- Sadio Mané (Bayern Munich)
In hindsight, Mané’s move away from Liverpool really was a stunning switch on many levels. At the time, it was a big deal but many anticipated the likes of Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez to seamlessly fill the cracks left by his departure. It’s no sleight on those two players that they have been unable to do so.
The Senegalese superstar departed from Mohamed Salah’s shadow for Bayern Munich and has proven his talent in a whole new environment, though curtailed by an injury that saw him ruled out for most of the winter.
Mané’s versatility up front nudges him ahead of Salah in our thinking. He loves to cut inside and drift out wide, he is a superb finisher with his feet and a remarkable threat in the air despite his relatively diminutive figure. Mané is a Swiss Army knife forward who can demolish defences in all manner of methods.
- Neymar (PSG)
It will be fascinating to see how Neymar’s legacy evolves over the years to come as his career enters the twilight period. He boasts all the trophies and a corner of YouTube dedicated to his snappy feet, but it still feels like Neymar could have been more than just one of many top players.
Saying that, Neymar has shown signs of evolution in recent times. He dropped deeper into the heart of midfield for Brazil at the World Cup and is likely to set a new personal best for assists across all competitions in a season.
We have to judge Neymar’s ability on what he has shown, not based on what he might have become. Nagging frustrations will always swirl around him, but this shouldn’t detract too much from a sublime footballer capable of unlocking any defence on any given day.
- Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
Ageless, timeless, majestic. Modric will never get old nor will he retire – we simply refuse to believe it. We are 20 years on from Modric’s professional debut with Zrinjski Mostar in the Bosnian Premier League, more than 800 games into his career, and there are still few players you’d trust more to pull the strings in midfield.
Modric is silk personified. He never looks troubled or over-exerted, he is butter-smooth. A deft touch, a little drop of the shoulder to purchase space an unstoppable artful pass designed to slit through the lines. We’ve all seen it, the opponents he is facing have all seen it before too, but nobody can do anything about it.
The 37-year-old should be in decline, he should be losing his legs and unpredictability should be creeping in, but Madrid’s management of his minutes has been sublime. He will be fit and fresh for those enormous Champions League nights. And he’ll just keep running the show until his curtain call.
- Robert Lewandowski (Barcelona)
Goals, goals, goals. In a decade of false nines, inside forwards, inverted thingamajigs, Lewandowski has relentlessly flown the flag for natural out-and-out strikers.
In many ways, Lewandowski is a no-nonsense entity. He knows where the ball will flow, he knows the positions to be in and when to be there, he knows all the measurements of the goal frame and will use every inch of it to ripple the net. If the ball falls to one player in a one-on-one situation in world football, Lewandowski is both the most likely player to be in that position and the man you’d want to be there.
Lewandowski is very able when it comes to building attacks and creating chances, but his movement and awareness as the target for others to find means he is at his most ruthless hovering around at the very top end of the pitch.
- Harry Kane (Tottenham)
The relative mystique of foreign leagues can often inflate a player’s reputation as we are fed their many highlights and rarely see their 4/10s, the days they’d rather not remember, their misses and their failures. The Premier League, in all its hyper-exposed, tribal glory, is often not a place where rival fans can appreciate world class talent when they see it. Surely we’re just about there with Harry Kane?
Kane’s season-end tallies remain consistent around the 30-goal mark with a bundle of assists and uncountable contributions setting him above almost every other striker in the world.
His finishing is exemplary, his positioning to accommodate for a lack of raw pace is second-to-none, though his unique selling point is his uncanny playmaking ability, to pick a pass from deep, to swing a cross in, to play the No.10 and No.9 roles simultaneously and effectively and he has achieved all of this in a team that, with the greatest respect, is simply not at his level and rarely has been near his standard. The post-Kane era is an approaching nightmare for Tottenham.
- Erling Haaland (Man City)
Building on the point about the over-exposure of the Premier League often resulting in players being judged more harshly, we present to you Erling Haaland. In any given week, you could search for Haaland and discover a pundit claiming he could do more or isn’t being used correctly.
Simply, Haaland has normalised the abnormal. Arguably Haaland’s only flaw in 2022/23 was setting the bar insurmountably high from the very start. Between the start of the season and the end of 2022, Haaland found the net 22 times in just 15 Premier League games. For context, that total would have won the Golden Boot in seven Premier League seasons.
His physicality is unrivalled, his finishing ability – including improvised, instinctive finishing by any means necessary – is staggering and he boasts a turn of pace that few in the Premier League could match. The best bit? We’re mostly likely yet to see Haaland at his absolute peak. The next few years should be explosive.
- Karim Benzema (Al-Ittihad)
It would be tempting to say Karim Benzema is having the ultimate Indian summer but in reality, he is simply doing what he has always done: lead the line, score goals, win trophies, repeat.
Everything Real Madrid have achieved in the last 14 years has been achieved under Benzema’s watch. He has not always been treated with respect, Real Madrid have tried to replace him with plenty of strikers over the last decade, but nobody has been able to fill the No.9 role quite like him.
Benzema gets through a remarkable amount of dirty work in 90 minutes. He digs deep and acts as a wide/inside forward’s dream, the ultimate pivot point to build attacks around. Benzema is happy playing with his back to goal and that often proves just as dangerous to opponents as bearing down on them directly. Play a ‘one’, make a darting run and you’ll always receive the ‘two’. He is a complete striker finally receiving the praise his play deserves.
- Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
Kevin De Bruyne is having a relatively poor season… and has still created 18 goals across all competitions by March. It’s fair to say the Belgian hasn’t dominated our screens as he has done in the past, but like Haaland, he has made extraordinary achievements seem, well, ordinary.
This shouldn’t detract from De Bruyne’s technical ability. He could be the greatest crosser of a ball in Premier League history, while his vision and penchant for a defence-splitting pass combine with frightening effectiveness on a number of occasions.
One of the best aspects of De Bruyne is that he comes with all the trimmings. He’s a lethal set-piece taker, he is unexpectedly physical and genuinely quick off the mark. Without these things, KDB would remain a top, top player, but with them at his disposal, he is a multi-layered box of tricks.
- Kylian Mbappé (PSG)
Mbappé is a megastar forged by the crucible of the World Cup. It’s an old-school way to achieve greatness given the prominence of the Champions League and Premier League, but Mbappé’s international heroics prove his ability and mentality beyond all reasonable doubt.
Like Neymar, like many before, he has made a mockery of Ligue 1 but his form on the global stage for both club and country puts him out in front. His World Cup final hat-trick will go down as the stuff of legends – a big time performance from a big time player.
Mbappé is often portrayed as a dramatic soap character in the ever-brewing psychodrama between PSG and Real Madrid, a large portion of his mind fixed on off-field politics, but the character he showed throughout the World Cup, his mentality and steely determination to drag his team kicking and screaming to the trophy has elevated him up another notch on the ladder.
He is one of the fastest footballers we’ve ever seen grace the field, with a range of shooting like no other. He can strike the ball on the run or with immense power from a dead standing start, he can finesse shots low into the corners and drill the ball high and rising into the roof of the net. If Mbappé has the ball in your half, you are not safe.
- Lionel Messi (Inter Miami)
For the first time in over a decade, we sincerely had to ponder our No.1 selection but in the spirit of VAR, we found no clear and obvious reason to rule out Messi from the summit.
There’s no denying Messi has evolved. He has lost a fraction of his blistering pace but his intelligence and manipulation of the football means his control over the result of games remains as strong as ever. He is not an all-action terrier, he won’t pitch in with too much dirty work, but to count that against him is to miss the point entirely.
Messi continues to dominate games – both subtly and explicitly – for club and country. His performances directly inspired Argentina to Copa America and World Cup trophies, while his rich form in the Champions League has carried from Barcelona to Paris.
He is sitting comfortably in double figures for both goals and assists for PSG this term so far, even with Mbappé and Neymar sniffing around the same areas, and remains a match-winner in the biggest occasions.
Messi’s time at the top will come to an end, very conceivably soon, but for now, we can’t find a justification to drop a player with such talent, such influence and impact, with such recent success and fuel left in the tank. The magician reigns supreme.