Best young football defenders
Brief scouting reports on some of our favourite emerging defenders
Having a good set of centre-backs and full-backs is, more often than not, the basis for any team’s success. Without them, you can struggle to be as solid nor as potent as you need to be to compete. Here’s a little list of our favourite young defenders currently breaking onto the scene.
More profiles can be found in the goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, wingers and strikers sections. Below, you’ll find profiles covering backgrounds, styles, strengths and weaknesses, while providing links to where you can find out more about them.
For full in-depth analysis of some of the best young players from all over the planet, check out our profiles page. We have countlesss profiles on players there, focussing on a range of talents from across the world. There are also exclusive interviews too, and plenty more.
Anel Ahmedhodžić started his career at Malmö FF, moved to Nottingham Forest as a 16-year-old in 2016, hardly played across three years in England, then returned to Malmö FF in the winter of 2019. Since then, his career has kick-started and sky-rocketed. He spent six months at Hobro IK in Denmark to align him to Sweden’s summer season, then established himself as an almost ever-present starter in yet another title-winning campaign for his boyhood club.
Following another title-winning term in 2021, Ahmedhodžić finally made the step up to a top-five league – albeit to Girondins Bordeaux, a club with serious issues on and off the pitch.
After they were relegated, he returned to Malmö before flipped on to Sheffiled United in England’s Championship. It’s safe to say that he has made an immediate impact at the club, establishing himself a sa key starter. He was one of the bargain buys of 2022.
Anel Ahmedhodžić's style of play
Ahmedhodžić is a right-sided centre-back with imposing athleticism, solid defensive ability, and impressive skill in possession. Despite being 6’4 tall, he has high-level speed; he recovers positions quickly and uses his frame to lever/seal players off the ball when covering depth. His footwork is decent too for someone his size. Ahmedhodžić could add some muscle to his frame, which would make him more sturdy in physical duels as he can be bumped off balance too easily in certain situations.
As already alluded to, Ahmedhodžić is adept at utilising his athleticism in defensive situations – he knows how to overwhelm opponents in contact with his size and he rarely gives free-kicks away in doing so. His likes to be proactive and push onto play, be it to pressure the receiver’s touch, intercept a pass or compete in an aerial duel, and he shows good anticipation and composure in doing so. He reads and reacts to play quickly and intelligently. Similarly, he has a solid sense of where to position himself relative to the ball and his opponent – he has good alertness to situations and adjusts his position competently. His blindside awareness is poor though and he is slow to react to runners off his shoulder; he needs to scan more often.
When defending transitions, Ahmedhodžić can struggle to sort his feet/posture against fast attacks that travel across his body but he is good at delaying attackers in 1-v-1 situations; he has the patience and mobility to match most Allsvenskan attackers, and he rarely over-commits. His sliding tackles are also excellent, a result of great length, timing and technique.
Ahmedhodžić is a really impressive ball-player. He plays with tempo and has the vision/confidence/technique to punch passes through lines into advanced areas. Unlike some centre-backs, he is very much focussed on playing through the lines, not over them – he keeps passes on the ground. Despite that, he is often slow to create angles to receive, which is frustrating.
Anel Ahmedhodžić is an athletic and intelligent defender who can impact games both in and out of possession with his defensive nous and comfort in possession. He has a dynamic athleticism, tall and sleak but fast and fairly agile. He reads play well too, stepping in to intercept passes and get his teams on the front foot.
Ahmedhodžić can struggle with passes played in behind him, largely because he lacks awareness of his blindside through a lack of scanning, and also struggles aerially at set pieces. Furthermore, he can be prone to some lapses in concentration.
Félix Nzouango is a symbol of the new direction Juventus have taken at academy level. Developed by Amiens, Juventus invested heavily to bring Nzouango to Turin in the summer of 2020, spending €3 million to sign the then-17-year-old. Since then he has become a key pillar at the heart of Juve’s defence at Primavera and UEFA Youth League level, before moving into the Juventus Next Gen team in 2022.
Félix Nzouango's style of play
Nzouango arrived in Italy having been dubbed ‘the new Varane’ by one member of the Italian press. It must be said, he does profile quite similarly as an athlete; tall, a little lanky, but very mobile either in a straight line or laterally.
The Frenchman’s game is a lovely blend of calmness and aggression. He reads the game well and seems to have a good grasp of when to push wide or press up to extinguish dangerous attacks. But he also understands when the hold back and use his aforementioned mobility to play a covering role.
But when it gets down to the fine details of defending, Nzouango is across the basics well, and at least against youth level attackers he uses his body well to lever his way into winning duels and is generally hard to get past one-on-one. His main defensive deficiency is a weird inability to effectively clear aerial balls, with a strange tendency to knock them centrally, presenting follow-up opportunities to the opposition.
His main defensive weakness is lapses in concentration that allow runners in behind with too much regularity.
With the ball, he can be a little uncomfortable when pressed, but when given time to play he can be a pretty good passer breaking through the lines of midfield.
Félix Nzouango is an incredibly athletic centre-back that mixes aggression and composure effectively to command the defensive line.
Nzouango’s main weaknesses are ball-playing when under pressure, and allowing runners in behind, as well as significant lapses in focus.
Before his breakthrough 2019/20 season, Mohamed Simakan bounced around many different clubs dotted around the sprawling suburbs of his native Marseille. He spent time at Olympique as a youth player before being released. But it was a spell at SC Air Bel, a small, amateur youth club, which gave him the platform to succeed. After two years there, he moved to newly-promoted RC Strasbourg where he played for the B team initially then broke into the first-team last season.
RB Leipzig signed him in the summer of 2021, as Dayot Upamecano made his move to Bayern München. Simakan is now a starter in Leipzig’s defence.
Mohamed Simakan's style of play
Still young, Simakan is one of the better out-and-out defenders of his generation. He stands out for three key reasons – intelligence, composure, mobility. His defensive style isn’t defined by a standout skill, it is predicated on flexibility. He can step up to intercept a pass and engage in physical contact, or drop off to cover a run and sweep up behind the defensive line. He has good awareness and alertness, reading and reacting to situations quickly. He makes intelligent decisions and is constantly on his toes, adjusting position and posture to defend developing threats.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Simakan’s defending is how assured he is, especially for his age and experience. He has great poise in defensive actions, particularly in one-on-one duels. He has great footwork to close the space quickly but without over-committing, and his timing in is impressive too. He is difficult to beat in wider areas, whether it be with a dribble or cross.
Similarly, Simakan is a very well-rounded athlete: he has good acceleration and top-end speed, impressive body control in terms of agility and balance, and has a sturdy frame with good core strength which he uses well in contact. He isn’t particularly tall for a centre-back but holds his own in aerial duels, largely because he leverages his physique intelligently and has a decent leap.
Simakan is simple in possession but operates at a decent tempo. His technique is adequate if a bit inconsistent at times; as a result, he tends to prioritise possession over progression. He is a decent ball-carrier though and does show some promise in being able to solve problems by dribbling out of smaller spaces, using his composure and athleticism to do so. Overall, he adds little value as a progressive passer but there is potential there to develop
Mohamed Simakan is an assured and composed defender who is tactically flexible and intelligent in the way he defends. His ability to adapt to different defensive situations is one of the pillars of his skillset.
Simakan’s front-foot style can be too aggressive at times, leading him to be sucked beneath the ball and leaving exploitable spaces behind him. He is often too conservative in possession, lacking the confidence and quality.
Micky van de Ven
Micky van de Ven broke into the FC Volendam first-team two months into the 2019/20 season, and he has not looked back. Van de Ven impressed in his first season as a regular and improved again in his second, assuming the role of captain of the club he joined at 12 years old.
Unfortunately, he was mired in controversy as his agent, the late Mino Raiola, tried to engineer a deserved move away from Volendam. After threats of legal action and a later retraction, he eventually got his move, joining Bundesliga club Vfl Wolfsburg late in the summer of 2021.
His first season in Germany was a frustarting one, making just a handful of appearances, but Van de Ven is now a regular starter for a young Wolfsburg side in the 2022/23 season.
Micky van de Ven's style of play
Van de Ven played as the left-sided centre-back in a 4-3-3 shape for FC Volendam. He possesses a tall, lean but athletic build with very long limbs. He uses his size to overwhelm opponents in contact in defensive situations and when protecting/carrying the ball. The Dutchman has a good burst of speed off the mark and an excellent change of speed over longer distances which he uses to maintain/increase separations created by initial accelerations.
He plays with an aggressive style which has its positives and negatives, but certainlt has elements of dominance in his skillset. His athleticism enables him to cover big spaces behind defence and in wider areas, while he utilises his large frame in contact; good at sealing/levering against the ball to disrupt opponents cleanly and recover possession effectively. His timing in challenges is average though, and he can lack composure when diving in too aggressively. He possesses poor technique in one-on-one duels, often standing too upright and unbalanced in his posture – he needs to be lower to match opponents and shift direction.
Crucially, his focus can slip at times, and he can be beaten too easily by simple changes of tempo. Conversely, he is solid in aerial duels; again, he uses his frame well to give himself decent reach and conviction in headers. He is not dominant in the air, but there is clear potential.
On the ball, he has good technical ability in general, with strong fundamental skills and unique nuances in build-up. Clean, consistent first touches help him to set up positive actions. He is not a standout passer but has adequate technique, especially with switches to wider areas. Composed and confident under pressure, he commits players to dribble out of small spaces and drive forward while manipulating the ball with neat close control. He is then able to burst out of pressure and drive forward with great athleticism.
He is excellent at carrying into midfield and beyond from the back, blowing past defenders on the outside with long strides and withstanding challenges at full speed. From there, he executes good passes/crosses inside while on the move. He is extremely disruptive and difficult to stop as he carries the ball forwards.
Micky van de Ven is a big-bodied and dynamic athlete that is an extraordinary ball-carrier out of defence. There are elements of dominance to his defensive game, as he is capable of overpowering attackers with his length and athleticism.
Van de Ven’s key weakness is his technique when defending one-on-one, as well as lapses of concentration.
Owen Wijndal was part of the Jong AZ team that won the Dutch third division, along with Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu. All three excelled in the 2019/20 season, establishing themselves among the best of their position in the Eredivisie and senior Netherlands internationals. Unlike Stengs and Boadu, Wijndal has managed to translate last season’s performance into this season, boasting a strong argument for being the best left-back in the league.
He then became club captain as part of a resurgent AZ team under Pascal Jansen in the 2021/22 season, before making a much anticipated move to Ajax in the summer of 2022.
Owen Wijndal's style of play
Owen Wijndal is very much a modern full-back. His technical level is excellent and he’s very comfortable in possession: he scans space regularly; he receives the ball with good touch and poise; he operates at a fluent tempo, adept at playing under pressure.
What makes him an especially impressive player in build-up and attack is his intelligence. Under Arne Slot, Wijndal was a key to AZ Alkmaar’s ability to progress possession. He is good at knowing where/when to move, either sliding inside to offer for passes between lines or holding his width to stretch play/teams. His intelligent body positioning enables him to create good angles to receive the ball, often doing so on the half-turn to maximise his touch and transition into attack.
His movements beyond the ball are very good too. He consistently demonstrates excellent timing of his runs, attacking defences with speed and conviction from depth. He rarely moves in a straight line, often angling his overlapping runs in toward goal which means he can immediately attack dangerous areas when he receives the release pass. From those dangerous areas, Wijndal is a capable crosses. His low, quick, one-touch crosses into the six-yard box or toward the penalty spot are dangerous because they can catch defences in an unbalanced state, and he executes them with little hesitation and impressive technique.
Wijndal has upsides and downsides as a defender. His good athleticism enables him to match most opponents in 1-v-1- situations, using an above-average change of pace, quick footwork and good balance to do so. He positions his body pretty well too, but just needs to be more composed – to slow down his approach to the ball, gradually shut down the ball/man and improve his timing. When defending in a block, he is often too focussed on the ball. He should scan more often to be more aware of what’s around him. Being less square to the ball would also help. Above all, he needs to be more engaged/attentive.
Owen Wijndal is very much a modern full-back that suits a possession-based team. His quality on the ball and positional versatility are an effective combination within teams that build through the thirds.
An effective attacker, Wijndal has marging to improve as a defender – particularly in deeper situations, where his positioning and awareness can be lacking. He is also only a just above-average athlete.
It’s difficult to answer such a nuanced question. There are some standout names, of course, but each have their own contexts. Defenders are made by their circumstances.
Arsenal’s William Saliba has a strong case of being the MVP of young defenders in world football. Wesley Fofana, his former team-mate, joined Chelsea for a fee not far off €100 million. Joško Gvardiol at RB Leipzig is another.