Who should win the 2020-21 Ballon d'Ata?
After the European season ends and the big summer tournaments are over, there's always speculation about the Ballon d'Or. This year, Jorginho is placing himself among the favourites, having won a big international trophy and the Champions League. But these votes are always swayed by personal feelings as well as the glitter of silverware. If we just look at the data instead, who should win?
That's why we're bringing back our Ballon d'Ata. Not only will we look for the best performances in the 2020-21 season among all the top-tier leagues we cover; we'll also select winners at each position, since comparing apples to oranges seems silly in this kind of endeavour.
Our main criterion will be xGDAR (expected goal difference above replacement) at a UEFA Champions League standard. But we'll be looking for players who had at least 2,500' – the equivalent of about two thirds of a season – in domestic and European league play in 2020-21. We want the best all-rounders, so we'll reject any player with attacking output, defending quality, or ball retention in the bottom third at his position at a Champions League standard. And we'll also drop players whose combined skill ratings are in the bottom third for their positions.
Even with these criteria, it's hard to rank the players at the very top. So we'll select up to three stars at each position, and you can award the gold, silver, and bronze balls yourself. Without further ado, here are our tremendous trios in alphabetical order:
Gunay Guvenc, Gaziantep
Emiliano Martinez, Aston Villa
Nick Pope, Burnley
This is always a tough one, because it's hard to know how to balance shotstopping skill against outfield play. But Martinez's shotstopping was so exceptional that we had to include him, even though he might cost about -0.01 xGDAR per match at a Champions League standard. His ability to stymie strikers more than made up for it. Pope was also outstanding and offered about +0.05 xGDAR more per match. We couldn't ignore Guvenc – besides excellent shotstopping, the Gaziantep captain contributed about +0.09 xGDAR per match. Imagine a GK who was worth more than three goals per season above the median just for his outfield play! (You might be imagining Sergio Herrera as well.) Also in the mix was Gianluigi Donnarumma; he might have been higher up if we'd taken into account internationals, and especially penalty shootouts....
Joao Cancelo, Manchester City
James Tavernier, Rangers
There are a couple of surprises here. First, Tavernier had a season for the ages. The Rangers captain generated extraordinary attacking output, even after a stiff league adjustment, matched with excellent overall defending. We can't ignore it, even for a 29-year-old playing outside Europe's top five leagues. The second surprise is that we're not naming a third player – the rest were too far behind the top two. Cancelo's inclusion, on the other hand, is decidedly not a surprise. He was truly outstanding on both sides of the ball.
Jules Kounde, Sevilla
Willi Orban, RB Leipzig
Gianluca Mancini, Roma
The largely unheralded Leipzig man makes the top three with fantastic numbers across the board. But there's also room for potential Manchester United and Tottenham recruit Kounde, a smarterscout young prospect whose ball retention was also excellent. And Mancini was unlucky to miss out on the Italy squad at Euro 2020.
Benoit Badiashile, Monaco
Berat Djimsiti, Atalanta
Harry Maguire, Manchester United
All three of these guys had strong seasons on and off the ball, with very good skill in duels and more than 3,000' played as well. Djimsiti finished slightly ahead of Maguire and Badiashile because of his huge attacking output. Did we mention Badiashile, another smarterscout young prospect, was 20 years old? Incredible.
Douglas Santos, Zenit St Petersburg
Luke Shaw, Manchester United
Nicolas Tagliafico, Ajax Amsterdam
Shaw showed at Euro 2020 just how dangerous he could be in attack, while still working hard off the ball. His big season didn't shock us, though, as he'd put up similar numbers back in 2016-17. Tagliafico is a great all-rounde who picked up a winner's medals at the Copa America. Meanwhile, Santos hasn't gotten much love from the Selecao – but maybe he should? His attacking output was enormous.
Casemiro, Real Madrid
Jude Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund
Joshua Kimmich, Bayern Munich
Leon Goretzka would have made this position a clean sweep for the Bundesliga if he'd been a bit more durable. But Bellingham may be a better defender, and he's still a teenager. (Of course he's a smarterscout young prospect as well, maybe the young prospect.) Kimmich also stood out for his attacking, and Casemiro for his aggressiveness off the ball. Jorginho? Not here, sorry.
Achraf Hakimi, Inter Milan
Reece James, Chelsea
Not every club plays with a back three or five, so we don't have as many players who specialised in these wide positions. But among those that did, Hakimi was by far the standout, with the industrious James also sitting above the rest of the crowd.
Federico Chiesa, Juventus
Robin Gosens, Atalanta
Anyone who watched Euro 2020 will be pretty familiar with these two players. Their performances in the tournament won't have come as a surprise to anyone who watched them during the 2020-21 season. Both were huge difference-makers, a cut above everyone else.
Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester City
Ilkay Guendogan, Manchester City
Mason Mount, Chelsea
There was an embarrassment of riches in the middle of the park last season, but De Bruyne was the name on everyone's lips, at least in England. Mount came a close second as he thrived for club and country. Guendogan featured almost as often at DM, and he wasn't the most avid defender, but his quality was outstanding.
Dani Olmo, RB Leipzig
David Turnbull, Celtic
Nikola Vlasic, CSKA Moscow
Ruslan Malinovski and Quincy Promes might have featured here if they had played a few more minutes. As things stand, Euro 2020 playmakers Vlasic and Olmo were at the top of the list. Celtic supporters will be glad to see one of their own, especially given Tavernier's presence above. He's a smarterscout young prospect with great attacking output who also happens to be amazing both ways in 1v1s.
Mohamed Salah, Liverpool
Leroy Sane, Bayern Munich
These two wingers were well above the rest in xGDAR, leaving the likes of Bayer Leverkusen's Leon Bailey in their wake. They both had phenomenal attacking output, but Sane had the edge in skill ratings.
Noa Lang, Club Brugge
Sadio Mane, Liverpool
Christopher Nkunku, RB Leipzig
If Salah makes the list, you'd expect Mane to do so as well, and indeed he has. It wasn't Liverpool's best season, but their wide man kept firing. So did Lang, a tremendous all-rounder who was the subject of our playerfocus column. And Nkunku may have been flying under the radar after he left Paris Saint-Germain, but not for long.
Artem Dzyuba, Zenit St Petersburg
Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich
Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Last year's winner of the FIFA "The Best" award, Lewandowski continues to take care of business for Bayern. Dzyuba carried the Russian team on his mighty veteran's shoulders at Euro 2020, and why not – he'd gone from strength to strength during the professional season, with excellent defending, finishing, and skill in duels to go with his sky-high attacking output.
And of course, there's the ageless Messi. With +0.19 xGDAR per match across all positions, he had the highest rating of all the players here. Throw a Copa America win on top, and he's the obvious choice for this or any award. Congratulations, maestro!