‘Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles’.
He’s got a point, that Sir Alex Ferguson. Sure, attacking and scoring beautiful goals is fun. But a last-ditch tackle, sliding along the pitch to scoop the ball away and maintain a lead at the death? Yeah, there’s few feelings better than that.
Football’s greatest teams have seen some frighteningly good – and in some cases just frightening – centre back partnerships blossom together. 90min has pulled together the top 30.
Not one that immediately springs to mind, but an important one in the modern history of Manchester City.
Vincent Kompany was an early marker for success at City, while Joleon Lescott was one of England’s brightest defenders at the time. The pair linked up strongly together and helped City over the line in picking up the 2010/11 FA Cup and their maiden Premier League a year later.
Was it pretty? No. But it was functional and Rafa Benitez made it work as he does.
With Jamie Carragher entering the closing stages of his career, the veteran formed a bond with Skrtel with Daniel Agger pushing as competition. It never brought home the Premier League, but they came mightily close and pushed Manchester United hard.
Controversial? Yes. A little premature? Perhaps.
But all you have to do to validate this claim is look at the sheer panic that surrounded Liverpool with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez out injured, and the scrap it took to salvage their 2020/21 season. The duo make Liverpool a European beast, it’s that simple.
Before controversially packing his bags and moving across London to Arsenal, William Gallas knocked up a fine partnership with John Terry.
The pair were electric from 2001 to 2006 and went 16 games without conceding a goal under Claudio Ranieri. Gallas was also impressively versatile and helped to accommodate other partnerships.
They never played together at club level, but the combination of Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore was the key to England’s 1966 World Cup triumph.
The duo formed an unbreakable partnership at the base of the national side and enjoyed great success together, which culminated with that historic victory.
Martin Keown and Tony Adams took no messing around and made Arsenal a force under Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal conceded just 17 goals in the 1998/99 season, with the duo combining composure and IQ with a brute toughness in their peaks.
Yes, Paris Saint-Germain dominated Ligue 1 for the best part of a decade. But they wouldn’t have managed it without such reliable defenders.
European success has been lost on them, but Thiago Silva and Marquinhos combined as master and apprentice to fire Les Parisiens to some serious domestic dominance, locking out the competition completely.
Having swept up silverware in Milan, Marcel Desailly headed to Chelsea in 1998 and formed a partnership with fellow Frenchman Frank Leboeuf that proved vital.
The pair were incredible together and helped Chelsea to the 1999/00 FA Cup, holding out for a clean sheet in the final against Aston Villa.
Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro knocked up a partnership that summarised the excellence of 90s Serie A when playing for Parma, and looked ace while doing so.
The pair eventually moved to Turin and joined Juventus, pulling off their now usually magnificent defensive exploits as a duo for the Old Lady. Thuram was the versatile and ever reliable option, while Cannavaro thrived in snuffing out danger despite lacking height.
It’s easy to forget that Mats Hummels was once deemed one of the best defenders around before his inevitable transfer to Bayern Munich. He earned that alongside Neven Subotic at Borussia Dortmund.
Hummels and Subotic were at the heart of the Dortmund defence that won back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12, while also snagging the DFB-Pokal in the latter season.
Together at Inter, Armando Picchi and Tarcisio Burgnich set a precedent for the art of Italian defending throughout the 1960s and 70s.
They won three league titles and two European Cups together as the Nerazzurri dominated the decade thanks to their leadership.
Both Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns were snapped up by Nottingham Forest under the guise of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.
In the process of assembling a historic side, Lloyd and Burns thrived aside one another and grew into the role as Forest won back-to-back European cups, before both leaving in 1981.
Truthfully, City’s entries are a little bit of a cheat to get Vincent Kompany in this list to some degree. City have been ace throughout the 2010s and have done so without ever actually establishing a regular defensive duo.
Kompany was always the ever present. In 2017/18, however, Nicolas Otamendi rose from the dead and gave Cityzens one last hurrah with an incredible season as they became centurions. An unprecedented achievement that the pair deserve credit for.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have been built on dogged, impassioned and resilient displays. In their early 2010s peak, nobody personified that more than Diego Godin and Miranda.
Godin and Miranda was the strongest duo in La Liga for a short while and their services were attractive to a number of top clubs throughout Europe. They thrived on Atleti’s old school style as the side won the 2013/14 La Liga and made the Champions League final that season.
An underrated duo, Jerome Boateng was Bayern Munich’s Mr. Reliable for an entire decade.
When paired with Dante following the Brazilian’s signing in 2012, the two formed a rather short but sweet duo and helped Bayern back to the top of Germany and Europe with their 2013 Champions League final win.
Amid a sea of young talent and all the free flow, counter attacking football you could stomach, Manchester United assembled an underrated defence that was key to their 90s dominance.
Sir Alex Ferguson found a key to success in Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. It wasn’t elegant, nor are they often really talked about in United’s success stories, but they were always there, prepared to play and put their body on the line to see the club succeed. It worked, just about.
Sami Hyypia had already become a hit following his bargain status around Anfield, but his stock boosted further in the mid-2000s when Rafa Benitez went full Rafa.
The manager crafted a partnership between himself and Jamie Carragher by moving the Englishman into a central role. The switch was key in getting the best out of both of them and powered Liverpool to their 2005 Champions League win.
In a team blessed with flamboyancy and carried by duos that would make WWE’s tag team division look even more amateur than it already does, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure’s partnership was yet another example.
Campbell was tall, physical and a menace in the air. Toure swept up what Campbell couldn’t, marshalling the floor. Where one left a gap, the other would effortlessly fill it. Invincible; fitting for Arsenal’s 2003/04 season.
A duo of prime Sergio Ramos and Pepe has everything you’d want from a defence. Perhaps even too much at times.
Insanely talented, physically unrivalled and endlessly aggressive and fearless with their play. The pair were mentality monsters and inspired that through a winning Madrid side. Perhaps a little too aggressive at times, but it’s all part of the fun. Trophies for days.
adidas trainers, shell suits and swooping fringes. You could have all three of those things in 1980s Liverpool and still not be the coolest in the city with Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson doing the business on a weekend.
Six and a half seasons of style, intelligence and command as the Reds dominated the 80s in England and further afield. Boss.
The two men at the heart of Jose Mourinho’s plan to ruin football forever upon his arrival to Chelsea were John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho.
If ‘ruining football forever’ constitutes perfectly exemplifying the art of defending, frustrating sides to no end and winning trophies while doing so, then lock them up and throw away the key. 15 goals conceded in one season, back-to-back Premier League titles. Football heritage.
Two names that perhaps get lost in the shuffle these days, which is seriously harsh.
Walter Samuel had already built a reputation as one of Serie A’s hardest defenders. So when Inter appointed Mourinho in 2008 and signed Lucio in 2009, the recipe for defensive excellence was complete. The pair were relentless and key to Inter’s domestic and European success.
Holding it down for a decade in Serie A, Chiellini and Bonucci probably know each other better than they do their own families at this point.
Juventus have been blessed to witness the pair put on defensive schoolings for the Old Lady throughout the 2010s. And while it never resulted in that illusive Champions League, it did bring a decade of complete domestic dominance.
Before Chiellini and Bonucci, Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile were the blueprint at Juventus throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Gentile was – ironically – the unforgiving hard hitter out of the pair while Scirea balanced things out with elegance and composure. The duo were immense and helped Juve to a handful of scudetti and Coppa Italia.
One Serbian who – as fans claim – will ‘f*cking murder ya’ and one of England’s most complete defenders of all time made for a perfectly balanced base in star-studded Manchester United side.
Rio Ferdinand was shining for United in the 2000s, but the 2006 signing of Nemanja Vidic was the final piece of the puzzle. Aggression, passion and elite ability. Those two were integral to United’s late 2000s dominance.
It’s getting rather Italian at the business end of things, but what else did you expect?
Flanked by Mauro Tassoti and Paolo Maldini, Baresi and Costacurta completed an unfathomably talented back four at AC Milan. The pair played for the club for over 20 years and swept up trophies in Europe, Italy and on the national stage. You simply don’t see defences built like this anymore.
It’s difficult to appreciate work from before your time, but these two were the pinnacle of German defending.
Taking ankles, blocking shots and leading the charge for Bayern Munich and Germany, Beckenbauer and Schwarzenbeck were a force and went together like bread and butter.
With Pepe out of the picture, Ramos took on the role of master and blooded in a new apprentice in Raphael Varane throughout the 2010s.
Real Madrid‘s transition was seamless and isn’t discussed enough. Ramos and Varane compliment each other perfectly and have helped improve one another while ensuring Los Blancos remain undisputed European champions, as they swept up four Champions Leagues in five seasons.
25 seasons with Milan and 25 trophies, Paolo Maldini’s transition from full back to centre back and subsequent success in the role was testament to his excellence.
Pairing up with Alessandro Nesta throughout the 2000s, the duo were electric and a constant throwback to proper Italian defending, while still staying ahead of the curve and ageless.
Passion, elegance, aggression, emotion. What didn’t this duo have under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona? Nothing is ever perfect, but a Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol backline in their prime comes pretty close.
Won the lot with club and country, and made United look amateur in two Champions League finals. Pique and Puyol are simply different gravy.