FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016: 30-26
30. N'Golo Kante
It was a scandal that Kante didn't receive an individual award for his role in Leicester's title win. The FWA voted for Jamie Vardy, the PFA chose Riyad Mahrez instead and, in both cases, opted for style over substance. Vardy and Mahrez were undeniably essential to Leicester, but neither matched the breadth or consistency of Kante’s contribution.
Rather than operating exclusively as a stopper, the £6m signing quickly became integral to every department of Claudio Ranieri's side. He was the master brick: screening the defence, beginning moves inside his own half and acting as an auxiliary counter-attacking piece. Kante has exhibited all the traditional holding midfield qualities over the past 12 months, but not at the cost of showing how rounded a player he is – something not lost on Didier Deschamps, who made him a cornerstone of France’s European Championship side.
Now at Chelsea, he's the iron heart of Antonio Conte's much-admired 3-4-3 system. His partnership with Nemanja Matic has quickly become one of the best in England and turned the side's soft centre into the toughest in the land. – SSB
29. Gerard Pique
The style has always been there. Ditto the calmness. And the love for the occasional practical joke. But in 2016, there has been consistency and an ever-increasing iron will to Pique’s Barcelona performances.
The Catalan has won over Luis Enrique, who had serious reservations over Pique’s long-term future when he first sat in the Camp Nou dugout in 2014, and is now one of his manager's most trusted on-field lieutenants. If fit – Pique missed four games in late October or November – he’s as guaranteed to start as Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta or any of the MSN forward line, and was vital to los Cule’s title win in May.
The stink bombs are now a thing of the past – the 29-year-old centre-back restricted himself to tweeting emojis when Real Madrid were ejected from the Copa del Rey for playing ineligible players. Take away the cheeky chappy persona and you’d lose the confidence and bravado that sets Pique apart, and provides the beginning for many Barcelona attacks.
All too often, the ‘footballing centre-half’ only gets points for style. Pique has the grit, determination and defensive nous, too. He’s won seven of the last nine league titles, beginning with Manchester United in 2007/08. Put simply, you want Gerard Pique in your team. – AM
28. David Alaba
On one level, 2016 has been a disappointing year for Alaba. Although Bayern Munich scooped another Bundesliga title in the spring, they once again failed to reach the Champions League final under Pep Guardiola. On the international stage, meanwhile, Austria crashed and burned at Euro 2016, picking up just a single point from clashes with Hungary, Portugal and Iceland as they proved unable to live up to their ‘dark horses’ tag.
And yet for all that, Alaba has strengthened his case to be the planet’s most complete footballer in the last 12 months. His versatility is astonishing – left-back is where the 24-year-old is used most, but he’s also played at centre-half, in central midfield, on the flank, as a No.10 and up front throughout 2016. Being able to adapt to so many different positions speaks volumes about both Alaba’s technical ability and his understanding of the game, which is extremely well developed for a player yet to reach his prime. – GL
Next: The Belgian reborn