Success in football is built on a solid foundation and a reliable backline is as essential a commodity as any other when building a winning side.
Throughout the Premier League years we’ve seen a whole host of watertight defences make their mark on both the English game and opposition forwards, and we’ve decided to celebrate some of the finest to have lined up in the traditional back four.
Two centre-back’s with complimentary attributes sandwiched between two ever dependable full-backs, a quartet of under-appreciated heroes doing their utmost to preserve the hallowed clean sheet.
Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that whilst attacks win games, it is defences that win titles and there are few who would argue with the knowledge of the 13-time title winner.
This feature is a salute to the stingiest and sturdiest defences the division has seen, here are five of the best back fours in Premier League history:
Arsenal’s famous back four
Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn
Arsenal fans of a certain age will find it hard to believe their club were once renown for having the best backline in English football, the club’s famous back four – or five including goalkeeper David Seaman – a pillar of strength in the early Premier League seasons.
The modern style of intricate passages of play were a world away from the side which entered the rebranded league under George Graham, the famed chant of “One nil to the Arsenal” often ringing around Highbury as the north London side once more ground out another clean sheet.
The back four was an old-school set up with the functional full-back duo of Dixon and Winterburn, their focus primarily on defending as opposed to the adventurous forays of full-backs in the modern game.
Centrally stood the uncompromising Steve Bould or man-marking master Martin Keown, alongside club captain Tony Adams, the images of the latter with one arm aloft as another offside trap was perfectly sprung amongst the most iconic of the era.
Adams was undoubtedly the leader and most celebrated of the backline, captaining club and country and overcoming personal demons to become the first man to captain title-winning teams in three separate decades.
Arguably the most legendary of all backlines, Arsenal’s famous five conquered English football in the late eighties and early nineties before forming part of Arsene Wenger’s first successes in north London, winning a domestic double during the 1997/98 season.
Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole
Believe it or not Generation Z Gunners, your club can boast two of the best back fours the Premier League has ever seen.
Long before the dawns of defensive disasters, goalkeeping gaffes and Sebastian Squillaci was a time when Arsenal were feared by Premier League forwards, including this quartet which laid the foundations for arguably the greatest season of the modern era.
Arsenal’s Invincibles side completed an entire league season without defeat and whilst the names of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira quite rightfully take a fair share of the plaudits, we’d like to acknowledge a formidable four behind those illustrious talents.
Sol Campbell established himself one of the most domineering defenders in the division after controversially switching north London allegiances, the England international paired with Kolo Toure in one of several perfect partnerships across an all-conquering XI.
The right flank was guarded safely by Lauren, dependable defensively but no stranger to rampaging forwards as he relived the winger days of his youth, the Cameroonian perhaps an underrated figure amongst the Premier League’s best right-backs.
On the opposite side was Ashley Cole, who dovetailed perfectly with the aforementioned Henry and Pires in a fluid and free-flowing left-hand side, without ever neglecting the defensive duties which have him regarded as arguably the best left-back England has ever produced.
The Special One’s Chelsea
Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry, William Gallas
Any hopes that Arsenal’s Invincibles had of an era of dominance were ended by billionaire-backed Chelsea, who announced their arrival as powerhouses of English football following the appointment of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.
The ‘Special One’ guided the big-spending west London outfit to back-to-back league titles during his first two seasons in English football, the first – Chelsea’s first league title in 50 years – delivered having conceded an Premier League record low of just 15 goals.
It’s a landmark that looks unlikely to ever be broken, the Blues’ backline marshalled superbly by inspirational club captain John Terry, the centre-back named as the PFA Player of the Year during that first title-winning season in 2004/05.
Terry was a throwback to the lionhearted defenders of England’s past with an unrelenting willingness to put his body on the line, his dominant presence complimented perfectly by the classy Carvalho in an idealistic brains and brawn central pairing.
Carvalho had arrived from Porto after winning the Champions League with the Portuguese club under Mourinho, where he was joined by teammate and compatriot Ferreira in moving to Stamford Bridge.
The right-back was reliable as they come during those two title-winning sides, whilst the versatile William Gallas starred in an unfamiliar left-back role, Mourinho often fond of building physically dominant sides.
Protected further by the huge presence of Petr Cech in goal, Chelsea memorably went on to further to strengthen a seemingly impregnable defence by securing the signing of Ashley Cole from London rivals Arsenal.
Late Noughties Manchester United
Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra
Sir Alex Ferguson built several great sides during a glittering career of unprecedented success at Manchester United, with perhaps his last possessing a now legendary back four.
United had gone three seasons without winning the Premier League title before bouncing back in some style between 2006-09 to reassert their dominance of the English game, claiming three consecutive championships and the Champions League during a trophy-laden period at Old Trafford.
The bedrock of their success was a quartet of Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, though the former was less prominent as the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea occupied the right-back role for much of that time.
In Vidic and Ferdinand, however, the Red Devils boasted arguably the finest centre-back pairing the Premier League has seen, both with a valid claim as the division’s greatest ever defender.
Vidic was a Serbian man mountain who relished the blood-and-thunder of English football, a ferocious competitor who perfectly balanced the class of composure Ferdinand, a player often described as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ defender.
To their left was Evra, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm both on and off the pitch, hurtling up the flank with great aplomb – a competitive defender with the attacking instincts of a leading winger.
Behind the four was a goalkeeping great in Edwin van der Sar, the height of their success a 14-game run of consecutive clean sheets on route to winning the title during the 2008/09 season.
Present day Liverpool
Trent-Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson
The final defence in our feature is the current Liverpool back four, with much of the club’s recent success built on the side’s ability to produce clean sheets.
The signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton – alongside that of goalkeeper Alisson from Roma – has had a transformative effect on Jurgen Klopp’s side in recent seasons, the Reds boasting the division’s best defensive record in each of the past two campaigns.
Van Dijk was named as the PFA Player of the Year during his first full season on Merseyside, becoming just the third defender to win the accolade in the Premier League era in addition to helping the Reds to Champions League success.
The Dutch defender is ably supported by the athletic Joe Gomez at the heart of the defence, whilst Joel Matip has shown he is more than a dependable deputy whenever called upon.
Either side of that duo are the best full-back pairing in world football at present, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson becoming essential figures in the Liverpool side from a previously unfashionable position.
The duo bomb forward with regularity and have set all forms of assist records for defenders over the past two seasons, in addition to forming part of a backline that has regularly stifled England and Europe’s leading attacks of late.