My World XI, where I try and pin down the best players in each position. I say pin down because my confidence in these evaluations varies from attack (high) to defense (moderate). I weighted my evaluation of the player in the present, and consistency over the past few seasons. Team effects are accounted for. Alternatives at each position are explained.
My most confident prediction, the front 3.
Up front you have Ronaldo, the best shot generator in the world. Still adapting to Juventus, and putting up historic shot rates even by his own standards. Also been especially involved in open play as his team needs it.
The closest challenger, Harry Kane, was a bit behind even before the injury.
Left Roaming Winger: Neymar
Neymar’s skill in open play combined with his productivity in front of goal makes him the clear left winger for me. His injury in February was unfortunate, but he’s clearly far ahead of the closest challenger.
Eden Hazard hasn’t really increased his shooting volume under Sarri, and I can’t help but feel that his productivity caps his value compared to Neymar.
Right Roaming Winger: Messi
Messi is the best player in the world. An unrivaled combination of shooting accuracy, final third passing and dribbling in tight spaces coupled with inhumane productivity. Barca’s offense barely dipped last season despite losing Neymar, playing with Paulinho and a fading Suarez. That’s Messi for you.
Mohamed Salah and Gareth Bale are distant, albeit world class, alternatives.
Deep-lying Playmaker: Toni Kroos
I think the quality of a team’s deep-lying playmaker defines possession teams’ ceilings. Kroos had been instrumental for club and country as situations around him deteriorated (Modric and structure for club, structure and meaningful ball progression for country). A defensive liability, but valuable in a variety of situations.
I had trouble picking between him and Miralem Pjanic, and ultimately chose the German for being similarly impactful but on a better offense (portability) and for longer. Sergio Busquets could be picked here as well, though club and international performances suggest Kroos’ talent translates better among different attacks, despite similar defensive constraints.
(Right) Central Midfielder: Luka Modric
His performances for club and country make him the clear cut choice here. This was his worst season since 12/13, but still remarkably impactful. Modric’s specialty is in having an all round skillset coupled with optimal decision making. Shooting, runs forward, dribbling out of presses, passing, tackling, playing right back. He did it all for club and country.
Kevin De Bruyne is a decent shout here as well, as his productivity is off the charts. I think Modric being able to bring just about anything his team needs in midfield in abundance – and more – for teams with glaring weaknesses puts him first.
Central Midfielder: N’Golo Kante
Personally, a Kante, Modric and Kroos midfield would be the best possible combo using current players. Kante isn’t a traditional destroyer. He’s more like a box to box midfielder with the output of a destroyer. Covers a LOT of space, marks nimble players everywhere, and has eliminated the weaknesses in his game. Granted, he is still a net neutral in attack, but I believe he adds the most defensive value of all players, including defenders. In fact, I would only place him behind, say, the 5 best attackers and 2 best midfielders around in terms of overall impact. In a physically taxing sport, Kante is invaluable from physical and resultantly tactical perspectives. Paul Pogba could be argued for a midfield position, and I partly chose Kante over him and even De Bruyne because Kante is the most transcendental player.
Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak
Wanted to get this one out of the way before defense.. Out of Europe’s best keepers last season, Oblak and Allison are the ones who are still at that high level. Ter Stegen was slightly below them (being able to pass helps but not sure if it’s THAT big). De Gea isn’t superhuman at the moment. I think there are multiple acceptable choices here, and my argument for Oblak was ‘made an average top 4 Spanish defense concede like a historic European defense.’ He’s been good for a while as well. But other selections can be justified.
Left Back: Marcelo
I don’t think any full back can be compared from a ball progression perspective. Marcelo has the technique and inventiveness to improve any team’s buildup and frequency of dangerous moves. He has defensive flaws, but they are exacerbated by Real Madrid’s porousness in defensive transition. His style of play regularly overwhelms teams’ right sided players. That impact is unique, and has been essential in the CL for the past few seasons.
Right Back: Kyle Walker
This was a close one between Carvajal and Walker. Carvajal is probably the superior player technically, and the more traditional full back. He’s been slightly less consistent than Walker, however, and Walker’s defensive presence and pace kills counterattacks. How much of the nature of their impact is down to role and team effects is hard to say, however, and I’d be comfortable putting Carvajal down as starter too.
Also, Dani Alves hasn’t been World XI caliber since mid 15/16. Less athletic, slightly less impactful in attack, pretty average in defense.
Center Back: Raphael Varane
Varane has demonstrated his quality at both Real Madrid, one of the tougher teams to defend for in the world, and France, a straightforward deep block. Being an athletic freak and technically sound player who has fixed his once shoddy decision making, I think Varane is the best center back in the world.
Center Back: Samuel Umtiti
This was a tough one. Sergio Ramos does well in a taxing role for Madrid. Kalidou Koulibaly and Virgil Van Djik have been phenomenal since last season, the former for a historic defense and the latter (mostly) for a legitimate Champions League contender. Overall, Umtiti has been essential at the highest level for club and country since Euro 2016. I gave him the edge but would just as easily pick any of the others.