Jaap Stam was always going to leave a gaping hole in the Manchester United defence when he was sold in 2001 – replacing him was never going to be easy.
Stam won three Premier League titles and the Champions League during his three years at the club before falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson.
Here are the 14 centre-backs United have signed since Stam’s departure, ranked by how well they fared at Old Trafford.
14. Gerard Pique
Pique may have become one of the best centre-backs in the world, but his Manchester United career never really got going.
The Spain international struggled to break into the side and only made 23 first-team appearances before returning to Barcelona in 2008.
He went on to win everything at the Camp Nou and even helped his hometown club beat United in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
13. Marcos Rojo
Rojo was signed from Sporting Lisbon on the back of some impressive performances for Argentina in the 2014 World Cup.
While the defender made a good first impression, his reckless defending and reoccurring injury problems saw him become an increasingly peripheral figure at Old Trafford.
He was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and was allowed to leave on a free transfer in 2021.
12. Eric Bailly
Bailly would be a lot higher on this list if it wasn’t for his injury problems.
The Ivory Coast international had a promising debut season at United in 2016-17 but has only made 45 Premier League appearances over the last five years.
At least he’s still managed to provide some entertainment…
11. Phil Jones
Jones was a highly-rated prospect when he joined United from Blackburn in 2011 and was tipped for a bright future by Sir Alex Ferguson.
“The way he is looking, he could be our best ever player. He may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him,” Ferguson said in 2013.
“At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player. He can play anywhere on the pitch. He has such a massive influence, with his instinct and reading of the game. He has a drive about him.”
However, his career hasn’t gone as planned and the centre-back has been prone to silly mistakes and lapses of concentration.
Injuries have also hampered his progress, restricting him to just 169 Premier League appearances over the last 11 seasons.
10. Laurent Blanc
Blanc was signed as the replacement for Stam in 2001, but he was coming towards the end of his career and couldn’t fill the void left by his predecessor.
The former France international initially struggled to adapt to English football and United conceded 45 goals in 38 games as they finished third in 2001-02.
His form eventually started to improve and the defender helped United win the Premier League title in 2002-03 before hanging up his boots.
9. Harry Maguire
Maguire became the most expensive defender in the world when United spent £80million to sign him from Leicester City in 2019.
The England international didn’t look like an £80million player but still kept a total of 26 Premier League clean sheets during his first two seasons at Old Trafford, more than any other outfield player in that period. He captained the club to a second-place finish in the 2020-21 campaign and his injury-enforced absence was keenly felt in that season’s Europa League final defeat to Villarreal.
But he suffered an almighty nosedive in form in 2021-22 and produced some calamitous performances, making him a figure of ridicule on social media.
These days the club captain only really plays a supporting role as he has lost his place in the starting 11 under Erik ten Hag.
8. Victor Lindelof
Lindelof was brought to United from Benfica by Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2017 but endured a disastrous first season at Old Trafford.
The Sweden international turned things and became one of the first names on the team sheet under Solskjaer, who appreciated the defender’s ball-playing skills.
But he often struggles against physical Premier League strikers and his time at Old Trafford has coincided with United’s trophy drought.
Mourinho on Lindelof "He's not specially good in the air"
Immediately in the pre-match warm-up, Lindelof misses a header 😂 pic.twitter.com/w8oWerXyN6
— TheMontyTweets 🦉 #MDANT 🏅 (@TheMontyTweets) September 22, 2019
7. Raphael Varane
Varane arrived at United with some serious pedigree, having won three La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues during his 10 years at Real Madrid.
His debut season at Old Trafford was largely derailed by injuries as he struggled to live up to his lofty reputation. Fast forward a few months and Varane has been back to his best.
After establishing a solid partnership at the back alongside Lisandro Martinez, the French defender has looked much more composed.
6. Daley Blind
Blind joined United from Ajax on deadline day in 2014 when fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal was in charge.
The midfielder was converted into a ball-playing centre-back and formed an impressive partnership with Chris Smalling as United won the FA Cup in 2016.
However, he fell down the pecking order under Mourinho and eventually returned to Ajax in 2018.
5. Gabriel Heinze
Heinze was primarily a left-back but was also a very capable centre-back during his three years at United.
He won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in 2004-05 but angered fans by trying to force a move to rivals Liverpool in 2007.
The former Argentina international was also a bit of a shithouse but met his match when he tried to stand up to Roy Keane and got knocked unconscious.
“We lost a game and I went in the dressing room first and Roy Keane was second. I liked to go first after the game; I didn’t want to speak to anyone as we lost,” Heinze told Pura Quimica in 2017.
“I didn’t understand English, just the bad words. I heard my name and ‘f*ck off’ by Roy Keane, the best player.
“I knew that was bad so I stood up to him, this idol of Manchester, this great guy who everyone loved, and replied, ‘F**k off, you.’ I don’t remember what happened next.”
4. Chris Smalling
Smalling joined United from Fulham in 2010 and was originally seen as the man to succeed Rio Ferdinand in the heart of their defence.
Despite being a reliable performer under Van Gaal and receiving United’s Players’ Player of the Year award in 2015-16, he eventually became a much-maligned figure at Old Trafford and was sold to Roma in 2020.
The centre-half has still made 323 appearances for the club while winning two Premier League titles, the FA Cup and the Europa League in the process.
3. Lisandro Martinez
The Argentine defender wears his heart on his sleeve and has been an excellent capture for United so far. Plenty of pundits had raised an eyebrow when United splashed £47million on him in 2022, but he has proven the doubters wrong so far.
Of course, he hasn’t been perfect – that 7-0 defeat to Liverpool will be hard to forget in a hurry – but overall Martinez has been a resounding hit at Old Trafford.
2. Nemanja Vidic
Vidic arrived at Old Trafford as a relative unknown in 2006 but soon established himself as one of the fiercest centre-backs in the game.
His partnership with Rio Ferdinand was the cornerstone of United’s success in the late 2000s and the pair won five Premier League titles together.
“He became a defender that was feared,” Ferdinand said in 2016. “He could fight with the most physical, he crunched into tackles, he attacked the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“But as he will tell you with a smile, he could also play with the ball too, which made him complete and a great defender.”
The rest, as they say, is history… pic.twitter.com/LwUMxOZFIi
— Premier League (@premierleague) January 5, 2018
1. Rio Ferdinand
United spent a then-British transfer record of £29.1million to sign Ferdinand from Leeds United in 2002, but it proved to be a bargain.
The former England international developed into one of the finest defenders in the world and United finally had a worthy replacement for Stam.
He made 455 appearances during his 12 years at Old Trafford, winning six Premier League titles, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and two League Cups.