceded far less goals than the next best Premier League defences, both teams have their defence built around one exceptional players rather than well-established partnerships.
The best partnership this season has been at Tottenham Hotspur. After a brief break last season, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are back at the heart of a defence that they are helping to keep together while it seemingly falls apart around them. The rest of the team’s defence, such as Hugo Lloris, Kieran Trippier, Serge Aurier, Danny Rose and Ben Davies have been hugely inconsistent throughout the season, and largely saved by the talents of Vertonghen and Alderweireld.
Vertonghen has probably been the better of the two this season, with more tackles and interceptions than Alderweireld, despite playing 783 minutes less. He has definitely been a huge part of the team’s journey to the Champions League semi-finals, and it has probably been the best season of his career so far.
Conor Coady would never have imagined that there would be five years and three months between his first and second Premier League appearances. A huge amount changed in the gap between the central midfielder replacing Philippe Coutinho is the last minute of Liverpool’s 2012/13 campaign and him donning the captain’s armband for Wolves against Everton last August.
Speaking in November Jamie Carragher said, “I just looked at my own transition from midfielder to centre-back because of how the game was going. There is less space in there now. It is not just about whether you can pass, it is whether you can move the ball quickly when you are being pressed and being closed down. But with his leadership qualities, physique and reading of the game, he just looked like a centre-back to me.”
There can be no higher praise for a player such as Croady and while he may be waiting a long time for success at the international level, he has been extremely impressive in his first season back in the Premier League.
Speaking after the summer Toby Alderweireld said, “I wanted to prove something again. To show that the period before the tournament in which I did not play, for whatever reason, was unjustified.”
While he may not have managed to secure the World Cup with Belgium, he certainly achieved one of his personal objectives last summer. As a regular for the world’s third ranked team, by his manager’s own definition, he was his club’s third-best defender.
Last season he was actually given fewer minutes in all competitions than Serge Aurier due to a mixture of injuries, his contractual situation, and the fact that Mauricio Pochettino favoured Davinson Sanchez. However, his response to that has been hugely impressive. While he may not quite be the imposing force he once was and he has not been the division’s best centre-half for a while, he is still very much a player to be admired.
While Fabian Schar may have had just nineteen league starts this season, he still deserves to be recognised for his excellent form. He did not become a regular in the Newcastle United side until November, but he did feature before then. However, he is unlikely to look back fondly upon his debut. He was substituted within three minutes of conceding a penalty in August’s narrow defeat to Chelsea.
Then he only played as Jamaal Lascelles had argued with Matt Ritchie about Rafael Benitez’s tactics on the eve of the game. However, the team have conceded fewer goals than Manchester United, and just one more than Arsenal. Furthermore, no player outside of £3.5 million bargain Schar has adapted as well to the team’s three-man defensive system.
Newcastle have conceded 19 goals in the games that Schar has started this season, an average of one per game, and 25 goals in the 16 matches without him. They have drawn four and lost ten of the fourteen games that he has missed, and won 11 and drawn 4 of the 21 he has played in. In other words, when he plays, he certainly makes a difference.
To many it is surprising that Chelsea have conceded just three more goals than Spurs so far this season. Their goalkeeper, Kepa, is a maturing player who has hardly filled the shoes of his predecessor. At the same time, Cesar Azpilicueta has had a terrible season, and there have been issues with David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.
This means that the job of a Chelsea defender has been extremely difficult, but Antonio Rudiger has risen to the occasion, heading clear the ball and urging his teammates on. He can certainly claim a large share of the credit for Chelsea’s success this season.
Kurt Zouma has had a far better time on loan to Everton than his last spell away from Stamford Bridge at Stoke City, when the team were relegated. He suffered a long-term knee injury in February 2016 and he is currently playing better than at any time since then. With Chelsea facing a FIFA transfer ban, he may well find himself recalled to his home team sooner than expected.
This season has seen Manchester United use a huge range of players at centre-half including Ander Herrera, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Ashley Young, but Victor Lindelof has shone through and shown that he may well have been worth the £30.75 million fee.
It has been a steady season for the Swede. He was already improving under Mourinho before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment seemed to speed up his development. While he was poor as a right-back, he looks to be a player that United can build a defence around.
Surprisingly, Craig Cathcart is one of the five highest appearance makers in Watford’s Premier League history. It is unexpected for a centre-half to make that list, especially as it is the position that is probably most affected by Watford’s continual changes. In their first season after promotion, Cathcart started the most games in central defence, and he has been hugely impressive this season. He has played the most minutes of any Watford player in all competitions, and the club drew one and lost the other two of the three Premier League games he missed.