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 quickly 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