2024 FC 100: Van Dijk among best defenders in men's soccer

From left: Achraf Hakimi, William Saliba, Kyle Walker, Antonio Rudiger, Virgil van Dijk Photo-illustration by MASA

In our first bold break from previous ranks, we're grouping all those in the defensive third under a single banner, though don't think that this list is limited to center-backs. All three main positions from right-back to left are covered in the rundown, and rightly so.

Right-back was never the most glamorous position, but the game's many evolutions have seen it become a thrilling and unpredictable spot on the pitch. The best in the game will marry a strong positional awareness with blinding speed, as well as the daring to surge forward and support their teams in attack.

If you're going to have a great team, you need a great center-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 upfield or feinting their way past opponents to ease the pressure.

Just like their counterparts on the opposite flank, the best left-backs combine pace and intelligence to be a threat in attack or in defense. Comfort and precision crossing with the left foot are a rare commodity, too, but the top players will be at their best when on the overlap before curling in the perfect ball.

All stats provided by ESPN Stats & Information

Does Rudiger deserve to be above Saliba & Van Dijk on the FC 100?

Gab & Juls discuss Antonio Rudiger's spot as the top defender on the ESPN FC 100.

30. Micky VAN DE VEN, Tottenham/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: Lightning-quick center-back who is strong in the tackle

Stat to know: Had three game-winning goals in the Premier League this season, the most by any defender and tied for the second most by any defender over the past two seasons despite playing 30+ fewer games in that span.

Why he's on the list: Van de Ven's immediate impact following his £43m arrival from Wolfsburg last summer was a key reason behind Ange Postecoglou's ability to change Tottenham's style so quickly. Spurs won eight of their opening 10 league games with Van de Ven's speed, which enabled Postecoglou to play with his desired high line while allowing his full-backs to attack in an effort to outnumber and overwhelm opponents in possession.

There were other factors, but it was no surprise that his midseason absence (hamstring injury) coincided with Tottenham's slump in form. Spurs have struggled for years to find a commanding center-back but, together with Cristian Romero, Van de Ven appears to have helped finally solve that problem.

Projection for next season: Postecoglou's admission that this season's progress is built on "fairly fragile" foundations suggests significant changes ahead as he tries to turn Tottenham into winners. Whatever happens, Van de Ven will be a central figure in his ongoing revolution. "I have loved seeing the growth of Micky and Romero and others, who you would never see unless you went through tough times, and I think that's important," Postecoglou said last month. -- James Olley

29. Goncalo INACIO, Sporting/Portugal

Key attributes/style of play: Shades of old-time playmaking central defenders with vision, ball progression and passing ability

Stat to know: Led Primeira Liga this season in passes completed (2154), passes into final third (357) and progressive passes (359).

Why he's on the list: At first glance, he's an undersized, 6-foot-1 central defender in the modern game, and while he's more about agility and reading the game than he is about strength in one-on-one battles, Inacio has been a huge part of Sporting's successful season for what he brings in possession. His vision and ability to step up and become an extra midfielder have served Sporting well, and it's something we don't often see from central defenders these days.

Projection for next season: Sporting signed him to a contract through 2027 last summer because they know they have a gem on their hands. His calm, intelligence and quality on the ball make him a standout. At 22, he could command the biggest transfer fee of any central defender to come out of Portugal since Rúben Dias. -- Gab Marcotti

28. Jules KOUNDE, Barcelona/France

Key attributes/style of play: Strong and perceptive center-back despite spending the majority of his Barça career at right-back

Stat to know: Has won the fourth-highest percentage of his duels in LaLiga (59.4%) since 2020-21.

Why he's on the list: Koundé has previously made it clear he prefers to play centrally, but he has proven such a valuable asset to Barça on the right of the back four. The France defender is adept at dropping in to create a back three, which allows the left-back a more attacking role, but he equally looks like a natural at right-back. He is able to link well with the right winger and create danger in the final third and overall, amid the club's ongoing turmoil, Koundé is one of the Catalan side's most reliable footballers.

Projection for next season: If he is happy to continue at right-back, Koundé should be an important player for Barça next season -- although the club's financial situation means they will entertain transfer offers for most of their squad. If, as he enters the peak years of his career, he wants to play centrally, his place in the team is far from guaranteed, with competition from Araújo, Pau Cubarsí and Andreas Christensen, among others. -- Sam Marsden

27. Ben WHITE, Arsenal/England

Key attributes/style of play: Versatile and intelligent defender who has added new elements to his game

Stat to know: Ben White had 18 possessions won in the attacking third in the Premier League, the most by any right-back.

Why he's on the list: White has quietly transformed himself into one of the most effective right-backs around after previously making his name at center-back. Injuries during the season have seen White step into midfield and play the "inverted full-back role" that is key to the way Mikel Arteta likes Arsenal to play, but he is equally effective as a more orthodox right-sided player who can defend aggressively and move the ball forward as needed.

The 26-year-old keeps a low profile, but a couple of moments have made him a cult hero: the last-minute nutmeg on Jeremy Doku when the Gunners beat Manchester City 1-0 in October and the way he unsettled goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario by pulling on his glove strap at a corner during Arsenal's win at Tottenham in April. Consistent, a threat going forward and solid defensively, White has become an excellent all-round package.

Projection for next season: White signed a new four-year contract in March, which means his future is settled. Back at the start of the season, sources told ESPN that Arteta was considering partnering White with Saliba at center-back before a change of heart. It is possible Arteta may revisit that thinking this summer, but then again, White has been so effective at right-back that moving him may feel unnecessary.

White has declared himself unavailable for England -- it seems unlikely, as a result, that he will play at Euro 2024 -- but it remains to be seen whether that changes in the future if Gareth Southgate departs as manager. -- Olley

26. Mats HUMMELS, Borussia Dortmund/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: Playmaker at the back with a fondness for outside-of-the-boot passes

Stat to know: Six-time Bundesliga champion, World Cup champion with Germany in 2014; third-most games played in Bundesliga since 2010 with 386

Why he's on the list: He delivered one man-of-the-match performance after another during Borussia Dortmund's remarkable run to the Champions League final. Hummels accepted that he cannot play every game during the season, and was given the freedom to tell Dortmund when he needed a rest. But it was impossible for manager Edin Terzic to leave him on the bench in crucial games when Hummels usually looked like the final boss for opposing forwards. He might have lost speed over the years, but rarely any defender knows as well as Hummels where to be positioned at the offside line with his impeccable timing.

Projection for next season: Marco Reus already announced his departure and Hummels might follow his longtime teammate out the door, with the defender's contract running out at the end of June. Dortmund and Hummels intend to discuss the player's future after the Champions League final. -- Constantin Eckner

25. Jonathan TAH, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: Progressive defender who looks best when playing in a high back line

Stat to know: Four goals in Bundesliga this season, the most among central defenders in Europe's top 5 leagues.

Why he's on the list: Tah played in the central position of Leverkusen's back three throughout the season, thus being a major part of the club's historic campaign. For years, the widespread opinion was that Tah would never play to his full potential. After several underwhelming years, he came into his own and was much more than just a bit-part player. As a result, Tah will be a starting player for Germany at Euro 2024. No one could have predicted that 12 months ago.

Projection for next season: Reports about Bayern's interest in Tah emerged during the January transfer window. Since his contract only runs for another season, the 28-year-old finds himself at a crossroads in his career. The expectation is that he will stay at Leverkusen despite potential approaches from major clubs. -- Eckner

24. Jeremie FRIMPONG, Bayer Leverkusen/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: Prototypical wing-back who will tramp down every last blade of grass on the right wing

Stat to know: Scored a career-high nine goals in Bundesliga this season. This was the second straight season he had 15+ goal contributions in league play.

Why he's on the list: You ought to ask most left-backs in the Bundesliga because Frimpong probably appears in their nightmares every once in a while. After two decent seasons following his move from Celtic to Leverkusen in 2021, he made a leap forward in 2023-24, becoming one of the most dangerous attacking players on the wing in Europe. He has evolved his game under Xabi Alonso's tutelage, showing his technical skills as a makeshift when Xabi Alonso occasionally employed him in attacking midfield alongside the likes of Florian Wirtz.

Projection for next season: Given his talent and his versatility, Leverkusen are primed for top clubs to inquire about his availability this summer. While his contract runs until 2028, Frimpong could leave Leverkusen because of a buyout clause with a fixed transfer fee of €40 million. A move back to England could happen, with Real Madrid also showing interest in the Dutchman. -- Eckner

23. Ibrahima KONATE, Liverpool/France

Key attributes/style of play: Rapid, quick-thinking and brilliant at winning duels both on the ground and in the air

Stat to know: Helped keep 10 clean sheets in all competition for Liverpool in the 2023-24 season, including six in the Premier League campaign.

Why he's on the list: It hasn't been an easy season for Liverpool, with injuries forcing a lot of rotation in defense and midfield, Jarell Quansah's emergence in the first team and the departure of longtime manager Jurgen Klopp. Yet Konaté is still one of the best all-round center-backs in world football and is the perfect foil to Virgil van Dijk in the heart of Liverpool's defense.

He's fifth in the Premier League this term for successful attempts at tackling an opposition player dribbling the ball (75%). "[He is a] fantastic boy and a super player, and France can be really happy to have him," Klopp said of Konaté earlier in the season. At the international level, France boast incredible depth at center-back, but it should be a Konaté-Dayot Upamecano combination at the heart of their defense when they kick off at this summer's Euros.

Projection for next season: All bets are off with the new recruitment team of Marcus Edwards and Richard Hughes at Liverpool -- and Arne Slot as the manager, replacing Klopp -- alongside their new-look coaching setup, which means Konaté will likely arrive in preseason with a fresh slate. He finished the season on the bench at Liverpool after a shaky performance in the Merseyside derby with Everton, but he would fit nicely into Slot's philosophy of relentless attacking, pressing football. A solid performance in the Euros would also help rebuild any lost confidence ahead of next season. -- Tom Hamilton

22. Ferland MENDY, Real Madrid/France

Key attributes/style of play: "The best defensive left-back in the world" -- Carlo Ancelotti, January 2024

Stat to know: 55.6% tackle success rate in LaLiga (highest among left-backs this season, min. 20 games played).

Why he's on the list: Mendy's faced two problems at Real Madrid since arriving, handpicked by then-coach Zinedine Zidane, in 2019: persistent injuries and doubts over his offensive ability. In recent months he has put both behind him, stringing together performances so impressive that they've made Madrid think, "Hang on, do we need Alphonso Davies after all?" Coach Ancelotti loves him (see above) although freely admits there's still room for improvement.

Projection for next season: When fit, there's nobody better. (Just look at his four all-time FC 100 appearances.) But can he stay fit? Those constant muscular injuries -- we're now into double figures since he arrived at the Bernabeu in 2019 -- had seen Mendy almost ruled out as Madrid's long-term future left-back. Now, his form has him not just in the conversation, but in the driver's seat. -- Alex Kirkland

21. Pau TORRES, Aston Villa/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: All-around defender and brilliant passer of the ball

Stat to know: Leads all center-backs from Europe's top 5 leagues in successful 1v1s over the past five seasons in all competitions.

Why he's on the list: Torres fits with manager Unai Emery like a hand in a glove. The two worked brilliantly together at Villarreal, and when Emery joined Aston Villa in October 2022, it seemed inevitable Torres would one day find his way to the Midlands. He has been integral at the back with Aston Villa this season.

Since joining in July 2023, he has brought a calming presence in defense. His range of passing has been impressive, and he's essential to their transitional play -- ninth in the league for progressive carrying distance with the ball at his feet (5,917 yards). And he's also brilliant in the air. With Villa, he has established himself as a regular in their team, but he has found it harder to nail down a spot with the Spain national team, where it looks likely he'll be the odd man out next to first-choice pairing Robin Le Normand and Aymeric Laporte.

Projection for next season: With Villa in the Champions League, Torres will be one of their key figures as they enjoy their foray into Europe. -- Hamilton

20. Trent ALEXANDER-ARNOLD, Liverpool/England

Key attributes/style of play: One of the most technically gifted full-backs in the world

Stat to know: 7 goal contributions in Premier League, T-4th most among right-backs this season.

Why he's on the list: The 25-year-old has often been criticized and become meme-worthy for a lack of defensive awareness, but there is no questioning his ability on the ball and his composure and range of passing has seen him regularly used in midfield by both Liverpool and England.

Projection for next season: There has been speculation linking him to Real Madrid as Liverpool prepare for a transitional summer as they move on from Jürgen Klopp to Arne Slot, but he is expected to stay at Anfield and be a central part of the club's new era. His goal at Liverpool will be to add to a trophy haul that already includes the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, Super Cub and Club World Cup. -- Rob Dawson

19. Theo HERNANDEZ, AC Milan/France

Key attributes/style of play: Behaves like a bullet train down the left flank, fast and forceful on both sides of the ball

Stat to know: 3rd player on team with 50+ long balls completed and 40+ chances created in Serie A this season.

Why he's on the list: You want left-backs who can attack? Hernández is a constant thorn in any opposition's side and he plays with daring and intensity (sometimes too much). Together with Rafael Leão, he forms one of the best left-flank partnerships in the world. And, at 26, he's showing signs of more mature decision-making as well.

Projection for next season: He's under contract until 2026, so this summer is theoretically the time when you either extend a player or move him on for a sizable fee (and he'd be worth it). Milan have a pretty tight salary structure, and they want to extend goalkeeper Mike Maignan as well. If the right offer comes in, Hernández could be on the move. -- Marcotti

18. Josko GVARDIOL, Manchester City/Croatia

Key attributes/style of play: One of Europe's best and most versatile young defenders

Stat to know: 4 goals in 2023-24 Premier League season was tied for 2nd most among defenders.

Why he's on the list: At 22, the Croatia international has enjoyed a successful first season at Manchester City following his summer transfer from RB Leipzig, yet his versatility has meant he played much of the campaign at left-back. Primarily a commanding center-half, Gvardiol has benefited from Pep Guardiola often deploying four center-backs across his defense. He has also ended the season in scoring form for City, with five goals in his final nine appearances of 2023-24.

Projection for next season: If City sign a new left-back in the summer to fill the one obvious hole in their defensive options, Gvardiol may face a battle to win a regular spot if he has to compete with Ruben Dias, Manuel Akanji, Nathan Ake and John Stones for a central position in the back four. -- Mark Ogden

17. Ruben DIAS, Manchester City/Portugal

Key attributes/style of play: Defensive leader and a key organiser at the back

Stat to know: Helped anchor Man City to a duel success percentage of 53%, the best of any team in the Premier League.

Why he's on the list: The Portugal international is a no-nonsense center-half whose contribution to Manchester City's success often goes under the radar. Dias may lack the silky attributes of Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk or Arsenal's William Saliba, but in terms of pure defensive qualities -- organization, heading, tackling, leading, interceptions -- he has everything you would traditionally expect from a player in his position.

Projection for next season: At 27 and with his City contract due to run until the end of the 2026-27 season, Dias is a firm part of the future at the Etihad. -- Ogden

16. Lucas HERNANDEZ, Paris Saint-Germain/France

Key attributes/style of play: Warrior by nature who revels in a physical duel

Stat to know: 1 of 7 players in Ligue 1 this season with 90% pass percentage and 2000+ touches.

Why he's on the list: It feels at times that pure defenders are on their way out in the modern game, but Hernández has an old school feel to him. Nurtured at the Diego Simeone school of defending -- he was a notoriously unforgiving player and has modeled that same uncompromising style as a manager -- Hernández has grit and loves a one-on-one battle. He has some flaws and faced a setback in his form after a second ACL injury, but he will also put his head where some defenders don't want to put their foot.

Projection for next season: Once again, his body failed him from reaching top form. But at 27, he has time to come back at his best, and PSG, where he is under contract until June 2028, will stand by him. -- Julien Laurens

15. Alejandro GRIMALDO, Bayer Leverkusen/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: Two-in-one left wing-back, operating as a defender and creative attacker

Stat to know: His 23 goal contributions this season (10 goals, 13 assists) are the most by a defender in any of Europe's top 5 leagues in the last 30 years.

Why he's on the list: How could he not be? Grimaldo is among Bayer Leverkusen's leaders in defensive interventions (402 in all competitions) and ball recoveries (229), but he's also recorded 12 goals and 17 assists from 108 chances created. And all from the wingback position. His contributions were a revelation this season, and his willingness to defend as well as persistence in attack were keys to Leverkusen's unbeaten run.

Projection for next season: It appears as though Alonso's "band" is going to remain mostly intact in Leverkusen. The 28-year-old Grimaldo, finishing the first year of a four-year deal, is going to be a part of the core roster for a while. -- Bill Connelly

14. Alphonso DAVIES, Bayern Munich/Canada

Key attributes/style of play: Incredibly athletic and explosive full-back who can operate as a winger

Stat to know: 5 assists in Bundesliga this season (2nd most among Bundesliga left-backs).

Why he's on the list: On a good day, Davies can be a box-office attraction because of his pace and drive towards the penalty area. It is rare that someone in the modern game is able to outpace most defenders on the highest level, but if Davies finds some space he will do it thanks to preternatural acceleration. Just like the rest of the Bayern team, Davies went through some ups and downs in 2023-24, but a positive for him was remaining injury-free for almost the whole campaign. If he fails to become a reliable defender, perhaps he will end up taking the same path as Gareth Bale, who went from full-back to all-out winger.

Projection for next season: His future is complicated. Davies received an offer to extend his contract with Bayern under the previous management team. He did not accept the offer, despite a generous salary increase, hoping that he could sign a deal with Real Madrid or leverage their interest to get a better deal and remain in Germany. While Madrid have shown serious interest in the Canada international, the Spanish champions also have other left-backs on their list. -- Eckner

13. Matthijs DE LIGT, Bayern Munich/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: Progressive center-back with the mindset of a leader

Stat to know: 60% tackle success rate in Bundesliga this season (2nd among defenders, min. 20 matches).

Why he's on the list: While he skyrocketed towards joining Europe's defensive elite tier at a young age, de Ligt had to endure some setbacks during his time at Juventus and following his big-money move to Bayern. He was a competent defensive leader in the later parts of the 2022-23 season, fighting his way back into Bayern's starting XI during the second half of 2023-24. It remains tough, however, to predict how de Ligt will progress. The days in which the sky seemed to be the limit are over, but he could still become one of the best center-backs.

Projection for next season: During a period of the season in which Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel did not count on de Ligt and preferred to put him on the bench, the Dutchman was considering leaving Bayern. However, as he rallied in the final couple of months of a season and firmly established himself as Bayern's best defender, the German side won't let him go unless de Ligt strongly calls for a move. -- Eckner

12. Dani CARVAJAL, Real Madrid/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: Aggressive, no-holds-barred defender whose attacking output is underrated

Stat to know: Carvajal (along with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Nacho) won his 6th European Cup title, which ties Paco Gento, for most by a player in competition history.

Why he's on the list: Carvajal -- who played the role of hero for Real Madrid in the Champions League final against Dortmund -- has been Los Blancos' first-choice right-back for 11 years now, winning four league titles and six Champions Leagues along the way. At times, injuries have threatened to derail his career, but he's been more reliable this season with 27 appearances in LaLiga. He's an important influence in a squad stacked high with young, developing stars, too, with his steely, win-at-all-costs approach adding some necessary bite. Carvajal also loves to get forward, and has scored a career-best four league goals this campaign.

Projection for next season: At a club that's constantly looking to bring in the world's best, there's never been much talk of replacing their right-back, which tells its own story. With other Madrid veterans like Nacho likely to move on, Carvajal's role in the Madrid dressing room will be more essential than ever. -- Kirkland

11. Alessandro BASTONI, Inter Milan/Italy

Key attributes/style of play: If he wasn't 6-foot-3, he'd likely be taking corners and free kicks given his skill on the ball

Stat to know: 23 chances created in Serie A in 2023-24, led center-backs in the league.

Why he's on the list: Athletic, left-footed central defenders who can also play out from the back are one of the most sought-after players in the modern game, and Bastoni ticks all the boxes. The fact he is blessed with vision and tremendous set-piece ability is also a real asset. He's good in the air as well, and has the right combination of physicality and discipline: despite being an assertive defender, he doesn't pick up many cards from referees and has been sent off just once in his career.

Projection for next season: Inter have him signed up on a deal through 2028. The club's financial woes -- they recently had to refinance a loan of around $400m -- are well documented, and the reality is that if a large enough offer comes in, they may need to let one of their key players go. But, with Bastoni having just turned 25, it would need to be a massive bid. -- Marcotti

10. Federico DIMARCO, Inter Milan/Italy

Key attributes/style of play: Consistent creative outlet from deep and wide positions, always capable of serving up pinpoint crosses

Stat to know: 11 goal contributions (5 goals, 6 assists) in Serie A this season, the most among defenders.

Why he's on the list: When it comes to left-sided wing-backs, you'll struggle to find many better than Dimarco, especially as he has added genuine consistency to his game over the past couple of seasons. He's quick, has plenty of stamina and is often the first man breaking up-field when Inter are in transition. Arguably one of Inter's three most important players in their Serie A title-winning campaign, he also chipped in five goals and six assists for Simone Inzaghi's side as they strolled to the Scudetto over second-place Milan by 19 points.

Projection for next season: Dimarco has three years to run on his deal and, rightly or wrongly, most see him purely as a wing-back -- though he has played left-back in a four for Italy and even left-sided central defender in a three. While he may be highly rated, it would take a significant offer from a club that plays with a back three to pry him loose. -- Marcotti

9. Andy ROBERTSON, Liverpool/Scotland

Key attributes/style of play: One of the world's most dependable left-backs on both sides of the ball

Stat to know: 10 big chances created in the Premier League (4th among defenders), 1 of only 4 defenders to have at least 10 big chances created this season.

Why he's on the list: Since he signed for Liverpool in 2017 for just £8m, Robertson has represented one of the world's best transfers of the past decade as he quickly established himself as their first-choice left-back. Only five players made more Liverpool appearances under Klopp, with Robertson's consistency so valuable in the Reds' memorable runs to the Champions League title in 2019 and Premier League in 2020. He missed roughly three months this term through a shoulder injury, but he is still first-choice on the left flank when fit.

Projection for next season: He will hope for a successful summer as Scotland captain at Euro 2024 in Germany and there has been interest from that part of the world in Robertson's services, with Bayern Munich keeping an eye on him. However, the likelihood is he will stay put at Liverpool, with his contract running through June 2026. -- Hamilton

8. Ronald ARAUJO, Barcelona/Uruguay

Key attributes/style of play: Quick, strong and assertive defender who can play multiple positions

Stat to know: 107 LaLiga games played for Barcelona, fifth most since he started playing first team games in 2019-20.

Why he's on the list: Center-back is one of the few positions where Barça have depth, but Araújo has still established himself as the No.1 pick under coach Xavi Hernández. He's often depended on to bail them out of trouble when they are caught out in transition, his dominance in the air at both ends is helpful and he's rapidly improving with his comfort and control on the ball. At 25, he is one of the prominent figures in the squad, with his teammates voting him one of the club's four captains this season.

Projection for next season: Growing from young promise into a regular starter has altered the expectations on Araújo's shoulders. A fractured jaw, which forced him to wear a mask, set him back earlier this season, while his red card in April's defeat to Paris Saint-Germain effectively cost Barça a Champions League semifinal spot. He needs to learn from those experiences to become an even more dominant defender next season. -- Marsden

7. Achraf HAKIMI, Paris Saint-Germain/Morocco

Key attributes/style of play: One of the most effective, electric attacking right-backs in the game

Stat to know: 4 goals scored in Ligue 1 this season, second most by any right-back in Europe's top 5 leagues

Why he's on the list: Since joining PSG in the summer of 2022, the 25-year-old has had a consistently positive impact on the super-club, but this season has been his best. The Morocco international is not left wanting defensively, though his main quality is the offensive output he provides via crosses, overlaps, cut-backs and overall creativity. His partnership with winger Ousmane Dembélé on the right-hand side, plus his interplay with midfielder Warren Zaïre-Emery, has been great.

Projection for next season: Hakimi is happy in Paris, where he still has two years remaining on his contract. Negotiations for an extension will start in the summer, sources told ESPN. Great right-backs are not easy to find. and PSG are adamant they have one of the best in their squad. -- Laurens

6. John STONES, Manchester City/England

Key attributes/style of play: Built like a center-back, but with the feet of a midfielder

Stat to know: Manchester City allowed no more than 2 goals in any of the 16 Premier League matches Stones played in 2023-24, including 4 clean sheets.

Why he's on the list: Whether you love or hate Pep Guardiola's ongoing "build the entire plane out of center-backs!" tendencies, Stones was the template for it. His emergence as a defensive midfielder (of sorts) during City's 2022-23 treble season was a revelatory moment in Guardiola's tactical history. When healthy, Stone is a sure interventionist, sure in the air (73% aerial success rate in all 2023-24 competitions) and even surer in buildup play (94% completion rate). Early-season injuries hindered his opportunities this season, but he's a proven commodity at this point.

Projection for next season: His contract doesn't expire until 2026, and if he's anywhere close to 100%, the 29-year old will be a major piece of yet another Manchester City title push in 2024-25. -- Connelly

5. MARQUINHOS, Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil

Key attributes/style of play: Quick, intelligent, technical and physical -- the definition of the modern center-back

Stat to know: Won his 9th Ligue 1 title, tying his former teammate Marco Verratti for most titles in the league's history.

Why he's on the list: An injury slowed him down in early 2024, and he made a critical mistake against Dortmund in the Champions League semifinal defeat. Otherwise, he has again been reliable with some really impressive performances in the high defensive line Luis Enrique insists upon using. If former coach Thomas Tuchel saw a future in midfield as a No. 6 for him a few years ago, it is still at the back where he is at his best.

Projection for next season: A year ago Marquinhos, 30, penned a new deal to stay at PSG until 2028. He is the club captain and has been in the French capital since 2013. Expect another high-performance campaign next season. -- Laurens

4. Kyle WALKER, Manchester City/England

Key attributes/style of play: Incredible pace and strength -- just ask Vínicius Junior!

Stat to know: Completed 91.6% of passes in the final third in 2023-24, 4th most among Premier League defenders with a minimum of 1000 pass attempts.

Why he's on the list: The Manchester City and England defender, 34, has shown no sign of losing the key elements of his games. When deployed at right-back, not even the quickest winger can beat Walker in a sprint -- he is consistently City's best defender. And when Pep Guardiola switches to a back three, Walker has the versatility to step into that system with ease.

Projection for next season: With two more years to run on his contract, Walker's age won't matter to Guardiola because he knows he can count on him to deliver. He admitted that he came "close" to joining Bayern Munich last summer before signing a contract extension, and he may even do enough to be offered new terms next season. -- Ogden

3. Virgil VAN DIJK, Liverpool/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: Leader and rock at the heart of defense for club and country

Stat to know: Led Premier League in 2023-24 with 81.4% aerial dual win percentage.

Why he's on the list: As one of his teammates at Liverpool once told ESPN, Van Dijk returns to the changing room after a match completely immaculate. His positioning, strength and judgment are of such high quality that he rarely resorts to the desperation of a sliding tackle. He has established himself as one of the world's finest center-backs and was an indispensable figure in Klopp's Anfield tenure. He'll captain Netherlands at the Euros after a season where he was one of the Premier League's most consistent defenders and nominated for the top flight's Player of the Season award.

Projection for next season: Though there has been reported interest from Borussia Dortmund as Liverpool prepare for their new era under incoming coach Arne Slot, expect Van Dijk to be an integral part of the new manager's plans. "There will be a big transition and I am part of that," Van Dijk said in May. "I love the club...it's a big part of my life already." -- Hamilton

2. William SALIBA, Arsenal/France

Key attributes/style of play: Fearsome combination of intelligence, anticipation, pace and power

Stat to know: Arsenal allowed just 29 goals against in Premier League this season (its fewest allowed since 26 goals against in 2003-04).

Why he's on the list: Many Arsenal fans cited the 23-year-old's absence through injury during the 2022-23 season's run-in as a key reason the Gunners wilted in the title race. His involvement 12 months on vindicates that argument, acting as the linchpin in the tightest defense in the league. Arsenal were unable to finish above Manchester City once again but they got a lot closer because of Sailba. He was one of only two outfield players in the Premier League to play every minute of the campaign.

Projection for next season: Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal are considering strengthening their defense this summer -- although other areas of the squad are a higher priority -- but any alterations will be made with the intention of building around Saliba. Signed for £27m from Saint-Etienne in 2019 and sent out on loan spells to Nice and Marseille which questioned his future in England, Saliba has rapidly become a priceless component of Mikel Arteta's side. -- Olley

1. Antonio RUDIGER, Real Madrid/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: Old-school, sharp-elbowed central defender with an adventurous streak

Stat to know: Real Madrid allowed only 26 goals in LaLiga this season, 11 fewer than the next closest team and the team's 2nd fewest in a league season in the last 10 seasons (25 goals allowed in 2019-20).

Why he's on the list: Real Madrid's defense got wrecked by a trio of ACL tears -- goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and center-backs Éderl Militão and David Alaba -- and yet they won LaLiga with ease, allowing the fewest goals by far and reaching the Champions League final. They leaned on Rüdiger more than ever, and he delivered. He's mostly safe in buildup play, he's active on set pieces, and he's got the most defensive interventions on his team.

Projection for next season: One has to assume both that Rüdiger is going nowhere and that, even with the return of Militão and Alaba, he will play a key role in another title push. But after the 31-year-old logged about 4,000 minutes this season, maybe a little bit more of a rotation in the back will be welcome. -- Connelly