Cafu and Dani Alves made right-back play trendy in back-to-back generations but despite the best efforts of the samba specialists, Jamie Carragher’s words that were heard around the world almost a decade ago still largely rang true.
“If you’re a full back, you’re either a failed winger or a failed centre back,” uttered the now revered Sky Sports pundit. “No one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville,” he famously added.
The resilient and hard-working Neville contrasted starkly with the majestic brilliance of the aforementioned Brazilian tandem, but Carragher’s premise was undoubtedly fair. Cafu and Alves distorted the idealist concept of the full back, but it hasn’t been until recently that their ideas of how the function should be performed became commonplace.
Football has never before been blessed with such an abundance of unique right back talent and pinning down the leading 25 in the world was no easy task. Nevertheless, we’ve given it a good go!
Here are our top 25 right backs in the world as part of our 2023 Welcome to World Class series.
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Serge Aurier seemed just as dazed and confused as everyone else during his Tottenham days and a season with Villarreal didn’t hint at a bright end to his career.
However, he has stood out during Nottingham Forest’s return to the Premier League, leading their defence with some measured displays.
Legend has it that a single glare from Czech Republic international Vladimir Coufal is enough to turn opposition wingers into stone.
The right back certainly has an ominous aura about him, with hefty tackles never that far away in West Ham colours.
Lutsharel Geertruida has thrived in recent seasons at Feyenoord, becoming a Dutch international and earning plenty of plaudits for his performances.
The right-back has really shown how good he is in the first few weeks of the 2023/24 season under Ange Postecoglou.
He’s one of the best attacking full-backs in the world.
Formally a solid player for Celtic, Juranovic has taken his game to another level since moving to Union Berlin.
The full-back is a key player for the BuLi outfit.
After being in and out of the Bayern team last season, Mazraoui has become a regular recently and for good reason: he’s very very good.
Sergi Roberto was given a chance at right back by former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique and impressed immediately with his creative vision from out wide.
After his stunning winner against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League in 2018, Roberto has been kept around at Camp Nou and can operate further forward in midfield if needed.
The 22-year-old has been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United, and if you’ve seen him play you’ll understand why.
Vanderson is very, very legit.
Denmark international Alexander Bah has fitted right into Benfica’s possession-heavy style of play.
The right back can be impulsive and commit fouls in defence but his accurate passing has earned him recognition on the international stage. He was also excellent in Benfica’s memorable 2022/23 Champions League run.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s skill in one-v-one situations can’t be overlooked. Those spider-like legs help the former Crystal Palace defender claim the ball or clear danger time and time again.
He has improved during Erik ten Hag’s spell at Man Utd but worries over his positional awareness and attacking contribution remain.
It’s taken a while for Diogo Dalot to get up and running at Old Trafford, but Erik ten Hag’s arrival has fast-tracked his progress during the 2022/23 season.
The Portugal international’s attacking abilities have become more prominent, while he’s no slouch in defence.
Eyebrows were raised when Arsenal forked out around £50m for the services of Ben White, but the defender has more than repaid that fee through his performances at the Emirates.
Be it as a right-back or centre-back, White has always been solid.
Jeremie Frimpong spent much of his youth in England and played with Jadon Sancho during the pair’s time together in Manchester City’s academy.
The Netherlands Under-21 international was a former fan favourite at Celtic and took his good form over to Bayer Leverkusen, where he has enjoyed the vast space the Bundesliga offers wide players.
A stalwart at Real Madrid for ten years with five Champions League crowns and three Spanish titles, Dani Carvajal will end his career as one of the most decorated defenders in football history.
His importance to Los Blancos’ success is up for debate, but there’s a reason why the Spaniard garnered the trust of both Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti in Madrid.
Injuries have certainly slowed Carvajal down in recent years, but he remains one of the most reliable and complete full backs in the world.
Danilo has done a stellar job ensuring he’s no longer viewed through the prism of Joao Cancelo in Turin. The Brazilian joined Juventus in a part exchange deal that saw the maverick Cancelo join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
The Portugal international’s rise at the Etihad put Danilo in a difficult situation at the Allianz Stadium, but the veteran’s importance to an albeit not-so-imperious Bianconeri can’t be overstated.
The veteran is so reliable and Cancelo’s sharp decline at City makes Juve’s decision to swap him for Danilo look rather shrewd.
Italy international Davide Calabria took his time to break through at AC Milan. His debut came all the way back in 2014/15 but he’s finally the first choice right back for Rossoneri.
He still gets his thrills by tackling over goals and assists but manages an attacking contribution every now and then.
The World Cup winner has consistently been one of the better full-backs in Europe for quite a while now.
Having recently joined Inter, expect Pavard to continue to prove his worth in the coming seasons too.
Giovanni Di Lorenzo is one of the most underrated right backs in the world. He has been a mainstay in the Napoli team for over three years and will go down in folklore as their Scudetto-winning captain of 2022/23.
Di Lorenzo is a regular for Roberto Mancini’s national team and is certainly one of the best full backs Serie A has to offer. He’s an aggressive and robust defender and performs a conservative but imperative function when Napoli have the ball.
He can contribute in every phase and has certainly taken his new leadership role in Naples with ease.
Flying Dutchman Denzel Dumfries was the Netherlands’ standout performer in a disappointing Euro 2020 campaign and had the difficult task of replacing Achraf Hakimi at Inter.
Dumfries feasted in the Eredivisie at PSV and he’s since risen to greater prominence following his deserved move to Milan. Simone Inzaghi utilised Dumfries as an auxiliary winger.
While he isn’t the cleanest of technicians – both defensively and offensively – Dumfries is a physical behemoth and unstoppable when on song. His numbers will continue to boom under Inzaghi.
Some of the things Joao Cancelo has done with the ball at his feet defy belief. It’s what makes his sharp decline so puzzling.
There’s a rawness to Cancelo’s game that facilitates unpredictability every time he steps onto the field. The Portugal international is far from the best defensive right back in the world, but his work in possession is just obscene.
Following a difficult debut season at the Etihad, Cancelo rebounded in year two to establish himself as a regular in Pep Guardiola’s side. The versatile full back seemed so crucial for City with his ability to avoid pressure, work impossible angles and combine around opponents being distinct features of his game.
He became unsettled at City and a loan exit to Bayern Munich didn’t yield a positive outcome. He is now set to get back to his best at Barcelona
Reece James is arguably the most complete right back in the game.
Like Trent, James possesses a fierce crossing delivery and his ball-striking is that of a prolific number nine. The England international is a powerful figure down the right and he came into his own from an attacking perspective as a wing back when he registered 14 Premier League goal contributions in 2021/22.
James can defend as stoutly as the very best in the world and the Chelsea star’s attacking prowess is complemented by his aggression without the ball, physicality in duels and sound defensive fundamentals. He just has to stay fit.
From Burnley to Madrid, England international Kieran Trippier has had quite the career path.
Trippier is back in the Premier League with the enriched Newcastle United and the full back played a key role in their Champions League qualification.
The diminutive right back is a stellar technician whose ability from dead ball situations once catapulted an entire nation into a state of utter jubilation. Gareth Southgate has often favoured the versatile and reliable Trippier over perhaps more talented individuals for the Three Lions.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has utterly revolutionised our concept of the modern-day defender.
Any defensive flaws are vastly outweighed by his supreme playmaking ability. His emergence into Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side was one of several factors in the Reds’ meteoric rise under their chest-pumping German boss.
The Reds are once again looking to evolve and Alexander-Arnold was pushed forward by Klopp in the second half of the 2022/23 campaign, grabbing headlines with some sublime assists and playmaking.
Achraf Hakimi’s union with Antonio Conte at Inter was nothing short of a match made in heaven. The Moroccan wing back was the missing piece to the demanding Italian’s jigsaw as the Nerazzurri claimed the 2020/21 Scudetto with Hakimi starring.
However, he was forced to take his exploits elsewhere as Inter endured a mini exodus ahead of the 2021/22 campaign. Paris Saint-Germain came calling and Hakimi returned to playing in a back four.
Hakimi is a ridiculous athlete who boasts track speed, while his decision-making with the final pass is improving. His attacking prowess is complemented by a sound defensive repertoire too.
Mauricio Pochettino played a pivotal role in Kyle Walker’s development.
The England international was as raw as they got before Poch arrived at White Hart Lane and the stoic Argentine’s guidance helped Walker evolve into one of the world’s most complete right backs. You don’t survive in Pep Guardiola’s meticulous system for so long if you’re not any good.
Walker, whose recovery speed and technical security remain crucial to his success, has played a key role in City’s reign of Premier League dominance. The England international is no longer relied upon in the final third as much and is instead tasked with shunning opposition counter-attacks and ensuring City can establish a numerical superiority in midfield when they have the ball.
He stepped in at crucial moments during City’s treble winning campaign and will firmly be regarded as one of the finest full backs England has ever produced.