Imagine being able to build a fantasy footballer, picking the best attributes and traits of the world’s top stars to construct the perfect attacking player.
Many would argue that you could just combine the strengths of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to create a player without weakness, but when you look deeper into the qualities of game’s elite, even Messi and Ronaldo can’t match some of the hallmarks of their rivals.
Who is the best header of the ball? Which player has the best right foot or left foot? Who has the most blistering pace? Whose strength makes him impossible for defenders to contain? And who has the best mind in terms of seeing things unfold before they happen?
ESPN has attempted to find out by building the ultimate modern composite footballer.
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Mind: Lionel Messi
The perfect footballer must obviously be able to assess all situations, make the right decision with unerring regularity and be able to change the direction of a move and dictate the tempo with his ability to read the game.
And no player in world football has a more astute mind than Messi. The Barcelona and Argentina forward is a genius with the ball at his feet, whether it is picking the moment to shoot and score or delivering a defence-splitting pass for a teammate.
Messi’s brain also enables him to fool opponents and control the tempo of a game, with the 33-year-old still able to blow teams away with a sharp burst of pace in the final third. His goals often claim the headlines, but his vision and ability to dictate a game are what truly set him apart.
Heading: Cristiano Ronaldo
Olivier Giroud and Harry Kane deserve a mention for their heading ability, but Cristiano Ronaldo is in a different league to everyone else. It is not simply the power and direction that Ronaldo is able to muster when he connects with a header, but his incredible spring allows him to leap so much higher than any player around him. Check out his headed goal for Juventus against Sampdoria in December 2019, when the Portuguese forward was measured as reaching a height of 2.56 metres (8 feet, 3 inches) to connect with Alex Sandro’s cross.
Ronaldo also scored a memorable header for Real Madrid against Manchester United in February 2013, when he out-jumped Patrice Evra, a spectacular effort, past goalkeeper David de Gea in the Bernabeu.
In a game in which right-footed players make up the overwhelming majority, how do you pick the one with the most potent right foot?
Toni Kroos has dominated the midfield for a decade with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Germany with his repertoire of long-range passing, while Cristiano Ronaldo has scored hundreds of goals with his right foot. But in terms of being able to score, create and switch defence to attack, nobody can match the output of De Bruyne’s right foot.
The Manchester City and Belgium midfielder is like a modern-day David Beckham with his delivery from the right flank, registering 20 Premier League assists last season — the best mark in 2019-20, equalling Thierry Henry’s record — and 11 so far this campaign. He’s also a threat with his long-range shooting and free kicks, so while other players have a similarly destructive right foot, none can match De Bruyne when it comes to owning the full package.
Messi could have topped this category, while Gareth Bale would also have a claim due to the power and flair he has been able to combine on his left foot. But Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah is blessed with the left-footed artistry and dribbling skills of Messi and the power of Bale, with the additional ability to cushion and manipulate the ball.
Salah has shown with Liverpool that he can score all kinds of goals with his left foot — his strike against Chelsea in April 2019 highlighted the power, while he curled a stunner against Roma in the 2018 Champions League semifinal. Salah also displayed his ability to score with a deft touch round Ederson to dink the ball over Nicolas Otamendi in the quarterfinal win against Man City at the Etihad.
When the ball drops onto Salah’s left foot within sight of goal, the Egypt international is as dangerous as any player on the planet.
Football is full of players blessed with incredible pace, but the ability to run clear of opponents is only truly devastating when the player is able to deliver a finishing touch, either with a goal or a pass. Marcus Rashford has the pace, but the Man United forward has yet to develop the ruthlessness that Mbappe has been able to fuse with his speed over the ground.
Mbappe has always been a flying machine — French newspaper Le Figaro clocked him as the fastest player in world football last year — and he has been one of the Champions League’s top forwards since bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old with Monaco in 2017. His pace and goals were crucial in France’s World Cup triumph in 2018 and he remains Paris Saint-Germain’s most potent forward, despite the presence of Brazilian striker Neymar at the Parc des Princes.
Mbappe is the perfect example of how pace can be so destructive if it is allied to a razor-sharp finishing touch.
A forward can have a multitude of talents, but if he’s not strong enough to fend off the physical challenges of defenders, his qualities will take him only so far. A lack of strength is never going to be a problem for Haaland, with the Borussia Dortmund and Norway striker beginning to rewrite the rulebook for the world’s best centre-forwards.
Haaland, 20, is already an imposing figure, standing at 6-foot-4 — much taller than rivals such as Robert Lewandowski (6-foot-1) and Harry Kane (6-foot-2). The frightening prospect for defenders is that the former FC Salzburg teenager is still growing. And that reality is evident when watching Haaland.
Eighteen months ago, he burst onto the scene with Salzburg as a gangly teenager, but at Dortmund, he has visibly become bigger and stronger. When in full flow, his pace and strength make him unstoppable and he is now learning how to make defenders bounce off him when he tears through the opposition half.
Movement: Robert Lewandowski
The art of being able to escape defenders and create space is a key component of the world’s best strikers and the likes of Sergio Aguero and Edinson Cavani have enjoyed lengthy careers on the back of their movement in the final third of the pitch. But nobody does it better than Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski who, even at the age of 32, is still able to lose defenders better than anyone with a slight movement or false run in the penalty area.
The Poland international drops deep and pulls opposition defenders across the width of the penalty area, constantly moving to drain the energy and concentration levels of his marker.
He also has the physical strength and work ethic that are necessary for every top striker and he can head the ball with the best of them.
But Lewandowski’s top quality is his movement and it is why he remains Bayern’s No. 1 striker.