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Football today is flooded with world-class stars. If not for the incomprehensible brilliance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the list of names deserving of the Ballon d’Or in the past decade could stretch longer than a David Luiz diagonal ball.
So deep is the level of talent in the modern game that countless game-changing players are overlooked. We detail a handful of some of Europe’s brightest talents who remain in the shadows of giants.
Granit Xhaka — Arsenal
Even before the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on this football season, Xhaka’s spectacular falling out with a large section of Arsenal’s home fans at the end of October felt as if it had taken place aeons ago. At that point it did not seem as if the then-club captain would don the red-and-white shirt again; he wanted out, the club were open to that too, and the best solution for everyone appeared to be that he moved on.
But if Arsenal had been bad with Xhaka in the side earlier in the campaign, they were even worse without him. Their form since Mikel Arteta’s appointment as head coach, which has seen the Switzerland international fully reintegrated into the side, has shown what he can offer when playing to his strengths.
Xhaka is not the quickest, but his football brain and radar-like left foot have had a stabilising impact on a side that was leaking goals on a weekly basis. He has adopted Arteta’s instructions to the letter, shielding the back line and also forging a useful relationship with the flying young left-back, Bukayo Saka. Once upon a time, Arteta and Pep Guardiola had seriously considered bringing Xhaka to Manchester City. For all the trials and tribulations of times past, perhaps he was never so bad after all.
Thomas Muller — Bayern Munich
There is something in the idea that a player can be so frequently described as “underrated” that they transcend the term and become … well … quite highly rated after all. It is certainly true that everyone knows what Muller has always been world class at: applying the wound, twisting the knife, finishing with dead-eyed accuracy. Whether leading the line or, as so often, ghosting in from the right, he has long laboured under the reputation of someone who might do little in general play for 89 minutes — before deciding a game in the remaining one.
But Muller, who is 30 but seems to have been around forever, is better than that. He showed it comprehensively in the crushing Champions League last-16 win at Stamford Bridge shortly before the pandemic. From the No. 10 position, he performed imperiously, linking attacks and finding space there nobody else could, also striking the woodwork from range. The “Raumdeuter” (“Space interpreter”) has been laying on the goals all season — becoming the first player to reach 11 in the first half of a Bundesliga campaign — from that position and has shown that, while many were doubting him just months previously, there is much more to him than simply being Johnny-on-the-spot.
Gabriel Jesus — Manchester City
Jesus has laboured under two sizeable millstones during his three years at Manchester City. One is the enduring brilliance of Sergio Aguero, who remains one of a select few in the highest bracket and has a knack for bouncing back just when it appears he might be slowing up. Another is that he is still young and, for a 19-year-old arriving from Brazil to a completely new culture and language back in 2017, his adaptation on the pitch was remarkably swift.
Now 23, he has scored roughly a goal every 2.2 appearances since then, many from the bench, and the present campaign — which has brought 18 so far — is well on course to be his most prolific yet. It is a remarkable record, put in its correct context, and the signs are that he can take on Aguero’s gleaming crown for the foreseeable future in the next couple of seasons. Seemingly taken for granted in the public eye but still with time on his side to be among the best around, he remains on the cusp of being a world beater.
Romelu Lukaku — Inter Milan
The arguments against Lukaku are as laboured as they believe their target to be: his movement is substandard; his reading of the game is flawed; his vision and link-up play have not improved enough over the years. In fact they are blown out of the water by a simple examination of his record, because Lukaku has been an extraordinary performer for every club he has represented and it pays, sometimes, to pay more attention to what a player can do than what he can not. Without his 17 Serie A goals in 25 appearances, Inter Milan would not have been anywhere near their most convincing title challenge in years, even if it faltered somewhat before the coronavirus shutdown. Even at Manchester United, in a spell most would deem mixed, he scored at a rate a little over a goal every two games — suggesting that the team’s long-standing issues were of far greater concern than his contribution. Put starkly, Lukaku is still 26 and has already scored 172 goals in his club career: it is a phenomenal return and that, rather than any of his rougher edges, is what should be celebrated when football finally returns.
Thomas Partey — Atletico Madrid
Partey epitomises perfectly the attributes that have made Diego Simeone’s Atletico great: indefatigable, utterly committed, highly effective and — last but not least — very, very good indeed. Yet while the Ghanaian midfielder is ever more frequently linked with moves away, particularly to Premier League clubs, he is yet to make the breakthrough to household-name status. That is changing, slowly but surely, and with good reason. The 26-year-old has become increasingly important in the past three seasons and has been indispensable this time around, with only Jan Oblak and Saul Niguez making more La Liga appearances for Atletico. Partey is the dynamic, physically imposing, sharp and efficient defensive midfielder many of Europe’s top sides would love to sign, with Arsenal among those credited with an interest. But a new £80,000-a-week contract is reported to be on the cards at Atletico, going some way towards reflecting his worth and setting the stage for a tilt at the Champions League — in which he helped them stun Liverpool — when the quarterfinals are played.
Joe Gomez — Liverpool
The problem for anyone partnering Virgil van Dijk in Liverpool’s defence is that nobody, however good they may be, is quite capable of matching the Dutchman at this moment in time. It does not help that Gomez and Joel Matip have both endured injury problems too, meaning chances to shine have sometimes been cut off in their prime. But Gomez has been more or less fit and firing in 2019-20 and it is sometimes hard to believe he is only 22. By that age, many young players have made more than the 124 club appearances he has under his belt so far, but that only accentuates the thought that there is so much more to come. Gomez is a marvellous athlete who, for one so young, offers tremendous leadership attributes too. He would grace any back line in the Premier League and the hope now is that, in the next decade or so, he harnesses his potential to push on and become one of the division’s all-time greats. There is no shame in playing second fiddle to Van Dijk, but the England international has the ability to surpass him.