No Premier League side has ever been successful without a solid defence. And at the heart of that defence has to be a centre-back capable of keeping the best attackers in check.
Twenty years ago, managers wanted defenders who could win headers, tackles and dominate opponents in the penalty area.
Now, the elite need to mix that power and aggression with poise on the ball and an ability to play out from the back under pressure.
Here’s Mirror Football’s top 10 Premier League defenders of the season so far…
10. Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Wolves captain Coady has been a key part of Wanderers smart start to life back in the Premier League, operating at the heart of a back three.
One of the most vocal players anywhere in the division, he’s an excellent organiser, reads the game well and doesn’t hesitate to snap into a tackle when the ball is there to be won. Also a fine long passer out from the back, his ability to hit a 40-yard diagonal out to his side’s wing-backs has been key to Wolves’ attacking play.
9. Nathan Ake (Bournemouth)
Nathan Ake swept the awards at Bournemouth’s end-of-season shindig last year and the Dutchman has been outstanding again this season for Eddie Howe’s men.
Tottenham are monitoring the Dutchman, who has been rock solid at the heart of the Cherries defence. Quick over the ground and with a cultured left foot, he has impressed in both a back three and a back four this term.
8. Issa Diop (West Ham United)
A number of clubs looked at Issa Diop over the summer but baulked at the fees being asked by Toulouse for the 21-year-old; West Ham didn’t, and his displays for the Hammers have justified their decision.
After a difficult start to the season, Diop has excelled at the London Stadium, forming a solid partnership alongside Fabien Balbuena. He’s good one-v-one, is quick, decisive and uses the ball well. Standing 6ft 4in also, if he continues his upward trajectory then the France Under-21 international has an extremely bright future.
7. Shkodran Mustafi (Arsenal)
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Arsene Wenger’s Emirates exit and the arrival of Unai Emery, Mustafi has looked a totally different player under the Spaniard this term.
Used in both a back three and a back four, he’s been much improved in a defence that looks more certain of what it is meant to be doing, and getting greater protection than in previous years; he’s been Arsenal’s best defender this term, showing greater personality at the heart of their defence.
6. John Stones (Manchester City)
After an impressive World Cup, the £50million centre-half has been a key man once more for Manchester City and their style of play.
Stones has always been comfortable on the ball, but there’s now a harder edge to his play, a player ready to make the tactical foul or no nonsense clearance where needed; it hasn’t always been that way.
Has come on leaps and bounds under Pep Guardiola and while he might not quite be at last year’s level – when he was simply awesome – he’s still having a fine season.
5. Joe Gomez (Liverpool)
The former Charlton youngster showed in the early part of the season just why Jurgen Klopp has been so big on him for so long.
Liverpool fans have had to be patient during a couple of years punctuated by injury, but given a run at centre-back – before fracturing his leg against Burnley – Gomez was an outstanding foil for Virgil van Dijk, reading the game well, using his speed to snuff out danger before it arose and being more willing to mix it physically with opposing strikers.
4. Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)
Chelsea’s switch to a back four from a back three under Maurizio Sarri has benefited German defender Antonio Rudiger perhaps more than anyone.
Having been asked to operate on the left side of defence by Antonio Conte, he is now playing as the right-sided centre-half this term and has been very impressive; is using his recovery speed to great effect in a team playing a high back line. Has also been dominant aerially.
3. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
For whatever reason, the Belgian international found himself out of favour with Maurico Pochettino last season. This year, he’s been back to his very best.
Whether alongside compatriot Jan Vertonghen or Davinson Sanchez, Alderweireld has been a consistent presence at the back for Spurs, winning headers, putting his body on the line and starting moves from deep.
No Spurs player has made more blocks or clearances than the ex-Ajax man so far.
2. Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)
The most baffling thing in world football right now?
Aymeric Laporte continuing to be overlooked by France boss Didier Deschamps. The ex-Athletic Bilbao defender isn’t fancied by Deschamps because 1) he prefers Samuel Umtiti, and 2) he doesn’t particularly like how sure of himself Laporte is.
But Pep Guardiola won’t care one iota about that situation, with Laporte having been outstanding for City this term; powerful in the air, quick across the ground and good with the ball at his feet, he is now City’s No.1 centre-half. After his displays this term, he only just misses out on No.1 on our list…
1. Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
Right now, the question isn’t whether Virgil van Dijk is the best defender in the Premier League; it’s whether he’s the best in the world?
The difference the £75million Dutchman has made to Liverpool’s backline is scary; he’s the one ensuring standards don’t slip, dominating in the air, verbally dictating to teammates where they should be and when and right now there is no centre-half better in one-vs-one situations than he; he’s averaging over five clearances per game.
Additionally, his oft-overlooked ability to pass through the lines ensures he can also get his side moving as an attacking force. Quite simply, he’s got the lot.