We recently had a fair amount of success and positive feedback on a video looking at the 7 greatest attacking trios of all time. There were lots of interesting suggestions for similar videos we could do, from the best centre-back partnerships to the best midfields, but the one we’re going to look at today is the best back fours.
It’s worth noting that only really since the early 1960’s have back fours become common place, which is good news for many of you, since you often tell me off for including anyone from before the 1990’s. The back four rule is bad news for some great Italian defences though, with the nation often having had a fondness for a back five.
As with our attacking trios video, we made a list of over 25 fantastic back fours and then ranked them out of 10 for individual talents and out of 10 for how well they operated as a unit, with their overall score out of 20 determining who featured and where they featured. For example, Greece’s back four at Euro 2004 scored very highly for their performances as a unit, but no so highly for their individual talents. Also, just like last time, longevity isn’t a contributing factor, but the back four must have spent at least one season or one major tournament playing together.
Here are our 7 greatest back fours of all time
7. Kennedy, Hansen, Lawrenson & Neal
Just edging out some quite brilliant back fours to make seventh place in this seven, and we will look at the honourable mentions between first and second place as usual, is Liverpool’s back four of the mid-1980’s. Hansen was the pick of the bunch, a world class centre-half with a brilliant understanding of the game, but both centre-backs were comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. Kennedy was a real outlet down the left, whilst Neal was a tireless and intelligent right-back. In their four years together, the quartet won 3 First Division titles, 3 League Cup’s, a European Cup and a Charity Shield.
6. De Boer, Blind, Rijkaard & Reiziger
Jurgen Klinsmann (L) from West Germany and Frank Rijkaard from the Netherlands during a round of 16 game of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
This is the most controversial inclusion in this seven, and we’ll explain why. I was quite strict when putting this list together to only include back fours, and the quartet featured here are a bit of an unusual case. Far from a conventional back four, one could argue that it was a back three made up of De Boer, Blind and Reiziger, whilst Rijkaard sometimes operated in a slightly more advanced role as a sweeper. We have decided that a sweeper should count as part of a backline, and therefore, this Ajax defence of the mid-1990’s makes it in.
All Dutch internationals who won 42, 72, 73 and 112 caps for their country respectively, these four scored highly for individual ability. Frank Rijkaard, despite being on the verge of retirement, was still the standout player. A wonderfully intelligent and complete footballer, between him and Frank De Boer, Ajax had two defenders of exceptional technical ability who were both sublime passers of a ball.
Blind was also a veteran by this point, but he still had fantastic stamina and served as captain of the team, whilst Reiziger had searing pace, despite not being quite as defensively or technically proficient. This quartet only really spent one season together, but they did win an Eredivisie, Champions League and Johan Cruyff Shield treble in that season.
5. Maldini, Nesta, Stam & Cafu
Well, you can imagine how highly this quartet scored in terms of individual ability. All four were world class, and that’s not a term we use lightly. Maldini, Nesta and Cafu were all lengthy servants to AC Milan, but Jaap Stam only spent two seasons at the San Siro, meaning it was just two seasons that these four spent together.
During that time, the club probably didn’t have as much success as you’d expect, although they came mightily close. They won the Italian Super Cup, finished as Serie A runners-up in both seasons, lost to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final and Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League semi-final.
Maldini was a first class student of the game with impeccable defensive pedigree. You could use the same description to describe Alessandro Nesta, who is one of games all-time great centre-backs, despite his injury troubles. Stam was just a defensive colossus, whose size, speed and strength made him so difficult to beat, and Cafu seemed to have three lungs, with his extraordinary stamina making him a nightmare for any opponent down that right flank.
4. Facchetti, Guarneri, Picchi & Burgnich
(R) Luca Moretti of FC Internazionale in action during the match between FC Internazionale U17 and AC Milan U17 at Centro Sportivo Interello Giacinto Facchetti on September 30, 2018 in...
A back four which formed the bedrock of Inter Milan’s famed ‘Grande Inter’ side of the early-mid 1960’s for five years, this quartet was typically Italian. Take nothing away from their footballing talents, Facchetti in particular was arguably Europe’s first truly great offensive full-back, but all four were so astute defensively. In fact, in terms of their pure defensive solidity, we’d be tempted to name these four as the best back four of all time.
Facchetti was a real menace who loved to bomb forward down the left, Guarneri was a rock solid centre-back, Picchi used his exceptional reading of the game to operate as a sweeper and Burgnich was nicknamed ‘the Rock’, so we’ll let you guess what type of player he was. Under the leadership of Helenio Herrera, this back four contributed to 3 Serie A titles, 2 European Cups and 2 Intercontinental Cups in just five years together.
3. Breitner, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer & Vogts
Into the top three and we’re now talking about some seriously impenetrable back fours. In third place is the West German defence between 1971 and 1977, made up of Paul Breitner, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Franz Beckenbauer and Berti Vogts. Three of those four featured in our positional greatest of all time series, and even the least well-known - Schwarzenbeck - was a very accomplished centre-back.
Beckenbauer, also known as the Keiser, is the greatest defender of all time, having begun his career in central midfield. A brilliant reader of the game who was so brave, technical and an excellent passer of the ball, when we talk about sweepers in football, no-one comes close. Breitner was a tireless left-back who could do it all, whilst Vogts was as consistent as they come, providing such energy, intelligence and athleticism down the right.
Together, they won the World Cup in 1974, whilst all but Vogts won plenty more together at Bayern Munich.
2. Lizarazu, Blanc, Desailly & Thuram
Former football player Bixente Lizarazu during the 2018 Friendly Game football match between France 98 and FIFA 98 on June 12, 2018 at U Arena in Nanterre near Paris, France
Once again, man-for-man, what an incredible quartet of players this is. France’s back four as they won consecutive major trophies at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, these four were all top class. At left-back, Lizarazu could run for days. Blanc, a giant converted attacking midfielder, brought a combination of class and technique to the backline. Desailly was a rock, refusing to be beaten on the ground or in the air, and Thuram is among the finest right-backs the game has ever seen.
When these four played together, France never lost a game, and that’s quite incredible. They came within inches of topping this seven.
0. Honourable Mentions
It’s at this point that I tell you some of the combinations that made our shortlist and you head over to the comments and tell me all the ones I forgot, some of whom I may actually of overlooked, and some of whom I just don’t rate as highly as you.
One back four that you may have been expecting to feature may have been Arsenal’s quartet of Winterburn, Adams, Bould and Dixon, who were just half a point behind seventh place. Sticking in England, the recent back fours of Cole, Terry, Carvalho and Ferreira at Chelsea and Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand and Neville at Manchester United both earnt inclusions.
The most recent of all was Real Madrid’s four of Marcelo, Varane, Ramos and Carvajal, who we think are narrowly superior to Marcelo, Pepe, Ramos and Carvajal.
Greece’s 2004 back four, who were mentioned in the introduction, were considered, having enjoyed great success with their unusual tactical approach as the Greeks recorded a shock European title. So too were Brazil’s back four of Nilton Santos, Orlando, Bellini and Djalma Santos, who formed the backbone of their 1962 World Cup success.
Those are just some of our particularly honourable mentions, we’d love to hear your suggestions, but firstly there is the small matter of top spot…
1. Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta & Tassotti
Franco Baresi of AC Milan attends the Serie A 2018
When it comes to defending, the Italians do it better. It makes sense then for this seven to be topped by an Italian backline, and one containing four of the finest defenders to have put on a pair of boots. Paolo Maldini, who is comfortably among the greatest defenders to have ever lived, is the only man to feature in this seven twice. Franco Baresi, who we would argue was even better defensively, captained this AC Milan side. Costacurta was an uncompromising and intelligent centre-back, whilst Tassotti was just a brilliant all-round right-back.
As well as containing two all time greats and two world class defenders though, these four played brilliantly as a unit. Longevity isn’t taken into account here, but if it was, they’d have come out on top even more comfortably. They spent eleven years playing together, during which time they developed an extraordinary understanding.
Under Arrigo Sacchi, Milan began playing an extraordinary pressing game, where their defence took on a madman approach of squeezing the opposition, hunting in packs and attempting to play them offside. It was bizarre to watch, but incredibly effective.
Between 1988 and 1995, under firstly Sacchi and then Fabio Capello, Milan won the European Cup three times and were losing finalists twice.