Odegaard, Haaland, Thiago, Pedri and more

It is an immense quirk that we get about 10% of the way through the soccer season before the rosters are actually locked into place. It’s difficult for an American sports fan to grasp, I’m sure. In college football, rosters are mostly set three months before the season starts. In professional sports, you’ve got a trade deadline — which more-or-less matches the purpose of soccer’s January transfer window — but you don’t see blockbuster trades two games into the season. But in soccer, we already saw pretty dramatic shifts in expectations before we even knew for sure who would be playing for, say, Chelsea and Manchester United.

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With the transfer deadline only days away, however, we can begin to make some assumptions regarding who is playing for whom. We can also draw conclusions (until January) regarding a team’s strengths, potential vulnerabilities and the players who will have the most significant impact on both the Champions League and the top league races on the continent.

Here, we’ll focus on that last part. Here are the 25 most important players — to both their teams and to Europe’s top prizes — of the 2022-23 soccer season.

Keys to a top-four finish (and success in Europe, too)

Obviously we’ve had to grow accustomed to the fact that not many teams will actually contend for their league’s crown in a given season. (Italy is arguably the exception to that rule, but we’re not exactly far removed from Juventus’ nine-year title streak there.) But the race for the top four in England, Germany, Spain and Italy — with spots in the Champions League on the line — can be wonderfully chaotic.

Here are some of the players who could have the most impact on said races and, in some cases, potentially control their team’s destiny in this season’s European competitions.

25. Sheraldo Becker, FW, Union Berlin. Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen have all disappointed out of the gate to some degree, and only one team has been able to match Bayern Munich’s 10 points four matches into the Bundesliga season: that’s right, it’s Union Berlin.

Urs Fischer’s squad is dramatically outperforming its expected goals (+0.8 xG per match, 2.8 actual goals), and we know by now that regression-to-the-mean will kick in at some point. But if Union can continue to get enough production from the tandem of Becker (four goals from 1.0 xG, two assists from seven chances created) and American newcomer Jordan Pefok (two goals from 0.7 xG, two assists from seven chances) along with their customarily stingy defense, they could have a legitimate shot at a top-four finish and a first-ever Champions League appearance.

24. Martin Odegaard, MF, Arsenal. He’s 23 and he joined the Gunners permanently barely a year ago, but he has already become captain and Arsenal has responded with an incredible start: four matches, four wins.

It is sometimes difficult to statistically measure a midfielder’s impact, but Odegaard is hustling (7.9 ball recoveries per 90) and creating (0.79 goals and assists per 90), and he’s one of only three Premier Leaguers to have produced at least 30 progressive passes, 20 progressive carries and four shots on goal thus far. The other two: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes. That’s good company.

If Arsenal makes its first Champions League appearance since 2017 next season — or hell, if the Gunners threaten to win their first EPL title since 2004 — Odegaard will be the No. 1 reason why.

23. Jan Oblak, GK, Atletico Madrid. Just as the college football version of this list is full of quarterbacks, this list is, as you’ll see, full of attackers. But Oblak’s 2021-22 season was all the proof anyone would ever need of the importance of high-quality goalkeeping.

From 2017-18 through Atletico’s league title run of 2020-21, Oblak set the grading curve for goalkeepers, averaging 11.2 goals prevented with an epic 81% save percentage. But last year, he was dreadful: 59% save percentage, -7.5 goals prevented. Atleti finished 15 points out in the title race and only remained in the top four by six points.

He has been decent thus far in 2022-23 — 71%, 0.2 goals prevented — but excellent starts from Villarreal and Real Betis could mean this year’s top-four race is particularly crowded. Atleti might need the best version of Oblak to feel safe in this battle.

22. Christopher Nkunku, MF, RB Leipzig. The 24-year-old was named Bundesliga player of the year last season after combining 35 goals with 16 assists in all competitions. He led RBL to the DFB-Pokal and the Europa League semifinals, but only after a slow start had eliminated them from both the Champions League and Bundesliga title race.

The club has started relatively slowly again this season (five points in four matches), but Nkunku remains a runaway train. He’s scored four times and is averaging 0.92 xG+xA per 90 after averaging 0.91 last year. The additions of forward Timo Werner and fullback David Raum suggest they could catch fire soon enough, but they wouldn’t be at even five points early on without this star’s incredible exploits.

Honorable mention: Raheem Sterling (FW, Chelsea), Dusan Vlahovic (FW, Juventus), Duvan Zapata (FW, Atalanta), Yeremi Pino (FW, Villarreal), Rodrigo Betancur (MF, Tottenham Hotspur), Lorenzo Pellegrini (DF, Roma), Vincenzo Grifo (MF, Freiburg), Mikel Merino (MF, Real Sociedad)

Epic spoilers

Sometimes your season is defined by an upset win or loss, one that damages a given opponent as much as it helps your team: think Villarreal beating Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinals last season, or Porto knocking off Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in an incredible battle in 2020-21.

These teams and players (a) are awesome and (b) could play major roles in both who makes the knockout rounds and who survives them.

21. Pedro Goncalves, MF, Sporting CP. Sporting is one of the most reliable assembly lines for future stars. In the last five seasons, it has transferred seven players for at least $20 million, including Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, Barcelona’s Raphinha and, over the last year, Matheus Nunes (Wolves), Nuno Mendes (PSG) and Joao Palhinha (Fulham).

Despite all the turnover, they still won the Primeira Liga in 2021 and drew an extremely favorable group in this year’s Champions League (Group D, with Tottenham Hotspur, Marseille and Eintracht Frankfurt). If the 24-year old Pote resumes his 2020-21 form — he scored 23 league goals with three assists that season before settling in at nine and eight last year — Sporting could not only advance to the knockout rounds, but scare the hell out of a round-of-16 opponent as well.

20. Moussa Diaby, FW, Bayer Leverkusen. Diaby didn’t single-handedly bring an end to Leverkusen’s dreadful start in last weekend’s 3-0 win over Mainz, but it sort of felt like he did. With his team up 1-0 late in the first half after a scruffy set-piece goal, Diaby took a pass near midfield with two defenders closing in on him and, within approximately two seconds, he did this…

… exploding up-field, setting up a tap-in goal for Jeremie Frimpong and reminding everyone that, despite losing their first three matches of the Bundesliga season (and losing to a third-division team in the DFB Pokal), Leverkusen has more speed and terrifying attacking potential than almost anyone in Europe.

19. Steven Bergwijn, FW, Ajax. Sometimes transfers just don’t work out. After exploding for 19 league goals and 22 assists over about one-and-a-half seasons for PSV Eindhoven, Bergwijn moved to Tottenham, where he managed just seven goals and five assists over about two-and-a-half Premier League seasons. He moved to Ajax in July, and with manager Erik ten Hag leaving along with a number of stars — attackers Sebastien Haller (Borussia Dortmund) and Antony (Manchester United), plus Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United), Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern) and Ryan Gravenberch (Bayern) — Bergwijn has quickly become a focal point of the new Ajax attack. And he has four goals in four matches to show for it.

Ajax will likely have to beat Napoli and Rangers to advance to the Champions League knockout rounds (assuming Liverpool wins the group as forecasted) and if Bergwijn maintains this form, they could not only pull it off, but maybe advance a little further too.

Honorable mention: Romelu Lukaku (FW, Inter Milan), Benjamin Sesko (FW, FC Salzburg), Tanguy Nianzou (DF, Sevilla), Liel Abada (FW, Celtic), Goncalo Ramos (FW, Benfica), Nuno Tavares (MF, Marseille)

The future stars

We have recently witnessed star turns for two of the most impressive teenage soccer players of all time — Kylian Mbappe (now 23) and Erling Haaland (22) — but they’re already old news. (Kidding. They’re very high on this list.) The next generation of 20-and-under stars is nipping at their heels.

We’ll be talking a lot about this quintet in the months and years to come.

18. Jude Bellingham, MF, Borussia Dortmund. Already one of the most decisive and physical midfielders in the Bundesliga, Bellingham is showing more initiative in attack this season, too. After averaging 0.32 xG+xA per 90 in his first two seasons in Germany (and 0.50 in last year’s Champions League and Europa League), he’s at 0.45 early in 2022-23. He’s also leading the league in ball recoveries with 38 (9.5 per 90).

He’s on a mission in what is heavily rumored to be his last season in Dortmund. Oh yeah, and he won’t turn 20 until next June.

17. Eduardo Camavinga, MF, Real Madrid. Casemiro’s departure for Manchester United has opened the door for both of Los Blancos’ young midfield prodigies to play larger roles. The newly acquired Aurelien Tchouameni (22) has completed 93% of his passes with six chances created in 238 minutes, while Camavinga (19) put on an absolute masterclass in a substitute role against Espanyol.

Over the course of just 10 minutes (from 62:00 to 72:00), he ripped off four progressive carries, created four touches in the attacking third, created a scoring chance for Karim Benzema and attempted a shot in transition as well. He’s used primarily as a pivot man and he’s ultra-reliable in that role, but like Bellingham, his attacking potential is almost as high. Espanyol gave him space in transition, and he took every meter they gave him.

16. Ansu Fati, FW, Barcelona. Because Barcelona can’t stop itself from acquiring attacker after attacker, Fati has played only 86 minutes in three matches this season. And he’s scored a goal with two assists in those 86 minutes. He nearly saved Barca from a scoreless draw with Rayo Vallecano in the season opener, and he absolutely left Real Sociedad for dust in Matchday 2.

Fati is the scariest and most aggressive attacker on the pitch when he comes on, and he has quickly reminded everyone that injuries are the only reason why he hasn’t already become one of the best attackers in the game. At 19.

15. Jamal Musiala, MF, Bayern Munich. Even after losing players like Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Thiago in recent years, Bayern still has an abundance of veteran stars that know how to win big games. It’s almost unfair, then, that they also have one of the most exciting collections of young talent in the game, too. Defenders Matthijs de Ligt and Dayot Upamecano are 23, left back Alphonso Davies is 21, midfielder Ryan Gravenberch is 20, and Musiala, with two seasons and over 3,500 minutes (and 19 goals and eight assists) under his belt already, is only 19.

Without Lewandowski, Bayern is attacking from every direction and playing particularly watchable ball, even by their standards. But Musiala already has three goals and an assist from seven chances created. He plays so much stronger than his 5’10, 150-pound frame suggests, and is proving to be a high-class finisher as well.

14. Pedri, MF, Barcelona. He’s recorded over 5,000 minutes for Barcelona (despite injury limiting him significantly in 2021-22), and he’s arguably become the most important midfielder for both his club and country, all before the age of 20. From his perch on the left side of the midfield, Pedri is one of the safest passers in the world, and after averaging 1.5 chances created per 90 in his first two La Liga campaigns, he’s at 2.1 early in 2022-23. (He scored against Real Valladolid on Sunday, too, the 10th goal of his Barca career in all competitions.)

Barca’s addiction to spending has worked to crowd Fati out of some minutes up front, but Pedri is as vital as ever. Whatever Barca’s world-class attackers generate this season will be dictated in large part by the balls Pedri has fed them into the attacking third.

Honorable mention: Florian Wirtz (MF, Bayer Leverkusen), Gavi (MF, Barcelona), Bukayo Saka (MF, Arsenal), Josko Gvardiol (DF, RB Leipzig), Hugo Ekitike (FW, Paris Saint-Germain)

Potential stars who could change everything with a breakthrough (or another one)

If these three players either find another gear or rediscover an old one, it could completely transform what we think of the current European soccer hierarchy.

13. Joao Felix, FW, Atletico Madrid. It remains a jarring figure: Three years ago, Atletico spent $139 million to sign the then-19-year-old Felix from Benfica. It seemed odd from the start — a team with the most rigid defensive philosophy of any major club, spending that much on a bright, young attacker — and you can’t make a case that he’s provided that much value thus far, averaging 1,530 minutes, seven goals and three assists per La Liga season.

But he’s still young, he’s still aggressive, and he’s still absurdly creative. He had a hat-trick of assists in a season-opening blowout of Getafe, two from gorgeous through-balls.

As long as he’s wearing the red and white stripes, he could still turn into a game-changing catalyst for Diego Simeone and company.

12. Rodrygo, FW, Real Madrid. We all just assumed that Kylian Mbappe would be moving to Madrid over the summer. That famously didn’t come to pass, but it’s not like Los Blancos have chopped liver on the right wing. Federico Valverde assisted Vinicius Jr.’s game-winner in last year’s Champions League final, and an even more tantalizing player could allow Valverde to move back to midfield soon. Rodrygo had five goals and two assists in just 504 Champions League minutes last season, and while he only made his 2022-23 debut this past weekend due to injury, he had recorded his first assist, a gorgeous game-winner to Karim Benzema, within 30 minutes.

Carlo Ancelotti has said he could see Rodrygo not only becoming first-choice right winger but also filling in adeptly for either Vini or Benzema when required. Mbappe’s change of plans could massively benefit the 21-year-old Brazilian.

11. Neymar, FW, PSG. Is it kind of silly to put a player with 350 career goals on a “potential breakthroughs” list? Absolutely! Is it also correct? Absolutely!

After maybe his worst professional season ever last year — he scored just 13 goals in all competitions while failing to hit 30 appearances for the third time in four years — and after rumors of PSG attempting to find a new home for him this summer, Neymar has begun the year in torrid form, scoring twice in a Trophee Des Champions win, combining an incredible six goals with six assists in PSG’s first four league matches. (Two of those goals were penalties, but still.)

PSG has scored 18 times in its first four league matches and put seven on 2021 league champion Lille. As long as he’s playing like this (or something close to it), they are one of the two or three favorites to win the Champions League.

Honorable mention: Nuno Mendes (DF, PSG), Dayot Upamecano (DF, Bayern Munich), Jack Grealish (MF, Manchester City)

Guys who aren’t allowed to get hurt

Even teams with all the money in the world can enter a season with depth issues in certain positions. You never really know in advance if you’ll pay for those, but if any of these five players get hurt at the wrong time, it could change the trajectory of the season for their respective clubs.

10. Kalidou Koulibaly, DF, Chelsea. Chelsea had an odd offseason, spending over $200m in transfer fees, but still ending up thinner than they started at both the front (lost Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku, added Raheem Sterling) and back of the lineup. Three center-backs who combined for 5,075 league minutes last season (Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and reserve Malang Sarr) have left, while only Koulibaly and, very recently, Wesley Fofana have arrived. Thomas Tuchel still has some other top-class options, but Thiago Silva is 37 years old, and Cesar Azpilicueta is 33. Trevoh Chalobah is an option, too, but Tuchel clearly prefers a three-at-the-back approach; if anyone gets hurt, his hands are tied.

Koulibaly not only has to become a high-level Premier League defender — he probably will, as he’s already proving to be strong in both intervention and buildup play — but he also has to stay in the lineup if Chelsea is to avoid serious depth issues in front of Eduoard Mendy.

9. Thiago, MF, Liverpool. You know what you’re getting with Thiago Alcantara. When he’s fit, he’s going to serve as one of the best passers in the world, someone who completes a 35-yard long ball like it’s a casual 10-yarder. He is unafraid of making some physical interventions when he needs to, and he can completely transform an attack. He’s also going to get hurt a lot: since becoming a regular at Barcelona in 2011-12, he has topped 2,000 league minutes just twice, and he’s averaged just 1,696 since joining Liverpool. Oh yeah, and he got hurt 51 minutes into this season.

Liverpool entered the season knowing it might have midfield depth issues, and injuries to Thiago and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have meant that 36-year-old James Milner has already appeared in all four league matches. That seems unsustainable. Thiago should return soon, and it would behoove everyone if he was able to actually stay in the lineup for a while.

8. Kyle Walker, DF, Manchester City. Here are Real Madrid’s splits for when he was and wasn’t playing against them in last season’s Champions League semifinals: With Walker on the pitch, City allowed zero goals and 0.9 xG in 72 minutes. With Walker out injured, City allowed six goals and 3.1 xG in 108 minutes.

Despite the fact that he’s now 32 years old, Walker was able to neutralize Vinicius Jr. as well as anyone can. He still has top-end speed and endurance, he can still intervene when he needs to, and he’s great in buildup play. City lost Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal, and while they replaced him with Anderlecht’s Sergio Gomez, (a) Gomez is 21, and (b) that means their depth isn’t any better than it was last season. Another Walker injury at the wrong time could be just as costly as it was in the spring.

7. Nico Schlotterbeck, DF, Borussia Dortmund. It was one of the most sensible moves you’ll ever see: Desperately in need of new blood and more talent at center-back, BVB went out and acquired the best German center-back in the Bundesliga. The 22-year-old Schlotterbeck is big (6’3, 190), he’s one of the best back-line passers in the league, and he’s quickly learned what it means to play in Borussia Dortmund’s high defensive line: He’s already had to attempt 13 tackles (sixth in the league) and 17 ball clearances (12th), he’s made 34 ball recoveries (fourth), and he’s been involved in 52 duels (first among center backs).

He’s awesome, and he’s going to remain awesome for BVB’s high-risk, high-reward system to reach its potential.

6. Karim Benzema, FW, Real Madrid. Who knows, maybe Rodrygo really is capable of filling in at a high level for Benzema when required. I doubt Carlo Ancelotti wants to find out too much. The soon-to-be Ballon d’Or winner (probably) has scored at least 19 goals in all competitions for 13 of the last 15 seasons but somehow managed to find a new gear at age 34. He scored a career-high 44 goals in 46 matches — two in Spain’s Supercopa, a career-high 27 in 32 La Liga matches and a patently absurd 15 in the Champions League.

He’s played at least 46 matches for 13 of the last 15 seasons as well; how long can his body keep this up without an intermediate or long-term injury? Put another way, how long could Vini, Rodrygo, Valverde, Eden Hazard and Mariano Diaz pick up slack without him?

Sparkly new(ish) attackers for Europe’s best teams

I try to avoid making this a simple “best players in the world” list. We know how awesome players like Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah etc. are. They are proven entities when healthy. But when players of that level change teams — or, in one case, surprise the world by remaining on their current team — it causes a huge ripple.

Three of the five players below have already been stars for either Champions League or World Cup winners. But their exploits will very much determine how (and to whom) the biggest prizes in club soccer are meted out in the months ahead.

5. Darwin Nunez, FW, Liverpool. Granted, his torrid start was obstructed by a pesky “got himself suspended for three matches for head-butting an opponent” issue in the draw vs. Crystal Palace, but including the Community Shield win over Manchester City, Nunez has produced two goals and an assist in just 127 minutes of action and 44 touches. Liverpool essentially traded Sadio Mane (who left for Bayern) for Nunez, and it’s not hard to see that working out just fine over the course of a full season.

Despite a wonky start — two draws and a loss to Manchester United — Liverpool still flashed just about the highest ceiling in Europe in the 3-1 win over City and a 9-0 embarrassment of Bournemouth that got Cherries manager Scott Parker fired (and, incredibly, came without the services of either Nunez or the still-injured Diogo Jota). Once Nunez gets completely acquainted with his surroundings, he could raise that ceiling even higher.

4. Sadio Mane, FW, Bayern Munich. “It’s simple: I want to win every trophy possible.” That was Mane’s explanation, in a recent GQ interview, for why he left Liverpool for Bavaria. He already helped to lift the German Super Cup in August and if early form is any indication, Mane could check a few more off the list within the next 10 months or so. Despite losing the next guy on this list, Bayern has been even more prolific than normal out of the gate, scoring 16 goals in four league matches and hanging five on RB Leipzig in the aforementioned Super Cup.

Mane has contributed four such goals on just 19 shots. (Average xG per shot: an immensely high 0.21.) Even at age 31, he’s still better than most when it comes to both dribbling past defenders and creating high-quality looks, and it’s possible that trading Lewandowski — a.k.a. the best centre-forward in the game — for Mane made Bayern more democratic, more unpredictable, and equally dangerous. That’s unfair!

3. Robert Lewandowski, FW, Barcelona. You’ll forgive Lewy if he has needed some time to get accustomed to his new surroundings. He was with Bayern for nearly a decade, he’s got a bunch of new teammates, and the squad’s been rotated pretty heavily thus far. It’s taken a toll.

Just kidding! He has four goals, assisted by four different players (Ansu Fati, Alex Balde, Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha), in three matches. Barca suffered an unlikely 0-0 draw in their opener against Real Valladolid (xG: Barca 1.9, Rayo 0.5) and has since torched two other opponents by a combined 8-1. If you’re going to sell off a healthy chunk of future income in the name of making the present happier, you might as well get a happier present from it.

Lewandowski appears to be in the same form that he maintained for most of his Bayern tenure, and Barcelona’s going to be an awfully dangerous team this year because of it.

2. Kylian Mbappe, FW, PSG. It’s obviously a stretch to call him a “new” attacker, but it was well-established that he would likely go to Real Madrid in the offseason. In fact, three months ago, PSG looked like it would be heading into the season with a new manager, a new sporting director, no Mbappe, and a version of Neymar that suddenly looked 58 years old. They would likely still have Leo Messi and plenty of other expensive stars, but one of the richest clubs in the world was looking at whatever its version of a rebuild might be.

Then Mbappe stayed, and it’s changed pretty much everything. The club hired manager Christophe Galtier and celebrated sporting director Luis Campos, while also bringing in some desperately needed midfield energy with players like Vitinha (22) and Renato Sanches (25). Neymar, meanwhile, appears to have discovered the fountain of youth.

Mbappe didn’t exactly commit to the club for 10 years or anything, but in a short amount of time PSG has gone from looking further from Champions League glory than it has been in years to closer than ever.

1. Erling Haaland, FW, Manchester City. I’d love to have a more creative answer than this. “Why Liel Abada is the most important player in Europe,” or something. Maybe Mario Gotze. But sometimes the most predictable answer is still the best one.

In five matches and 416 minutes in a City shirt (four in the EPL, one in the Community Shield), Haaland has touched the ball a total of 105 times. That’s less than what Rodri averages in a single match (109.8) and barely more than Joao Cancelo (103.6). But with those 105 touches, he has attempted 21 shots, put 10 of them on goal, scored six times and created four chances for teammates (including an assist to Ilkay Gundogan against Bournemouth). City is as possession-hungry as ever (71% possession to date), but they have figured how to hog the ball while creating increasingly high-quality chances for their broad-shouldered, 6-foot-4 target man.

Both Haaland and Nunez could be the keys to City and Liverpool figuring out how to unlock packed-in defenses. Haaland has certainly made City even more deficit proof — they erased a 2-0 deficit against Newcastle in five minutes, and needed just 18 minutes to turn a 2-0 deficit against Crystal Palace into a 3-2 lead — though one assumes they’ll want to figure out how to prevent those deficits from taking shape at some point. The one box Pep Guardiola still needs to check at City is “Win the Champions League.” He’s got the most efficient “goals per touch” weapon in Europe to help him on that quest now.