The best left backs of all time

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The left-back position isn’t exactly the most glamorous in football. It tends to be the place where you stick your worst player – at Sunday League level, at least.

However, we’re not talking about Sunday League footballers here. Over the last century, we’ve seen some exceptionally talented footballers nail down a spot at left-back, and achieve brilliant things in the process.

Here, at 90min, we discuss the ten best players to ever take play on the left side of defence.

1. Paolo Maldini

Maldini is not only considered to be one of the best left-backs of all time, but is also widely regarded as one of the best centre-backs as well.

Il Capitano may not match up to the definition of a modern day full-back, given that he wasn’t overly attack-minded. However, when it came to defensive solidity, there was no one better. He showed this best in the 1987/88 and 1993/94 seasons.

In the 1987/88 season, Maldini lined up alongside Franco Baresi, Filippo Galli, and Mauro Tassotti in defence, as AC Milan conceded just 14 goals in 30 league games.

And then in the 1993/94 campaign, the Rossoneri once again boasted the best defensive record in the league – conceding just 15 in 34. This brought the Serie A title to Milan, despite scoring just 36 goals all season. To put that into context, only two sides scored fewer in the 2019/20 season in Italy’s top flight.

In his 25-year spell at San Siro, Maldini won five European Cups – a number bettered only by Real Madrid’s Paco Gento. On top of this, he has seven Scudetti to his name, and a Coppa Italia.

2. Paul Breitner

If you think the likes of Alphonso Davies and Andy Robertson are impressive going forward, then you’ll be gobsmacked by Paul Breitner’s record.

In his 13-year career, the German scored 103 goals in 369 league appearances.

His trophy cabinet isn’t half bad, either. In his nine seasons at Bayern Munich, Breitner won five Bundesliga titles, two DFB Pokals, and a European Cup.

His three-year spell at Real Madrid also drew in silverware, winning La Liga twice and the Copa del Rey once.

Breitner brought this success with him to the German national team, winning Euro 1972 as a 21-year old, and then scoring in the World Cup final two years later as Die Mannschaft defeated Netherlands.

3. Ruud Krol

Former Ajax man Ruud Krol earns his place on this list due to his composure, reading of the game, and brilliant on-the-ball ability.

During his 12-year spell in Amsterdam, Krol won six Eredivisie titles, and was part of a side that won three European Cups in a row.

And he was equally brilliant on the international stage, scoring a beauty against Argentina as the Netherlands reached the 1974 World Cup final, and then captaining them to the same stage four years later.

After spells at Vancouver Whitecaps, Napoli, and Cannes, Krol retired from the game in 1986. However, he still very much involves himself in football – managing 19 different sides since hanging up his boots.

4. Giacinto Facchetti

Standing at 6’3″ tall, Giacinto Facchetti had the technique to match his physical capability.

Throughout his 18-year career at Internazionale, the Italian established himself as one of football’s first great attacking full-backs, largely due to his ability to unleash a fierce shot on either foot.

Facchetti spent his entire career at I Nerazzurri, winning four league titles and back-to-back European Cups in 1963/64 and 1964/65. He even returned to Inter as chairman for the final two years of his life in 2004.

5. Nilton Santos

Another one-club man joins the list in Botafogo’s Nilton Santos.

Nicknamed ‘the Encyclopedia’ for his knowledge of the game, Nilton Santos was one of the game’s first all-round defenders, possessing world class ability in defence and attack.

Despite winning six trophies at club level, Santos’ true career highlights came with the national team. He was part of the Brazilian World Cup winning squads in 1958 and 1962 – recording an assist in the 1958 World Cup final for a 17-year old Pele.

6. Roberto Carlos

 

With lightning pace and a rocket of a left foot, Roberto Carlos epitomised the modern day full-back.

After spending the first few years of his career in Brazil, and an unfortunate spell at Internazionale, Roberto Carlos made a name for himself when he was brought to the Bernabeu by Fabio Capello.

During his nine years at Real Madrid, the Brazilian made 524 appearances for Los Blancos in all competitions, scoring 69 times as he won four league titles and three Champions Leagues.

His international career was equally as impressive, winning two Copa Americas and scoring once in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup triumph. He ended his international career with 125 caps for Selecao – a figure bettered only by Cafu.

On June 3rd 1997, Roberto Carlos scored arguably the greatest free kick of all time too – an astonishing bending effort from 40 yards against France.

7. Antonio Cabrini

Spending his entire career in Italy, it was at Juventus where Antonio Cabrini enjoyed his best days.

During his 13 years in Turin, Cabrini won, well, absolutely everything – including six Serie A titles and a European Cup.

The Italian also experienced success on the international stage. As a 20-year old, Cabrini won the Best Young Player award at the 1978 World Cup, and won the tournament four years later.

8. Ashley Cole

You’d do well to find a full-back in the Premier League era who even comes close to Ashley Cole.

After coming through the ranks at Arsenal, Cole earned his way into the first team after a loan spell at Crystal Palace.

During his seven years at the Gunners, the Englishman won two Premier League titles and three FA Cups, and was a key part of the ‘Invincibles’ side.

Following a controversial move to neighbours Chelsea, Cole went from strength to strength, adding a Premier League, four FA Cups, a League Cup, and a Champions League to his trophy cabinet.

And while most of the English ‘Golden Generation’ failed miserably, Cole was always considered one of the ones who never let his standards drop for the national side. He retired from the Three Lions in 2014 as one of just nine players with over 100 caps for England.

Cole spent his final years at Roma, LA Galaxy, and Derby County, before retiring in 2019.

9. Denis Irwin

To play for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United for 12 years, you have to be something special.

Irwin spent the early stages of his career in the Second Division at Leeds United and Oldham Athletic, before making the switch to Old Trafford aged 24.

It was there where he made his name, winning numerous trophies from 1990 to 2002.

The highlight of his spell at the Red Devils was undoubtedly the 1998/99 season. Irwin played 48 games in all competitions as Man Utd completed a historic treble. Irwin himself was named in the PFA Team of the Year.

The Irishman ended his career having made 956 career appearances, as well as being the most decorated Irish footballer in history with 19 honours to his name (joint level with teammate Roy Keane).

10. Marcelo

Since signing for Real Madrid in 2006, Marcelo has established himself as one of the best full-backs of the modern era.

With a bit of Brazilian flair and a wand of a left foot, Marcelo has been instrumental in the Real Madrid sides that won four Champions Leagues in five years.

In fact, he contributed attacking returns in all four of those Champions League finals. In the 2014 final, his extra-time goal confirmed the title for Los Blancos against Atletico Madrid, and two years later he converted his penalty in the shootout against the same opponents.

His cut-back for Marco Asensio made it 4-1 against Juventus in the 2017 final in Cardiff, and his cross was acrobatically finished by Gareth Bale against Liverpool in 2018 (although how much credit we can give Marcelo for this assist is up for debate).

Marcelo’s performances over the last decade have earned him a place in the FIFPro World XI six times – only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, and Dani Alves have featured more often.

RELATED STORY: The best right-backs of all time

By 90min

Edited by Tiyani wa ka Mabasa

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