Football is well versed in debates over the best attacking trios, yet we all seem to be forgetting arguably the most important partnership on the pitch – the centre-backs.
If you think of a team as like the human body then the attackers are its muscle with midfield creators supplying the blood allowing them to flex.
But before any of that can happen, a team needs structure and the centre-backs are the bones of every side.
It’s a multi-layered relationship which goes beyond skillsets and moves into character traits, too.
A telepathic understanding is required to ensure supreme organisation of space and personnel, and next season could see some of the strongest centre-back partnerships.
We’ve taken a look at five of the best pairings from Europe. Bare in mind Inter and Leipzig aren’t highlighted as both Antonio Conte and Julian Nagelsmann will likely implement a three-man defence, despite the obvious individual qualities of Diego Godin, Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij for Conte, and for Nagelsmann through Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate and Willi Orban.
NAPOLI – Kalidou Koulibaly & Kostas Manolas
Napoli not only managed to retain one of Europe’s most in-demand centre-backs this summer, but they also paired him with another.
By fusing thunder and lightning, Carlo Ancelotti has two elements to spark a legitimate challenge.
In Manolas, Napoli have acquired a player who is absolutely electric and can genuinely claim to be one of the fastest defenders in Europe.
There’s a reason he’s called ‘Greece Lightning’. Indeed, the 28-year-old’s ability to cover vacated space in the channels is as if a bolt has struck the pitch, he just zips into position before zapping the ball away.
But those scenarios are when others are caught out of position, rather than himself, because Manolas is a classically-trained tight and attentive marker. He’s strong, too, not in a bulldozing manner but rather through stiffness. He’s both immovable and incredibly mobile, but what his profile allows is for the shackles to be released from Koulibaly.
With a dependable watchman behind him, the Senegalese is free to pick locks instead of standing guard. Aside from his obvious physical gifts, Koulibaly is outstanding on the ball and his progressive traits have largely been wrapped up.
The defence has hinged on him putting out fires with a 33-year-old Raul Albiol and an erratic Mario Rui to his left.
With superior quality next to him, Koulibaly won’t be required to physically push team-mates into position as he laughably did to Rui last season.
JUVENTUS – Matthijs de Ligt & Giorgio Chiellini
Napoli have chosen to combine two different but complimenting personalities, but Juve’s defensive wall is clad with the rocky experience of Giorgio Chiellini and decorated by the luminous brilliance of Matthijs de Ligt.
The Dutchman is a generational talent and the Bianconeri effectively emerged from a European royal rumble which included PSG, Barcelona and Manchester United among others, to capture this centre-back jewel.
Indeed, Juve have a strong lineage when it comes to iconic defenders and De Ligt has the potential to carry on that tradition.
The 19-year-old walks into this team immediately, his financial package rumoured to be €15 million per year in wages and €75m in transfer fees dictate that, but so too does his skillset.
Leonardo Bonucci is 32 and there have been obvious signs of decline over the last two seasons. Chiellini may be two years older and will be 35 before the season begins, yet he showed in 2018/19 his quality remains undiminished, even if his body is beginning to break down.
What Bonucci does bring to the side, though, is high-quality passes with a lot of variation from the back.
De Ligt has shown at Ajax he can serve that requirement with his confident and serene ability on the ball, while also providing a significant goal threat.
There’s also, and naturally so given his age, been times when he’s needed his hand held for both club (second-half against Tottenham) and country (in the defeat of England in the Nations League).
At Ajax, Daley Blind has taken on that role, for the Netherlands it’s been Virgil van Dijk, and by shrewdly pairing him with Chiellini, De Ligt has another experienced commander to learn from before he becomes the undisputed leader.
Good luck to attackers in Italy and Europe next season because it’s difficult to find a weak spot here.
REAL MADRID – Raphael Varane & Sergio Ramos
Reputation rather than recent form sees Varane and Ramos included.
Last season teetered toward embarrassment for Real Madrid with their unbalanced side leaking goals at one end and failing to score at the other.
Varane and Ramos are apportioned blame, but not totally because there was plenty of dysfunction around them to provide a mitigating factor.
Zinedine Zidane has addressed some of the team’s biggest issues with the energy of left-back Ferland Mendy in both directions solving the gaping hole vacated by a negligent Marcelo.
There’s genuine competition for Varane in Eder Militao and that should bring the best out of a player who has long been considered a future Los Blancos captain.
And his best is among the very best in the world. Indeed, the natural selection process would find its completion with Varane because he’s an athletic freak, blessed with pace, strength and height.
Positionally, he can be lax at times but that’s why captain Ramos is so crucial beside him.
Every defensive partnership carries with it authoritative roles of a number one and two, and there are few better leaders in world football than Ramos.
The evidence of his influence was no more clear than in Real’s second-leg collapse against Ajax in the Champions League when, without their suspended skipper, the sense of timing to know when to calm things down and when to fire the side up was lost.
Last season can be considered a rare blip for this colossal defensive pairing and a reasonable expectation is that in 2019/20, they will once again emerge as one of the outstanding partnerships in Europe.
LIVERPOOL – Virgil van Dijk & Joe Gomez
To the outside world a perplexed reaction might greet the name of Joe Gomez inhabiting the sidekick role next to Liverpool’s own Superman, Virgil van Dijk.
From December onward, Joel Matip was outstanding alongside the Dutchman after Gomez’s equally brilliant season was punctured by a broken leg.
The Cameroonian developed into a key offensive weapon for Jurgen Klopp with his slaloms into midfield dragging players out of position while his precise passing and tackling became a massive feature.
But make no mistake, Gomez is in the same category as De Ligt in terms of being the best young defender in Europe.
The 22-year-old’s progress has been blunted by a series of unfortunate injuries, issues which don’t point to an injury-prone player breaking down due to sapping demands, but rather unlucky impact scenarios.
Before his leg fracture against Burnley, Gomez at times looked like the world’s most expensive defender as opposed to Van Dijk.
That’s praise with plenty of weight but it was justified because Gomez is the most physically gifted English centre-back since Rio Ferdinand. He’s faster than most strikers, stronger, too while being dominant in the air and a deceptively good passer.
Granted, his recent trajectory has certainly been helped by playing alongside Van Dijk, the two certainly compliment each other well, aided by their friendship off the pitch.
But there’s no denying his talent and Liverpool are looking at a centre-back partnership which will blossom over the next few years.
This is without barely mentioning Van Dijk incidentally, although enough has been written about his monstrous ability and his claim to being the world’s best centre-back.
BARCELONA – Gerard Pique & Clement Lenglet
Barcelona are another outfit containing three world class centre-backs in their squad and because of the issues surrounding a problematic knee, Samuel Umtiti, as happened last season, drops out for his French compatriot and fellow left-footer Clement Lenglet.
The 24-year-old made Barca supporters forget about Umtiti, and that is no mean feat given the season prior he was undoubtedly one of the world’s premier defenders.
But Lenglet was quietly superb, amassing a reputation as one of the most underrated centre-backs in Europe with performances hallmarked by a cool mentality and a cold ability to freeze out attackers.
His response to danger was super quick, even the emergency services would have been impressed, and when the sirens rang with Umtiti injured, Lenglet answered the call, blanketing doubts over whether he could replicate his excellent form for Sevilla at the Camp Nou.
Crucially, an understanding with Barca’s backline captain was struck both in La Liga and in the Champions League with Pique returning to his best form following an erratic start to the season, alongside Lenglet.
The requirements for Barcelona centre-backs are much different to the combinations examined here because their high line often means they spend a lot of time in the opposition half.
Being brave under pressure is vital and that’s what Pique and Lenglet bring.
Given what Barca dictate from their defenders, these two really do have the complete package when it comes to intelligent positioning, quality on the ball and a fearless disposition.
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