After a four month hiatus — punctuated by an update for the World Cup — Europe’s Finest returns! As always, the rules are convoluted. This article covers performances over the course of 2023, no World Cup.
If you haven’t read Europe’s Finest’s mid-season wrap-up, you can do so here.
Anyway, let’s hop into with a recap of the very best of the last two (and a bit) months!
10. Gregor Kobel (Borussia Dortmund)
Borussia Dortmund have been relentless in 2023, and Gregor Kobel has been the centre-piece of that success.
The Swiss goalkeeper, fresh off a World Cup in which he was forced to sit on the bench in favour of Yann Sommer, came back to Germany fired up, and Dortmund have been all the better for it. Kobel has conceded just five goals in his last nine matches, and while an uptick in defensive performances from Nico Schlotterbeck and Niklas Süle do deserve mention as a factor in this, it has been Kobel’s elite shot-stopping that has been the primary contributor. Dortmund have won all of their games in which Kobel has played this year so far, and the one game they missed him in, Dortmund conceded twice and lost 2-0, crashing out of the Champions League to Chelsea. He is the most in-form goalkeeper in the world right now.
9. Kieran Trippier (Newcastle United)
In a world full of gung-ho kamikaze wing backs who prioritise attacking over defending with entire systems being built around them, Trippier remains an artifact of football’s past. An always reliable and defensively excellent artifact.
Newcastle’s defensive system is one to be lauded, and is the reason behind their success this season, and while Fabian Schär, Sven Botman, Nick Pope and Dan Burn have all done their parts, Trippier has been the stand-out performer. Adapting to a more offensively limited role than the wing back roles he has been given in the past, Trippier has shown his immense defensive qualities and paired it with a keen understanding of his teammates’ patterns and behaviour in build-up to create something completely new in football: a wide outlet from deep. It seems paradoxical to focus your play into a corner from deep but Trippier has made it work. This is not to say he has not ventured forward, because of course he has, and he has bagged himself a handful of assists on the way. Newcastle have dropped in form recently but Trippier has maintained his elite level of form.
8. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)
Joshua Kimmich is Bayern Munich.
I’ve always said that when paired with a midfield partner who is prepared to do work in the middle, Kimmich would become a contender for the best player in the world. The year started bleak, as Leon Goretzka was at his lowest in terms of contribution in the middle, but as the weeks have gone on his role has become more and more involved, and now we are looking at perhaps the best midfield pairing in the world. Goretzka as a midfield destroyer has been excellent, but the stand-out has been Kimmich. Kimmich alongside Matthijs de Ligt has become the primary focus of build-up for Bayern, often finding himself pinging the ball forward from deep. His balls over the top have been beautiful and it’s a crime that players like Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sané have been unable to put away the chances created from them. This is all without talking about his defensive solidity, as Kimmich has become a much more contained screener, a proper number 6, covering for his defenders when they break shape to press and excellently containing players such as Lionel Messi with help from his fellows in the midfield cohort.
And if all else fails, let Kimmich have a shot from thirty yards out. That goal against FC Köln is the kind of goal champions score. It’s the kinds of points champions win.
7. Kim Min-Jae (Napoli)
Kim Min-Jae is the definition of the modern centre back.
Strong in the air, strong with the ball at his feet, strong when getting to ground. Kim’s performances for Napoli have been the bedrock for the Partenopei’s league title surge and the potential for their deep run into Europe. The South Korean international is just 26 but plays with the maturity of a 32 year old, he already looks like a natural born leader. His performances week in week out have been of a high standard but Kim’s performances in key games have been particularly good, especially that game against Eintracht Frankfurt in which he kept one of the best attacks in Europe quiet with excellent reactions, tackles and response to pressing.
Kim’s ability on the ball is severely underrated, he has just been so good at bringing the ball forward to Napoli’s forwards, to the point where Stanislav Lobotka has at times felt redundant in games as a number 6, electing instead to push forward like a number 8 would do. This shows Kim’s ability to completely change the way a team plays and the confidence he inspires in his teammates to be adventurous.
6. Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Alphonso Davies has returned.
After what has felt like months of trying and trying, Davies has finally stopped trying and started DOING. Davies has always been defensively impressive, making multiple unbelievable recoveries every game using his pace and tackling ability, but he has now combined that with a sense of where to be in his defensive 1v1 situations, very rarely if ever being beaten while facing the likes of Achraf Hakimi, Jesper Lindstrøm and Jonas Wind.
Davies has upped his offensive game massively too. He was always dominant in 1v1 situations with the ball, but he has improved his take-ons to include inversions into the middle, adding another dimension to his otherwise one-dimensional wide cuts. Davies’ crossing has massively improved and it has shown in his assist numbers ticking up. Davies has become a one man menace down Bayern’s left flank, but combining him with Jamal Musiala in the left half-space has turned that flank into perhaps the most dangerous in world football.
5. Vinícius Júnior (Real Madrid)
Vinícius Júnior continues to be Real Madrid’s most consistent attacker, showing up week in week out with great performances. His dribbling has been elite as always, and Vini has never been shy of goals, but the true reason he has come here has been his performances in big games. While Real lost El Clasico, Vini never lost heart and put his all into the performance. The crown jewel of Vini’s performances is of course the brace against Liverpool, while his second goal has the signature Real Madrid Twist (that is to say, it was almost purely luck due to poor play from the goalkeeper), his first goal was a ridiculous shot from the edge of the box that snaked between an almost infinite amount of Liverpool defenders before flying past Alisson in goal.
The Brazilian has continued his great 2022 with a fantastic start to 2023.
4. Victor Osimhen (Napoli)
Just how good is Victor Osimhen?
The Nigerian missed the start of the season so while his season-long figures may not be as good as he may have hoped, he has been a goal machine since his return. He has ten goals and an assist in his last ten games, which should paint a picture of just how effective he has been, but he is so much more than just the goals. Osimhen is a great presser off the ball, harassing defenders and has been the focal point of Napoli’s attack, pivoting around the movements of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Hirving Lozano before matching their pace and getting on the end of their moves.
It takes a special kind of player to be able to start moves and get on the end of them, just ask Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane who have both struggled with one or the other this season.
3. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
Vinícius Júnior may be Real Madrid’s most consistent attacker, but that was only because Karim Benzema was struggling to stay fit for the latter half of 2022.
Now playing consistently again, Benzema has been unreal for Real Madrid, averaging a goal or assist for every game he’s played in 2023. The double against Liverpool is once again his stand-out performance, but Benzema hasn’t been anything close to inconsistent. The Frenchman’s ability to dictate play while not dropping back is such a paradoxical phenomenon. It just didn’t make sense how one can be that much of a factor while never really even dropping to the midfield line unlike his more deep-lying contemporaries like the aforementioned Lewandowski and Kane.
The current holder of France Football’s Ballon d’Or is showing just why he is not a one-season wonder with yet another album of clutch performances in 2023. Dread it, run from it, Benzema will be in your box waiting to pounce on a mistake.
2. Matthijs de Ligt (Bayern Munich)
Matthijs De Ligt is nothing short of generational.
I don’t like using that term because of Twitter’s insistence on naming any good player as generational, but De Ligt is that in every sense of the word. He is part of the lineage of football’s very greatest centre backs if he continues to play like this. Bayern Munich have been marked with defensive inconsistencies in 2022 in the league, but de Ligt has provided a rock-solid base for everything. His tackling and reading of the game have been exceptional, always clean and confrontational rather than backing off, the sign of a man with no fear. Pushing out of his line to press attackers is another sign of it, but de Ligt also breaks behind the line to make last-ditch tackles, as well as having made several goal-line clearances in just the last couple of weeks.
His highest point was of against Union Berlin when took a speculative shot from 25 yards out that caught Frederik Rønnow completely off-guard and planted itself into the bottom left corner only 90 seconds after he made a goal line clearance at the other end. De Ligt has been key to Bayern’s build up alongside Kimmich, often pushing forward as a sort of libero, although this role will probably be limited to league games rather than being tried out in the Champions League where a goal conceded could prove to be rather more expensive. We never know however, De Ligt is good enough to make it work. A reminder that he is only 23. What a player.
1. Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
As soon as I thought of bringing power rankings back, there was no doubt in my mind that Marcus Rashford would be first.
Rashford has been simply unbelievable since the end of the World Cup, scoring a goal a game with an assist to his name as well. He is the only player in Europe’s top five leagues other than Kylian Mbappé to have more goal contributions than appearances in 2023 — it should be noted that Mbappé only has that because of a five goal haul he took against a semi-professional team in the Coupe de France.
Erik ten Hag’s attacking system always had a lone left winger who would look to break through the defensive line as the last man. The main man in Ajax’s attack for years was Dušan Tadić, and Rashford has taken over that role excellently, re-iterating upon the role to be more of a pure goalscoring presence running inward from the left than the double-sided creative and goalscoring presence Tadić offered. Rashford has an unbelievable twenty goal contributions already this season, at this rate he could better the best calendar years of Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski.
What do you think of our rankings? Is there anyone you would have included? Let us know in the discussion below.