Premier League Top 5 Defenders heading into 2014/15 season

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Defenders get no love, which is exactly why pre-season Top 5 pieces like this exist.

Nailing down who, exactly, are the best defenders is no easy task. It wasn’t but a few years ago that center-backs were the most recognized of the back four but in modern football one overlooks outside backs at his own peril. They defend, they attack and in doing so they cause a lot of problems.

So let’s get to it.

Below are the Top 5 defenders heading into the 2014/15 Premier League season.

1. Pablo Zabaleta – Manchester City

Is there a better right-back in the world than Pablo Zabaleta? Evertonians might argue Seamus Coleman – and perhaps someday the Irishman will claim that title – but for now the 29-year old Argentine is king of the hill. An incredible one-on-one defender, Zabaleta is nearly impossible to slip by while offensively, his devilish runs and ability to both create and finish makes him the complete player. As always, he’ll be key to Manchester City’s hopes of a repeat.

2. Vincent Kompany – Manchester City

Joining Zabaleta on the Top 5 list is teammate Vincent Kompany. Built like a super hero, Kompany has the brains to match the brawn, a sublime touch, prescient anticipation and poses major danger on set pieces. His most valuable trait, however, is his world-class leadership. City rarely falls apart but when they do it’s almost always when Kompany is out of the match due to either suspension or injury. Fortunately, he’s a disciplined player so that rarely happens. Easily the best center-back in the Premier League, Kompany’s presence is crucial for City’s success.

3. Seamus Coleman – Everton

For five years Coleman’s talent had been building. He always had speed. Then he developed a touch on the ball, then a shot, then a cross. And then, finally, he mastered the art of defense, which made Coleman the total product – an attacking fullback with a penchant for goal. Last year the Irishman scored six times in league play while he and Everton conceded the third fewest goals of any club in the Premier League. Not bad for a kid bought five years ago for $800,000 from Sligo Rovers.

4. Branislav Ivanovic – Chelsea

Hard to find a tougher man in the Premier League than Branislav Ivanovic. Built like a tank, the Serbian is as hard to move off the ball as he is to get past on the dribble. He’s also incredibly versatile, able to play right-back or center-back with equal success. Going forward, Ivanovic is a danger but he truly thrives on set pieces where he’s nearly impossible to track and an expert header of the ball. Ivanovic may fly under the radar when it comes to Chelsea players but he’s a must-have for any conversation about the best defenders in the league.

5. Leighton Baines – Everton

The other half of Everton’s dangerous full-back corps is Leighton Baines. For years the left-back has been hailed as one of the best in England and last year he finally eclipsed Ashley Cole on the international level. For Everton, Baines’ trickery and ability to create from a defensive position makes him a nightmare for opposing teams. Last year his offensive contribution was somewhat diluted due to the injury to his usual partner in crime on the wing, Steven Pienaar, but Baines still made his mark from spot kicks, notably scoring an incredible double to help defeat West Ham at the Boleyn Ground.

Honorable Mention: John Terry (Chelsea), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Dejan Lovren (Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Curtis Davies (Hull City)

Southgate hails “patient” England, young squad’s tactical nuance

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Inevitably, teams end up taking on the personality and temperament of a talented coach/manager, which in the case of the England squad competing at the 2018 World Cup, is a massive compliment to the Three Lions’ current boss, Gareth Southgate.

[ MORE: Kane “buzzing” after brace secures late win in World Cup debut ]

Southgate, who’s 47 and only four tournaments removed from his second and final World Cup appearance for England, has changed the outside world’s perception of an institution that once seemed arrogant, elitist and entitled, opting to take one of the youngest squads (average age: 25.6 years old) to Russia, and to turn them loose.

On Monday, it was 24-year-old Harry Kane who scored twice and bailed the feel-good favorites out of jail with a 91st-minute winner (WATCH HERE) to largely erase the frustrating hour which preceded it. These growing pains are, of course, to be expected with so little major tournament experience. Southgate, as expected, was pleased with how they responded — quotes from the BBC:

“I was happy with the way we kept playing even though the clock was running down. We stayed patient, we didn’t just throw the ball in the box. We deserved the win.

“We created so many clear-cut chances, especially in the first half, and were in total control in the second half. We were strong on set plays all night. Even if we’d drawn, we‘d have been proud of the performance.

“We’ll do well to make as many chances in a game again in this tournament. The movement, pace, control from the back with the ball was pleasing. We wore them down. Good teams score late goals — if you dominate the ball like that the opposition tire.

“As for Harry Kane the only thing he hasn’t done now is score in August — he’s moved every other barrier. He will feel pride of leading a country to a World Cup win is the most important thing.”

“The way we would change the game is to have different profiles of players that would provide a different threat. You can put attacking players in different positions but lose shape and be caught on the counter-attack.

“The guys that came on had a different threat. As a team you keep working and working. The best teams in the world keep the belief in what they’re doing and in the end break teams down.”

Kane “buzzing” after brace secures late win in World Cup debut

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Four years ago, Harry Kane watched the 2014 World Cup, alongside Tottenham Hotspur teammates, friends and family, while on vacation in Dubai and Portugal, and during the club’s preseason tour of the United States.

[ MORE: Southgate hails “patient” England, young squad’s tactical nuance ]

Fast-forward 48 months, and Kane made his World Cup debut on Monday, scoring both goals, including the stoppage-time winner (WATCH HERE), in England’s Group G-opening 2-1 victory over Tunisia. It’s an outcome we should have seen coming, considering he’s racked up 105 goals (in the Premier League; 135 in all club competitions; another 13 for England prior to Monday) since the start of the 2014-15 season.

Kane continues to take his superstardom — no matter how unlikely or ill-fitting it looks on him — in stride, using obvious phrases like, “It’s the World Cup,” to which you might think, “Well, yes, Harry, it sure is,” and then you realize he sees himself as nothing more than a giddy child living out a lifelong dream — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s massive. I’m so proud of the lads. It’s tough. We played so well especially in the first half and we could have scored a few more. We kept going. It’s a World Cup, you go to the last second. I’m absolutely buzzing.

“We’ve done it for a while [had good resilience] since the gaffer has been here — he’s instilled it into us. We’ve got a great bond off the pitch so it’s great to see it on the pitch. We’ll get onto the plane happy tonight.

“We could have had a couple of penalties, especially when you look at theirs. A few corners, they were trying to grab, hold and stop us running. Maybe a bit of justice to score at the back post at the end. That’s football, that’s the ref. It showed good character to get on with it.

“We are proud of each other and in a World Cup you are not sure how it is going to go, but we have a great togetherness and are always proud to see it come off in the game. We never panicked, never looked like conceding another one and got what we deserved in the end.

“We got told there would be a lot of flies and when we went out for the match it was a lot more than we thought. We all had bug spray on and it was important as some of them went in your eyes, some in your mouth, but it is about dealing with what comes your way.”

Kane will be the first to tell you that he’s been handed nothing during his career. Early on, before breaking into Tottenham’s first team, he endured four largely unsuccessful loan spells over the course of three seasons, at which point his career path appeared destined for England’s lower leagues. Through his refuse-to-lose attitude, an insatiable appetite to continue improving, and eagerly stepping up to the moment every time a new, grander stage is laid in front of him, he’s now 24 years old and set to captain his national team for the next decade.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

It’s this kind of wide-eyed, relatable approach that endears this young Three Lions side (average age: 25.6 years old) to neutral viewers and made them a popular, if unlikely, feel-good favorite ahead of the tournament in Russia. Following Monday’s performance — no matter how belabored the result itself might have been — the bandwagon will continue to fill up, and Kane is reasons no. 1, 2, 3 and 4 for that fact.

Kane scores early and late, England narrowly top Tunisia

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England’s 2018 World Cup debut began brilliantly, then appeared headed for a disappointingly familiar outcome, but was ultimately saved by Harry Kane who scored both goals in the Three Lions’ 2-1 victory over Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

England came sprinting out of the starting blocks — so quickly they nearly took flight — and taking an early lead through Harry Kane in the 11th minute (WATCH HERE). John Stones‘ header was spectacularly saved by Mouez Hassen, but Kane was in the right place at the right time and swept home the rebound for his first World Cup goal (on his World Cup debut).

The opening half-hour was all England, with the likes of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling cutting through the Tunisian midfield and defense with very little resistance and creating a half-dozen golden scoring chances. Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate‘s side, they couldn’t capitalize, and they were made to pay for it.

Kyle Walker caught Fakhreddine Ben Youssef with a raised arm as an innocuous cross came into the box, prompting referee Wilmar Roldan to blow his whistle and point to the penalty spot immediately. Ferjani Sassi stepped up and converted, just out of reach of Jordan Pickford, who perhaps got a fingertip on the ball (WATCH HERE), to make it 1-1 and negate an otherwise dominant first-half performance by England. It would be Tunisia’s only shot on goal for the game.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

England’s best chance to re-establish a lead came during a six-yard-box scramble just seconds before halftime. Alli’s header hit the crossbar and Stones badly scuffed — nearly whiffed — on the follow-up. Kane was dragged to the ground during the rest of the commotion, to no interest of Roldan.

It took far longer than anyone back home in England would have liked, but Kane grabbed the winner in the 91st minute, heading home from acres of space at the back post. Jordan Henderson got the first crack at heading the corner kick, but it was blocked and bound high into the air. Somehow, some way, Kane was unmarked and snuck his redirect just inside the post.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Up next for England is a meeting with Panama on Sunday, a day after Tunisia take on Belgium, who thrashed the Panamanians, 3-0, on Monday.

VIDEO: Tunisia equalizes on controversial penalty kick

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England centerback Kyle Walker put his arm up to halt the forward progress of Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Unfortunately for Walker, Ben Youssef was in the box and Walker’s elbow caught Ben Youssef’s face.

Referee Wilmar Roldan quickly whistled for a penalty kick and despite the protests from a half-dozen of England players and a check from the VAR, the called stood. Ferjani Sassi’stepped up to the spot and found the lower-left corner, just barely beating Jordan Pickford to tie the game in the 35th minute.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news

How will England respond?