Full-back has been a position that has evolved across the Premier League era, with more emphasis than ever before placed on the contribution from defenders.
The position might have become more glamorous than it once was, but full-back has always been an under-appreciated and vital cog in the working mechanics of a successful side. Often dual-tasked with frustrating the opposition’s most talented names and providing contributions further forward, it can be a tough position to master.
However, this lot did quite the job in perfecting the art of full-back play.
Here are our rankings of the eight best right-backs in Premier League history.
8. Pablo Zabaleta
Pablo Zabaleta could hardly have envisaged what was to come when signing for Manchester City. Just a day after putting pen to paper on a contract at the Etihad, City were bought by Sheikh Mansour and the rest is history.
Despite the influx of arrivals Zabaleta held down a prominent part in the club’s plans, where his full-blooded commitment and desire to win made him an idolised figure on the terraces. The combative Argentine won two league titles, two League Cups and the FA Cup, as the Citizens embarked on a new era of silverware success.
#OnThisDay back in 2008 we signed @pablo_zabaleta 💙
🔵 #mancity pic.twitter.com/EMwKuyiY5o
— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 31, 2019
Zabaleta made 333 appearances for the club before a short spell at West Ham before retirement. He never gave less than 100% in the club’s colours, the epitome of a fan favourite.
Lauren might not be the first name that springs to mind when recalling Arsenal’s Invincibles, but the Cameroon defender was an underrated component of the club’s iconic side.
Lauren won five trophies across seven seasons in north London, including that unbeaten 2003/04 title campaign in which he was named in the PFA Team of the Year. He initially arrived from Mallorca as a winger, but Arsene Wenger spotted something in the Cameroonian and brought the best from him in a defensive role.
He replaced the long-serving Lee Dixon at right-back and excelled, mixing the attacking instincts of his previous role with an appetite for defending. Lauren was often composure personified, with his cool best exhibited with a nerveless penalty as Arsenal won at Tottenham in the run-in to their 2001/02 title.
🗓 #OnThisDay in 2002…
Nerves of steel from Lauren sent us on the way to another @PremierLeague title 🏆
👌 @Lauren12Arsenal pic.twitter.com/i8B1aQPNdy
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) April 6, 2022
A two-time Africa Cup of Nations winner at international level, he made 242 appearances for Arsenal before departing to Portsmouth. Alongside ex-Arsenal stars Kanu and Sol Campbell, he helped Portsmouth to FA Cup success in 2008, his fourth winners’ medal in the competition.
6. Lee Dixon
From one title-winning Arsenal right-back to another.
The famous Arsenal back five is often held up as the benchmark for a resolute rearguard. Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn provided a formidable four ahead of the often impregnable David Seaman in goal, a quintet that provided the backbone for success and bridged the gap between old and new in north London.
Embed from Getty Images
Dixon won four league championship medals, including two domestic doubles under Arsene Wenger during the Premier League era and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup medal. Wenger forged the club’s long-standing back five with his influx of foreign talent, building a side who claimed double successes in 1998 and 2002.
Tenacious and hard-working, Dixon was a quintessential 90s right-back, one for who defending came first and foremost. In that era there were few wingers who relished coming up against the Arsenal star, whose understanding with his defensive teammates became the stuff of legend.
5. Cesar Azpilicueta
Dependable ‘Dave’ has been a brilliant servant to Chelsea, representing some of the club’s finest business of the Premier League era.
Signed for a modest fee of just £7m from Marseille in 2012, Azpilicueta has spent more than a decade frustrating wingers and embracing himself in all things Chels.
🔵 Cesar Azpilicueta’s trophy collection at Chelsea:
Champions League 🏆
Europa League 🏆🏆
Premier League 🏆🏆
English FA Cup🏆
English League Cup 🏆
UEFA Super Cup 🏆
Club World Cup 🏆@ChelseaFC | #UCL pic.twitter.com/BPSnUCqn5t
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 5, 2022
No non-English footballer has ever made more appearances for the west Londoners, with the Spaniard having racked up more than 500 games and eight major honours at Stamford Bridge. Two league titles and the Champions League rank among his collection, with Azpilicueta having captained the side to that latter success, the Europa League and Club World Cup since inheriting the armband.
A much-loved figure and model professional, he has been a favourite under a succession of managers despite the coaching carousel at Chelsea.
4. Trent Alexander-Arnold
Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the Premier League’s greatest paradox in recent seasons, a footballer whose strengths are sublime, but whose weaknesses are placed under the microscope by those on the opposite side of the fence.
Alexander-Arnold, in raw numbers, has been a phenomenon. At just 24 he has completed a full set of major honours with boyhood side Liverpool, lifting the Champions League and forming part of the team that ended the club’s 30-year wait for a top-flight league title in 2019/20.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has gold dust in his boots ✨@TrentAA | @LFC pic.twitter.com/yA13RcH0BN
— Premier League (@premierleague) October 7, 2022
Add in a PFA Young Player of the Year award and three PFA Team of the Year inclusions and it’s an extensive haul, one which has been achieved with record-breaking attacking numbers from right-back. Before Alexander-Arnold just two defenders – Andy Hinchcliffe and Leighton Baines – had ever reached 10+ assists in a Premier League season. Alexander-Arnold has now done so on three occasions, including a record 12 assists in 2019/20.
His passing range resembles an elite midfielder and his full-back partnership with Andy Robertson has been vital to the success of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Third already in the all-time assist chart for defenders, it is a record he looks set to claim and improve by some distance. The positives, more often that not, far outweigh his faults.
3. Branislav Ivanovic
Branislav Ivanovic became an icon at Chelsea, recovering from an auspicious start to become a cult figure.
Ivanovic failed to feature across his first six months in west London, but took his chance the following campaign to become a fixture in the side. The hulking frame of the Serbian was unusual for a right-back, but he used it to his advantage with bursts forward and an ability to outmuscle opposition wide men.
Branislav Ivanovic signed #OTD in 2008! 🔝#ChelseaTopTrades | @go_markets pic.twitter.com/wIWl4LaKwT
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) January 16, 2023
He won nine major trophies during his time in west London, including three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League. Ivanovic’s raw strength, endless energy and knack for scoring important goals made him a firm favourite at Stamford Bridge.
Only John Terry has ever scored more goals for Chelsea among defenders, with some of Ivanovic’s most memorable moments including a Champions League brace against Liverpool at Anfield and a stoppage-time winner against Benfica in the 2013 Europa League final.
Twice named in the PFA Team of the Year, he formed part of a powerful Chelsea team who often left teams daunted before leaving the tunnel.
2. Kyle Walker
Kyle Walker has built a case as one of the Premier League’s greatest right-backs in recent seasons, a crucial cog in Manchester City’s all-conquering side.
Walker’s game has evolved since signing for Tottenham as a teenager, when the right flank often represented a high-speed rail as the defender tore down the pitch at lightning pace. Loan spells at QPR and Aston Villa benefitted his game, before he was named as the PFA Young Player of the Year following a breakout season at Spurs in 2011/12.
Kyle Walker with a 🚀#GoalOfTheDay // @ManCity pic.twitter.com/8ArEacOx4B
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 1, 2021
Walker later formed part of a team that emerged as title challengers under Mauricio Pochettino, before departing for Manchester City in search of honours in 2017. Those honours have arrived in numbers, as the defender has claimed four league titles, four League Cups and an FA Cup in five seasons at the Etihad.
The 32-year-old has been transformed under Pep Guardiola, who has utilised his elite athleticism to restore balance to the City side. Tasked with preventing the counter-attack and creating overloads when stepping into midfield, Walker has shown there’s more to his game than breakneck speed.
1. Gary Neville
Jamie Carragher might famously have quipped that nobody wants to grow up to be a Gary Neville, but the former Manchester United right-back departed the game as one of English football’s most decorated players.
Neville emerged as one of the club’s fabled Class of ’92 collective, a backbone of homegrown heroes who formed the spine of Manchester United’s era-defining side. The Bury-born defender spent his entire career in the colours of his beloved Red Devils, with only four players having ever made more than his 602 appearances.
Embed from Getty Images
Neville was a stalwart during the most successful era in the club’s history, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side dominated the first two decades of the Premier League. He won eight league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, and two Champions Leagues among his honours.
Full of industry, drive and commitment, he formed a fine understanding with David Beckham down the right flank and later captained the side following Roy Keane’s departure. No right-back has ever been named in the PFA Team of the Year on more occasions than Neville (5), who represented England on 85 occasions during a career of longevity and success.
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