Kane, Fernandes and Salah among Premier League's nine truly world-class players

Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes and Tottenham's Harry Kane and Heung-min Son

In the eyes of many, the Premier League is the greatest top flight in the world. But does that necessarily mean it has the best players?

Just two players in the competition’s history have won the Ballon d’Or, football’s ultimate prize for individual brilliance, and while the Premier League has always boasted incredible depth, the actual level of talent at the top has often paled in comparison to its rivals throughout Europe.

So, how many truly world-class players are there in the Premier League right now? Let’s take a second to precisely define that term, because it often means different things to different people.

For the purposes of this article, it means a player so brilliant in their position that they would get into any team in the world – or at least, someone else’s selection over them would be a matter of genuine subjectivity rather than black-and-white fact.

As a disclaimer, we’re excluding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo from that criteria because let’s face it, if you’re comparing everybody to two of the greatest players of all time, then nobody is world-class.

So with all that in mind, here’s nine major Premier League stars who are world-class, mixed with another nine who fall just a little short of such illustrious status.

Not World-Class: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

With only three goals this season Aubameyang’s scoring powers appear to be on the wane, and without that there really isn’t a whole lot he offers. A great goalscorer at his best, but not a great all-round footballer.

World-Class: Harry Kane

The last few seasons have shown Harry Kane at his worst, and by worst we mean a striker who can still comfortably produce a strike-rate better than one-in-two. This term, however, has reawakened the real Kane – the Spurs talisman and England captain who transcends being a mere centre-forward. He’s an all-round attacking force and having now added assists to his game as well, no player in Europe’s top five leagues boasts more goal involvements this season.

Not World-Class: Harry Maguire

Harry Maguire does a lot of things well. He can play out of the back, he’s dominant in the air and he’s a natural leader. The only thing is that he’s not the absolute best at anything either, and he has his weaknesses too – he’s never been the quickest and a failure to shift his feet causes him problems both in and out of possession. A calamitous start to this season highlighted how fallible he can be at times.

World-Class: Virgil van Dijk

Basically Maguire without the drawbacks and with an extra dose of graceful effortlessness. Van Dijk is one of the most composed centre-backs we’ve ever seen in the Premier League and with a few extra yards in his heels, his also perhaps the most comfortable we’ve seen in one-on-one situations as well. Barely puts a foot wrong at the back and is as good as any central defender around when it comes to distribution.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk celebrates

Not World-Class: David de Gea

Still more than capable of world-class saves but the bar of Premier League goalkeeping has been significantly raised over the last few years and while David de Gea certainly isn’t a liability with the ball at feet, he’s some way short of what we’ve seen at Man City and Liverpool. The other big problem is the number of goals he concedes nowadays – since the start of 2018/19, he’s conceded 128 in 103 United outings.

World-Class: Alisson

The most well-rounded goalkeeper we’ve seen in the Premier League for some time. Alisson can pull off the most demanding of saves, but he’s also incredibly comfortable plucking the ball out of the air and can launch passes from back to front with the precision of a quarter-back. That all adds up to the perfect goalkeeping package.

Not World-Class: Raheem Sterling

A fine attacking player but one ever-plagued by a single fundamental flaw – an almost freakish lack of composure in front of goal. In fairness, that hasn’t stopped Raheem Sterling from netting at least 17 times in each of the last three seasons, but there’s also only so many times tucking away point-blank crosses at the far post can be genuinely impressive. There’s a lot to like about Sterling’s game, but when compared to the absolute best around, that knack of spooning the simplest of chances unfortunately becomes an insurmountable differential.

World-Class: Mohamed Salah

We were a little torn on this one. While Salah’s goalscoring exploits are certainly impressive, we reckon even we’d net a few in the Premier League if we were as greedy as the Egyptian.

Nonetheless, Salah makes it to world-class status for one simple factor that’s often overlooked – he plays on the right-hand side. It sounds inconsequential but how many truly elite right-sided attackers are there these days, with most playing on the left so that they can cut inside onto their stronger foot?

Aside from Messi, you’ve got Salah and Jadon Sancho, and then you’re delving into the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Riyad Mahrez. Salah operates within a niche and with the exception of the aforementioned Ballon d’Or winner, he’s the best around at it.

Not World-Class: Riyad Mahrez

A perfect segue. Yes, Mahrez is a very talented footballer but let’s be frank, he’s also an incredibly predictable one. Get the ball out wide, cut inside, try and curl it into the top corner – rinse and repeat until you’re one of the best forwards in the Premier League. In fairness, Arjen Robben built his career around doing something incredibly similar. But the Dutchman has won titles in Holland, England, Spain and Germany, as well as lifting the 2012/13 Champions League and playing in a World Cup final. Mahrez is already 29 and has only enjoyed a fraction of Robben’s success.

Chelsea's N'golo Kante beats Tottenham's Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to the ball

World-Class: N’Golo Kante

Modern football’s answer to Roy Keane is a polite little Frenchman blessed with more energy than a nuclear power plant and an almost god-like ability to snuff out attacks before they even start to look dangerous. Sure, the last few seasons have shown N’Golo Kante’s limitations when played further forward, but we all know that what he’s best at, he is the best at. This term he’s back in the Premier League’s top ten for tackles and interceptions per game – enough said.

Not World-Class: Paul Pogba

Never has there been a footballer who divides opinion quite like Paul Pogba, and while we could stick our necks out on the line here by declaring him world-class – he is a World Cup winner, after all – there’s just too much baggage, revisionist pundits and re-bunking of debunked theories to comfortably argue the Frenchman is worthy of such status. Let’s face it – he’s a liability at No.6, he doesn’t produce enough at No.10 and when he’s played as a No.8, he struggles to truly take games by the horns. For every one thing Pogba does that’s truly brilliant, there’s always two or three that leave Graeme Souness with an eyebrow raised in utter bemusement.

World-Class: Kevin De Bruyne

Steven Gerrard without the insecurities of his own masculinity driving him to try and shatter the shins of anybody within touching distance of the centre circle. Kevin de Bruyne can do it all, from quarter-back-style passes operating in the pivot to tiki-taka in the penalty box and set pieces so technically precise they look like diagrams from a Johan Cyruff textbook. Enough of these cheap linguistic tricks and onto the numbers – excluding a 2018/19 campaign that was mostly spent injured, KDB has amassed 36 goals and 70 assists in 142 Premier League appearances for City. Stunning. 

Not World-Class: Marcus Rashford

Through his athleticism, technical quality and goal threat, Marcus Rashford boasts numerous enviable qualities. The only problem is that he’s one of those players who’s not quite skilful enough to be a genuine winger, and not quite consistent enough in front of goal to be a reliable centre-forward. He’s still only 23 so perhaps his time will come, but as things stand there are better left wingers out there and better front-men – it’s that simple.

World-Class: Sadio Mane

Sadio Mane’s an incredibly gifted footballer, but the real reason we’ve categorised him as world-class is because of how hard he works. It’s rare to see someone so talented do the dirty work so readily, but Mane’s return of 123 goal involvements in 186 games for Liverpool owes as much to his relentless pressing from the front as it does his technical ability. Don’t get us wrong, he can also score all types of goals and create chances in abundance – although he does have a knack of occasionally fluffing his lines.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane in Champions Leaue action

Not World-Class: Timo Werner

By the end of the season we could change our minds. Timo Werner’s a big talent and not since the days of Gareth Bale have we seen a player who can travel so quickly with the ball at feet. Four goals and three assists in eleven Premier League games isn’t half-bad either.

But we still haven’t quite seen Werner be utterly relentless for a full ninety minutes and his goals have come in one big burst rather than being spread out evenly across games. If the German forward can show a bit more consistency and really dominate games going forward, he’ll certainly be in the world-class conversation.

World-Class: Heung-min Son

Heung-min Son has always been there or thereabouts but after flirting with the notion for much of his Spurs career, he’s truly hit world-class levels since the start of last season. Last term’s return of 22 goal involvements in 28 Premier League starts speaks for itself, as does 10 goals in eleven outings this season. But as well as simply impressive numbers, Son’s provided moments of unforgettable quality – his solo effort against Burnley last time out won the Goal of the Season award, and Sunday’s curler versus Arsenal is an early contender for this season’s accolade.

Not World-Class: Trent Alexander-Arnold

Probably the call that will divide opinion the most. Trent Alexander-Arnold is a world-class set piece taker and a world-class crosser of the ball, but he can also be defensively suspect. More pertinently, one of our key remits for world-class status is getting into any team in the world. While Alexander-Arnold is the undisputed first-choice at Liverpool, he can’t even hold down the No.2 berth in an above average England team right now. Keep your house in order, Trent, and we’ll think about reconsidering.

World-Class: Bruno Fernandes

If there were any doubts over whether Bruno Fernandes belonged in the loftiest of categories, they were extinguished in the second half against West Ham on Saturday. The Portuguese playmaker came on at half-time and completely changed the game, recording the most key passes of any Premier League player in a single game this season despite only playing 45 minutes. With 36 goal involvements in 38 games for United, Fernandes has made it impossible to deny him world-class status.

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