Who are men's football's best players in the world as 2021 comes to a close?
It's said that the technical and physical level of football is increasing all the time. Average players in the modern game would have been world-class decades ago.
That makes deciding the 50 best players in the world all the harder. There's so much to judge a player on – is defending harder than scoring? – and really, there's no right answer. But that won't stop us gallantly nailing our flags to these poles.
We compiled a list of the best players on Earth. We cross-referenced their form, their ability, their history and their sheer impact on a field: who wouldn't you be without? Who, all in all, is the most fantastic?
This is what we came up with. Feel free to have your say @FourFourTwo (opens in new tab)...
Football's 50 best players in the world, 2021
50. Jack Grealish
England’s first £100m player became a national icon for the Three Lions during Euro 2020, despite barely playing – his inventiveness on the field capturing the imagination of millions, even in his absence (and earning him a FourFourTwo cover after joining Manchester City).
Grealish looks set to be one of the best players in the world before too long. A three-month injury, little tournament time in the summer and a wait for him to hit his stride at City stop him being further up the list already.
49. Patrik Schick
There’s more to him than a long-range goal against Scotland. The Bayer Leverkusen man has outscored Erling Haaland in the Bundesliga so far this season, and has a better goal-per-minute ratio than both Haaland and Robert Lewandowski at the time of writing.
48. Jude Bellingham
Be excited, be very excited. The youngest player ever to represent England at a major tournament only turned 18 during Euro 2020 – and already had a full season at Borussia Dortmund under his belt, including a Champions League quarter-final goal.
47. Trent Alexander-Arnold
It’s harder to reinvent the right-back in an injury-ravaged defence, as Alexander-Arnold learned last season, and his own time on the treatment table may have saved him the ignominy of being dropped for Euro 2020.
But he’s still doing something remarkable at Liverpool, and analysis that says he will be a midfielder someday misunderstands what makes him so special.
46. Simon Kjaer
Kjaer’s actions performing emergency first aid on Christian Eriksen before the medics arrived has no bearing on his place on this list – but it does show what kind of remarkable character he is on the pitch.
The beating heart of both a Denmark team that went to the Euro 2020 semi-finals and a resurgent AC Milan side after a decade in the doldrums, Kjaer’s cool defensive head has been a footballing highlight in 2021.
45. Thiago Silva, 44. Edouard Mendy
Chelsea conceded 23 goals in the 19 Premier League games before Thomas Tuchel joined last season, and just 13 in the following 17, as the Blues picked up 11 more clean sheets.
The Champions League was a similar story – just one goal conceded in the knockout stages.
While Tuchel’s arrival was integral, Silva and Mendy are emblematic of Chelsea’s now imperious defence. Despite being 37, Chelsea are still keen on ensuring veteran centre-back Silva sticks around with a new contract, while 29-year-old Mendy is likely to the No.1 at Stamford Bridge for several years at least.
43. Alphonso Davies, 42. Andy Robertson, 41. Joao Cancelo
Bayern's 'roadrunner' 💨Alphonso Davies pace = _____/💯@AlphonsoDavies | @FCBayernEN | #UCL pic.twitter.com/8ZnIAeLfuLDecember 16, 2021
It is the age of the full-back, and while Davies, Robertson and Cancelo are three of the best left-backs in the world, in completely different ways.
Davies’ explosive pace makes him an attacking threat on the wing for both Bayern Munich and Canada (who are tipped to qualify for the Word Cup), Robertson’s crossing makes him a chief playmaker for Liverpool, and Cancelo regularly functions as full-back/midfielder hybrid for Manchester City.
40. Antonio Rudiger
Written off as a liability during Frank Lampard’s final days in charge at Chelsea, Rudiger has since developed into one of the world’s brightest defenders under Thomas Tuchel. His pace, aggression and driving runs forward have given him cult status with Blues fans, who will be praying he can be tied down to a new deal before the season ends.
39. Ilkay Gundogan
Thiago Alcantara was Pep Guardiola’s man: the only player to have ever been signed by the Catalan from his former side. Ilkay Gundogan, instead, embodied Jurgen Klopp. Few would have argued the German as the superior player, either.
Yet Ilkay Gundogan’s endless shapeshift is an incredible testament to him. He’s been a no.6 for Pep, a secondary playmaker, the creative heartbeat and last season, a false nine and Manchester City’s top scorer in all competitions. He’s one of the most intelligent players in the Premier League – were he a little flashier, perhaps he’d be thought of as one of the best midfielders of the past decade.
38. Son Heung-min
Son Heung-min isn’t a footballer, he’s a scalpel. For all the warmth of his smile, he is cold and ever-deadly in the final third; a machine of a player equally capable of slotting a ball home with his left or right foot. In 2021, Son has weathered Tottenham’s withering. He’s still one of the deadliest forwards in Europe, still unstoppable at full tilt and still being double-marked by everyone.
37. Lautaro Martinez
They all thought it was Romelu Lukaku who fired Inter Milan to their first title in forever – and yet Lautaro Martinez has picked up the reins and continued where his ex-partner left off.
For a player who’s seemingly played at Inter for a decade, 2021 has been the breakout year for Martinez, as winning the Scudetto in May was followed by Copa America glory in the summer. The Argentinian has ascended to become one of the most sought-after forwards on the planet in the past 12 months – and he’s dazzled with his speed, finishing and much-improved hold-up play.
36. Federico Chiesa, 35. Lorenzo Insigne
On paper, Fede Chiesa and Lorenzo Insigne are two sides of the same coin. The pair flanked Roberto Mancini’s Italy side at Euro 2020 and took turns to swoop into the box, cut in and devastate. They’re both sharp, quick and seemingly able to finish from any angle.
But there’s plenty to separate the Azzurri zippers, too. Pint-sized Insigne is now 30 and the experience is showing; he’s composed, toys with defenders like prey and when he cuts inside, it’s measured and meticulous. Such is the expected artistry of a Napoli winger, after all – while Chiesa is all bustle, brutishness and bottled anger. He looks absolutely furious at any given moment. Insigne coaxes his way through defences, while Chiesa bursts through.
Yet both were as captivating as one another at Euro 2020. As henchmen on either side of Ciro Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa were both responsible for match-winning moments at the Euros and helped bring the title back to Italy. They’ve just as deserving of the trophy as one another, too.
34. Pedri, 33. Koke, 32. Luka Modric
LaLiga has seen better days, of course, but the plethora of technical midfielders who ply their trade in Spain will perhaps remain unrivalled for a while yet. Atletico’s, Real’s and Barcelona’s beating hearts are still toasts of Spanish football – and all three have enjoyed a 2021 to remember.
Pedri only turned 19 in November but the year’s Golden Boy has been ever-present for club and country, assuming Leo Messi’s mantel, dragging Spain to a Euros semi and Olympic final. At the other end of father time’s glare, Luka Modric put Croatia on his back once more at the Euros, delivered the sweetest of strikes against Scotland and toiled away for Real Madrid in the background, as classily as ever.
Koke, meanwhile, was at the centre of it all, leading Atleti to the title as captain and assuming a metronome role for La Roja over the summer. All three are exquisite players – let them have the ball between them and you’re never getting it back.
31. Sadio Mane
2021 is the first year in quite some time that it’s been easy to ignore Sadio Mane. Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino have been in direct competition for a spot, while Mohamed Salah ascends to god mode.
And while Mane’s 2021 hasn’t been a vintage 12 months with trophies, accolades and individual awards, the Senegalese is still one of the most mercurial footballers on Earth; still capable of flipping that switch and unleashing the thunder. He’s no one’s sidekick. He’s world-class.
30. Serge Gnabry
The second half of the 20/21 season saw Gnabry’s form disrupted by coronavirus and knee problems, but he still managed six goals as Bayern lifted a ninth-straight Bundesliga title. Following a poor Euro 2020 from the entire Germany squad, the 26-year old has started the new domestic season in scintillating form, scoring 11 goals in 24 club appearances. A wonderful blend of speed, trickery and composure when he’s in the mood, which is often.
29. Jan Oblak
Last season saw the Slovenian keep the highest number of clean sheets in La Liga as Atletico recaptured the Spanish top flight title for the first time since 2014. The tall and commanding stopper was typically excellent domestically, but his nation’s failure to qualify for Euro 2020 meant he missed out on the biggest stage the year had to offer.
28. Kyle Walker
Having provided his usual brand of menace down Manchester City’s right flank in a season which saw the club win a Premier League and EFL Cup double, Walker’s performances earned him a spot in the Euro 2020 team of the tournament. He was flawless whether positioned on the right of a back four or a back three and has developed a defensive intelligence only rivalled by his blistering speed. A leader for club and country.
27. Gerard Moreno
After scoring 30 goals in 46 games for Spanish side Villarreal last season – including one in the Europa League final victory over Manchester United – veteran striker Moreno found himself starting for Spain for much of Euro 2020. He’s unlikely to greatly improve on his 17 caps, but will always cherish a 2021 when everything seemed to fall into place.
26. Nicolo Barella
September 2020’s £30m switch from Calgiari to Inter marked the start of a phenomenal year for the composed midfielder. Barella’s creativity and passing helped the Milan giants to a first Scudetto in a decade, before he starred for Italy en route to Euro 2020 glory. He was particularly excellent in the quarter-final victory over Belgium, scoring one before teeing-up a Lorenzo Insigne winner in arguably the best game of the tournament.
25. Phil Foden
A season in which Foden became a starter for club and country culminated in an EFL Cup and Premier League double, with the 21-year-old also starting in May’s Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.
His new found seniority followed him to Euro 2020, as Foden - sporting a Gazza-esque bleached barnet that sent the nation wild - started on the right hand side for England’s opening two matches. He would be left disappointed, as England lost the final without him – the player injured ahead of the Italy clash. Still, it’s been a remarkable year for a starlet tipped to top this list in years to come.
24. Marco Verratti
A difficult few months at the start of 2021 saw the PSG enforcer miss 10 league games between January and May – a mixture of coronavirus and knee injuries to blame – as the French giants surrendered the Ligue 1 title to Lille. After being sidelined for the Coupe De France final victory over Marseille, few expected too much from the midfielder at Euro 2020 – though they were wrong to doubt him.
Verratti made the most tackles in the competition and finished joint-second for assists (3) as Italy were crowned champions at Wembley. The Azzurri couldn’t have done it without the 29-year-old’s steel and composure.
23. Bruno Fernandes
Manchester United’s latest messiah followed a superb first six months in England with another stupendous return last season, notching 45 goal contributions in 58 club appearances. Yet a poor Euros and a stuttering start to this season (he’s scored just twice in the league since an opening day hat-trick at Leeds) have seen him slip down this list.
Some feel Fernandes struggles with Cristiano Ronaldo hogging the limelight – his comparatively poor Portugal record would support this theory – and Ralf Rangnick will hope to correct this issue in the coming months. A firing Bruno is crucial to United’s hopes of silverware and top four finish.
22. Riyad Mahrez, 21. Bernardo Silva
If Kevin De Bruyne’s the conductor in Manchester City’s grand orchestra, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez are first chairs in the string section. The spindly attacking midfielders are usually fielded together in the biggest Champions League ties – a mark of their importance when margins are finest – and are each world class performers in their own styles; Silva the scurrying, tenacious ball carrier; Mahrez the bandy-legged showman.
The duo dovetailed harmoniously as City waltzed a Premier League and EFL Cup double last season, and may also have secured European Cup medals were it not for Guardiola’s tinkering. A sublime double act that would each be the individual star at literally any other club in Europe.
20. Raheem Sterling
Sterling bagged both of England’s goals in the Euro 2020 group stage, the first goal against Germany, and won the penalty in the semi-final extra-time against Denmark that delivered the Three Lions’ first final since 1966. A third Premier League winners’ medal and a run to the Champions League final help secure the Wembley boy a spot in the top 20.
19. Mason Mount
Chelsea’s player of the season in a year when they won the Champions League shows just how good Mason Mount has got. Tuchel acknowledges him as a key player in the team, and his influence on the Blues’ success is huge – it was his ball that set Kai Havertz up for the Champions League-winning goal, after all.
Neymar’s 2021 has been disappointing by his own standards – plagued by injury, he has struggled to get much of a run going in the PSG first team for the whole calendar year. Second in Ligue 1, second in the Copa America, and knocked out in the Champions League semis make this a year to forget. Even a reunion with Lionel Messi in Paris hasn’t returned either to their best form.
But is he still one of the greatest forwards in the modern game? Undeniably.
17. Leonardo Bonucci
Bonucci scored in the Euro 2020 final, as well as putting away a penalty in Italy’s victorious shootout, earning him UEFA’s man of the match award.
The disciplined Azzurri strong-armed their way to the title, and no one sums up that team’s mix of determination, intelligence and skill better than Bonucci.
He’s like an old-school Italian defender, in the very best sense. And frankly, at 34, he is an old-school Italian defender.
16. Ruben Dias
The FWA’s Player of the Year for 2021/22, Dias impressed enormously at the heart of Manchester City’s defence, both in their title-winning Premier League campaign and en route to the Champions League final; his performance in the semi-final against PSG particularly stands out as a player who was reaching the top of his game against formidable opposition.
15. Harry Kane, 14. Luis Suarez, 13. Romelu Lukaku
Three of the most intelligent centre-forwards in today’s game, but all have enough sheer bloody-mindedness when it comes to simply scoring loads of ruddy goals by any means possible that they’d all have easily found a place in the sport 30 years ago too.
While Kane finished last season trophyless, he was the Premier League’s top scorer and captained England to the Euro 2020 final, while Suarez and Lukaku both fired their sides to the Spanish and Italian titles respectively – breaking other clubs’ dominance in both countries.
These three are keeping out-and-out strikers cool in a modern game that doesn’t prioritise them.
12. Giorgio Chiellini, 11. Gianluigi Donnarumma
A mere 15 years separate these two titans of the Italian defence.
Chiellini, whose face looks like the marble carving of a Roman emperor come to life, is the 37-year-old warrior who will use all sorts of dark arts to complement his natural talent (with apologies to Bukayo Saka’s neck).
Donnarumma is the 22-year-old goalkeeper with 40 caps under his belt already, who won Euro 2020 Player of the Tournament and is now first pick in a star-studded PSG side. After 20 years of having one of the best goalkeepers ever in Gianluigi Buffon, Italy might just have another 20 years of the same with this one…
10. Cristiano Ronaldo
Some say that Cristiano Ronaldo has had a bad year – so here’s what a bad year looks like when you’re Cristiano Ronaldo.
Winning the Capocannoniere award in Serie A, becoming the first footballer to finish as top scorer in the English, Spanish and Italian leagues. Joint-top scorer at Euro 2020. Becoming the all-time top-scorer at the Euros – and all-time international goalscorer in men’s football. Overtaking Iker Casillas as the player with the most appearances in the Champions League. Notching 800 top-level career goals by December.
And for those who say that CR7 is all about the pure numbers and nothing else, the stats merely scrape the surface of the adrenaline he’s pumped this year. 2021 was the return of the king for Manchester United fans, as Ronaldo coronated himself with two home goals against Newcastle and noise that Old Trafford has barely heard before, while last-minute winners throughout United’s Champions League group stage prove he’s still got that clutch gene.
The only possible gripe you could have with Ronaldo on the pitch? He made this kind of year the norm years ago. He turns 37 in February – and who says he won’t do all of this all over again?
9. Erling Haaland
So rarely has a striker looked quite so engineered in a laboratory to inflict maximum damage on defences. Erling Haaland has no weakness whatsoever and 2021 has been just another display of his monstrous ability.
It doesn’t quite tell the whole story to state that Haaland has 43 goals in as many games in all competitions in 2021 – and even that alone is frightening. He was second only to Robert Lewandowski in Europe and for much of 2021, Dortmund floundered and faltered, almost throwing away Champions League qualification. Twice since the summer, an improved BVB have gone toe to toe with Bayern; twice, their Scandi talisman has been hooked off after a knock and the Bavarians had subsequently flattened the Haalandless Yellows.
He’s 21. Erling Haaland’s peak could genuinely change the sport forever. With a move expected in 2022, it’s doubtful he’ll finish second to anyone for much longer.
8. Kylian Mbappe
Who’d have thought that reuniting Neymar and Lionel Messi in the same team would only shine more of a light on Kylian Mbappe?
The teen prodigy who grinned, feinted and burned past defenders is long gone. Mbappe is a man now, 23 this month and destined, perhaps, for bigger things than even Paris Saint-Germain. His 2021 has had chapters of failure and redemption – a missed penalty for France at the Euros, followed by a Nations League-winning goal – because, in typical PSG fashion, the individual development of Les Bleus’ favourite son has been far more noteworthy than anything his teams have achieved.
2021 was the year Mbappe singlehandedly put Barcelona on their collective arses, kicked Neymar into a shadow and refused to smile for the cameras when Messi turned up. He’s the central striker, now. He has 100 league goals for PSG, now. It doesn’t matter that the last 12 months weren’t quite his: the future belongs to him.
7. Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne is 30 now, despite his youthful demeanour and apt likeness with a Home Alone namesake. He’s officially in his prime – and 2021 has showcased why he’s now in the bracket of Lampards, Gerrards, Vieiras and Beckhams as one of the Premier League’s all-timers.
We thought we’d seen it all from De Bruyne when Guardiola moulded this cross-happy, attacking midfielder into a central midfielder – but this year, De Bruyne’s moved up front and torn everyone in Europe apart all over again. He began 2021 with a goal and assist performance against Chelsea, scored vital goals in each knockout round of the Champions League up to the final and would have starred for Belgium in the Euros, were it not for injury – as a sublime goal and assist against Denmark in the group showed.
This season has been stop-start again but a recent man of the match display in a 7-0 win against Leeds proves that you can’t keep him down for long. 2021’s PFA Player's Player Of The Year is as good as ever – and one of the best midfielders in Premier League history, for good effect, too.
6. N'Golo Kante
N’Golo Kante’s story is one that you never tire of telling. Rejected from the academy at Clairefontaine, the pocket-sized pick-pocket went onto win back-to-back Premier Leagues, then an FA Cup, a World Cup and a Europa League title. 2021 saw him complete the set.
Chelsea’s man of the match in Porto’s Champions League final put in the quintessential Kante performance. It was ubiquitous, disciplined and gritty, yet with an assured air, that’s developed with age. The Frenchman is still running at top speed, as key for club and country and still one of the most celebrated central midfielders of a generation. He’s still the most likeable footballer on Earth, to boot.
And he’s still capable of surprising us all. May that smiling Parisian, rejected from big academies and underestimated by every opponent keep surprising us all in 2022 and beyond.
5. Karim Benzema
At this point, surely not even Karim Benzema knows what Karim Benzema is capable of anymore. The Frenchman is 34 now somehow, he’s actually getting more magical with each trip around the sun.
A case in point would be the frankly stunning Nations League final curler that he plucked from thin air; perhaps the equaliser against Switzerland at the Euros in which he somehow pulled a pass behind him into his path, or maybe against Mallorca where he controlled the ball with his back before scoring. Real Madrid are still being pulled along by his heroics as the last performing artist of BBC and he’s spent 2021 making Les Bleus his team again, too.
36 club goals in all competitions in 2021 – one every 113 minutes – is frankly unbelievable from a player previously believed to be nothing more than a foil for goalscoring widemen. That he’s brought that form back to the biggest stages of all, however, should be no surprise at all.
Italy did pretty well in 2021. They won gold in the men’s 100 metres in Tokyo, scooped the Eurovision gong and even the winner of the Great British Bake-Off was Italian. He’s been so omnipresent this year, mind, that it’s almost a surprise Jorginho wasn’t present for all three (we’d love to see him bake a showstopper).
The midfielder, panned by his own fans for being Maurizio Sarri’s teacher’s pet, has gone on to become a byword for success. The steady metronome throughout Frank Lampard’s implosion became a pillar for Thomas Tuchel to shape his side around; likewise, the Brazilian-born deep-lying playmaker was undroppable for Roberto Mancini at international level.
Jorginho’s 2021 has seen him go from an awkward fit to one of the most respected players on the continent. Through it all, he’s been the consistency that managers and fans alike have looked to. Whatever wave of COVID we go through next, he’ll likely still be breaking up play, cheekily slotting home pennos and lining his cabinet with silver.