FourFourTwo's 100 Best Football Players in the World 2017: 40-31
40. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
- Coutinho has scored 9 goals from outside the box since the start of last season, the most among Premier League players. In fact, only eight teams have scored more
In the post Neymar-to-PSG days and weeks, nobody profited more than Coutinho. Barcelona’s sense of loss sent them on a reflexive series of money lunges and, according to reports, that included a nine-figure offer to Liverpool for their Brazilian midfielder. Quite the validation.
On one hand, it was a preposterous offer, but on the other it was indicative of the frequent brilliance that Coutinho produces. Previously, the Brazilian dropped in and out of games and was rarely a dominant presence across 90 minutes, yet things are different now and he continues to litter scoresheets and stat charts with his influence.
He scored 13 league goals in 2016/17 and is currently maintaining a one-in-two strike rate in this season’s Premier League. That’s impressive, but also just the superficial layer, beneath which lurks all manner of defence-cutting, space-finding passes which continue to place him among the finest playmakers on the continent. At this rate he's a starter for Tite's Brazil at the World Cup.
Highlight: His performance against Arsenal back in March: a bewitching display which baffled a lumbering opponent and, in hindsight, began his ascent back to peak form after injury.
Words: Seb Stafford-Bloor
39. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
- Azpilicueta leads defenders with 5 assists in the Premier League this season. All of those have set up Alvaro Morata goals
Ever present in the Chelsea line-up, Azpilicueta hadn't missed a single minute of Premier League action since Antonio Conte was appointed as manager in the summer of 2016 – until the Italian finally gave him a well-deserved rest at the end of November.
2017, then, was a very busy year for the defender, who had to adjust to an unusual role as a centre-back in Chelsea's now-celebrated 3-4-3 formation. Having arrived at Stamford Bridge as a right-back (but made his name as a left-back), “Dave” found his feet amazingly qustickly in the new position.
Azpilicueta was absolutely superb as Chelsea won the title, while the arrival of good amigo Alvaro Morata in the summer has helped him to become the team's top assist provider this term. But the 28-year-old's true worth comes in his incredible consistency, rather than any individual moments of excellence.
Highlight: Being appointed vice-captain over the summer shows just how valued Azpilicueta is at Stamford Bridge.
Words: Michael Yokhin
38. Radja Nainggolan (Roma)
- Nainggolan scored 11 goals in Serie A in 2016/17, as many as in his previous two seasons combined
In the post-Francesco Totti era there has been no player more important to Roma than Nainggolan. The Belgian midfield warlord has been at his combative best this season, helping the Giallorossi compete in an increasingly exciting Serie A title race.
With his snarling persona, non-stop aggression and fierce tackling, the 29-year-old at first seems your average box-to-boxer, but he has played a more advanced role throughout much of 2018 – something that was reflected in his 11-goal haul last season. His willingness and ability to press, along with his directness on the ball, make him a genuine threat to the opposition regardless of whether he has possession.
Highlight: A man born for derbies, Nainggolan’s driven strike from just outside the box essentially sealed victory for Roma over Lazio in November.
Words: Blair Newman
37. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
- Pique played in his 400th match with Barcelona in all competitions on August 26 against Alaves
Loved as much as he is hated, there’s not much in between when it comes to Pique. One thing that should no provoke conflict is his defending, which over the course of the year has remained at a very high level. Even as Barça stuttered at the end of last season, Pique stayed with the sinking ship and showed both leadership and responsibility.
Pique doesn't hide even in the most troubling times, and while people remain strongly critical of him, he doesn't buckle under such pressure. Along with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi, he continues to keep his standards high at Camp Nou.
The 30-year-old's movement out of defence remains as key as ever for Barça, and how he helps initiate attacking play has been a cornerstone of his game since the beginning. Defensively, meanwhile, he's learned with age that he can't be as rash as when he was younger.
Highlight: A classic defensive performance against Atletico Madrid in May, in which he put out every fire that Diego Simeone's side lit.
Words: David Cartlidge
36. Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)
- Jesus has contributed to 21 goals (15 goals, 6 assists) in his first 25 Premier League appearances
There are few strikers out there who could have Sergio Aguero looking over his shoulder. Even fewer were still in the womb when the Teletubbies hit the small screen.
Yet that’s exactly what Gabriel Jesus (who entered this world three days after Tinky Winky and friends) has spent the past 12 months doing, announcing himself with three goals in his first four games for Manchester City and quickly consolidating a central role in Pep Guardiola’s team.
The most compelling feature of the Brazilian’s first year in England hasn’t been the goals, the maturity or how he seems an impossibly good fit for Guardiola’s dogma of demonic pressing – although they have all caught the eye. It's simply his consistency. Oscillating form has forever been the pitfall of both the young footballer and the flair-heavy attacker. Gabriel is emphatically both, yet apparently impervious.
Highlight: A two-goal performance in Brazil’s 3-0 demolition of Chile in November. Dovetailing irresistibly with Neymar, he drove a stake through the World Cup hopes of Alexis Sanchez & Co. to establish himself as one half of the most thrilling attacking duo in international football.
Words: Alex Hess
35. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)
- Sanchez was the only player to reach double figures for both goals (24) and assists (10) in the Premier League in 2016/17
Arsenal’s record signing and all-action talisman has enjoyed a calendar year which has largely reflected that of his club: regular moments of high-grade attacking splendour scattered throughout a time of low-level angst and unrest.
Sanchez scores goals, covers ground like a marathon runner and generally provides his side with a one-man front-loaded engine room, but you sense he feels powerless to prevent Arsenal from coasting along at a levels which leaves England’s title challengers wholly untroubled.
Which isn’t to say that the goalscoring, work-rate or commitment to the cause has dropped off – as his 22 goals before December will attest – but simply that this is a player who, it is fair to say, could use a change of scene. If a certain oil-rich northern powerhouse revive their interest in January, that may happen sooner rather than later. Otherwise it's an unceremonious exit on a free next summer.
Highlight: A man-of-the-match display in Arsenal’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea – achieved via an extra-time winner from Sanchez against Man City – in which he drove his side to an impressive victory against the title winners, getting the ball rolling with his 30th goal of another barnstorming season.
Words: Alex Hess
34. Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich)
- Thiago has averaged 90.0 passes per 90 minutes this season, the second-highest total in the Bundesliga
Previously Pep Guardiola's mainstay on the pitch, Thiago didn’t quite hit the same heights under the recently dismissed Carlo Ancelotti. On the upside – and unusually – the 26-year-old went through the calendar year without any major injuries.
It's been a 2017 of mixed feelings for Bayern – domestically dominant, but unable to make the final steps in the Champions League once again. Thiago's change of roles from No.10, to No.8, to No.6 at a relatively young age of his career may have been to his detriment. At times, Ancelotti floundered for a system and Thiago perhaps suffered the most.
Jupp Heynckes is now tasked with guiding the midfielder back to the consistent quality levels he delivered under Pep Guardiola for the remainder of the season. So far the outlook is bright, and it's hardly surprising: Thiago is a gifted midfielder who remains first choice for his country. No mean feat when that nation is Spain.
Highlight: His excellent performance at home to Arsenal in the Champions League last 16. Bayern's brutal second-half display was rounded off with two goals and an assist from the Spaniard.
Words: Russell Smith
33. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
- Casemiro has won 2.77 tackles per 90 minutes this season, the highest average in La Liga
Had it not been for Casemiro, Zinedine Zidane might have lost his job long ago. The holding midfielder got benched when Zidane took charge in early 2016, but then a home defeat to Atletico Madrid put the coach’s future in doubt. That made him discover Casemiro’s value – and the Brazilian has been untouchable since. In the meantime, Madrid have won the Champions League twice.
That hasn’t been coincidental. Athletic and uncompromising, Casemiro specialises at breaking up play behind Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. He picks up bookings, like any seasoned ball-winner, though probably not as many as he deserves.
He has chipped in with seven league goals this year, too. The stat that best underlines his importance may be that only Isco has played more league games than him in 2017.
Highlight: Scoring the winner at Athletic Bilbao in March, as Madrid earned three crucial points en route to the league title.
Words: Thore Haugstad
32. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
- Salah has already scored a Premier League-high 13 goals this season – as many as Liverpool’s joint-top scorers last season (Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane) managed
Given Salah’s scintillating first six month at Liverpool, both parties should be grateful they got a second chance. Back in 2014, the Egyptian spurned Merseyside after much negotiation, opting to join Chelsea in a last-minute transfer. All the kudos he had built as a goalscoring wideman at Basel evaporated with each week spent on the Stamford Bridge bench.
Two-and-a-half seasons in Italy quickly rebuilt his reputation, though, and Salah impressed hugely at Roma, where his ability to ghost in from the right and finish attacks inspired many a rueful thought among Stamford Bridge’s bigwigs. But it has been at Anfield where he has truly looked like blossoming into one of world football’s elite forwards.
Wide players have long since evolved from wingers to inverted inside-forwards, but Salah is taking things a step further, functioning as a penalty-box goal poacher rather than creative type. A staggering return from his first half-season at Anfield suggests he’s doing plenty right.
Highlight: The icily dispatched 95th-minute penalty that sent Egypt to their first World Cup in 27 years, upgrading his status back home from star to talisman.
Words: Alex Hess
31. Marco Verratti (PSG)
- Verratti has averaged 112 touches per 90 minutes in Ligue 1, the highest figure over the last 10 years in this competition
It’s a tribute to what a magnificently talented player Verratti is that he hasn’t always been at his best this year and yet still walks into the top 40.
Perturbed by his on-off summer move to Barcelona, his form has wobbled at times, but on his game he remains absolutely essential to PSG’s play. Simply, Verratti is a joy to watch.
The Italian is willing to take the ball under pressure in all areas of the field, and has cut out some of the unnecessary risk-taking that featured in his game two or three seasons ago. You don’t get many goals out of him – just one in Ligue 1 this calendar year – but Verratti makes up for that in plenty of other magnificently watchable ways.
Highlight: The metronomic presence and control he brought to PSG’s 4-0 Champions League last-16 first-leg win over Barcelona last February.
Words: James Eastham
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