Look through a list of the world’s best players, during any time in history, and more often than not, that list will be populated by forwards. They’re the most glamorous players in any team, after all: your friends and family are impressed by goals, not clean sheets or pass completion stats.
2021 is no different. Sure, goalkeepers and full-backs are more expensive than they have ever been but the forwards are more important than ever. In the age of the deep block, with less space on the pitch than ever, these are the guys entrusted with unlocking the opposition.
And there are more top-class forwards around than ever before too. For our list, we’re going for any player who operates wide or centrally but isn’t a conventional centre-forward/striker (sorry Robert Lewandowski). The world’s best strikers are covered here (opens in new tab).
10. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
At the time, Marcus Rashford getting the No.10 shirt at Manchester United felt as much to do with trusting academy graduates and rewarding exciting young players as anything else. By now, he’s an undisputed A-lister of the game, capable of carrying the responsibility of the shirt, on and off the field.
Rashford has sparkled under Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, maturing into an unstoppable forward, wherever he plays across the frontline. He’s ferociously quick, incredibly clever and his movement is superb: he was even Jose Mourinho’s most played player during his United tenure, which tells you everything you need to know about his mentality.
9. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
Under Brendan Rodgers, he was raw, exciting and had flair in his feet. Under Pep Guardiola, Raheem Sterling has refined his game to the bare basics.
The England winger is all about goals and assists and he’s a pure output machine. His ability to take players on has fans on the edge of their seats - even at home - and his link-up play is underrated, too. He’s flourished into a world-class player.
8. Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur)
Watch Son Heung-min without your glasses this season, tearing down the touchline in all white, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for Cristiano Ronaldo’s heady peak. The speed, the timing, the effortless finishing with either foot. With Harry Kane his Wayne Rooney, he’s put in a CR7-style season.
Son has ascended from being Kane’s no.2 to striking fear into full-backs on his own. He’s one of the most adored players in the world right now - and rightfully so after the campaign that he’s had.
7. Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
Tony Pulis might not be a fan but the rest of Europe is. Serge Gnabry is a Swiss-army knife of a forward, equally devastating with either foot and deadly on and off the ball.
Since moving to Bayern Munich, the former Arsenal man has established himself as one of the most complete wide-men in world football. He can create, he can score. He’s a perfect foil for Robert Lewandowski and he dovetails with Leroy Sane brilliantly. He’s just a joy to watch.
6. Phil Foden (Manchester City)
Somewhere along the line, Phil Foden earned the moniker of the “Stockport Iniesta”. In some respects, this is a disservice to how well he adapts his game to his surroundings.
Foden has become one of the first names on the team sheet for Pep Guardiola in part for his ability to create and score goals. But it’s the fact that he always pops up when it matters: goals against Chelsea and Liverpool testify, as do vital home and away strikes against Borussia Dortmund. This guy is made from something else: it’s scary to think he’s years away from his peak.
5. Jadon Sancho (Manchester City)
Last summer’s transfer saga between Dortmund and suitors Manchester United would have been enough to derail some burgeoning careers, yet Jadon Sancho has simply got on with things.
The England winger looks on course for another season of double figures for league goals and assists (last season, he became the first Englishman to achieve this feat since Matt Le Tissier in 1997), despite missing a number of games with a muscle injury suffered in February. With his trickery, close control, speed and balance, he has all the hallmarks of a classic winger, yet his goalscoring record is good enough to rival most strikers.
Sancho is almost certain to make Gareth Southgate’s Euros squad this summer - a starring role there might have other big clubs angling for his signature.
4. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Liverpool’s defensive struggles this season have grabbed the headlines, but, further forward, Mo Salah has quietly got on with business. The Egyptian is the Premier League’s joint-top-scorer with 19 strikes, and has been carrying Jurgen Klopp’s side during their woeful title defence.
Salah’s work rate and pressing remain as valuable to Klopp’s system as his goals but his quiet leadership - especially when it comes to penalty-taking duties - mustn't be overlooked either. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have been poor this season; without Mo, Liverpool’s plight would be a whole lot worse.
3. Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
No Ligue 1 player has made a greater contribution to their team’s strike rate than Kylian Mbappe. The Frenchman has scored 30% of his team’s tally this season. Seven assists take his combined goal contributions to 28 in 27 domestic appearances. He’s still only 22-years-old.
Mbappe has been especially electrifying in Europe, however, with eight goals in nine appearances. Five of those have come in the knockout stages, with three against Barcelona and two against Bayern. Heavyweights and minnows beware: this is a player with little regard for the opposition.
2. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Twenty-nine goals in 39 games is an astonishingly good return for a wide forward, yet Messi’s prime exploits have made the mere brilliance of his late career seem ordinary. He might no longer operate at the peak of his powers but he remains one of the most potent goalscorers on the planet, well into his 30s.
Add in the 13 assists (ten in La Liga) and you get the full picture. Leo Messi is still contributing to a goal every game. This, at a club he is supposedly desperate to leave in the summer. As his pace and stamina slowly diminish, his vision and passing are only getting better. He’s different, but still destructive. Older, yet wiser.
1. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
The box office Brazilian may not be PSG’s goal-scorer-in-chief anymore (that status belongs to Kylian Mbappe) but there’s no doubting his influence for the French giants - particularly in Europe. Six goals in seven Champions League appearances this season, including a brace at Old Trafford in the group stages, have contributed to 13 strikes in all competitions. Not impressive enough? Okay, but there’s much more to the 29-year-old than goals.
It’s Neymar’s creativity and leadership which make him so crucial to club and country. A pair of assists in Munich helped get revenge on Bayern in the Champions League quarter-finals and, on the big occasions, he consistently provides an outlet to teammates under pressure. There are few sights more exciting in football than Neymar turning with the ball to take on his marker. Pay no attention to the guff about his theatrical side; Neymar is a dream.
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