Why Sergio Ramos Is the Best (Attacking) Defender in the World

Real Madrid just won La Liga. Their second-leading scorer was their 34-year-old center back.

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All right! Another request fulfilled today. This one comes from Antonio, who asked me to write about why Sergio Ramos is the best defender of all time. I am not willing to do that because 1) I am not sure it is true, and 2) ranking defenders from the same era is hard enough so ranking defenders across eras is nigh impossible. But! I do have an idea for a slightly more specific ranking we can apply to Mr. Ramos.

Real Madrid’s title win was remarkable. Here’s a list of names: Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, James Rodriguez, Vinicius Junior, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, Isco, and Lucas Vazquez. All 10 of ‘em scored fewer goals than Sergio Ramos, who is a 34-year-old center back. With 11 goals, Ramos finished only behind Karm Benzema on Madrid’s goal-scoring charts -- and yet Los Merengues finished five points ahead of Barcelona in La Liga’s final standings. Lionel Messi, meanwhile, finished with 25 goals and 21 assists. He led La Liga in goals, shots, chances created, assists, and dribbles ... and his team finished in second. Great stuff.

In addition to his scoring exploits, though, Ramos anchored the best defense in Spain. Madrid only allowed a measly 25 goals across 38 league matches. That’s the main reason they won the league, but if Ramos scores, say, six goals instead of 11, then maybe Barcelona ends up winning their third league title in a row. There were many differences between the two sides, but Ramos’s goals were one of ‘em.

When it comes to judging center backs, there’s a lot less objective info to go off of, especially since the goal of every defensive system is slightly different. But it’s still helpful to make comparisons between players. So here’s how Ramos compares to the close-to-consensus-unless-Richarlison-is-part-of-the-polling-sample best defender in the world, Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk, over the past two seasons:

They’re roughly the same when it comes to in-possession play: lots of forward passes, very few turnovers. Without the ball, Ramos is way more aggressive than the Dutchman -- at least when the ball is on the ground. VVD almost never pressures the ball, and he doesn’t make many tackles or interceptions, while Ramos is constantly winning the ball back. However, VVD rarely loses out when he engages an opponent; he instead defends either inside his own box or in the air, and when he does, he’s just absolutely dominant. VVD is the better player -- and he’s way less prone to miss a vital match because of suspension; see “Fouls Committed” -- but Ramos is still fantastic, and it’s amazing how active he still is at age 34.

But let’s forget about defending for now. How does Ramos rate out as an attacker, when compared to other central defenders? Using Stats Perform data, which goes back to the 2009-09 season, let’s take a look at a number of categories and then crown a theoretical “Best Attacker Who Is a Central Defender” season for that era.

Goals

Among players classified by Stats Perform as central defenders, Ramos is the only one to even hit double-digits in a season. Funnily enough, this really wasn’t Ramos’s best goal-scoring season. Six of his goals came from the penalty spot; although the five non-penalty scores were still enough for second-best on Madrid this season. Woof. His most NPG in a year was seven, which came in the 2016-17 season.

Among CBs, the record for NPG in a season is shared by two players who played in the same league, just 10 years apart. In 2009-10, Roel Brouwers scored eight goals for Borussia Monchengladbach en route to a 12th-place finish. He averaged a non-penalty goal rate of 0.24, which is about one every four games. That’s pretty good!

However, it’s not quite as good as what Martin Hinteregger managed to pull off this season. In fewer minutes than Brouwers, the Eintracht Frankfurt center back scored the same number of goals, at a rate of 0.3 per 90. Most memorably, he notched three against Bayern Munich: two for himself and one for his opponents.

Everyone’s obsessed with Thomas Muller’s record-breaking 21 assists this season for Bayern, but you fools are missing the point. Muller and Martin Hinteregger scored the exact same number of goals.

Expected Goals

Since the number of chances for center backs tend to be relatively low, the goals totals can be pretty noisy. The difference between eight goals and five goals might just be a handful of deflections, a couple well placed crosses, or only a few millimeters across a forehead. So, let’s ignore shots that ended up in the net for a moment and see who was able to get on the end of the highest-value collection of chances across a season. For this one, penalties are being ignored.

I love this answer so much. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a player from Tony Pulis’s Stoke City, the modern masters of set-piece execution. It’s the ultimate shit-houser, Robert Huth. You might think of the modern German player as a sort of blend between Spanish skill and English physicality. Huth, who’s made more appearances in the English Premier League than any German player and who went to the 2006 World Cup, was, uh, not that! He was malevolent brute strength all the way down. And in 09-10, he served as the focal-point for Pulis’s set-piece battering ram. Huth scored six goals but registered 8.04 xG without the aid of penalties. Keep that in your mind as you watch him try to kick a stationary soccer ball:

Huth and two other players appear in the top 10 of xG from CBs multiple times. First, there’s Blackburn’s Christopher Samba, who occasionally played up top for manager Sam Allardyce but himself was more of a Huthian set-piece presence. And then, there’s Ramos, the only name to appear three times in the top 10. While most of the other names are players from mid-to-low table teams that needed to squeak out goals wherever they could, Ramos was doing this while playing for one of the three best teams in the world.

Dribbles

Center backs who carry the ball have become mainstream. Pretty much all the top teams in the world now require at least one of their central defenders to drive the ball into open space in order to draw opposing defenders before making a pass. However, a carry does not a dribble make.

We’re talking about a straight-up take-on. Take the ball and dribble past an opponent. It’s an incredibly risky move for a player who’s the last line of defense, but that didn’t stop Sokratis Papastathopoulos when he was playing for Werder Bremen in 2011-12. The Greek CB (who, we must admit, played the first half of the season at right back) completed 53 dribbles. Right behind him on the list is Rafael Van Der Vaart Man-Crush Harry Maguire, who blew past opponents 51 times for Leicester City two seasons ago. Sokratis would soon earn a move to Borussia Dortmund, while Harry Mags became a starter for England at the World Cup right after his dribbling display. The aggro play certainly didn’t hurt either one of them.

The master, though, might’ve been Lucio. Unfortunately there’s no data for his stints with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, but despite being toward the end of his career with Inter Milan, his 09-10, 10-11, and 11-12 seasons all rank in the top 10 for most successful dribbles among center backs. Take a look at his first goal in this this highlight video, which is soundtracked by what I can only assume is a Soundgarden cover band:

He squares up the opposition CENTER FORWARD AT MIDFIELD WITH NO ONE BEHIND HIM as if he’s a winger trying to get by a fullback on the sideline! If he loses the ball, he’s absolutely screwed. Instead, he ends up with a 1v1 and plants one into the back of the net. We need more of this, youth coaches. Get on it!

Through Balls

Hello, my king.

Ignore the dot all the way at the top; that’s Adailton, a Brazilian striker for Bologna in 09-10 who somehow got tagged as a CB in the data. Instead, focus on the two that have been circled in red :

Why yes, David Luiz is the only modern centerback to complete 10 dribbles and 10 through balls in a single season, and he’s done it twice. Last year for Chelsea, he set the through-ball record with 12, breaking his previous record of 10 with Paris Saint-Germain in 15-16 (tied with Sevilla’s Nicolas Pareja in 14-15). Luiz also has the tied-for-third-highest total in the dataset with seven for Chelsea in 11-12. Juventus’s Leonardo Bonucci, whose career high is seven, is the only other player to appear in the top 10 three times. Ramos’s best, meanwhile, is a tied-for-tenth five.

Possession Value

Who was involved in the most valuable uninterrupted possessions? We can figure that out by summing the final values of sequences that led to shots in which these center backs were involved. A lot of this is out of a player’s control, and defenders who play with better attacking players are also more likely to be a part of higher value possessions, but the results themselves spit out a bunch of star-level names that we haven’t heard yet. These players are likely doing things early on in possessions that help lead to goals later on down the road -- or they’re doing enough other stuff at an elite level that allows them to exist on a team where high-value chances are consistently getting created. Here’s the top five:

1) Aymeric Laporte, Manchester City (18-19): 23.6
2) David Alaba, Bayern Munich (19-20): 22.12
3) Javier Mascherano, Barcelona (15-16): 19.33
4) Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (19-20): 19.06
5) Thiago Silva, PSG (15-16): 18.35

All star players, but the main difference is that Ramos is doing most of the other stuff that isn’t hidden, too. Laporte, for example, has scored 10 goals ... in his entire career. On top of that, Ramos also has the sixth, seventh, eight, and 12th-highest single-season xG-involvement totals. Mats Hummels (twice) is the only other player to appear in the top 12 more than once. Ramos has five seasons that fit within that group.

Who’s the Best?

Listen, I wouldn’t advise anyone to use this method to scout players, but I think it at least does a decent job of quantifying some form of overall attacking contribution from centerbacks. Including possession stats helps to bring in some of the better players who aren’t the focal point of a Pulis set-piece program. Sure, there’s some double-counting across all of it, but this crudely covers all of the ways a CB can contribute to an attack: score goals, get good shots, dribble past defenders, split the defense with a pass, help out with build-up play.

If we award a z-score to each category -- i.e. a number that represents how far you are above or below the average -- and then add the scores up, we’ll get a rough rating for how much a player contributed to his team’s attack across a season. For reference, the highest scores in each category are slightly above 8.0. Here’s the top five:

1) Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (19-20): 20.25
2) Robert Huth, Stoke City (10-11): 15.29
3) Sebastien Puygrenier, Nancy (12-13): 14.85
4) Harry Maguire, Leicester City (17-18): 14.34
5) Gianluca Mancini, Atalanta (18-19): 13.59

Sure, you could argue that Ramos’s total was inflated by penalties this year, but the guy has converted 22 in a row, while the average player nets about three in four. He’s absolutely adding some value from the spot. But even if his 19-20 rating is inflated, he’s also got the sixth-, 10th-, and 15th-best seasons in there, too. No other name appears in the top 15 more than once.

That’s because Ramos is the only defender in the world who’s been able to combine the disruptive forward-thrust you typically only see from defenders on mid-to-low-table teams with the skill needed to play effectively in a more patient, possession-heavy, dominant attacking side. Or, more simply: He has 63 non-penalty goals+assists since 2008, while next best is 44. Sergio Ramos is the best attacking center back of his generation -- and really, it’s not even close.