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ESPN FC 100: Liverpool, Man City dominate our ranking of world's best soccer players

ESPN FC 100: Liverpool, Man City dominate our ranking of world's best soccer players


Manchester United are considering a January move for AS Roma striker Edin Dzeko after identifying the need for experienced reinforcements to the squad's attacking options, sources have told ESPN FC.

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said earlier this month that the club will only make signings in January if they can offer long-term solutions at Old Trafford.

But sources have told ESPN FC that, despite the recent form of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and the emergence of 18-year-old Mason Greenwood this season, Solskjaer is determined to add a proven goalscorer during the transfer window -- and former Manchester City striker Dzeko has moved ahead of Juventus' Mario Mandzukic on United's list of targets.

The club were close to completing a £14 million move for Mandzukic, 33, in August before shelving the deal. United have retained a tentative interest in the Croatia international, who is yet to kick a ball for Juventus this season.

Mandzukic's inactivity has prompted United to shift their focus elsewhere, however, and Dzeko, also 33, has emerged as a leading target due to his Premier League experience with City -- the Bosnia international scored 50 goals in 130 league games for the club -- and recent form with Roma, where he has netted six goals in 15 appearances so far this season.

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Ed Woodward, United's executive vice-chairman, has moved the club away from signing players in their late 20s and early 30s following disappointing investments in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Matic in recent seasons.

But with Solskjaer's forwards all in their early 20s, sources have told ESPN FC that Woodward is prepared to sanction the signing of a seasoned forward, such as Dzeko or Mandzukic, due to the potential short-term benefits of such a move.

ESPN FC 100 is back, and our annual ranking of the best men's players and managers in the world right now made something abundantly clear: Liverpool rule.

The Merseyside club took home more than a few top honors, followed by Premier League defending champions Manchester City and, oh yeah, this Average Joe who plies his trade in Barcelona. (Three guesses who that is -- and the first two don't count.) 

To compile the 2019 edition of ESPN FC 100, more than 40 ESPN FC experts from around the world were given a list of about 250 players and managers to make their selections.

Now here's the key: We didn't use one mega-list with all players mixed together -- such conceits inevitably favor attackers because everyone loves a good goal, don't they? But that isn't fair to those engaged in the dark arts at the back. So instead, we broke down the world's best players by position in a 4-3-3 formation, plus manager. Each expert then contributed their top 10 for each category: we crunched the numbers and did a final review with a select few writers.

Also new for this year: We presented the No. 1 players for each position with an FC 100 award. You can watch our presentations in the video atop this file. (And you thought emotions ran high for the Ballon d'Or.) 

Agree with our picks? Disagree? ESPN FC 100: It. Is. On. -- James Martin

Jump to: Goalkeepers | Right-back | Centre-back | Left-back | Central midfield | Attacking midfield | Wing | Forward | Striker | Manager

Previous editions of the ESPN FC 100: 2018 | 2017 | 2016

All ages as of Nov. 20, 2019

The modern goalkeeper isn't just there to stop shots. They're also the first step in building attacks; whether with a long, accurate throw or a raking cross-field pass, it's the first major evolution for the position since the "sweeper keeper" became a thing thanks to Manuel Neuer. Agility and reflexes are a given but confidence, vision and assertive play are vital too.

Player capsules by Nick Ames


Club/country: Ajax/CameroonAge: 232018 Rank: Not ranked

Ajax's fairy-tale run to the 2018-19 Champions League semifinals might not have been possible without Onana who at 23 is surely the most exciting goalkeeper in his age group. His education with the Dutch champions and, previously, Barcelona shines through in his composure on the ball and astute interpretation of the "sweeper-keeper" role.

Sharp reflexes and a commanding penalty box presence complete the package and a move to one of Europe's biggest league surely beckons before long.


Club/country: Manchester United/SpainAge: 292018 Rank: 1

United's always reliable last line of defence would probably like to be called upon rather less often, and might often wonder whether it is high time he was back in the Champions League. De Gea is far too good a goalkeeper to be mired in the Premier League's midtable places, but his focus and application for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side, who he has bailed out with marvellous stops on numerous occasions, have never wavered.

After eight years at the club, how much longer should he stick around if he is to be remembered as a true great?


Club/country: Tottenham/FranceAge: 322018 Rank: 8

It has been a troubled few months for Spurs and also for Lloris, who will not return until next year after dislocating his elbow in October's 3-0 defeat at Brighton. But when the France captain is at his best, Tottenham are too. His experience and leadership are essential, as is his range of distribution from the back.

Lloris is not immune to the occasional high-profile error, but he was resolute in helping France win the World Cup in 2018.


Club/country: Chelsea/SpainAge: 252018 Rank: Not ranked

The world's most expensive goalkeeper of all time (€80 million) has been worth every penny for Chelsea since joining from Athletic Bilbao in 2018. His time at Stamford Bridge has not been blemish-free -- there was the infamous incident during the Carabao Cup final in March, when he refused to be substituted before a penalty shootout and the Blues lost, earning him a fine -- but nobody doubts that he has grown into the role and is thriving in Frank Lampard's vibrant, rejuvenated side. (He even won the Europa League semifinal with two penalty saves to redeem his Carabao controversy.)

Agile and imposing, he still has the best years of his career ahead of him as the anchor of a youthful Chelsea team.


Club/country: Juventus/PolandAge: 292018 Rank: Not ranked

Szczesny was always mooted as a top-class goalkeeper at Arsenal and a two-year loan at Roma, but now that he is playing every week for Juventus, those predictions are coming to pass. The return of the old master, Gianluigi Buffon, has not fazed him and he is comfortably Maurizio Sarri's first choice between the posts, so much so that the club reportedly want to keep him for another five years.


Club/country: Bayern Munich/GermanyAge: 332018 Rank: 7

Neuer, 33, is still going strong for club and country. He broke Germany's clean sheet record in June with his 37th shutout, and he was instrumental in yet another league title for Bayern Munich. Neuer is one of the original "sweeper-keepers" and is not totally averse to rushes of blood; there have been lapses in form but they rarely last long, and the key theme in his career has been persistent excellence.


Club/country: Manchester City/BrazilAge: 262018 Rank: 6

No goalkeeper can spray the ball around quite like Ederson, who is utterly fundamental to the style of play Pep Guardiola has imposed at Manchester City. Some of his swift, laser-like distribution from goal kicks is a joy to watch, but he also is a master of the more traditional facets of goalkeeping, fearless and assertive in 50-50 situations and open play. He is an outstanding shot-stopper and gives a significant degree of confidence to a City defence that, badly depleted of late, has struggled to match its past two seasons of invincibility in the Premier League.


Club/country: Barcelona/GermanyAge: 272018 Rank: 5

Ter Stegen played his 200th game for Barca in October, and it goes to show how much of a fixture he has become since arriving from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2014. He has felt overworked at times this season due to injuries in Barcelona's defence, but his form has kept his team on track in the Champions League, preventing a shock against Sparta Prague and repelling a spot kick at Borussia Dortmund. While Lionel Messi & Co. get the plaudits, Ter Stegen is as important as anyone in Ernesto Valverde's ranks.


Club/country: Atletico Madrid/SloveniaAge: 262018 Rank: 2

The key to being a great goalkeeper is being consistent, and that's the best way to describe Oblak, who continues to perform with remarkable consistency for Atletico. You have to pinch yourself that the Slovenia international is still just 26. His standout attribute is perhaps the way in which he does not stand out at all: his efficient and unfussy style -- he barely makes an error -- is perfect for Diego Simeone's hardworking Atletico Madrid and perfect for the position too.


Club/country: Liverpool/BrazilAge: 272018 Rank: 4

The world's best goalkeeper according to FIFA as well as the ESPN experts, Alisson is the ideal between the posts, oozing confidence and composure with the ball in his hands or at his feet. The 27-year-old underpinned the Reds' memorable Champions League victory in his first season at the club, making big saves at vital times -- they would have been knocked out early if he hadn't denied Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik from point-blank range in the final group game -- despite being untroubled for long periods.

Alisson kept 21 Premier League clean sheets in 2018-19 and when injury sidelined him for two months early this season, it was treated as a potential disaster for the team's title hopes. That says everything about the influence he wields, and it is a similar story for Brazil, with whom he starred in last year's Copa America triumph.

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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.

Player capsules by Nick Ames


Club/country: Manchester United/EnglandAge: 212018 Rank: Not ranked

It was some vote of confidence from Manchester United when they paid £45 million this summer for the 20-year-old, who had played a relatively paltry 46 games for Crystal Palace. Wan-Bissaka still looks fairly raw at times but is a tremendous athlete whose defensive awareness has come on in leaps and bounds. He adds welcome thrust to United's attacking play down the flanks and has every chance of cementing a place among the best.


Club/country: Chelsea/SpainAge: 302018 Rank: 8

The experienced Spaniard has spent seven years at Stamford Bridge and is rejuvenated under Frank Lampard's leadership. He captains the side these days, a responsibility he relishes: witness his fist-pumping reaction he made to a goal-saving challenge in October's Champions League win at Ajax, in his 350th game for the club.


Club/country: Atletico Madrid/EnglandAge: 292018 Rank: 6

Trippier has been reborn in Spain after what was, by his own admission, a disappointing final season at Tottenham. He has embraced the culture both of Atletico and his new home country to become an instant hit at Wanda Metropolitano -- even if Diego Costa insists on calling him "Rooney."

The 29-year-old Trippier says he is enjoying his football again, having adjusted to the exhausting pace of training and conditioning; Atletico's forwards are certainly appreciating his unerringly accurate deliveries from the right too.


Club/country: Manchester City/PortugalAge: 252018 Rank: Not ranked

The summer arrival from Juventus is still finding his feet in the Premier League but is sure to become the eventual No.1 for Pep Guardiola. For now, his quality is evident when spelling Kyle Walker in the team. Guardiola has been determined to ease him into the fray and will be hopeful of reaping the rewards: although English audiences have not seen much of him yet, Cancelo is a rapid, inventive proposition who is tailor-made for the champions' possession-based style of play.


Club/country: Sao Paulo/BrazilAge: 362018 Rank: 5

Alves might be relatively out of sight this season given that he is winding down his career back home in Brazil for Sao Paulo, but that hardly makes him out of mind. His long-term body of outstanding work, as well as the fact he is still putting in all-action displays at the age of 36, make him an example to emulate at the right-back position.

Don't think Alves is finished just yet: he played in both of the Selecao's October internationals, and having enjoyed an outstanding Copa America campaign over the summer, he still has a part to play at the highest level.


Club/country: Manchester City/EnglandAge: 292018 Rank: 3

It has been a strange 12 months for Walker, who has lost his England spot to Trent Alexander-Arnold and is out of favour with manager Gareth Southgate. Perhaps he is nearing the end of his peak years, but he retains the facets that have, over the past decade, made him one of the most exciting and adventurous right-backs around. His speed and work rate on both sides of the ball set him apart from his peers, but his defining trait might well be his intensity whether in possession or hustling to win the ball back.

Furthermore, he has learned how to play here and there as a third central defender in Pep Guardiola's fluid, ever-evolving system. His incursions on the flank remain indispensable to City, and it is far too early to write him off.


Club/country: Real Madrid/SpainAge: 272018 Rank: 1

Real Madrid might not be the fearsome prospect they were earlier in the decade, but Carvajal remains one of their more consistent operators -- even if his own form has dipped at times too. Last season, he often seemed constrained under Santiago Solari, but he has been closer to his energetic, rampaging self under returning coach Zinedine Zidane in 2019-20.


Club/country: Leicester City/PortugalAge: 262018 Rank: Not ranked

Pereira was already a class act when Brendan Rodgers arrived at Leicester, but like many of his teammates, he has stepped up a gear or two since then. He has touched the ball more times than anyone else in the Foxes' side this season, no mean feat for a right-back in such a possession-focused team and a demonstration of how integral he is to all aspects of their approach.

A scintillating prospect when in full flow, the €25 million Leicester paid for him in 2018 now seem a bargain.


Club/country: Bayern Munich/GermanyAge: 242018 Rank: 2

Kimmich is a delightfully astute, smart and perceptive footballer that could operate effectively anywhere in the team. That is not a million miles from the situation at Bayern: he is comfortable at centre-back or in midfield, where he has often operated since the arrival of Benjamin Pavard.

You rarely get a bad day's work out of Kimmich, who played every single minute of Bayern Munich's Bundesliga-winning campaign in 2018-19, and he packs a punch at either end of the field. At 24, his best is still to come.


Club/country: Liverpool/EnglandAge: 212018 Rank: Not ranked

There is no more thrilling prospect in his position, and it says plenty that many onlookers believe he could have a future dictating the play in midfield. There are few better strikers of a ball than Alexander-Arnold, whose crossing and set pieces pose a huge threat. There are also few quicker thinkers in the game: witness the deft corner routine that caught Barcelona napping for Liverpool's vital fourth goal in their Champions League semifinal, second leg epic win this past spring.

He is humble to a fault despite being a key cog in the best club team of 2019, while his speed, recovery and defensive awareness add to what is fast becoming the complete package.

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Being a great central defender requires more than size, assertiveness and strength. Some of the modern greats are cultured in possession, others are the epitome of no-nonsense force. The best central defenders combine timing and power with elegance and poise under pressure.

Player capsules by Nick Ames


Club/country: Inter Milan/SlovakiaAge: 242018 Rank: Not ranked

Skriniar has emerged as one of Europe's most-coveted centre-backs. Antonio Conte and Inter will do well to hold on to him and there are good reasons why. He thrives on a central defender's primary duties: the bread and butter of winning headers, tackles and getting his angles right when chasing down opponents. He also is more than capable of creating play from deep positions.


Club/country: Atletico Madrid/UruguayAge: 242018 Rank: Not ranked

Gimenez could hardly have had a better education in defending, operating alongside his countryman Diego Godin at Atletico for five years. Now, at 24, he looks ready to carve out an identity of his own. He is an imperious, tough competitor in Godin's mould but perhaps more of an athlete, and quicker along the ground.

The sky is the limit, and a La Liga title this season is far from out of the question.


Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain/BrazilAge: 252018 Rank: Not ranked

There are few centre-backs with the all-round skill set of Marquinhos, who can slot into various other defensive and midfield positions while excelling at them all. He joined PSG six years ago as a raw but richly promising teenager, but has developed into a genuine leader and mainstay of Thomas Tuchel's team.

Another of Brazil's Copa America heroes, his place among this year's Ballon d'Or nominees is richly deserved.


Club/country: Juventus/ItalyAge: 322018 Rank: 8

Bonucci, who returned to Juve after a disastrous season at AC Milan last season, traditionally provided some of the silkier moments in Juve's no-nonsense defence despite his reputation as one of the toughest tacklers around. His range of passing from the back can be a joy to watch, and his partnership with Matthijs de Ligt, a marvellous meeting of master and apprentice, forms a fascinating centre-half duo.


Club/country: Juventus/ItalyAge: 352018 Rank: 5

Does any defender love the dark arts of defending quite as much as he does? The Juve stopper is a fiercely old-school player, an uncompromising figure who has revelled in the trenches as long as anyone can remember. Sadly his days might be numbered: he underwent surgery for an ACL injury in September and at his age, it would be a big ask to return to his best.


Club/country: Real Madrid/SpainAge: 332018 Rank: 1

Everyone's favourite pantomime villain is still going strong both for Real Madrid and Spain. Last month, he made his 168th appearance for his country, becoming La Roja's most-capped player. It's an astonishing statistic and testament to his durability and competitiveness.

The latter has manifested itself in a near-peerless mastery of the dark arts at regular intervals, but make no mistake: Ramos is a class act in every aspect of the centre-back's trade, the living embodiment of Real's run of success over the past decade.


Club/country: Manchester City/FranceAge: 252018 Rank: Not ranked

Laporte's importance to Manchester City can be summed up easily: when he picked up a long-term knee injury against Brighton in August, it was perceived as the end of their Premier League title hopes. He has quickly become a key figure at the Etihad, purring in possession while putting his body on the line when required, and his absence leaves a gaping hole in the centre-back position.

The France international has time to come back better than ever; if that is the case, City will have a Rolls-Royce of a defender on their hands.


Club/country: Juventus/NetherlandsAge: 202018 Rank: Not ranked

Juve got a close look at De Ligt when, in their Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Ajax, the 20-year-old jumped higher than everyone else to thunder in a decisive header for the Dutch underdogs. It was the bullying, crashing leap and finish of a gnarled veteran, but his defensive work is the main reason the Italians promptly signed him for €75 million in the summer.

De Ligt's strength and power are, for a 20 year-old, incredible, and his leadership skills -- showcased in a remarkably eloquent speech he gave after Ajax won the league -- are the hallmark of a talent who is mature far beyond his years.


Club/country: Napoli/SenegalAge: 282018 Rank: 9

Virtually every top side in Europe would love to sign Koulibaly, a colossus of a centre-back who was named Serie A's best defender last season. It's no wonder given his mix of speed, awareness, distribution skills and strength.

Koulibaly is one of those rare footballers who make everything look easy, and Napoli, who have underwhelmed so far this term, will do well to hang on to him much longer.


Club/country: Liverpool/NetherlandsAge: 282018 Rank: 4

There are hardly enough superlatives to describe Van Dijk's consistently imperious performances. It is virtually impossible to get the better of him, and when somebody threatens to -- witness a relatively harmless run from Arsenal's Nicolas Pepe earlier this season -- it is quickly circulated online as an item of astonishing rarity.

His transformative impact on Liverpool's back line has been confirmed by their Champions League win and near-perfect start to the 2019-20 Premier League season, as well as their one-point-from-glory effort last year too. Dutch hopes will rest heavily on him at Euro 2020.

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Top left-backs are as comfortable locking down an opposing winger as they are turning into one when their teams are in possession. Some aren't even left-footed, using their positional awareness to drift infield and be another central defender or midfielder if needed.

In the modern era, no positions touch the ball more than full-back, making the best of them simply indispensable.

Player capsules by Nick Miller


Club/country: Ajax/ArgentinaAge: 272018 Rank: Not ranked

One of the most joyous things about Ajax's run to the Champions League semifinal last season was that there often wasn't one standout individual, but a lot of perfectly fitted cogs in a gloriously entertaining machine. Tagliafico often stood out regardless, a busy and diminutive player who scurries around the pitch, being a nuisance. He also has established himself as one of the key men in the Argentine national team.


Club/country: AS Roma/SerbiaAge: 342018 Rank: Not ranked

If nothing else, you have to admire his longevity. Not so long ago, he looked like a Manchester City reject, but since his move to Roma in 2017, he has gotten better, arguably the best left-back in Serie A at various points over the past three seasons. What's most remarkable is that he is 34 and still playing in a position that often relies on athleticism. And then there's that absolutely unstoppable shot of his too.


Club/country: Benfica/PortugalAge: 242018 Rank: Not ranked

If you speak to some pundits, they will identify Benfica's Alex Grimaldo as the natural successor to Jordi Alba in Barca's left-back slot. That's partly because he started out at the Spanish giants, surprisingly sold to Benfica a couple of years ago; but he could be back sooner or later. He is a smart but ambitious left-back who makes intelligent runs both down the flanks and inside, plus he is a dab hand from the dead ball too.


Club/country: Real Madrid/FranceAge: 242018 Rank: Not ranked

At 15, Mendy's first priority was to be able to walk -- never mind play football -- after having surgery on his hip that left him in a wheelchair and required more than six months of rehabilitation. Mendy caught Real Madrid's eye last season, but he is a relatively understated player, a minor anomaly in a world where full-backs are usually most valued for their attacking. Mendy, by contrast, is an excellent defender -- a fine tackler with a keen positional sense.


Club/country: Everton/FranceAge: 262018 Rank: Not ranked

Possibly the most underrated player in the Premier League, Lucas Digne is solid in defence, but it's going forward that makes him so valuable. Last season, he created 71 chances, more than any other defender, and you get the feeling that if he were feeding some slightly more reliable attackers, people would pay him a lot more attention.


Club/country: Bayern Munich/FranceAge: 232018 Rank: 6

If you wanted a neat summation of his ability and potential, ask Diego Simeone. "The exit that hurt us the most was Lucas, a boy from the academy," he said after Hernandez left Atletico Madrid for Bayern Munich on July 1. "More than [Antoine] Griezmann." Still just 23 and already with a World Cup winner's medal to his name, Hernandez might well end up as a central defender; for now, he is simply one of the best left-backs in the world.


Club/country: Juventus/BrazilAge: 282018 Rank: 4

Juventus have changed a lot in terms of personnel and approach since Sandro signed from Porto in 2015; the sight of the Brazilian bombing up and down the flank has remained the same. The perfect modern full-back, Sandro could probably be a winger if he wanted to.


Club/country: Barcelona/SpainAge: 302018 Rank: 3

Alba has been one of Barcelona's unsung heroes ever since moving from Valencia for €14 million in 2012. The role of the full-back at the Nou Camp often doesn't involve much defending, but while Alba impresses in that role when needed, the standout element of his success is his superb on-pitch relationship with Leo Messi. It probably isn't a coincidence that Barca's indifferent form this season has come when Alba has been out with injuries.


Club/country: Bayern Munich/AustriaAge: 272018 Rank: 2

For a long time, Alaba excelled in a number of different positions, including central midfield. But he is strongest at left-back, using the skills he learned elsewhere on the field -- awareness, smartness with the ball, speed -- to arguably become the greatest left-back in Bayern's history.


Club/country: Liverpool/ScotlandAge: 252018 Rank: 8

The story is well-told, but it's still remarkable that only seven years ago Robertson was working part time in the Hampden Park ticket office while playing semiprofessionally for Queen's Park. And now he is the best left-back in the world.

Very much a case of a team and player perfectly complementing each other, Robertson's seemingly limitless energy fits Liverpool's hard-pressing style, helping both to win the Champions League in 2019.

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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 exploiting it.

Player capsules by Nick Miller

10. SAUL

Club/country: Atletico Madrid/SpainAge: 242018 Rank: Not ranked

He is one of the breed of modern player who, because of the blurring lines between the roles, is equally happy as a central defender or a midfielder. That's not the end to Saul's versatility, either: Having played on the right of midfield earlier in his career, his tenaciousness and technique are both at such a high level that he is perfectly equipped to perform in pretty much any role.


Club/country: PSG/ItalyAge: 272018 Rank: 10

Verratti is the closest thing football has seen to Andrea Pirlo since the great man retired. He has been in a constant state of flux for the past few years, with uncertainty over his future at Paris Saint-Germain overtaking his actual football. But there are many reasons why the best and wealthiest teams in the world want him. "He plays fast and simple," his manager Thomas Tuchel said recently. "He's amazing. He's an extraordinary player."


Club/country: Man City/SpainAge: 232018 Rank: Not ranked

If defensive midfielders act as a team's gatekeeper, Rodri might as well have "Thou shall not pass" stamped on his forehead. And to think he initially was discarded by Atletico Madrid as a 17-year-old in part due to a lack of physicality. A weakling no more, Rodri was bought by Manchester City this summer as their long-term replacement for Fernandinho, and he has every chance of being even better than the Brazilian.


Club/country: Juventus/Bosnia & HerzegovinaAge: 292018 Rank: Not ranked

The deep-lying playmaker is one of the trickiest roles in football to pull off, particularly when you have to compensate for a relative lack of athleticism by bringing that extra bit of skill and composure. Pjanic manages that perfectly though, all the more impressive considering he was largely an attacking midfielder and sometimes even a second striker earlier in his career. If a team can't find a role for Pjanic, it's almost certainly their problem, not his.


Club/country: Liverpool/BrazilAge: 262018 Rank: Not ranked

The Brazilian has been so brilliant for Liverpool that it's easy to forget the concern over his move in the summer of 2018: Fabinho didn't start a game for the Reds until mid-October of last season, but he has been consistently classy ever since. He is an imposing figure but plays with a subtlety and flair not normally seen in that "destroyer" holding role. Since settling at the base of Liverpool's midfield, Jurgen Klopp's side haven't lost any of the 30 starts Fabinho has made in the Premier League.


Club/country: Real Madrid/BrazilAge: 272018 Rank: 7

The thick wall of granite that has formed the basis of Real's multiple Champions League-winning sides over the past 10 years, Casemiro is theoretically the midfield destroyer that facilitates the more artistic work of Luka Modric or Toni Kroos, but he is much more than that. Always a smart distributor, Casemiro combines brain with brawn to the point that Spanish paper Marca dubbed him "The Tank."


Club/country: Manchester City/BrazilAge: 342018 Rank: Not ranked

Fernandinho could be the best pound-for-pound signing Manchester City have made in the Sheikh Mansour era. Bought when they needed a little sense in their XI after a limp 2012-13 season, Fernandinho has been a midfield nucleus around which the electrons of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne spin. His value can be most often seen in his absence: Even this season when he has been used in defence, there remains a big hole in midfield.


Club/country: Barcelona/SpainAge: 312018 Rank: 5

Busquets has been around for so long that it's difficult to believe he is only 31. Of course, the man who has been at the base of Spain and Barcelona's midfield for basically a generation is probably not far from being eased out, but his class remains clear when he does play. Every great team needs someone who can do the simple things well, and for the past decade, nobody has done that better than Busquets.


Club/country: Barcelona/NetherlandsAge: 222018 Rank: Not ranked

There are some players who make a mockery of their youth as soon as they arrive on the scene. De Jong is one of those, an imperious midfielder who looks like a grizzled 15-year veteran in a 22-year-old's body, and he has done so since day one. He will perhaps need a little time to settle at Barcelona, but such is his maturity and clarity of thinking that it feels inevitable he'll be pulling the strings in their midfield for years.


Club/country: Chelsea/FranceAge: 282018 Rank: 2

Kante is that rarest of players, a selfless contributor who seems to be in a state of perpetual motion, the sort of man you could drop into just about any team and make many times better mostly because he can fill so many different roles, often at the same time. Ask Leicester and Chelsea how they feel: He won the Premier League title in back-to-back seasons with these two teams.

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The best attacking midfielders have a sense of mischief, capable of cracking a robust defensive set with improvisation or magic. Greats make the most of their free roles to entertain, create and convert.

Player capsules by Nick Miller


Club/country: Sporting CP/PortugalAge: 252018 Rank: Not ranked

A live wire of an attacking midfielder whose forte isn't quite so much creating opportunities for others as banging them in himself, Fernandes scored a whopping 31 times from midfield last season. That's why he has caught the eye playing for Sporting and also why he could be fully entering the upper echelons of the game very soon.


Club/country: Sevilla/ArgentinaAge: 312018 Rank: Not ranked

If it's possible to have a "low key" talent in a football world that is increasingly brash and in-your-face, Banega is your man. It's always been slightly baffling that Banega, a playmaker of serious repute, has never settled at a really big club, as he is the sort of player who can bring calm to a midfield and dictate things at his pace. Perhaps that day will come, but for now, Sevilla are glad he is their metronome and not someone else's.


Club/country: Bayer Leverkusen/GermanyAge: 202018 Rank: Not ranked

Havertz has been anointed by some as a near-genius already despite being only 20 and with mere handfuls of games under his belt. "In terms of his talent, there's no limit," said Havertz's Leverkusen colleague Jonathan Tah. And Havertz will have a long time to establish himself as one of the true greats in the world.


Club/country: Atletico Madrid/SpainAge: 272018 Rank: 9

Koke has been the cornerstone in the Atleti side for the best part of a decade, playing on the right, left and centre of midfield, often all in the same game. Koke was described not long ago as "Simeone's aspirin," the man who could be relied upon to solve whatever headache was troubling the Atleti manager. "Tactically, he's extraordinary," Diego Simeone said earlier this year after a win.


Club/country: Man United/FranceAge: 262018 Rank: 4

Pogba's place on this list is hard to figure out: He is easily one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the game, but debate rages over how much, or how little, he puts his talent to good use. The other question: Does he make teams better? Regardless of which side you take, his progress since leaving United for Juventus is undeniable. So is his World Cup winner's medal as the anchor of that French midfield.


Club/country: Tottenham/DenmarkAge: 272018 Rank: 5

If Eriksen's time at Tottenham really is coming to an end -- he is out of contract at the end of 2019-20 -- then these will be the last days of an extraordinary player in North London. He carries himself like a languid, aloof creator but has a fearsome engine and has pressed and ran with the best of them under Mauricio Pochettino. The compelling question is whether he would fit so neatly at another club and recreate his finest form away from the team that have grown around him.


Club/country: Man City/SpainAge: 332018 Rank: 3

The old master, a player of such supreme guile and subtlety who has been delighting Premier League fans for a decade, Silva has announced that he will be leaving City at the end of this season. That's a shame for those of us who appreciate the finer things in football but terrific news for easily baffled defenders. "You can play a good season, but he's done it for 10 seasons, it is almost incredible," Pep Guardiola said recently.


Club/country: Ajax/NetherlandsAge: 222018 Rank: Not ranked

One of the biggest surprises over the summer was that Ajax managed to keep hold of Van de Beek as the richest clubs in the world circled for his signature. But keep him they did, and he hasn't lost his mojo in the wake of the exits of Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong to Juventus and Barcelona, respectively. If anything, he has continued to prove why he is one of the most promising midfielders in the world. "Many players have grown, and Van de Beek is the best example of this," Ronald Koeman said of the next great Ajax star.


Club/country: Man City/BelgiumAge: 282018 Rank: 1

De Bruyne's troubled 2018-19, in which he played just 19 of 38 league games due to complications around a knee injury, served as a period of rest and reflection, helping him get ready for a 2019-20 season that has seen him get back to his best. Probably the best and most decisive passer of the ball in the world, as well as a formidable physical presence, De Bruyne is part footballer, part act of god.


Club/country: Man City/PortugalAge: 252018 Rank: 7

If ever there was a player you could use to measure the influence of Pep Guardiola, it's Bernardo Silva. The man many thought was just another flighty wide player when City signed him became a relentless midfield presser under Guardiola, while crucially losing none of his skill and creativity. "Right now it's Bernardo and 10 more players," Guardiola said earlier this year. Who are we to argue?

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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.

Player capsules by Tom Williams


Club/country: Gremio/BrazilAge: 232018 Rank: Not ranked

In an age when discovering new players at major international tournaments can feel like a thing of the past, Everton Soares turned back the clock by inspiring Brazil to victory at the Copa America. The chief beneficiary of Neymar's absence, the impish Gremio wide man known as "The Little Onion" ("Cebolinha") played his way into Tite's side with some dazzling group-stage displays and ended up with the tournament's golden boot.


Club/country: Manchester City/GermanyAge: 232018 Rank: 2

The knee injury that struck Sane in August came at a cruel time for the former Schalke winger: He finally had won a place in Germany's first XI and was being strongly linked with a big-money move to Bayern Munich. His goal against Liverpool in January gave City a crucial win on the path to the Premier League title. And when he is fit and on song, weaving past challenges on the left flank, there are few finer sights in the sport.


Club/country: Ajax/BrazilAge: 222018 Rank: Not ranked

With memorable goals against Real Madrid and Juventus, Neres was one of the revelations of Ajax's run to last season's Champions League semifinals. As accomplished a creator as he is a scorer, the pacy wide man was not an automatic pick in the first half of last season; but by the end of the campaign, he had played his way into both the Ajax first XI and Brazil's triumphant Copa America squad.


Club/country: PSG/ArgentinaAge: 312018 Rank: Not ranked

PSG coach Thomas Tuchel always makes a point of mentioning Di Maria in the same breath as Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani. It's easy to see why: The 31-year-old finished last season like a runaway train, and he has picked up where he left off this campaign, with the undoubted highlight being his brilliant brace against former club Real Madrid in PSG's Champions League opener.


Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/GermanyAge: 302018 Rank: 9

After two seasons scarred by injuries, Reus was back to his best in the 2018-19 campaign, leading from the front with 17 goals as Lucien Favre's youthful Borussia Dortmund side pushed Bayern Munich all the way in the Bundesliga title race. Reus, 30, retains the trust of national coach Joachim Low, who has made the versatile forward a central figure in his new-look Germany team.


Club/country: Tottenham Hotspur/South KoreaAge: 272018 Rank: Not ranked

Son was one of the key figures in Tottenham's run to last season's Champions League final, with a crucial goal against Borussia Dortmund in the last-16 and a decisive treble across two legs in the quarterfinal win over Manchester City. The South Korea star is the paradigm of the modern attacker -- quick, two-footed, industrious and tactically flexible -- and his cheery personality has made him one of the Premier League's most widely admired players.


Club/country: Borussia Dortmund/EnglandAge: 192018 Rank: Not ranked

A walking YouTube highlight reel, Sancho has become the most exciting teenager in world football thanks to an astonishing breakthrough season at Dortmund in which he scored 12 goals and registered a league-leading 14 assists. Lightning quick with jaw-dropping technique with the ball and blessed with seemingly limitless self-belief, the 19-year-old England international possesses all the tools required for a long and successful career.


Club/country: Real Madrid/BelgiumAge: 282018 Rank: 4 (forward)

He might have made a slow start to life at Real Madrid, but Hazard remains one of the most dazzlingly effective attacking players in the game. Seven seasons of consistent brilliance at Chelsea earned him his €100 million switch to the Bernabeu. And when he does start firing in goals and racking up assists in Spain, chances are he won't stop.


Club/country: Liverpool/SenegalAge: 272018 Rank: 1

The 2018-19 season marked the final phase in Mane's development from support act to leading man, with his 22 Premier League goals for Liverpool earning him a share of the Golden Boot. He also was a standout performer in the Champions League, notably scoring the goals against Bayern Munich that took Jurgen Klopp's side into the quarterfinals. Devastatingly quick, two-footed, hardworking and a dead-eyed finisher, he is every full-back's worst nightmare.


Club/country: Manchester City/EnglandAge: 242018 Rank: 3

With 25 goals and 18 assists in all competitions last season, Sterling played a starring role in Manchester City's unprecedented treble of domestic trophies. He is transferring that form to the international stage, with 10 goals and eight assists in his past 10 England appearances. Success with City in the Champions League and a strong showing with England at Euro 2020 could put him in the Ballon d'Or conversation.

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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.

Player capsules by Tom Williams


Club/country: Ajax/SerbiaAge: 302018 Rank: Not ranked

For all the quality he showed in his four years at Southampton, few people could have predicted the extraordinary impact Tadic would have in his first season at Ajax. The Serbia international amassed 38 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, crowned by his virtuoso display in Ajax's 4-1 win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League round of 16 last season. A devastating alliance of elegance and creativity, it was a performance for the ages.


Club/country: Atletico Madrid/PortugalAge: 202018 Rank: Not ranked

In the space of a year, Felix has gone from a promising teenager on the fringes of the Benfica first team to the world's third-most expensive footballer and the sport's most talked-about young player. His move to Atletico Madrid in 2019 could hardly have come with more pressure -- a €126 million price tag and the responsibility of replacing Antoine Griezmann -- but the willowy, goal-scoring playmaker has been quick to find his feet. Expect him to soon replace Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal's leader too. Not bad for a kid who only just turned 20.


Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain/BrazilAge: 272018 Rank: 6

The year 2019 will go down as the worst of Neymar's career, with an injury that ruled him out of Brazil's triumph at the Copa America and a thwarted attempt to return to Barcelona. Off the field, he faced criticism for public appearances with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and faced a rape case in court that was ultimately dropped. But when he has made it onto the pitch, he has repeatedly demonstrated that he remains an all-world talent in the game even if he seems to be more trouble than he is worth.


Club/country: Arsenal/GabonAge: 302018 Rank: Not ranked

Amid testing times at the Emirates Stadium, Aubameyang has been the source of solace for despondent Arsenal fans, finishing his first full season at the club by jointly winning the Premier League Golden Boot. Rapid, versatile and a lethal finisher, the good-natured Gabon international has thrived whether playing in a wide role or through the middle. Equally, his recent appointment as club captain is testament to his bond with teammates and fans alike.


Club/country: Barcelona/FranceAge: 282018 Rank: 5

After a five-year spell at Atletico Madrid during which he established himself as one of the world's standout forwards, Griezmann finally made his long-awaited move to Barcelona in 2019. His work rate, tactical intelligence and eye for goal prompted Barca to shell out €120 million for his services. But the Frenchman faces a challenge to impose himself at Camp Nou. Considering how he has won previous battles at Atletico and with Les Bleus to adapt his game, we'd bet on him striking the right balance for his new team soon enough.


Club/country: Liverpool/BrazilAge: 282018 Rank: 9

Firmino is never discussed in the context of Liverpool's most valuable players, but his all-round skill set is peerless in the Premier League. He continues to act as the detonator for Jurgen Klopp's famed pressing game, serving as an aggressive defender when the Reds are not in possession, and he has elevated his game in attack. Some of the touches he has produced this season -- the back-heel assist for Mohamed Salah against Newcastle, the rabona pass against Genk -- were the work of a creative, confident creator.


Club/country: Liverpool/EgyptAge: 272018 Rank: 7

We knew Salah had the talent, but it took his move to Liverpool to really connect the dots and bring out his best. He keeps on delivering too: His extraordinary 44-goal debut campaign at Liverpool in 2017-18 led some pundits to say he was "struggling" in 2018-19 despite inspiring his team to Champions League glory, scoring 27 goals in all competitions and claiming a share of the Premier League Golden Boot. His physical stature, speed, close control and style of play make the Lionel Messi comparisons inevitable, but with Salah, they don't feel out of place.


Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain/FranceAge: 202018 Rank: 3

Following his glory with France at the 2018 World Cup, the 2018-19 season saw Mbappe's development into a football phenomenon hit warp speed. Only Lionel Messi was able to better his tally of 39 goals in all competitions. And as his recent 22-minute hat trick against Club Brugge in the Champions League demonstrated, Mbappe is firmly on track to inherit the Barcelona genius' mantle as the world's outstanding footballer.


Club/country: Juventus/PortugalAge: 342018 Rank: 2

Ronaldo's first season at Juventus could scarcely have gone any better, as he won the Scudetto, becoming the first player to win league titles in England, Spain and Italy. He followed it up by leading hosts Portugal to glory in the UEFA Nations League in the summer, and he recently took his tally of career goals past 700. Granted extra freedom on the pitch by Juve coach Maurizio Sarri, the 34-year-old superstar shows few signs of slowing down.


Club/country: Barcelona/ArgentinaAge: 322018 Rank: 1

The past year has not been a complete bed of roses for Messi -- Champions League heartbreak at Anfield, yet more Copa America misery with Argentina -- but he has been characteristically magisterial in Spain, winning a (club-record) 10th La Liga title, a 600th Barcelona goal (and counting), a (record-equalling) sixth Pichichi Trophy given to Spain's top scorer and a (record) sixth European Golden Shoe. He also has taken his tally of free-kick goals past 50, cementing his reputation -- on top of everything else -- as the finest set-piece specialist of his era.

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Around the penalty area, the striker is king. The "classic" No. 9 (a bit of a dying breed) 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.

Player capsules by Tom Williams


Club/country: Sampdoria/ItalyAge: 362018 Rank: Not ranked

Long considered a scorer of great goals rather than a great scorer, Quagliarella flipped that assertion on its head last season by streaking to Italy's Capocannoniere (top scorer) award with a return of 26 goals from 37 games with Sampdoria. The 36-year-old's performances earned him a first Italy call-up in nearly nine years, and he duly set a new record as the Azzurri's oldest-ever scorer. Next objective: Euro 2020.


Club/country: unattached/SwedenAge: 382018 Rank: Not ranked

Ibrahimovic's claim to have "conquered" Major League Soccer might not stand up to scrutiny given his failure to win any team honours, but he continued to impress in Year Two. Take the sublime taekwondo volley with which he scored his 500th career goal or the hat trick to beat rivals LAFC in late-July. It wasn't all covered in glory -- witness his numerous sneering remarks about MLS, the two-game suspension for grabbing NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson by the neck and the elbow that fractured LAFC defender Mohamed El-Munir's cheek -- but his two-year stint in the States was box office from start to finish.


Club/country: Arsenal/FranceAge: 282018 Rank: Not ranked

He might not share his Arsenal strike partner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's blistering pace, but Lacazette possesses plenty of his own qualities, including remarkable physical strength, wonderfully soft feet, a strong work ethic and a vicious shot. The former Lyon man has a handy knack for scoring goals at vital moments. The only wonder is that he doesn't feature more regularly for France.


Club/country: Atalanta/ColombiaAge: 282018 Rank: Not ranked

Having never scored more than 11 goals in his five previous Serie A seasons, Zapata became a goal machine last term, scoring 23 times to propel Atalanta to a stunning third-place finish and first-ever appearance in the Champions League. The explosive, live-wire striker on a two-year loan from Sampdoria has picked up where he left off this season, and with three goals in his past seven Colombia appearances, he also looks increasingly like the long-term successor to Radamel Falcao.


Club/country: Paris Saint-Germain/UruguayAge: 322018 Rank: 3

Though hampered by injuries, Cavani played a central role in PSG's Ligue 1 success last season with 18 goals in 21 appearances. Out of contract next year and resigned to a substitute's role thanks to the recent form of Mauro Icardi, in Paris on a season-long loan, Cavani's days at Parc des Princes might be numbered. If and when he does leave, the 32-year-old will depart as PSG's record scorer and a beloved player in the club's history.


Club/country: Barcelona/UruguayAge: 322018 Rank: 4

Barcelona's Champions League exit at Liverpool will have been doubly painful for Suarez, whose antics over the two legs of the semifinal saw him angrily criticized by the very supporters who once sang his name. Even so, he ended the season with 25 goals and a fourth La Liga title to his name. Although he will turn 33 in January, he remains one of the hardiest and wiliest penalty-box predators in the game.


Club/country: Real Madrid/FranceAge: 312018 Rank: Not ranked

Freed from the responsibility of having to do Ronaldo's grunt work for Madrid, Benzema has produced the best football of his career over the past 18 months. He reached 30 goals in all competitions for only the second time in his Real career last season, and he has continued in the same vein this term. Were it not for his ongoing standoff with Didier Deschamps, he would surely be starring for France, as well.


Club/country: Bayern Munich/PolandAge: 312018 Rank: 5

After reaching 40 goals in four consecutive seasons with Bayern Munich, Lewandowski could have been forgiven for easing off a bit. Instead, he has gone up a gear, scoring in every single club match he has played in to date this season and rewriting the record books along the way. Tall, strong, quick, agile and blessed with quick feet and a vast array of finishes, he is a study in ruthless efficiency around goal.


Club/country: Tottenham Hotspur/EnglandAge: 262018 Rank: 1

How differently might last season's Champions League final have turned out had Tottenham been able to call upon a fully fit Kane? A talisman for both club and country, he was only prevented from reaching 20 Premier League goals for a fifth successive season by an ankle injury that struck him down in April. In addition to his aerial prowess and pinpoint finishing, Kane's passing ability is without peer among the world's elite centre-forwards.


Club/country: Manchester City/ArgentinaAge: 312018 Rank: 2

Aguero is often overlooked when individual prizes are handed out, but the milestones he has reached this year reflect his consistent brilliance since arriving in England back in 2011. Last season, he became the second player after Thierry Henry to score 20-plus goals in five successive Premier League seasons, and he also equalled Alan Shearer's record of 11 hat tricks in the Premier League era. Form is temporary; class is permanent.

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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.

Manager capsules by Tom Williams


Club: JuventusAge: 602018 Rank: 5

The chain-smoking, tracksuit-wearing Sarri wasn't a natural choice to take charge of a slick, image-conscious and globally aspiring Juventus brand, but the appointment of such a bold, attack-minded coach reflected a desire for the team's style of football to be lifted to the next level. The former Napoli coach ended a difficult season at Chelsea with a Europa League triumph, proving his talent, and for all the concerns about his suitability, he has hit the ground running in Turin.


Country: Algeria national teamAge: 432018 Rank: Not ranked

Few football nations have craved international success as much as Algeria in recent decades, so Belmadi's role in steering Les Fennecs to win the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations turned him into a national icon. The Paris-born coach instilled some much-needed discipline behind the scenes, and for all of Riyad Mahrez's match-winning flourishes, it was an ability to win ugly that carried Algeria to victory.


Club: River PlateAge: 432018 Rank: Not ranked

Gallardo's achievements in his five-year tenure at River Plate have turned him into the most successful coach in the club's history. The former Argentina playmaker has led the Buenos Aires giants to two Copa Libertadores triumphs, and he can further cement his legacy when Los Millonarios defend their title against Flamengo in the 2019 final on Saturday. Though he has previously dismissed talk of a move to Europe, he will not be short of admirers.


Club: NapoliAge: 602018 Rank: 8

Owner of the most famous raised eyebrow in football, Ancelotti ensured a smooth transition to Napoli's post-Sarri era by leading the club to a comfortable second-place finish behind Juventus in Serie A. The Partenopei are well off the pace this season, however, and amid tensions between players, fans and volatile club president Aurelio De Laurentiis, Ancelotti's renowned powers of diplomacy face a serious test.


Club: UnattachedAge: 522018 Rank: 5

After five consecutive Serie A successes with Juventus (and an unprecedented four consecutive league and Coppa Italia doubles), Allegri took a well-earned sabbatical in 2019. His Juve side tended to evoke awe and begrudging admiration given their success together, and there are few coaches who come with a sturdier guarantee of success. Linked with Arsenal, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, the former AC Milan coach is unlikely to be out of the game for long.


Club: Atletico MadridAge: 492018 Rank: 3

Eight years after first arriving, Simeone continues to keep Atletico's punching above their weight, having guided his side to a second-place finish last season behind Barcelona and above Real Madrid. The summer brought major upheaval -- Griezmann, Diego Godin, Rodri and Hernandez out, with €126 million record signing Joao Felix coming in. While his new players still need time to adapt, moulding this new-look Atletico into a less direct but equally effective side -- they deserved more than a draw against Real in the first derby of the season -- would be his greatest achievement.


Club: UnattachedAge: 472018 Rank: 7

His failure to win a trophy with Spurs continues to cling to him, but Pochettino's feat of steering his under-resourced club to a first-ever Champions League final was nothing less than a minor miracle. A skilled man-manager and an exemplary exponent of front-foot, high-pressing football, the Argentinian presided over a (perhaps inevitable) post-final slump this season that saw him sacked by Spurs on Tuesday. His stock, however, remains high, and it won't be long until Pochettino is back in the dugout of a top, top club.


Club: AjaxAge: 492018 Rank: Not ranked

How Erik ten Hag must curse Lucas Moura. The Ajax coach was one swish of the Tottenham winger's left boot away from becoming the first man to lead the Amsterdam giants into a Champions League final since 1996. Nevertheless, the way his adventurous young team laid waste to the continent's superpowers -- eliminating Real Madrid and Juventus in the knockout stages -- established him as one of Europe's top coaches.


Club: Manchester CityAge: 482018 Rank: 1

Having won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019 while taking 197 points from a possible 228, Guardiola's City must go down as the most dominant team in the history of the English top flight. He has conquered England but has slipped a little this season given defeats to Norwich City and Liverpool as well as a home draw with Spurs. It might take winning the Champions League for Guardiola's fourth season at the Etihad Stadium to be considered a success. Yet you wouldn't bet against him.


Club: LiverpoolAge: 522018 Rank: 2

Klopp joined the pantheon of Liverpool managerial greats -- and ended his own dismal run of results in major finals -- by leading the club to a sixth European Cup in 2019. But the thing that sets him above his peers is the way he has instilled his Reds team with the absolute belief that they can win any game under any circumstance. They play with the same relentlessness that always has been Klopp's trademark, but they have become tougher, smarter and more multifaceted this season. Liverpool have collected points in their past five league games with goals in the final 20 minutes, coming from behind in three of those contests. This year really might be their year.

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