BEST YOUNG FOOTBALL DEFENDERS

Get to know some of the world’s best bucaneering full-backs and dominant centre-backs.

We’ve got you covered with reports detailing the background and style of play of a host of the world’s top young defenders, with links out to where you can read more about them.

We will be keeping this page updated regularly with new reports, as well as updating existing profiles.

Have a player that you want us to profile? Let us know at admin@scoutedftbl.com.

Click on the player’s name to automatically scroll to its mini profile.

Anel Ahmedhodžić

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.

anel ahmedhodzic

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

Anel 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 much 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/reluctant to create angles to receive, which is frustrating.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  Llew Davies

SVEN BOTMAN

Sven Botman is a product of the AFC Ajax academy, but it was in Friesland where he announced himself. After a full season of B team football in the Dutch second division with Jong Ajax, he joined sc Heerenveen on a season-long loan for the 2019/20 campaign; his career has gone from strength-to-strength since. An impressive first season in the Eredivisie caught the eye of Luis Campos at LOSC Lille, who duly picked him up from his parent club, Ajax, for €8 million in summer 2020.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

Sven Botman is comfortable in possession, a result of his decade-long education in the Ajax academy. He receives and releases possession with good posture and touch on either foot, which enables him to play with a brisk tempo and execute positive passes into midfield. He is also adept at stepping forward, with and without the ball, to create overloads and options in build-up.

As a defender, Botman stands out for his size and physicality – those traits are especially advantageous in contact, where he overwhelms attackers with his imposing frame. Botman uses his physicality to good effect in aerial duels, sealing off opponents and attacking the ball well. He consistently wins the first ball and few players can compete with him in those situations.

Throughout his senior career, the Dutchman has played in a mid-block defence. Doing so accentuates his strengths and mitigates his lack of speed and general athleticism. Botman reads the game intelligently and has solid positional sense; he scans regularly, knows when to step up or drop off, and generally demonstrates good control when defending as a compact unit. His flaws are clear when he needs to cover space and wide areas. He does not have the speed nor agility to cover depth and defend quicker attackers in 1-v-1 situations, and he generally struggles to match – let alone control – attackers in open space. His heavy-legged mobility makes him an unsuitable option for teams who defend with high lines, like Liverpool.

Similarly, he can struggle at set-pieces with man-marking assignments. He isn’t always completely focussed and  his general lack of mobility means he can lose runners. He would be better utilised as a zonal marker covering a key central area.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  Llew Davies

Matthijs de Ligt

Matthijs de Ligt needs no introduction. As a teenager, he led Ajax’s defence to a Europa League final and then to the brink of a Champions League final, as well as claiming various pieces of domestic silverware.

A big money move to Juventus followed, where after a few teething issues, he has settled wonderfully well. Now, he is new shining light for a club that prides itself on housing some of the finest defensive talents in the history of the sport, especially as Giorgio Chiellini’s career winds down.

matthijs de ligt

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

Centre-back is typically a position in which players mature and develop into at a slightly later age than midfield and attacking players. But De Ligt is an outlier; as a teenager he was already a large human being perfectly capable of duelling with seasoned veterans, but quickly developed into a vocal leader of Ajax’s defence in familiar surroundings in Amsterdam, and even took turns leading  fans in some post-match chants.

These two pillars of his game seeped into the rest of his skillset though, as the Dutchman has become a composed and reliable member of Juventus’ back-line. Understanding his limitations especially when vacating space in behind, De Ligt will generally allow play to come to him, trusting his ability to read play and be more effective defensively once an attack has slowed down a little bit. 

As a pure penalty box defender there are few better. However, after giving away a few avoidable penalties during the 2019/20 season, the Dutchman needs to keep his arms tighter to his body. Although he seems to have resolved this issue in 2020/21.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  STEPHEN GANAVAS

Reece James

Is Reece James England’s best right-back?

Jody Morris’s 2017/18 treble-winning captain has been at Chelsea since the age of six.

A two-time FA Youth Cup winner, two-time U18 Premier League champion, Toulon Tournament winner, Toulon Team of the Tournament, Toulon Tournament Player of the Final, UEFA European U-19 Championship winner, Chelsea Academy Player of the Year. James’ youth career was prestigious.

But it was a loan spell to Wigan during the 2018-19 season that provided the Cobham graduate with his first taste in senior football. Then-manager Paul Cook lauded James as “Player of the Month every month, and he’s Man of the Match almost every week.”

Frank Lampard’s arrival at Chelsea combined with a transfer ban gave the club’s academy graduates a platform to make their claim to first-team minutes. James has since established himself as the first-choice right-back, displacing club captain César Azpilicueta.

At international level, he looks set to battle with Trent Alexander-Arnold among numerous other right-back prospects for England’s most fiercely contested position.

reece james

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

Reece James has won a treble on the right side of a back three, international tournaments as a wing-back, and established himself as Wigan’s best player in an all-action midfield role.

Physically, the versatile 21-year-old is stocky, strong, and unrelenting. Although not blessed with searing pace, he moves quickly enough to cause concern, as well as combining it with a strength that makes him a powerful, if not electric, runner. His stamina means that whilst he may never hit a top speed that frightens the most rapid of opposing full-backs, he can hit the same velocity in the first minute right until the final whistle blows.

A genius crosser of the ball, his ability to consistently find his teammates on the move or from dead-ball situations makes his distribution arguably his greatest asset. The catalogue of different deliveries at James’ disposal ranges from whipped, near-undefendable crosses to deft dinks, surgically precise cut-backs. James also possesses a mighty right-foot, capable of summoning powerful strikes from distance. The Chelsea man is not just equipped with an explosive cannon of a right foot, he has access to a fully-stocked armoury for any situation.

If Alexander-Arnold represents the luxury full-back – blessed with unbelievable technique and a joy to have in possession – and Wan-Bissaka is seen as the opposite – nearly unbeatable in a duel and reliable to an almost robotic sense – then what makes Reece James’s potential so frightening is that his skillset is the marriage of both. His development as a forward has equipped him with all the tools necessary to rival his London rival’s claim to be a winger’s least favourite opponent, whilst his forays in midfield and even at centre-back have cultivated a technique and passing range rare that could rival Merseyside’s own double-barrelled prodigy.

We’re quick to praise the complete forwards and all-around midfielders in the modern game. In Reece James, we have a multi-dimensional talent equipped to excel in any area of the pitch. That’s scary.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  | Jake Entwistle

Boubacar Kamara

Boubacar Kamara is an exceptionally experienced young player, that has not just dealt with, but excelled under the pressure of playing in the pressure cooker that is the Stade Velodrome, home of Olympique de Marseille.

While he has not experienced a conventional breakout season, Kamara has gradually developed into one of the most valued defensive prospects in world football; although one that still receives little attention.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

Boubacar Kamara is wonderful both as a centre-back and as a defensive midfielder.

He is a destroyer; great in the air, a brute in physical duels, but he also possesses great instincts for when to time his interventions.

While he is strong when contesting for the ball out wide too, he can be susceptible when isolated against faster, trickier wide players in space.

His penchant for making clean challenges from behind allows him to make some crucial interventions, but he needs to get better at keeping players in front of him.

On the ball, he receives the ball cleanly with a great first touch that helps him evade pressure.

His ball progression is also quite competent, although he can struggle when burdened with too much pressure to create play from deep.

A better ability to recognise when to recycle possession and when to try to break down the opposition will help Kamara take more care of the ball and ensure he does not turn it over in compromising positions.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  STEPHEN GANAVAS

Tariq Lamptey

Will Tariq Lamptey be the Chelsea academy graduate that got away?

They have done a great job at blooding youngsters in recent years, but with the South Londoner’s path blocked by Reece James, he sought pastures new with a move to Brighton in January 2020.

So far, the move has worked perfectly, as he has blossomed into an undoubtedly Premier League level right wing-back.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

As a miniature player, Lamptey is always going to struggle body-to-body, but he has shaped his game around his best asset: his electric pace.

His speed allows him to command the entire right flank, making direct runs at the opposition full-back near the penalty area at one end, before just as quickly recovering to make an intervention near his own box.

Already he is developing a great tactical understanding working within Graham Potter’s three-man defensive system, recognising when he has cover to push forward and stretch the field, or when he needs to tuck in and provide defensive cover himself.

Perhaps his best defensive attribute is the amount of cover he can provide his team when they have attacking set-pieces. It is so hard to launch direct balls to counter Brighton from these situations because Lamptey can cover the ground so quickly.

With the ball at his feet, he can be a little bit untidy. However, his directness constantly puts defenders into stressful situations where they are in danger of giving away penalties.

His insane agility when moving at speed makes it very difficult to tackle him cleanly.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  STEPHEN GANAVAS

Mohamed Simakan

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 Strasrbourg where he played for the B team initially then broke into the first-team last season.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

At 20 years old, Simakan is one of the best 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 in defensive phases: he reads and reacts to situations quickly, makes intelligent decisions and is constantly on his toes, adjusting his 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 1-v-1 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 first few steps 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, has adequate anticipation/timing and a solid leap.

Simakan is pretty safe and 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 dribble out of smaller spaces, using his impressive composure and athleticism to do so. Overall, he adds little value as a progressive passer but there is potential there to develop.

Last Updated: 01.02.2021  |  Llew Davies

Pascal Struijk

Pascal Struijk has been primarily used in two positions since his accession to Marcelo Bielsa’s first team over the past 12 months: centre-back and defensive midfield.

The Dutchman has struggled to adapt much more in the highly-specialised Kalvin Phillips role in front of defence, but in his more natural position, has actually performed to a higher standard than the alternatives in the Whites’ squad.

As to be expected in a Bielsa side, Struijk ranks highly for pressures made, making him a different animal to attack for a forward who relies on dropping deep. Struijk reads opposition patterns of play well and steps out often to make decisive interceptions.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

On the whole, his distribution could be more ambitious, but it is highly proficient for a young defender taking his first steps at Premier League level with very little first-team experience in tow.

Leeds witness a marked improvement in their defensive set-pieces with Struijk in the side, using his 6’3” frame to good effect in both penalty areas.

More often than not, the Dutchman – who has been courted by Roberto Martínez’s Belgium – shows up well against less mobile, more abrasive forwards in the air, which is a positive sign for his all-round defensive game.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  | Joe Donnohue

Edmond Tapsoba

From the Burkinabé Premier League to the Bundesliga in four years: Edmond Tapsoba has enjoyed a rapid rise.

Bayer Leverkusen signed the defender in January 2020 after impressing for Vitória Guimarães and have likely doubled their investment already.

It took him just four training sessions to start for his new side and has remained a key fixture under Peter Bosz since.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

What instantly stands out whilst watching Tapsoba is his distribution. His passing is always well-intentioned which helps set a progressive tempo from deep areas.

The Burkina Faso international can also carry the ball if passing lanes are blocked. Defenders can look clumsy but he is comfortable evading forwards who sell themselves too easily.

He is far more natural when improvising off-script, using physical qualities to win duels as opposed to more calculated play. Excellent at covering ground when stretched.

Tapsoba can be guilty of ball-watching and often loses discipline within his defensive line, either stepping up too late or pushing up too early which makes runners hard to track.

The 21-year-old is also too relaxed in possession at times, taking too long to release the ball and looks vulnerable when identified as a pressing trigger.

Deserves credit for minimising his gung-ho moments and sloppy yellow cards after stepping up to the Bundesliga.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  | Phil Costa

Ben White

Ben White is one of Brighton’s success stories, having been developed through the club’s academy system during his latter teenage years. A free transfer from Southampton’s set up, White played U18 and U23 football before going out on loan first to Newport County and then Peterborough United where he earned rave reviews for his ball-playing pedigree.

It was to be at Leeds United during 2019/20 where White’s stock rose exponentially. In a title-winning team, he featured predominantly at centre-half, responsible for build-up in defensive phases. One of the most notable features of White’s style is that despite not being the most physically imposing, he rarely finds himself drawn into physical duels.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

STYLE OF PLAY

His reading of opponents’ patterns of play and good control over his own movements mean he is an elite presser and interceptor of the ball. White’s comfort in possession means he has been utilised quite frequently as a defensive buffer in Graham Potter’s Brighton side.

He is as capable of making a slide-rule, line-breaking pass through bodies as he is at completing more rudimentary, traditional defensive duties.

White’s decision-making is often spotless, and is always a welcome receiver for progressive passing when he plays further up the pitch, which is a nod towards his acute appreciation of space. He is particularly adept at winning the ball in more advanced areas, forcing turnovers in dangerous positions.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  | Joe Donnohue

OWEN WIJNDAL

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.

STRENGTHS

WEAKNESSES

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.

Last Updated: 01.03.2021  |  Llew Davies