Wesley Sneijder and the Next 25 Zinedine Zidanes in World Football
Now I'm not a big fan of heaping boatloads of pressure on young footballers by calling them the next Pele or Maradona, but when you're trying to define the ideal modern midfielder, you can look no farther than the legendary Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane has an incredible football résumé spanning three leagues (Ligue 1, Serie A, La Liga) to go along with making over 100 appearances for the French national side during a period of 18 years.
You could name almost any major trophy or award in world football, Zidane has won at least one of each.
Since Zidane will be the archetype for this list, we're going to be looking at players who display great vision, dexterity, passing ability, goal-scoring ability, ability on set pieces, and technical ability both on and off the ball.
We'll be focusing on established attacking midfielders nearing their prime as well as young players who have the potential to become great international playmakers for the future.
It also doesn't matter if the player is a deep-lying playmaker or the type who roams right behind the front line of attack because Zidane could do both without question. The most versatile players are the best type of players.
We're going to start with the most experienced young veterans and work our way towards even younger talent who possess the greatest potential, so let's begin.
25. Wesley Snijder
Current Club: Inter Milan
Sneijder is one of the most dangerous attacking midfielders in the world right now. He is incredibly quick and strong despite his small stature (5'7''), plus possesses a powerful shot on goal.
The Dutch playmaker is comfortable with the ball at both feet, which makes him incredibly dangerous on set pieces as well as in the open field of attack.
His only weakness is his size, which can cause him to go anonymous in matches at times.
Wes has impressed at both the club and international level. A product of Dutch powerhouse, Ajax, he developed quickly and was bought by Real Madrid in 2007. Despite helping the Spanish side win the league during his first year with the club, he was sold to Inter Milan in 2009 following the arrival of Brazilian playmaker, Kaka.
However, while Kaka has struggled with fitness and injury at the Bernabeau, Sneijder has flourished in Italy.
He is the driving force of the Inter attack, helping the Italian side win the Treble in 2010 and continuing his great form into the current campaign in both Serie A and Champions League competition.
His fine form for his club has carried over to the Dutch national side in recent years as well. While leading the Netherlands to their first World Cup Final since 1978, he won multiple Man of Match awards to go along with the Silver Ball and Bronze Boot awards during the 2010 tournament.
Despite losing to Spain in the Final, Sneijder and the Netherlands will be international favorites for years to come.
24. Bastian Schweinsteiger
Current Club: Bayern Munich
With Michael Ballack nearing the twilight of his professional playing career, Schweinsteiger is seen as one of the major playmakers to fill his spot in German football right now.
Although he primarily operates out on the wing for both club and country, Schweinsteiger is a composite midfielder who is just as deadly in the center of the midfield as he is out wide.
He is one of the strongest midfielders in Europe, possessing an extremely powerful right-footed shot to go along with his versatility and boundless energy.
He doesn't possess any glaring weaknesses, with the exception of favoring his right foot and the occasional mean streak.
Plying his trade with Bayern Munich his entire professional footballing career, Schweinsteiger has won five Bundesliga titles to go with five German Cups (DFB-Pokal) and two League Cups (DFB-Ligapokal), the Champions League title being the only major trophy to evade him during his young but illustrious career.
Schweinsteiger is a staple of the German national side as well, impressing immensely in the most recent World Cup and European Cup tournaments. He'll be looking to lead the attack of a young but strong German side for years to come.
23. Luka Modric
Current Club: Tottenham
Luka Modric has developed into one of the best midfielders in the English Premier League since joining North-London side, Tottenham, in 2008. He initially struggled in a defensive midfield role during his first few weeks with the club under Juande Ramos, but soon developed into a dangerous deep-lying playmaker following the arrival of new manager Harry Redknapp.
Modric's quick thinking combined with incredible vision equal a top notch passer of the ball. He consistently links Tottenham's various attacking talent while forming solid midfield partnerships with players like Tom Huddlstone, Wilson Palacios, and Sandro in recent years.
Despite being one the smaller players in the Premier League right now, Modric has had little trouble adapting to one of the most physical leagues in the world. With one strong performance after another, though, Tottenham will be hard-pressed to hold onto their star playmaker in the years to come.
For Croatia, Modric has displayed incredible versatility by playing across the entire midfield under manager, Slaven Bilic. Modirc and Bilic will be looking to lead the strong European side in qualification for the upcoming UEFA European Cup while also looking to get back to the World Cup after narrowly missing out in 2010.
22. Cesc Fabregas
Current Club: Arsenal
Fabregas has quickly risen to be considered amongst the elite crop of talented playmakers in Europe right now. He left Barcelona's youth side for Arsenal in 2003 and became a first team regular during his second year with the North-London club at the age of 17.
During his first few years at the club, Fabregas benefited from the presence of veteran midfielders like Gilberto Silva and Patrick Viera, developing into a versatile playmaker with incredible vision.
Fabregas is also known for controlling the pace and tempo of a match with precision passing. He is very confident on and off the ball, plus he has developed into a more consistent goal-scoring threat in recent years.
Cesc has appeared for the Spanish national side on a regular basis since his first team breakthrough with Arsenal. He was an integral part of their 2008 UEFA European Cup winning campaign, but was reduced to a bench player during Spain's domination of the 2010 World cup.
He is seen as the heir-apparent to veteran playmaker, Xavi, but has struggled with fitness and injury in recent seasons. Hopefully, Fabreagas can overcome his recent injury woes and reassert himself as one of the world's best.
21. Keisuke Honda
Current Club: CSKA Moscow
Keisuke Honda is the current face of Japanese football. He features mostly as a deep-lying playmaker for Russian Premier League side, CSKA Moscow, but he plays a more advanced role for the Japanese national side.
Honda broke into the international football scene with two dazzling free-kick goals scored during the 2010 World Cup. Honda is a great passer with great vision to go along with his free-kick skills
His impressive performances during two seasons with Dutch side, VVV-Venlo, as well as on international duty with Japan lead to a €6 million move to CSKA Moscow during the 2010 winter transfer window.
Honda continued his fine form during his first year with the Russian side, scoring four goals in 28 league appearances. CSKA will most likely be forced to cash-in on the Japanese playmaker this summer, with interest from big spending western European sides at a premium.
20. Yoann Gourcuff
Current Club: Lyon
Gourcuff is seen as the best young playmaker in French football right now. He has been compared to Zidane his entire professional footballing career. Yoann is great passer of the ball who primarily plays as an advance-attacking midfielder for both club and country, but can also play as a support striker or out wide.
He broke through with French side Rennes in 2005 following several years bouncing between the reserves and first team. Gourcuff then moved to AC Milan in 2006, but struggled to hold down a regular first team place with the Italian club.
Yoann regained his form during a 2008 loan spell with French side, Bordeaux, recording 11 assists and 12 goals in 37 Ligue 1 appearances. He helped the side win the Ligue 1 title as well as the French League Cup during his loan campaign and made his move a permanent one during the summer of 2009.
Gourcuff also broke into the French national side during his loan spell at Bordeaux, continuing to impress for both club and country during the 2009/10 season in all competitions.
However, Gourcuff chose to make a €22 million switch to fellow Ligue 1 side, Lyon, near the end of the 2010 summer transfer window. He has played well for the French powerhouse during his first season with the club, but his goal-scoring form is nowhere near his performances with Bordeaux.
Along with new manager, Laurent Blanc, Gourcuff will be looking to help lead France in qualification for the upcoming 2012 UEFA European Cup. He'll also be looking to regain his spectacular goal-scoring form in the process.
19. Mesut Ozil
Current Club: Real Madrid
Despite impressing during his first two years with German side, Werder Bremen, it wasn't until a series of spectacular displays for Germany during the 2010 World Cup that Mesut Ozil popped up on the world's football radar.
Ozil is a great passer who can operate across the entire midfield. He boasts a great left-footed shot, but is comfortable with the ball at both feet. His only weakness is a lack of strength, but he usually makes up for it with his superb technique.
His impressive performance during the most recent World Cup led to a move to Spanish giants, Real Madrid. Many assumed the young German international would struggle to appear regularly for the star-studded Galacticos.
However, with Brazilian playmaker, Kaka, struggling with form and injuries for a better part of the current campaign, Ozil has had a great first season with the club. He has recorded 10 assists to go along with six goals in 29 league appearances.
Mesut will be looking to continue his superb club form for a young German national side that will most likely be heavy favorites going into the upcoming 2012 UEFA European Cup tournament.
18. Kevin-Prince Boateng
Current Club: AC Milan
Nationality: Ghanaian (Born in Germany)
A product of German side, Hertha Berlin, Boateng has had a slow but steady rise to the heights of club and international football in recent years. He is an incredibly strong and versatile midfielder with a powerful shot on goal. He still needs to work on his technique, but he makes up for it with a strong will to equal his strong physical build.
He joined English Premier League side, Tottenham, but failed to make much of an impact at the North-London club. However, he impressed during a loan spell at relegation-doomed, Portsmouth. Boateng followed a solid club campaign with a spectacular display for Ghana during the 2010 World Cup
Despite playing quite regularly for Germany at various youth levels, Boateng decided to represent Ghana at the senior international level in order to better his chances of featuring regularly in major international competitions.
His impressive performances for club and country led to a summer switch to Italian side, Genoa.
However, he was quickly loaned to Italian powerhouse, AC Milan, as part of a co-ownership deal between the two sides. He has slowly become a first team regular at the San Siro, primarily used as a box to box midfielder with an attacking edge.
Boateng's next goal will be helping Ghana in their qualification bid for the upcoming 2012 African Cup of Nations.
17. Samir Nasri
Current Club: Arsenal
Nasri quickly rose through the ranks at French club, Marseille, before moving to English Premier League side, Arsenal, in 2007. He has been one of the most consistent attacking players for the North-London club, scoring nine times in 23 league appearances so far this season.
He has great vision to go along with superior passing skills and dribbling technique. Nasri is a dangerously creative player, whether he is playing out wide on either wing or as a more advanced attacking midfielder.
Nasri does have tendency to track back to help the defense more often than he should, but has learned to be a bigger threat in front of the goal for Arsenal with Cesc Fabregas struggling with injury during certain stretches of the current campaign.
Along with Gourcuff, Nasri is seen as part of a group of young attacking talent for a French national side currently in the process of rebuilding following a disappointing display during the 2010 World Cup.
He has featured regularly in all competitions for France since 2007 and will most certainly be a player to watch for years to come.
16. Josip Ilicic
Current Club: Palermo
Nationality: Slovenian (Born in Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Josip has literally come out of nowhere this season to become one of the most impressive attacking midfielders in Serie A right now. In only his first year at the Sicilian side, he has scored eight goals to go along with five assists in 29 league appearances.
He is a strong and creative talent, comfortable playing out wide or in a more central attacking role. The bigger and more talented the opponents seem to bring the best out of Ilicic, who has scored goals against Juventus, Inter Milan, Roma, and Fiorentina in Serie A competition this year.
The young attacker started his career with Slovenian sides, SC Bonifika and NK Interblock Ljubljana, before making a move to NK Maribor in 2010. Ilicic quickly impressed, scoring a decisive goal for Maribor in a match against Palermo during the opening Europa League last summer, resulting in a 3-2 victory for the Slovenian side.
Surprisingly, Ilicic and fellow teammate, Sinisa Andelkovic, signed with the Italian side the day after the upset, despite only just joining Maribor a month earlier. Both have been staples of a young but talented Palermo side since.
Ilicic missed out on Slovenia's impressive appearance in the 2010 World Cup, but will most certainly feature for the Eastern European side during their quest for European Cup qualification.
15. Graham Dorrans
Current Club: West Bromiwich Albion
Graham Dorrans had an amazing 2009/10 campaign for West Brom during their bid for promotion back to the English Premier League.
During a Championship-winning season that can be described as nothing short of dominant, Dorrans recorded 18 goals and 19 assists while appearing 52 times in all competitions for the West-Midlands side.
Dorrans is a combative and creative player who can easily score from set pieces as well as in the open field of play. He is best utilized playing behind a lone striker, but can act as a deep-lying playmaker or operate out wide if needed.
However, despite an incredibly consistent campaign the previous season, he has had problems with injury and form during his first full year in the Premier League.
He struggled to adjust to the more physical play during his first few months in the top-flight, but looked like he was beginning to regain his form from the previous season following the recent arrival of new manager, Roy Hodgson.
Sadly, an ankle injury suffered during training earlier this month has put the rest of Dorrans' season, for both West Brom and Scotland, in doubt.
14. Shinji Kagawa
Current Club: Borrusia Dortmund
Kagawa has had a breakout season with current Bundesliga leaders, Borrusia Dortmund. He was always a goal scoring threat with Japanese side, Cerezo Osaka, but surprised everyone with how quickly he adapted to the much more physical Bundesliga.
During the current 2010/11 campaign, his first year in Germany, he has scored eight goals in 17 league appearances, all starts.
Shinji is incredibly quick with the ball at his feet, possessing great dexterity along with even better dribbling skills. As the previously mentioned stat-line shows, he is also a great goal-scoring threat.
He has featured quite regularly for the Japanese national side since his first team breakthrough in 2008, but was sadly omitted from the 2010 World Cup squad.
On an even sadder note, Kagawa broke the metatarsal bone in his right foot during the Asian Cup semi-final between Japan and South Korea.
Kagawa will miss the rest of the season for club and country. but he should make a quick recovery in time for the 2011/12 campaign. However, Dortmund will need to be prepared for a fight to retain their star playmaker, with a flurry of bids to be expected during the upcoming summer transfer window.
13. Sebastian Giovinco
Current Club: Parma
A product of Juventus' youth system, Giovinco impressed during his first full season in Serie A while on loan at fellow Italian side, Empoli. However, Sebastian failed to maintain a regular first team place at Juventus the following two seasons.
With the arrival of a more experienced playmaker in the form of Serbian international, Milos Krasic, Giovinco was loaned to Northern-Italian side, Parma.
He has found solid form at Parma, scoring five times in 23 league appearances. Giovinco has also earned his first call-up to the senior Italian national side during a friendly against Germany last month.
The young Italian international is a great playmaker in the making, with fantastic dribbling skills to go along with spectacular goal-scoring ability during free-kick situations. He has great pace to make up for his lack of strength and incredibly small frame (5'4").
He does need to to work on his passing as well as learning to be more vocal on the pitch. His small size does make it easy for the young player to go missing during matches for long stretches.
Giovinco also should look into making a permanent move away from Juventus in order to better his chances of first team football with national side.
Italy does not have a lot of creative young midfield talent breaking into the national side right now, so the more consistent top-flight football for Giovinco, even on a struggling side like Parma, the better.
12. Ki Sung-Yueng
Current Club: Celtic
Seen as the heir-apparent to Korea's star playmaker Park Ji-Sung, as well as being nicknamed the "Korean Gerrard", Ki has helped himself live up to such acclaim via a breakout season with Scottish side, Celtic.
In only 13 Scottish Premier League appearances for Celtic, Ki has scored three goals to go along with two assists. Ki's goal-scoring tally with Celtic should go up in the future if the club starts deploying him in a more advance role, if not though, they are essentially wasting his talents.
Ki is a young player with great control over the ball, even while running at full speed. Ki also has a great eye for the back of the net, with the ability to score from nearly every angle with both feet. Like Park Ji-Sung, he can also seamlessly switch between wide and central positions.
Ki has been a staple of the Korean national side's senior squad since his breakthrough at FC Seoul in 2008 and should continue to develop into one of the best attacking talents the country has ever produced.
11. Nuri Sahin
Current Club: Borrusia Dortmund
Nationality: Turkish (Born in Germany)
Nuri Sahin boasts the record of being the youngest player to start in the Bundesliga when he made his senior debut for Dortmund 2005 at the age of 16.
He bounced between the reserves and first team during his first few seasons with the German side following his debut before a having a breakout season while on loan with Dutch side, Feyenoord, in 2007.
Since returning to Dortmund at the end of the 2007/08 Eredivise campaign, he has established himself as the best young midfielder in the Bundesliga. Since the start of the 2008 Bundesliga season, Sahin has scored 10 goals to go along with 15 assists in 60 league appearances, all starts.
Sahin plays primarily as a deep-lying playmaker at Dortmund since he possesses great vision and long-range passing ability. He can score at any range, whether it's a free kick situation or in the open field of play.
The young Turkish superstar will most certainly be at the center of a bidding war during the upcoming summer transfer period.
10. Javier Pastore
Current Club: Palermo
Over the last two seasons with Italian side, Palermo, Javier Pastore has firmly established himself as one of the best young playmakers in world football. He has incredible vision as well as beautiful technical ability with the ball at his feet.
His great dribbling skills make up for a slender frame that lacks in physical strength, which Pastore will need to work on if he makes a move to a club in a more physical league like the English Premier League.
Since joining Palermo in 2009, Pastore has earned a spot on the Argentinian national side, but was only able to make three appearances off the subs' bench during their disappointing spell at the 2010 World Cup.
Pastore has developed a knack for finding the back of the net more often during the current Italian league campaign, with 10 goals scored in 30 appearances, all starts.
However, Pastore has struggled to maintain his fine goal scoring form in recent weeks. He will need to display more consistent performances if he wants to make an impact at much bigger sides than Palermo.
9. Adel Taarabt
Current Club: Queens Park Rangers
Taarabt has single-handedly dominated the English Championship during QPR's current push for Premier League promotion.
After failing to break into Tottenham's first team, Taarabt made his loan move to QPR a permanent one this past summer after an impressive breakout campaign during the 2009/10 Championship season.
At 21 years of age, he displays incredible technique and control over the ball while attacking the goal from every inch of the opponent's half. Taarabt prefers to attack from the wings, but is usually deployed as a support striker or attacking central midfielder under Neil Warnock.
He has most certainly flourished in the role, putting up absolutely stellar numbers. In 37 league appearances (all starts) he has a tally of 15 goals and 15 assists.
Taarabt is not without fault, though.
Despite being awarded the captain's armband for QPR at the start of the season, the young Morrocan international still has a tendency to let his emotions get the best of him. During a goalless draw against Hull City back in January, Taarabt clashed with teammates on field and even demanded to be subbed out of the match during halftime.
However, he has calm down in recent weeks and will be looking towards showing off his best in the Premier League next season. We will have to wait and see if it'll be with QPR or an even bigger English side at summer's end.
8. Eden Hazard
Current Club: Lille
Hazard has developed into a dangerous attacking talent since breaking into the first team of French side, Lille, in 2007. The young Belgian international is very versatile with the ability to play at every attacking position in the midfield as well as up top.
The diminutive attacking midfielder possesses amazing speed and ball control to go along with great passing ability. Like Lionel Messi, he benefits from a low center of gravity, which allows him to run at defenses while scoring from all angles.
He does have a tendency to be a little unselfish, choosing to pass the ball when he is in the best position to score.
Hazard is having a great campaign with the Ligue 1 leaders right now, notching a tally of five goals and five assists in 28 league appearances.
The young playmaker has also become a feature for the Belgian national side, which is loaded with young talent like Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, and Steven Defour.
Hazard will be looking forward to helping Lille hold onto the French league's top spot until season's end, but will most likely move on to a bigger club over the summer.
7. Jack Wilshere
Current Club: Arsenal
There's not much to say about England's top midfield prospect that hasn't been said before. Wilshere has climbed through the ranks of Arsenal's famed youth system to develop into on of the most watched prospects in world football right now.
He has become a first team staple for Arsenal following a successful loan spell with fellow Premier League side, Bolton, during the second half of the 2009/10 season. Wilshere is a great passer of the ball with spectacular vision and positioning to boot.
Wilshere can still do with some added muscle to his small frame if he wants to develop into an even more versatile attacking midfielder as well as gaining control over a heart he so passionately wears on his sleeve while playing.
Not saying he needs to turn into an emotionless shell of a player, but it is a weakness that opposing sides will most certainly try to exploit during heated competition.
At 19, though, he still has a lot of time to grow both mentally and physically.
He is currently deployed as a deep-lying playmaker at Arsenal, but will most certainly develop into a more advance role for club and country as the years go by.
6. Douglas Costa
Current Club: Shakhtar Donetsk
The heavily scouted Brazilian playmaker is quickly developing into a very versatile and dangerous attacking threat while playing for Eastern European powerhouse, Shakhtar Donetsk.
He has explosive pace to go with high quality ball control, while flourishing in Donetsk's attack friendly formations. Costa has scored nine goals in 29 appearances in all competitions for the Ukrainian side since leaving Gremio in January 2010.
Costa does struggle with stringing together a series of consistent performances as well as playing an entire 90 minutes, but at only 20 years of age, he still has plenty of time to find his rhythm.
He is still scouted by a majority of the Western European super-clubs, but will be focusing on helping Donetsk out in their upcoming Champions League Quarterfinal matchup with reigning trophy holders, Barcelona.
5. Christian Eriksen
Current Club: Ajax
The young Danish international has slowly developed into a fine playmaking prospect since joining Ajax as a youth in 2008. He possesses great pace and dribbling ability as well as the potential to become a dangerous goal-scoring threat from the midfield.
Currently, Eriksen has scored six times in 36 appearances in all competitions for the Dutch side since becoming a first team regular at the start of the 2010/11 season. He has also broken into the senior Danish national side, putting on a Man of the Match performance during Denmark's 2-1 friendly defeat to England this past February.
He has yet to find a definite playing position for club and country, but has the pace to play out wide as well as the vision and growing passing ability of a central midfielder.
However, Eriksen needs to add more muscle to his slender frame, especially with interest from English Premier League clubs currently at a premium.
4. Adem Ljajic
Current Club: Fioretina
A former Manchester United prospect, Ljajic was never signed to a full professional contract with the English side, instead joining Fiorentina during the 2010 winter transfer window from Serbian side, Partizan Belgrade.
He is a very talented playmaking prospect who can play out wide right, but will most likely develop into an advance attacking midfielder. Ljajic has great vision and passing ability, while comfortable with the ball at both feet.
During his first full season with the Tuscan-based side, Ljajic has tallied three goals and three assists in 22 league appearances. He should continue to feature quite regularly with former Serbian international, Sinisa Mihajlović, taking over Fiorentina's head coaching position during the summer of 2010.
He is just starting to break into the Serbian national side and will be someone to watch over the next few seasons in Serie A and abroad.
3. Philippe Coutinho
Current Club: Inter Milan
Coutinho is another one of Brazil's biggest midfield prospects. He is a talented two-footed dribbler who does not lack confidence when attacking defenders. He also possesses great passing ability as well as the potential for making a great goal scorer in the next few years.
Coutinho successfully work his way through Vasco da Gama's youth system before featuring for the Brazilian side's first team for two seasons as part of a loan deal with Inter Milan. He made a permanent switch to the Italian side in 2010 and has slowly worked his way into the first team.
His biggest contribution for Milan came in the form of setting up Samuel E'to for a goal against Bayern Munich during the second leg of their recent Champions League matchup, which Inter went on to win 3-2.
The young playmaker is just starting to break into the senior Brazilian national side and should help his stock with even more consistent performances with Inter Milan in all competitions.
2. Josh McEachran
Current Club: Chelsea
A more raw talent in comparison to Jack Wilshere, McEachran has all the potential to become a great midfielder for both Chelsea and England in the coming years.
He has a great frame that he is still growing into while displaying a high level of maturity at such a young age.
The Oxford born talent seems comfortable with the ball at both feet while showing no qualms when it comes to taking a shot on goal from the open field of play.
The fact that he has worked his way into a club's first team that is loaded with superstars makes him an intriguing player to keep an eye out for in the near future. He will certainly benefit from training alongside a veteran playmaker like Frank Lampard, one of the best attacking midfielders in world foot ball right now.
McEachran probably won't appear for England's national side for a few more years, but would not surprise anyone if he makes his breakthrough sooner than expected.
1. Alexander Merkel
Current Club: AC Milan
Nationality: German (Born in Kazakhstan)
With the exception of Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato, Merkel is the only teenage talent to break into AC Milan's first team lineup in recent years.
His precision passing and incredible work rate has lead to his sudden raise to first team action at the San Siro. He has quickly grown into a great physical frame since joining the Italian side as a youth in 2008. The young German international is also adept at dribbling and shooting the ball with both feet.
All these qualities equal one of the best playmaking prospects in not only Europe, but in entire the world. Many clubs across Europe will regret missing out on the talented youth, since Milan should have no trouble holding on to their prized prospect.
Despite being born in Kazakhstan to parents of Belarusian decent, Merkel will most likely continue to represent Germany at the youth level before making his highly-anticipated debut for Germany's senior side.