Earlier this week, I kicked off my UEFA Euro 2020 coverage with a look at the Top 10 Goalkeepers set to feature at this summer’s tournament. Today, the focus shifts to the defense, which has evolved over time to include players who now excel at both ends of the pitch from that position.
While a lot of top players will be missing out for various reasons, such as Virgil van Djik, Sergio Ramos, and Dayot Upamecano to name a few, there will still be an amazing amount of talent on display in a couple of weeks.
This list features the 10 best defenders Europe has to offer this summer, a mixture of center-backs and outside-backs tasked with shutting down the best playmakers in the world while simultaneously providing an extra dimension in their own side’s attack.
Let’s get into it:
- Updated after Trent Alexander-Arnold was ruled out for Euro 2020 due to a thigh injury
Presnel Kimpembe, France (PSG)
A product of France’s endless supply of youth internationals, Kimpembe debuted for PSG at the age of 18 and has never looked back. The French center-back is a bulky guy for someone who’s only six feet tall, but he’s also very skilled as a passer. He was second among all players in Europe’s Big 5 leagues with a 96 percent pass completion rate and had the ninth best percentage on passes longer than 30 yards. On the defensive side, Kimpembe is a strong tackler, only allowing eight players this season to dribble past him. At age 25, Kimpembe is in the prime of his career and has a lot of experience playing in big matches at the club level. This will be his first experience representing France at the Euros and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to show why he belongs.
Harry Maguire, England (Manchester United)
The man they call “Slab-Head” comes in at number nine after a season in which his services were in even more demand. While usually a consistent source for a good meme, Maguire is actually United’s only reliable center-back, which make his accomplishments even more impressive. In 34 league starts, Maguire was able to cut the number of times opposing players dribbled past him nearly in half, in addition to being over 50 percent successful in his tackling. He’s an absolute beast in the air, winning 77.5 percent of his aerial duels, which was ninth in all of Europe’s Big 5 leagues. Playing alongside stronger talent in the English national team should only help accentuate the positive aspects of Maguire’s game going forward.
David Alaba, Austria (Bayern Munich)
Set to join Real Madrid this summer as a free agent, Alaba’s new club will have plenty to be excited about after he had another excellent season at Bayern. Alaba’s best attribute is his versatility, as he is capable of playing center-back, outside-back, or in the midfield. While not the strongest tackler, the Austrian is able to use his speed to close down on shooters as well as chase down opposing players. He’s also a very capable offensive player, contributing two goals and four assists as primarily a center-back this season. If Austria end up making it out of the group stage at the Euros, he’ll be a big reason why.
Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands (Inter Milan)
A member of the Inter Milan squad that just won the Serie A title this season, de Vrij is the one poised to fill the void left by the injured van Dijk this summer for the Netherlands. The Dutch center-back isn’t a flashy player, but he gets the job done, as he didn’t commit a single error that led to a shot by the opposing team and was only beaten seven times by opposing dribblers this season. He’s also strong in the air, winning nearly 70 percent of his aerial duals. While he probably won’t contribute much on the offensive end, the Netherlands will have plenty of guys who can as they look to make a big splash in their return to the Euros this summer.
Milan Škriniar, Slovakia (Inter Milan)
Just ahead of his center-back partner at Inter Milan, Škriniar is in the prime of his career at 26 and is the much more aggressive tackler. He also had more blocked shots and a better successful pressure percentage, while also finding the time to chip in three goals. As dependable as they come, Škriniar has made at least 30 league starts the past four seasons for Inter Milan, with the club never finishing below fourth during that time. He’s not big, but he is crafty, and that is what Slovakia will need if they want to advance out of the group stage.
João Cancelo, Portugal (Manchester City)
Somehow not even the best Portuguese defender on the Manchester City roster, Cancelo makes up for it by being versatile and contributing on both ends. After a rocky first season in Manchester, Cancelo became vital to Pep Guardiola’s side, making numerous starts at both right and left-back. He’s great going forward, contributing two goals and three assists this season, as well as completing the second most passes into the opponent’s 18-yard box for an EPL defender only behind Alexander-Arnold. On defense, Cancelo wasn’t as successful in his tackling, but his instincts led to 52 interceptions. Having just turned 27, Cancelo’s skills going forward and his solid defense will be a big help for the reigning Euro champions this summer.
Andrew Robertson, Scotland (Liverpool)
Much like Alexander-Arnold, Robertson had the almost impossible task of following up the best year of his career and yet still managed to put together quite the season. In the argument for best left-back in the world, Robertson finished with seven assists and actually had more Goal-Creating Actions than TAA did. His best skill going forward is also his service into the box, which was basically as good as it was last season. On the defensive end, Robertson again improved on the success rate of his tackling while also recording the most shots blocked of his EPL career with 10. At age 27, Robertson still has the pace to stick with most of the best attacking players in Europe and of course has the fortune of playing in plenty of high stakes matches with Liverpool. This is the first major tournament Scotland have featured at in quite some time, and if they want to avoid a quick exit, Robertson will have to be at his usual best.
Matthijs de Ligt, Netherlands (Juventus)
The meteoric rise of de Ligt mirrors what Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland have been doing on the offensive end. Only 21 years of age, the Dutch center-back has already been given the keys to the Ferrari known as the Juventus defense. A threat on set pieces on the offensive end, de Ligt’s lanky figure makes him brutal to deal with on the defensive end. He was successful in tackling 65% of the dribblers trying to pass him, which only happened seven times. His shot blocking was slightly down, but that can be attributed to seeing less attempts. Having maybe lost a little of the sizzle he had when he first joined Juventus from Ajax, Euro 2020 is the perfect stage to remind the world he’s the best young center-back on the planet.
Ruben Dias, Portugal (Manchester City)
When Dias was brought in at the end of the summer transfer window from Benfica, nobody could’ve predicted how much of an impact he would have on City. The newly crowned Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association, Dias was revolutionary in revamping City’s defense and leading them to the EPL title and to the UEFA Champions League final. He puts a ton of pressure on his opponents when they’re on the ball and was very successful in blocking shots should his opponents be lucky enough to get to that point. Another one of his elite skills is his passing ability, which includes a near 94 percent pass completion rate. Portugal’s other options at center-back are both in their upper 30’s, so they will need the 24-year-old’s youthfulness and technical ability in order to advance out of the tough group they’re in at the Euros.
Raphaël Varane, France (Real Madrid)
With no Virgil Van Djik around to take this spot, the honor falls to Varane, who was able to survive an extremely tough set of circumstances to still put together a solid season. The French center-back missed a few matches for Real Madrid this season due to COVID-19 but was otherwise available throughout the season while the rest of the regulars were either injured or in bad form. At 6’4½”, the best part of Varane’s game is his physicality. Not many opposing players, or shots for that matter, were able to get past him this season and he was successful in 75 percent of his aerial duels. While mostly relied upon for his defensive prowess, Varane is a solid passer and is of course a threat in the box on set pieces. Varane will now trade in the chaos of Madrid for the stability that is the French national team. The center-back will be at the forefront of the group that is looking to avenge their loss in 2016 and cement their status as the best team in Europe.
While I had to make a lot of tough cuts for this list, I feel like I can defend it as well as these guys defend their goal. Who’s on your list of top defenders? Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the matter. For more of my soccer coverage, check out “Atletico TV” on Facebook and the “Gateway to Soccer Show” on YouTube.