Throughout the history of European football, there have been a number of world class performers who have broken the rules, played with class and, most importantly of all, been successful in their field. Whether it be Napoli's recalcitrant Diego Maradona, the dexterous Garrincha, Hungary's sublime Nandor Hidegkuti or the Total Football maestro Johan Cruyff, a select few players have managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest from generation to generation. Some have cemented their place in the pantheon of greats, others have performed well enough to be remembered fondly by their personal admirers, while the rest of the beautiful game's neglected playmakers have slipped anonymously into the background as their peers take home all the glory.
Today, the European game is littered with talented players who have become the attacking heartbeat of their respective side. Some are veterans of the game with years and years of experience, others are young starlets, doing their utmost to emerge as the next best thing. After all, a quick glance at the times gone by underlines just how many top quality trequartistas and deep-lying playmakers have emerged from Europe and its hinterland, each and every one a reminder of just how difficult it is to be the best - as well as an inspiration as to how the impossible dream can become a reality.
With the Champions League, Europa League, Premier League, La Liga and so many other top divisions there to supply crafty dribblers and enigmatic football visionaries, it's no wonder our arenas and screens are filled with such wonderful talent. And with scouts attending matches week in, week out in search of yet more flair and skill, spectators are getting more entertainment at every twist of the season. So, it's time to begin our countdown of the top 10 playmakers in European soccer, playing today.
But who will top our list? And will there be any surprises?
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10 Kevin De Bruyne
Attracting the interests of some of the best clubs in Europe, the Vfl Wolfsburg star has really been making crashing waves since he joined the Bundesliga club in early 2014. Departing Chelsea's Stamford Bridge, an environment which had hindered his talent from reaching a wider audience for a painfully protracted period, he is finally now expressing himself with tremendous aplomb. Suppressed for too long in London, the young starlet soon departed to far more hospitable surroundings, where he quickly earned a chance to show his worth - and he's not looked back since then.
Included here due to the incredible potential that resides within as well as for his colourful, present day artistry, it's going to be exciting to see just how far he goes. Dominating the assist charts in Germany's top tier with 17, he is far and away the most creative player - superior than even Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Max Cruse; a marvellous talent already outshining most of the better known names in the sport.
9 Jetro Willems
When you think of what a playmaker is, conceptually, most people will probably think of the archetypal midfielder constructing moves, deconstructing the counter-attacks of opponents and telepathically communicating with their team-mates to produce sublime passes that unlock defences in the blink of an eye. For the most part, that description is often very true, but only for the best of the best. Moreover, defenders aren't normally the first position you think of when attacking inventors spring to mind, but PSV Eindhoven's left wing-back dynamo Jetro Willems is so good he forces us to forget about those preconceived notions when he wows us all with his brilliant creativity.
Reaching double figures in the Dutch Eredivisie's assists chart, rubbing shoulders with some of his fellow rising stars such as Anwar El Ghazi and Hakim Zyech, his effectiveness is difficult to ignore, and will likely continue to attract interest from some of the biggest clubs in football. Possessing the crafty wherewithal to cut in from the flanks as well as using his sublime close control to beat his markers to the endline before rifling in some wondrously deadly crosses, he has played a vital role in his team's rise to the summit of the league.
8 Jordan Henderson
Although many remain staunch believers that an authentic Steven Gerrard replacement can only be truly hewn from Liverpool's famous Kirkby Academy, the fact of the matter is that Jordan Henderson is making a real case for himself as a genuine heir to the Merseysider's throne. Taking the 2014-15 on its own and the 24-year-old from Sunderland clearly stands out as one of the best playmakers in the English Premier League. Indeed, he has completed the most amount of passes already this year - a total that has already surpassed 531; a huge testament to his innate ability to play accurate balls to his team-mates, link the play and continue to make the Reds a real force in the middle of the park once again.
Add these traits to his fantastic ability to score goals from distance (something he still needs to work on), as well as his penchant for leading the club in the intermittent absence of Gerrard, and it's clear that "Hendo" has what it takes to lead the club to silverware in 2016 and beyond. Do that in the FA Cup, and he will have reached an important milestone that can help him step out of the shadow of his predecessor and continue to shed light on his own unique talents and brilliant strengths.
At just 23 years of age, the future looks incredibly promising for Atletico Madrid's brightest young star, Koke. Regularly playing some five-star football for Los Rojiblancos with his leadership and flair, the majestic midfielder has become the hub of his team, growing with it ever since he began his career there as a youth product in his formative years. With such a great array of skills to dip into such as his vision, timing and persistence, it's only a matter of time before he starts to gain the widespread critical acclaim he deserves. As for the present, that's going swimmingly, too.
With 13 assists across all competitions, his orchestral movements have allowed Diego Simeone's men to remain as one of the top club's in La Liga, as well as journeying far in Europe - never an easy feat with Barcelona and Real Madrid continuing to play some superhuman football. Often defying compliments and description, his fancy footwork and personal performances in the middle of the park have captivated the imagination of many a pundit already, and will likely continue to do so well into the future - and that's saying something considering the mind-boggling talents that currently surround him.
6 Angel Di Maria
Surprise, surprise - Angel Di Maria makes our list. No doubt, many readers will be more than a little shocked to see the Argentine international make the cut considering how topsy-turvy Manchester United's season has been. That said, the ex-Real Madrid winger/attacker has made quite a number of telling contributions for the Red Devils since he has come on board, and he certainly still deserves to be regarded as one of the game's most dynamic cultivators. Combining wickedly sharp pace with an ability to ping balls wherever he likes, he remains a menace on his day.
Reaching double figures in the domestic assists chart, although he hasn't quite reached the dizzying heights of Cesc Fabregas in his stint with new club Chelsea, the man from Rosario's perseverance, direct running and cut-throat passing has made an impact whenever he's managed to use it properly. So far, then, his debut in England has seen him take time to get used to his new surroundings, but with habitual Champions League football and a regained sense of brilliance it's easy to see why he could once more be the envy of teams as he looks to move into his familiar top gear - and Louis Van Gaal would do well to take care of him in the process.
5 Andrea Pirlo
Undeniably one of the best playmakers in the world for the last number of years, Andrea Pirlo's performances have often been as eye-catching as his distinctive beard. Wherever he has gone with his show of majesty and perfection, few have been able to match him. A master of reinvention and a player who continues to live symbolically by Dylan Thomas's famous poetic refrain of raging against the dying of the light, there are little signs of his skill or endeavour dying away any time soon.
Burning as bright as ever, he refuses to give in to the demands or notions of a "peak" age. Make no mistake, he is ageing as well as the wine he has such tremendous passion for in his personal vineyards, and his exploits with Juventus in the Serie A have seen him, alongside Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez, continue to work with such a tremendously clinical beat. Long may his reign continue.
4 Eden Hazard
Throughout the 2013/14 campaign, Eden Hazard was Chelsea's main creator; a source of inspiration and results who garnered 14 league goals, the Belgium international helped the Blues push Liverpool and Manchester City all the way for the Premier League crown, but he was unable to do it all on his own. The most creative player in the division that particular season, when you consider he created more chances than anyone else with an impressive 92 shot assists, his raw talent in sparking time and space for others should have culminated in a lot more goals than it did had it not been for a lacklustre set of strikers. This season has seen an altogether different narrative crop up, however, as the pacy, flashy winger has become more anonymous in his new role as third fiddle behind Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa. That said, Hazard is among the most potent attackers in Europe right now as his nine assists in all competitions attests to, and he is even being touted as a genuine candidate for the PFA Player of the Year Award - deservedly so.
3 Cesc Fabregas
Drafted in by Chelsea at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the Spanish international was taking a big risk in some people's eyes by swapping La Liga's polished passing-happy style for the harshness of the Premier League. What's more, he was setting himself up for a mighty fall having already represented Arsenal during their final Highbury days. Regardless, he has already proven himself beyond doubt with a number of wonderful performances in the famous blue shirt. Leading the assists chart ahead of Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez and Gylfi Sigurdsson, the quixotic Spaniard is well and truly on his way to cementing his place as one of the club's true legends.
Possessing a tremendous ability to thread through-balls into the likes of Diego Costa, Loic Remy and Didier Drogba, Jose Mourinho has a really indispensable talent in his squad. Often unfazed by the brick-wall defending that many of the weaker teams tend to enact, the 27-year-old relishes the challenge by continuing to find a way through. There is no doubt that Chelsea are in need of a solid anchor to sit behind him and add an extra layer protection, but the wonderful performances he has already churned out should be enough to satisfy the fans for now.
2 Andres Iniesta
A real veteran of the game, Iniesta hasn't allowed age to get in the way of his brilliant tempo-inducing passing. While many will point to his meagre total of three assists across all competitions this season as evidence of his waning power, that would not do justice to his many years of nonchalant expertise at the top of the European game. A real conductor of the Barcelona engine room, he has worked tirelessly to maintain the image of the Blaugrana as one of the most innovative and classy sides in the world.
1 Lionel Messi
As Javier Mascherano once put it: "Everybody else who plays is controlled by football, but Messi truly controls the game. He is on another planet in terms of quality; I have not seen another player as good as him in 30 years."
Yes, indeed, Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the best playmaker on the planet today. Endowed with unrivalled skill, determination and self-belief wrapped up in flair, the Barcelona star is the veritable heartbeat of his club side. Playing some truly scintillating football in La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League, he continues to battle at the pinnacle of goal-scoring and assist charts wherever he plays - with a combined total of 60 between both columns.
Magnetising the football, the diminutive Argentine holds an effervescent ability to dazzle players of all ages and talent - something that will ensure he remains the ultimate craftsman for years to come. Cultivating pure genius at every opportunity, he sees things that others cannot and continues to imbue the game with an erudition that has ingrained itself in our minds through his many incredible passes, deceptive nutmegs and mazy dribbles, all done to benefit his team.
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