The 12 best centre-backs in Scottish football right now
Decent. That’s the way to describe the standard of centre-backs in Scottish football at the moment. There’s no real standout player. No Virgil van Dijk, not even a David Weir.
At the same time, there’s quite a bit of depth. Just about every side in the top flight, and a few from the second tier, have at least one centre-back who you’d look at and think “he’s not bad”. Unfortunately, not bad doesn’t improve the national side.
Before we get to the list, let’s run through some of the contenders who didn’t quite make it. Michael Devlin has really come on to a game for Hamilton, though he did struggle at the beginning of the campaign. The same goes for Danny Devine at Thistle, while club-mate Adam Barton was viewed to be a centre-midfielder rather than a centre-back.
At Inverness CT there’s two players, in Josh Meekings and Gary Warren, who were mainstays of this list in the past, but their poor play over this season could not be forgiven.
Across the Highland divide, Andrew Davies can feel a little unlucky to miss out having featured quite highly last term.
Then there’s lower league heroes like William Edjenguele and Thomas O’Ware who just didn’t quite have the top tier pedigree to break through.
Anyway, after much debate and deliberation, we’ve managed to put together this top 12. If you want to recall last season’s elite dozen, you can find that here.
• Click here to listen to the episode of The Terrace Scottish Football Podcast where the top 12 was debated.
12. Paul Hanlon (Hibs)
Once upon a time, a young Paul Hanlon was physically dominated by Nadir Ciftci to such an extent that Hibs boss Terry Butcher, the fountain of wisdom that he is, decided to withdraw the defender for Daniel Boateng. If you are unfamiliar with the latter’s work, then you may be interested to know he’s spent the entirety of this season making Airdrie fans wish they never signed him last summer.
A strange move though it seems in hindsight, it did make sense at the time. Hanlon just couldn’t cope with a striker who was stronger and up for the physical battle. He may be better than Boateng in every other way, but the Arsenal loanee (as he was at the time) had the strength Hanlon lacked.
Hanlon was injured a short-time later and Hibs would really miss his calming presence at the heart of the defence as the club plummeted down the league table. Absence from the top flight has reinvigorated Hibs as a club, and Hanlon has been one of the beneficiaries. Now one of the big dogs in the kennel, Hanlon’s confidence has risen exponentially these past three seasons. No longer is his too easily muscled off the ball and it’s letting his other qualities shine.
Always a composed defender, Hanlon uses his anticipation to sniff out threats around the penalty area. Though he’s never been battering ram, and likely never will be, he’s still big for a defender in a height sense, which makes him a useful ally to have when opponents start shelling balls into the penalty box. And while he’s unlikely to beat an opponent with the ball at his feet, he’s composed enough to bring the play forward and pick out a pass or two.
11. John Souttar (Hearts)
Souttar is the antithesis of a couple of other defenders we’ll get to on this list. He’s comfortable and composed on the football. Stepping out of defence isn’t a problem, playing his way out of danger isn’t a problem, keeping possession ticking over isn’t a problem. There’s a reason Dundee United tried him at defensive midfield and right-back before his move to Hearts. The guy can play, why limit him to being a centre-back?
When Hearts got hold of him they made a decision. No more moving about. This guy is going to play in the centre of defence and we’re going to live with the groaning pains. And, in fairness to the 20-year-old, there haven’t been all that many. He’s cut down on the amount of mistakes he’s made. Since joining Hearts, he’s generally been one of their more consistent performers, showing himself surprisingly adept at reading the game and positioning himself accordingly.
There is, though, another reason United were a little hesitant to use him at centre-back. He’s not particularly strong and he’s not that great in the air. It’s a bit of a myth that you have to be good at both to be a central defender in Scotland - most of our teams try to play football instead of imitating Tony Pulis’ Stoke City side - but if he’s to live up to his potential he’ll have to improve in both aspects. Hearts signed him because they saw Souttar as someone with the tools to one day play in the English top flight. Well, John Stones comparisons aside, in English football you definitely need to be strong, and it doesn’t hurt to be able to header the ball too.
For now he’s a deserving member on this list and, for the sake of our future at centre-back on the national stage, let’s hope he’s just as good when he returns from his Achilles injury.
10. Darren McGregor (Hibernian)
You’d be hard pressed to find a better back story than that of Hibs centre-back Darren McGregor. Professional football to the juniors and back; progress up through the divisions; mental fortitude to recover from not one but two serious injuries, and then earning a move to one of the country’s biggest sides and then another to his boyhood heroes. It’s a story of struggle, redemption and professional satisfaction.
However, that is not to say McGregor is content. Anyone who watches the 31-year-old will know that is not the case, especially strikers who are treated like a dog’s favourite chew-toy.
He may the ‘wrong side of 30’ but he still has much to give at the top level having played less than 100 top-tier games. He has developed both physically, mentally and technically from the rash full-back who came through at Cowdenbeath. Playing for Arniston Rangers a decade ago, McGregor would never have thought his career would lead to winning a Scottish Cup and Championship title with Hibs.
He is a bear of a defender. Aggression, power, strength. Strikers don’t win the battle against him. So they need to look for other ways to get round him. Try and knock the ball past him he will get his considerable frame in front. Try to out-run him he will stay with you. He’ll relish the step up to the Premiership. That’s not to say he is a stereotypical brutish defender. Spells in the midfield with Cowdenbeath and St Mirren, arguably his best position back then, show him to be a confident in possession.
He’s missed only two games this season which suggests he is over any injury problems.
9. Darren O’Dea (Dundee)
Champions of Paul Hartley’s legacy at Dundee tend to point to three key signings he made in his first two seasons: Kane Hemmings, Greg Stewart and Scott Bain. In actuality, Bain should be dropped from such prestigious company. The once excellent shot-stopper hasn’t been so good at stopping shots these past 12 months, while he developed a phobia of coming for crosses. If anyone deserves to be talked about in the same company as Stewart and Hemmings, it should be O’Dea.
When the Irishman first signed for the club it reeked of a panic buy. He was courted just a few days after James McPake suffered a horrendous knee injury. A free agent after leaving Mumbai City in the Indian Super League, it was difficult to know what to expect from the defender. In the previous four years he’d played for Toronto FC, Metalurh Donetsk and Blackpool before his short stint in Asia. Was this a career petering out? Had he lost what once made him an effective squad player with Celtic?
Dundee fans need not have worried. O’Dea not only slotted into the back-line seamlessly, he actually improved it.
He’s deceptively strong. From a distance he doesn’t appear particularly menacing or even capable of winning his fair share of physical duels. It’s easy to see why Celtic often used him at full-back. However, when it comes to match time he’s a stubborn fighter, capable of bullying strikers bigger than he is and dominating them in the air.
What’s more, he reads the game excellently. Not only has he filled McPake’s shoes as the leader of the back-line, he’s arguably been an improvement on the former Hibs man. It’s just a shame that, for the 2016-17 season at least, he’s been teamed up with a succession of jokers.
8. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic)
The Belgian should be higher up the list. In terms of physical qualities, he has it all. He’s strong as they come. In that regard, only Ash Taylor would give him a run for his money from the players in this list. This enables him to be a threat in the opposing box, where he’s great at sniffing out the space to attack. He’s also very quick on his feet for such an imposing figure.
Furthermore, he’s actually pretty good at sensing out danger, regardless of what some fans may think. Often he’s visible stepping in at the last second to halt an attack.
What lets him down time and again, and the reason he falls so low on this list, is his concentration. Whether it’s with the ball at his feet, marking someone from a set-piece, looking to control a bouncing ball, or anything football related you can think of, Boyata has managed to mess up at one point or another.
It got to the stage last season where it was so bad it was happening on a game-by-game basis. This is largely been ironed out by the miracle worker that is Brendan Rodgers, but these mistakes still rear their head from time to time. Once he goes through a whole six months without putting his team in trouble every other week, then he’ll climb into the top five.
Another weakness he possesses is his lack of ability on the football. Aside from a five-yard pass under little pressure, there’s not much you can ask of him to contribute. He’s a centre-back, so this isn’t much of a problem with a lot of players, but with Celtic you’re expected to contribute in some sense as the other team crams everyone into their own half.
7. Ash Taylor (Aberdeen)
The Bromborough behemoth is what you would call a ‘typical centre-back’. If you want him to win some headers, Taylor is your man. If you want him to... erm, win some more headers. Taylor is most certainly your man.
That’s probably a little unfair. While centre-backs of a bygone era looked and played as if they were taking a break from sinking pints down the local, Taylor is as athletically fit as they come. His shoulders are so incredibly broad. He’s the width of two men without the fat.
When things are going right for him he’s simply dominant. He’ll rag-doll the opposing striker into submission. And when Aberdeen are defending deep in their own half late in the game, he’ll stand guard by the gates, blocking anything that dares to pass.
Similarly to the old fashioned centre-backs of yore, he’s not the best on the ball. However, he should be commended for recognising his role more this season. Often in the past he’d try to do too much with the football and play himself into trouble. Now he realises those limitations and has enjoyed a more consistent season as a result.
6. Joe Shaughnessy (St Johnstone)
The player who perhaps best encapsulates the powers of Tommy Wright. Joe Shaughnessy was a plodding back-up option for Aberdeen, often used out of position at right-back where he looked awkward and set for a career in the lower echelons of the Premiership before floating about the Championship. Not anymore.
Since moving to St Johnstone he has been used almost exclusively as a centre-back and has shone. When he was signed to a new contract earlier this season it was seen as a real coup for the Perth side and one of the best bits of business all season. Wright has a knack of picking up players who have performed poorly or stagnated at other teams and rejuvenated them. The conditions he has created at St Johnstone allows players to thrive within a cohesive unit. The 24-year-old has gone from a largely irrelevant squad player at Aberdeen to one of the most underrated players in the league.
At St Johnstone the centre-backs’ job is to keep the ball out of the goal and away from danger. Shaughnessy doesn’t get bogged down in building from the back. His stats show a defender enjoying the gritty side of the game, but doing it fairly. He concedes few fouls, only picking up one yellow card in 41 games. This shows a player who reads the game well. His scores high on interceptions while he is rarely dominated in the air.
It would be a surprise if Shaugnessy has not moved much higher up the list in 12 months’ time.
5. Clint Hill (Rangers)
There was an element of risk-reward strategy with Rangers’ three marquee summer signings: Hill, Niko Kranjcar and Joey Barton. They had all played with distinction at a higher level, and they were all on the wrong side of 30. Then there was the question of them fitting into Mark Warburton’s beloved 4-3-3 system. Looking at the whole situation, it seemed at least one of them was doomed to fail. And, let’s be honest, most of us thought it’d be Hill. Instead, with Barton flaming out and Kranjcar getting injured, he’s the last man standing.
Though the club’s award went to Kenny Miller, the 38-year-old Hill would have been a deserving winner as Rangers’ player of the year. Prior to the arrival of Pedro Caixinha, who already seems to be sharpening the defensive skills of the entire squad, the back four continually fell to pieces when Hill was out of the line up. He was the glue who held everything together. He’s the communicator, leader, organiser that this team needs at the back.
When he was at QPR, he would often be cast aside when a new boss came through the door, which at Loftus Road was near enough every fortnight. The new manager would then learn that this ageing, slow, heavy-footed defender was the most reliable stopper in the squad. He’d promptly be brought back into the side.
It remains to be seen whether Caixinha will do something similar this summer with Hill’s one-year deal set to expire. If he departs, at least he can do so with the knowledge he made a number of smart-arsed Scotsmen eat their own words. He also bagged a late equaliser in an Old Firm derby, which is something to tell the grandchildren about.
4. Liam Lindsay (Partick Thistle)
Every person with an iota of interest in the Scottish national team is willing, nay, praying, that Liam Lindsay is the future. Competent Scottish centre-halves are like Nutella pizza. Rare and precious but don’t sound like they should go together.
After each Scotland squad announcement the same question is asked about centre-backs. Lindsay’s name is always mentioned. While it may be unfair to throw him into the deep end alongside whichever lowly Championship defender we have picked, getting him and around the squad would certainly be a worthwhile exercise. After all, inexcusably, this is a defender who has not even any experience with the under-21s.
Yet, at club level it has been non-stop improvement. He was given a fine grounding at Airdrieonians and Alloa Athletic where he impressed. Last season was his breakthrough at Firhill. It hinted at a vast amount of promise. This campaign has been about turning that promise into consistent and mature performances. Still only 21, Lindsay has a frightening amount of serenity for a player who is still more than 30 games shy of 100 top-flight appearances.
He is a ‘modern-day’ centre-back: self-assuredness, poise, technique, tall, powerful, good in the air, good on the deck, and he can score goals - seven so far this season. He has been a key component, whether in a back four or back three, of Thistle’s breakthrough into the top six and their highest finish since 1981. A striker eyeing him up may see easy-meat. They soon find out they are wrong. He is quick and strong, he possesses a tremendous leap and an intelligence which suggests he has more than 250 games under his belt.
It would be understandable, for a defender of his age, to be prone to bouts of recklessness or the odd blunder. Not for Lindsay. The future is bright.
3. Steven Anderson (St Johnstone)
Steven Anderson’s high placing on the list owes as much to his back catalogue as it does to his steady performances this season. He is Mr Consistent. His is the embodiment of his club. Cut him open and he would bleed Perth, McDiarmid Park, Smeaton’s Bridge and St John’s Kirk. He’d bleed reliability, stability and harmony.
The penalty box is his hood, gaff, territory, whatever you want to call it. Like a lion protecting his pride - namely Zander Clark - Anderson takes it as a personal affront if the opposition try and score. Yet, there never seems an aggression in his defending. The 31-year-old, with more than 360 appearances for the club, is often level-headed and serene in his approach to pesky strikers. Perhaps dealing with the curmudgeon that is Steven MacLean in training every day means that games are almost a day of relaxation.
St Johnstone’s record appearance holder isn’t particularly big, nor quick or powerful. He doesn’t look dominating or much like a ‘modern-day’ footballer. Yet, this is a very, very good Ladbrokes Premiership centre-back. One who everyone, minus Celtic, would look at and want to build a defence around. Know-how, leadership, communication and an innate ability at keeping the ball away from the goal.
2. Erik Sviatchenko (Celtic)
The handsome Dane. A mid-season signing in the final, fateful, campaign of the Ronny Deila era. However, 14 league performances for Celtic was enough to be recognised as the best in the league. This season, while others have improved, an argument can be made that the 25-year-old has stagnated.
As was written last year, Sviatchenko looks like a centre-back who’d deal with the aesthetically pleasing side of his defensive duties really well but flounder when it came to the muck and nettles aspects. But he can mix it with the best of them, take the blows and give out the blows. He may look like the star of a teenage sitcom based in Santa Monica, but he plays like he is one of the watchers of the wall in Game of Thrones.
His timing may be his greatest strength, whether it is the leap to win another header or nipping across to thwart an attack. He then has the poise to keep possession. His passing rates are respectful, moving the ball forward around 85 per cent of the time, while very rarely wasting a pass.
When Rodgers arrived it was Sviatchenko who was earmarked as the one to be taken to the next level. He had attracted attention from England, but has not been as assured as expected. He had a tricky time in the draw with Rangers at Celtic Park and doesn’t seem as comfortable as others when Kieran Tierney pushes high up the left, meaning he has to come across. Yet, that may just be nit-picking. He is still very much deserved of his high placing.
1. Jozo Simunoivc (Celtic)
Jozo Simunovic’s rise to become the best centre-back in Scottish football hasn’t been instantaneous or smooth-sailing. When signed from Dinamo Zagreb for around £6.5million it raised a number of eyebrows in his native Croatia. Media in the Balkan country questioned the fee paid, stating that there were a number of centre-backs of similar or better quality who could have been procured for a fraction of the fee, including some from Rijeka, a team who were knocked out of Europe by Aberdeen in 2015.
One of the reservations surrounding Simunovic was his injury issues. He missed eight games in the opening period of the 2015/2016 season before it was ended prematurely with torn ligaments in his knee, meaning he missed 19 games from February onwards. That carried over into this campaign when it appeared he’d be moving on, primed for a move to Torino. He returned to action in September and hasn’t looked back, becoming Celtic’s most dominant and most consistent centre-back.
Brendan Rodgers has mixed and matched his centre backs but all are required to be as comfortable on the deck, progressive in their passing, as they are dealing with defensive duels, long balls etc. Simunovic has been excellent in both regards. He is physically strong, aggressive and scores highly in defensive duel success.
Celtic, of course, see a lot of the ball so defenders have to act like deep-lying midfielders, beginning phases of play, circulating possession positively and quickly. The more opposition players taking out the game by a Celtic defender the more space the likes of Stuart Armstrong, Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic have to thrive. Excellent work from @TheSPFLRadar has shown that out of Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts - the teams with the most possession - Simunovic has the second highest figure in terms of opponents beaten with passes, while he records the highest amount of players taken out of the game per successful forward pass for a Celtic centre back.