FC 100 best men's soccer attacking midfielders, 2022-23

Illustration by MASA

Mischief, creativity, pace and confidence: these are the stock tools of the best attacking midfielders. Sometimes referred to as No. 10, these guys are as comfortable scoring the goals as they are setting them up. With free rein to drift around the pitch and exploit the space, their abundant ability to conjure something from nothing makes them the most entertaining players around.

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This year's ballot had 50 entries from all over the globe and from all areas of ESPN FC, from writers to reporters, from editors to producers, from behind-the-scenes staff to on-air talent. Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden and Luis Miguel Echegaray were just some of the key voters, along with their FC TV counterparts Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop.

Voters were encouraged to take the following into consideration when casting their votes: who are the best men's players right now, weighted toward their 2022-23 seasons? Voters were given discretion as to how much injuries played in votes; several players made the cut despite missing chunks of the season given the scale of their contributions and performances when healthy. Equally, performances in individual competitions (aka Champions League, World Cup) were considered, but were not the overarching factor, in casting a vote. Players whose efforts spanned the largest sample of games should naturally rank higher than those who excelled in short tournament formats.

Why nobody can argue with De Bruyne as No. 1 attacking midfielder on ESPN FC 100

Rob Dawson explains why Kevin De Bruyne deserves top spot as the best attacking midfielder on the ESPN FC 100.

All player copy written by Bill Connelly, Constantin Eckner, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler.

10. Nicolo BARELLA, Inter Milan/Italy

Why he's on the list:

He might seem slight at just 5-foot-9, but Barella is one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the game right now and a major reason Inter Milan surged all the way to the Champions League final last season. With so much energy required from Inter's midfield this season both in and out of possession, Barella racked up 31 Serie A starts and rarely failed to deliver.

Barella's a busybody on both sides of the ball, quick and aggressive in the press, clever in the dribble and astute with his passing when it comes to breaking the opponent's lines. He ranks well in progressive passes and carries, but his link-up play and seemingly endless energy reserves mean his actions frequently lead to shots from a variety of sources.

At 26, Barella has earned his spot among the world's best.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Barella has three years left on his long-term deal at Inter, which means potential suitors would need to pay big if they're to lure him away from Serie A. Liverpool and Newcastle are reportedly interested, which makes sense given how much they demand from their midfielders. -- Tyler

9. Lucas PAQUETA, West Ham/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

Paqueta hasn't always convinced since joining West Ham from Lyon last summer, but he got better as the season went on, helping the team avoid relegation and win the Europa Conference League.

"There's nobody better than Lucas Paqueta," the West Ham fans sing, and while that's not strictly true -- he's only ninth on this list -- there's no doubt the 25-year-old is one of the most fun footballers to watch right now, all vibes and tricks, even if they often aren't accompanied by end product.

Expectations for 2023-24:

If Paqueta stays at West Ham -- there has been some talk of a move away -- he needs to find some consistency, to help push the team back into the top half of the table. More end product would help, and scoring more than last season's four Premier League goals, even getting double figures, would be a start.

For Brazil, having won a starting spot alongside Casemiro at the heart of the national team's midfield, Paqueta needs to keep it, with World Cup qualifiers coming up in the autumn and the Copa America next summer. -- Kirkland

8. Brahim DIAZ, AC Milan/Spain

Why he's on the list:

Brahim Diaz is a bit of a nomad, having spent an eye-opening three seasons on loan in Serie A despite being on Real Madrid's books since his 2019 move away from Manchester City. He's also a bit of a wanderer in the attacking third, too, finding space between the lines where he can and always looking to play the ball into the box and create chaos.

Diaz compares favorably to the likes of James Maddison, Tottenham's summer signing from Leicester, and it makes sense: Diaz is a progressor and creator equally comfortable playing through the middle or out wide. He helped Milan to a Serie A title in 2021-22 and was instrumental in the Rossoneri securing a top-four finish with six goals and seven assists in 33 games.

The big question is: where will the 23-year-old go from here?

Expectations for 2023-24:

After a breezy season on loan in Milan, Diaz returns to Real Madrid and faces another battle for playing time given his parent club's move for Jude Bellingham this summer. -- Tyler

7. GAVI, Barcelona/Spain

Why he's on the list:

He might be in the shadow of Barcelona's other one-name wonder, Pedri, but Gavi has developed into one of the best pressing midfielders out there. He possesses a unique talent in that he can constantly pressure and repressure opponents, seemingly never slowing down. Plus, as opposed to other pressing specialists, Gavi is a gifted passer.

In a sense, he is currently at a similar stage to where Jude Bellingham was after his first season at Borussia Dortmund, in that Gavi might not be an outstanding possession footballer, but he becomes more and more comfortable with the ball. Given his development and the fact that he adds something quite unique to Barcelona's midfield justifies his inclusion into this list.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Considering he will turn only 19 in August, time is on the side of the 2022 Golden Boy award winner. What's more, Gavi has been surprisingly outspoken in the media, sharing his opinion on fan backlash and even potential transfers his club should try to target.

As Sergio Busquets has said his farewell to Camp Nou recently, no one from the once elite group of Barca players is left and new leadership figures are needed to bring team and audience together. Due to his intense playing style and his persona, Gavi might become one of them soon. -- Eckner

6. Julian BRANDT, Borussia Dortmund/Germany

Why he's on the list:

At his best, Brandt is all the best parts of both a winger and an attacker. He has a forward's size (6-foot-1, 183 pounds) and a winger's crossing and pressing ability. His scoring comes and goes, but when he's dialed in, he's one of the best in the world. He has scored at least seven league goals in four of the past six seasons, and he has created at least seven assists in four of five.

As Brandt went in 2022-23, so went Borussia Dortmund. In 15 matches before the World Cup break, he contributed just six combined goals and assists, and BVB, already struggling in the absence of striker Sebastien Haller, found themselves in sixth place, nine points behind Bayern Munich. But in the new year, Brandt was the best version of himself, contributing 11 goals and assists combined in 17 matches; Dortmund won every time he had a goal or assist, too.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Brandt signed a contract extension in April, theoretically keeping him at the Westfalenstadion until 2026. He has cracked his way back into the rotation for the struggling German national team, too. With BVB looking for new leadership in Jude Bellingham's absence and Germany looking for leadership of any form, this could be the most defining season of Brandt's career. -- Connelly

5. Bruno FERNANDES, Manchester United/Portugal

Why he's on the list:

Manchester United fans are rightfully grateful for the Portugal international and how he led the team through some rough spells before the arrival of Erik ten Hag. If it wasn't for Fernandes, the crisis that occurred not so far back with Cristiano Ronaldo's fiery exit could have been much worse.

Still, the United playmaker is not without weaknesses. He often wastes possession by demanding the ball, keeping it for too long and ultimately slowing down attacking plays. On the positive side, Fernandes recorded more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes during the 2022-23 campaign than in the previous three seasons at Manchester United. He remains a very valuable playmaker.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Christian Eriksen should be the one moving forward who initiates plays from a deep-lying midfield position, while Fernandes focusses on putting the final touches on it higher up the field. He still needs to learn that because of the changes this United team has undergone under Ten Hag, he does not need to carry so much weight in attack. -- Eckner

4. Jamal MUSIALA, Bayern Munich/Germany

Why he's on the list:

The first thing you notice about Musiala is his footwork. Or maybe his balance. He measures at 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, but opponents cannot knock him off kilter or take the ball off of him.

The second thing you notice is his poise. With a series of missteps and disappointing results, Bayern Munich appeared to be doing everything in their power to avoid winning an 11th straight Bundesliga title in 2022-23, but in the end, Musiala simply wouldn't let them. A 20-year-old on a squad full of veterans, he was second on the team in league goals (12), first in assists (10) and second in chances created (52), and with Bayern tied with FC Cologne late on the final matchday -- when a draw would give Borussia Dortmund the title -- he stepped up and smoothly delivered the match and title winner from 20 meters in the 89th minute. He is mature, both physically and mentally, beyond his years.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Despite the presence of Thomas Muller in a similar position, Musiala has made himself nearly unbenchable. And while the Bayern roster appears to be a bit in flux, it's more than fair to assume he will be one of the no-doubt building blocks moving forward. That's what happens when you combine 16 goals and 13 assists in all competitions. And when you win the league with your right foot. -- Connelly

3. Bernardo SILVA, Manchester City/Portugal

Why he's on the list:

He's the ultimate glue guy and one of the most consistently creative players in the game. Pep Guardiola gave him sustained minutes both on the right wing and in more of a left defensive midfield role this season. He was mostly a straightforward central midfielder in the previous couple of seasons (except for when he was kind of a center-forward).

Silva has gone wherever Guardiola needed him to go, and he has produced. He has scored between six and eight league goals in four of his six seasons at City, and he has delivered between four and seven assists every year. Need a high-motor defensive midfielder? Put in Silva. Need a steady creator and inverted winger from the right? Silva's your guy. Need someone to coordinate your press? Score from tight angles? Trigger a counterattack? The answer's the same in every single case: Silva will do it.

Expectations for 2023-24:

To define expectations for Silva, we first have to know where he's going to play. Guardiola would predictably still love to have him in tow, but he has also received an enormous contract offer from Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal. Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain have been interested for a while. Regardless of where he plays and what role he is asked to fill, it's pretty obvious that he'll do it well. -- Connelly

2. Martin ODEGAARD, Arsenal/Norway

Why he's on the list:

Odegaard was one of the spearheads of Arsenal's title challenge. He scored 15 Premier League goals, more than any other midfielder, and also chipped in with seven assists. There might have been a sense that Odegaard would never fulfil his potential during a stop-start spell at Real Madrid, but he announced himself as one of the best midfielders in the world last season.

Mikel Arteta has so much faith in the Norwegian standout that the 24-year-old is captain of what is still a very young team.

"There are many ways to lead a team, and he has a unique one," Arteta said last season. "We are really happy he represents the club in the way he does."

Expectations for 2023-24:

After Arsenal pushed Manchester City close in the race for the Premier League title, Odegaard's aim in 2023-24 will be to win some silverware. Arteta's team exceeded expectations by finishing second, but the pressure will be on to take another step forward and close the gap with City. Odegaard missed out on a place at the World Cup in Qatar after Norway failed to qualify, but, along with Erling Haaland, he will have his eye on leading the country to its first major tournament since 2000 ahead of next summer's Euros in Germany. -- Dawson

1. Kevin DE BRUYNE, Manchester City/Belgium

Why he's on the list:

Remember when Guardiola put De Bruyne on the bench at Tottenham in February's 1-0 defeat and publicly criticised him for not doing the "simple things" in March? De Bruyne was outstanding for the rest of the season, taking Manchester City to an incredible treble while playing with a tight hamstring for the final few weeks of the season. The hammy got the best of him early in the Champions League final, but it didn't matter. City won even without their playmaker, who was again the king of assists (mostly sent in the direction of Haaland): 16 in the Premier League, six in the Champions League and four in the FA Cup.

Expectations for 2023-24:

De Bruyne turned 32 at the end of June. He is still recovering from that hamstring injury. This will impact the start of the 2023-24 campaign, as he might not be able to get in a normal preseason. However, he has come back from injuries before and is still at the top of his game on a very dominant City team, so we should expect pretty much the same from him as we saw last season. -- Laurens