Some clichés just refuse to go away. After all, they are by their very nature seared into the minds of men and women. Perhaps they are tiresome, despite being profound at their first, generally unrecorded, utterance. Clichés exist for a reason, however – because they can so aptly summarize consensus when applied the proper way.
Form is temporary, but class is permanent, as they say. For football, it’s the equivalent of a political pundit declaring that an upcoming election will come down to voter turnout. The idea on the surface is remarkably simple, but descending into the Hades-equivalent underworld of clichés, maybe Charon can ferry us across the proverbial River Styx and on to a deeper level of meaning. In football terms, that is.
Take a look at Bas Dost, whose name has been splashed across form charts over the past month or so. Just before Christmas, the Wolfsburg striker sat humbly on two goal for the season in all competitions. Surely, it was disappointing. Some 10 weeks later, Dost’s name is up in lights. Scoring 14 goals in nine matches will have that effect. He may indeed be the most in-form striker on the planet at present. But is he one of the 25 best players in world football in the here and now? Quite simply, no. What Dost lacks is that intangible factor that keeps a footballer amongst the elite, even when he’s not averaging an absurd 1.6 goals per match.
Yet of course, this method must work both ways. Even those of the most prodigious ilk can’t affect proceedings from the treatment table – apologies, Philipp Lahm. And even the most scintillating of talents can be held back by mismanagement and an environment lacking the magic it once had – accept this complimentary fruit basket as a consolation, Angel Di Maria.
There’s a fine balance to determining who the top 25 players in football are at any given moment – a narrow line with class on one side, and form on the other. Because football isn’t necessarily a fair contest. It’s a funny old game, as Jimmy Greaves once said. How’s that for a cliché?
*All Stats taken from ESPNFC.com
25 Leonardo Bonucci
What happens when one of the brightest young central defenders around begins to devolve into a mistake-prone, nervous character? Typically, the trajectory continues downward. But it hasn’t in Leo Bonucci’s case. On the back of two disappointing campaigns in a row, the Italian has undergone a meteoric rise this term even while adapting to a back four. That he’s done so while the typically reliable Giorgio Chiellini has been something of a liability has been all the more impressive. His passing range, big-game mentality and patience in the challenge have all been on full display, lifting Bonucci to a height he was always expected to reach at the age of 27.
24 David de Gea
When a goalkeeper is a side’s most consistent performer, that side has a problem. Albeit, less of a problem than they would have if said goalkeeper were not in such stunning form. The fact that Manchester United sit fourth in the Premier League despite playing less than inspiring football under Louis van Gaal is largely attributable to David de Gea. Van Gaal’s defense has been notoriously leaky this term and often leaves the Spaniard exposed, but his superb reflexes have salvaged results time and time again for the Old Trafford outfit. It’s no wonder why United are scrambling to tie de Gea down to a new contract- without him, they simply wouldn’t be where they are now.
23 Carlos Tevez
Rebirth is real in football, just ask Carlos Tevez. The Argentine was so disillusioned with football in his final days that he considered retirement, only to have rediscovered his fire in Italy. With 15 goals and seven assists in Serie A thus far, he has Juventus marching towards a fourth straight Scudetto. Where Tevez’s impact has been worth its weight in gold has been the Champions League, as he broke a duck dating back to the 2008-09 season in September, scoring five crucial goals in the competition.
22 Thiago Silva
Niggling injuries have kept Thiago Silva from seeing maximum minutes this term, but that doesn’t mean his powers at the back have necessarily waned. Few central defenders possess the unique mix of power, pace, finesse and raw intelligence that the Brazilian can count on, and his prowess has been vital for PSG, with the attack not firing at full capacity this term. Les Parisiens have conceded just five times on the last eight occasions Silva has started, and his health and form are quite possibly the most important elements for PSG to maintain if they are to come away with silverware in the close season.
21 David Alaba
What do you call a two-footed menace packed with pace, guile, authority beyond his 22 years of age and a supercomputer for a footballing brain? David Alaba. It would almost be doing the Austrian a disservice to classify him by a position at this point, considering that he’s played as a left-back, central defender, holding midfielder and central midfielder – all in one season. Alaba missed about six weeks of the season himself with injury but has been essential to the cause with Philipp Lahm out long-term – and those are big shoes to fill. His class can be adequately summarized by his superb free-kick against Eintracht Braunschweig in the DFB-Pokal on March 4th. It was truly a sight to see.
20 Kevin De Bruyne
Remember poor, omitted Bas Dost? He has something of a secret weapon – a secret Belgian weapon. Okay, a high-profile Belgian weapon – named Kevin De Bruyne. The 23-year-old certainly wants Chelsea to regret ever giving up on him, and he’s done a hell of a job making the Blues rue their choice this term. An incredible 15 assists have come from De Bruyne’s boots, with eight goals in tow. Just last week he created three of Wolfsburg’s five goals in an epic thriller against Werder Bremen – Bas Dost was the beneficiary of De Bruyne’s immaculate service twice. Whoever futilely hopes to contain the lurking shark that is De Bruyne at present is going to need a bigger boat.
19 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
When the mighty Swede’s playing career comes to an end, perhaps he will consider taking up the task of being a maker of lists. And considering his reputation for egomania, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ibrahimovic place himself in the number one spot of each of his registers – no matter the topic. For the time being, he plays on. Injuries have limited his playing time this term, knocking him back from the heights Ibrahimovic believes he deserves, but he of course remains a formidable force with 15 goals across all competitions. Perhaps now he can kick on and grab an important goal to help Paris Saint-Germain past Chelsea in the Champions League?
18 David Silva
He’s a magician, David Silva, the man everyone at Manchester City looks at when a moment of inspiration is desperately needed. On March 4th, he passed the 10 league goal mark for the first time in his career, striking the winner against Leicester to help keep the Citizens’ hopes of retaining the Premier League title intact. His exploits in front of goal have been essential in a season in which Yaya Toure’s production has dropped off precipitously and Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko haven’t done the business. Perhaps his teammates – aside from Sergio Aguero – are guilty of wasting much of his creative output, as a 2.5 key pass per game average has so far translated into just three assists.
17 Paul Pogba
He’s the one that everybody wants – and the one that Juventus still can’t believe their luck that they were able to sign him for free. Paul Pogba needs no introduction at this point, a combination of his outrageous hairstyles and tenacious play giving him all the notoriety he needs. The opening stages of the current campaign didn’t see the best of the 21-year-old, who was coming off of his first World Cup under a new head coach in Turin. That all changed quickly, however, as Pogba clicked into top gear around October and hasn’t looked back since. Juventus will have a true battle on their hands to keep him once the summer rolls around, as his excellent form of late has only served as further bait for the circling vultures.
16 Nemanja Matic
Chelsea have a real-life Lifetime movie in progress at Stamford Bridge. Only once Nemanja Matic was gone did the Blues realize what they’d had – and the stage was set for the reunion of the two former lovers when the Serbian was brought back last January. You shall not pass is the motto of the 26-year-old in the center of the park, as it’s he who keeps Jose Mourinho’s side solid and instantly becomes a menace once in possession. The League Cup victory over Tottenham was far more difficult than Chelsea would have liked with Matic suspended for exploding on Burnley’s Ashley Barnes – highlighting just how essential he is for a dominant Chelsea side to fire on all cylinders.
15 Alexis Sanchez
The marriage between Alexis Sanchez and Barcelona always felt a tainted one in some regard. After bursting onto the scene at Udinese and being pried away by the Blaugrana to be Lionel Messi’s sidekick, the Chilean could never quite do right in the eyes of Cules. Even 19 goals and 10 assists weren’t enough to prove himself. Arsenal certainly appreciated his talent and it took almost no time at all for Alexis to take matters at the Emirates by the scruff of the neck. In north London, the 26-year-old has shown himself to be a cut above, keeping a largely underperforming side afloat in confirming his top-level quality.
Did anyone genuinely think the former Santos starlet would fizzle out after arriving on European shores? Perhaps those that did didn’t properly weigh up the value of developing alongside a luminary at the level of Lionel Messi. Adding Luis Suarez to the mix has only solidified the Barcelona attacking ranks, giving the Brazilian another wonderful foil to play off of. The result has been 30 goals in 37 appearances across all competitions. Intriguingly enough, the less selfish streak Neymar has shown in his second season at the Camp Nou has seen far greater personal success for him, already far outpacing last term’s output.
13 Thibaut Courtois
Spending three brilliant seasons out on loan starring for a side that conquered nearly everything is one way to kick start a career. Returning to a parent club to usurp a legend’s place in the side and concretely join the world’s elite could only be the next logical step. Such is exactly what Thibaut Courtois has done. The Belgian has conceded the second-least goals among Premier League goalkeepers with 20 or more appearances this term. Furthermore, he’s yet to fluff a claim yet – a perfect 87 for 87 to date in this regard. It’s only onwards and upwards from here for Courtois.
12 Cesc Fabregas
The Spaniard is in some regard a tragic figure, but he’s certainly not out there looking for sympathy. Discarded by Barcelona after earlier making a triumphant return from Arsenal, Gunners fans too were given a cause to shun Fabregas when he joined Chelsea in the summer. The midfielder didn’t seem to be bothered. He’s integrated seamlessly at Stamford Bridge and stands as the top provider across Europe’s top five leagues with 15 assists, alongside Kevin De Bruyne. Only five players have ever topped that tally in the England’s first division – and Fabregas still has 11 games to add to it. Take that, haters.
11 Diego Godin
For a player who has accomplished so much in the past few years, Diego Godin may be one of the most criminally underrated players in Europe. One of the driving forces behind Atletico Madrid’s unlikely title charge last term, the 29-year-old had no intentions of leaving for new pastures and has carried his form over. Los Colchoneros sit seven points of the pace this time around but Godin has kept them in the hunt, with just 22 league goals conceded to date. Godin has been at the heart of things as Atletico twice blanked Real Madrid twice over the past two months. The Uruguayan currently leads La Liga defenders in aerial duels won and sits eighth in interceptions.
10 Eden Hazard
What’s in a name? Read absent of its native pronunciation, Eden Hazard’s says quite a bit about exactly what type of player he is. But even beyond his considerable attacking qualities, the Belgian continues to grow as a more complete player under Jose Mourinho. The arrival of Diego Costa has also acted to release some of the burden on the 24-year-old to both create and score, but Hazard has still done both at an impressive clip this term. And Hazard has done it all while performing breathlessly for Chelsea – from late January to early March, the ex-Lille man played a full 90 minutes in seven consecutive fixtures.
9 Thomas Muller
The German is the point where industriousness and technical excellence meet, the symbol of everything that the current crop of his countryman strive to be. Of all the wonderful talents Pep Guardiola inherited at Bayern Munich, perhaps it is Thomas Muller who best encapsulates what the Spaniard demands from his men. Muller seems to fit like a glove wherever he is deployed across Guardiola’s tactical experiments, whether it be in a creative role, as a center forward or out wide. Twelve goals and eight assists across Bundesliga and Champions League action this term speak to that.
8 Sergio Aguero
Long before there was Diego Costa coming out of Atletico Madrid to take the Premier League by storm, there was Sergio Aguero. And the Argentine is still out there wreaking havoc, only 26. Hardly a more consistent striker could be found, as Aguero rarely goes more than a game at a time without having a hand in a goal. In January, four appearances passed without Aguero doing the business, only for him to return with a vengeance. Four goals and two assists have followed in his last six games, as Aguero can never be held down for long.
7 Gareth Bale
One doesn’t simply waltz into Real Madrid and absorb the rays of sun reserved for Cristiano Ronaldo. Gareth Bale has found the secret to not doing exactly that – coexisting with the Portuguese and offering augmenting play to that of his mate in attack. Even when he isn’t scoring – Bale’s numbers are far less gaudy than last term – his pace and trickery give opposing defenders no respite. The Welshman has carried Los Blancos when his team-mates have been off the pace, most notably when Ronaldo received a red card for some petty behavior in January against Cordoba. Perhaps Bale the leader is now emerging.
6 Luis Suarez
Morally dubious and a repeat offender – a psychologist’s notes on Luis Suarez would be something else to have glance over. Upon making his return to the pitch following the third biting incident of his controversial career, no shortage of critics wanted to see the Uruguayan fail in Blaugrana. And the complete lack of any goals in La Liga by mid-December was the perfect thing for his detractors to sink their teeth into. But since netting for the first time in the Spanish top flight against Cordoba on December 20, Suarez has only four times failed to pick up a goal or assist in each appearance across all competitions. Settling into a new role in which he’s not the main man was always going to take time.
5 Manuel Neuer
Goalkeepers have always been a bit, let’s say, different. Fabien Barthez was living proof of that, making a carnival out of a position that requires a great amount of stationary concentration. And Manuel Neuer has done one better. The German didn’t invent the idea of a ‘sweeper keeper’, nor has he necessarily revolutionized the role, as some have claimed. What Neuer can claim, however, is to be the most complete goalkeeper there is. Daring as he is tall, even more skilled than he is confident, Neuer is as unique – and as brilliant – as footballers come.
4 Diego Costa
Is there anything more terrifying than a striker who is built like a central defender, meaner than Pietro Vierchowod and as precise as the science of alchemy was flawed? Jose Mourinho craved a figure up front like Costa last season at Stamford Bridge, and hardly has a more perfect match ever been made. The Brazilian-turned-Spaniard took Chelsea from title contenders to outright favorites with his ability, wasting no time in banging in seven goals in his first four Premier League matches. That rate has dropped off significantly as the campaign has progressed, but never bet against a player as hell-bent on overcoming opponents as Costa.
3 Arjen Robben
The top of his head gleams in the sunlight. He possesses the uncanny ability to fling himself to the floor with limbs akimbo. That continually successful tendency of his to cut inside on his left foot is nearly infuriating. There are any number of knocks on Arjen Robben that can be culled up from the dirt – but hardly any continue to be better than the Dutchman at what he does. In the month of February, seven goals and four assists only rubber-stamped his credentials. An average of 4.7 dribbles per game didn’t hurt, either. The polls may be overwhelmingly negative on his character, but that’s not what counts in the end.
2 Cristiano Ronaldo
The Portuguese grew weary of standing in the shadow of a man of far less physical stature than he. Recharging his powers, he proceeded to plunder La Liga and the Champions League for 30 goals and nine assists in the months leading up to January. Along came the Ballon d’Or, his second in succession, accompanied by an odd celebratory roar. Since, Ronaldo’s furious pace has slowed, even if all others would struggle to keep up with it. That is, except for his one equal, who has risen to step back out in front as the top footballer the world over.
1 Lionel Messi
Some kings lose the plot when somebody tries to pull the crown from their noggin, while others keep it firmly atop their head the only way they know how. Lionel Messi hasn’t been the same since his injury last season, they said. The force of losing out on the World Cup crushed Messi, they said. Cristiano Ronaldo’s prying of a second straight Ballon d’Or from the Argentine’s fingers signaled the end of an era, they said. Messi spoke with his feet. 17 goals and 12 assists since the winter break saw him silence the masses. Take that to the bank.