FC 100 best men's soccer centre-backs, 2022-23

Illustration by MASA

If you're going to have a great team, you need a great centre-back (two, if you're really lucky). The best in the game are formidable in both size and strength but also blessed with the grace to time tackles and anticipate a striker's movements in order to win back possession.

Elegance on the ball and off it is essential, whether playing a weighted pass up-field or feinting their way past opponents to ease the pressure.

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This year's ballot had 50 entries from all over the globe and from all areas of ESPN FC, from writers to reporters, from editors to producers, from behind-the-scenes staff to on-air talent. Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden and Luis Miguel Echegaray were just some of the key voters, along with their FC TV counterparts Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop.

Voters were encouraged to take the following things into consideration when casting their votes: who are the best men's players right now, weighted toward their 2022-23 seasons. Voters were given discretion as to how much injuries played in votes; several players made the cut despite missing chunks of the season given the scale of their contributions and performances when healthy.

Equally, performances in individual competitions (aka Champions League, World Cup) were considered, but were not the overarching factor, in casting a vote. Players whose efforts spanned the largest sample of games should naturally rank higher than those who excelled in short tournament formats.

How Virgil van Dijk fell out of the world's top 5 center-backs

Gab & Juls assess Virgil van Dijk's fall from grace, as the Liverpool defender fails to make the top 5 center-backs in the ESPN FC 100.

All player copy written by Bill Connelly, Constantin Eckner, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler.

10. KIM Min-Jae, Napoli/South Korea

Why he's on the list:

Here's a complete list of defenders in Europe's Big Five leagues who A) recorded at least 210 ball recoveries, B) won at least 60% of their duels and C) contributed at least four combined league goals and assists: Newcastle's Fabian Schar and Kim Min-Jae. Kim was playing in his first season at this level and not only fit in immediately, but starred, playing a sure and steady role in Napoli's first Serie A title in 33 years.

Every star is discovered at a different point in his life. Kim was starring for China's Beijing Guoan just two years ago, at age 24, before moving to Fenerbahce and immediately becoming one of their best players. He moved to Napoli for €18 million, and a year later, he's on the precipice of a €60 million or €70 million move to Bayern or another megaclub.

Expectations for 2023-24:

The expectations game applies even to late bloomers. After such a dynamic major club debut, Kim will likely make a move and face more pressure than ever before this coming season. Luckily, his steadiness will probably translate. His passing abilities (91% pass completion rate, 88% in the attacking third), aerial capabilities and general disaster avoidance would prove valuable at any club looking to dominate the ball and snuff out counter-attacks. -- Connelly

9. Alessandro BASTONI, Inter Milan/Italy

Why he's on the list:

Italy has long been considered the birthplace of elegant defensive football, though it would be reductive to Bastoni's development to see him as just a defender. He's dynamic, forward-thinking and assertive as a member of Inter's attack, racking up rare numbers of assists, shot-creating actions, progressive passes and progressive carries despite often being the man tidying up any mess at the defensive end.

He times tackles well, he anticipates danger and he rarely rests in possession, forever looking to counterpunch with a pass or a mazy run. Defenders of his confidence and poise are hard to find and, at 24, it's clear his best years are ahead of him.

Expectations for 2023-24:

With reports in Italy suggesting he's close to inking a new long-term deal at Inter, Bastoni should again be integral to the Nerazzurri and their push for titles next season. However, clubs will still poke and prod to see if they can pry him loose, with clubs such as Tottenham, Man United and Barcelona all reportedly interested in the left-sided central defender. -- Tyler

8. Lisandro MARTINEZ, Man United/Argentina

Why he's on the list:

Lisandro Martinez went from questionable summer signing to one of United's most important players in the space of a couple of months last season. You only had to look at how their campaign tailed off after he suffered a foot injury in April -- a setback that saw United's faint title charge end -- to see how vital he was to Erik ten Hag.

Martinez also answered the debate about whether he is too small to play at centre-back in the Premier League, helping goalkeeper David De Gea win the Golden Glove for most clean sheets. His ability on the ball helped change the way United played under Ten Hag last season, while his character and aggression helped to change the tone and tenor of the dressing room.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Martinez, 25, was part of Argentina's successful World Cup campaign, but he only had a bit-part role in Qatar and from here, he will be looking to establish himself as a first-choice defender with his national team. He's already a firm favourite under Ten Hag at United, and even though a number of other centre-backs have been linked with moves to Old Trafford this summer, you would expect Martinez to be in the team on the opening day of the new season.

As a player, Martinez will be hoping for a few signings in other areas of the squad to help United make a run in the Champions League and, possibly, challenge for the Premier League title. -- Dawson

7. Virgil VAN DIJK, Liverpool/Netherlands

Why he's on the list:

Like Liverpool as a team, Van Dijk seemed to have lost a step or two during the 2022-23 campaign. He was often exposed at the back due to a lack of support and Liverpool's tactical deficiencies, though he also looked vulnerable in one-on-ones on the ground. Regardless, he can still be a force in the air and lead the defence by presence if his tactical environment allows him to. During his brief injury spell in January, Liverpool dropped 11 points in four games, underlining how important Van Dijk remains for the Reds.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Van Dijk's individual performance depends heavily on how Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool's higher-ups manage to rebuild the team. If the back line receives more protection from the central midfield and the team turns the ball over less, Van Dijk will very likely shine again. He is not at a point in his career where he can simply defend more than his position and clean up threats on his own. He will probably play alongside Nathan Ake and Matthijs de Ligt at the Dutch national team and may look more comfortable there than he has than in a Liverpool jersey recently. -- Eckner

6. Ronald ARAUJO, Barcelona/Uruguay

Why he's on the list:

Araujo might be the best example of why defensive stats can be somewhat useless when it comes to assessing the quality of a centre-back. Araujo attempts a tackle roughly every two games and yet, he is arguably one of the best defenders players in LaLiga. Xavi was so confident in him that he simply put Araujo against Vinicius Jr. in the Clasico in March. While Araujo scored an own goal that involved Vinicius, he looked comfortable defending Madrid's generational winger talent.

On a good day, Araujo does not need to tackle opponents, as he is great at blocking spaces and shutting down running/passing lanes. He drives forwards away from the goal by almost creating an optical illusion that there is no direct path toward it.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Araujo was a big part of Barcelona's stable defence during their LaLiga campaign, but injuries prevented him from making more than 22 league appearances. If he stays fit during the next season, he will make another leap forward and become even more of a defensive force, be it as a centre- or right-back.

While he does not have the verbal presence or authority to govern the back line entirely on his own, he slowly but surely could move into a leadership role behind Pedri and the rest of the creative minds at Camp Nou. -- Eckner

5. Eder MILITAO, Real Madrid/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

Militao thinks he should be. "I'm on the way," he said on April 17, when asked if he was the best centre-back in the world. Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti agrees. "He has everything," he said in March. "He's very quick, good in one-on-ones, good with the ball, a great header. He lacks nothing. He isn't always 100% focused, so he isn't perfect ... and he isn't that handsome either!"

Looks aside, Militao's problem is concentration and focus. When his head isn't right, he can go from the world's best to being a complete liability. A nightmare week at the end of April saw Militao's defensive errors be directly responsible for two Madrid losses, against Girona and Real Sociedad, causing Ancelotti to call for him to "wake up, fast."

Expectations for 2023-24:

Militao is aiming to become an undisputed starter at centre-back for Brazil -- alongside Marquinhos -- ahead of the 2024 Copa America. The talk that club coach Ancelotti could become his national team coach next year, with the CBF willing to wait 12 months to get their man, will only help his case.

At Madrid, Militao will want to keep his place alongside -- or ahead -- of David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger, and continue the trajectory which has seen him become one of LaLiga's most dominant centre-backs. He'll also need to iron out those occasional lapses of judgement that are holding him back from being truly great. -- Kirkland

4. William SALIBA, Arsenal/France

Why he's on the list:

Simply put, he was one of the revelations of the Premier League season. Until his injury against Sporting in the Europa League, he was the best centre-back in England despite being only 22 and having no knowledge of English football or the league prior to this year. He just fitted in so well, integrating and learning fast what Mikel Arteta wanted from him, showcasing his defensive abilities and quality on the ball.

There were mistakes, of course, as he's still learning, but he has already reached a great level with Arsenal and made his international debut with France too, including taking part in the World Cup.

Expectations for 2023-24?

The Paris born-and-bred defender is working to get fit after the back injury that kept him out for the critical final weeks of last season, which is great news as Arsenal missed him terribly. They will need him at his best next season in order to compete again with Manchester City. (The Gunners aren't wasting their time in the transfer window, either, scooping up Kai Havertz from Chelsea and Declan Rice from West Ham to further boost their depth in midfield.)

Saliba will also be looking forward to the Champions League as well, and will be expected to continue his impressive progression. He's set to sign his new deal at the club soon, too, which should be another boost of confidence and sign of his faith in what Arsenal are building. -- Laurens

3. David ALABA, Real Madrid/Austria

Why he's on the list:

He won two Champions Leagues with Bayern Munich, moved to Real Madrid and immediately won another one. He has been one of the steadiest buildup masters in the game for more than a decade, and he is by all accounts the ultimate "chemistry guy" in the squad: he's there to make everyone work together, not fight for the spotlight.

Alaba isn't the greatest interventionist in the world, and the 5-foot-11 star doesn't command a huge aerial presence, but he was still second on his team in shots blocked and third in clearances, and he rarely loses take-ons.

Despite suffering injury issues over the second half of the season, Alaba's three assists were second-most of any LaLiga central defender, while both his 3.0 progressive passes received and 1.4 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes reflect his vital buildup role.

Expectations for 2023-24?

It took a big contract offer to pull Alaba from Bayern to Madrid, and that contract runs for another three years. With both Eder Militao and Antonio Rudiger playing major roles for the Blancos, Alaba won't have to carry a massive load. Considering his recent injury history, that's likely a good thing, but he will remain a vital cog of the Real Madrid machine when healthy. -- Connelly

2. Josko GVARDIOL, RB Leipzig/Croatia

Why he's on the list:

It's like the 6-foot-1 Gvardiol was created in a lab from the "world-class left-sided centre-back" template. He is among the best-passing defenders in the world, and his ability to advance the ball via either progressive carry (71.8 per 90 minutes, tops among Bundesliga defenders) or progressive pass (9.8 per 90, third) make him perfect for just about any possession-friendly side in the world. He has already played in over 30 matches in UEFA competitions and carved out more than 20 caps for a veteran-laden Croatia team, and he won't turn 22 until next January.

The Dinamo Zagreb product's star rose considerably with his brilliant play for third-place Croatia in the winter's World Cup, and he sandwiched that performance with season-long excellence in Leipzig. He even scored a trio of goals from corners, including one against Manchester City in the Champions League knockout rounds.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Among Gvardiol's top comps at FBref.com is Manchester City's Ruben Dias. It's perhaps no surprise, then, to learn that he has allegedly been of interest to City for quite some time. It seems likely that he will be on the move soon, and bigger clubs mean heavier pressure. That said, he's quickly zipped from "up-and-comer" to "proven star." He'll likely handle any move just fine. -- Connelly

1. Ruben DIAS, Manchester City/Portugal

Why he's on the list:

The sheer number of Erling Haaland goals was one of the stories of Manchester City's season, but really, their success was built from the back. Ruben Dias helped Pep Guardiola's team to the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League but it was in the Champions League that the Portugal centre-back was at his best. City kept clean sheets against RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the knock-out round before shutting out Inter in the final.

City have always scored goals in the Champions League, even without Haaland, and it was the way they defended that proved to be the difference as they finally got over the line. With Arsenal commanding top spot in the Premier League for much of the season, City's winning run over the second half of the season coincided with Dias' return from injury in February.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Dias has won everything in his three years at the Etihad Stadium, but he is the type of character who will want to do it all over again. With Ilkay Gundogan heading to Barcelona, the 26-year-old will be in line to take over the captaincy after emerging as a dressing room leader since his arrival from Benfica in 2020.

There could be changes to City's defence over the summer, with doubts about whether Aymeric Laporte and Kyle Walker will be at the club by the time the new season starts, but the one defender Guardiola cannot do without is Dias. -- Dawson