This year’s list was tricky for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of centre-backs on the two most high-profile clubs in the country are what you would describe as “much-maligned”. The difficulty is trying to decipher whether these are poor central defenders, or whether they’re held to a higher standard than the rest of the league and mistakes are magnified as a result. And if they were in another team in the league, maybe they would be perceived differently - Efe Ambrose being the most obvious example of this.
Secondly, there’s the debate around what tools you want in a centre-back first and foremost. Is it purely about their defensive capabilities? Or should those who can function as auxiliary midfielders be given greater respect as a result, seeing as that’s the way of the world in modern football.
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. Darren McGregor (Hibs)
We begin our list with a player who’s flown a little under the radar this term, even within the confines of his own club. Hibs fans may sing about Darren McGregor - he, the class defender who never gives the ball awaaaaaaaaaay - but it’s been Paul Hanlon and Efe Ambrose (more on them later) who’ve been taking the lion’s share of plaudits.
McGregor himself is having a fine season after moving up from the Championship, where he starred for Hibs in their promotion-clinching campaign. He’s certainly showed Rangers they were wrong for releasing him before embarking on their own second-tier title-winning adventure, as he’s looked more comfortable at the highest level than either Rob Kiernan or Danny Wilson.
Still, McGregor has been used to proving people wrong. Throughout his career he’s often been deployed at right-back or at the base of midfield. This has partly been down to his comfort on the football, though you can’t help but feel managers have been put off by his lack of height, standing at around 6ft. He’s deceptively authoritative, capable of both out-muscling and leaping over attackers bigger than he is.
Best moment: Despite missing over three months with injury, McGregor returned to the side and put in a confident display as Hibs defeated Partick Thistle 1-0 at Firhill.
Stats: McGregor is fifth in the league for winning his aerial duels with a 73.49 per cent success rate.
11. Dedryck Boyata (Celtic)
Last season we put the Belgian in at a tentative eighth place. The reason we didn’t rank him higher was because, while he’d excelled under Brendan Rodgers for a few months, there was no doubt he was a complete bombscare, to borrow common Scottish football parlance, the season prior. Basically, we needed a bigger sample size to prove his reliability.
As you can probably tell from the fact he’s dropped three places instead of rising up the table, he’s not done that in the time since.
Boyata has regressed this term. The errors which once defined his play have crept back with increasingly regularity. Where he looked imperilous and formidable under Rodgers in the Invincibles season, he now appears unsure of himself and his surroundings and can be easily riled by an imposing centre forward.
The fact that he can completely dominate any opponent in this league when he’s on his game means he’s still a deserved inclusion in this top 12, but he should be much higher.
Best moment: One of his better performances came in the 5-0 victory over Rangers at Parkhead as Celtic wrapped up the league title.
Stats: The Belgian has made 1920 passes, more than any other centre-back.
10. Joe Shaughnessy (St Johnstone)
Another who hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons but manages to squeak on to the list due to past glories. Shaughnessy was solid enough in the first part of the campaign, but soon he, like the rest of his team-mates, entered into a malaise which has plagued them throughout the 2017/18 season.
He’s started to look like himself again recently with Saints’ new three-at-the-back system bringing back the best in him and Steven Anderson, as well as giving a platform for impressive youngster Jason Kerr.
When he’s on top form, Shaughnessy provides both height and range to the defensive corps. Though he doesn’t look like a typical centre-half with long, lean limbs, he often uses those long legs to get his foot on the ball at the final second, just as his opponent is getting ready to pull the trigger. As someone who spent a bit of time at full-back he’s composed enough in possession and delivers a mean long throw.
Best moment: The Irishman impressed as Saints were able to nick three points and a clean sheet from a December trip to Hamilton.
Stats: Only Christophe Berra has blocked more shots than Shaugnessy’s 22.
9 Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)
The Croatian hasn’t enjoyed a good time of it recently. He hasn’t played since seeing red in Celtic’s 3-2 come-from-behind win at Ibrox in early March and, quite frankly, is still lucky to be on this list with several alarming displays over previous months.
However, this time last season he was widely viewed as the best centre-back in the country and that’s got to count for something. He even started this season in solid enough form as he desperately tried to hold together Celtic’s crumbling defence with injury forcing Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko out of action for lengthy spells.
Perhaps the hammerings in Europe took their toll on his confidence, because even in Scottish football he’s struggled since the Champions League group stages.
If he can rediscover his previous form then there’s no doubt he’ll be an asset for Celtic. Not only is Simunovic comfortable in possession, he’s also deceptively strong and good in the air. Not particularly slow for a centre-back either, he’s got the tools to be dominant. He just needs to put the pieces back together again.
Best moment: Brendan Rodgers’ side may not have made it to the UCL group stages if Simunovic hadn’t put in a tremendous performance in the away leg in Rosenborg, which the Hoops won 1-0.
Stats: Simunovic’s 39.29 per cent success rate in defensive duels is the league’s best.
8. John Souttar (Hearts)
Souttar has continued to improve in maroon and white this campaign, showing no ill-effects of the Achilles injury which ended his previous season in January.
With each passing month he seems to become a more reliable protector and goes closer to eliminating the basic errors which were once a common aspect of his play. He’s also become a stronger defender in terms of his physical stature, bulking out and improving on his aerial capability.
The arrival of Christophe Berra has certainly helped, as Souttar picks up on his defensive partner’s influence and learns from someone who played in both the English Premiership and has represented Scotland 41 times.
What makes Souttar stand out in the confines of the Scottish Premiership, though, is his comfort on the ball. He is capable of both driving forward and dropping a 50-yard pass on to a sixpence.
Best moment: Hearts 1-0 win over St Johnstone in October not only saw Souttar excelling at the back, he also took all of the team’s set-pieces.
Stats: The former Dundee United defender is 10th in the league for interceptions with 214.
7. Efe Ambrose (Hibs)
When he was at Celtic, fans basically thought he was the worst defender in the league. That was because, for a while, he may as well have been. Yes, he could do so many things that other centre-backs couldn’t, but it got to a stage where a week wouldn’t go by without him making a glaring error. Even Brendan Rodgers - the man who resurrected the careers of Scott Brown, James Forrest, Dedryck Boyata and Stuart Armstrong - took a quick look at Ambrose and thought “nah”.
Going down to the Championship with Hibs was the best thing the Nigerian could have done. Playing at a level clearly below his talents, he was able to build his confidence back up, shining every single week as Hibs managed to finish well clear of their nearest challengers in the second tier.
Ambrose then made another smart decision to remain with Neil Lennon’s side for the following campaign. Playing for a manager who believes in him, he’s been able to prove that he was better than his final year or so at Celtic indicated.
Mistakes still occur, but they are nowhere near as frequent as they once were. In between, there’s plenty of productive centre-back play, as he remains one of the best in the league at anticipating and cutting out intended passes around the penalty area, while being a dab hand himself at dribbling out of defence and contributing to the attack.
Best moment: He thoroughly impressed against his old side at Easter Road in a 2-2 draw, including netting the goal which got Hibs back into the match.
Stats: With a 78.82 per cent success rate, he’s the best centre-back at dribbling around opponents in the top flight.
6. Cedric Kipre (Motherwell)
He may not perform back-flips when he celebrates scoring, but that’s just about the only thing Motherwell’s young French enforcer doesn’t do in a claret and amber shirt.
Initially signed on a one-year deal, Kipre has impressed so much over the course of the campaign that he’s been given not one, but two new contracts, the last of which will keep him at Fir Park until 2020.
He can be a little erratic on occasion and lacks the concentration of those above him on this list. He also has an unfortunately specific habit of being wrongly sent off in matches against Celtic. With that being said he’s got just above everything you’d want in a defender at this level. He’s big but mobile; strong but fast. He can get stuck in and dribble the ball out from the back. Then there’s his reading of the game. While he can sometimes gamble and at others switch off completely, he has made the most interceptions in the top flight this term.
Furthermore, from the snippets of insight which appear frequently on Motherwell’s social media channels, he’s a popular member of the dressing room. This relationship extends to the supporters also, who are fond of chanting his name whatever the occasion.
Best moment: Taking the applause of the Motherwell fans after helping the side to reach a second cup final with a 3-0 victory over Aberdeen at Hampden last month.
Stats: The Ivory Coast international leads the league in interceptions with 294.
5. Kirk Broadfoot (Kilmarnock)
The former Rangers and St Mirren man is looked upon as a figure of fun in Scottish football terms. Perhaps it’s because he moves rather awkwardly, and having played at Ibrox for several years, along with four caps for Scotland, his idiosyncrasies have been highlighted and wrongly perceived as weakness. Perhaps it’s because he was attacked by an egg. Who knows?
Many laughed at Kilmarnock for signing the 33-year-old and then sat back smugly when he struggled in the Betfred Cup and opening month of the Ladbrokes Premiership. However, as soon as Steve Clarke walked in through the door he’s been a player transformed.
So often he’s in the right spot to bail out Killie at the back. Using his experience he senses danger and drifts over accordingly. He’s also one of the best in the league at moving around opposing forwards under pressure near his own goal and launching attacks that way.
Then there’s his ability to get under the skin of opponents. The most obvious example being his baiting of Ryan Jack in the 1-1 draw at Ibrox, where Jack’s retaliation to Broadfoot standing on his toes led to a lengthy delay at a penalty, which ten-man Rangers then missed before Killie grabbed a last-gasp equaliser.
Best moment: He put in a superb performance later in the season as Killie defeated Rangers at Ibrox, winning 1-0 thanks to a Kris Boyd goal.
Stats: Broadfoot leads Killie’s centre-backs in aerial duels with 233.
4. Paul Hanlon (Hibs)
There was once a match where Paul Hanlon was being so physically dominated by an opposing centre-forward that he had to be substituted with 20 minutes remaining. It’s difficult to say which aspect of this story reflects worse on Hanlon. Was it that the striker in question was Nadir Ciftci? Or that the player replacing Hanlon was Daniel Boateng - an Arsenal loanee who struggled badly for League One Airdrieonians last season? Then there’s the PTSD-inducing reminder that Terry Butcher was the Hibs manager at the time.
What is certain, though, is the massive improvement in Hanlon since that time. He used his three years playing in the lower leagues to build up both his body and his confidence. Coming back to the Premiership this term it has undoubtedly been the best campaign of his career and it was a shame he didn’t make the Scotland squad when Russell Martin (seriously?) and Jack Hendry were both called ahead of him.
Not only has he proven himself to be a robust and dependable defender at the top flight level, he’s also shown off his abilities as an interloping attacker. When he bounds down the left-wing at pace it generally creates havoc in the opposing back-line, mainly because they don’t see it coming.
Best moment: While it would be tempting to go for his game-changing performance in the 2-1 win against Dundee - where he looked more Brandon Barker than Darren McGregor - his showing in the victory over Celtic last month truly was something special.
Stats: He’s made 207 interceptions in the Scottish top flight this season, eighth among all centre-backs.
3. Scott McKenna (Aberdeen)
The young defender is a reminder that, regardless of how much you study and dissect football, it will always present you with things you just didn’t see coming.
This time last year the centre-back had only recently completed a disappointing loan spell with Ayr United, where McKenna had long been relegated to the bench for some erratic play, including a brutal challenge on John McGinn in a Scottish Cup defeat at Easter Road. With little sign of a first-team place at Pittodrie on the horizon he was facing an uncertain future. If he couldn’t hack it at the Scottish Championship level then what kind of career did that leave?
In the end he needn’t have worried. Pitched into the starting XI this season to add a bit more steel to the Aberdeen defence in place of Mark Reynolds, McKenna impressed in the 1-0 win. Soon the one-off success became a good month, then a good few months, and now a great first season, which has been rewarded with a Young Player of the Year nomination and international honours.
Physically he’s everything you could ask for in a central defender. Broad, tall, robust and doesn’t run like he’s towing a tractor. But what’s been most impressive is his consistency. There have been a couple of shaky performances of late - most notably in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Motherwell - but overall he’s made very few mistakes. He’s undoubtedly been the club’s best defender this term, and arguably their best player.
Best moment: His spectacular 35-yard belter against Kilmarnock, which helped the Dons to a 3-1 win.
Stats: Of all players 21 and under, Scott McKenna leads aerial duels per 90 minutes with 10.28.
2. Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)
Bigger clubs should always have at least one ball-playing centre-back in their arsenal, preferably two. These are the guys who see most of the ball due to the other side dropping back and daring the superior side to pick them apart, so it makes sense that these players are good at advancing the play themselves.
Ajer is both proficient at passing the ball from the back and taking it on a run himself. His technical prowess should come as no surprise, seeing as he was an attacking central midfielder at Start when Celtic first signed him. The Parkhead side immediately saw him as a defender, due to his immense height, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
For someone who rarely played in the position before arriving in Scotland, it says a lot about Ajer’s hard work and potential that he’s already made himself one of the best defenders in the country. And it’s not just down to his ball-playing abilities. While he may have resembled a rake when he first signed, he’s quickly filled out and no longer looks like a stiff breeze would knock him over.
Furthermore, he’s one of the best players in the Ladbrokes Premiership at winning his aerial battles. The sky really is the limit for the 20-year-old.
Best moment: The youngster proved he could handle the pressure of playing for Celtic as he starred in an early season win at Rugby Park, a ground where he excelled for Kilmarnock on loan last term.
Stats: Ajer has won 73.97 percent of his aerial duels, the fourth best in the league.
1. Christophe Berra (Hearts)
A polarising figure in Edinburgh. Hearts fans worship at his feet. Hibs fans think he’s a huddy.
Critics believe he epitomises everything wrong with the Jambos approach because he blooters it long rather than attempting to dribble forward or execute a through ball. Are they wrong? Who cares? The boy can flat out defend.
If there is a team putting your side under considerable pressure, whether it’s the first minute or the last, there is nobody in this league you should want more in the penalty box than the Hearts captain. He is both excellent in the air and anticipates danger brilliantly around the final third. He’s 6ft 3in, has a good leap to go with his height and never seems to misjudge the flight of the ball. During his first spell supporters nicknamed his ‘The Magnet’ and it would be equally deserving this time around.
In the open field he can sometimes get caught out if forced to turn. He’s cumbersome and doesn’t change direction all that quickly. However, despite what some say, he’s actually fairly pacey for a bulky defender in his mid-30s. Look at his recovery to stop Simon Murray scoring a second for Hibs in the first derby at Easter Road for proof.
Best moment: He played a huge role, including a part in the winning goal, as Hearts defeated Hibs in the Scottish Cup in January.
Stats: With 407 aerial duels he leads all centre-backs in the Scottish Premiership, winning 71.99 per cent of them.