The 2021 Ballon d’Or well and truly got the awards season underway as football fans start to reflect on the past year in the beautiful game.
Lionel Messi and Alexia Putellas took home the main prizes at the glitzy gala in Paris, while the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Gianluigi Donnaruma were also garlanded for their 2021 achievements.
However, as supporters who were outraged by the Ballon d’Or results will be quick to tell you, France Football’s premier competition is by no means the one and only individual prize to go by.
Best male players in 2021
FIFA’s ‘The Best’ awards will take place on January 17 and we’ll be producing our own top 100 players later in the year, but now attentions have turned to the last edition of the ‘ESPN FC 100’.
For the sixth consecutive year, ESPN have counted down the 100 finest male players and coaches of the year with a unique ranking that looks at the top-performing footballers across each position.
Chelsea 1-1 Man Utd Match Reaction (Football Terrace)
Their century of top performers in 2021 is broken down into goalkeepers, right-backs, centre-backs, left-backs, central midfielders, attacking midfielders, wingers, forwards, strikers and managers.
It’s a fascinating approach that helps to eliminate the sort of bias towards more attacking players that we so often see in top individual prizes such as the Ballon d’Or.
And with more than 77 ESPN experts having informed the rankings with a self-proclaimed focus on a “what have you done for me lately?” approach, the final results make for gripping reading.
Top 10 players in each major position
So, without further ado, be sure to check out who ESPN consider to be the top 10 male players in each major position, as well as coaches for good measure, across 2021 down below:
10. Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain)
9. Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa)
8. Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)
7. Edouard Mendy (Chelsea)
6. Ederson (Manchester City)
5. Alisson Becker (Liverpool)
4. Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid)
3. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
2. Gianluigi Donnarumma (Paris Saint-Germain)
1. Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)
Very interesting. While Donnarumma might have bagged the Yashin Trophy on the back of being named as Euro 2020’s best player, ESPN have given the nod to Atletico’s shot-stopper in chief.
To be fair, Oblak does have an underrated claim to the throne on the back of a fifth Ricardo Zamora Trophy in four seasons, but truth be told, we’re more perturbed by Kasper Schmeichel’s absence…
10. Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich)
9. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea)
8. Denzel Dumfries (Inter Milan)
7. Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)
6. Jesus Navas (Sevilla)
5. Kyle Walker (Manchester City)
4. Reece James (Chelsea)
3. Joao Cancelo (Manchester City)
2. Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
1. Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Just look at the bonkers amount of English talent at right-back. You could speak for hours down the pub about the order in which Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, James and Walker should be placed alone.
But no matter how you order the Three Lions’ quartet of top-class defenders, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Hakimi wasn’t the year’s leading right-back having conquered Italy with Inter Milan.
10. Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)
9. Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
8. Thiago Silva (Chelsea)
7. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
6. David Alaba (Real Madrid)
5. Antonio Rudiger (Chelsea)
4. Raphael Varane (Manchester United)
3. Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
2. Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain)
1. Ruben Dias (Manchester City)
It’s simply scandalous that Dias was only placed in 26th at the Ballon d’Or because voters seemed to forget that he was the Premier League and Champions League’s best defender last season.
So, kudos to ESPN for giving him due props, even if we think that Chiellini finishing above Van Dijk – who is presumably penalised because of injuries – is somewhat extreme regardless of his Euro 2020 heroics.
10. Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
9. Ferland Mendy (Real Madrid)
8. Robin Gosens (Atalanta)
7. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)
6. Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund)
5. Jordi Alba (Barcelona)
4. Leonardo Spinazzola (AS Roma)
3. Theo Hernandez (AC Milan)
2. Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
1. Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
It seems pretty harsh that Shaw only ranks in 10th when there’s a genuine argument to be had that the United stalwart has been the world’s leading left-back in 2021 despite his recent troubles.
Having produced three assists at Euro 2020 and a goal in the final, Shaw built on a superb 2020/21 season at Old Trafford to more than warrant breathing down Robertson’s neck in terms of this year in isolation.
10. Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona)
9. Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)
8. Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
7. Pedri (Barcelona)
6. Casemiro (Real Madrid)
5. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)
4. Nicolo Barella (Inter Milan)
3. Jorginho (Chelsea)
2. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)
1. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea)
Yup, sorry Jorginho, but despite holding the distinction of winning both the Champions League and Euro 2020, it’s almost a moot argument to claim that you’ve been 2021’s number one midfielder.
His partner in crime, however, more than fits the bill because Kante was virtually omnipotent in the final stages of Europe’s premier competition and it takes something special to finish above Kimmich.
10. Tomas Soucek (West Ham United)
9. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria)
8. Lucas Paqueta (Lyon)
7. Bernardo Silva (Manchester City)
6. Mason Mount (Chelsea)
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
4. Phil Foden (Manchester City)
3. Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
2. Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)
1. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
A tricky category, this, because as much as it feels charitable at first glance to give De Bruyne the gold medal, the decision makes a lot more sense as you work your way back down the list.
Silva has been superb so far this season, Pogba was unplayable at Euro 2020 and Fernandes was a goal contribution machine in 2020/21, but none of them could quite match De Bruyne’s 2021 zenith.
10. Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain)
9. Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City)
8. Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad)
7. Jack Grealish (Manchester City)
6. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)
5. Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)
4. Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
3. Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)
2. Federico Chiesa (Juventus)
1. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
We love Sterling as much as the next football fan because he truly is world-class on his day, but third seems a little ham-fisted in our eyes when you consider his inconsistent form outside of Euro 2020.
That being said, it was probably a little too late in the day for Vinicius’ outrageous start to the new season to threaten the podium, even if we’d probably argue that he should be placed above Gnabry.
10. Gerard Moreno (Villarreal)
9. Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
8. Kai Havertz (Chelsea)
7. Memphis Depay (Barcelona)
6. Son Heung-Min (Tottenham Hotspur)
5. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
4. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
3. Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
1. Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Should this have been a category unto itself? Perhaps not because there’s an argument to be had that Salah should be a winger if Mane is and that Mbappe and Ronaldo are largely centre forwards.
But enough splitting hairs because this is most certainly a star-studded cohort and without the presence of a certain Polish goalscoring machine, you have to say that Messi deserves top spot.
10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (AC Milan)
9. Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad)
8. Ciro Immobile (Lazio)
7. Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan)
6. Luis Suarez (Atletico Madrid)
5. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
4. Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
3. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
2. Erling Braut Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
1. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
A little like the Ballon d’Or ceremony itself, Lewandowski finds himself lifting silverware by way of being crowned as the world’s best striker even if you don’t consider him to be leading player, period.
It’s probably a tad generous to place Haaland above Benzema, who has been an unstoppable force in 2021, but it’s great to see Kane and Lukaku getting the credit they deserve despite mixed 2021/22 seasons so far.
10. Hansi Flick (Germany)
9. Lionel Scaloni (Argentina)
8. Unai Emery (Villarreal)
7. Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid)
6. Julian Nagelsmann (Bayern Munich)
5. Antonio Conte (Tottenham Hotspur)
4. Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)
3. Roberto Mancini (Italy)
2. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
1. Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea)
Well, well, well. It’s clear that ESPN have been wooed by Chelsea’s Champions League triumph and strong start to the Premier League season by heralding Tuchel as the finest coach in the business.
Admittedly, we still think that Guardiola is the top of the pile, but the moral of the story is that the Premier League really does have the sport’s best coaches right now regardless of how you order them.
What changes would you make?
It’s fair to say there are plenty of decisions and orders to be debated there!
Naturally, ranking individual players is ultimately an impossible task even if you break things down to specific positions, so it’s inevitable that any exercise like this will be greeted with controversy.
However, as they say, football is a game of opinions and if we all sat on the fence every single time, then there simply wouldn’t be any fun in admiring and comparing our favourite footballers.
So, be sure to let us know your own thoughts on the best performers of 2021 across our various social channels as we gear up to produce our very own list in the coming weeks. Wish us luck…