Van Dijk, Ramos, Maldini: Who is the best centre-back in football history?

Ranking centre-backs from GOAT to Overrated

Michael Owen was asked how Liverpool’s centre-back Virgil van Dijk compares to fellow BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand before Jurgen Klopp’s side faced Villarreal.

Not only did Owen suggest that Van Dijk was better than Ferdinand but he even went as far as to suggest he’s the best defender to have ever played the game.

“I’d go further and say he’s the best centre-half of all time,” Owen replied. “He probably scored a few more goals, we’re not talking much because we’re talking about the greatest here. Rio was the best centre-back I had ever played with. Van Dijk, as a centre-forward I look at him and think ‘what do you do against him?’ He’s bigger, faster, stronger than everyone, he’s brilliant on the ball, scores goals, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Is Van Dijk the best centre-back in football history?

It’s certainly a big claim but it’s not quite as ridiculous as it seemed a few years ago.

Villarreal v Liverpool Semi Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League

But we’ve gone further than Owen. Instead of just naming the greatest defender of all time, we’ve decided to rank some of the best defenders ever from ‘Overrated’ to the ‘GOAT’ using Tiermaker.

Let’s get a bit of housekeeping out of the way.

Firstly, we haven’t selected the players that make the list. If there’s a player or players missing, blame the creator of the Tiermaker, not us.

Also, when it comes to the tiers they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Every defender included in the list was probably ‘world-class’ at some stage in their career. But just to separate the best from the rest, we have categories such as ‘Very good’ and ‘Decent’. We’re aware that all the defenders were probably a bit more than ‘Decent’ but it would be a bit boring if everyone was in ‘World Class’.

So, disclaimers out of the way, let’s check out our ranking of the best central defenders in football history from ‘Overrated’ to ‘GOAT.’

Overrated

  • Pepe
  • Jamie Carragher
  • Diego Godin
  • Rafael Marquez

We’re already backs against the wall trying to defend ourselves here.

Look, Pepe, Carragher, Godin and Marquez have played for some of the biggest clubs in world football. At their peak, they were considered some of the best defenders around.

But can they compare to some of the others in this list? We’ll you’re about to find out that we don’t think they do.

SSC Napoli v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg

Decent

  • Sami Hyypia
  • Thiago Silva
  • Sol Campbell
  • Tony Adams
  • Ricardo Carvalho
  • Jose Santamaria
  • Lilian Thuram
  • Roberto Ayala
  • John Charles
  • Alessandro Costacurta
  • Elias Figueroa

Again, we’re fully aware these defenders were more than decent. But they’re a level or two below some of the greatest to have ever played in central defence.

We’ve got some Premier League greats – as well the legendary John Charles and Elias Figueroa.

It’s worth noting that these players fall in the top 30 of our rankings so it’s clear that we rate them pretty highly despite only being called ‘Decent.’

Everton v Chelsea - Premier League

Very good

  • Carles Puyol
  • Fernando Hierro
  • Marcel Desailly
  • Laurent Blanc
  • John Terry
  • Jaap Stam
  • Georgio Chiellini
  • Billy McNeill
  • Gerard Pique
  • Billy Wright
  • Matthias Sammer

Now we’re talking.

Some of these defenders fall into the top 20 of our rankings and they include World Cup winners, European Cup winners and even a Ballon d’Or winner in the form of Matthias Sammer.

The less familiar names on the list include Billy McNeill who Celtic’s ‘Lisbon Lions’ to their European Cup victory in 1967 who first footballer in the world to earn 100 international caps.

FC Barcelona v CA Osasuna - La Liga Santander

Incredible

  • Rio Ferdinand
  • Nemanja Vidic
  • Vincent Kompany
  • Alessandro Nesta
  • Ronald Koeman
  • Gaetano Scirea
  • Daniel Passarella

We’re starting to enter the final 10 defenders now.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic formed a formidable defensive partnership for Manchester United and have been given the nod over the likes of Terry and Stam.

Fellow Premier League legend, Vincent Kompany, also makes the ‘Incredible’ tier.

Italian Alessandro Nesta and Dutchman Ronald Koeman are the other two recognisable names that make this tier.

Those of the younger generation may not have heard of Juventus legend, Gaetano Scirea or Argentine Daniel Passarella. While we weren’t alive to vouch for how good they were, their records and statistics speak for themselves.

Manchester United v Swansea City - Premier League

World Class

  • Virgil van Dijk
  • Sergio Ramos
  • Fabio Cannavaro
  • Bobby Moore
  • Paolo Maldini
  • Franco Baresi

All of these players comfortably belong in the top 10 greatest centre-backs of all time.

While we don’t agree with Owen’s assessment that Van Dijk is the best ever, he’s certainly in the argument.

Alongside him is Real Madrid legend, Sergio Ramos and the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, Fabio Cannavaro.

England’s 1966 hero, Bobby Moore, also belongs in the second tier with Italian legends Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi.

Real Madrid CF v Getafe CF  - La Liga

GOAT

  • Franz Beckenbauer

There can only be one and we’re giving this to the German hero, Franz Beckenbauer.

The Bayern Munich legend claimed the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976, leading West Germany to the 1974 World Cup.

Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany

Final rankings

So, there we have it.

The greatest centre-backs in football history ranked into tiers from ‘Overrated’ to ‘GOAT.’

We’re pretty certain that 100% of you will disagree with at least one thing in our ranking. But remember, it’s all a bit of fun.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Owen for claiming Van Dijk is the greatest defender of all time prompting us into action to prove him wrong.

Ranking the best centre-backs of all time

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