It’s hard enough to decide who the best XI footballers in the world are today — it’s even harder to predict the future.
We’ve peered into a crystal ball and picked out the world’s best XI in five years’ time.
From veterans trying to hold onto the throne, to young guns ready to take over, here’s what 2025 might look like.
We’ve chosen a 4-3-3, with a central defensive midfield pivot.
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GK: ANDRE ONANA, AJAX
Both Liverpool’s Alisson, and Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak are 27 – meaning they’ll be 32 in five years. They’re arguably the two best glovemen in the world right now and are in their prime, but will they be overtaken by the next generation in five years’ time?
Other top keepers like David de Gea or Marc-André ter Stegen are all older, and it’s hard to see them being the world’s best at 33 – though, of course, keepers can maintain their level well into their 30s; just ask Gianluigi Buffon. But, for a little look at recent history, Hugo Lloris was 31 when his France side won the 2018 World Cup, while Manuel Neuer was 28 in Germany’s 2014 title.
So we’ve chosen two upcoming stars as the contenders to the throne. Ajax keeper Andre Onana (24) is a Barcelona academy prospect who has established himself as Cameroon’s first choice man between the sticks, and undoubtedly the finest young keeper on the European continent. His distribution and maturity are both impressive, and a step up to a bigger club could see him become a long-term starter for up to a decade. Considering Real Madrid, Barca, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and all of the Premier League heavyweights have been linked to his signature, there’s no wonder that there’s plenty of hype around his future – and in five years, we think Onana at his peak could be something special.
He beats out Manchester United talent Dean Henderson (23) as most likely to be the next keeping superstar – just. Henderson has had an incredible season on loan with the high-flying Sheffield United side, overperforming across a range of statistics (he’s saved around seven more goals compared to the metric of expected goals, with the fourth-best save percentage in the Premier League this season), as well as pulling off jaw-dropping highlights. He’s already proven himself at the elite level, and is in with a fair chance of becoming England’s number one in time for Euro 2020 – well, 2021 we guess.
RB: TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD, LIVERPOOL
The boy from Liverpool is becoming a fan favourite with the Anfield locals, and it’s easy to see why. He’s torn up the PL record books this season, notching 12 assists – second only to City’s Kevin de Bruyne. Yes, he can sometimes get caught out on the attack and gives away possession too often with his optimistic approach, but there’s no doubting that the Reds defender is the best attacking right-back in the Premier League – if not the world – right now.
And, at 21, five years of development and refinement on his defensive technique can only improve on his immense potential.
Who could rival him? Achraf Hakimi (21) from Borussia Dortmund has proved himself a capable, brilliantly talented youngster with a similar attacking, creative style. Partnering with Jadon Sancho, Dortmund’s right wing has been dominant this season. He’s on loan from Real Madrid, and we predict he could establish himself as their long-term stalwart in defence. He’s also incredibly versatile, capable of playing as a full-back or wing-back on either side, and as a genuine winger.
And Aaron-Wan Bissaka from Manchester United (22) rightly deserves to be in the conversation. His defensive nous and technique are above that of the duo above, and his never-say-die attitude has earned him plenty of plaudits across the Prem. If Manchester United start to re-emerge as a European power, his contribution to their defensive unit could prove crucial.
LB: ALPHONSO DAVIES, BAYERN MUNICH
There’s no substitute for raw pace and power. You can teach technique, you can arguably even teach a player to read the game, but there’s simply nothing like watching one of Europe’s fastest players in full flight. He was clocked at over 35 km/h in Wednesday morning’s grudge match against Borussia Dortmund, chasing down Erling Haaland to make a potentially match-winning tackle. Like Alexander-Arnold, he is an attack-minded fullback who loves roaming down the wing – and sometimes gets caught out of position in defence. But his immense pace almost always allows him to make up for that by tracking back for a covering tackle. He’s a raw talent, undeniably. At 19 that’s completely understandable. But he’s on a rapid rise that few predicted.
He was picked up from the MLS by Bayern Munich for a then-record fee for the American competition and has already made 17 national team appearances as well as cementing himself in the German champions’ squad. His rise is meteoric, and his potential is stratospheric.
World’s best left-back at 24? Don’t rule it out.
CB: VIRGIL VAN DIJK, LIVERPOOL
Van Dijk is 28, which means we’re claiming he could remain the world’s best central defender at 33. Here’s why. Spanish legend Carlos Puyol won the 2008 Euros at 30 and the 2010 World Cup at the age of 32 (when Spain broke records for their incredible defence), and only missed the 2012 Euros win via knee injury. He continued to star for Barcelona until his retirement at the age of 36. Yes, 36!
But consider this: Puyol lost his explosive pace well before he was 28, hence his move into central defence. Van Dijk has been blessed with a relatively injury-free career, and his pace is still at an elite level. He is undoubtedly a more talented ball-playing defender than Puyol was, despite his frailties.
Real Madrid and Spain’s current captain Sergio Ramos is also 34, and it is still undoubtedly one of the finest defenders in the world.
Van Dijk is fit, a fine leader, and reads the game well. It’s a hard ask for anyone to maintain that level for five years – but of the current crop, he looks the likeliest to do so.
CB: MATTHIJS DE LIGT, JUVENTUS
The Netherlands’ youngest international debutant since 1931 (at 17), De Ligt hit superstardom early in life – and the future remains bright.
But it hasn’t always been easy, with his debut season at Juventus having seen his form dip. Maybe it was the pressure of his €75 million ($A125m) transfer from Ajax. Maybe it was going from guiding a fledgling team of his peers to being the young prospect in a side that includes veterans – and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Either way, he already plays like a veteran, belying his age of just 20. His strength and calm disposition are far beyond his years too. He plays alongside van Dijk for the Dutch national team, and has fantastic mentors at club at country. Can he put a poor start to life in the big leagues behind him and deliver on his immense potential? We think so.
Who else could challenge the throne? Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar (25) is developing more and more every season and has been lined up for a big-money move to the Premier League, but hasn’t yet proved himself a consistent performer at the elite level.
Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig (21, real name Dayotchanculle) is perhaps the other hottest young prospect alongside de Ligt. He’s an undoubted next-generation talent, but hasn’t yet taken the step to the elite level – and hasn’t broken into France’s senior squad either. But he’s full of confidence, once saying: “I dream of becoming one of the best defenders in the world one day.”
Bayern Munich’s 24-year-old Niklas Sule flies under the radar, but don’t expect things to stay that way if he returns from serious injury to the same high level he was last season. Sule is very much the quintessential centre-back: 6’5” and broad-shouldered the brick wall in front of defence.
CM: SANDRO TONALI, BRESCIA
At just 19, Tonali has been widely hailed as Italy’s next superstar, and the heir to the legendary Pirlo. Perhaps. Pirlo himself recently described Tonali as the best player in the Serie A – ahead of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo – despite Tonali playing for dead-last Brescia.
“For me, he is another type of player (to me), much more complete, both in defence and in approach … he will certainly become a great player.”
If Pirlo predicts the kid could be a true great, we’re inclined to agree.
Tonali is a true regista, running the show from the base of the midfield. His range of passing is stunning. His vision is impeccable, as is his reading of the game.
As many commentators have said, almost everything good that Brescia has done this season has gone through Tonali. That said, we don’t expect him to stay with the relegation battlers for long – and his name should be up in lights soon.
CM: DONNY VAN DE BEEK, AJAX
At first, Real Madrid’s rising star Federico Valverde was the obvious choice. Valverde is short (comparatively) but powerful, using his immaculate ball control to wriggle out of tight spaces and possessing exceptional spatial awareness. And under the tutelage of Isco, Luka Modric and Casemiro – not to mention Zinedine Zidane – he’s developing rapidly into one of Europe’s finest central midfielders.
But we think Van de Beek could even pip the Uruagayan 21-year-old! The 23-year-old went under the radar at Ajax in the last two seasons, with Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, 23 – and another potential superstar) and Matthijs De Ligt the names that were most often up in lights. But that’s not because he lacks the talent; far from it. He’s incredibly versatile, having played in an offensive No. 10 role all the way to a defensive midfield slot. In short, he’s a true box to box midfielder, but with perhaps a touch more of the attacking ability than most central players possess. His special ability is the late charge into the box – more often than not ending with the ball in the back of the net. Zidane reportedly called the youngster in recent weeks to try and convince him to join Los Blancos, and Manchester United has also been strongly linked to a transfer deal.
CAM: JACK GREALISH, ASTON VILLA
Kevin de Bruyne at 33? Paul Pogba at 32? Paulo Dybala at 31? Picking the world’s best attacking midfielder in five years is a tough task! On the other side of the age spectrum, Chelsea wonderkid Mason Mount is on the rise at just 21.
But here’s our very, very bold call: Jack Grealish.
It takes something special to captain your childhood team at the age of 24, but Grealish is something special. How difficult it must be to be the talisman of a relegation-battling team, to carry the weight of an entire club’s hopes and expectations. In truth, Grealish has struggled with expectations in the past – his record of poor off-field decisions had many doubting his dedication and professionalism. But there’s no doubting his ability. Leaving Aston Villa could be the motivation that takes him to the next level.
ST: LAUTARO MARTINEZ, INTER MILAN
Lautaro Martinez is the heir to Sergio Aguero’s role as Argentina’s star striker. At 22, the man known as ‘The Bull’ is reportedly set to seal a move from Inter Milan to Barcelona, expected to be the most expensive transfer fee for an Argentinian player ever. Deadly in the box and with outstanding movement, he has shown a very strong ability to drop back and combine with teammates, particularly on the counterattack. Technically gifted, driven, and on the rise, we see Martinez going places – and scoring plenty of goals.
And yes, this means Erling Braut Haaland misses out on our star-studded line-up.
LF: KYLIAN MBAPPE, PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN
Already a key member of France’s World Cup-winning side of 2018, Mbappe has the world at his feet. He’s had a remarkable 25 goal involvements in 20 Ligue 1 matches this season! But at 21, can he go on to prove himself for the next decade? The man who looks reminiscent of a ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’ could walk into any team in the world right now – if only they could afford his sky-high transfer valuation. He’s world-class, but we think he can take things to the next level in five years’ time.
RF: JADON SANCHO, BORUSSIA DORTMUND
The Borussia Dortmund production line continues to churn out elite young talents, and Sancho is one of the finest in recent years. He may have struggled against Bayern Munich in Wednesday morning’s loss, but we’ll put that down to the interruption caused by the coronavirus-suspended season. At 20 years old, Sancho’s record in goals and assists is impeccable. This season alone, he’s notched 14 goals and 17 assists in 26 Bundesliga games – the only player to reach 12 in both categories in Europe’s top five leagues besides Lionel Messi. He’s not just one of England’s hottest youngsters, he could just be Europe’s best out-and-out wide man in five years.