The former Arsenal and Manchester City left-back says Nathan Aké has to be in the conversation for the best left-back in world football. We dig into the data to see if he has a point, and then make the case for seven other candidates.

From the long pause he took before answering Jamie Carragher’s question, it appeared as though Gaël Clichy had rather been put on the spot.

Discussing the evolution of left-backs at Manchester City on this week’s Monday Night Football, the former City and Arsenal man was asked to name the best left-back in the world right now. After a delay and a sigh – perhaps wishing Carragher had warned him this question would be coming – Clichy gave an intriguing response.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “But if we count [Nathan] Aké as a left-back because that’s the position he’s playing, you can’t really argue that he’s not up there.”

The natural reaction to his answer was to raise an eyebrow, but on reflection it wasn’t such a strange choice. It also sparked an interesting debate – one that centres around what you want from your left-back.

If it’s defensive ability, then Aké does indeed have to be in the conversation. But if you want your left-back to invert and become a central midfielder, then it’s probably someone else. If you want your left-back to play like a wing-back and bomb on around the outside, then Aké isn’t your man. If you want long-shot and crossing ability, then you’d also likely pick someone else entirely.

With all this in mind – as well as a little more time than Clichy had to consider the question – we make the case for seven different candidates to be the best left-back in the world right now.

But first, we make the case for Clichy’s selection.

Nathan Aké

Aké is strangely unglamourous considering he’s a Dutch defender who was signed by Chelsea at 17 years old and has gone on to become a regular in Guardiola’s treble-winning side. Maybe it’s the four years he spent at Bournemouth that accounts for that, or maybe it’s the relatively low fee of £40 million City paid for him. Most likely, though, is the fact that he is such a consistent performer without ever truly standing out.

That certainly shouldn’t count against him, though. He is about as reliable as defenders come – and that’s both with and without that ball.

He is extremely comfortable in possession, completing 92.8% of his passes in Premier League games this season – the sixth-best rate of all players with at least 1,000 minutes to their name – while he also ranks sixth for duel success rate (100+ duels), winning 67.6% of his. This includes all 50-50s – dribble attempts, aerial battles, tackles – so while it is a very broad category, it does help to give a good overview of a player’s defensive ability in one-on-ones.

Every player above him for duel success rate is a centre-back – including Virgil van Dijk (78.8%) and Jarrad Branthwaite (70.3%) – and while Aké plays mostly at centre-back, he would have been exposed more than others having also played at left-back.

nathan ake touchmap Premier League 2023-24

That is the crux of the case against him – that he technically plays most of his football at centre-back – but the truth is that City are so fluid positionally that Aké will often play like a full-back, and his touchmap above proves as much. A brilliant, versatile, reliable defender, it certainly makes sense for Aké to be in the conversation.

Josko Gvardiol

The only problem for the Aké argument is that he might not even be the best left-back at City. The £100m Josko Gvardiol has been first choice on the left side of defence more or less whenever he has been fit, possibly because he is more threatening on the ball than Aké when higher up the pitch.

He fares worse than Aké – though still very well – for both pass success rate (88.4%) and duel success rate (55.2%) but that will largely be down to the fact that he gets into more advanced positions and is left isolated more often than centre-backs would be. Gvardiol has started at least eight more Premier League games at left-back this season (12) than Aké.

He is an elite defender and is exceptional going forward, too. For example, he is making a decent number of tackles per 90 (1.8) while also successfully completing more dribbles per 90 (0.9) than Liverpool midfielder Harvey Elliott (0.8) and Brentford forward Bryan Mbeumo (0.8).

The reality is there isn’t really anything he can’t do. He has been well worth the money City paid.

Andy Robertson

For all the recent talk of how Liverpool’s youngsters were the unlikely heroes in the EFL Cup final, the best story in Jürgen Klopp’s squad is probably still his first-choice left-back.

In August 2012, a then 18-year-old Robertson took to then Twitter to say: “Life at this age is rubbish with no money #needajob”

And get a job he did, playing for Queen’s Park in the Scottish Third Division. Less than seven years later, Robertson was lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy over his head, having also played in the final a year before that.

The Glaswegian was a surprise arrival at Liverpool in 2017 after stints with Dundee United and Hull City, joining for a reported £8m. He made the left-back slot in Klopp’s side his own, though, and is yet to lose it more than six years later.

With a medal haul that includes a Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, two EFL Cups, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, and a Community Shield, and having not played fewer than 43 games in all competitions in any full season since his debut campaign in 2017-18, Robertson’s importance to Liverpool’s success in recent years cannot really be questioned.

He is arguably the most conventional left-back on this list. He might not have the electric pace of some, or the passing ability of others, but he does have the joint-most assists for a defender in Premier League history along with teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold (58). He therefore has the outright most assists by a Premier League left-back, and that speaks to both his attacking ability and his longevity.

Robertson recorded 15 assists in all competitions for Liverpool in the 2021-22 season. Only six players in Europe’s top five leagues had more, with Alexander-Arnold (18) the only defender. From the 2018-19 season to last season, Robertson has only once failed to reach double figures for assists (seven in 2020-21).

Due to a shoulder injury, the Scotland captain has only been able to make 15 appearances in all competitions this season, but none of his teammates average as many as his 1.1 successful open-play crosses per 90 minutes in all competitions, showing that he is still a crucial creative outlet.

David Segar

Alphonso Davies

It hasn’t been the best season for Bayern Munich, but Alphonso Davies’ reputation as one of the best defenders in world football was established long ago, so much so that he hasn’t been hurt by his team’s poor form. With his contract entering its final 18 months, The Athletic reported this week that he has agreed verbally to join Real Madrid either this summer or next.

He is an adept and reliable defender, but he stands out most for the genuine and persistent attacking threat he carries. Despite missing six of Bayern’s 23 league games this season, being on the field for just 68.6% of available minutes, Davies ranks 15th in the Bundesliga for chances created from open play (27) – almost exclusively behind midfielders – and sixth for successful dribbles (47) – behind only attacking midfielders or wide forwards.

alphonso davies successful dribbles

He has been among the world’s elite for so long that it beggars belief he is still only 23; he has already won the Bundesliga five times, as well as the Champions League and the Club World Cup, while he also has 44 international caps to his name. There is a good argument he is already the world’s best left-back, and he could be for many more years to come.

Théo Hernández

Defining the best left-back in the world obviously depends on how your hypothetical team plays; in this particular fantasy land, our side is a swashbuckling juggernaut intent on rolling teams over with sheer attacking relentlessness. You might score four, but we’ll score seven or eight.

So, with that set as our mentality, the best left-back in the world – read: most suitable for us – is AC Milan’s Théo Hernández. He might be French, but he’s blessed with the horsepower of an Italian sports car and brings uncompromising positivity to any team he’s in.

Hernández is a hugely influential player at Milan, with his 122 attacking sequence involvements up there with the very best in Serie A and the most of any Rossoneri player.

Theo Hernandez attacking sequence involvements

He’s an attack-minded full-back but is far from ordinary. He’s progressed the ball 3,256 metres up field via carries in Serie A this season, more than 400m further than any other player in the whole division, and he ranks second – only behind centre-back Marin Pongracic – for progressive carries (228)

Only three full-backs in Serie A have recorded more carries ending with a shot or chance created than Hernández (17), and with 2.4 touches in the opposition’s area per 90 minutes, he ranks in the 97th percentile for defenders in the top five leagues over the past 15 years.

In fact, there’s probably no better, more succinct way of highlighting Hernández’s attacking tendencies than simply showing his Opta player radar for this season.

He’s comfortable on the ball, a creative outlet and even an occasional goal threat. If you want the best modern left-back around, look no further than Théo Hernández. 

Ryan Benson

Federico Dimarco

It was less than eight months ago that Federico Dimarco was walking out in Istanbul for the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League final. Although Inter Milan would eventually lose narrowly to Manchester City, that night was the culmination of perhaps Dimarco’s finest season in his career to date, and ended a campaign that he’d dominated in his position.

Aside from Inter’s two forwards, Simone Inzaghi’s wing-backs are often the furthest players forward in his 3-5-2 formation. And on the left he has one of the finest in the world.

Dimarco was a huge threat down that side last season, registering six goals and eight assists in all competitions in 2022-23 as Inter finished third in Serie A, but scooped up both Italian domestic cups and reached the final of Europe’s premier competition.

Those numbers include five Champions League assists, a tally that only Kevin De Bruyne could better (six).

That form has continued into this season, with Dimarco playing a crucial role as Inter chase down the Scudetto. He continues to be a brilliant attacking outlet down the left flank, and leads all defenders in the league for how often they contribute to an open-play shot-ending sequence, doing so 5.9 times per 90 minutes.

defender attacking sequence involvement Serie A

He’s created more chances (42) and registered a higher expected assists total (5.2) than any other defender in Serie A so far in 2023-24, and his goal against Atalanta on Wednesday night took him to 10 goal involvements in Italy’s top flight (four goals, six assists). That makes him one of just four defenders in Europe’s top five leagues to hit double figures for goal involvements so far this season, along with Álex Grimaldo (more on him very soon), Jeremie Frimpong and Kieran Trippier).

Oliver Hopkins

Álex Grimaldo

If what you want from your left-back is red-hot form, attacking output to rival the best wingers in the game, and a wicked left foot, perfect for set-pieces, then Bayer Leverkusen’s Álex Grimaldo is your man.

He isn’t technically playing as a full-back for Xabi Alonso, but he played on the left side of a flat back four in each of his seven full seasons at Benfica, winning the league in three of those, so he clearly qualifies to be in the conversation.

With eight goals and nine assists this season, Grimaldo is posting numbers that would be beyond any normal wing-back – even if he is waved forward at every opportunity by his manager. Only seven players – all, unsurprisingly attackers – have more goal involvements in the Bundesliga this season.

He ranks seventh for chances created (54) but second for expected assists (7.9) behind Bayern winger Leroy Sané (9.1), showing that he is creating high-quality chances as well as a large volume of them. When it comes to his goals, meanwhile, he stands out for his ability to score difficult chances; his eight goals have come from just 3.2 expected goals, with his overperformance compared to his xG of 4.8 bettered only by centre-forwards Harry Kane (6.1) and Serhou Guirassy (5.1).

At the other end, he is a key component of one of the best defences in Europe’s top five leagues, with Leverkusen having conceded just 16 goals so far this season.

Oleksandr Zinchenko

When it comes to modern-day inverted full-backs, there is nobody better on the planet right now than Zinchenko. You just have to look at the transformative effect he has had at Arsenal for proof of how effective he is. Since he joined, Arsenal have become consistent Premier League title challengers.

It’s no coincidence that he was trusted for years on end by Pep Guardiola – under whom he won the title four times – or that he plays as a creative central midfielder for his country. He is far too talented to play a traditional full-back role, perfectly at home surrounded by opponents and playing through tight midfield areas.

He moves into central midfield at every opportunity, helping his team overload the opposition in the middle of the pitch, and despite doing most of his work in crowded areas, he has completed 89.8% of his passes in Premier League games this season. He also ranks fifth for progressive passes per 90 with 6.2 (min. 1,000 minutes played), while almost every other player near the top of these rankings has a much lower pass completion rate. Zinchenko is bold and progressive with his passing, but also efficient.

oleksandr zinchenko progressive passes

He is integral to Arsenal’s build-up, playing a role in 5.6 open-play shot-ending sequences per 90 minutes this season – more than any other left-back in the league (min. 1,000 minutes played), and the third-most of all defenders behind Alexander-Arnold and Kyle Walker (both 5.8).

His proneness to injury might legitimately count against him in the best-left-back stakes, but any concerns about his defensive ability are wide of the mark. The way Arsenal are set up – with Gabriel able to cover across into the left channel when it’s been left vacant by Zinchenko – the Ukranian’s role at left-back is far from a traditional one. It is his ability on the ball that makes him so effective in that position.

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