Guardian Top 100: What does it tell us?

IT WAS almost inevitable that Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi, in his World Cup crowning, would be ranked as the world’s top player once more. The Guardian top 100, which has grown in credibility year-by-year, has named the Argentinian skipper at number one for the fifth time in the past decade, leaving behind his old rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is languishing below mid-table at number 51 in his new AL-Nassr shirt.

While there can be little dispute over the position of Messi in the modern game’s pantheon, what is clear is football’s top names are long in the tooth and still dominating their profession. A grand total of 13 of the top 20 are over 30 years of age, and overall, 32% are in this age bracket across the 100. Only 3% are under 20. Is there something a little worrying about this statistic, one wonders?

Astonishingly, there are more Moroccans in the 100 than Spanish, Italian or Dutch players, a reflection of the performance of the Africans in the World Cup. Brazil (14) provides the highest number of nationals, with France (12) and Argentina (11) not far behind. England (9) and Germany (8) are next in line.

Unsurprisingly, the Premier is the top league, contributing 44% of the overall total. In 2021, the figure was 42%, so the English league continues to grow its influence in securing the top players. The big five leagues dominate, providing 94% of the total. 

As in 2021, Manchester City have more players represented than any other club – their 12 matching their total for the previous year. Their highest placing is Erling Haaland in fourth, while resurgent Kevin De Bruyne is in sixth. The rest of the Etihad dozen are way behind. Liverpool are the next best represented Premier side, with Mo Salah (down seven places on 2021) the highest in tenth. 

Real Madrid have 11 players, including the born-again Karim Benzema in third place, a remarkable achievement, and veteran Luka Modric in fifth position. Real have become a club for Indian Summers with these two players among the oldest in the listings. 

The top 100 also gives an insight into the rise and fall of certain clubs; Chelsea, for example, have just five players included, a 50% drop on 2021, while Barcelona have five, which admittedly is more than last year but still shows how they have fallen from their past highs. With Barca likely to win La Liga in 2022-23, next season’s list should see more from the Catalans. Juventus have just two players in the 100, while Paris Saint-Germain, with four, have seen their number halve and more. Arsenal, by contrast, have trebled their representation to three and if they continue their pursuit of the Premier title, will surely have more plaudits in the 2023 rankings.

The Guardian top 100 this year shows us that football is at a transition stage as the most celebrated players move towards the end of their careers. Ronaldo has already stepped off the podium as he enjoys the first laps of honour as he winds down, others will undoubtedly follow in the next couple of years. We have witnessed something of a golden era of star footballers and the next generation has to have space to come through. With such a high proportion of top players in the big five leagues, the strength of the other European leagues will diminish further unless there is some way to implement financial democracy across the continent.

The Premier League’s presence in the 100 went up slightly, but interestingly, there were 11 clubs compared to nine in 2021. This may indicate more clubs have the resources to scoop-up the top talent, or simply that the elite bracket is easing up a little. Whatever the reason, the polarisation of European football is reflected in the Guardian’s list.

The football media has its favourites

POST-MATCH interviews are very anodyne. You could almost write the script yourself. Sometimes you wonder why TV channels bother to “get a few words from…” the managers of both sides. They are never going to give anything away, rarely going to admit to seeing a key incident and will never point to a weakness in their side.

Punditry has gone the same way, full of safe comments, cliché and jargon, and the big problem we have today is the fake intimacy that pundits have with players and coaches, referring to them by their first names rather than keeping it professional. What does this do? Only makes it harder to make an objective comment about a game, because we’re all mates.

The football professionals know that without their input, much of the activity on our TV channels is wasted. So, any contentious questions are batted away, or met with a “lost in translation” response. How often do you see a coach pretend he didn’t hear the interviewer’s question when he’s asked something hinting at mistakes made by a team or players, or even the coach himself? It’s a clever tactic to diffuse or distract the course of the interview.

Love and hate

The media have their favourite managers and players, indeed teams. Going back in time, Sir Alf Ramsey could never have won a popularity contest if he tried, largely because he refused to pander to anyone. Likewise, Don Revie was never appreciated because his team was a bunch of “outsiders” who didn’t belong to the football establishment. Bill Shankly could never do anything wrong and neither could Matt Busby. Brian Clough was great copy, but he kept interviewers on their toes. They loved him when things were going well, but equally, when they didn’t, they also made the most of it. In the case of Clough, Mourinho, Revie and Ramsey, schadenfreude was definitely the name of the game.

Today, everone seems besotted with Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, although both have shown they can become very prickly when asked difficult but pertinent questions. Although both manage elitist clubs, hence success is almost a given, there is an intense fascination and a little mystique around both men. In the case of Guardiola, he doesn’t seem like a football man with his tech bro appearance and slightly aloof demeanour. Klopp is more conventional in that respect, but he has the aura of a happy, wealthy European businessman with a good dentist from a well-heeled Bavarian town. It’s easy to be fascinated with both managers.

The media have always adopted clubs and managers as their chosen partners. Again, using history as a benchmark, Tottenham’s double-winners of 1961 were eulogised about for decades by the press, often seen as the perfect team of sophisticated push-and-run experts. And their manager, Bill Nicholson, was a much respected fellow. And yet, their success was short-lived and by the late 1960s, a distant memory. Nicholson tried, often in vain, to replicate that success and between 1971 and 1973, won more trophies, but his time as an innovator was over. Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed great consistency at the club, but he never won a trophy. In fact, nobody has ever matched Nicholson because the reputation that Spurs gained for their footballing quality was built by “Bill Nick”.

Similarly, West Ham were regarded, for years and years, as a footballing team based on the principles of Ron Greenwood, who actually left the club as manager in the mid-70s. Obviously, with two trophies and a team that included the England triumvirate of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, the Hammers’ deserved their plaudits, but the belief that this purist approach to football continued was something of a fallacy. Anyone who watched West Ham as they struggled to maintain their first division place would testify that at times, the football was abject, even if the atmosphere at Upton Park was to be savoured.


Conversely, Arsenal had to convince people to shrug aside their reputation for being “lucky” and culturally defensive. When they won the double in 1971, there was no great acclaim that Bertie Mee’s side was the best in the land. Arsenal were “boring” according to the press and lacked charm. This put-down went back many years, indeed as far back as the Herbert Chapman era when the great man opted for a defensive style that was extraordinarily successful. While Chapman was seen as a great innovator and intelligent operator, his style was rather cautious, as noted by the Austrian coach Willi Meisl, who frequently questioned his friend why he had opted for defence-first option. Arsenal were consider “lucky” but basically, it was more that the Gunners were extremely strategic and economical. Only when Arsène Wenger brought his European ideals to Highbury (and then the Emirates), did Arsenal become form over function in the eyes of the football public. In fact, suddenly every reporter, TV personality and actor seemed to be an Emirates season ticket holder.

The other team that was revered as much as Spurs 1961 was the Busby Babes, for obvious reasons. It would be unfair to say that this team’s legend was enhanced by their tragic demise, but this was the best side in Britain at the time. This was really the first example of a team of home-grown youngsters coming to the fore, a process that was copied later by Chelsea and Burnley, among others. The Spurs team was never as influential because by the time Nicholson’s men scooped the hallowed prize, the lure of the continent was becoming evident. You could argue the Arsenal and Leeds sides of the late 1960s and early 1970s were influenced as much by catenaccio and the Italian giants of Milan.

Busby rebuilt United and created another great side, the Manchester United of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Rarely had any team included such outstanding talent. United, it was said, had beautiful football in their DNA, and post-Busby and indeed the holy trinity, countless sides had this burden hanging over them. Even at the end of the Busby period, it was a trial and when they were relegated in 1974 with Tommy Docherty in charge, they had a workmanlike unit that was not averse to clogging its way to survival. United’s “style”, which had long gone, took years to return under Alex Ferguson. If playing with flair was a prerequisite, it seems vaguely ridiculous they chose to hire José Mourinho knowing his pragmatism would be incompatible with United’s mythical ethos.

In and out

On a different level, there have been managers and clubs that have been lauded for their approach even though the quality of football has been questionable. Sean Dyche was idolised at Burnley, and rightly so given his record of keeping the club in the Premier League. Nobody was allowed to criticise Dyche’s style because of that very reason, yet Burnley were not the most watchable of teams. Yet the newspapers loved Dyche and his gravelly voice, but eventually, he was sacked by Burnley and they were relegated at the end of 2021-22.

Right now, Thomas Frank is one of the media darlings, along with Klopp and Guardiola. The press don’t really know how to take either Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte at Chelsea and Tottenham respectively, and Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta slips in and out of favour. Graham Potter at Brighton is highly regarded and seen as the sort of character who would be appointed England manager. Steve Gerrard is seen as heir apparent to Klopp’s Anfield throne.

It’s a moveable feast, though. Managers and teams can be flavour of the month at the start of the season and move to zero status in a few weeks, such is the fragile nature of success. There are 20 managers in the Premier, but only a small number get the bulk of the attention, because outside of the top two or three, the rest are just a couple of results away from the sack. No wonder they seem scared to say anything of consequence.