It is very easy to identify who has been the best centre back in the top-flight over the last five years or so. It is Virgil Van Dijk. Case closed.
Since joining Liverpool to the tune of £75m at the beginning of 2018, the Dutch defender has been a cornerstone on which the Reds’ successes have been built, by turns a leader and impenetrable presence.
He is also, in every sense, a thoroughly modern exponent of his craft but for all that the 6ft 5 colossus smoothly mops up danger and starts another attack with a sweeping cross-field pass, it is interesting to note what Erling Haaland said of him last year. He said Van Dijk was ‘bad and smart’.
Or, to put it another way, on his day he is a player that cannot be out-fought or out-thought.
Yet it cannot be reasonably argued that the 31-year-old has retained his exceptional levels this season, at times visibly struggling, even prone to mishap, so if the question was tweaked to who is the best centre-back in the Premier League right now, would the Liverpool star be among the leading contenders, featuring highly in the football betting?
In all likelihood, probably not.
Arsenal’s William Saliba though, would have to be in the reckoning, the French stopper greatly impressing since returning from a steep learning curve in Ligue 1.
If a true indicator of a player’s worth is how much he is missed when injured it could be said that Saliba has been priceless to the Gunners this term, their form and title hopes notably slipping when the defender succumbed to a back problem mid-March.
In his 27 league appearances, Arsenal picked up 2.4 points-per-game. In the nine fixtures he has missed to date that has plummeted to 1.6.
Yet, as intuitive as he is at reading the game, dealing with problems with the minimum of fuss, is it justified to place the 22-year-old ahead of his peers based on seven tremendous months?
In the coming weeks, Saliba feels like a shoo-in for inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year. For this merit however, it’s close but no cigar.
What about then, John Stones, a nomination that will undoubtedly have eyes rolling from those who refuse to recognise his immense importance to an immense Manchester City side.
Simply by virtue of playing half of this campaign either at right-back or in a holding midfield role rules him out but still, his ball-playing attributes from the back and excellent shepherding of opposition forwards deserves a mention. As too does the following statement.
If Stones was deployed further forward, he would become one of the best midfielders in Premier League history. There. It’s been said.
Lastly, we come to Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez who, like van Dijk on his arrival at Anfield, and Saliba in North London, has been pivotal to his team enjoying a significant resurgence.
Combative and possessing the nous and ability to consistently nullify the great and the good, the Argentine has to be a shout, at least.
Perhaps though, we’re looking at this all wrong? Perhaps we should be leaning on numbers to find the answers and crown the right man?
If so, the centre-back with the best statistical returns in 2022/23 is none of the talents name-checked above. Indeed, he wasn’t on our initial shortlist at all.
Step forward Brentford’s 29-year-old, former Dulwich Hamlet star Ethan Pinnock. The best Premier League centre-back around.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to AP Photo*