Football is back. Wahay!
As all of Europe’s “Top 5” leagues have resumed play, we look now to keep up with the actions of the very best players in the leagues. As the next weekend approaches, we will go over the weekend (or in this, case the weekends) that was, with player power rankings.
To be clear, while this power ranking will take it into account both matchdays in equal measure, future power rankings will have larger recency bias, as is the nature of a ‘power’ ranking. It is very form-based.
10. Bryan Cristante (AS Roma)
Bryan Cristante was touted as one of the best defensive midfield prospects in the world a few years ago, and while his development hasn’t exactly followed the trajectory he was thought to be capable of, he is still a class player. Roma faced US Salernitana in a game that saw them create many chances but the forwards failed to finish — Nicolò Zaniolo in particular missing quite a few key chances early on.
However, Cristante scored with a slightly deflected effort from outside the box on his weaker foot. On top of this, Cristante was the key to Roma’s defense and ball progression, as his partner in central midfield — Lorenzo Pellegrini — acted as more of an advanced midfielder, akin to the 10 role he was employed in occasionally last season.
9. Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich)
It would not be hyperbolic of me to say that Bayern Munich look like the best team in Europe right now, and Benjamin Pavard has become a key component of the Bayern Munich machine. A goal in the DFL-Supercup against RB Leipzig as well as on the opening day in the Bundesliga against Eintracht Frankfurt have shown he is not a limited player going forward as has been the general consensus, but he has also backed it up with solid defensive performances.
Often dropping in line with the centre-backs to form a back three, Pavard has shown great defensive instincts and especially an improved tackling technique, one that has seen him dispossess or block attackers in multiple key situations. Going forward, Pavard has often sad wide offering a safer option to the attackers in the middle, but when an attacker drifted wide to the right Pavard was always quick to react by inverting into the middle. What has been extremely improved in particular are Bayern’s set piece play and specifically Pavard’s set piece positioning. Both of Pavard’s goals have come near set pieces: a corner on the Bundesliga opening day, and a few seconds after a corner fizzled out in the DFL-Supercup.
8. Dusan Vlahovic (Juventus)
An honourable mention must go to Ángel di María who scored his first ever goal for Juventus on his debut against Sassuolo, roughly catching an Alex Sandro cross on the volley before it bounced over Andrea Consigli in goal, as well as assisting Dusan Vlahovic with a deflected through ball for the third goal of the game.
Vlahovic caused Sassuolo problems throughout the game, seamlessly transitioning from the role of target man number 9 to second striker in response to di María’s position on the pitch at any given time. His first would come after a beautiful ball from Alex Sandro found Vlahovic with just centre-back Gianmarco Ferrari between him and the goalkeeper, and the centre-back would foul Vlahovic inside the box only for Vlahovic to convert the penalty. His second would come from an aforementioned di María through ball after Sassuolo cheaply gave away possession in their own defensive third. It seems the big Serb is hitting his stride once again after a relatively cold end to the 2021/22 season.
7. Michael Gregoritsch (SC Freiburg)
The Austrian attacking midfielder Michael Gregoritsch had shown massive potential not too long ago at SC Augsburg, but injuries and falling out of favour with newer managers would see him become lost in the fold. However, now re-purposed as a striker at new club SC Freiburg, Gregoritsch has had an explosive start to the season.
On the opening weekend of the Bundesliga against former club Augsburg, Gregoritsch would open the scoring with a fantastic glancing header from a Kiliann Sildilla cross, and later in the game a lovely cushioned header from Gregoritsch on the left flank would set up fellow debutant Matthias Ginter who would swing it home with what looks to be his knee for Freiburg’s third goal of the game. On the second matchday against Borussia Dortmund, Freiburg would fall 1-3 but not before a Gregoritsch goal assisted by Ginter, a lovely duo of headers inside the six-yard box from a frankly wonderful cross courtesy of captain Christian Günter — who has himself been extremely important to Freiburg’s play and has caused major problems so far this season.
6. Juanmi (Real Betis)
Real Betis demolished Elche after an early red card for the opposition, and Juanmi was instrumental in this demolition. Placed on the left of Betis’ front four, Juanmi would pick up a brace — special mention to Nabil Fekir for his press, tackle and insane run that set up Betis’ opening goal — the first of which came from a frankly insane touch receiving a long ball from William Carvalho, and proceeding to wriggle in between three defenders, nutmegging one and capping it off with a brilliant finish. The second goal once again showed his class, trapping a loose ball in the box before marvelously flicking it over a sliding Enzo Roco and slotting it into the back of the net.
5. Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Look, I know that ever since the absolute robbery that was the 2021 Ballon d’Or, the name “Lionel Messi” doesn’t conjure up a positive image in the minds of Bayern Munich fans, including me, but I cannot deny that he is still one of the finest players on planet Earth and is, in my opinion, the greatest footballer of all time. He is the king without a crown: that crown being the World Cup. Contrary to popular belief, Messi did not in fact have a poor season at Paris Saint-Germain. Yes, he started off slowly, but would pick up the pace very quickly, eventually ending the season with 11 goals and 14 assists to his name in 33 appearances. Not even close to his best but world class nonetheless.
Messi and former Barcelona and now PSG teammate Neymar Jr. have upped their performances in the last few months, with Messi already picking up two goals and an assist in his first two games of the season, as well as a goal in the Trophée des Champions — the French version of the DFL-Supercup — to steer PSG clear as the only team with two wins in the Ligue 1 so far. While he would not score in PSG’s 5-2 annihilation of European hopefuls HSC Montpellier last weekend, the week before that he was instrumental in the 5-0 destruction of Clermont Foot, scoring a brace and ‘assisting’ another (it really didn’t look like an assist, more like a missed control which bobbled its way to Neymar at the edge of the box, who put it in the back of the net). Of course, the peak of Messi’s season so far was his final goal in the Clermont Foot game. A frankly gorgeous ball over the top from Leandro Paredes found Messi with acres of space, and while Messi’s bicycle kick was certainly not the most rich in its technique or venom, it had its own Messi-like charm in the way it floated through the air and past Mory Diaw in goal (who I honestly think could have saved it but was just too tired mentally after having conceded four already in the night).
4. Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich)
Okay, let’s talk Jamal Musiala. The youngest player on this list, but by no means the least deserving. In fact he was the first name I thought of for this list. The German international has already had highs and lows to his career, in particular the second half of the 2020/21 season seeing him break through into the first team only for the 2021/22 season to have him play out of position and not in his favoured attacking roles, if he played at all.
This season he is already showing that he is the best young player in the world and possibly one of the best players in the world full stop. His ability to turn on a dime and beat men is unprecedented, I genuinely haven’t seen dribbling this enamouring yet simple since a certain Argentinian I mentioned not too long ago, and his end product has now caught up to his extravagant technical skills. The finishing, the ball carrying, the dribbling, the vision, what is there left for him to add to his skillset? Four goals and two assists in three games is the most goal contributions of any player in Europe barring just one, who we will get into later on.
3. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
Every time we think Kevin De Bruyne cannot get any better, he does exactly that. He is the Ship of Theseus of football, constantly re-working parts of his game to improve as a player.
Against West Ham on the opening weekend, Kevin De Bruyne had a solid game playing as basically a No. 8 allowing Ilkay Gundogan to operate between the lines, and during the second half he would find the fresh-faced Erling Haaland with one of the best through balls I think I’ve ever seen, and Haaland would gobble up the opportunity with a great driven finish. The best was yet to come as against Bournemouth, De Bruyne would be placed as a No. 10 in a front four, and would score the second goal of the game with an outrageous shot from the outside of his boot, which snaked its way between two defenders and nestled into the bottom left corner. De Bruyne would follow it up with an assist less than six minutes later, finding Phil Foden through the legs of a defender, and Foden would make no mistake in the finish. If Manchester City and De Bruyne can keep this going, Kevin De Bruyne could become a genuine contender for the 2023 Ballon d’Or (World Cup permitting).
2. Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal)
Damn, Gabriel Jesus. Damn. I’m going to put on my hipster glasses and say, “I told you so.” as I saw this coming. Jesus was on a per 90 basis, the best attacker Manchester City had that wasn’t named Phil Foden last season, and I was shocked they were letting him go, even if they had a certain Norwegian on the way. The Brazilian has had an electric start to the season.
He was quiet in terms of end product against Crystal Palace but did his job connecting the different parts of the Arsenal front four/three (I count Martin Ødegaard as a fourth attacker but I know a lot of people who watch Arsenal consistently consider him to be part of a midfield three). However, against Leicester City last weekend, he showed us just why Arsenal paid massive money for him, playing a part in all four goals: Two goals and two assists. The first goal was simply astonishing, a chipped shot that seemed to defy gravity, and the second was excellent as Jesus knew just when to take a step back to lose his marker before heading it home from the far post. Jesus would then manage to get on the end of a mistake from goalkeeper Danny Ward and lay it off to Granit Xhaka near the penalty spot, who slid it in first time, and his second assist would come from a nice pass to Gabriel Martinelli at the edge of the area, who admittedly did most of the work with a sumptuous bottom corner finish.
1. Neymar Jr. (Paris Saint-Germain)
Is this the best version of Neymar Jr. that we have seen? Is this the redemption of the irredeemable? The Holy Grail? The motivated version of the Brazilian that seems to have been non-existent for the last five years? It really seems like it.
Neymar started his season at the Trophée des Champions against FC Nantes assisting Lionel Messi early on before scoring an outrageous curling free kick eerily similar to the one he scored against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League all those years ago. He was then found by Marco Verratti and squared it to, of all people, Sergio Ramos in the box, who would bundle it at first but manage to slog it in with his heel. This already outrageous performance was topped in the dying embers of the match when Neymar would be dragged down in the box, winning a penalty which he would take and score himself. That was just the first game of the season. Against Clermont Foot on the opening weekend of the league, Neymar would finish brilliantly from the edge of the area before amassing a hat-trick of assists, the finest of which was a distant free kick that managed to spot the dome of Marquinhos and hit the back of the net. The next week against Montpellier, Neymar would arguably have scored a penalty which him and Kylian Mbappé fought over — the Brazilian’s penalty record being much more refined than that of the Frenchman — and this was proven when Neymar won a penalty and scored it himself. A deflected squared ball from Achraf Hakimi would be tricky for practically any player, but Neymar made it work with a fantastic diving header.
All of this amounted to an insane five goals and five assists in just three games, the most of any player in Europe. This is beyond Ballon d’Or-level performance. This is performance even beyond that we’ve seen from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at their peaks. This is what Neymar was always destined to be, and it is happening at the perfect time, as PSG are now more desperate than ever for a Champions League win, and the 2022 World Cup could well be the last one Neymar attends as a top performer, and be his last shot at leading Brazil to glory. As a romanticist I hope Neymar can somehow maintain this kind of form, although I must say the fact that he is doing it in a team that is.. less than spotless in its footballing philosophy is not the best look.
What do you guys think of these rankings? Were there any big omissions? Can Neymar keep this form going? Will we see any seismic shifts this upcoming weekend? Let us know in the discussion forum below.