Ranking the top players of 2019
Updated: Jan 1
Earlier this week I wrote a piece complaining about the end-of-year awards voting. In particular, I was frustrated to see Megan Rapinoe sweeping all the big awards, despite producing a fairly middling (by her own high standards) 2019. With Rich Laverty’s wonderful Top 100 project for The Offside Rule and The Guardian wrapping up today, we finally got a more informed take on the world’s top players from a broad set of voters who are far more engaged in the game.
And this time around, Rapinoe finished all the way down at…third.
Well, in the interest of trying to be productive, rather than merely sitting on the sidelines criticizing everyone else, I decided to give it a go at producing my own list of the top 40 players. It was tough, and I don’t feel remotely satisfied with the final list. It’s extremely hard to judge players, especially when it’s so difficult to see league play across the world, when most international matches outside of the World Cup tend to rely on dodgy streams for distribution, and when statistical records are limited or nonexistent.
Given those constraints, there’s simply no way to prevent bias playing a big role. For strikers in the top leagues, we at least have pretty good information about goals and assists. But who is good at holding up the ball? Who contributes most to link-up play? Who makes excellent runs that expose defenses? Much harder to say. And for everyone else, there’s often literally almost nothing to go by. Who were the best center backs in the Frauen-Bundesliga this year? Having seen only a handful of games, I’m stupendously unqualified to make that assessment.
So it’s understandable why names often matter more in the voting than performance. People know names, but the performances are mostly hidden. I’m certainly not free from that kind of bias myself. But lists like these are still helpful because in encountering multiple different perspectives, we all come to a better understanding about those parts of the game that we’re less in tune with.
With all those caveats stipulated, here is my list of the best players of 2019:
Sam Kerr (Australia – Chicago Red Stars)
Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands – Arsenal)
Amandine Henry (France – Lyon)
Julie Ertz (US – Chicago Red Stars)
Crystal Dunn (US – North Carolina Courage)
Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway – Barcelona)
Pernille Harder (Denmark – Wolfsburg)
Ada Hegerberg (Norway – Lyon)
Griedge Mbock Bathy (France – Lyon)
Lucy Bronze (England – Lyon)
Christen Press (US – Utah Royals)
Ewa Pajor (Poland – Wolfsburg)
Dzsenifer Maroszán (Germany – Lyon)
Kosovare Asllani (Sweden – Linköpings/CD Tacón)
Nikita Parris (England – Manchester City/Lyon)
Sam Mewis (US – North Carolina Courage)
Danielle Van de Donk (Netherlands – Arsenal)
Becky Sauerbrunn (US – Utah Royals)
Sara Däbritz (Germany – Bayern Munich/Paris Saint-Germain)
Debinha (Brazil – North Carolina Courage)
Abby Dahlkemper (US – North Carolina Courage)
Nilla Fischer (Sweden – Linköpings)
Kim Little (Scotland – Arsenal)
Wendie Renard (France – Lyon)
Christiane Endler (Chile – Paris Saint-Germain)
Kadidiatou Diani (France – Paris Saint-Germain)
Beth Mead (England – Arsenal)
Eugenie Le Sommer (France – Lyon)
Jenni Hermoso (Spain – Barcelona)
Jill Scott (England – Manchester City)
Casey Short (US – Chicago Red Stars)
Marie-Antoinette Katoto (France – Paris Saint-Germain)
Amel Majri (France – Lyon)
Carli Lloyd (US – Sky Blue FC)
Ellen White (England – Birmingham City/Manchester City)
Lina Magull (Germany – Bayern Munich)
Magdalena Eriksson (Sweden – Chelsea)
Mapi León (Spain – Barcelona)
Barbara Bonansea (Italy – Juventus)
Kailen Sheridan (Canada – Sky Blue FC)
A few comments on some of these players. Starting at the top, it’s incredibly hard to pick a single player as ‘the best’ over the year. I can see a plausible case for everyone in the top 10. They’re all fantastic. In the end, it was Kerr for me, by a hair. Her performances in the NWSL were absurd, and by themselves would have earned her a prominent place at the top of this list. She was also virtually the only Australian to not completely fall apart. And she won the Golden Boot down in the W League. But boy is it hard to argue against Vivianne Miedema, who somehow just continues to get better.
Vivianne Miedema in the WSL this season has 5.6 xG and 17 goals. My god. — Charles Olney (@olneyce) December 6, 2019
Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn, meanwhile, were easily the best American players in 2019. Ertz dominated the defensive lines, whether as a #6 or as a center back, and was probably the single most important player on the World Cup winning team, and came very close to being as important as Kerr for the Red Stars. I had Dunn in 4th place for the NWSL MVP for half a season’s worth of games. She was that good. Then consider that she was deputized as a fullback for the World Cup winners. And while I didn’t think she played especially well during the World Cup, she did enough. That kind of versatility is invaluable.
I have Press at #11, which might be too high. But I still don’t think people understand just how outrageous her performances have been this year, for both club and country. She was the difference between Utah being a playoff contender and an also-ran. And she recorded a ridiculous 12 assists for the US, finally truly owning the wing role that she had struggled with for so long.
Dzsenifer Maroszán is ‘only’ at 13 thanks to the injury that effectively killed her World Cup in the opening 20 minutes. I’m still incredibly angry about that game.
I’ve got a few forwards pretty high on the list based partially on their incredibly impressive statistics. From what I’ve actually seen with my eyes, I probably wouldn’t put Beth Mead quite this high. But there’s no denying her record. She’s an assist-machine. Nikita Parris also gets some extra credit for a dominant WSL season last year (in which she actually led Miedema in xG).
I used the last few slots to pick players that I personally really enjoy watching. The margins at this point are pretty thin, and I certainly don’t feel confident that they were strictly better than the 10-20 great players who fall just beyond that mark. But León is a fascinating player, who plays a huge role in setting the style for both club and country. Bonansea is a bit hard to judge, given the relative weakness of the Italian league, but her performances in the World Cup certainly suggest we should take her numbers there seriously. And Sheridan just completed an absolutely bonkers NWSL season. You could certainly make a case for Van Veenendaal, Naeher, Nayler, Bouhaddi, Lindahl, Alexander, etc. as the next-best keeper behind Endler. But for my money, it’s Sheridan. And it might not be long before she’s clearly the best.
The four players I was most frustrated at leaving off the list were Saki Kumagai, Sherida Spitse, Sara Gama, and Mana Iwabuchi. It’s quite possible that each of them belong much higher. But I just wasn’t able to see enough of them, so couldn’t be confident. I’m also pretty sure there are some Scandinavians who deserve to be a bit higher. But again, I just haven’t seen them enough to be sure.
Conclusion: ranking players is extremely hard, and I commend everyone who put serious thought and effort into it. There may be objectively correct answers, but I don’t know if any of us (apart from maybe Sophie) are capable of finding them. I’m quite confident that players like Rapinoe, Morgan, Lavelle, and Heath are getting massively overrated in most of these lists. They’re all great, certainly, but they didn’t produce enough in 2019 to deserve a spot. However, it’s quite likely that I’m just as guilty of overrating some players from other leagues based on reputation too. So it goes.
Ultimately, all we can ask is that people try, and hopefully we can continue to learn from each other in the process.