The modern goalkeeper isn't just there to stop shots. One of their most important jobs is to start attacks, whether with a long throw or a clever pass. Agility and reflexes are a given but confidence, vision and assertive play are vital, too.
David De Gea
MANCHESTER UNITED and SPAIN | Age: 28 | 2017 Rank: 2
De Gea stands peerless as the new No. 1 in our goalkeeping rank and, at 28, has all the hallmarks of a player approaching the peak of his powers. His importance to a creaking Manchester United side is fundamental: He has rescued them repeatedly and, as of mid-November, has made 20 more saves than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League's Big Six this season.
ATLETICO MADRID and SLOVENIA | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 5
It's hard to think of a safer pair of hands than those of Oblak, who serves as the ultra-reliable last line of defence for Diego Simeone's Europa League-winning Atletico team. Oblak has won the Zamora trophy, awarded to the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest games-to-goals-conceded ratio, for three years in a row, and his brilliance stems as much from presence and astute positioning as from spectacular saves.
REAL MADRID and BELGIUM | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 4
Real Madrid had wanted De Gea but in signing Courtois for a bargain €35 million from Chelsea in August, they got the man of the moment. The Belgium international had an outstanding World Cup, winning the Golden Glove after four stellar years in London. Early life at the Bernabeu has not been easy -- Courtois also once played for Atletico Madrid -- but player and club are settling down.
LIVERPOOL and BRAZIL | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: N/R
After cutting such an impressive figure between the posts for Roma in their surge to the 2017-18 Champions League semifinals, Alisson signed with Liverpool -- the club that stopped Roma -- for £56m. The move has been a success, with the Brazilian's composure a key part of Liverpool's defensive renaissance. One high-profile blunder, when the confident sweeper-keeper was dispossessed for a goal at Leicester, was extraordinary mainly for its rarity.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
BARCELONA and GERMANY | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 8
Ter Stegen has always been smart with his feet but in the past two seasons, he has grown in stature with only Oblak conceding fewer goals than him in last season's La Liga. A string of crucial saves led to suggestions that while Lionel Messi gets the praise in attack, Ter Stegen is equally influential at the back.
MANCHESTER CITY and BRAZIL | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Even in this age of footballing keepers, it's tough to think of another with Ederson's extraordinary range and awareness (not to mention one of the most frightening neck tattoos in football). His distribution, long and short, is outstanding, a skill set that has underpinned many of Manchester City's rapid-fire attacks as they cruised to the Premier League title. Oh, and he even has an assist to his name this season.
BAYERN MUNICH and GERMANY | Age: 32 | 2017 Rank: 1
Last season's top keeper has slipped six places, which reflects a difficult time for his club and country. Neuer, who missed the first half of 2018 with injury, was powerless to stop Germany suffering an embarrassing early World Cup exit. There have been uncharacteristic struggles with Bayern too. As of mid-November, he had made only 11 saves in the league this season while conceding 14 goals, his lowest ratio ever.
TOTTENHAM and FRANCE | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 6
Lloris made some sensational stops for France at the World Cup and may have won the Golden Glove if not for committing a comical mistake in the final, which led to a Mario Mandzukic goal. Nobody doubts Lloris' ability, but he has had a mixed time since then, pleading guilty to a drink driving charge in September and looking indecisive when Spurs lost to Barcelona at Wembley.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and ITALY | Age: 40 | 2017 Rank: 3
The elder statesman of elite goalkeepers, Buffon remains a class act. His final European game for Juventus (his club of 17 years) against Real Madrid ended in calamity: He was sent off for dissent and then banned for a diatribe about referee Michael Oliver. Still, Buffon holds hope that the elusive Champions League trophy might find its way to him in the French capital.
REAL MADRID and COSTA RICA | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 7
Navas has been underrated for years and it's unfortunate that, even when he was winning Champions League titles at Real, his position never quite felt secure. But he helped them do it again in May, shining in particular during the semifinal win over Bayern Munich, and performed well at the World Cup for Costa Rica.
At one point, right-backs were considered the least skilled players on the pitch but the next generation brings boldness and unpredictability. Positional awareness, pinpoint crossing and breakneck pace separate the best from the rest.
REAL MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 1
Carvajal sits atop our ranking for a second consecutive year -- and for good reason. He ticks every box in a modern-day full-back and is integral to everything Madrid do at either end of the pitch, even if goals are a rarity. While he's been plagued with injury, plenty will rest on his shoulders if Real are to win a fourth consecutive Champions League this season.
BAYERN MUNICH and GERMANY | Age: 23 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Every team would love a player like Kimmich, a class act who would look comfortable anywhere on the field. Strength, pace, athleticism and composure: The 23-year-old has it all and can fill in effectively in midfield or at centre-back, too. Bayern and Germany might consider Kimmich an all-round in the mould of Philipp Lahm, only Kimmich could be even better.
MANCHESTER CITY and ENGLAND | Age: 28 | 2017 Rank: 3
Walker's £54m transfer in 2017 from Spurs to City raised eyebrows but nobody talks too much about the money anymore. Pep Guardiola took a dynamic, explosive right-back and made him even better, adding new levels of command and defensive resilience to his game while giving him the confidence to develop other areas, too; he even played as a right-sided centre-back at the World Cup.
VFB STUTTGART and FRANCE | Age: 22 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Pavard shot to prominence with a string of fine performances for France at Russia 2018. His marvelous half-volley against Argentina was named goal of the tournament and he started six of the world champions' seven games, playing with tenacity and intelligence. He has stayed loyal to Bundesliga strugglers Stuttgart even though offers came in during the summer; at 22, he has plenty of time to make a big move.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and BRAZIL | Age: 35 | 2017 Rank: 2
The godfather of progressive, contemporary right-backs, Alves' influence will live long beyond his playing career. Not that his days on the pitch are over just yet. While a knee injury has kept him out since May, Alves will return, at which point he'll give a shot in the arm to PSG's Champions League hopes.
TOTTENHAM and ENGLAND | Age: 28 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Once Kyle Walker's understudy at Tottenham, Trippier has developed into a world-class right-back. He was outstanding during England's run to the World Cup semifinals, scoring a brilliant free kick against Croatia, and consistently delivers some of the best set-pieces around. The high demands placed on Spurs' full-backs suit him perfectly and he is justifying the promise he showed as a youngster at Manchester City a decade ago.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and BELGIUM | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
No Alves, no problem for PSG ... particularly when Meunier is on the scene. At 6-foot-3, Meunier is a strapping figure who can be hard to stop when he gallops into opposition territory; that was evident when he starred as a wing-back for Belgium in Russia. Perhaps they would have fared better in the last four had he not been suspended versus France.
CHELSEA and SPAIN | Age: 29 | 2017 Rank: 5 as left-back
Few defenders fit the "Mr. Reliable" tag more perfectly than Azpilicueta. Last season, he was among those who held Chelsea together as their form tailed off; this time around, he is excelling in a happier climate. Azpilicueta is an exceptional one-on-one defender, having played on the right side of three under Antonio Conte before returning to right-back this season. Azpilicueta's influence at Stamford Bridge cannot be overstated.
BARCELONA and SPAIN | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: N/R
A product of Barcelona's youth academy, La Masia, Roberto will be remembered for the dramatic late winner he scored in Barca's improbable comeback against PSG in the Champions League in 2017. He has certainly pushed on since then, limiting Nelson Semedo's opportunities at right-back and helping a stingy defence dethrone Real Madrid last season.
ATLETICO MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 33 | 2017 Rank: 5
Juanfran remains a mainstay of Diego Simeone's redoubtable Atletico side, even if there are signs that his best years are behind him. Dortmund gave him a torrid night in their 4-0 Champions League win in October, but it's easy to see why Simeone holds faith in Juanfran. He is part of a grimly efficient defensive unit that won La Liga in 2014.
Being a great central defender isn't just about size and strength; it's also about being as cultured on the ball as it is forceful in the tackle. The best fuse timing and power with elegance and poise under pressure.
REAL MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 32 | 2017 Rank: 1
Many love him, a fair few hate him but everybody holds grudging admiration for him. Ramos retains his top ranking after a year that saw him court controversy with the challenge that injured Mohamed Salah's shoulder in the Champions League final. There is no more practiced master of the dark arts and alongside that, there is no braver, more inspirational centre-back on the planet.
REAL MADRID and FRANCE | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 10
Was there a better player at the World Cup than Varane? It's difficult to think of one who produced such a series of exemplary performances. An all-round centre-back with pace, mobility and timing, Varane is only 25 and could cement his status as one of the greats over the next decade. He already has burnished his CV with four Champions League titles and two La Liga titles.
ATLETICO MADRID and URUGUAY | Age: 32 | 2017 Rank: 4
Who are you going to call if you require an impassable, granite-sculpted warrior of a central defender? Godin is 32 and epitomises the blood, guts and sheer excellence that have coursed through Diego Simeone's Atletico team for so many years. This is his ninth season at the club -- he scored their La Liga-winning goal in 2014 -- and his powers show little sign of fading.
Virgil Van Dijk
LIVERPOOL and NETHERLANDS | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Van Dijk arrived at Liverpool for an eye-catching £75m fee in January -- a world record for a defender and particularly hefty given that he had joined from modest Southampton. But he might just have been the missing piece in Jurgen Klopp's jigsaw at Anfield, anchoring a much-improved back line imperiously while setting numerous attacking moves in motion with his accurate distribution.
JUVENTUS and ITALY | Age: 34| 2017 Rank: 3
Few defenders take as much pleasure in the basics of their art as Chiellini. Cast your mind back to Juve's Champions League victory at Tottenham in March, when blocks and last-ditch clearances were met with celebrations almost akin to the emotion of scoring a goal. Chiellini won his 100th cap for Italy in October but his greatest achievements have been on the domestic front, winning seven consecutive Serie A titles.
BARCELONA and SPAIN | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 6
Plenty of focus is trained upon Pique for his off-field interests, which include support for a referendum on Catalonian independence and financial backing for a new international tennis tournament, but his exploits for Barcelona remain worthy of headlines. He remains a totemic lynchpin at the back and has more time to concentrate on retaining the La Liga title now that he has retired from international duty.
BARCELONA and FRANCE | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Umtiti will go down in the history books as the man whose header propelled France into the World Cup final in July. It was just reward for a string of increasingly confident performances; last season, he and Pique cruised to the La Liga title, conceding just 29 league goals. At 25, Umtiti is six months younger than Varane, his centre-back colleague with France. You wouldn't bet against them at Qatar 2022.
JUVENTUS and ITALY | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 2
His year at AC Milan did not quite go as planned, but no matter: Bonucci is back at Juventus to partner Chiellini. Bonucci can rival his teammate's toughness but has, for a centre-back, peerless quality on the ball, too. His passing range is breathtaking as we saw with the pinpoint 50-yard ball he laid on for Cristiano Ronaldo to score against Manchester United in November.
NAPOLI and SENEGAL | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Most of Europe's superpowers would love to prise Koulibaly from Napoli, where he has been a colossus in the five years since joining from Genk. At 6-foot-5, the Senegal international is a towering figure with great speed and recovery, but his timing and technique ensure his attributes extend far beyond the physical. A dramatic winning goal at Juventus in April was one of the moments of the Serie A season.
TOTTENHAM and BELGIUM | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Vertonghen was named Tottenham's Player of the Year for the 2017-18 campaign, and for good reason. He's an ice-cool, astute and versatile player with a radar-like left foot. It was a blow when, in October, he was ruled out for two months with a hamstring injury. Vertonghen also played much of the World Cup at left-back for Belgium, scoring the goal that kick-started their last-16 comeback against Japan.
Players with a good left foot aren't that common, but those blessed with pace and precision on the ball are precious. Top left-backs are as comfortable locking down an opposing winger as they are turning into one when their teams are on the attack.
REAL MADRID and BRAZIL | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 1
In November, Marcelo was presented with a shirt to mark a dozen years at the Bernabeu. In that time, he has been so much more than a left-back, virtually running games and creating chances with staggering regularity. And when times are tough, as they have been this season, Marcelo defends his teammates. "I always stand up to be counted," he said. Nobody can deny that.
BAYERN MUNICH and AUSTRIA | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 2
Alaba has played in numerous positions for club and country but nowadays is back doing what he does best, proving that he has few equals in the left-back role. Pace, astute passing and outstanding delivery from set pieces are among his hallmarks; it says enough, given his relatively unglamorous position, that when Alaba is on the pitch, it is difficult to take your eyes off him.
BARCELONA and SPAIN | Age: 29 | 2017 Rank: 3
For as long as Lionel Messi is around there will always be a bigger star than Alba at Barcelona, but you won't find a more effective player. He has been among the best in the business for almost a decade but at 29, he is playing the most impressive football of his career. While he fell out of favour (and form) with Luis Enrique, he has rediscovered his mojo under Ernesto Valverde, who said Alba "gets better every day."
JUVENTUS and BRAZIL | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 4
It seems unfair that Sandro failed to make Tite's Selecao World Cup squad, though the mere presence of Marcelo means the competition is stiff. Sandro did get his chance in a fall friendly when he scored a header against Saudi Arabia, a reminder of his talent. Able to dominate in the air as well as glide forward, Sandro perfectly fits the tradition of buccaneering Brazilian full-backs.
MANCHESTER CITY and FRANCE | Age: 24 | 2017 Rank: 6
How much better might Manchester City have been last season if Mendy had been fit? The question sounds ludicrous but then again, Mendy is an extraordinary player with such speed and power that his overlapping runs on the left flank are almost unstoppable. He also has the delivery to match: a trademark low, whipped cross that forwards dream of attacking. Now if he could only stay fit.
ATLETICO MADRID and FRANCE | Age: 22 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Had Mendy not missed most of last season, Hernandez would probably not have had the chance to be one of the World Cup's breakout stars. He only debuted for the national team last March, but slotted in seamlessly with his intelligent supporting runs and sound defensive work. Hardly surprising, given that he often plays centre-back for Atletico.
CHELSEA and SPAIN | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Last season Alonso was one of the few Chelsea players to enjoy himself, scoring eight times and posing a marauding threat from left wing-back. He occupies a more conventional role under Maurizio Sarri but still has licence to roam. His attacking instincts sometimes come at a cost -- witness the ban he received in April for stomping on Shane Long -- but that is all part of the package.
LIVERPOOL and SCOTLAND | Age: 24 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Robertson's story has a fairy-tale quality. Just over five years ago, he was playing in the depths of the Scottish third division with Queen's Park, working in a part-time administrative role with the country's FA. Now he flies up and down the left flank for Liverpool and captains the national team, too. He does not turn 25 until March, so suffice to say there is still plenty more in his locker.
ATLETICO MADRID and BRAZIL | Age: 33 | 2017 Rank: 7
A late bloomer who came to prominence when he first joined Atletico in 2010, Filipe Luis wanted to join PSG but ended up joining Chelsea for the 2014-15 season before returning to Madrid. The Brazil international, 33, offers a rugged and combative alternative to Marcelo for the national team and remains a reliable figure in Diego Simeone's indomitable back line.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and FRANCE | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Kurzawa was sidelined in the early months of the season with a back injury and linked with a move away from PSG in the summer. Should he eventually move on, it may be with a sense of what might have been. He has played just 74 times since arriving in 2015, but when fully fit, Kurzawa is the complete package of speed, agility, strength and guile.
The key to playing central midfield is a good sense of rhythm: knowing when to speed up in transition and when to slow the pace. There are many forms, too: the tough-tackler, box-to-box machine and the nimble playmaker. It's about seeing the whole field and being able to exploit it.
REAL MADRID and CROATIA | Age: 33 | 2017 Rank: 1
The sight of Modric dragging himself and his Croatia team through extra time to a World Cup semifinal win over England was little short of mesmerising. Modric won the Golden Ball award for his work in Russia and was named FIFA's best men's player in September; nobody could deserve those accolades more than a humble, unassuming character whose role in Real Madrid's recent success has been fundamental.
CHELSEA and FRANCE | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 3
Kante climbs to second on this list and it's no surprise, really, because he refuses to stand still. His energy, lung-busting tenacity and swift recycling of the ball make him indispensable for Chelsea, where he is playing a slightly different role this season, operating ahead of Jorginho rather than in a holding position. Kante also partnered Paul Pogba in France's World Cup-winning campaign, freeing the Manchester United player to shine.
REAL MADRID and GERMANY | Age: 28 | 2017 Rank: 2
The relationship Kroos has formed with Luka Modric and Casemiro marks them out as the best midfield trio in the club game since Barcelona's unmatchable Xavi-Sergio Busquets-Andres Iniesta axis. Kroos has not had the perfect year, appearing to have bailed Germany out of a World Cup hole with a brilliant free kick against Sweden before they exited days later, but there are few midfielders with his timing or feel for the game.
MANCHESTER UNITED and FRANCE | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 4
Where to begin? Pogba's world-class talent isn't in question, though his lack of consistency and application make him a lightning rod for critics. In Russia, he scored in the final for France, playing with the kind of diligence that has largely eluded him at Manchester United. But there have been bright spots, such as inspiring his side to a comeback win against Man City in April with two goals.
BARCELONA and SPAIN | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 6
It's hard to believe that Busquets is only 30. He has been the model holding midfielder for so long, underpinning Barcelona's best work for almost 11 seasons. Busquets -- who made his 100th European appearance in October -- is in a class of his own. Now that Xavi and Andres Iniesta have left the club, he is the last remaining member of that near-perfect midfield from the Pep Guardiola era.
BARCELONA and CROATIA | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 10
For an example of how decisive Rakitic can be, remember the astonishing volley he lashed past Hugo Lloris at Wembley when Barcelona met Spurs in October. Rakitic is one of the best all-rounders in the world and showed it during Croatia's memorable World Cup summer. He scored two winning shootout penalties in Russia and played through the win over England with a virus.
REAL MADRID and BRAZIL | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 8
"I never imagined that he was capable of such dominant performances," Brazil coach Tite once said of Casemiro. Indeed, Tite could have used the Real Madrid midfielder in their quarterfinal World Cup defeat to Belgium. Instead, Casemiro was suspended and Brazil missed a player always happy to do the heavy lifting while others, like Neymar, shine. No wonder Casemiro became a favourite of Zinedine Zidane at Real.
CHELSEA and ITALY | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: N/R
It's obvious why Maurizio Sarri was so determined to beat Manchester City to the man who had been his metronome at Napoli - Jorginho has transformed Chelsea this season, helping rouse them out of their torpor by completing significantly more passes than anyone else in the league. He's also beginning to assume a pivotal role for Roberto Mancini's new-look Italy, forging a promising partnership with Marco Verratti.
BAYERN MUNICH and SPAIN | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 9
Thiago can occupy any midfield role with aplomb and that has, at times, seemed like a curse. He can unlock any defence and is arguably Bayern's most important player these days, generally occupying a No. 8 role but sometimes dictating from deeper. The La Masia product, who joined Bayern in 2013, has made more passes into the final third than any other midfielder in this Bundesliga season.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and ITALY | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: N/R
There aren't many more gifted midfielders than Verratti, who would surely have been higher in this ranking had injuries not hampered him. At his best, he can bend a game to his will, dictating the play with outstanding passing and dribbling, not to mention tenacity in regaining possession. Verratti makes a fine PSG side even better.
The best attacking midfielders have a sense of mischief, capable of cracking a robust defensive set with a bit of improvisation or magic. Great No. 10s make the most of their free roles to entertain, create and convert.
Kevin De Bruyne
MANCHESTER CITY and BELGIUM | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 1
De Bruyne is the world's most complete playmaker. As he showed in driving City to a record-breaking title win last term, nobody can change a game like him. Whether by slicing teams open with a change of pace or showcasing his peerless vision, the Belgian leaves most opponents trailing. He also inspired his country to a last-eight win over Brazil at the World Cup.
REAL MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 2
Isco's hat trick against Argentina in March had Spain fans dreaming of glory in Russia. It didn't happen (they lost to the hosts in the round of 16) though Luis Enrique rewarded Isco with the La Roja captaincy against Bosnia in November. At club level, he was pivotal to Real Madrid's most recent Champions League success, though his place in new boss Santiago Solari's starting lineup looks uncertain.
MANCHESTER CITY and SPAIN | Age: 32 | 2017 Rank: 3
The scale of Silva's achievements in 2018 can hardly be underestimated. His son, Mateo, was born prematurely last December and Silva spent much of the subsequent few months travelling between Manchester and Spain, mixing football with the far more important demands of family. Yet his performances in City's title run-in gave no sign that anything was amiss. Silva was at his bewitching best.
BARCELONA and BRAZIL | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 5
It is a credit to Liverpool that, after Coutinho joined Barcelona for an initial £105m in January, they managed to carry on as normal. It took him a few weeks to find his feet but he has not looked back since, scoring in this season's 5-1 battering of Real Madrid and taking on even more creative responsibility in the injury-enforced absence of Lionel Messi.
TOTTENHAM and DENMARK | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 7
A mild-mannered young man from the equally unassuming Danish town of Middelfart, Eriksen is more prone to bold statements on the pitch. Tottenham are not the same team when he cannot play; he has been their creative hub through their rise to becoming top-four staples and plenty will rest on his shoulders during the rest of this campaign. Most of their rivals across Europe would love to have him onboard.
TOTTENHAM and ENGLAND | Age: 22 | 2017 Rank: 6
There is something old-fashioned about Alli, who sniffs out opportunities in the penalty area like a veteran -- witness his perfectly timed header in England's Russia 2018 win over Sweden. But there is something very modern, too, about his all-around game that should keep Alli, 22, at the top level for years to come. Alli has become a decisive influence for both Spurs and England.
MANCHESTER CITY and PORTUGAL | Age: 24 | 2017 Rank: N/R
It took Bernardo a little time to become a shining light for City -- perfectly understandable given Pep Guardiola's exacting standards -- but by the end of last season he had appeared in more games than any of his teammates. His speed, quick feet and insatiable appetite to create are evident on a weekly basis, and at just 24 this is surely only the beginning.
BAYERN MUNICH and COLOMBIA | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
This year has been a mixed bag for Rodriguez, who stole hearts at the 2014 World Cup with Colombia. In the second half of last term, he appeared to be hitting form under Jupp Heynckes. This season it has been a rockier ride under Niko Kovac and his long-term future looks unlikely to be at Bayern. Whoever signs him will have one of the world's most gifted playmakers on their hands.
ATLETICO MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 10
Atletico's success may be predicated on grit, but Koke keeps the engine purring. "He is one of the best footballers we have ... tactically he is the best," Diego Simeone said of him this season. Through the middle, out wide or even as a false nine, Koke brings Atletico technical stability and can manipulate the ball beautifully in tight areas. At just 26, he is closing in on 400 appearances for the club.
ARSENAL | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Arsenal's enigmatic schemer would make most top 10 rankings if the criteria were based on talent alone. For Ozil, the question marks have always been about his work rate, but he is warming to the task under Unai Emery. The goals and assists are starting to return, soothing the memory of an acrimonious post-World Cup retirement from the Germany team after Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, claimed "racism and disrespect" within German football.
Wingers still have a role to play in the modern era. Their pace and persistence on the flanks give their teams another angle of attack; their ability to cut infield and shoot adds a dimension too.
LIVERPOOL and SENEGAL | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 2
Liverpool's exhilarating tempo would simply not be possible without Mane. While Mohamed Salah took most of the headlines last season it was Mane, jet-heeled and unstoppable in full flow, who set them on their way time and again. Nobody is more devastating when attacking space and few are more decisive around the goal; the Senegalese international scored 10 times in the Champions League last season, including the equaliser in the final, and was also on target against Japan during his country's World Cup campaign. Now he and Liverpool have their eyes on the title.
MANCHESTER CITY and GERMANY | Age: 22 | 2017 Rank: 6
Sane jumps to second after a year that has given him plenty to ponder. On the one hand there has been the high point of City's runaway Premier League success, during which he was virtually unplayable at times and scored 10 goals, setting up 15. On the other, there was the frustration of being omitted from Germany's World Cup squad, watching as they exited in the first round. He has not quite been as influential for City this season but there have been signs during the autumn that he is returning to his blistering best.
MANCHESTER CITY and ENGLAND | Age: 23 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Don't listen to the naysayers. Sterling is now what he always looked likely to become: a sensational talent with the world at his feet. Under Pep Guardiola he has become a more confident, assertive and rounded player who can start moves, finish them lethally and block out the near-incessant external noise. By late November only Sergio Aguero had provided more combined goals and assists in this season's Premier League; he is now delivering for England, too, ending a three-year drought with two goals in Spain.
INTER MILAN and CROATIA | Age: 29 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Jose Mourinho has wanted to sign Perisic for years and could only watch during the World Cup while the Croatian wide man played a blinder. Perisic was second only to Luka Modric in influence for the runners-up -- scoring against both England and France, and covering more ground than any other player in the tournament (72.5km). The Inter winger is an unusual player, standing at 6-foot-1 but possessing a sharp turn of pace and benefitting from being two-footed. He twists opponents inside and out; Mourinho just wishes he would do it for him.
REAL MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 22 | 2017 Rank: 8 (attacking midfield)
If Real Madrid needed a hero for the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era then Asensio, the boy wonder who had an often spectacular 2017-18 season, looked the perfect replacement from within. He has faced criticism during Real's rocky adaptation to life without their old hero but make no mistake: Asensio is a talent who can turn a game from nowhere, lethal from range or when running behind defences when at his best. He is turning it on for Spain too, scoring against Croatia in September and making three assists.
CHELSEA and BRAZIL | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 8
Maurizio Sarri describes Willian's style as "perfect for England," and it is no surprise that a succession of Chelsea coaches have hung their hats on him. He has made more than 250 appearances in his five years at Stamford Bridge, the most memorable coming when he rose above the mess of their 2015-16 season to perform brilliantly. He dug in under Antonio Conte too, despite some differences with the ex-manager, and has fitted in well during their Sarri-led revival, his clever running and fine deliveries giving them balance on either flank.
NAPOLI and ITALY | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: N/R
While some of the players on this list possess explosive power and speed, Insigne's gifts are more subtle. Napoli's balletic talisman can best be described as an inside-forward, cutting inside to unpick defences, and he has been used more centrally by Carlo Ancelotti. Insigne has been brilliant of late, netting a dramatic winner in the Champions League against Liverpool while also scoring twice against PSG. A local boy, he has been a constant in Napoli's rebirth as title contenders and will attain deific status if they can overhaul Juventus.
BARCELONA and FRANCE | Age: 21 | 2017 Rank: 4
Dembele's start to life at the Nou Camp was interrupted by injury but he has shown flashes of his ability since his return. He arrived carrying the weight of a £97m transfer fee and a goal in the Champions League win over Chelsea helped him settle down. The France international started this season well, too, but has been in and out of the side, with question marks over his discipline. He is an extravagant talent but 2019 looks a vital year for him.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND and GERMANY | Age: 29 | 2017 Rank: 5
How Borussia Dortmund must wish they could have called on Reus more regularly in recent years. He has missed a huge amount of football through injury as Bayern Munich have dominated the Bundesliga, but has been fit for most of 2018 and his form has been customarily superb. There can be no better role model for Jadon Sancho and Christian Pulisic to work alongside; Reus, who is still not yet 30, has managed to come back looking better than ever and had scored 11 times by mid-November.
JUVENTUS and BRAZIL | Age: 28 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Costa wowed Serie A with his dribbling and assists during his loan from Bayern Munich to Juventus last season, making 14 of the latter. The move was promptly made permanent although the good times have not come as readily since then, a four-match ban for elbowing, spitting at and attempting to head-butt Sassuolo's Federico Di Francesco his most noteworthy contribution. Fleet of foot and a fine deliverer of the ball, a return to his 2017-18 form would be a welcome boost to the Bianconeri.
The best players in the game seem to have positions as hard to define as their individual talents. They're a potent mix of attacking midfield, winger and centre-forward, but also have the intelligence and quick thinking to know where to be.
BARCELONA and ARGENTINA | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 1
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Messi is the best footballer on the planet, and even at 31, he finds different ways to show it. His destruction of Tottenham in October prompted many to ask whether it was his best performance ever. Maybe, maybe not: There have been so many contenders. Last season brought several more as he finished with 45 goals. His only regret? Falling short with Argentina -- again.
JUVENTUS and PORTUGAL | Age: 33 | 2017 Rank: 2
Like Messi, Ronaldo remains in remarkable shape, and the only difference this season is the crest on his shirt. He enjoyed another year of records at Real Madrid, was the top scorer in the Champions League for a sixth consecutive campaign, and won the title for the fifth time. This season, Ronaldo's task is to deliver European glory to Juventus. We wouldn't bet against him.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and FRANCE | Age: 19 | 2017 Rank: 5
If you're being compared to Pele, you're doing something right. Just ask Mbappe, who thumped home France's fourth goal against Croatia to become the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele. Mbappe had a sensational tournament -- he is impossible to stop when he turns on the afterburners -- while his two-goal destruction of Messi's Argentina felt like a changing of the guard. That day hasn't arrived ... yet.
CHELSEA and BELGIUM | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 4
Hazard admits he is at a crossroads. Does he hold out for his dream move to Real Madrid or sign a new deal that keeps him at Chelsea? Everything is going so well under Maurizio Sarri, but Real have a vacancy for a superstar, and Hazard, who is playing some of his best football ever, fits that bracket. He turns 28 in January and has one big last move in him.
ATLETICO MADRID and FRANCE | Age: 27 | 2017 Rank: 5 (striker)
Griezmann is resolutely his own man. He could have joined Barcelona in the summer, and with his stock at an all-time high after his World Cup performances for France, few could have blamed him. But he chose to stay put (for now), aware of his importance to Atletico and also through unwillingness to be -- in his words -- "Messi's lieutenant." No wonder Griezmann is adored at Wanda Metropolitano.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and BRAZIL | Age: 26 | 2017 Rank: 3
Is Neymar the preening soloist who cares for nothing beyond tricks, flicks and personal advancement, or the most exciting attacking talent in the game? Perhaps a bit of both. Neymar cuts through the opposition like a hot knife for PSG, of course, though if he's to become an all-time great, he'll need to do more than that. Success with Brazil -- they host the 2019 Copa America -- might do the trick.
LIVERPOOL and EGYPT | Age: 26 | 2016 Rank: 7 (wide forward)
The fact that Salah is ranked seventh highlights the brilliance of those above him. The Egyptian had a remarkable 2017-18 season, finishing with 44 goals for Liverpool and -- with his bursts of pace and strength coming in from the flank -- looking like an updated version of Ronaldo. A high-profile injury in the Champions League final dulled his World Cup, but Salah remains one of the most thrilling players in football.
REAL MADRID and WALES | Age: 29 | 2017 Rank: 6
Bale has always had to battle the doubters at Real Madrid -- and make way for Ronaldo at times -- but he found the perfect way to silence his critics. The overhead kick that put his team back in front against Liverpool in the Champions League final was sheer poetry, and even if his next goal carried an element of fortune, it felt like a defining moment in his career.
LIVERPOOL and BRAZIL | Age: 27 | 2016 Rank: N/R
Firmino is neither as explosive nor prolific as his teammates Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, but he is the whirring brain of Liverpool's attack and, crucially, the man who loves to lead their high press from the front. The goals come regularly enough -- 27 last season -- but Firmino, such an intelligent and selfless mover who creates space for those around him, is about far more than the finishing touch.
JUVENTUS and ARGENTINA | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 6 (striker)
It stretches credulity that Jorge Sampaoli granted Dybala only 22 minutes of World Cup action. After all, he was coming off his best season yet for Juventus, scoring 22 times in Serie A. And this season, he's shown signs of dovetailing effectively with Cristiano Ronaldo. A threat from his preferred No. 10 position or at the front of the line, Dybala is one of football's most versatile forwards.
Around the penalty area, the striker is king. The "classic" No. 9 will score against anyone, at any time, from anywhere. While all great strikers have that ruthless determination to seize every scoring opportunity, the truly great are as adept at linking play as they are finishing it.
TOTTENHAM and ENGLAND | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 4
It says so much for Kane that, when his strike rate drops to a goal every two games, people start to question whether he is suffering a slump. He has not quite been at his free-scoring best since the World Cup, where he won the Golden Boot, but the 25-year-old has made light of injuries and an almost nonstop schedule to outshine any other striker.
MANCHESTER CITY and ARGENTINA | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 3
In November, he dyed his hair blond, but Aguero, 30, has always caught the eye. His continued brilliance is a triumph -- he scored his 200th goal for the club in August -- given that there were concerns over his future early in Pep Guardiola's reign. But Aguero remains City's indisputable No 1 striker. These days nobody would dare suggest he is slowing down.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN and URUGUAY | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 10
While Cavani has played a secondary role to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar during his time at PSG, he showed what he could do at the 2018 World Cup. Indeed, if Cavani was not injured, Uruguay might have upset France to reach the semifinals. With a career tally topping 300, he deserves appreciation and applause.
BARCELONA and URUGUAY | Age: 31 | 2017 Rank: 2
There are those who think that, for sheer street smarts as well as ability with the ball, Suarez should top this list. Those two sumptuous dummies that set Lionel Messi free to destroy Tottenham in October were cases in point. Suarez has been integral to the early stages of Barcelona's title defence, defeating Real Madrid with a hat trick in October, and he has looked as sharp as ever in Messi's injury-enforced absence.
BAYERN MUNICH and POLAND | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: 1
Last year's No. 1, Lewandowski still deserves praise. The goals have come at regular intervals, although there is the regret that he failed to make an impact on Poland's World Cup campaign. Lewandowski sought -- and failed -- to secure a move to Real Madrid over the past year, and given that Bayern have been far from their usual dominant selves, he'll remain even more valuable to his club's cause.
MANCHESTER UNITED and BELGIUM | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: 7
Lukaku splits punters down the middle. To one side, he is a marvel: a 25-year-old who will soon close in on 200 career goals. To the other, he doesn't score enough when it matters most or have much feel for the game. But the bigger picture is that the Belgian, who scored four times in the World Cup, is a first-rate operator on the cusp of his peak years.
ATLETICO MADRID and SPAIN | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Back in the top 10 after a year away, Costa has struggled to rediscover his form during his second spell at Atletico Madrid. He did, however, score the goal that sent them into the Europa League final and put in one of the best centre-forward performances of the 2018 World Cup in Spain's 3-3 draw with Portugal. As Atletico's manager says, Costa is still "extraordinary."
JUVENTUS and CROATIA | Age: 32 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Mandzukic has spent much of his career as the foil to bigger names, so it was heartening to see him make a splash at the World Cup. His extra-time winner in the semifinal against England was perhaps the greatest moment in Croatian football history, and he even scored an opportunistic consolation in the final. At 32, Mandzukic continues to be Juventus's quiet star while Cristiano Ronaldo makes the headlines.
MILAN and ARGENTINA | Age: 30 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Juventus essentially shipped out Higuain on loan to AC Milan to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo. But the Argentinean made a decent enough start with the Rossoneri and, despite a poor performance in November against his parent club during which he missed a penalty and was sent off, he remains a top-class finisher.
INTER MILAN and ARGENTINA | Age: 25 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Inter Milan have a phenomenon on their hands and, belatedly, the world appears to be catching on. A new entry to this list, Icardi, 25, has over 100 Serie A goals to his name, and while he hasn't had much success with Argentina, his Champions League exploits are convincing doubters. A searing volleyed winner at home against Tottenham and late equaliser against Barcelona are prime examples of his talent.
Football can be chaos, but top managers are able to see the bigger picture and won't panic when Plan A doesn't work. After all, they've got Plans B, C and D. Top coaches can ease their big-ego, big-talent squads through the emotional ups and downs while keeping everyone happy, harmonious and fully committed to the cause.
MANCHESTER CITY | Age: 47 | 2017 Rank: 3
The stats to Manchester City's 2017-18 title-winning campaign reveal Guardiola's brilliance: biggest title-winning margin (19 points) and first top-flight side to finish with 100 points are two of many examples. Guardiola creates teams for whom control is everything, and no English side has ever run games with the authority and style of his irresistible City unit.
LIVERPOOL | Age: 51 | 2016 Rank: N/R
Klopp creates football teams that you simply cannot ignore. Liverpool's scintillating run to the Champions League final bore all the affable German's hallmarks -- high-tempo pressing, commitment to attack and relentless energy -- and this season he has made his side more balanced with an improved defence and an ability to win "ugly." All that's left is for Klopp to finally win a trophy, or the league, with Liverpool.
ATLETICO MADRID | Age: 48 | 2017 Rank: 4
"El Cholo" snarls, cajoles and, after kicking every ball from the sidelines, usually comes out on top. He's one of the longest-serving managers at one club at the top level, joining Atletico in 2011. Last season, he guided Atletico to a runners-up finish in La Liga and a third Europa League win (second for Simeone). Expectations may have risen, but Simeone continues to exceed them.
JUVENTUS | Age: 51 | 2017 Rank: 6
Juventus keep on winning under Allegri. He has brought them four Serie A titles in as many seasons. It is little surprise, then, that he has won Italy's "Golden Bench" award four times. The big task now? Allegri must transfer that domestic success to Europe: Juve have twice finished as Champions League runners-up on Allegri's watch, and going one better would confirm his status as one of the modern greats.
CHELSEA | Age: 59 | 2017 Rank: N/R
It was reasonable to wonder whether Sarri, a 59-year-old late developer who was leaving Italy to coach abroad for the first time, was a risky appointment by Chelsea. Nobody tends to voice that concern now. He has turned a team that struggled during the latter days of Antonio Conte into a fluent, vibrant side that may yet sustain a title challenge.
FRANCE | Age: 50 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Deschamps was not especially popular during the first half of 2018. Critics claimed he was not making the most of France's lavishly talented squad. Early performances in Russia did little to dispel that impression, but eventually, Deschamps created a secure, stable team that packed a punch when it sprang forward. Funny how winning a World Cup can silence even the most vociferous critics.
TOTTENHAM | Age: 46 | 2017 Rank: 8
The extent of Pochettino's outstanding work at Spurs is often underestimated, but plaudits seem particularly appropriate this year. Despite the confusion of a delayed stadium move and a barren transfer window, Pochettino has ensured Spurs remain on course for a fourth consecutive top-four finish, though there remains one glaring omission on his Tottenham CV: a trophy. Will this be the season?
NAPOLI | Age: 59 | 2017 Rank: 9
Ancelotti is a master of arriving in new surroundings, adapting quickly and creating a successful team. He's doing it again with Napoli, last season's Serie A runners-up, even if the swashbuckling approach of his predecessor, Sarri, is not quite his way. Ancelotti wants the southern club to win titles and perhaps has a point to prove after being sacked by Bayern Munich.
BRAZIL | Age: 57 | 2017 Rank: N/R
The wily Tite has made Brazil a team their country can feel proud of again, although there is a tinge of regret that he could not take them further in Russia, where they lost to Belgium in the quarterfinals. Tite faces more pressure to succeed on home soil at next year's Copa America, a challenge that will not faze this masterful tactician.
PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN | Age: 45 | 2017 Rank: N/R
Tuchel has an impossible job: If he can't win Ligue 1 by a canter with the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, he has essentially failed. Therefore, Europe is the frontier he must conquer. Tuchel, who spent a year out of management after two seasons at Dortmund, will be judged on how PSG fare in the Champions League, and his brand of sleek, attack-minded football should see them challenge this year.