In the first part of this year’s countdown there are six new entries; players who showed a dramatic improvement over the course of the past 12 months.
View the longlist and voting process here.
50 İlkay Gündoğan (► New Entry)
(Borussia Dortmund and Germany)
Despite missing plenty of action since suffering a back injury in August, İlkay Gündoğan’s excellent performances in the first half of 2013 completely justify his inclusion in this list.
The 23-year-old German midfielder was one of the central figures in Borussia Dortmund’s remarkable run to the 2013 Champions League final. Europe was finally taught what the Bundesliga already knew when his display over two legs against Real Madrid in the semi-final garnered universal acclaim; Gündoğan is one of the most complete midfielders in the game.
His goal in the final at Wembley against Bayern Munich was not enough to prevent Dortmund’s great rivals from capturing the European Cup, but one of Gündoğan’s final acts of 2013 was to gain a modicum of revenge in the DFL Supercup. He produced a virtuoso performance and got on the scoresheet in a 4-2 victory to condemn Pep Guardiola to defeat in his first competitive match as Munich manager.
İlkay’s rise has been rapid. Signed as a playmaker in 2011, he has managed to combine the vision and passing that come with that role with a fierce work rate and pressing game to become the influential deep-lying midfielder that we’ve watched orchestrate games against the likes of Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
It’s a testament to his ability that just six months of competitive football (discounting June and July) proved enough to earn Gündoğan a place in the top 50. If he can maintain his high standards of 2013 in the future expect him to be a fixture on such lists for six years or more.
49 Kevin Strootman (► New Entry)
(AS Roma and Holland)
Beginning his year at PSV, Strootman helped his side finish second place in the Eredivise, missing the championship by four points, although injuries meant the combative midfielder only made five appearances in 2013.
Despite this, Strootman played a huge role in the Netherlands’ Under 21 European Championship campaign as the squad captain. The 23-year-old played in three of the four games in the tournament, but his best appearance was in the semi final loss to Italy, where Strootman didn’t deserve to be on the losing side and had firm control of the midfield before a Fabio Borini goal knocked the Oranje youngsters out.
His performances for PSV and the Netherlands saw Strootman linked with several clubs before Roma signed him in a €17million deal. Questions were asked of the fee, but Strootman soon put the critics in their place as he settled straight away and has been a stand out performer in Roma’s fantastic first half of the season.
As a midfielder as adapt at tackling as intercepting and as comfortable going forward as he is staying back and in fine form, Strootman has been tipped to quickly move from Roma to a bigger club by his ex-PSV manager Dick Advocaat. 2013 has been a great year for Strootman, but if his and Roma’s form continues, 2014 could be even better.
48 Oscar (► New Entry)
(Chelsea and Brazil)
After scoring a brace on his first start for Chelsea in 2012, which included *that* goal against Juventus, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the physicality of playing regularly in England would eventually take its toll on the slight Brazilian.
However, since the turn of the year, Oscar’s improvement has been astonishing as he cemented himself as a first team regular under Andre Villas-Boas, Rafael Benitez, Roberto Di Matteo and now Jose Mourinho.
To add to his six club goals in the last four and a half months of 2012, Oscar has bagged another dozen this year, and amidst the merry-go-round of Chelsea managers he has remained one of the only consistent starters in the team. Not only has he found scoring in England somewhat easy, he has also developed a knack of scoring at vital moments, including the only goal in the Europa League away to Sparta Prague, the opener against Liverpool at Anfield and the first goal in a 2-2 draw at home against Tottenham, all of which earned important points for his side.
His international form has been no different. Oscar played in every game of Brazil’s imperious Confederations Cup campaign and made himself one of the first names on the team sheet, playing in his favoured number ten role behind Fred and Neymar. Although his performances did not reap any goals during the tournament, he has still managed to score four for the Seleção in 2013. As long as Oscar remains consistent and avoids any lengthy injuries, he can be guaranteed of a place in Big Phil Scolari’s starting XI come the World Cup in June.
47 Giorgio Chiellini (▼ 28th)
(Juventus and Italy)
There are stereotypes and there are clichés and then there is the image of a towering Italian defender, striding forwards to steal the ball from the toes of an opposition forwards, bristling with physical intent but sufficiently possessed of awareness and timing to never quite need it.
Chiellini is one such player, generally lining up this year alongside Barzagli and Bonucci to form a back three for Juventus of positional brilliance and reliability.
Indeed, at the time of writing, Juventus have gone six matches and 550 minutes without conceding at all, and Conte’s team are regarded as the only reasonable challenger to Roma for the Serie A title. Chiellini provides a robust element to this back three, policing the left side of the bianconeri’s defence with intimidating zest.
While also contributing to Juve’s superb defensive record, he also surges forwards, operating almost as a left wing-back at times, as in the recent game against Udinese where he was regularly found in the opposition penalty area as well as his own.
He is dynamic at set-pieces, both with his head and as a surprisingly elegant striker of the dead-ball, though for someone so able, he perhaps doesn’t score enough.
Chiellini is, of course, a regular in the Azzuri set-up too, and has scored for them twice in 2013, in Italy’s loss in the Confederations Cup to Brazil and their home qualifier against the Czech Republic. 2013 has seen him win the Supercoppa Italiana with Juventus and a Bronze at the Confederations Cup with Italy.
46 Xabi Alonso (▼ 19th)
(Real Madrid and Spain)
The start of the year had already seen Madrid miss out on the title and Alonso was used more in the Copa Del Rey games as Luka Modric was preferred over him in the league. The loss in the Copa Del Rey final to neighbours Atletico Madrid came as a shock for both club and player who ended the season empty-handed.
The start of the new season came as a blow for both Real Madrid and Spain as Xabi Alonso faced five months on the sidelines due to a fractured metatarsal at training with Real Madrid in early August. A change in management at Real Madrid saw Carlo Ancelotti come in with a host of new faces most notably Assier Illaramendi who was seen as a long-term replacement for the injured Xabi Alonso.
Despite being well equipped in attack, Ancelotti’s side lacked that co-ordination between the attack and the defence something neither Illaramendi nor Sami Khedira could provide.
Alonso made his return from injury as a substitute against Sevilla in an entertaining 7-3 win for the Los Blancos.
Khedira’s injury meant that Alonso got a more regular run in the side alongside Luka Modric. What has been worth noticing ever since is the fact that Madrid have not lost a game since Alonso has returned to the side, Los Blancos have only lost once this year when Alonso has featured in a game.
The Spaniard has provided that much-needed cover as the holding midfielder and has also acted as the link between the defense and the attack.
The future at Real Madrid still looks un-decided for the former Liverpool midfielder whose contract ends this summer and has been a rumoured target for both Jose Mourinho and the Anfield club.
45 Luka Modric (► New Entry)
(Real Madrid and Croatia)
Following a somewhat difficult first few months at the Santiago Bernabeu towards the back-end of last year, 2013 has seen Croatian playmaker Luka Modric stamp his class and authority on the Real Madrid midfield.
He made his first major mark with an excellent substitute appearance against Manchester United in the Champions League second round in February, scoring Madrid’s equaliser as they came from behind to win 2-1 at Old Trafford.
Since then, the former Tottenham man has gone from strength to strength, even as Madrid’s premier club have failed to add any notable trophy to their vast cabinet in 2013.
Certainly injuries to the likes of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira have helped Modric’s rise to an indispensible part of Los Blancos’ midfield, but Modric has grasped the opportunity in his preferred deep-lying creative position with both hands.
Whether under Jose Mourinho or (in particular) Carlo Ancelotti, Modric has really come to the fore.
His intelligent passing and ability to sculpt matches, providing the bullets for Madrid’s much-vaunted attackers, have made him a vital cog in the Galactico wheel, while he is always willing to receive the ball in tight situations – trusting his ability on one of world football’s grandest stages – to ease pressure on his side.
Certainly Modric doesn’t put up big assist or goal numbers, but that isn’t what he’s about. Much like Andrea Pirlo or Bastian Schweinsteiger, he’s a developer of play, someone who creates the base from which flair players can explode in the final third.
But in 2013, Luka Modric has been rather outstanding in doing just that, dictating play for the nine-time European champions.
The question marks over his move to Madrid in the summer of 2012 have now been completely eradicated and the 28-year-old has used 2013 to prove himself as one of world football’s best central schemers.
44 Michael Carrick (► New Entry)
(Manchester United and England)
Robin Van Persie won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award last season, voted for largely by fans. The team itself went a very different way. The Manchester United Players Player of the Year for 2012/2013, granted near unanimously, is proof enough that Michael Carrick has become one of the most vital parts of one of the world’s best teams.
The debate over Carrick is continuing and seemingly never-ending despite his role in five league titles, a Champions League, League Cup and Club World Cup. The rise of the statman has shown, in unmistakably clear terms, how vital Michael Carrick is to Manchester United.
Pass success rate this year, consistently in and around the 90% range. Average passes per game this year, consistently near the top of the table, in the high seventies. Accurate long passes this year, the best at the club and in the top ten in the league.
And then there is the sheer consistency, seven years of hard graft, 200 appearances 14 goals and God knows how many successfully completed passes and bossed midfields. This was none more evident in the charge towards reclaiming the title from Manchester City last season, as Carrick played the most of any United player, 36 times, as they won the league at a canter. So vital was his impact, that the men he played with were obliged to recognise it.
It’s easy to point at bad performances against Barcelona as some kind of trump card to Carrick’s overrated nature, but focusing on single games ignores his consistent offerings to the United team. When he plays, they win more tackles, they pass better, they score more, they win more. He will never be seen as United legend. But his impact is gigantic to the wellbeing of the team. Because he is one of the best.
43 David Silva (▼ 18th)
(Manchester City and Spain)
There must be a part of David Silva that considers himself born in the wrong time. Both at international level and in the Premier League, he is surrounded by an abundance of clever attacking midfielders; hobbit football kings like Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, or Santi Corzola, playmakers that move in the same quicksilver fashion. In such a climate, Silva has had to work extra hard for recognition.
At Manchester City, an imperious 12-13 season was followed by an even better start to 13-14. In October, he orchestrated Everton’s only loss of the season almost single-handed, completing more key passes in his 90 minutes than every Everton player combined.
In the season so far, he has contributed 23 key passes overall, the same number as Arsenal’s celebrated Muzut Ozil, yet Silva has missed nearly a month of the season, making his contribution even more remarkable.
Only for Spain could Silva be considered to have had an unsuccessful year, seeing as they failed to lift the Confederations Cup to go with their European and World Championship titles.
With another World Cup on the way next year, Silva can at least take solace in the fact that he is a favorite son of Vincent Del Bosque, and almost certain to start in his favored role when Los
Rojos kick off their campaign against Netherlands in Salvador on June 13 next year.
42 Thibaut Courtois (► New Entry)
(Atletico Madrid and Belgium)
At just 21, and having recently been crowned the best goalkeeper in Spain at the La Liga Awards this week, you could argue he is also the best goalkeeper outside Spain. Perhaps aside from Manuel Neuer, there are no goalkeepers in the world who are more consistent and reliable than the Belgian has been this year.
On top of his new crown in Spain, and halting Victor Valdes’ stronghold on the Ricardo Zamora trophy, the on-loan goalkeeper broke both the home and away Atleti records for minutes without conceding earlier this year, as well as keeping the most clean sheets in La Liga throughout the 2012/13 season.
Possessing a giant wingspan and being extremely agile for his height, Courtois has the physical attributes of a great ‘keeper but his concentration and consistency are what really separate him from his peers.
Helping Atletico to a third-place finish with his outstanding Liga performances, Courtois capped 2012/13 with a sensational man-of-the-match performance to secure the Copa Del Rey against city-rivals Real, breaking a 14-year hoodoo against Los Merengues.
This season has been more of the same, helping make Atleti an early title contender, and with him between the sticks Belgium are certainly a dark horse for the World Cup next year.
Perhaps the only uncertainty surrounding him is how long it will be until Chelsea decide to recall him from Spain to take Petr Cech’s number one shirt.
41 Gerard Pique (▼ 40th)
(Barcelona and Spain)
The 26-year-old has had another successful domestic year with the Catalan giants, culminating in the La Liga triumph in May. Under Tito Vilanova, Barcelona amassed an incredible 100 points in the 2012/13 season, losing just twice on their way to the title.
Javier Mascherano, Carles Puyol and rookie Marc Barta have all enjoyed spells alongside mainstay Pique, who continues to reinforce his claim to be the best defender in world football.
Remarkably, 2013 has been the first year in five that Pique has not won a major European or World trophy, with club or country. Last season, Barca were dismantled 7-0 on aggregate by eventual winners Bayern Munich in the Champions League as Pique and his defensive colleagues were powerless against the Germans.
However, he and Barca have returned even stronger this season, as they top La Liga alongside straightforward Champions League progression. He has featured in 14 of their 17 matches in all competitions, again emphasising his immeasurable worth to the club.
Disappointingly on the international stage, Spain’s 29-match unbeaten run came to a shattering end in the 3-0 Confederations Cup final defeat against Brazil. To compound his misery, Pique was shown a straight red card for bringing down club mate Neymar, as the hosts ran riot.
Vicente del Bosque will call upon the 26-year-old to play a key role in next summer’s World Cup as he aims to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive major international trophy.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 coming later this week!