Sports

ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

For the sixth consecutive year, ESPN presents its annual ranking of the best men’s players and coaches in world soccer! Welcome to FC 100.

As always, rankings are broken down into Top 10 lists for positions, plus a countdown of managers, in order to present the most meaningful look at talent on the pitch and the sideline.

Whereas last year was dominated by Liverpool and Bayern Munich — the clubs combined for eight of the 10 No. 1 spots — the leaders in this year’s edition are spread across six teams, with none having more than two men on top of their respective category.

One common theme, though, was that all but two of the 10 leaders won silverware in the past 12 months, be it at club or international level. Which is kind of what we wanted voters to think about: Put reputation to one side and focus instead on a “what have you done for me lately?” approach, with the year’s top performers getting their due.

Once again, there is large-scale turnover of names, with 41 new entries (compared to 47 in 2020 and 43 in 2019). Meanwhile, there are 28 nationalities, with 26 clubs represented, plus three international teams.

During the October international break, 77 ESPN experts around the world — from editors to writers, TV talent and former players — made selections from a list of more than 300 players and managers. Moreover, if the name they wanted was not there, they had the option to add a write-in nomination.

This is not simply a “best players in the world” megalist; The aim is to isolate specific areas of the pitch so comparisons can be made between those with similar roles. As such, every voter submitted 10 individual ballots, from which we crunched the numbers ahead of a final review by select writers and editors.

(And yes, we acknowledge that some players in certain positions might play elsewhere on the pitch at times; we made a call to ensure their votes were not split across two categories!)

Assessing the Top 10s

In addition to spotlighting a high point from the year that showed each player and manager in his best light, Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked as a scout and executive for clubs including Monaco, Zenit St Petersburg and Watford, evaluates the game of each inclusion.

So there we have it: From goalkeeper to striker and everywhere in-between — as well as the guys in charge — this is FC 100!

NOTE: Player ages correct as of Nov. 30

GOALKEEPER

Beyond stopping shots and acting as “sweeper-keeper,” goalkeepers are the first step in building attacks; be it with a long, accurate throw or raking crossfield pass. Agility and reflexes are a given, but confidence and vision and are vital.

High points written by Sam Marsden


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / Costa Rica
Age: 34
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: Navas has made a successful career at some of the world’s biggest clubs thanks to his incredible reflexes, jumping ability and agility. Able to make acrobatic and memorable saves, most lasting memories of Navas are of him stretched out horizontally, getting his hands to the ball to tip it round the post. He is responsive in the sense that he tends to get better the more he is tested, though is not quite of the refined, well-rounded breed of goalkeeper that has been preferred in recent years.

High point of 2021: Even after PSG won 4-1 win at Camp Nou, there was a moment in the Champions League last-16 second leg in Paris when it looked like Barcelona might get back into the tie. However, Navas saved from a Sergino Dest drive and Lionel Messi‘s penalty to ensure that did not happen.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Aston Villa / Argentina
Age: 29
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Given that Martinez has only completed one full season as a first-choice goalkeeper, and looked average until picked up by Aston Villa, the Argentina No. 1 is making a mark as a late bloomer. Low on confidence after failing to get a chance during an eight year career at Arsenal, he made the move to Villa and hasn’t looked back. His well-publicised antics in resorting to any method possible to put off an attacker when faced with penalties (he’s saved four this season) grab the headlines, but Martinez is a solid and reliable shot stopper.

High point of 2021: Martinez only earned his first Argentina cap in June but quickly became a hero in his homeland with Golden Glove-winning Copa America form. He produced a hat trick of saves in the semifinal penalty shootout win over Colombia, then kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 final win against Brazil.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Barcelona / Germany
Age: 29
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: Though not quite as impressive as previous seasons, the Germany international is still among the top goalkeepers in the game. As is compulsory for any Barcelona goalkeeper, Ter Stegen is always available for his defenders and contributes in moving the ball around at the back well. Blessed with rapid reflexes, he has generally proved to have good timing when rushing off his line to stop an attacker. He’s also good at restarting play through long, precise throws.

High point of 2021: Ter Stegen came up with a huge performance against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey semifinal, saving a penalty from Lucas Ocampos as Barca overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to reach the final. It laid the foundations for the only trophy won by the Blaugrana in the last two years.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Senegal
Age: 29
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Despite being a respected goalkeeper in Ligue 1 with Reims and Rennes, Mendy has taken his game even further after the switch to the Premier League. At 6-foot-4, not only does the Senegal international’s reach give him an edge at catching crosses, but he’s also deceptively quick at getting down to make low saves on both sides. Increasingly composed and measured in his distribution, from which he often starts attacks, he has become a key component of Chelsea’s defence.

High point of 2021: Mendy almost single-handedly earned Chelsea three points at Brentford in October. He made seven stunning saves in a 1-0 win, prompting manager Thomas Tuchel to call him “absolutely decisive” and left-back Ben Chilwell to say: “We have [Mendy] to thank, he was amazing.”


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Brazil
Age: 28
2020 rank: 6

Scouting report: One of the closest rivals to Manuel Neuer when it comes to the quality of his first touch and distribution, Ederson is fundamental to Pep Guardiola’s brand of football at Manchester City. The Brazilian’s left-footed strike is arguably the cleanest and most powerful among goalkeepers at the highest level (he’d probably have a go at taking direct free-kicks, if he was allowed to). The occasions he gets caught out due to concentration lapses are getting fewer and is now a complete player with a knack for saving penalties.

High point of 2021: There are few goalkeepers with Ederson’s vision and distribution, which is so important to a Guardiola side. An example of his brilliance was seen in May when he played a 60-yard pass in the build-up to City’s opening goal in the Champions League semifinal second leg against PSG.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / Brazil
Age: 29
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: An attack-minded, brave goalkeeper whose excellent game-reading skills and general alertness make him capable of performing a high number of interceptions. Very offensive in the way he defends his goal; always on the front foot and off his line quickly. The Brazilian is very capable with his feet, agile and transmits confidence to his defenders with his vocal, active style.

High point of 2021: In May, Liverpool’s Premier League top-four hopes were in jeopardy when Alisson joined his teammates in the West Bromwich Albion penalty area. One flicked header later, the goalkeeper had scored an improbably winner that helped seal a Champions League place.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / Belgium
Age: 29
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: At 6-foot-7, Courtois is one of the tallest goalkeepers at elite level and his presence in goal makes him hard to beat. The Belgium international, who is closing in on his 100th cap, is incredibly consistent and hardly ever misses a game or commits glaring errors. Excellent at catching crosses, he’s impressively acrobatic for his size and has fine instinctive reflexes. His footwork might not rate the highest, but it’s improving.

High point of 2021: Perhaps Courtois’ best performance of the year came earlier this season in a 1-0 Champions League win for Madrid at Inter. His fine saves denied a goalbound Lautaro Martinez header, as well as two efforts from Edin Dzeko, as Los Blancos sneaked the three points.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 35
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: The original “sweeper keeper” is still among the best in the game when it comes to footwork. Few other goalkeepers are as comfortable in dealing with the ball at their feet. Whether it’s short or medium passes with the right pace and angles, pinpointing a long diagonal or even spotting a run in behind, Neuer can do it all. He pushes up when his team is in possession like no other goalkeeper, while his reflexes and game-reading skills are still of the very highest order.

High point of 2021: Neuer is a modern goalkeeper, in that his ability on the ball remains as important as his shot stopping. As such, it was no great shock to see him arrow a 60-yard pass to set up a Champions League goal for Robert Lewandowski against Benfica in November.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain (moved from AC Milan in July) / Italy
Age: 22
2020 rank: 8

Scouting report: In addition to having the size and presence to command his area, the Italy international is technically brilliant. While initially recognised for his sharp reflexes on the line, his ability to time and execute his closing down of an on-rushing opponent is now his trademark. Donnarumma’s distribution has also improved steadily over the past few seasons, to the point where he’s confident enough to be used by his defenders to play away from pressure, as has his ability to get his hands safely on crosses.

High point of 2021: The 6-feet-5 stopper used every inch of his frame to become Italy’s Euro 2020 penalty king. He saved from Alvaro Morata to help secure a place in the final, then kept out further penalties from Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the shootout win over England.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Atletico Madrid / Slovenia
Age: 28
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: In contrast to the trend of “sweeper keeper,” the Slovenia international is all about the bread and butter of goalkeeping: stopping goals. Aside from his distribution under pressure, Oblak is the complete No. 1: equipped with strong hands and exceptional agility. He positions himself extremely well (including when rushing out) and his concentration and reflexes are so sharp that he can even reshape his body to keep out a late deflection. A world-class goalkeeper and deserving of the No. 1 spot here.

High point of 2021: A fingertip save from Lionel Messi at Camp Nou in May was perhaps the most crucial stop Oblak made this year. It ensured the game ended goalless, earning Atletico a point at the business end of the season and serving a major blow to Barcelona’s hopes of winning LaLiga.

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Jan Oblak says it was always his dream to be a goalkeeper after being named best in the world in the ESPN FC 100.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

RIGHT-BACK

Perhaps once the least-skilled outfield players, right-backs now are often converted wingers, who bring boldness and unpredictability. Positional awareness, pinpoint crossing and high speed separate the best from the rest.

High points written by Alex Kirkland


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / France
Age: 25
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: Contrary to the modern full-back, Pavard (as a re-schooled centre-back) does not have the lightning pace or the natural urge to break forward of many of his top-level contemporaries. On the other hand, the France international is a highly intelligent footballer who times his runs well and reads danger early. He’s good in the air for a wide defender, tackles well and is composed on the ball. A very useful team player who keeps on steadily improving.

High point of 2021: Pavard won the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and was part of France’s UEFA Nations League-winning side. Injury and suspension have affected him recently, but his belief remains; as he put it himself: “Great coaches put me at right-back because they have confidence in my abilities.”


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Spain
Age: 32
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: With over 300 Premier League appearances to his name, Azpilicueta has been an incredible servant for Chelsea with his versatility, diligence and stability. No matter the formation or position, the Spain international defender tends to put in a fine shift, having arrived mainly as a full-back but found himself used in the centre as well. His ability to read and anticipate the game makes him capable of winning most of his duels, he rarely looks in trouble and takes care of his tasks in an expert manner. A respected leader too.

High point of 2021: Lifting the Champions League trophy as Chelsea captain was a career peak for a consistent competitor and his club form also saw Azpilicueta deservedly return to the Spain team after a three-year absence; he played a key role in La Roja‘s run to the Euro 2020 semifinals.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Inter Milan (moved from PSV Eindhoven in August) / Netherlands
Age: 25
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The Netherlands wing-back drew plaudits with some impressive performances during Euro 2020 this summer, scoring two goals in the process. Still yet to claim the status of a regular after his €12.5m move from PSV to Inter in the summer, he is an eager, enthusiastic wide man who supports the attack with relentless forward running. Dumfries delivers a high number of crosses, but can struggle with accuracy.

High point of 2021: Dumfries scored in successive matches at Euro 2020 against Ukraine and Austria — his late, headed winner in the former game provided the final, decisive twist in a five-goal thriller — and those displays helped his profile skyrocket and earn him a move to Inter.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Atletico Madrid / England
Age: 31
2020 rank: 9

Scouting report: A reliable right-back with a balanced attacking vs. defensive game. In addition to being a good crosser of the ball and a regular set-piece taker, Trippier is positive in his passing and is always looking to progress with the ball after the initial touch. He has performed well in one of the best defensive units in European football at Atletico Madrid.

High point of 2021: The first trophy of his career, when Atletico won LaLiga, vindicated the 2019 decision to leave his comfort zone of England and test himself with a move to Spain. Trippier made 28 league starts in 2020-21 and his consistency was a vital factor in the success of Diego Simeone’s side.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Sevilla / Spain
Age: 36
2020 rank: 6

Scouting report: With well over 400 league appearances for Sevilla and Manchester City, Navas — who permanently switched to right-back from a winger two years ago — covers the right flank with expertise. He takes up advantageous positions to involve himself going forward and is a non-stop provider of quality crosses into the box (nearly five per game). Though rapidly approaching his 36th birthday he’s still consistent in his performances.

High point of 2021: Navas was already guaranteed a place in Sevilla history: The club’s appearance record holder, no player has lifted more trophies. He captained them to a fourth-place finish in LaLiga with 77 points — another all-time high — and is part of a title push in the ongoing campaign.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / England
Age: 31
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: From mostly trading on his sprinter-like pace as an orthodox right-back, the England defender has developed into a flexible, tactically smart, all-around defender under Guardiola. While not being particularly productive in the constructive side of the game when crossing the halfway line (his crossing rarely leads to goals or chances in the area), he is undoubtedly among the best one-vs-one defenders around.

High point of 2021: Having won back his place, Walker was pivotal in Man City’s Premier League title success and started every knockout-stage game en route to the Champions League final. His best displays came in the semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain, helping keep Kylian Mbappe and Neymar quiet.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / England
Age: 21
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Already a solid, strong and athletic defender, James has improved going forward since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival as Chelsea manager. The England international loves making well-timed attacking runs behind or on the shoulder of the opposing full-back and has recently shown off an impressive ability to score with a powerful shot off either foot. Plays with a contagious enthusiasm for the game.

High point of 2021: A sign of James’ all-round qualities, which have made him vital for club and country, came during Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Arsenal in August: He laid on the opener for Romelu Lukaku, then scored himself, all while playing his part in another stellar defensive display from the European champions.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Portugal
Age: 27
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The Portugal international plays with great energy, determination and confidence. Always keen to get the ball and involve himself in the build-up phase, he passes well with both feet, often looking for options infield rather than just moving the ball along wide areas. He possesses a powerful shot with both feet and is happy to try his luck from the most unlikely of distances. A constant, relentless threat, though his enthusiasm can make him prone to run into blind alleys. Cancelo wins an impressive percentage of defensive challenges (60%) and is strong in the air for a full-back.

High point of 2021: In the opening 20 minutes at West Brom in January, Cancelo almost single-handedly won three points for title-chasing City. He set up Ilkay Gundogan, then scored the second himself. And he can play on either flank; no wonder teammate Phil Foden has called him the world’s best attacking full-back.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / England
Age: 23
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: An atypical full-back whose main strengths are found in the technical side of his game. While he frequently joins the attack through overlaps or bursting down the wide areas, he’s equally adept at controlling the ball from a deeper position and pinpointing forward passes (2.7 key passes per game this year is quite astonishing for a right-back) or hitting early diagonals. Alexander-Arnold is also one of the best crossers of the ball in the Premier League. Not yet considered as an expert defender, but does recover a respectable amount of balls in the opponent’s half.

High point of 2021: His November man-of-the-match performance against Atletico Madrid was a masterclass. Both of Liverpool’s goals came from pinpoint right-footed deliveries into the penalty area from Alexander-Arnold, who dominated the match in a way few full-backs can.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain (moved from Inter Milan in July) / Morocco
Age: 23
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: Hakimi proved the perfect wing-back on the right side of Antonio Conte’s Scudetto-winning Inter Milan team. Much like with Borussia Dortmund previously, the Morocco international — who can also play on the left — was an uncontainable presence, causing a constant attacking threat with his strong running and winger-esque dribbling skills. He scored a remarkable seven league goals for Inter and has started his Ligue 1 career in impressive fashion after a €60m move this summer.

High point of 2021: Having begun the year as a key member of the Inter team that won the club’s first Serie A title in 11 years, Hakimi has made the biggest impact of PSG’s high-profile summer arrivals, most notably when he scored twice — including a 95th-minute winner — in a 2-1 win at Metz in September.

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Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens debate who deserves the No.1 right-back spot in the FC 100.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

CENTRE-BACK

Being a top defender requires more than size, assertiveness and strength. Many of the best are cultured in possession; others epitomize no-nonsense force. The greats combine timing and power with elegance and poise under pressure.

High points written by Andrew Cesare Richardson


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / Netherlands
Age: 30
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: A centre-back who leads verbally, by presence and by example. Nearly unbeatable in the duels — be it in the air or on the ground — the Liverpool defender is also extremely intelligent in his positioning and is normally one step ahead of his opponent. His ability to hit a long diagonal pass is as good as you will find. And, with his outstanding heading technique, he’s also a natural target for set pieces.

High point of 2021: The biggest sign of Van Dijk’s importance was seen in Liverpool’s struggle to qualify for the Champions League while he was out through injury. Since their defensive leader’s return, Jurgen Klopp’s side has improved to challenge for the Premier League title and cruise in Europe.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Juventus / Italy
Age: 34
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: Not quite as dominating as he was a few years ago, but Bonucci is still one of the most complete defenders of his generation. The Juventus man brings massive experience and leadership qualities, while he adapts his game to his defensive partners, whether it’s Chiellini or Matthijs de Ligt. Despite having lost some of his mobility and sprinting speed as he has aged, Bonucci is still able to use his tactical awareness and sheer power to get to the ball first. His long passes are also usually of a high standard.

High point of 2021: A colossus at the back during Italy’s memorable run to Euro 2020 victory, Bonucci was also a frequent starter of forward moves and scored Italy’s equalising goal against England in the final, as he tapped in from close range after reacting fastest to the opportunity.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Brazil
Age: 37
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: Providing the focal point in the middle of Chelsea’s back three, the ex-AC Milan and PSG defender is still one of the most incisive defenders in world football. His success ratio from challenges in the air and on the ground remains above 70%, and he’s still an expert organiser of a defensive line and set pieces alike. The Brazil veteran always plays with 100% focus, while he moves, acts and defends with world-class expertise.

High point of 2021: Silva produced a defensive masterclass to keep Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema at bay in the Champions League semifinal second leg. The France international — one of the frontrunners for this year’s Ballon d’Or — barely had a kick, with one Silva overhead-kick clearance especially impressive.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Napoli / Senegal
Age: 30
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: Despite bossing the Napoli defence for years, the Senegal international is yet to get proper recognition outside of Italy. From a visual perspective, Koulibaly can appear so casual and imposing he makes defending look easy. When he sets his mind on recouping the ball, he practically just goes to get it. The tall, elegant centre-back plays with such authority that it’s quite fascinating to watch (though he can be too nonchalant at times.)

High point of 2021: He loves a late winner against Juventus, and his tap-in sealed a comeback Napoli victory in September. The 2020-21 campaign was not a vintage season, but Koulibaly has been crucial to Napoli’s incredible start to the current season, which sees them riding high in Serie A.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid (moved from Bayern Munich in July) / Austria
Age: 29
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: Alaba’s goal for his new club Real Madrid in El Clasico against Barcelona in October summed him up as a player: Having made the initial interception in defence, he darted up the pitch to finish the move with a clean left-footed strike. In other words, the Austria international has the intuition of a defender, the vertical running power of a midfielder and a striker’s finish (let alone leadership and determination which any player would want.) It’s hard to pick out a similarly tactically adaptable player at the highest level over the past 30 years. No matter if he starts the game in the heart of defence, on the left wing or as a playmaker in midfield, Alaba performs his duties with great quality and intelligence.

High point of 2021: What better way is there to make yourself a hero to Real Madrid fans than by scoring against Barcelona on your Clasico debut? Alaba turned in a superb display in another sign that he has settled into life in Spain after signing as a free agent, having left Bayern Munich.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Germany
Age: 28
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: From the talented but occasional liability we saw in his younger days with Stuttgart and Roma, the Germany international has established himself as a reliable, proactive centre-back — whether playing on the left of Chelsea’s back three or the centre in Germany’s back four. A reliable passer of the ball, Rudiger is still a defender who thrives on the physical side of the game: He’s extremely powerful and comes out on top from an impressive 75% of his defensive duels.

High point of 2021: Having featured sparingly under Frank Lampard, Rudiger’s transformation under Thomas Tuchel has been extraordinary. His improvement was shown by a dominant display in September’s 3-0 win at Tottenham, where he scored Chelsea’s third goal with a fine finish.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester United (moved from Real Madrid in August) / France
Age: 28
2020 rank: 6

Scouting report: Although the France international hasn’t had the best year for Real Madrid or Man United, it’s hard to find clear downsides in his game. He’s arguably among the quickest centre-backs in the game, is excellent in the air and good enough on the ball to play out efficiently from the back. Varane has the ideal physique for a centre-back — tall and athletic, yet mobile over short spaces — and has developed the nous to make decisive interceptions in the box.

High point of 2021: He left a comfortable Madrid life to challenge himself in England and began with a game-winning assist on debut, but arguably Varane’s most memorable moment was before United’s season opener against Leeds; his on-pitch presentation turned Old Trafford into a frenzy and helped spark a 5-1 victory.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Juventus / Italy
Age: 37
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: While he regularly played left-back or even wing-back in his early days, in his later years the Italy veteran has become most noted for his diligent and resolute defending. In Chiellini’s mind no challenge is ever lost (he wins nearly three quarters of his defensive challenges), and his desire to defend through blocks, tackles or by throwing himself in front of the ball at any cost is a dying art. One of the toughest opponents a forward can face, either physically or verbally; Chiellini will be at you all night.

High point of 2021: Italy’s captain and leader produced one of Euro 2020’s iconic images when he pulled back Bukayo Saka by his shirt as the England substitute threatened to break away late in the final. The move showed Chiellini’s ruthlessness and intelligence and why he is still a nightmare for attackers.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / Brazil
Age: 27
2020 rank: 10

Scouting report: Equally adept at playing in defensive midfield, Marquinhos’ main forte is his control of the ball and understanding of the game. He tends to drops deep to direct the play from behind and to start attacking with a pass into midfield. While the Brazilian usually prefers to deal with danger by making early interceptions, he’s also capable of outmuscling his opponent in a competitive duel. He brings structure and leadership to the defence.

High point of 2021: The defender scored Brazil’s Copa America opener against Venezuela as part of an emphatic display in a 3-0 victory. Selecao coach Tite wants attacks to start from the back, and Marquinhos is at the heart of that, having also developed into one of the team’s leaders.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Portugal
Age: 24
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The way Dias went from a promising centre-back in the Portuguese league to become the backbone of the Premier League title winning team is almost unprecedented. His measured, calm style resembles a seasoned defender in his peak years (usually between 28-32). He reads the game so well to make interceptions, and is a vocal commander of his teammates. He’s also quick over long distances, good on the ball — his medium and long passes are of an especially high quality — and dominates in the air.

High point of 2021: The first defender to win England’s Football Writers’ Player of the Year award since Steve Nicol in 1989, Dias proved a worthy replacement for Vincent Kompany. One memorable moment came in a win over Man United, when he began a slide tackle before Scott McTominay got the ball, yet still won it cleanly.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

LEFT-BACK

Leading left-backs are as comfortable locking down a winger as they are turning into one in possession. Some are not even left-footed, but positional awareness and know-how sees them drift infield to central defence or midfield.

High points written by Elaine Teng


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester United / England
Age: 26
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: After a few seasons in the wilderness, Shaw has worked his way back to become a key player for England and Manchester United. A physically strong and determined defender who often tries to close down his opponents and win the ball early. Tall, compact and good in the air, Shaw is keen to join the attack through incisive runs, making himself available through overlaps or finding space inside the box. His recent performances have dropped along with the rest of the United team, but he was a star at Euro 2020.

High point of 2021: For 65 minutes, Shaw was the hero of the Euro 2020 final, having smashed home a second-minute goal that stunned Italy. It was not to be for England, who ultimately lost on penalties, but their left-back had some consolation in the form of a display that capped a superb individual tournament.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / France
Age: 26
2020 rank: 10

Scouting report: Had it not been for injuries the France international may already have settled as the long-term successor to Marcelo, but instead he is struggling to get his Bernabeu career going. When fit, Mendy has all the attributes to be considered the complete full-back. His passing game is safe and measured, while he supports his attacking teammates well with constant overlaps.

High point of 2021: Mendy was in thrilling form during his club’s run to the Champions League semifinals at the start of the year, with a vital winner at Atalanta his best moment, and was a major loss to los Blancos when he suffered an injury in April that also caused him to miss Euro 2020.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Atalanta / Germany
Age: 27
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Another high-scoring wing-back, Gosens is certainly more than a classic wide player. He’s alert enough to position himself well for rebounds or crosses when the attack is on the opposite flank, while his opportunism sees him make productive runs past his marker to look for a finish at the back post. For all his impressive off-the-ball movement, Gosens is also an exceptionally determined footballer and many of his goals are scored out of the sheer will to get to the ball first.

High point of 2021: Gosens was a bright spot at a disappointing Euro 2020 for Germany. Playing as a wing-back in a 4-2 victory over Portugal that was one of the tournament’s best games, he scored one, made another and generally did as he pleased against opponents with no answer to his marauding runs.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Spain
Age: 30
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: An intelligent full-back whose incisive forward runs often open up several attacking options. Thanks to good game-reading skills, Alonso is good at intercepting and is more than useful in aerial challenges. Either used as a classic left-back or a wing-back, the Spain international usually deals calmly with defensive situations, even when under pressure. He can also strike a wonderful free kick.

High point of 2021: Alonso fell out with Frank Lampard and seemed on his way out of Chelsea, but has been a key cog in Thomas Tuchel’s finely-tuned machine. Known for his attacking prowess, Alonso showed he can defend in an August draw at Liverpool that saw Chelsea play the second half with 10 men.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Borussia Dortmund / Portugal
Age: 27
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: One of the most productive full-backs in European football, Guerreiro has registered an impressive 32 goals and as many assists during his time at Dortmund (168 games). Almost always available on the left side during the build-up phase, he has good enough feet to involve himself in tight central areas, too. With his relentless attacking style and stamina that sees him hardly ever tire, Guerreiro is perfectly suited to Dortmund’s high-energy football.

High point of 2021: Scoring what he called “the most beautiful goal of my life” in a Dortmund win at Union Berlin in September, Guerreiro volleyed a shot into the far corner from an angle that looked impossible. Injuries have undermined his year overall, but this was a reminder of what he can do.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 32
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: One of the most reliable players in a young Barcelona team that tends to oscillate between brilliant, average and downright poor. With all his experience, Alba is still a useful combination player on the left and can be trusted to deliver quality balls into the box (he put in an average 4.3 crosses per game in 2021) or execute key passes in the last third. Though his impact has not been the same without Lionel Messi’s assistance down the left.

High point of 2021: Jordi Alba has long been a Barcelona stalwart, but his steady form has been vital in a difficult time for the club. He had 15 assists last season, including two in the Copa del Rey final. The second, which saw him blaze down the left before cutting the ball back for Lionel Messi, was exceptional.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Roma / Italy
Age: 28
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The Italy left-back was in the form of his life when he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in the Euro 2020 quarterfinal against Belgium. Until then Spinazzola had impressed with his wonderful attacking contributions, as well as defending expertly when tucking in as a third centre-back to combat the opposing full-back’s forward moves. Tactically smart, quick and a good combination player, the late blooming 28-year-old is a skilled, well-rounded footballer able to play in several positions.

High point of 2021: Spinazzola was named Man of the Match against Turkey and Austria in Euro 2020, before tearing his Achilles tendon in a quarterfinal win over Belgium. He stayed with the team and, after the final and on crutches, was sent up first by his triumphant teammates to receive a winner’s medal.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: AC Milan / France
Age: 24
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: Having performed outstandingly for AC Milan over the past couple of seasons, Hernandez was also recently given the recognition of a call-up for France too (and even scored a late winner against Belgium in the UEFA Nations League final). Physically robust and imposing, Hernandez’s impact on the game increases as it opens up for transitions and duels at either end of the pitch (where he mostly comes out victorious). Attack-minded and fearless, perhaps too much at times as he frequently ends up in the referee’s book.

High point of 2021: After France recovered from falling two goals down in the Nations League semifinal against Belgium, Hernandez found himself with time and space on the edge of the box to fire home a spectacular late winner. In the final, his pass led to Karim Benzema’s winner against Spain.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Canada
Age: 21
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: After a drop in form, Davies is now back to his best under new coach Julian Nagelsmann. Among the quickest players at elite level football, the Canada international is tremendously fast both over the first few meters and also on longer sprints. The technically sound defender practically owns his flank and is avid in his team’s pressing game — often winning the ball in advanced positions, or making use of his first-class dribbling skills when space opens up to attack.

High point of 2021: Davies has been pivotal in Canada’s attempt to reach the 2022 World Cup. He made a point-saving goal against the U.S. in September and then, a month later against Panama, reached a speed of 23 mph in an 80-yard sprint, then beat several defenders before scoring a ridiculous goal.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / Scotland
Age: 27
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: Not only does the Scotland international score highly in terms of quality, but he’s also among the very best when it comes to quantity. Few left-backs can match Robertson’s consistency; he’s almost always available for selection and when he plays, he’s extremely active, always getting involved (he averages close to 70 touches on the ball per game) by providing a constant outlet on the left flank. An excellent crosser of the ball and strikes a well-executed outswinger of a set-piece as well.

High point of 2021: Robertson’s emotional high point might have been captaining Scotland at a first international tournament in 23 years. They did not make it out of the group at Euro 2020, but did draw with eventual finalists England at Wembley. To many Scots, it felt like a famous win.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

CENTRAL MIDFIELD

This position’s key is a sense of rhythm; knowing when to speed up in transition and when to slow down. There are different types — tough tackler, box-to-box machine, nimble playmaker to name three — but the best see the whole field.

High points written by Sam Marsden


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Barcelona / Netherlands
Age: 24
2020 rank: 8

Scouting report: Although the tidy, well-schooled midfielder has performed well in sub-optimal circumstances at Barcelona this year, one has the feeling that there’s a lot more to come from him. Blessed with fine technical abilities, varied passing (93% accuracy in 2021), as well as excellent vision and understanding of the game, De Jong still has room to exercise even more authority and decisiveness on his game. He advances well with the ball and is a quick thinker who is well suited to Barcelona’s style of play.

High point of 2021: De Jong was everywhere in April’s Copa del Rey final as Barcelona crushed Athletic Bilbao. After hitting the post in the first half, he made the opening goal for Antoine Griezmann, got on the scoresheet himself and assisted Lionel Messi, all in an eight-minute period after the interval.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Germany
Age: 31
2020 rank: 6

Scouting report: Even from a deeper role in midfield, the Germany international has a knack of getting on the scoresheet — either courtesy of his excellent shot from distance, his uncanny ability to sniff out the right spaces for late runs into the box, or a confident penalty. Gundogan is a highly intelligent footballer with an extraordinary timing to his actions, whether in his own movement or his passes to teammates.

High point of 2021: Gundogan unexpectedly became City’s main goal source from midfield in the club’s title push. He scored two and won a penalty in a 3-0 win over Tottenham in February, a week after netting a brace against Liverpool. Those four goals took his tally to an incredible 11 in 12 league games.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / Croatia
Age: 36
2020 rank: 9

Scouting report: A true legend of the modern game, Modric is an idol for many up-and-coming central midfielders and has been the one that makes the Real Madrid midfield tick for years. It can seem as if the ball is drawn to him when he receives it, then feeds his companions with perfectly weighted passes. Modric’s vision is acute and he always plays with his head up, while his dribbling skills and ball control are also world-class.

High point of 2021: Modric remains one of LaLiga’s best midfielders, but his Euro 2020 performance against Scotland stood out. In addition to a passing and movement clinic at Hampden Park, he scored one of the tournament’s best goals, finding the top corner with the outside of his right boot from 20 yards.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Barcelona / Spain
Age: 19
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Though only 19, Pedri plays with the intelligence and maturity of someone 10 years his senior. Since arriving from Las Palmas, he’s played in practically all midfield positions for Barcelona (central and wide), but he’ll probably end up as a permanent “No. 8.” Pedri is both so well-developed and naturally talented that it’s hard to find any weaknesses in his game; his distribution is quick, crisp and positive (1.25 key passes per game in 2021), he’s tactically smart and has the discipline to win defensive challenges and track back to cover for full-backs who have moved forward.

High point of 2021: A key figure in Spain’s run to the semifinals at Euro 2020, Pedri he was named Young Player of the Tournament. The teenager excelled throughout the finals, but was particularly outstanding in a 5-3 win over Croatia in the last-16, helping set up three of La Roja‘s goals.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 29
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: The Brazilian is possibly the most effective “enforcer” in world football. Not only does he cover large areas of the pitch, which is priceless for pressing purposes, he also puts in an impressive average of 16 challenges per game — of which he comes out victorious on 60% of occasions (2021). He also wins a fair share of his aerial battles, intercepts well and generally takes no prisoners in 50-50 situations. Away from his destructive side, Casemiro is a safe passer of the ball and has grown in his role as Brazil captain over recent years.

High point of 2021: There have been some vital goals for club and country, but the defensive side of Casemiro’s man-of-the-match performance against Liverpool displayed his best qualities as Madrid held Jurgen Klopp’s side to a goalless draw to reach the Champions League last four.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / Italy
Age: 29
2020 rank: 10

Scouting report: Verratti prefers the role of the deep-lying playmaker, but he has also occasionally been fielded as a “No. 8” (though he broke through into senior football as a “No. 10” playing behind the strikers). The Italy international is excellent at controlling the pace of the game, often circulating the ball across the defence while waiting to find the right options in midfield. His excellent touch and ability to control/progress with the ball make him hard to dispossess, while he is often a target for pressing and fouls. Verratti has an excellent range of passing and though he doesn’t score too much, he’s an expert free-kick taker.

High point of 2021: Verratti returned from injury at Euro 2020 against Wales and was arguably the best player on the pitch, having more touches (136), completing more passes (103) and creating more chances (5) than anyone else. From then on, he was undroppable for coach Roberto Mancini.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Inter Milan / Italy
Age: 24
2020 rank: 10

Scouting report: A multifunctional central midfielder who guarantees maximum levels of commitment and tenacity regardless of his duties or position. With his tireless running and ability to set off on sprints with the ball, Barella’s most suitable position is probably as a “No. 8.” Apart from his impressive physical and mental qualities (he always plays with great focus), the Inter Milan midfielder also features a strong shot from distance and is good on a set-piece too.

High point of 2021: Despite winning Serie A with Inter, it was Barella’s quarterfinal performance at Euro 2020 that lingers in the memory. He produced a match-winning performance — scoring the opener and making a second for Lorenzo Insigne — as Italy beat Belgium 2-1 in Munich.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Italy
Age: 29
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The deep-lying playmaker was instrumental in the successes of both club and country this year. Jorginho plays with such rhythm and confidence that he makes top-level football look easy and always has a clear idea of what he wants to do before he receives the ball. He picks the right spaces and makes sure that his team’s possession flows by keeping the ball clear of congested areas on the pitch. His distribution is excellent and he makes sure to choose the best option even when under pressure.

High point of 2021: Jorginho rolled home the winning penalty against Spain to book Italy’s place in the Euro 2020 final, but it was his consistency for Champions League winners Chelsea and European champions Italy that propelled him into the Ballon d’Or candidate conversation.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 26
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: A classy and composed player who pulls the strings centrally for Bayern. Kimmich began as a full-back but moved into midfield and his strategical mind makes him stand out in both phases of the game. He reads things so well that he can position himself to break up an opponent’s attacks, while he sees the movements of his own teammates early enough to pick out passing options centrally, often finding his forwards with one line-breaking pass (he has 2.2 key passes per game in 2021.)

High point of 2021: Having been used at right-back previously in his career, Kimmich is firmly settled in the centre of Bayern’s midfield and serves as one of the team’s creative hubs. He set up 10 league goals last season, including a hat trick of assists at Schalke 04 in January.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / France
Age: 30
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: A rare type of defensive midfielder who combines mobility and high work rate with simple, efficient passing and first-class ball-carrying abilities (especially in transitional plays). Kante seems to do the work of two players in midfield as he whizzes around the pitch closing down opponents, winning the ball and passing it along swiftly. He is the perfect team player, an all-round nice guy and the ideal foil for a more attacking teammate to thrive.

High point of 2021: Kante was man of the match in four of Chelsea’s seven Champions League knockout games, including both semifinal legs against Real Madrid and the final against Man City. In one game with Madrid, he seemed to cover every blade of grass, as well as playing key roles in both Chelsea goals.

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Julien Laurens believes N’Golo Kante’s performances in the Champions League warrant his spot at the top.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

A position traditionally associated with flair and imagination, attacking midfielders can crack a robust defence with a piece of magic. The best make the most of free roles to entertain, but many do a two-way job within a tactical plan.

High points written by Tom Hamilton


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: West Ham United / Czech Republic
Age: 26
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: A slightly unorthodox central midfielder who has the build and skill set of an out-and-out defensive midfielder, but his urge to break forward and knack for getting into goal-scoring positions corresponds better with a “No. 8.” Either way, the Czech Republic international is exceptionally good in the air and his superior game-reading abilities are of great value to West Ham. His stamina is truly remarkable and he covered the most ground in the Premier League last season, having clocked up 437km, which included 17km across 120 minutes in their FA Cup defeat to Manchester United in February.

High point of 2021: In a 2020-21 season that saw Soucek score 10 Premier League goals, one memorable performance saw him win a record-breaking 17 aerial duels against Burnley in May. The €21 million fee, paid to sign him from Slavia Prague in July 2020, is proving a bargain.

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Gab Marcotti explains why he included West Ham’s Tomas Soucek in his vote for the top attacking midfielders.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Sampdoria / Denmark
Age: 21
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The Denmark international matched a fine Serie A season with some inspiring displays at Euro 2020. His penchant for scoring spectacular goals from distance became evident this summer, while his strong ball-carrying skills — especially when the pitch opens up in front of him on counter-attacks — and technical ability are of a high standard too. Damsgaard is skillful, good one-vs.-one and works hard for the team too; no wonder he’s being monitored by an array of elite European clubs.

High point of 2021: Playing a full part in his country’s memorable Euro 2020 semifinal run, Damsgaard scored a remarkable free kick against England from almost 30 yards, having earlier contributed a lovely weighted effort against Russia that gave the Danes a platform to reach the knockout rounds.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Lyon / Brazil
Age: 24
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: From a slightly deeper role than he previously played with AC Milan, the Brazilian looks a completely new player at Lyon. While still able to participate with precise passes in the last third, he’s also allowed to pick up the ball from the centre-backs, often starting the attacking moves. In addition to his flair and creativity, Paqueta puts in a shift for his team and regularly wins the ball in midfield.

High point of 2021: He has impressed for Lyon, but his best moment came in the Copa America semifinals when scoring the goal that guided Brazil past Peru. After a series of remarkable saves from Peru’s Pedro Gallese, Paqueta eventually found a way through as he stroked home Neymar’s cross.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Portugal
Age: 27
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: Though already highly respected, the Portugal international has kicked on to another level this season. When not in possession he presses and closes down relentlessly, nipping in before the opponent to pick up loose balls, and his tireless effort can be documented in the high number of short sprints he performs every game. Silva also seems to have improved technically and tactically with an added variety and creativity in his passing game. Increasingly becoming a big-game player for Manchester City, he has been used in a host of different positions up front this season.

High point of 2021: It might only have been against Burnley, but so good was Silva in an October win that Pep Guardiola was compelled to say he had reached the “out of this world” level of his debut 2018-19 campaign. Added the City manager: “[Silva] is so intuitive; he always gives us the extra ball that we need.”


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / England
Age: 22
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Mount has become an almost indispensable player for club and country over the past year. With his ability to set up effective interchanges and combinations, as well as take on opponents (or even finish from distance), the midfielder is at his most dangerous when progressing with the ball in the final third. Without the ball he’s diligent in his pressing game and is always looking to quickly regain possession.

High point of 2021: Ahead of Norwich’s visit to Chelsea in October, Mount had not registered a goal or assist in the 2021-22 season. Ninety minutes later, he had the match ball having notched his first career hat trick, which included a superb drive from the edge of the box. He also registered an assist for good measure.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester United / France
Age: 28
2020 rank: 8

Scouting report: For years the France international has shown in flashes that he has all the physical, technical and tactical credentials to be the best central midfielder in the world. Whether as a “No. 8,” a supporting forward or even a holding midfielder, Pogba has the ball-carrying ability, the variation of passing, athleticism and power to make a devastating impact. Perhaps a move to another club will help define a clearer role for him than what is now the case at Old Trafford.

High point of 2021: Four assists in a Man United win over Leeds was a remarkable feat, but Pogba’s best performance of the year came for France against Germany at Euro 2020. His incredible cross-field pass led to a Mats Hummels own goal, after which Pogba ran the rest of the game from midfield.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / England
Age: 21
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Already close to being the finished article, Foden is so lively and always either wants the ball played in to his feet or behind the defence to chase. When not in possession, he works hard to regain it. Equipped with a lovely left foot, high football intelligence and the ability to operate efficiently between the lines, it’s no surprise that the England man has blossomed under Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff.

High point of 2021: Foden’s year can be bookended by two matches against Liverpool. As a “False No. 9” during a 4-1 win at Anfield in February, he scored one and assisted another. Eight months later on the same ground, he netted another brilliant strike and ended up joint Man of the Match in a 2-2 draw.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 32
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: Mostly recognised for the way he finds space to pick up the ball in the last third or how he’s always in the right spot to convert a rebound, it’s sometimes forgotten how good Muller is in the air and how hard he works defensively for the team. Though he hardly ever does anything flashy, most of his involvements are clear, precise and with purpose. He is also an excellent communicator and quite a character off the field too.

High point of 2021: Perhaps Muller’s greatest moment was his Germany recall. After being ignored by Joachim Low for three years, Muller’s club form led to his comeback against Denmark on June 2 — 927 days since his previous national-team game — and he has remained integral under Hansi Flick.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester United / Portugal
Age: 27
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: The Portugal international arrived with tremendous impact two years ago, immediately scoring and providing assists in high quantities. He netted 28 goals in 58 games across all competitions last season, though recently Fernandes has found it hard to reproduce that form. When at his best, the former Sporting CP star is a high-energy midfielder who is often the team’s dynamo in the last third, always wanting to get on the ball or make runs into the box. He can score from almost anywhere and is good at providing assists by way of an exquisite, improvised pass or an early cross.

High point of 2021: It has been a tough season for Man United, but Fernandes has provided some of the few highlights: Champions League assists for Cristiano Ronaldo against Young Boys and Atalanta come to mind, as does a hat trick against Leeds on the Premier League’s opening weekend.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Belgium
Age: 30
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: Few players keep improving well into their 20s, but De Bruyne has added or sharpened features to his game constantly over the past decade. Now 30, the Manchester City star is a technically brilliant playmaker who is so practical and direct in the execution of his ideas that it’s almost impossible for opponents to keep up. Extremely efficient when finding space between the lines and wonderfully skilled at seeing runs, the Belgium international can pass a ball almost to perfection with both feet.

High point of 2021: De Bruyne started the year in peak form: Brilliant as a “False No. 9” in a January win at Chelsea, he conjured arguably the pass of the season a month later to tee up Ruben Dias against West Ham, then produced a left-footed goal against Monchengladbach in March that was just special.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

WINGER

Maybe they no longer operate with the “chalk on their boots” maxim, but wingers’ pace and persistence on the flanks gives their teams another angle of attack, while the ability to cut infield and shoot adds a further dimension.

High points written by Andrew Richardson


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / Argentina
Age: 33
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: Though big stars keep arriving in Paris, the veteran Argentine keeps getting playing time. His excellent left foot, dangerous crosses, quick body feints and smart movement without the ball are well known. Di Maria is a quality player who has put his poor season at Man United in 2014-15 behind him and now guarantees excellence and effort.

High point of 2021: A stunning lob in the Copa America final handed Argentina victory over hosts Brazil and ended years of underachieving and disappointment. Di Maria kept his cool on 22 minutes to clinch a first major trophy since 1993 and secure himself a place forever in national folklore.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / Algeria
Age: 30
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The owner of one of the best left feet in the game is also quite decent with his weaker foot. The former Leicester star prefers to pick up the ball wide on the right before advancing toward the middle, often scoring with a curled effort. Despite being a good link-up player and having a solid record as an impact substitute, the Algeria international has been used sparingly by City this season.

High point of 2021: Mahrez was a vital cog in Man City’s Premier League title win, but really starred in the Champions League. After winning goals in quarterfinal and semifinal away legs against Borussia Dortmund and PSG, respectively, his second-leg double against the French club sealed City’s first-ever final place.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Sociedad / Spain
Age: 24
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Another winger who looks set to make a real breakthrough, it’s just a matter of time before the Spain international is picked up by one of Europe’s top clubs. A hard-working wide man, Oyarzabal can operate as a traditional winger on the left or cut infield from the right. The Real Sociedad captain is difficult to knock off the ball and is an efficient finisher when moving into central areas (he even scores from the odd header). He is also a free-kick specialist.

High point of 2021: He helped Spain reach the Euro 2020 semifinals, scored in the Olympic men’s and UEFA Nations League finals and is riding high with Real Sociedad in LaLiga, but Oyarzarbal’s standout moment was the penalty that settled an all-Basque Copa del Rey final to earn La Real’s first major trophy since 1987.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City (moved from Aston Villa in August) / England
Age: 26
2020 rank: 10 (attacking midfield)

Scouting report: Grealish is yet to hit the highs from his Aston Villa days after his £100m move to Manchester City this summer. More of a playmaker used out wide than a natural winger, Grealish is exceptionally good on the ball and plays football with natural intuition. By being able to beat his opponents with quick, creative footwork or clever one-twos, it’s easy to see why the England international is highly rated by City boss Guardiola for his capacity to create numerical advantages in key attacking areas. He probably needs more time to adapt to the movement of his new teammates but his raw talent is obvious.

High point of 2021: Grealish began the summer by starring in England’s final pre-Euro 2020 friendly against Romania, then established himself as a fan favourite during the tournament itself and followed up by making the move to Man City.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Napoli / Italy
Age: 30
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: For many years, Insigne has been among the best players in Serie A, but has not picked up the accolades he deserves abroad (possibly due to Napoli’s somewhat patchy Champions League record). An agile, and technically superb, winger — who is at his most dangerous when allowed to shift the ball onto his right foot — he is wonderfully creative and has not let his lack of size (at 5-foot-4) stop him.

High point of 2021: In the Euro 2020 quarterfinal against heavily fancied Belgium, Insigne capped Italy’s dominant first half with a magnificent goal. From just inside the Belgians’ half, he ran forward, then cut inside Youri Tielemans into open space and curled a stunning effort past Thibaut Courtois.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / Brazil
Age: 21
2020 rank: 10

Scouting report: Over recent months the Brazilian has gone from being a source of frustration to one of Real Madrid’s key players. While he has always been praised for his movement, high-speed running with the ball and ability to take on opponents, his finishing has not been of the same high standard … until now. Full of confidence, Vinicius Jr. has brought more end product and improved his decision-making for the Spanish giants this season, combining well with Karim Benzema up front.

High point of 2021: Resurgent under Carlo Ancelotti, Vinicius’ importance was never more evident than at Valencia in September. With four minutes remaining, Madrid trailed 1-0 only for their Brazilian star to first equalise and then produce a stunning cross for Benzema to head the winner.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Germany
Age: 26
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: One of the unsung heroes of a wonderfully talented Bayern Munich side, Gnabry is versatile enough to play on either wing, occasionally through the middle, or sometimes alternate between the three positions to create havoc across the defensive line. The Germany international is tough to stop in one-vs.-one situations, helps out defensively and communicates well with his full-backs.

High point of 2021: In October, Bayern Munich faced a potentially difficult test at joint-Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen, but the hosts were blown away by a magnificent five-goal first half, in which Gnabry netted twice in two minutes to put the seal on a performance that approached perfection.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester City / England
Age: 26
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: Still one of the best forwards in the world when dribbling at defenders with the ball, Sterling has a deceptive running style and is able to navigate his way out of congested areas with skill. He enjoys receiving the ball behind the opposing back line and his early movements in wide areas are often a clever way for Manchester City to establish possession high up the pitch. He also has a fine goal-scoring record, with almost 100 in the Premier League since making his debut for Liverpool in 2011-12.

High point of 2021: Sterling was arguably England’s main man at Euro 2020, with three goals in addition to countless attacking forays. Nothing underlined that role more than scoring his country’s opening goal of the tournament to seal a tense 1-0 victory over Croatia.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Juventus / Italy
Age: 24
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Chiesa’s status for Juventus and Italy has grown over recent months. From often being sacrificed halfway through the second half, the winger is now increasingly being seen as a difference-maker and a big-match player. One of the most effective counter-attacking forwards in Italy, he progresses so quickly with the ball and can decide matches singlehandedly with his precise left foot.

High point of 2021: Chiesa arguably became Juventus’ go-to player, but truly came to the fore with Italy. Having begun Euro 2020 on the bench, he scored as a substitute against Austria, then made himself an automatic starter. His stunning semifinal effort against Spain was one of the goals of the tournament.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / Senegal
Age: 29
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: A remarkably fast and agile forward who’s equally as good at flying past defenders as he is setting up and taking part in clever combinations in and around the penalty area. On counter-attacks Mane is able to gain an advantage over his opponent by making a quick change of direction before dashing past. A great finisher who is able to convert his chances from most angles or positions, he has an almost gymnastic balance and control over his body.

High point of 2021: Mane’s 100th Liverpool goal, against Crystal Palace in September, also saw him set a Premier League record of scoring in nine straight games against the same opponent. A month later, Mane netted against Watford to become the third African to hit triple figures in the Premier League.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

FORWARD

They operate at the offensive hub and often have positions as hard to define as their individual talents. A potent mix of attacking midfield, winger and striker, forwards have intelligence and speed of thought to find dangerous spots.

High points written by Alex Kirkland


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Villarreal / Spain
Age: 29
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: While Moreno might not be super quick or possess a particularly flashy technique, the Spain international is an intelligent forward who is good at choosing the right spaces and, due to his upper-body strength, is hard to dispossess or knock off the ball. The majority of his goals are scored from few touches as he loves to drift into space on the right side of the box, placing the ball in the far corner with a left-footed finish. He netted 23 league goals for Villarreal last season.

High point of 2021: This was the year Moreno came to worldwide attention. He scored seven goals in Villarreal’s Europa League-winning campaign, including one against Manchester United in the final when he touched Dani Parejo‘s free kick past David De Gea to help deliver Villarreal’s first trophy.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Ajax Amsterdam / Serbia
Age: 33
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: One of the elite players in Europe who offers the most impact on his team: the Serbia playmaker is very much the oil in the impressive Ajax machinery. Typically, Tadic makes things happen when he wanders into the middle of the pitch to look for the ball. In 2021, he averaged four key passes per game (though admittedly, the notoriously open Dutch league provides generous stats for attacking players), and had an equally strong 2.8 chances created per match. He is also a fine crosser of the ball.

High point of 2021: It cannot get much better for Ajax than beating fellow Dutch giants, archrivals and title contenders PSV Eindhoven 5-0, and that is exactly what the Amsterdam club did in October, with Tadic to the fore. He set up the first two goals, then later scored the fifth himself.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea / Germany
Age: 22
2020 rank: 6 (attacking midfield)

Scouting report: Havertz struggled to reach expectations after his €79.4m move from Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea in 2020, but he won over fans by scoring the winner against Man City in the Champions League final. Despite his slow progress, the Germany playmaker still shows enough in flashes to suggest that a final breakthrough is just around the corner. A highly intelligent, versatile and technically adept footballer, he is at his best when he finds space to pick up the ball in front of the opponent’s defensive line.

High point of 2021: Whatever Havertz goes on to achieve, it will be hard to beat scoring a Champions League final winner at the age of 21. After Mason Mount spotted his run behind the Man City defence, Havertz took the ball past Ederson with one touch, before a straightforward finish gave Chelsea glory.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Barcelona (moved from Lyon in July) / Netherlands
Age: 27
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The former Manchester United man is coming of age, having improved consistently after a failed two-year spell at Old Trafford saw him blossom in Lyon from 2017. A fine well-rounded attacker with an excellent right foot, Depay is a top finisher in his own right and also equally skilled at setting up his teammates — often with few touches (he averages a respectable 2.5 key passes per game.) Not just an exceptionally talented footballer, the Netherlands international is also now a leader in a young Barcelona side.

High point of 2021: Memphis got his dream move to Barcelona and looked unfazed by the mammoth task of replacing Lionel Messi. His early performances were exuberant and carefree and his first competitive goal for the club — a nonchalant, left-footed near-post rocket against Athletic Bilbao — was spectacular


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Tottenham / South Korea
Age: 29
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: A rare type of forward whose work rate and willingness to run at defenders to open space for teammates is unparalleled at the top level. With his direct, powerful movement and capacity to roam across the whole front line (though he prefers to start on the left), the South Korea international is almost an entire one-man attack. On top of that, he’s a good finisher, is extremely quick and is able to convert his ideas to end product in seconds.

High point of 2021: He stepped up in Harry Kane‘s absence to score the only goal in a Tottenham win over Man City in their Premier League season opener — a smart, low finish past Ederson — before netting again two weeks later against Watford to briefly put Spurs on top of the table.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / Brazil
Age: 29
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: Neymar’s goal tally has been dropping every season since joining PSG (28, then 23, 19 and 17 last campaign) and from being the No. 1 superstar in Paris, the Brazilian forward has been somewhat reduced to a mere component — albeit a fun one to watch — in the club’s exciting attacking triangle alongside Messi and Mbappe. That said, there are few forwards that match Neymar for technical ability and pure individual quality: his dribbling skills and variety of link-up play is of the highest order.

High point of 2021: Neymar has been instrumental in Brazil’s World Cup qualification but had a mixed start to PSG’s season, as he developed understanding with Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe. However, after contributing just one goal in his first seven Ligue 1 games, a brace at Bordeaux in November quieted his critics.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Liverpool / Egypt
Age: 29
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: The Egypt international is most at home wide on the right and often runs in on goal when given the chance. Excellent at beating defenders, Salah displays possibly the best high-speed dribbling skills in world football — even when he has a bad touch or takes on one defender too many, he miraculously reappears with the ball. Liverpool have seen the best of his superb balance and off-the-ball movement, while his finishing skills seem effortless even from tight angles.

High point of 2021: Salah has been in sensational form since the current season began, but he showcased his extravagant talents with a hat trick in Liverpool’s overwhelming 5-0 win at Manchester United in October. He was the first visiting player to score a hat trick at Old Trafford since Ronaldo Nazario in 2003.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain / France
Age: 22
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: A complete forward without an obvious weaknesses in his game, Mbappe refers to receive the ball wide on the left in order to cut infield to look for a finish or a ball behind the opposing defence, courtesy of his lightning quick, razor-sharp movements. Though naturally right-footed, he’s almost equally adept with the opposite foot. So slick and refined in front of goal, the Frenchman can finish in any way imaginable. He is exceptionally quick over short and medium distances and simply glides past opponents with the minimum of effort.

High point of 2021: A stunning hat trick against Barcelona in February was his best Champions League performance. His quick-footed first was exceptional, as was the third, curled effortlessly past Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Mbappe’s brace at European champions Bayern Munich in the next round was not bad either.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Manchester United (moved from Juventus in August) / Portugal
Age: 36
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: Previously a roaming forward who would pop up everywhere with a decisive touch, Ronaldo mostly expresses his quality from one set position these days. Whether fielded as a centre-forward or wide on the left, the Portugal international is intelligent, athletic and multi-skilled enough to make a difference despite having fewer touches of the ball than he is used to. Even at 36, he retains the ability to do something special when it really matters, as Manchester United have been grateful for this season. One of the best headers of the ball in the world with a huge leap and unparalleled conditioning.

High point of 2021: Upon his Man United return, 12 years since departing for Real Madrid, Ronaldo wasted no time in giving fans something to cheer as he scored twice on his (second) debut against Newcastle in September. It was the latest evidence that, even at almost 37, he is still the best finisher in the game.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Paris Saint-Germain (moved from Barcelona in August) / Argentina
Age: 34
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: Though he’s yet to hit top form for new club PSG, the now seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was breathtakingly brilliant for Barcelona during the first part of the year and has been as good as he’s ever been for Argentina. While his trademark bursts past multiple opponents may have dwindled with age, Messi is still a playmaker of the highest order (he made 3.4 key passes per game in 2021). He is able to score from all positions and unlock defences with the most delicate of through balls, while his dribbling makes it look as if the ball is glued to his foot.

High point of 2021: You might think that leaving Barcelona for PSG was the moment, but the sight of Messi finally getting his hands on a major international trophy — after beating hosts Brazil in the Copa America final, no less — banished the ghosts of multiple near misses and delivered Argentina’s first success since 1993.

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Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens debate who deserves to be voted the best forward in the FC 100.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

STRIKER

Around the penalty area, the striker can score at any time, from anywhere. While great No. 9s have ruthless determination to seize any opportunity, true masters of the art are as adept at linking play as they are finishing it.

High points written by Elaine Teng


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: AC Milan / Sweden
Age: 40
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Despite having recently turned 40, the Swede is still an active centre-forward with great conditioning. He still uses his amazing physical power to actively seek duels — in the air and on the ground — from which he tends to come out on top more often than not. His right foot is still one of the best in Serie A, he creates smart runs to open space for his teammates and can always be trusted to hold onto the ball (and win free-kicks). Though injuries have kept Ibrahimovic out for longer periods, he remains the leader and talisman of this resurgent AC Milan side.

High point of 2021: Simply making this list at 40 could be considered the highlight of Ibrahimovic’s year, but he smells title glory with Milan and is showing no signs of slowing down. His signature moment came in October, when he scored his 400th career league goal with a free kick against Roma.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Sociedad / Sweden
Age: 22
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Having struggled after his €9m move from his native Sweden and club AIK to Borussia Dortmund in 2017 as a teenager, Isak is slowly edging towards the status of an elite level centre-forward. He has the physical and technical abilities to cause opposition defenders issues, but now he’s developing a fine sense of opportunism in front of goal. He strikes the ball with massive power and can score from well outside the penalty area, even on direct free-kicks.

High point of 2021: This was the breakout year Isak has been waiting for. He flourished at Real Sociedad, scoring 17 league goals last season and winning his first silverware with the club, the Copa del Rey. He took that form with him to Euro 2020 where he was a standout in Sweden’s last-16 run.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Lazio / Italy
Age: 31
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: The “no frills” centre-forward is excellent at the essentials: he’s a brilliant finisher, excellent at capitalising wherever there’s an inch of space, who times his runs to perfection and has a well-developed hold-up/link-up game. A respectable portion of Immobile’s goals are scored from outside the box. Though he is not particularly fast or equipped with extraordinary technique, in addition to being robust and physically strong, he makes most out of his skillset.

High point of 2021: Four months after helping Italy win Euro 2020 — he started six of the Azzurri‘s seven games and scored twice in the process– Immobile capitalized on a mishit backpass against Marseille to score his 160th goal for Lazio and become the club’s all-time leading scorer.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Inter Milan / Argentina
Age: 24
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: He formed a highly effective partnership with Romelu Lukaku last season and has linked up well with Edin Dzeko after the departure of the Belgian last summer. With over 50 goals in three-and-a-half seasons, Martinez tends to score in streaks and is a quick, movement-based forward who regularly drops deep to pick up the ball or looks for space to exploit wide. He possesses a fine technique and is able to get the ball quickly under control and finish with few touches.

High point of 2021: Martinez was not born when Argentina last won a major title in 1993, but this summer, after helping Inter to a first Serie A title in 11 years, he scored goals against Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia to help his country win Copa America, sealing a first trophy in 28 years for the Albiceleste.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Atletico Madrid / Uruguay
Age: 34
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: After being let go by Barcelona somewhat unceremoniously, Suarez immediately contributed heavily to Atletico Madrid’s successful LaLiga title campaign with 21 league goals. Though the Uruguayan does not roam as frequently as before, he’s still exceptionally good at timing his runs in behind the opposing defensive line. At 34, he’s also as passionate and as good a finisher as he ever was, especially taking the ball past an outrushing goalkeeper; few do that better than him.

High point of 2021: Since joining Atletico, Suarez has made a habit of scoring late winners and his most important may have come in May. Real Madrid were set to claim top spot in LaLiga during the penultimate round of games, only for the 34-year-old to slot home in the 88th minute. Atleti never looked back.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Tottenham / England
Age: 28
2020 rank: 4

Scouting report: One of the best all-round centre-forwards in the game. Kane is not just a superb finisher with both feet (he scores from outside the penalty area even with his weaker foot) and a terrific aerial game, he also operates well outside the box by finding the right spaces between the lines. Last season he dropped deeper and made 14 assists in the league, while still scoring 23 goals himself, and can bring his teammates into prime attacking positions by way of quick touches, lay-offs and flicks, generally performed with high tempo and precision. A leader from the front.

High point of 2021: After a slow start, Kane was instrumental in England’s Euro 2020 final run. There were goals against Germany and Ukraine, but his finest moment came in the semifinal against Denmark. Deep in extra time, Kane saw his penalty saved by Kasper Schmeichel, but he kept his nerve to convert the rebound.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Chelsea (moved from Inter Milan in August) / Belgium
Age: 28
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: The Belgium international scored an impressive 47 Serie A goals in two seasons for Inter and was one of the driving forces behind the club’s Scudetto win in 2020-21. Nearly impossible to catch when running on to a pass with space ahead, he has also developed his game as a goal poacher and makes some terrific decisions in the box. He is hard to beat in the air, while he improved his first touch and ability to play with his back to goal during his time in Italy.

High point of 2021: Lukaku got his dream move, returning to Chelsea seven years after his first stint in London ended. Having said he only wanted to leave Inter, with whom he won Serie A, because the club he supported “as a kid” wanted him, he marked his (second) Chelsea debut with a goal inside 15 minutes at Arsenal.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Real Madrid / France
Age: 33
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: The Frenchman is getting progressively better with age and has arguably been in the form of his life in 2021 with 14 goals in 15 games this season. A complete centre-forward without clear weaknesses who works hard for the team and moves extremely well without the ball, Benzema often chooses a delicate finish over a powerful one. He plays with great self-belief and charisma, and has stood out as a leader for Real Madrid in recent years.

High point of 2021: Real Madrid had a tough year and France endured mixed fortunes, but Benzema never stopped scoring. He returned to the national team after a six-year absence and finished Euro 2020 with four goals, then scored in the semifinal and final as les Bleus won the Nations League.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Borussia Dortmund / Norway
Age: 21
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: From solely being a direct centre-forward who would sprint forward to get on the end of a pass, Haaland is slowly developing into a more complete striker. While his hunger to play off the shoulder of defenders will always be there, he has improved his touch on the ball, his lay-offs are more precise, his headers are directed with more purpose and he seems to have enlarged his vision of the game around him. That said, his powerful left foot is still his No. 1 weapon and his incredible physique will always be a handful for defenders.

High point of 2021: “Give me the champagne!” Haaland roared as Borussia Dortmund celebrated winning the German Cup in May. And he more than deserved the bubbly, having scored two fine goals in a 4-1 win over RB Leipzig that secured BVB’s first major trophy in four years.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

Club / country: Bayern Munich / Poland
Age: 33
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: Without doubt the No. 1 out-and-out centre-forward in the game for the past decade, his 317 goals in 346 games since joining Bayern for free in 2014-15 speaks for itself. He excels through perfect positioning, coolness of execution (usually with one or two touches) and resourceful use of his head, or either foot. The Poland international maps out his immediate surroundings before receiving the ball and makes the best decision to proceed. His physical strength, movement and fine first touch make him a first-class hold-up player, while he scored an incredible 22 consecutive goals from an uninterrupted run of 14 games earlier in the year.

High point of 2021: “LewanGOALski” broke Gerd Müller’s 49-year record for goals scored in a single Bundesliga season, doing so even faster than the Bayern legend, notching 41 goals in just 29 matches, or 1.41 goals per game. Lewandowski still trails Müller for total goals, but expect him to catch up fast.

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ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

MANAGER

Top bosses see the bigger picture and do not panic when Plan A fails, because they have Plans B, C and D ready. The best ease big-ego, big-talent squads through ups and downs, keeping everyone happy, harmonious and committed.

High points written by Tom Hamilton


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

10. Hansi Flick

Team: Germany
Age: 56
2020 rank: 2

Scouting report: With high, intense pressing, flexibility in attack and quick, well-executed transitional play, the popular Flick never seemed to pull on the brakes when in charge of Bayern. He ended up with a win ratio of 83% from his year-and-a-half in charge. Now he gets a chance to do the same for the Germany national team.

High point of 2021: Flick’s greatest moment was being handed the Germany job as successor to Joachim Low, but before an unceremonious exit from Bayern, he steered the club to its ninth straight Bundesliga title. It was his seventh piece of silverware in just 19 months at the Allianz Arena.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

9. Lionel Scaloni

Team: Argentina
Age: 43
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: A hard-working, disciplined right-back or defensive midfielder as a player, he sets up Argentina in a functional and hard to break down 4-4-2 formation (sometimes alternating between two and three up front.)

High point of 2021: While beating Brazil in Brazil to win Copa America and end Argentina’s 28-year wait for a trophy might end up being Scaloni’s career-defining moment, worthy of a mention is the penalty shootout win against Colombia in the semifinals, when Emiliano Martinez’s heroics sealed a final place.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

8. Unai Emery

Team: Villarreal
Age: 50
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: There are few head coaches who’ve experienced the same extreme highs and lows as Emery. From winning three Europa League titles with Sevilla, to often being ridiculed at both Paris Saint-Germain (despite leading them to a league title) and Arsenal, to getting his career back on track by winning the Europa League with Villarreal. For all the weaknesses of man-management and communication that his detractors throw at him, Emery obviously knows how to prepare teams mentally ahead of big games and his brand of football (when it works) is nothing short of spectacular.

High point of 2021: Emery’s mastery of the Europa League continued when Villarreal’s 11-10 penalty shootout triumph over Man United saw him win the trophy for a fourth time. It was El Submarino Amarillo‘s first piece of silverware since a 2004 Intertoto Cup triumph and showed their manager’s tactical abilities.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

7. Diego Simeone

Team: Atletico Madrid
Age: 51
2020 rank: 7

Scouting report: In his 10th year in the role, Simeone’s side showed more tactical flexibility (even playing with a back three on occasion) and controlling the possession more than had previously been the case. His antics on the sidelines don’t lie: he’s every bit as passionate and obsessive about football as he appears.

High point of 2021: Simeone managed Atletico to the LaLiga title — his second at the club — to reinforce his status. For key moments, look to their closing games; late goals against Osasuna established a two-point lead with one game left, before a comeback win saw off Valladolid to secure victory on the final day.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

6. Julian Nagelsmann

Team: Bayern Munich (with RB Leipzig until June)
Age: 34
2020 rank: 5

Scouting report: Seen by many as a bold appointment by Bayern but, judging from the first six months of his tenure, pragmatism has been the keyword. Nagelsmann, who began his career as a head coach at the age of 28, has by and large stuck with the 4-2-3-1 formation but has made a free-flowing team even sharper and smoother. Time should prove that the former RB Leipzig man is a highly innovative coach who’s not afraid to mould the German giants to his own shape.

High point of 2021: Having taken RB Leipzig to the Champions League semifinals in 2020, Nagelsmann was the clear successor to Hansi Flick at Bayern and has already slotted comfortably into his new role, with notable results including a 4-1 victory over his former employers and winning 3-0 win at Barcelona.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

5. Antonio Conte

Team: Tottenham (with Inter Milan until May)
Age: 52
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: His high-pressing, energetic Inter side only lost three Serie A games and ended up with a 12-point gap ahead of second-placed AC Milan, while ending Juventus’ nine-year hold on the title. An animated manager on the touchline, Conte is known for his passion and ability to motivate his players.

High point of 2021: Conte guided Inter to a first Scudetto in 10 years; the triumph he labelled “one of the most important successes” of his career ended Juventus’ nine-year stranglehold on the Serie A title and came despite financial uncertainty behind the scenes at the Nerazzurri.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

4. Jurgen Klopp

Team: Liverpool
Age: 54
2020 rank: 1

Scouting report: Klopp’s fingerprints on Liverpool are as clear as ever, six years after his arrival on Merseyside. Liverpool still play with the confidence, dominance and intensity that’s usually associated with a new manager’s honeymoon period. Besides being a fantastic man-manager, the German has also struck up a strong bond with the supporters and genuinely understands the club and city’s culture.

High point of 2021: Klopp’s greatest achievement looked to have been securing Champions League football for the 2021-22 season despite the long-term absences of several key players, but then came that day in October when Liverpool went to Old Trafford and scored five times to humiliate Man United.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

3. Roberto Mancini

Team: Italy
Age: 57
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: The Azzurri‘s triumph at Euro 2020 was every bit a coaching victory as it was down to the players. Organised in a flexible 4-3-3 formation — with tweaks both in defence and attack — Mancini made Italy appear like an elite club side. Every player was aware of his duties and whoever stepped in performed as well as the player missing.

High point of 2021: In the Euro 2020 final at Wembley on July 11, Mancini masterminded Italy’s first European Championship title in 53 years as they recovered from conceding an early goal to equalise and then defeat England on penalties, thanks to Gianluigi Donnarumma’s heroics in goal.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

2. Pep Guardiola

Team: Manchester City
Age: 50
2020 rank: 3

Scouting report: Guardiola might still be chasing the Champions League trophy at Manchester City — having tried to attack too much in the final against Chelsea last year when he finally had a shot at it — yet he is edging closer to winning it year by year. Guardiola’s team play some of the most fluid, easy on the eye football at the highest level. Among all his other admirable skills, the Catalan still manages to turn decent players into brilliant, all-round footballers. He has also shown how to cope without a central striker this season with his 4-3-3 formation and “False No. 9.”

High point of 2021: City’s latest Premier League title was the club’s third in four seasons under Guardiola. Their best result of the year was arguably a 4-1 win at Liverpool in February, but a consecutive wins streak of 21 matches — from December 2020 to March 2021 — set a record for the English top flight.


ESPN FC 100: Messi, Lewandowski among No. 1s; Premier League most represented

1. Thomas Tuchel

Team: Chelsea
Age: 48
2020 rank: Not ranked

Scouting report: Tuchel oversaw one of the most dramatic transitions of a team in recent memory. Within weeks of replacing Frank Lampard in January 2021, the German — who evidently had a clear plan prior to taking over — had transformed Chelsea from a lethargic, slow and tactically bewildered unit to a well-organised team who played with structure and pace. The switch to a 3-4-3 brought a better balance to the side and suited almost every member of the squad, who all looked like players reborn as they strode to Champions League success

High point of 2021: Having been sacked by PSG a month earlier, Tuchel took over Chelsea in January and had won the Champions League by June. He has transformed fortunes at Stamford Bridge and that night in Porto, in which where he outmanoeuvred Pep Guardiola, goes down as the greatest feat of his career.

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