The best left backs ever

We’ve already covered off the best right backs of all time. Now we switch our attention to the other side of the defence with a look at the best left backs ever. 

Before we get into the names, let us just clarify that players who are still plying their trade won’t be included. 

So, who are the best left backs ever?

Number 10. Emlyn Hughes

The first name on our list of the best left backs ever is someone that is often overlooked as a legend because of just how good the team he played in was. That man is Emlyn Hughes; he was part of the Liverpool side that won four First Division titles and back to back European Cups in 1977 and 1978. Hughes was actually named Footballer of the Year in 77, which is testament to how highly thought of he was.

He’s not just a left back built on trophies and awards though. Hughes had started his journey into football playing further forward. It remained a feature of his play as he bombed forwards from defence and was even able to threaten the opposition with the occasional ferocious shot on goal. 

Number 9. Nilton Santos

Santos – who is no relation to the equally great Djalma – was born and raised in Botafogo. He’d spend his entire career playing for the Lone Star making in excess of 700 appearances; most of them at either left back or left wing back. His endurance was perhaps Santos’ greatest quality allowing him to contribute in all thirds with his defensive and attacking performances widely being lauded.

It’s not that surprising that he has a large fan base though. Santos won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups with Brazil; he was in the All-Star team at the 58 tournament. That’s not the only individual honours he could brag about during his playing career though. Santos was also twice named in the World XI. Those awards came in 1960 and 1961 with Pele, who is one of the best strikers of all time, still raving about Santos some 40 years after the full back had retired.

Number 8. Denis Irwin

Despite spending a decent amount of time with Leeds United and Oldham, Denis Irwin is most associated to Manchester United. He is, however, often overlooked when people talk about the Manchester United dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson. He shouldn’t be. The Irishman was a figure of not only quality but perfect consistency. He could do everything whether it be defending one-on-one, providing an attacking outlet or contributing goals to the team. His left foot was sensational and, where set pieces and penalties are concerned, there were few more dependable.

In terms of silverware, he measures up to the best of them. Irwin lifted seven Premier League titles, two FA Cups, a League Cup and was part of the United treble winning squad; that means he boasts a Champions League medal too. He left the Red Devils’ in 2002 at the age of 36. Irwin wasn’t quite done though and joined Wolves in the second tier; he helped them to promotion and spent a final campaign where he belonged – the top level.

Number 7. Philip Lahm

If we’re honest, Lahm would have pushed towards the top of these rankings had it not been for his versatility seeing him spend big chunks of his career at both right back and in holding midfield. Even with that though, there is simply no denying what a spectacular left back he was; his presence in five UEFA Team of the Year line-ups is further testament of that.

The marauding defender, who had real quality in the final third as well as being solid at the back, has an honours list that makes rather insane reading too with the Bayern Munich legend having collected six German Cups, eight Bundesliga titles and a Champions League on the domestic scene. Even with all that, his club life didn’t see his crowning moment; that came in 2014 as he held aloft the World Cup as Germany’s skipper.

Number 6. Roberto Carlos 

There will be plenty of people who think Roberto Carlos should rank higher up the list of best left backs ever. Hear us out though. We’re in no way suggesting the Brazilian was a poor left back but his thunderous strikes – particularly his free kicks – have elevated his standing. The tree trunked thighed little man started his career in his homeland with the now non-existent União São João where he regularly played further up the field. Spells with Atletico Mineiro and Palmeiras, where he won his first five honours, followed before Europe came calling in 1995. 

Carlos is synonymous with Real Madrid for a lot of fans but his first taste of European football came at Inter Milan. His spell in Italy lasted just 12 months; he was heading to Real. Carlos would go on to be a mainstay in the Madrid side for 11 seasons. In addition to winning seven major honours including three Champions Leagues, he finished runner up in the 2002 Ballon d’Or voting and became Real’s most capped player from outside of Spain. After leaving Real, Carlos went on an international tour representing clubs in Turkey, Brazil, Russia and, finally, India. Oh, and he won the 2002 World Cup. 

Number 5. Giacinto Facchetti 

Giacinto Facchetti joined Inter from Trevigliese as an 18-year-old and remained with the Nerazzurri until he retired in 1978; in that time Facchetti formed a key part of Inter’s solid defensive unit as well as captaining the side for several of the 18 years he spent with the club. Despite that, it’s perhaps his ability going the other way that is most iconic. In the early days Facchetti played as an attacker before dropping into midfield and, eventually, to full back. He kept hold of those attacking instincts throughout his career; 75 Inter goals is proof of that!

During his time in the Italian capital, Facchetti collected nine honours including four Serie A titles and two European Cups, which arrived in back to back seasons. Throw in the European Championship he won with Italy in 1968 and it’s some trophy haul he has. He came close to adding a Ballon d’Or to his cabinet as well but was pipped by Eusebio, who is one of the best strikers of all time.

Number 4. Paul Breitner

It might have been decided back in 1994 but, even so, when you’ve made the FIFA World Cup All Time Team you know you’ve probably done alright for yourself. Paul Breitner took the left back role in that side alongside a centre half pairing of his former German teammate Franz Beckenbauer and England’s World Cup winning team captain Bobby Moore; that’s prestigious company to be in. It wasn’t just on the international scene where Breitner earned his plaudits though.

The Bavarian born left back or holding midfielder started – and ended – his professional career at Bayern Munich winning five Bundesliga crowns, two domestic cups and a European Cup. He also had a brief spell with Eintracht Braunschweig and a three year stay with Real Madrid where he won consecutive La Liga’s and a Copa Del Rey. Breitner was better known for his sound defensive skills but still holds the incredible record of being the only defender to score in two World Cup finals; he notched West Germany’s equaliser in their 1974 triumph and grabbed them a consolation in their loss in 1982.  

Number 3.  Ruud Krol

The idea that defenders should be good on the ball is often talked about as being a new thing. It’s not. Krol was a picture of composure back in the seventies. The majority of the Dutch left back’s career was spent with Ajax where they not only dominated in the Netherlands but across Europe; he was part of the side that won three consecutive European Cups between 1971 and 1973. Krol’s trophy haul also includes six Eredivisie titles and four Dutch cups. 

The Ajax legend, who could also play in midfield or as a sweeper, wasn’t just turning in good performances on the domestic scene though. He was in the Holland side that reached the World Cup final in 1974 and was skipper of the teams in 1978 and at the 1980 Euros. In addition to his time at Ajax, Krol also ventured to the North American Soccer League, France and Serie A. He was named Player of the Year in the altter.

Number 2. Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole might have been on the harsh end of a headline or two in his career but when it comes to the talent he showed on a football pitch there is no denying he goes down as one of the best left backs ever. After breaking into the first team picture with Arsenal he was excellent going forwards but questionable defensively; it’s an area he addressed as he developed. In fact, his defensive game became so strong that he’s one of the only players to have managed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in his pocket with Cole regularly getting the better of the Portuguese in big games. 

Cole racked up 228 appearances for the Gunners winning three FA Cups and two Premier Leagues; one of those made him an Invincible too. Then came a controversial move to Chelsea. With the Blues, Cole added even more silverware to his trophy cabinet. He won another Premier League, four FA Cups, a League Cup, a Europa League and the Champions League; Cole scored in the penalty shootout. Eventually, after eight years, Cole left Chelsea. He opted to join Roma in Serie A. 18 months later he followed in the footsteps of former England teammate David Beckham and joined LA Galaxy. Eventually he called time on his career whilst playing for Derby County in the Championship.

Number 1. Paolo Maldini

The man topping our list of the best left backs ever is none other than Paolo Maldini – obviously. He’s one of the greatest defenders the world has ever seen. Maldini has dedicated his life to AC Milan. He joined the academy at 10-years-old, made his senior breakthrough at 16, retired at 40 and now takes on the mantle of technical director. With all that in mind it’s little surprise that the Red and Black fanbase worship him; it’s not all plainly because of loyalty though. A lot of it is because Maldini was insanely good; in fact, most people – Milan fans and otherwise – regard him as the best of all time.

For Italy, where he made 126 appearances, Maldini never experienced the highs of lifting silverware after a couple of nearly campaigns but did make five teams of the tournament (three Euro’s and two World Cups). His trophy cabinet isn’t lacking either because during his record setting 902 game spell with Milan he won all there was to win; that includes seven Serie A titles and five European Cups, which is the same number as Cristiano Ronaldo.

In terms of his style of play Maldini was a special player. For one thing, he spent nearly his whole career at left back despite being naturally right footed. What is more impressive though is that he hardly ever made a tackle. He averaged just 0.6 tackles per game throughout his career; that is bonkers when you consider his label as one of the best defensive players ever.  The reason for this low number though is because of his exceptional ability to read the game and position himself in a manner that meant tackling wasn’t necessary.

There you have it, the best left backs ever.

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