2024 FC 100: Odegaard among best midfielders in men's soccer

From left: Martin Odegaard, Toni Kroos, Rodri, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham Photo-illustration by MASA

We used to have two positional rankings to cover the heart of the field, but we're combining those with skill with and without the ball here for 2023-24. There are defensive midfielders who may create or destroy. Either they are like Rodri, covering plenty of distance to disrupt the opposition with precision and elan, or like Martin Odegaard, who control the rhythm of the game with crisp ball distribution and superhuman vision.

Mischief, creativity, pace and confidence: these are the stock tools of the best attacking midfielders. Sometimes referred to as the No. 10, these guys are as comfortable scoring the goals as they are teeing up teammates. 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.

Whatever your preference, your team cannot succeed without quality in the middle of the park.

30. James MADDISON, Tottenham/England

Key attributes/style of play: Inventive playmaker always looking to make something happen

Stat to know: Completed 87.4% of his passes in the 2023-24 Premier League season, including 85.2% in the attacking third.

Why he's on the list: Manager Ange Postecoglou described Maddison's £40 million signing from Leicester City as a "no-brainer," and it's easy to see why. Spurs faced a major issue last summer when losing talismanic striker Harry Kane to Bayern Munich, not just for Kane's production in front of goal but his understanding with Son Heung-Min. Maddison helped plug that gap by quickly striking up a strong relationship with Son, spotting runs with the clever passing range that helps Postecoglou's side flow so impressively at their best.

Maddison is a player in the classic Tottenham mold, a player in the vein of club legend Glenn Hoddle who is able to unlock defenses and find space where seemingly none exists.

Projection for 2024-25: Maddison will hope to put his injury problems behind him, having missed three months of the campaign after rupturing ankle ligaments. He struggled to hit his early-season heights after returning from that injury, but is nevertheless a pivotal part of Postecoglou's plans. -- James Olley

29. Julian BRANDT, Borussia Dortmund/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: Versatile attacking midfielder and creative force

Stat to know: Four goal contributions in this year's UEFA Champions League was third most for Dortmund behind Niclas Fullkrug and Marcel Sabitzer (six each).

Why he's on the list: He was right when he said after their semifinal win over PSG in the Champions League that life at Borussia Dortmund "never gets boring." Dortmund have seen star players come and go, but Brandt has remained one of their most impressive figures, helping them reach the Champions League final this season. This term he has played through the middle in his No. 10 role, and also off either flank as Dortmund look to life post-Marco Reus. And he's managed to rediscover his best form after a spell out with illness in January that saw him lose where he lost six kilograms (13 lbs) in two weeks.

"You're missing the feeling on the pitch, the rhythm, the right decisions -- that's how it felt for me," he said at the time.

However, he charged into the end of the campaign, despite a difficult season for Dortmund in the Bundesliga, and sat fourth on assists per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga with 0.45, second overall in the league with 11 assists, and third for key passes (80). And he's also been at the forefront of their incredible Champions League journey, including a brilliant solo performance in the second leg of Dortmund's quarterfinal win over Atletico Madrid.

Projection for 2024-25: Brandt missed out on a spot in Germany's Euros squad, so it'll be a summer of recuperation. He may yet attract attention from abroad, but given their late flourish to the season, and the departure of club legend Reus, expect Dortmund to fight hard to keep hold of Brandt. -- Tom Hamilton

Why 'incredible' Rodri deserves his spot as No. 1 midfielder on the FC 100

Gab & Juls discuss the top three midfielders on the ESPN FC 100.

28. Warren ZAIRE-EMERY, Paris Saint-Germain/France

Key attributes/style of play: Complete midfielder with intelligence in defense, transition and possession

Stat to know: At 18 years and 54 days old, Zaire-Emery became the second-youngest starter in a Champions League semifinal, behind Julian Draxler (17-226 with Schalke 04 in May 2011).

Why he's on the list: There is nothing Zaïre-Emery can't do. He is a generational talent who is strong, good on the ball, able to tackle and score. He can fit into every tactical system. His performances, especially in the first half of the season, were incredible for a 17-year-old (now 18). He was also one of the best players in the Champions League group stage.

Projection for 2024-25: The Paris-born prodigy signed a new contract at PSG straight after his 18th birthday. His future at the club is tied through 2029, and Paris want to build their team around him, especially after the departure of Kylian Mbappé. -- Julien Laurens

27. Enzo FERNÁNDEZ, Chelsea/Argentina

Key attributes/style of play: A tireless midfielder and formidable tackler with wide passing range

Stat to know: Fernandez had the most passes per game in the opponent's half and opponent's attacking third among all Chelsea players in the Premier League this season.

Why he's on the list: Chelsea paid a then-British record fee to sign Fernandez from Benfica in a £106.8m deal barely a month after he won the 2022 FIFA World Cup with Argentina. Fernandez has struggled to consistently produce his best form since then, perhaps caught up in the wider malaise at Chelsea but also playing through the pain of a hernia problem. Surgery ended his season prematurely in April. Still, there have been flashes of the 23-year-old's undeniable quality, notably in how he's added an attacking side to his game with seven goals across all competitions.

Projection for 2024-25: Former Blues boss Mauricio Pochettino has no doubt that Fernandez will eventually thrive at Stamford Bridge. "The whole season is good for him to learn," said Pochettino in April. "Even if he is a world champion, he needs to adapt to the Premier League and to this club. For me, there is no doubt that he is going to be much better next season." -- Olley

26. Federico VALVERDE, Real Madrid/Uruguay

Key attributes/style of play: A selfless, hard-running midfielder with a rocket shot

Stat to know: Valverde posted personal career highs this season in LaLiga in assists, chances created, pass completed percentage, tackle percentage and recoveries.

Why he's on the list: Valverde is the most underrated member of Madrid's vaunted midfield. His goal-scoring dropped off in the last year -- two league goals in 2023-24 -- but that's because he sacrificed himself for the team, often adopting a more withdrawn, central position, rather than tearing down the right wing. A fan favorite at the Bernabeu, his work ethic allows others to shine.

Projection for 2024-25: His skill set is unique, and despite fierce competition for first-team places, he'll keep his place in the Madrid starting XI. Valverde turns 26 this summer and is on his way to being a senior member of the dressing room. With Toni Kroos retiring and Luka Modric potential summer departures, Valverde will become more influential. -- Alex Kirkland

25. Lucas PAQUETA, West Ham United/Brazil

Key attributes/style of play: A tireless presser, master of one-on-ones and line-breaking passes

Stat to know: Paqueta provided the second-most successful through balls in Premier League 2023-24 with 17 (Martin Odegaard was first with 21).

Why he's on the list: A master of little things, Paqueta's attacking numbers are solid -- he scored eight goals and registered seven assists in all competitions this season -- but he makes his mark with pure energy whether he's deployed on the left wing or as a No. 10. He's made the second-most ball recoveries and drawn the second-most fouls of any West Ham player, and he's got a sense for the big stage: Four of his eight goals came in the UEFA Europa League.

Projection for 2024-25: Paqueta might have ended up at Manchester City last season if it weren't for alleged betting breaches that remained unsettled at the time. Now that investigations are over and the Brazilian has been charged, City may reopen their pursuit. -- Bill Connelly

24. Granit XHAKA, Bayer Leverkusen/Switzerland

Key attributes/style of play: Like a talisman, he did everything at the center of Bayer Leverkusen's historic season

Stat to know: 92.1% pass completion in Bundesliga, with 3,003 passes completed; 633 more than the next-closest player this season.

Why he's on the list: There's an argument that Leverkusen's signing of Xhaka from Arsenal last summer was the most influential transfer in football this past season. He has started every game but one for Xabi Alonso's side as they went on an incredible 51-match unbeaten run.

Whereas before at Arsenal there may have been a perception that he was a mere enforcer, this season with Bayer he has been the complete midfielder. In the second leg of their Europa League semifinal against AS Roma, Xhaka created 10 chances from open play, equaling a record set by Juan Mata back in 2010 when he was at Valencia. In the Bundesliga, the Switzerland international is top of the charts for successful passes into the final third (367), progressive passes (392), touches (3558) and successful passes completed (3020). In short, he's been their complete midfielder.

"From a sporting side, he's met the expectations for sure, but it's not only his ability as a player -- also, as a leader, as a fixed point, he gives the orientation to others," Bayer's sporting director Simon Rolfes told ESPN in April.

Projection for 2024-25: If Bayer Leverkusen can maintain these standards, they'll head into next season looking to achieve the same feats: win the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal and win their first Champions League title. Expect Xhaka to be at the forefront of that. But first up for Xhaka will be the Euros, where he's expected to lead Switzerland at the tournament. -- Hamilton

23. Joao PALHINHA, Fulham/Portugal

Key attributes/style of play: Combative midfielder with a tireless engine

Stat to know: Palhinha led the Premier League in tackles during the 2023-24 season (152).

Why he's on the list: Bayern Munich thought they had landed Palhinha last summer in a €65m deal, but the move collapsed because Fulham struggled to find a replacement. Yet this season, his form might lead them to conclude he is actually irreplaceable.

Palhinha finished the 2023-24 season with the most tackles made by any player in Europe's top five leagues. An excellent ball-winner who anticipates danger better than most, the 28-year-old helped Fulham offset the loss of key goal scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic (who joined the Saudi Pro League) and secure a comfortable mid-table Premier League finish.

Projection for 2024-25: Palhinha signed a new contract with Fulham shortly after that move to Bayern collapsed, tying him to Craven Cottage until 2028. Manager Marco Silva wants to keep the Portugal international at the club, but vice-chairman Tony Khan said in February: "I would want him as part of the team for as long as possible and we were very happy to extend his contract, but if an offer came along that would make sense for everyone I think that's something you have to consider with every player at the right time." -- Olley

22. Bernardo SILVA, Manchester City/Portugal

Key attributes/style of play: Busy, versatile midfielder who can do everything

Stat to know: Silva completed 824 passes in attacking third in Premier League matches this season (ranked fifth overall).

Why he's on the list: Pep Guardiola has had some great players at Manchester City since he arrived at the club in 2016, but Silva is right up there. He's the player Guardiola trusts in big games and has repeatedly shown his versatility by playing anywhere across the front three, as well as deep or higher up in midfield. Guardiola's main aim is to control games, and it's players like Silva who help him do it. Careful on the ball and running from the first minute to the last, he's a manager's dream.

Projection for 2024-25: City are desperate for him to stay at the Etihad, but after seven years in Manchester, Silva is ready for a new challenge. Barcelona can't afford his £50m release clause, so his most likely destination is Paris Saint-Germain if he moves this summer. City, however, have convinced him to stay before and will hope to do so again. -- Rob Dawson

21. GAVI, Barcelona/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: Tenacious, talented and technically sound

Stat to know: Gavi led all Barcelona players in distance covered per game (all competitions) before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in November.

Why he's on the list: It's hard to believe Gavi is only 19 when you watch him play given his perfect blend of aggression and ability. His former coach, Xavi Hernandez, said Gavi is the "soul" of the current Barça side and he's been a massive loss since injuring his ACL. Barça have missed his energy, someone capable of creating something from nothing like diving in front of the ball with his head to make blocks -- something he has done on several occasions now.

Projection for 2024-25: Gavi is not expected to be back for the start of the new campaign, so the aim for next year is simple: recover from his injury and continue the development that's underpinned his fledgling career to date. -- Sam Marsden

20. Hakan CALHANOGLU, Internazionale/Turkey

Key attributes/style of play: An excellent holding midfielder and deep-lying playmaker all in one

Stat to know: Led Inter Milan with 1,906 passes completed in Serie A (ranked fifth in Serie A with 5.8 xA).

Why he's on the list: The Turkish midfielder played a key part in Inter regaining the Scudetto (Serie A title) this season with an impressive individual campaign after transforming himself from an attacking midfielder to occupy a deeper role. Despite the major switch in his role and responsibilities, the 30-year-old still made everything look so easy and despite Inter's Champions League last 16 exit, he has been outstanding.

Projection for 2024-25: He still has three more years left on his contract at Inter Milan and he is not going anywhere. He has a strong relationship with the club, the fans and Simone Inzaghi, his manager. -- Laurens

19. Eduardo CAMAVINGA, Real Madrid/France

Key attributes/style of play: An all-round midfielder with nonstop energy

Stat to know: Camavinga is one of 10 players in LaLiga with a pass completion percentage of 90% or better and a tackle percentage of 50% or better (min. 900 minutes).

Why he's on the list: A key member of the next generation at Real Madrid and one of the most fun players to watch in that squad, the only reason Camavinga hasn't cemented his place in the starting XI is the elite level of competition he faces for minutes. (We're talking to you, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.) Still, the France international has started 20 league games in 2023-24, with another 10 appearances as a substitute. His game-changing role off the bench, upping a game's rhythm, is crucial; consider his impact in El Clasico last October, helping turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win.

One aspect to improve is goal scoring: no goals since March 2022 is absurd, given his ability to shoot from distance.

Projection for 2024-25: He will look to continue his growth as a player, consolidate his place at Real Madrid and become even more important for club and country. And how about scoring some goals? -- Kirkland

18. Alexis MAC ALLISTER, Liverpool/Argentina

Key attributes/style of play: A rapidly-improving number six who knits defense and attack with style

Stat to know: Led Liverpool with 195 recoveries in Premier League this season, the most for a Liverpool midfielder since Jordan Henderson (228) in 2021/22.

Why he's on the list: Liverpool embarked on a huge midfield rebuilding project last summer with Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita all moving on and Mac Allister, Wataru Endo, Dominik Szoboszlai and Ryan Gravenberch coming in. The new signings made a contribution this season, but Mac Allister settled instantly and became the hub at the base of Liverpool's midfield. He conducted the tempo of the game and added attacking qualities to his game as the season progressed.

Projection for 2024-25: All eyes at Anfield will be on the changes made by incoming coach Arne Slot, but Mac Allister is likely to be a pivotal figure under the new manager. At 25, he is entering the peak years of his career and will become even more integral to the team in the seasons ahead. -- Ogden

17. Bruno GUIMARAES, Newcastle United/Brazil

Key attributes/style of play: Durable central midfielder who can pass, tackle and score

Stat to know: Led the Premier League with 236 recoveries in 2023-24.

Why he's on the list: Though Newcastle weren't able to retain their place in the Champions League this season, Guimaraes enjoyed a successful campaign. His seven goals were the best return of his career, though manager Eddie Howe probably valued his availability more. Newcastle were hit hard with injuries throughout the season from defense to attack, but Guimaraes still managed to play 50 games in all competitions.

Projection for 2024-25: Guimaraes is one of Newcastle's key players linked with an exit over the summer as the club battles to meet the Premier League's profit and sustainability rules (PSR). There was a moment after the final game at Brentford where it looked like he was waving goodbye to the travelling fans, though Howe insisted in his postmatch news conference that he wants the Brazilian to stay. -- Dawson

16. Xavi SIMONS, Leipzig (on loan from PSG)/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: A versatile, pacey and tenacious attacker across the opposition half

Stat to know: One of two players from Europe's top 5 leagues to complete 100 successful dribbles and create 100 chances in all competitions this season.

Why he's on the list: At 21, the Dutch attacking midfielder took the Bundesliga by storm this season at Leipzig, where he was on loan from PSG. Capable of playing as a winger, second striker, false 9 or No. 10, he also has the confidence to entertain and make things happen. His numbers have been great this season after a successful year at PSV too.

Projection for 2024-25: There is a lot of noise around his future at the moment. He wants to start every game for a big club, but PSG and Luis Enrique can't guarantee him that. Therefore, he could pop up on the radar of a number of top clubs, with the Ligue 1 side either moving him on with a value around the €40-50M range, or loaning him out again for another season, with Leipzig and Barcelona keen. -- Laurens

15. Joshua KIMMICH, Bayern Munich/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: A deep-lying playmaker operating as the pivot for his team

Stat to know: Seventh-most chances created in Bundesliga among midfielders in 2023-24 (72).

Why he's on the list: Kimmich endured some ups and plenty of downs during the season, but came out of it looking reinvigorated. Manager Thomas Tuchel chose to use the Germany international primarily as a right-back in the second half of the 2023-24 campaign, once again igniting discussions about the role that suits the 29-year-old best. Kimmich himself would prefer to be a central midfielder, which is where ESPN has figured him in.

Projection for 2024-25: While he was not on good terms with Tuchel, it seemed as if Kimmich's time at Bayern could be over by the end of the season. Then Tuchel left the club, to be replaced by Vincent Kompany, while Kimmich and Bayern's management have held initial talks about the player's future. He hasn't yet extended his contract, which runs out at the end of next season, and might be on the lookout for a new club. It's unlikely that a final decision will be made before Euro 2024. -- Eckner

14. Frenkie DE JONG, Barcelona/Netherlands

Key attributes/style of play: A launching pad for attacks through ball-carrying or playing passes

Stat to know: Leads all LaLiga players with 32 through balls completed since joining Barcelona ahead of the 2019-20 season.

Why he's on the list: Three separate ankle injuries have halted the Dutchman this season, but he has still been one of LaLiga's most consistent performers. Of players to play more than 900 minutes, only Toni Kroos (94.01) completes more passes than De Jong (83.95) per 90 minutes. No one carries the ball more, either: De Jong averages 412.45 meters driving with the ball per 90 minutes.

Projection for 2024-25: The numbers look good, but there is still a De Jong quandary at Barça. What is the best fit for him? Is it as a defensive midfielder, as one of the two midfielders further forward or as part of a double pivot? With that ongoing doubt, would Barcelona -- a club that needs to raise money through player transfers -- look to find a new club for him? If he stays, however, there is an expectation that he'll step forward and make the team his. -- Marsden

13. Nicolo BARELLA, Inter Milan/Italy

Key attributes/style of play: Combines work rate with quality and versatility in midfield

Stat to know: Ranked fifth among Serie A midfielders this season in passes completed (1,762).

Why he's on the list: Barella is one of those players whom coaches love: no-nonsense, high intensity guy with plenty of quality who always puts the team first. As a midfielder who also chips in with a few goals, Barella has tons of personality and leadership and never goes missing. Those are the sort of "soft skills" which make him so coveted.

If anything, some feel he may want to slow things down a bit and pace himself, but you get the impression he can play in only one gear: all-out.

Projection for 2024-25: Barella's contract is up in 2026, and Inter have been working on a new deal for the past six months. They're confident they'll be able to announce one soon. Until that happens, he'll likely be subject to transfer speculation. At 27, he's in his prime and could help upgrade many a midfield. -- Marcotti

12. Jamal MUSIALA, Bayern Munich/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: An athletic playmaker who dictates tempo

Stat to know: 12 goals across all competitions for Bayern Munich this season; second most on the team behind only Harry Kane (44).

Why he's on the list: Musiala might not have been as consistently strong as he was in 2022-23, but he still showed why he is considered a generational talent in Germany. As a No. 10 or as a winger, he can create plays and set up the likes of Harry Kane and Thomas Müller to score from inside the box.

Projection for 2024-25: While his contract runs until 2026, the expectation once was that Bayern would attempt to sign him to a new contract with an increased salary during the first half of 2024. Since he has yet to do that, rumors persist that he may join a club in the Premier League. If Musiala has a strong showing at Euro 2024, any potential transfer fee will increase even further. -- Eckner

11. Kai HAVERTZ, Arsenal/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: A versatile attacking player given a fresh start as Arsenal's striker

Stat to know: Had 20 goal contributions in the Premier League this season (13 goals, 7 assists), tied with the 20 he had in the Bundesliga in 2018-19 for the most in a league season in his career.

Why he's on the list: Havertz often played as a forward at Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea, but Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta did not spend £67.5m on him last summer to play through the middle. Arteta wanted an attack-minded eight who could play out wide -- and possibly play up front if required -- but it is difficult to overstate the transformative effect on Havertz since he started leading the line.

Overall, Havertz registered 26 goal involvements in 91 league games at Chelsea. At Arsenal, that number is 20 from 37. "A lot of the time players decide where they have to play -- and we can have certain ideas -- but then you see certain relationships and some things flow," said Arteta in April. "And when it flows, you have to let it go and I think Kai at the moment is flowing and he's feeling really comfortable there."

Projection for 2024-25: Sources told ESPN that Arsenal want to sign a forward this summer but Havertz's success could change the profile of the player they target. Regardless, he has proved a more valuable contributor to the team of late than Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah, both of whom face uncertain futures at the club. -- Olley

10. Kevin DE BRUYNE, Manchester City/Belgium

Key attributes/style of play: Clever playmaker and one of the best passers in the world

Stat to know: De Bruyne (112) passed Cesc Fabregas (111) for second-most assists all-time in the Premier League (only Ryan Giggs has more at 162).

Why he's on the list: The Belgian midfielder missed nearly five months of the season because of a hamstring injury, but still reached double figures in assists in the Premier League. Only Man United's Ryan Giggs has more assists in the history of the Premier League, too, which tells you everything about De Bruyne's contribution to City's winning machine during his nine years at the club. His relationship with striker Erling Haaland is also a formidable one, producing the first goal in City's crucial 2-0 win over Tottenham to put Guardiola's team on the brink of a record fourth successive title.

Projection for 2024-25: He has another year left on his contract, but clubs from the Saudi Pro League are expected to make attempts to sign him this summer. City hope he will stay, though they're going to leave any decision up to the player. Now 32, much will depend on whether De Bruyne believes his body can cope with the rigors of another grueling season in the Premier League and Champions League. -- Dawson

Bruno FERNANDES, Manchester United/Portugal

Key attributes/style of play: A master of creativity and equally comfortable being an aggressor against tough opponents

Stat to know: Leads Manchester United in games (232), goals (79), assists (64), and shots on goal (249) since joining the squad in January 2020.

Why he's on the list: Bruno is the only Manchester United player in the FC100 and for good reason -- he's been a rare shining light at Old Trafford alongside a host of underperforming stars who have consistently failed to match up to the Portugal international's standards. Bruno is United's creative force and his contribution in a bad team stands out. He scores goals, creates chances and leads from the front as captain.

Projection for 2024-25: After four years of repeated disappointment and underachievement, United face the nightmare prospect of Bruno being tempted away from Old Trafford this summer. He was last given a new contract in April 2022 and his existing deal expires in 2026. Unless United thrash out a new deal this summer, interest from Barcelona and Inter Milan will naturally intensify. -- Ogden

8. PEDRI, Barcelona/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: A midfield technician who controls the match rhythm

Stat to know: Pedri leads LaLiga players in expected assists before turning 22 since joining Barcelona ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Why he's on the list: When fit, there are few better players than Pedri. The 21-year-old stands out for his ability on the ball, capable of playing deeper or stepping forward. He's sublime even when half-fit, too, something he showed with a brilliant assist off the bench for Raphinha against PSG this season after rushing back from injury.

At times likened to Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Pedri is one of the players around whom Barça want to build their team.

Projection for 2024-25: Since his first season at the club when he played over 50 games as a 17-year-old, Pedri has struggled to stay fit. Injuries hampered him this year, too, forcing him to miss 19 matches. If he can stay fit next season, Pedri could start to fulfill his high-bar potential. -- Marsden

7. Aurelien TCHOUAMENI, Real Madrid/France

Key attributes/style of play: A midfield enforcer with positional versatility

Stat to know: Real Madrid was unbeaten in the 31 matches Tchouameni started across all competitions this season (25 wins, 6 draws, 0 losses).

Why he's on the list: It was never going to be easy replacing Casemiro at Real Madrid, though Tchouameni is one of few players capable of filling those boots. The 24-year-old has never looked overawed no matter the occasion or opponent, adding steel and composure to Madrid's midfield. When he gets forward, he's good enough on the ball to combine with more technically gifted teammates and create scoring chances.

His aerial threat brings something different to this Madrid team: two of his three LaLiga goals this season came from corners. He has s also proved capable of filling in at centre-back amid an injury crisis but insists it's not his preferred role.

Projection for 2024-25: Winning over any remaining doubters at the Bernabeu (and there are still a few) to become Madrid's first-choice holding midfielder, week in and week out. -- Kirkland

6. Florian WIRTZ, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: A technical marvel with close ball control at high speed and in crowded spaces.

Stat to know: 1 of 7 players with 10-plus goals and 10-plus assists in Europe's top 5 leagues this season.

Why he's on the list: Wirtz was a key component in Leverkusen's winning formula, with the 21-year-old serving as the go-to guy behind whoever was playing striker. His ability to enter the space between opposing lines and draw defenders' attention to him helped his teammates tremendously. Wirtz is an all-action player whose stock is continuously rising. It's just a matter of time before the first major offers -- probably close to the three-digit million range -- come in.

Projection for 2024-25: He has already made clear that he will stay at Leverkusen for at least another year. The fact that Xabi Alonso will continue managing the team may have helped make it easier for Wirtz to commit to the new Bundesliga champions. -- Eckner

5. Declan RICE, Arsenal/England

Key attributes/style of play: All-action midfielder who has added goals and assists to his defensive game

Stat to know: Tied for ninth-most goal contributions among midfielders in Premier League 2023-24 with 15.

Why he's on the list: Rice was one of two players to move to Premier League clubs for more than £100m last summer. The 25-year-old joined Arsenal from West Ham for £105m while Moises Caicedo left Brighton for Chelsea in a £115m deal. The contrast in both players' fortunes underlines how well Rice has handled that pressure, leaving the price tag behind to the extent Arsenal supporters regularly sing: "We got him half price."

Rice has become one of England's finest defensive midfielders, but at Arsenal he has often played as a more attack-minded No. 8, scoring key goals against Manchester United, Chelsea and Luton, while only Kevin De Bruyne registered more Premier League assists in 2024 than Rice's seven. He even takes corners now. Moreover, Rice's winning mentality, work ethic and natural fitness have seen him play a key role in the Gunners pushing City all the way. In many respects, he was the steel and silk that Arsenal had been lacking.

Projection for 2024-25: More of the same. Rice is a year into his new life at Arsenal and feels completely at home. According to sources, the Gunners may look to reshuffle their midfield -- particularly if Thomas Partey leaves the club -- but Jorginho recently signing a new contract suggests Rice will continue to play primarily as an eight with the option of reverting back to the No. 6 position when required. -- Olley

4. Toni KROOS, Real Madrid/Germany

Key attributes/style of play: A pass master, precise and reliable under pressure

Stat to know: Leads LaLiga in pass completion percentage this season with 95% (min. 10 games); also leads LaLiga in progressive passes and line-breaking passes.

Why he's on the list: It might sound strange given that we're talking about a World Cup and five-time Champions League winner, but Kroos, 34, just had the best season of his career. More influential than ever at Real Madrid, he'll return to the heart of Germany's midfield at the Euros this summer. It feels like Kroos is belatedly getting the wider recognition he's long deserved, convincing naysayers who saw him as "just" a safety-first passer.

For example, Kroos' performance in Madrid's 2-2 Champions League semifinal draw with Bayern Munich was epochal, a night he crowned with a glorious, defense-splitting pass for Vinicius Junior.

Projection for 2024-25: After a trophy-laden career with Madrid since joining in 2014, including helping Los Blancos win the Champions League again, Kroos announced he will retire from football after playing for Germany at the European Championship this summer. Kroos has always wanted to go out on top. -- Kirkland

3. Martin ODEGAARD, Arsenal/Norway

Key attributes/style of play: Stylish and creative playmaker who knits Arsenal together

Stat to know: Tied for third most in Premier League with 10 assists this season (only Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer have more).

Why he's on the list: A contender to be considered one of the Premier League's most influential players, Odegaard epitomizes the class and composure Arsenal exhibit when playing at their best. Nobody plays more progressive passes than Odegaard for Arsenal, putting himself at the heart of their possession-based approach and enabling the Gunners to break down tight defenses, a problem that's impacted them in the past.

The 25-year-old's variety and vision in his passing is the envy of almost any other midfielder in English football, while he's also able to operate expertly in tight spaces. No Premier League player has completed more passes into the penalty area this season. Odegaard exhibits maturity far beyond his years, rarely gets injured and has helped reconnect Arsenal with their fanbase in his role as captain.

Projection for 2024-25: Odegaard signed a new five-year contract last September which ties him to the Gunners until 2028. After years of travelling around Europe on loan from Real Madrid trying to realize his phenomenal potential as a teenager, Odegaard is settled in north London and since being appointed captain ahead of the 2022-23 season, he has grown into a leadership role to the extent that it is difficult to see him anywhere else.

Another nice note for the Gunners: Norway's failure to qualify for Euro 2024 means he will be fresh to lead Arsenal's title challenge next season. -- Olley

2. Jude BELLINGHAM, Real Madrid/England

Key attributes/style of play: A box-to-box, goal-scoring midfielder.

Stat to know: Bellingham has scored four stoppage-time game winners this season, putting him among the leaders in Europe's top 5 leagues in all competitions.

Why he's on the list: Bellingham, 20, arrived at the Bernabeu and made it his own. With a maturity that belies his age, his impact at Real Madrid in 2023-24 was immediate and unmatched, his early season goal scoring drawing comparisons with everyone from club legends Cristiano Ronaldo to Alfredo di Stefano.

Now that the hype has simmered, we're left with one of the most impressive debut seasons anybody can remember, with 19 goals in LaLiga and decisive, match-winning performances against Madrid's two closest rivals this season, Barcelona and Girona. Just as eye-catching has been Bellingham's innate understanding of the club's culture, saying and doing all the right things to endear himself to the fans.

Projection for 2024-25: How do you improve on one of the best debut seasons LaLiga has ever seen? If anyone can do it, it's Jude. Expect more goals, and more arms-outstretched celebrations. Of course, he should have a new teammate for the next season, too -- Kylian Mbappé. -- Kirkland

1. RODRI, Manchester City/Spain

Key attributes/style of play: The rock of Man City's midfield.

Stat to know: Rodri's 74-match run without losing in all club competitions, which ended with their FA Cup final defeat to Man United, is the longest of all time in European top-flight competitions.

Why he's on the list: Manchester City don't lose when Rodri starts. It's that simple. The former Atlético Madrid midfielder last tasted Premier League defeat over 90 minutes in a City shirt in February 2023, when Spurs triumphed against Pep Guardiola's side. (Of course, Man United shocked everyone, including Rodri, when they won the FA Cup.) Take him out of the team and the defeats stack up, including three successive losses earlier this season. Rodri is a powerful physical presence, but he reads the game brilliantly, offers pinpoint distribution and he scores important goals too, including the winner in the 2023 Champions League final against Inter Milan.

Projection for 2024-25: Rodri is another example of City being ahead of the game in terms of safeguarding their future. The 27-year-old is contracted at the Etihad until the end of the 2026-27 season, so don't expect any transfer gossip around the Spain international unless City's hand is forced if they are hit hard by the Premier League when the club's 115 charges for financial issues are addressed. -- Ogden