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Historically, the left-back position was the least well-populated space on a football pitch. Around 80% of all footballers are right-footed, and with the inverted full-back (a right-footed player playing on the left of the defence, or vice versa) only entering the mainstream relatively recently, elite left-backs have been hard to come by in the Premier League era.
The flip side is that when one appears, they are a near-priceless commodity. In this list, we’ll examine the best left-backs to play in English football since the dawn of the Premier League in 1992.
This top ten will be based on several criteria, namely longevity, innovation, titles won, and natural ability.
10. Phil Neville
A cursory look at Phil Neville’s Wikipedia page reveals a career groaning with the weight of trophies – 14 to be precise, including six Premier League titles between 1996 and 2003.
Had he made the left-back position his home, he might well have found himself at the business end of this list. But Neville’s versatility – in this case – is his downfall. He spent time in both full-back positions, as well as covering any and every role in midfield. The archetypal utility player, he is remembered fondly at United as well as Everton, where he spent the second half of his career.
9. Leighton Baines
There are 127 goals in this top ten. 32 of them – over a quarter – were scored by Leighton Baines. A full-back who would look as at home as the brooding guitarist for an up and coming post-punk band as he did in a flat back-four, Baines won plaudit after plaudit in his 15-year Premier League journey.
He began his career as a forward, bringing his offensive skillset with him as he developed into a defender over time. A dead-ball specialist who played with infectious intensity, the Everton defender was just as capable of playing a lacerating cross as he was at delivering a sledgehammer tackle. The closest he got to a major honour was an FA Cup silver medal in 2009, but his status exceeds his trophy-haul. It was a great shame that Everton fans did not get to say goodbye to him when he retired at the end of the 19-20 campaign.
8. Gael Clichy
In this list, Gael Clichy is a rarity: a right-footed left-back. He used this idiosyncrasy to his advantage, involving himself in play in ways that other full-backs wouldn’t – or, more accurately, couldn’t.
The debonaire Frenchman spent 14 seasons in the Premier League, beginning with Arsenal in 03-04 where deputised for Ashley Cole in the Invincibles campaign. After Cole left for Chelsea, Clichy asserted himself as first-choice left-back before joining Manchester City in 2011.
He was a prominent figure in two league-winning campaigns at the Etihad, making him one of just ten players to have won the Premier League with two different clubs.
7. Nigel Winterburn
There are more dynamic forces in this list, but arguably none better when it came to the bedrock of defensive duties than Nigel Winterburn. If you could bottle and sell what he had, you’d have the best football clubs in the world falling over each other to hand you a blank cheque.
Had his career not straddled the old First Division and Premier League eras, he would have certainly ranked higher in this list. As it happened, 383 of his 687 career league appearances came in the Premier League, including 36 in the 97-98 title-winning campaign.
The guts of his career came for George Graham’s Arsenal, a side that, while very successful, were stylistically disparate to the cultured Arsenal of Arsene Wenger. Alongside Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon, Winterburn was part of one of the most hardened and proficient defences in English top-flight history.
6. Andrew Robertson
Critics may cry recency bias with this one, but Andy Robertson’s contributions to one of the great Premier League sides ever over the past two campaigns have earned him a place in this list. And in a few years, you’d wager he’ll have climbed a few more places.
Dizzyingly quick, technically imperious and with a work rate that would put Frank Grimes to shame, Robertson has enjoyed a wild career upturn since joining Liverpool from Hull City in 2017. He has played a starring role in the
Premier League’s meanest defence two seasons running and will be disappointed if he finishes the current campaign without having to stock up on trophy polish.
5. Graeme Le Saux
In many senses, Graeme Le Saux was born before his time. English football in the 1990s was a mine’s-bigger-than-yours, turbo-masculine environment. There was little room for a Guardian-reading, champagne player like Le Saux – and the terraces let him know about it in the crudest way imaginable, as did Robbie Fowler.
That he had the mental fortitude to carve out a magnificent Premier League career in the face of relentless abuse about is testament to his strength of character as much as his ability. Right from the start of his career with Chelsea, he was intelligent in his defensive positioning and had attacking instincts uncharacteristic of the full-backs of his era.
A career-high came in 94-95 when he won the Premier League with newly-minted Blackburn Rovers. He would later re-join Chelsea where he won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1978.
4. Stuart Pearce
In how many workplaces can you earn the nickname “Psycho” and be well-remembered for it? Stuart Pearce was dedicated. He was professional. He was almost maniacally tenacious. Despite his relatively squat frame, he cast a long shadow over the Premier League throughout his career.
Under the tutelage of Brian Clough, Pearce became an awe-inspiring presence at Nottingham Forest, a temperament he would later take with him to Newcastle United, West Ham, and Manchester City. Perhaps the highest compliment paid to Psycho passed the lips of Roy Keane: “I looked at Stuart Pearce, like, ‘right, so that’s what you have to do to be a great player.'”
3. Patrice Evra
Search “Patrice Evra” on YouTube and the first ten or so results are of his flamboyant Sky Sports punditry, with a few videos of him doing unspeakable things to uncooked chicken peppered in between – and effectively becoming the Pied piper for salmonella in the process. But for over a decade, Evra limited his vibrance to the pitch and became, not just one of the best left-backs in the Premier League, but the world.
Sir Alex Ferguson described the signing of a quality full-back as “like searching for a rare bird” – in Evra, he found one who would spread his wings and take flight. In nine years at Old Trafford, he won 14 trophies, including five Premier League titles. Forward-thinking but defensively stoic, Evra was a magnificent operator at both ends of the pitch.
2. Denis Irwin
Extroversion and extravagance are the calling cards of many of the great full-backs throughout history. On face value, Denis Irwin doesn’t quite fit the bill. But a decade of relentless reliability turned this unassuming character into your favourite defender’s favourite defender.
Like one or two others on this list, Irwin’s career extended to the pre-Premier League era. In fact, he spent the first seven years of his playing days in the Second Division with Leeds United and Oldham Athletic before joining Manchester United in 1990. It was an apprenticeship which stood him in good stead for his days at the elite level.
There was a rugged beauty to his play. Bulldog-like in his single-mindedness and whippet-quick when barrelling up and down the left touchline, Irwin won seven Premier League titles with United, for whom only eight players have made more appearances.
1. Ashley Cole
The raw data alone makes for a convincing argument – 16 trophies, three Premier Leagues, an undefeated season, 107 England caps – but to see that Ashley Cole is the greatest Premier League left-back of all time, you only had to watch the way he danced through matches.
Elastic limbs which seemed pre-destined to retrieve the ball from any 50/50, laser-guided crossing ability, the coolness of an open-heart surgeon and a bomb disposal expert rolled into one. He was an ode to composure and dexterity. His battles with Cristiano Ronaldo were legendary and invariably ended with Cole coming out on top. He was, quite simply, the best in his field across every blade of grass.