World Cup 2018: Five number fives defending with their lives

With five days to go, RealSport pick out some of the best centre backs heading to Russia.


Attack wins games, defence wins titles is how the old saying goes.

And it’s never been more relevent that at the World Cup, with an organised and effective defence absolutely essential for any side harbouring ambitions of reaching the latter stages of the tournament.

You can read RealSport’s best number sixes feature HERE.

Football is inherently subjective and a midfielder like Sergio Busquets might epitomise the number five position for some, whilst others associate it more with old-school centre backs, such as Rio Ferdinand, who donned the number five shirt for Manchester United. For this piece, the number five shirt will represent a centre back.

RealSport pick out the best five going to Russia.

  1. 1 Jan Vertonghen [Belgium]


    REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

    A stalwart of Tottenham in recent years, Jan Vertonghen has arguably been overshadowed by the ever-impressive Toby Alderweireld, who is his Belgian partner at the back.

    However, with Alderweireld either injured or marginalised by Mauricio Pochettino for a majority of the season, Tottenham number five Vertonghen has stepped into the limelight, establishing himself as one of the best defenders in the Premier League.

    KEY STAT: Vertonghen was Belgium's first ever player to reach 100 caps, 11 years to the day he made his debut, against the same opposition.

    Not only is the 31-year-old an exceptional centre back and comfortable on the ball, he's become a vocal leader and key component in Spurs' defensive organisation.

    With Vincent Kompany injured, Vertonghen's presence at the heart of Belgium's defence will be even more crucial than previously.

  2. 2 Diego Godin [Uruguay]


    REUTERS/Andres Stapff

    The Atletico Madrid centre back and vice-captain takes the armband for himself at international level, symbolising his importance to the Uruguayan national team.

    Diego Godin is essential in establishing defensive organisation and solidity at the back for both club and country, and as a breed of old-school defender we don't get to enjoy as much in the modern game.

    He celebrates every tackle, interception and block as if he scored a goal.

    KEY STAT: Diego Godin made more tackles, blocks and interceptions (130) than any other Atletico Madrid player in 2017/18.

    Given Uruguay's defensive 4-4-2 system, tending to emphasise organisation and reducing vulnerability, as opposed to opting for an attacking style of play,  Godin's experience and leadership skills are important.

    A tenacious defender and fantastic leader, Godin is crucial to Uruguay, who could possibly top Group A of the World Cup.

  3. 3 Mats Hummels [Germany]


    REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

    With Jerome Boateng failing to make over 20 Bundesliga appearances since the 2014/15 season, Mats Hummels has consequently grown in stature since his arrival at Bayern Munich in the summer of 2016.

    Widely recognised as one of the best centre backs in the world, Hummels physically strong, comfortable on the ball and extremely consistent.

    KEY STAT: Mats Hummels made completed more defensive actions than any other Bayern Munich player in 2017/18.

    In fact, his elegance, composure and confidence in possession have seen him earn comparisons with German legend Franz Beckenbauer. For Germany to win the World Cup, they'll be demanding Beckenbauer-esque performances from the 29-year-old.

    Partnered by Boateng for both club and country, the emphasis is on Hummels to organise the defence and protect left back Jonas Hector, the weaker link the German back four.

  4. 4 Sergio Ramos [Spain]


    REUTERS/Stringer

    Liverpool fans hate him. Barcelona fans hate him. In fact, even some sections of the Spanish fanbase hate him.

    Sergio Ramos is one of the most divisive characters in football, but that doesn't take anything away from the fact that he's a world class centre back. 

    A no-nonsence defender and a scorer of highly important goals -he's netted 76 career goals- Ramos is an aggressive tackler and an athletic centre back, even at the age of 32.

    KEY STAT: Ramos has been elected to the FIFPro World XI eight times, a record for a defender and the fourth-most all-time.

    Moreover, Ramos has been around the block, he knows how to get the job done. A consistent performer in the biggest of games, Ramos has won 22 major trophies with Spain and Real Madrid and will be key if Spain are to claim a second World Cup.

    Perhaps the best -or worst- thing about Ramos is that he knows exactly how to get under an opponent's skin. He winds them up to breaking point with niggling fouls and, for this reason, he's an absolute nightmare to play against.

    Captain for both club and country, every team needs a Sergio Ramos, and Spain are lucky to have the original.

  5. 5 Medihi Benatia [Morocco]

    I could easily have opted for one of Raphael Varane or Samuel Umtiti for France because they're some of the best in the world, but there's one man set to fight tooth and nail for his country this summer: Mehdi Benatia.

    The Juventus centre back has forged a repuation for himself as one of the best defenders in Serie A and is well-known for his aerial ability and strength in the challenge.

    KEY STAT: Benatia has only scored twice for Morocco, one of which was in the 2-0 victory over Ivory Coast to qualify for the World Cup. He described it as the "most beautiful moment of [his] career."

    To show just how much he cares for Morocco, Benatia actually withdrew himself from international duty to allow someone playing regular football to take his play, stating it was "unfair" when he wasn't starting for Juventus.

    Now a first choice for the Old Lady, Benatia will be crucial for the Atlas Lions if they want to progress from Group B.

Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group C in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.

  1. POLL: Which centre back will be most important at the World Cup?

    1. Sergio Ramos
    2. Mats Hummels
    3. Jan Vertonghen
    4. Diego Godin
    5. Medhi Benatia
    12 votes
    Share Your Result

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Oli Stein

Oli graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in History and has worked with RealSport since September 2016.

Currently assistant football editor and Tottenham correspondent.

Follow him on Twitter: @steinoliver_

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