Choosing the 100 best players at the 2018 World Cup is a darn near impossible task. It’s an excruciating exercise. But it’s an exhilarating one. And that’s why we’ve decided to undertake it.
It is, of course, silly to compare goalkeepers to holding midfielders and fullbacks to strikers. But the idea here is to assess players based on their effectiveness, present-day value, and impact on a hypothetical match. This is not a transfer market index. It’s about contemporary quality. The best players, right now. One hundred of ’em.
But there’s plenty in that back half to dig into. So go on. Immerse yourselves. And be sure to direct all complaints to @HenryBushnell on Twitter.
100. Jordan Henderson, M, England/Liverpool
Connects the dots for both club and country from the base of midfield.
99. Marco Reus, M, Germany/Borussia Dortmund
Reus, in his early-mid-20s, was one of the best playmakers in Europe. Then injuries took their toll, and seemed to have dashed his World Cup dreams. But he’s fit again, and firing goals again. Most importantly, he’s on the plane to Russia. Finally. He might not be the player he once was, but his technical ability wins him a place in this top 100.
98. Fred, M, Brazil/Shakhtar Donetsk
The 25-year-old would get in any starting midfield in the world … except Brazil’s and a few others. Widely expected to complete an expensive move to Manchester United soon.
97. Ivan Perisic, M, Croatia/Inter Milan
Not flashy, always productive as both goalscorer and creator from the wing.
96. Medhi Benatia, D, Morocco/Juventus
Has bounced between superclubs, and in and out of first-choice 11s. When he’s in, he’s almost always rock-solid.
95. Granit Xhaka, M, Switzerland/Arsenal
Has been exposed far too often at Arsenal, but that’s more about the players around him and the Gunners’ system than anything else. He’s Switzerland’s main man.
94. Vincent Kompany, D, Belgium/Manchester City
Injury after injury chipped away at his quality, so much so that, just eight months ago, his shelf-life as a top-quality center back seemed to have expired. But a run of good health enabled a late-season mini-resurgence at City.
93. Marco Asensio, M, Spain/Real Madrid
At 22, has all the promise in the world, but not yet regular playing time at Real Madrid, nor with Spain. Expect him to be manager Julen Lopetegui’s most-used option off the bench.
92. Thiago Silva, D, Brazil/PSG
The 33-year-old is undoubtedly past his prime, but has seemingly reclaimed a starting center back spot for Brazil. At the very least, he’s in contention.
91. Jose Maria Gimenez, D, Uruguay/Atletico Madrid
You could argue a different Atletico defender – Lucas Hernandez – belongs on this list ahead of him. But Gimenez, even at just 23, already has an extensive track record. And it’s an impressive one. It would not be a surprise if he creeps into the top 50 of this list come 2022.
90. Hugo Lloris, G, France/Tottenham
Might be coming off his worst season yet at Spurs – especially the latter half of it. But the French captain remains a top athlete and shot-stopper.
89. Eric Dier, D/M, England/Tottenham
Dier is oftentimes unexceptional, but his versatility – he can play anywhere across a back three, or as a holding midfielder – is a major bonus.
88. Paulinho, M, Brazil/Barcelona
Became an afterthought when he left Tottenham for Guangzhou Evergrande. Two years later, returned to Europe for thrice the price and became a key cog for new-look, defensive-minded Barcelona. All the while, he was a fixture for Brazil as a classic No. 8.
87. Leon Goretzka, M, Germany/Schalke
Is on his way to Bayern Munich this summer. Likely won’t get in the German team, but don’t let his absence obscure his talent.
86. Julian Draxler, M, Germany/PSG
Valued more by national team boss Joachim Low than he has been at PSG. Could start on Germany’s left, especially with Leroy Sane out of the picture.
85. Benjamin Mendy, D, France/Manchester City
Was the most exciting of City’s three fullback signings before tearing his ACL in September. He’s recovered in time to make France’s 23, and could start on the left of defense. He absolutely would have if not for the injury.
84. Keylor Navas, G, Costa Rica/Real Madrid
Got his big move to Madrid on the back of a standout 2014 World Cup. Has never quite lived up to unfairly lofty expectations, but has been very, very good.
83. Nicolas Otamendi, D, Argentina/Manchester City
Had the best season of his career in 2017-18 at Manchester City. Is excellent on the ball. But how much of his club success is a product of Pep Guardiola’s tutelage and City’s system? Tough to know. Argentina’s defensive record throughout qualifying, however, would suggest Otamendi is the real deal.
82. Angel Di Maria, M, Argentina/PSG
At his best, he’s a relentless, two-way force on the wing. At his worst, he’s precisely the type of player who turns an attack featuring Lionel Messi into a frustratingly inept one.
81. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, M, Serbia/Lazio
The skill, especially at 6-foot-3, is indisputable. But he’s still more promise than production at this point. (That’s not to say the 23-year-old can’t become one of the world’s best goal-scoring midfielders. He’s just not there yet.)
80. Cesar Azpilicueta, D, Spain/Chelsea
So unheralded. So consistent. So versatile.
79. Iago Aspas, F, Spain/Celta Vigo
Once a Liverpool flop, now a La Liga superstar. He’s improved steadily since returning to Celta. His age 30 season was the best of his career, and his 22 goals – fourth behind Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez – should put him in contention to start for Spain up top.
78. Son Heung-Min, F, South Korea/Tottenham
It wasn’t necessarily a breakout, but Son’s 2017-18 campaign was his best yet at Spurs. He’s steadily improving, and developing into one of the Premier League’s best wide forwards. Unfortunately he has no help at international level.
77. Blaise Matuidi, M, France/Juventus
Has valiantly resisted the type of decline that typically strikes players like him at age 31.
76. Douglas Costa, M, Brazil/Juventus
Stuck behind Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Willian on the Brazilian wing depth chart.
75. Nemanja Matic, M, Serbia/Manchester United
Was the steadying force at the base of Chelsea’s title-winning midfield. Then became the one man – player or coach – nobody complained about at United.
74. Toby Alderweireld, D, Belgium/Tottenham
Fell out of favor this past season at Spurs after two years as one of the Premier League’s top center backs. Was his persistent absence due to injury? Or an ongoing contract stalemate? Or physical decline? Eighteen months ago, the now-29-year-old would have been in the top 50 of this list. He might still belong there. Or he might not belong in the top 100 at all. We just don’t know.
73. Thomas Lemar, M, France/Monaco
After being on the brink of an Arsenal move, regressed sharply in his third season at Monaco. Was his 2016-17 production a bit fluky? We’ll see what French manager Didier Deschamps thinks.
72. Saul Niguez, M, Spain/Atletico Madrid
The perfect combination of feisty and skilled. Played two seasons with a severe kidney problem, during which he “pissed blood” after every game and training session. He finally got the kidney removed, and has continued his ascent. Safe to say he’s been through a lot for a 23-year-old.
71. Marquinhos, D, Brazil/PSG
By most accounts, the better of PSG’s two Brazilian center backs. Tite’s account was one of them throughout qualifying. But Marquinhos may have been usurped by his club teammate, Thiago Silva.
70. Florian Thauvin, M/F, France/Marseille
Yes, this is the same Florian Thauvin that couldn’t cut it at Newcastle. He had a stunning season in Ligue 1, and there aren’t too many reasons to suspect it wasn’t legit.
69. Willian, M, Brazil/Chelsea
Has struggled for regular playing time with both club and country. But we’ve gradually realized he’s a top talent with the work rate to match it.
68. Jerome Boateng, D, Germany/Bayern Munich
On the back half of his career parabola … but how far past the peak? The 29-year-old battled injuries this past season, so it’s tough to know.
67. Thibaut Courtois, G, Belgium/Chelsea
Might not have been at the top of his game this past season, but his lanky 6-foot-6 frame smothers so many shots and crosses.
66. Diego Godin, D, Uruguay/Atletico Madrid
At 32, the Uruguayan central defensive mainstay is still awesome. But how much of his club success over the past four years is a product of Diego Simeone’s system and the players around him?
65. Joao Miranda, D, Brazil/Inter Milan
Has seemingly gotten better with age, and has been integral for both club and country.
64. Nabil Fekir, M, France/Lyon
Had a true breakout season at Lyon. He’s versatile, and at 24 seems ripe for a move to England.
63. Ederson, G, Brazil/Manchester City
Some of City’s backroom staff reportedly hadn’t even heard of Ederson when Pep Guardiola first recommended him as a signing. A year later, he’s the prototype for a modern keeper: long, athletic and brave with the foot skills of a deep-lying playmaker. But he probably won’t see the field in Russia, because …
62. Alisson, G, Brazil/Roma
Alisson seems to have the No. 1 jersey to himself. So if Tite says he’s better than Ederson, who are we to disagree with the Brazilian boss?
61. Kalidou Koulibaly, D, Senegal/Napoli
Powerful and athletic, the 26-year-old has excelled in a system that’s not exactly designed to protect center backs.
60. Koke, M, Spain/Atletico Madrid
Is in with a shout for one of three spots in Spain’s stacked midfield.
59. Sami Khedira, M, Germany/Juventus
Khedira’s midfield engine doesn’t hum like it once did, but he’s added goals to his game at Juventus. His nine this past season were a career-high. He and Ilkay Gundogan should split time in a central role next to Toni Kroos.
58. Gonzalo Higuain, F, Argentina/Juventus
He’s a goal-scorer and not much else. But, of course, there’s value in that. He’s scored 122 of ’em at club level since that nightmarish 2014 World Cup final. He’s on the decline, but might start up top for Argentina.
57. Bernardo Silva, M, Portugal/Manchester City
Took about a half-season to adjust to the pace of the Premier League. Once he did, he was wonderful. The pertinent World Cup question is whether Portugal will unleash him.
56. Romelu Lukaku, F, Belgium/Manchester United
One of those players whose reputation is a victim of fans wanting him to be something he’s not. His first season at United was an up-and-down one, but an overall successful one. The games the Red Devils played without him proved that point.
55. Roberto Firmino, F, Brazil/Liverpool
Firmino is the anti-Higuain. He’s a striker, but as much a facilitator as a finisher. His movement, passing and pressing are the qualities that separate him from most peers.
54. Ivan Rakitic, M, Croatia/Barcelona
Overshadowed by Luka Modric on the national team and Andres Iniesta (among others) at Barca. And to some extent, rightly so. But Rakitic is a great technician in his own right.
53. Dele Alli, M, England/Tottenham
Added a considerable amount of playmaking to his repertoire this past season. And that’ll come in handy as one of England’s dual 8s.
52. Samuel Umtiti, D, France/Barcelona
A 24-year-old physical specimen who is occasionally a victim of his own aggressiveness. But more often than not, he’s simply an outstanding ball-winner and ball-player.
51. Kyle Walker, D, England/Manchester City
Many thought City overpaid when they made a 27-year-old Walker the most expensive defender ever. Walker has since proven himself worth the price. He’ll play on the right side of a back three for England, rather than as a fullback or wingback.
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