The European club season is wrapping up and as we approach the layoff between the end of league play and the 2018 World Cup we thought it was a good time to break down the top soccer players in the world. We've done this annually for a while, and you can find the 2017 version of the list here. You'll notice some pretty big changes in the 2018 edition.
A note on our methodology: For the most part, weight was given to the length of a player's success, but where things were close, we leaned towards recent seasons. So if two guys were close, we would use their more recent play as a determining factor. There are a few examples of guys who had ridiculous single seasons jumping way up and that is based not only on single-year success, but also future projection. Club and international play were weighed equally, and team success also factored in to consideration.
Without further ado, our list of the 10 best footballers in the world for 2018.
10. Robert Lewandowski (Poland, Bayern Munich)
Robert Lewandowski has dominated since arriving at Bayern Munich in 2014. He has scored 150 goals in 194 total appearances, that followed four years at Borussia Dortmund where he bagged 103 in 187 matches. He's easily the best pure goal scorer in the Bundesliga, and with Bayern he's scored 106 times in 126 league matches.
Lewandowski was the 2016-17 Bundesliga player of the year as he had 43 goals in 47 total appearances for Bayern. He followed that up by scoring 40 in 46 appearances this season, with a Bundesliga-best 29 goal in 30 matches.
Lewandowski has been named to his league's team of the year in three straight campaigns, and Champions League Team of the Year in two straight. His 16 goals during 2018 World Cup qualification were also tops in the world. Oh, and Bayern has won the Bundesliga in each of his four seasons with the club.
At 29, Lewandowski is still in his prime. He's not higher on this list because pure No. 9s don't get the love they used to with so many hybrid attacking midfielders moving up the ranks. But he continues to be one of the best finishers in the world.
9. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli, Senegal)
Kalidou Koulibaly has gone from awkward ball of potential to possibly the best defender in the world in a short time. The 26-year-old Napoli center back is one of Serie A's best players and currently has three Premier League teams battling to win his services via transfer.
Big (6'5"), lean and strong, Koulibaly has slowly begun racking up accolades for his play. He's assured of being on his third Serie A Team of the Year in a row for this season and will be in the mix for African Player of the Year.
Fast, versatile, dynamic in the air and with a nose for the ball, Koulibaly is the definition of a shut-down defender right now. But he's also an excellent passer and Napoli relies on his accurate distribution out of the back regularly.
In a short time, Koulibaly has gone from a guy with immense talent and weak results, to finally realizing that potential.
8. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)
Mohamed Salah has exploded on the scene this season with a remarkable campaign. After arriving at Liverpool from Roma in July of 2017, Salah immediately set the Premier League on fire and led The Reds to a berth in the Champions League Final -- scoring 11 goals during that run.
The 25-year-old Egyptian appeared in 36 Premier League matches and scored 32 goals. He appeared in 51 matches total, and tallied 44 goals in all competitions. His 32 goals in a 38-game Premier League season set a new record, surpassing the old mark of 31. Salah also set Premier League season records for most left-footed goals (25), most goals by an African player (32) and most games scored in (24). Got all that?
On top of those impressive achievements, the former Chelsea forward also bagged a record three Premier League Player of the Month Awards. He was just named Premier League Player of the Year by both the players and the Football Writers Association. Oh and he was the 2017 African Footballer of the Year.
The man nicknamed "The Pharaoh" packs a ton of talent into his diminutive 5'9" frame. Salah is quick, has incredible pace and simply out-works other player to find creases in the defense. His shot is much-improved over his time at Roma, but his all-around technical acumen means he rarely puts a false touch on the ball. It's an absolute pleasure watching him play.
Salah was always a good footballer -- and was even named Roma's Player of the Season during a loan spell in 2015-16 -- but nobody saw this kind of explosive season coming from him. Another big season will put him much higher on 2019's list.
7. Sergio Agüero (Manchester City, Argentina)
A man who is dangerous every time he touches the ball, Sergio Agüero is one of the best pure strikers in the world. The 29-year-old Argentine has dominated the Premier League since arriving at Manchester City in 2011.
In seven seasons since joining City, he's scored 143 goals in 206 Premier League matches, and tallied 199 times in 292 total appearances. That's just an insane stretch. Agüero also has 36 international goals to his credit in 84 caps for Argentina.
He won the Premier League's Golden Boot for the 2014-15 season, and was finally named to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year for the 2017-18 season. It was somehow the first time he's ever been so awarded. It makes sense because in 25 Premier League matches this season, Agüero bagged 21 goals, including a league-best three hat tricks. A broken rib kept him out of action for a few weeks early in the season and he missed the end of it with a knee injury that required surgery. Despite that, he should be ready for the World Cup this summer.
In yet another notch on his belt, on September 9, 2017, Agüero scored his 124th Premier League goal, making him the highest-scoring non-European in the league's history. He moved past legendary Trinidadian [autotag]Dwight Yorke[/autotag] with that tally.
Despite standing at just 5'8" Agüero is strong on the ball thanks to a thick build. He's blindingly fast when attacking and excellent with the ball at his feet. He's also able to finish well with power from both his feet.
Agüero is a huge part of the reason Man City has won the only three Premier League titles in its history over the past seven seasons (including this year), and has finished in the top four each year since he arrived.
6. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid, Germany)
It's really hard to understand just how good Toni Kroos is if you haven't watched him play. There are few numbers that justify the 28-year-old German's inclusion on this list, but trust me he belongs. And this may be far too low for him.
The Real Madrid midfielder is the engine that makes the team go. Everything Real does moves off of him, like it used to with Xavi at Barcelona. Even Xavi thinks Kroos is his successor in La Liga.
Arguably the world's best passer, Kroos is a machine in the midfield who outworks everyone on the pitch. He is versatile enough to play every spot in the middle of the field and fill any role. From going box-to-box, to attacking or even playing as a defensive mid, he's probably the most versatile midfielder in the world.
An impressive physical presence, Kroos is also fast enough to get past most who attempt to mark him. His vision is impeccable and he has an excellent first touch, and is a deft dribbler. He's also remarkable durable, as he's played in 188 total matches during his four seasons at Real.
Kroos has been named to the Champions League Squad of the Season four years in a row, and will almost certainly get that honor this year as well. He helped Germany win the 2014 World Cup while being named to the All-Tournament team. He has also helped Real to back-to-back Champions League titles (they'll go for a third-straight this year) and a La Liga title in 2017. He has been named to UEFA's Team of the Year three times
Kroos doesn't rack up goals or assists, but is widely regarded as one of the best footballers on the planet. He definitely deserves that distinction.
5. Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid, Slovenia)
There is no way I could leave Jan Oblak off the list. The 25-year-old Slovenian keeper is the best in the world at his position and has proven it with three consecutive stellar seasons in net for Atlético Madrid.
After a successful stint at Benfica in Portugal, Oblak arrived in Madrid before the 2014-15 season as Thibaut Courtois' replacement. He hasn't looked back.
Oblak has won La Liga's Zamora Trophy (which goes to the keeper with the lowest goals-to-games ratio) two years in a row. He won the award in 2016 after conceding an all-time low 18 goals in 38 matches, and in 2017 he won after allowing just 21 goals in 29 matches. He's posed to take home the honor again this season, having surrendered just 20 goals in 35 matches.
Oblak has been on La Liga's Team of the Year in back-to-back campaigns, and he earned Champions League Squad of the Season honors in each of the last two years as well.
At 6'3" Oblak isn't as big as some of the world's best keepers, but he makes up for a lack of height and length with superb instincts. He's only getting better, so don't expect him to fall off this list any time soon.
4. Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, Belgium)
Manchester City's best player isn't football's biggest name worldwide, but he might be the perfect modern attacking midfielder. Kevin De Bruyne is the creative force behind Man City's explosive offense and is a big part of why Belgium is a sexy pick to win the 2018 World Cup.
The 26-year-old is fast, technically skilled and one of the world's best passers. He can also bury a shot when he needs to, is brilliant on free kicks and has unparalleled vision. I don't know how he does it, but the man just sees things other players don't.
An underrated aspect of the package De Bruyne brings to the table is his durability. Despite being a magnet for hard tackles, he's appeared in a whopping 141 matches in all competitions for Man City over the past three seasons, scoring 35 goals. In that time he's played in 97 Premier League matches, scoring 21 goals and adding a ridiculous 43 assists. In fact, he's been the league's leader in assists the past two campaigns.
De Bruyne helped lead Manchester City to the Premier League title this season and has three total trophies with the squad under his belt. But it's not just that City won the title this season, it's how the Sky Blues did it. They set Premier League records in wins (32), points (100), away points (50), goal difference (+79) and goals (106).
De Bruyne was named to the league's team of the year for the first time this season. Since his arrival in 2015, he has been named City's player of the month six times and was the team's player of the year in 2015-16. He was named to UEFA's Team of the Year in 2017, and was the Bundesliga Player of the Year during a stint with VFL Wolfsburg in 2014-15. He was also named the Belgian Sportsman of the Year in 2015.
'De Bruyne is so good Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has declared that Lionel Messi is the only player on the planet better than the Belgian star. That's high praise from a man who has been in charge of three European giants during stops at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now City.
Don't be surprised if De Bruyne climbs even higher on this list next year.
3. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil)
In virtually any other time in history, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior --aka Neymar -- would be the undisputed greatest footballer on the planet. Unfortunately, he's peaking during a loaded era. But the most expensive player in the world deserves a ton of recognition, and more is certain to come his way, as he's still just 26 years old.
After four stellar seasons with Barcelona, Neymar was looking to go out on his own and make a mark. That opportunity came when Paris Saint-Germain ponied up a $263 million transfer fee to land the Brazilian superstar. In what was, by far, the most expensive player transaction in sports history, the young star moved to a situation where he would finally be "the man."
Often deploying as an attacking midfielder or a left forward, Neymar is arguably the world's best dribbler. He is a wizard with the ball at his feet. He makes defenders look foolish with regularity. He has phenomenal vision with the ball, and while he does rack up goals, his ability to find open teammates is probably his best attribute. He is so well-rounded it's hard to single out what he truly does best, but he makes everyone around him better. He's so skilled many have compared him to another Santos Youth Academy graduate: Pelé.
While at Barcelona, starting in 2013, Neymar was an offensive force for the club. He scored 105 goals in 186 total appearances. He peaked there during a remarkable 2014-15 season, when he scored 39 goals in 51 appearances, then followed that up with 31 goals in 49 showings in 2015-16. He slowed down in 2016-17, scoring 20 times in 45 matches, but that didn't prevent PSG from paying big money for him. He helped Barcelona win two La Liga titles (2015 and 2016), three Copa del Rey trophies (2015, 2016, 2017) and a Champions League title in 2015.
He may have gotten even more dominant with his move to France. In his first season at PSG, Neymar scored 19 goals in 20 Ligue 1 matches, and found the back of the net 28 times in 30 total appearances. His season was cut short by surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot, but he should be back ready to shine for Brazil at this summer's World Cup.
Speaking of World Cups, Neymar was outstanding in 2014. He scored four goals and had an assist on his way to earning the Bronze Boot. He has scored 53 goals in 83 international appearances for Brazil. It's worth noting that Neymar has also finished in the top three for the Ballon d'Or twice (2015, 2017) and will almost surely win the award some day.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)
Once again, the top two remain the same on this list and no one should expect it to change any time soon. Since 2008, no one other than Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi has won the Ballon d'Or. They have both won the award five times, and have each finished second every time the other has won.
It was incredibly difficult to separate the two of them and this could easily go either way. But, in the end, I simply wasn't able to justify taking Messi out of the No. 1 spot. I also think he's just the better all-around player, but it's getting harder and harder to say that definitively.
Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or in 2008, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. He has been named to the FIFPro World XI in 11 consecutive seasons. He has led Real Madrid to two La Liga titles (2012, 2017), two Copa del Rey wins (2011, 2014) and three Champions League Trophies (2014, 2016, 2017). He also captained Portugal's run to the title at Euro 2016, though he departed the final against France just 25 minutes in after suffering an injury.
The 33-year-old scoring machine's numbers stack up against anyone's. In 436 total matches over nine seasons at Real, he's scored 449 goals. In 291 La Liga appearances, he has scored 310 goals. The 33-year-old continues to dominate, with 43 goals in 42 total matches this season, while leading Real to the Champions League final. He's still as dangerous as any player in the world. Ronaldo's 671 career goals for club and country rank sixth all-time. The next guy on this list sits just behind him.
To his credit, Ronaldo has made himself a more complete player over the years. He's become a phenomenal passer as he's aged, while still remaining one of the greatest goal scorers in history.
1. Lionel Messi (F.C. Barcelona, Argentina)
Lionel Messi remains in the conversation as the greatest footballer of all-time, and by the time the 30-year-old finally retires, he may have left no doubt.
His numbers are flat out ridiculous. Messi is the all-time La Liga leader in goals scored (382), assists (149), goals scored in a La Liga season (50), goals in a club football season in Europe (73) and in a calendar year (91). He has won 32 trophies during his 14 seasons at Barcelona, including nine La Liga championships and four Champions League crowns. He's won the Ballon d'Or a record five times, and has a record-tying four European Golden Shoes.
Oh, and in case you're wondering if he's fallen off at all with age, Messi is leading La Liga in both goals (33) and assists (12) this season. Ronaldo sits second in goals with 25.
The only thing Messi has yet to conquer is the World Cup, though he was close, as Argentina finished second in 2014 thanks to a 1-0 loss to Germany. Still, Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player for his efforts. He'll get another shot this summer, as his home country snuck in to the field late.
At barely 5'7" Messi uses his slight stature to his advantage. His ridiculously low center of gravity helps him control the ball and work on his feet more quickly. He moves in short spurts and darts around the field rather than making long, lumbering runs. He's an incredible finisher, but he's just as adept at setting up teammates. He's as versatile an attacking player as we've ever seen and can play a number of roles thanks to his pace and creativity. During his career he's played as a classic winger, a center forward, a true center midfielder and an attacking mid. He can do it all.
Messi lands here because he's still the most complete attacking player in the world. While Ronaldo is a master at finding the back of the net, Messi provides that and so much more. He takes the top spot yet again this year.
Honorable Mention: Marcelo (Real Madrid, Brazil), Luis Suarez (F.C. Barcelona, Uruguay), Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid, France), Paul Pogba (Manchester United, France), Eden Hazard (Chelsea, Belgium), Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus, Italy), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur, England), Leonardo Bonucci (A.C. Milan, Italy), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain/Monaco, France), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid, Spain).