FourFourTwo's 100 Best Football Players in the World 2018
40. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona)
It’s been a stellar year for Umtiti, in which he has reinforced his status as one of the world’s premier centre-backs. ‘Big Sam’ earned his nickname through power and strength rather than his relatively modest stature (or any penchant for pints of wine), and his personality and consistency were key in Barcelona’s double win and France’s World Cup glory.
His worth as a mainstay for both teams was underlined further during his two-month injury lay-off in autumn. By his last game out, a 4-3 home defeat to Betis in mid-November, Barça’s was the 15th best defence in La Liga, while France failed to make the Nations League final four. – Andy Brassell
39. James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
In many ways it doesn’t feel like James has played 50 games for Bayern Munich, and that’s telling. The Colombian has proven himself a match-winner and an excellent playmaker at a club in need of some creative spark beyond Thiago.
Late last season and early this season, the 27-year-old so often found the pass that others couldn’t – even in a side full of stars like Bayern – but a knee injury looks to have halted his progress. Before that it was calf knack which ruined his World Cup – James sat out Colombia’s opener, returned with a man-of-the-match display against Poland, then came off after half an hour against Senegal.
His club future remains unclear, but given his ability, Bayern would be remiss not to make him a part of theirs. – Jonathan Harding
38. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)
Rakitic takes far less of the limelight in comparison to compatriot Luka Modric, but the Ballon d’Or winner’s compatriot has enjoyed an understated, exceptional year.
The Croatian schemer has become a vital on-field presence for Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona, both in terms of what he can do on the ball and also how he acts as midfield general off it, and helped his country to a monumental World Cup final appearance in Russia.
The 30-year-old scored two key penalties in shootouts along the way, and against Argentina in the group stage, continuing to show his leadership skills and cool head on the biggest of stages. Modric couldn’t have done it without him. – Simon Harrison
37. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
Another player to have flourished under Maurizio Sarri’s tutelage in Naples, the towering Senegal international has been one of the rocks that Napoli’s recent success has been built on.
Nicknamed K2, the centre-back’s imposing frame makes him a difficult obstacle for forwards to find a way around, and his mixture of aerial prowess and technical proficiency has made him one of Serie A’s most consistently impressive defenders in recent years.
He’s no slouch either: bombing runs forward are another trademark trait and Koulibaly provides a real threat in the air, his superb header in April’s win over Juventus being the most famous example. – Alasdair Mackenzie
36. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
Once seen as wild, rash and unpredictable, Casemiro is now considered one of the best in the world in his position. In screening the Real Madrid defence, he’s an energetic, tenacious presence who provides excellent cover for Los Blancos’ backline.
His seemingly endless energy levels allow him to cover a lot of ground, and during Zinedine Zidane’s spell at the club – featuring a third straight Champions League title in May – the Brazilian made sure that the foundations were there for Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to build upon.
The 26-year-old also packs a venomous strike and springs forward when he can too, such is the versatility in his game. – David Cartlidge
35. Dries Mertens (Napoli)
Mertens probably owes Maurizio Sarri a drink or two. It was the now-Chelsea boss who first thought of turning the Belgian from a talented-but-frustrating winger into a central striker.
That switch, which yielded a 28-goal Serie A haul in 2016/17 and a Ballon d’Or nomination, still bears fruit for Napoli today. Quick off the mark and a devastating finisher, the 5ft 5in frontman has proved that you don’t need imposing physicality to thrive through the middle.
This season, Carlo Ancelotti’s regular rotation policy and 4-4-2 system has breathed fresh life into Mertens’ performances, after the 31-year-old ended last term with just one goal in 11 league games. Now, the Belgian is back challenging at the top of the Serie A scoring charts. – Alasdair Mackenzie
34. Jose Gimenez (Atletico Madrid)
Gimenez is still just 23, and 2018 has been a year of huge progression for the centre-back. He formed a formidable partnership for Uruguay at the World Cup alongside club team-mate Diego Godin, and even scored the winner in his country’s opener against Egypt.
The youngster is Diego Simeone’s kind of centre-back; one who offers fine aerial ability, a good reading of the game and the total commitment required to put his body on the line for the cause.
Gimenez has taken up the slack at Atleti during Godin’s slow start to the season, and will be a vital player for Los Colchoneros when his respected mentor is long gone. – Simon Harrison
33. Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
Juventus’s superstar-in-the-making has spent the last year continuing to fulfil the enormous potential he showed as a fresh-faced teenager at Palermo. The player who heads into 2019 is a more rounded and mature version than the one of a year ago.
Last season was the Argentine’s most prolific yet – he netted 22 times as the Old Lady won a fourth consecutive league and cup double, and scored another four in other competitions despite missing six weeks of the campaign through injury.
Massimiliano Allegri wasn’t afraid to drop ‘La Joya’ – the Jewel - during the early weeks of 2018/19 as he sought to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo, but Dybala responded in the best way possible with a series of standout performances – including a Champions League hat-trick against Young Boys. – Alasdair Mackenzie
32. Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
Best player in the world? Maybe not, but Varane finishes 2018 among the world’s three best central defenders.
A Champions League winner with Real Madrid in May, he marshalled France’s World Cup-winning back four to victory in imperious fashion, finding time along the way to post a career-defining performance in Les Bleus’ 1-0 semi-final victory over Belgium.
There are signs that Varane’s notoriously fragile physique may finally be adjusting to the rigours of top-level football, meaning he can play more games. He’s suffered a torrid start to the current season with Real Madrid, but frighteningly for strikers across the globe, aged 25 his peak years still lie ahead. – James Eastham
31. Sadio Mané (Liverpool)
The Senegalese appears to be so good that he doesn’t even know it himself. At least that’s the view of Jurgen Klopp, who saw Mané hit double figures in the league and Champions League last season.
Operating in the shadow of Mohamed Salah, the 26-year-old has kept up his game as one of the best overall forwards around, with a mix of goals, quick combinations and sheer hard work.
Liverpool recently extended his contract to 2023, suggesting that if Mané isn’t aware of his talent, his coach very much is. – Thore Haugstad