It’s never been more fashionable to be a full-back. The modern game’s evolution has made the once under-appreciated position become ever more prominent, with successful sides now requiring full-backs who can do it all.
While not a scientifically proven theory and apologees to our right-back readership, but there’s a wide-held perception that lefties just do it that little bit better.
Determined defending and cultured deliveries from the left flank have been a feature of this lot’s game, as we rank the eight best left-backs in Premier League history.
8. Graeme Le Saux
Graeme Le Saux broke into the Chelsea side in the early nineties and impressed in west London, but a controversial end to his first spell – in which he threw his shirt after being substituted – saw him sold on to big-spending Blackburn.
It proved a fine fit for both Le Saux and Rovers, who won the Premier League title during the 1994/95 campaign. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year for his role in that triumph and earned a second inclusion in the divisional side after a return to Chelsea. He re-signed for the west Londoners in a £5m deal in 1996, one which saw him become the most expensive defender in English football.
— Premier League (@premierleague) February 6, 2020
Le Saux made 192 appearances for Chelsea during his second spell and won both the League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, before ending his career with a short spell at Southampton. Just three defenders have ever provided more than his 44 Premier League assists.
7. Leighton Baines
Leighton Baines is one of Everton’s best pieces of business of the Premier League era. After two seasons in the Premier League at Wigan, he returned to his native Merseyside with the Toffees and spent more than a decade providing excellent service at Goodison Park.
Baines’ brilliant technique saw him rack up 32 goals and 53 assists, the latter a record among Premier League defenders until Liverpool’s Andy Robertson moved past Baines during the 2022/23 campaign.
A Baines beauty from all angles 📐 pic.twitter.com/shNlXb9z93
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 11, 2022
A fine free-kick taker with a cultured left foot, Baines made 420 appearances for Everton in all competitions and was named as the club’s Player of the Season on three occasions. He was also recognised by his Premier League peers, with two inclusions in the PFA Team of the Year.
6. Nigel Winterburn
A member of Arsenal’s famous back five, Winterburn held down the left-back role for more than a decade during a time when the Gunners were England’s stingiest outfit.
Winterburn arrived at Arsenal to replace the long-serving Kenny Sansom and did so in impressive fashion, forming part of the club’s fabled defensive unit and offering threat with accurate crossing and set-piece delivery.
He won two league titles before the Premier League era and added a third as part of Arsenal’s 1997/98 double-winning campaign under Arsene Wenger. Two FA Cups, a League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup also arrived as part of his medal haul, before departing for West Ham.
Nigel Winterburn didn't score many, but when he did… 🚀 pic.twitter.com/5q0sVNeHpD
— Premier League (@premierleague) September 13, 2021
Spectacular goals were a part of his repertoire including a memorable drive against Chelsea from distance, though Winterburn was oddly often overlooked with England and won just two senior caps.
5. Stuart Pearce
The game’s changed a fair bit since Stuart Pearce’s peak, but it is difficult to imagine any current left-back instils fear into wingers quite like ‘Psycho’.
Pearce’s game fitted the nickname he carried during his career, with his success built on a toughness and resilience. Having risen from non-league football – where he combined a part-time job as an electrician – to the top of the sport, he went on to win 78 caps for England and represented the Three Lions at two major tournaments.
Ladies and gentlemen…
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 19, 2020
A no-nonsense and uncompromising defender, his mix of full-blooded tackles and a thunderous left foot proved potent weapons at both ends of the pitch. Pearce’s best football came at Nottingham Forest, for who he made 522 appearances to cement his status as a club legend.
He was named in the PFA Team of the Year on five occasions pre-Premier League era, before making 202 top-flight appearances for Forest, Newcastle and West Ham, scoring 20 goals, following the division’s rebranding.
4. Patrice Evra
Patrice Evra recovered from a Manchester Derby debut baptism of fire to become one of the Premier League’s finest full-backs.
Across nine seasons at Manchester United he won it all, hoovering up accolades including five Premier League titles and the Champions League. Tenacious, technical and athletic, he had all the attributes of a modern left-back and was equally comfortable charging upfield as he was preventing attacks in the defensive third.
— Premier League (@premierleague) January 10, 2021
A three-time PFA Team of the Year inclusion, Evra was a model of consistency during a period of sustained success at Old Trafford. A fixture in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great team, he made 379 appearances for the Red Devils in all competitions.
3. Andy Robertson
Andy Robertson was not always expected to reach such heights. Released by Celtic as a teenager, he began in amateur football at Queen’s Park in Scotland before stops at Dundee United and Hull before an £8m move to Liverpool.
Little was made of that latter transfer, but Robertson has forged a reputation as arguably the world’s finest left-back across five-and-a-half seasons at Anfield. The Scotland captain endeared himself to the Liverpool fans with lung-busting runs and endless endeavour down the left flank, a fans’ favourite for his willingness to work for the shirt.
His intensity is matched with a quality in possession, which has seen Robertson break the Premier League record for assists by a defender (54).
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 27, 2022
He’s won the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup as part of Jurgen Klopp’s successful side and has time on his side to add more to the collection.
2. Denis Irwin
Denis Irwin’s unassuming brilliance saw him hailed by Sir Alex Ferguson as his best ‘pound-for-pound ‘ signing at Manchester United, a full-back the manager nicknamed ‘Eight Out of Ten Denis’ for his incredible consistency for the club.
“We always called him Eight Out of Ten Denis. So quick and nimble: quick-brained. Never let you down. There was never any bad publicity with him,” Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography.
“I remember a game at Arsenal when Denis allowed Dennis Bergkamp to score late in the match, and the press said: ‘Well, you’ll be disappointed with Denis. I replied: ‘Aye, well, he’s been with me for eight or nine years and he’s never made a mistake, I think we can forgive him one.”
— Premier League (@premierleague) July 12, 2021
Ferguson later said Irwin would be the ‘one certainty’ to get into his all-time Manchester United XI, some praise given the abundance of talent the club have had during the Premier League era. Irwin was two-footed, reliable and a goal threat, rarely dropping below the required standard across 529 appearances for the Red Devils.
We’ve not even mentioned his trophy haul, which includes seven Premier League titles and the Champions League among 18 major honours. Not a bad medal collection.
1. Ashley Cole
Ashley Cole remains the benchmark for Premier League left-backs, an almost shoo-in whenever the division’s all-time XIs are discussed.
Cole was a modern full-back long before the recent evolution of the role. He was a master when it came to shutting down opposition wingers, but in equal part a live-wire down the left-hand side.
After emerging at Arsenal he won two Premier League titles with the Gunners, including as part of their Invincibles vintage whose best football often came down the left. Close your eyes for a second and picture Arsenal’s swashbuckling team, it is the combination of Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry on the left that most vividly comes to mind.
Great in attack as well as defence 👏👏
Thank you for the memories, Ashley Cole pic.twitter.com/3H0F952WrE
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 18, 2019
His cross-capital move to Chelsea in 2006 saw Cole’s public image take a hit, but it proved a wise decision as he continued to claim honours as Arsenal declined. He added another league title, extended his individual record to seven FA Cups and lifted the Champions League at Stamford Bridge, where he was twice named as the club’s Player of the Season.
No player has frustrated Cristiano Ronaldo in the manner that Cole did. Ronaldo wasn’t alone in enduring a tough afternoon whenever faced with the 107-cap England international.