FC 100 best men's soccer left-backs, 2022-23

Illustration by MASA

Just like their counterparts on the opposite flank, the best left-backs combine pace and intelligence to be a threat in attack or in defence. Comfort and precision crossing with the left foot is a rare commodity, too, but the top players will be at their best when on the overlap before curling in the perfect ball.

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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 things 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 Alphonso Davies deserves his place as the best left-back

Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Alphonso Davies' place at the top of the list for left-backs in the ESPN FC 100.

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

10. Leonardo SPINAZZOLA, AS Roma/Italy

Why he's on the list:

While his skills are undeniable, Spinazzola could be even higher up the list if he didn't have to play in a rather restrictive tactical system drawn up by Jose Mourinho. He is undoubtedly one of the best inverted full-backs in today's game, even though "going inside" from wide positions might not be what some coaches -- particularly those with an urge to prioritise defensive stability -- want their full-backs to do.

In any case, Spinazzola is one of a kind and thus justifiably included. The only issue that, at times, works against the 30-year-old are his injury woes.

Expectations for 2023-24:

He will continue doing his thing at Roma, who did not even possess a true backup for him in 2022-23: he racked up well over 2,500 minutes for his club, which was no easy feat given a punishing schedule. As long as his legs can carry him down the left wing and inside the middle, Spinazzola ought to be considered among the elite at the position. -- Eckner

9. Raphael GUERREIRO, Borussia Dortmund*/Portugal

*Player has since joined Bayern Munich

Why he's on the list:

Attacking full-backs have become all the rage in high-level football in recent years and Guerreiro, as much a left-midfielder as left-back, was a trend-setter. Acquired from Lorient in 2016, he scored six goals with three assists from 27 chances created in 2016-17, and in his last five league seasons he scored at least four goals four times, served up at least six assists three times and created at least 38 chances four times.

Guerreiro set a career high with both 12 league assists and 58 chances created in 2022-23; he is approaching 30 years of age but might be playing his best ball to date. He also spent a solid amount of time in central midfield, offering an interesting level of versatility.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Can't beat 'em? Join 'em! Guerreiro was a key member of both the 2018-19 and 2022-23 Borussia Dortmund teams that came achingly close to ending Bayern's long Bundesliga title streak but couldn't quite get it done. Now he joins the German giants, giving Bayern and manager Thomas Tuchel two of the best left-backs in the world. How they might coexist remains to be seen. Could Guerreiro show up on the central midfielders portion of the FC 100 next year? -- Connelly

8. Alejandro BALDE, Barcelona/Spain

Why he's on the list:

He pairs buildup skill with intervention-when-necessary capabilities as well as almost any left-back in the world. Barcelona made waves by pulling "financial levers" to bring experience and talent to the team last year, but Balde's emergence was almost as important as that of any new arrival.

Balde joined Barcelona in 2011, at age eight, and graduated up through La Masia to make his debut early in 2021-22. He played just 206 total minutes that season but surged in 2022-23, quickly making himself irreplaceable to a defense that allowed a league-low 20 goals.

He played 3,120 minutes in 44 matches, including 33 of 38 in Barcelona's LaLiga title run. In league play, he was fourth on the team in minutes (2,476), assists (six), expected assists (5.4), pass completions (1,283), ball recoveries (145) and tackles made (42).

Balde isn't the most physically imposing presence, and he isn't as involved in attack as other elite fullbacks, but he's a ball retention master, and he was in Barca's backyard all along.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Keep improving. Balde won't turn 20 until October, and while his contract is scheduled to expire in 2024, he is expected to sign an extension soon, likely one with a mammoth release clause like the ones attached to deals with fellow Barca youngsters Pedri and Gavi. His future is bright, and his future is in Barcelona. -- Connelly

7. Pervis ESTUPINAN, Brighton/Ecuador

Why he's on the list:

He's a perfect example of Roberto De Zerbi's magic wand at work. The 25-year-old Ecuadorian international was a good player at Villarreal, moved to Brighton, became clearly better under Graham Potter for the little amount of time they worked together, only for De Zerbi to truly take him to the next level! He is now one of the best left-backs in the world, full of intensity, energy, attacking flair and defensive toughness.

The Italian manager developed all his qualities and his performances rocketed, especially after the World Cup, which finished in a heartbreak with a group stage elimination.

Expectations for 2023-24:

It's clear that 2023-2024 should be an even better season for Estupinan. He will have more time with De Zerbi, including a full preseason, making that team better and better prepared. The left-back will look to be a leader on this team during their Europa League campaign, given that he's a rare player in the squad to have played in the Champions League and in Europe full stop before. Such experience will be valuable.

The objective is that he has a top campaign and then leaves in the summer of 2024 for a bigger club. -- Laurens

6. Luke SHAW, Manchester United/England

Why he's on the list:

It wasn't so long ago that Luke Shaw was completely out of favour under Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford, but over the past few years in particular, he has become one of the best left-backs in the world.

Shaw lost his place at United at the start of last season but eventually won it back from Tyrell Malacia after rediscovering his best form. His most impressive displays, however, were as a makeshift centre-back and helping keep Erling Haaland quiet during Manchester City's 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in January. In terms of defensive positioning and reading the game, he's one of the best there is.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Shaw had a good season, but he will want to be more consistent in 2023-24. He has the security of a new long-term contract, signed in April, and he'll be expected to be at the front of United's push for more trophies. Ten Hag's use of the 27-year-old as a left-sided centre-back has also opened up the possibility that he could move inside permanently in the future. However, if he stays at left-back, he will be keen to create more chances and provide more assists. -- Dawson

5. Nathan AKE, Manchester City/Netherlands

Why he's on the list:

Never question Ake's perseverance. He joined City from AFC Bournemouth in 2020 and proceeded to play in just 13 matches in his first season. Total minutes: 993. In 2020-21, he carved out a role as a "domestic cups and Champions League group stage" guy and finished with 27 appearances and 1,746 minutes. But in 2022-23, he landed on the first team, so to speak: 26 Premier League matches, eight Champions League matches (four in the knockout stages) and a total of 41 matches and 2,892 minutes. He had the most touches and pass attempts in City's Champions League final win over Inter. He started at the bottom of an impressive totem pole in Manchester and climbed to the top in two years.

How? Ake contributes everything Guardiola needs from what amounts to a left-center back. He is sure-footed in buildup play and while City defenders don't need to intervene all that much, he does so, in a clean and efficient manner, when asked. He wins one-on-ones on the ground and in the air, and he passes as well as any defender.

Expectations for 2023-24:

The thing about playing for such a loaded team is that it never becomes less loaded. Ake carved out his niche, but now he has to defend it. Still, he's gone from being the subject of transfer rumors to, if rumors are true, getting ready to sign a new contract extension. It appears he will be part of the Guardiola machine for a while longer. -- Connelly

4. Andrew ROBERTSON, Liverpool/Scotland

Why he's on the list:

Robertson has played better campaigns than the recent one, but he showed much more consistency compared to several of his Liverpool teammates and remained an assist machine from the left wing. If the ball distribution toward his side was at least all right during games, Robertson remained in a position to penetrate the final third and find targets inside the box. He might not be the greatest at combination plays but has shown significant improvement in that area.

Overall, Robertson was not the reason Liverpool missed out on the Champions League spots. He also behaved with impressive restraint in the aftermath of the incident involving referee Constantine Hatzidakis, who hit Robertson with his elbow at half-time of the Liverpool-Arsenal game in April. He could have verbally lashed out at Hatzidakis and made an even much bigger deal out of it, yet he refrained from doing so.

Expectations for 2023-24:

His place in Jürgen Klopp's starting lineup remains as safe as the parking lot at the training ground in Kirkby. If things won't suddenly go south for some reason, the Scotsman will not only be a mainstay at Anfield, but he could approach the status of other longtime Reds who became synonymous with specific eras in club history.

While last season was a setback for Liverpool, if they manage to turn things around, Robertson will likely play a prominent role in such a successful endeavour. -- Eckner

3. Oleksandr ZINCHENKO, Arsenal/Ukraine

Why he's on the list:

Fresh off four Premier League titles and a string of domestic cups at Man City, Zinchenko was one of Mikel Arteta's first orders of transfer business last summer as the Ukraine international swapped the Etihad for the Emirates. The move paid off for Arsenal -- Arteta said prior to the signing that the 26-year-old's "versatility is something that is going to be important for the team" and so it proved, with Zinchenko making 26 Premier League starts (a career high) and posting elite numbers as an attacking full-back for progressive carries and passes.

The tactical boot camp under Guardiola for six seasons paid off, too: Zinchenko filled a number of roles for the front-running Gunners, even though they couldn't translate 30 matchweeks atop the table into a first league title since the Invincibles did it in 2003-04.

It's also worth noting the tremendous emotional pain Zinchenko still carries due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine; the defender has been inspirational and outspoken about the atrocities of that war.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Zinchenko's quick assimilation to Arsenal has been a delight, especially when it comes to his leadership and voice of reason as things were going wrong down the stretch. He has been there and done it with City, and he'll look to get the Gunners to that promised land, too. -- Tyler

2. Theo HERNANDEZ, AC Milan/France

Why he's on the list:

Four goals, three assists in Serie A last season with the goal of the year contender with his rush and strike against Lazio, a solid World Cup with a goal in the semis: in terms of Theo Hernandez's standards, it was not even that great of a campaign, yet the numbers and the moments are still good. The Frenchman cemented his place even more as one of the best left-backs in the world.

Expectations for 2023-24:

One of the most fascinating things to witness with the French team this season will be the battle of the Hernandez brothers! Lucas will come back from injury and compete with his sibling for the left-back starting position. Theo will have to be at his best to keep his place with France and take Milan back to the top in Italy, keeping them competitive in the Champions League as they have been this season, too. -- Laurens

1. Alphonso DAVIES, Bayern Munich/Canada

Why he's on the list:

Meep meep. Alphonso Davies has not yet turned 23 years old, and he has yet to discover his perfect balance between the typical defensive requirements of the fullback position and the attacking potential it offers in the modern game. But his extreme speed and dribbling capabilities have continued to make him one of the best left-backs in the game, even while he continues to search for optimization (and fight through some injuries) on a Bayern side in transition.

In all competitions this season, Davies ranked fourth on his team in chances created (60), fifth in pass completions (1,617) and sixth in assists (eight). Out of possession, he also ranked third on Bayern in ball recoveries (275), fourth in tackles made (74), fourth in shots blocked (11) and fifth in overall defensive interventions (451). Goodness. He plays a key role in attack while providing major defensive cover. He has been playing at this level for four years already -- oh, and he just led the Canadian national team to its first World Cup in 36 years.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Davies' agent made waves recently by suggesting he would cut off contract extension talks due to Bayern's recent unstable front-office situation. There's plenty of time for club and player to renew terms -- his contract doesn't expire until 2025 -- but that could make him a big name in next summer's transfer market, if not earlier. And if he can stay healthy, he'll be a major player for a major club for the next decade to come. -- Connelly