At the end of last month I made a video looking at 7 of the biggest non-top flight clubs in world football. The video performed with faultless mediocrity, so I thought I’d do a similar video taking a look at some of the finest non-top flight footballers from across the world game. Football, and for the most part sport in general, is just about as close as you are ever likely to come to a total meritocracy.
Of course, luck with injuries and purple patches of form can prove decisive, but for the most part, the cream does tend to rise to the top. With that being the case, the vast majority of the world’s top footballers play top flight football, with particular concentration of elite level players in the top flights of the English, Spanish, German, Italian and French game. With that in mind, there are always exceptions, and today I intend to explore them.
Here are my views on the 7 best non-top flight footballers:
7. Kalvin Phillips
Getting us started in seventh place is Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips. One of the outstanding players in the Championship ever since Marcelo Bielsa took over at Leeds, Phillips is a really tough and energetic box-to-box midfielder. Born in Leeds, the 24-year-old made his professional debut back in March 2015 as Leeds lost 4-3 to Wolves. Since then, he has gone on to rack up more than 150 appearances for the club, and he hit yet new heights last season.
The intensity of Marcelo Bielsa’s game suits Phillips down to a tee, and he has revelled in the Argentines tactics. Last season, he made the EFL Team of the Year, and he has been just as impressive in the early part of this season. Phillips has been linked with Manchester United and Aston Villa, but not by any particularly reliable sources, and with Leeds firmly in the promotion hunt once again this season, it would be remarkable if he didn’t remain at Elland Road until at least the end of the season.
6. Aleksandar Mitrovic
I’m just going to admit at this point that this was an incredibly difficult seven to compile and I’m not at all convinced that I’ve got it spot on, but there will be some honourable mentions later on. The margins are so slim that you could argue almost anyone in this seven deserves to either top this seven or not feature at all, and I think that’s the case with Aleksandar Mitrovic. The big, powerful Serbian centre-forward is a fan favourite wherever he goes, even at Newcastle, where he wasn’t particularly impressive.
He has been impressive for Fulham, scoring 12 goals in 17 games during the second half of their promotion campaign, 11 in 37 as they were relegated last season in the Premier League, and a remarkably 16 from 20 so far this season. That tally unsurprisingly makes Mitrovic the top scorer in the Championship at the time of recording, and he was the pre-season favourite to win the Golden Boot. Mitrovic set Fulham back a potential £27 million, and for that price you would want a pretty good second tier player, but plenty of big names have proved ineffective in the Championship over the years. The Serbia star, who will soon become his countries all time leading goal scorer, is a real handful for defenders – combining strength, good feet and a sharp eye for goal.
5. Lee Jae-sung
Long-time subscribers to this channel may be sick of hearing about Lee Jae-sung, but I’m not going to stop beating the drum just yet, and no I’m not his agent. Capped 49 times by South Korea at the age of 27, Jae-sung is one of the nation’s three outstanding players as far as I’m concerned, along with Hwang Hee-Chan and obviously Son Heung-min. Jae-sung was a bit of a late bloomer, since he didn’t start playing professional football until he finished attending Korea University in 2014, aged 22.
From there he signed for top flight Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, where he spent four-and-a-half years as arguably the best player in South Korea, making the division’s Team of the Year three times. There’s a long tradition of outstanding Asian players playing in Germany, and 2. Bundesliga side Holstein Kiel signed Jae-sung for €1.5 million in 2018. A really versatile and technically gifted midfielder, Jae-sung can play out wide or through the middle, and he gives you a bit of everything. He has excellent stamina and energy, he’s strong in the tackle, good on the ball and accurate in the pass. Holstein Kiel are 10th in the Bundesliga at the time of recording, and they’ll do well to hang onto Jae-sung if they don’t win promotion this season.
4. Santiago Ascacibar
Stuttgart featured in our look at the seven biggest non-top flight clubs in world football, and they have several players who could stake a claim to feature in this seven. Santiago Ascacibar is the finest player at the Mercedes-Benz Arena as far as I’m concerned, and the 22-year-old midfield destructor takes fourth place in this seven. A defensive midfielder with a tattoo of Diego Maradona emblazoned on his calf, Ascacibar has already won three caps for Argentina. A brilliant defensive shield, Ascacibar is alert, dogged in his duties and incredibly aggressive in the tackle.
I thought he was among the best central and defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga last season, and I must admit I was surprised Stuttgart managed to keep hold of him in the summer. The only team I’ve seen him linked with is West Ham, and with all due respect to the Hammers, I think the Argentine has the potential to play at a higher level. Likened to Esteban Cambiasso by some in the German press, Ascacibar isn’t solely destructive, he also has the ability to pick his head up and move the ball quickly in transition. There’s a decent chance Stuttgart will win promotion back to the Bundesliga this season, but even so I’d question whether Ascacibar shouldn’t be on a fair few managers wishlists.
3. Eberechi Eze
Of all the players I have watched live this season, none have impressed me more than Eberechi Eze. The 21-year-old was released by Millwall back in 2016, and began working part-time at Tesco. Gary Rowett must be wondering what might have been in his first team, since Eze now looks like maybe the most gifted footballer in England outside of the Premier League. The Greenwich-born wide man was a regular at Loftus Road last season, but he looks like a different animal altogether this season.
A real box of tricks, he is playing with so much confidence and freedom under Mark Warburton at the moment. He’s quick, strong, superb on the ball and has both the belief and the ability to beat players at will. Eze has scored 9 goals and has made 4 assists in 21 games this season, and I’d be amazed if a number of Premier League scouts weren’t keeping tabs on him. He is only 21, and QPR have a very realistic chance of making the play-offs this season, but even if the Hoops don’t win promotion in the next couple of seasons, I’d thoroughly expect Eze to take that step up in class on his own.
2. Jarrod Bowen
We’re staying in the Championship for my runner-up, who has been the outstanding player in English football outside of the Premier League this season, and arguably beyond. As those of you who watched my 200,000 subscribers Q&A will know, I am a Hull City fan, but that’s not why Jarrod Bowen makes this seven. I’ve been invited to talk about Bowen on radio shows in the past when he’s been linked with the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham, and I must admit that on those occasions I have probably done him a disservice – maybe I was subconsciously hoping other teams wouldn’t want to sign him.
Bowen has quite clearly been the best player at the KCOM Stadium for more than two years now, aged only 22, but he is quite literally getting better and better every week. Bowen scored 15 goals in the 2017-18 season, which was his breakout campaign, he bagged 22 goals last season, and he has scored 15 goals before Christmas already this season. I should point out for those of you who don’t watch Championship football that Jarrod Bowen plays predominantly as a right-winger, not as a centre-forward, making those already superb numbers even more impressive.
Bowen isn’t lightning quick, but he is excellent on the ball and prolific in front of goal. He primarily scores two different types of goals, the first being long-range strikes having picked up the ball and cutting inside onto his left foot a la Arjen Robben, and the second by using pure striking instincts, getting in the middle of the goal and being brave enough to throw himself at the ball and get in front of defenders. I am resigned to the fact that he won’t be a Hull City player for much longer, but he has been a magnificent servant to the club and we’ll enjoy him while he’s here.
1. Cristhian Stuani
Just as this entire seven hasn’t left me feeling as sure of my selections as I normally would like to be, nor does my top spot. Cristhian Stuani didn’t exactly set the world alight during his time at Middlesbrough, and some may beg the very reasonable question of is he better than Aleksandar Mitrovic? I cannot tell you for sure, and they’re two completely different players, but when all is weighed up I found it difficult not to put Stuani first in this seven.
The Uruguayan international, who has won 50 caps for his nation despite competition from the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Abel Hernandez, has been ruthless in front of goal since signing for Girona. He joined the newly-promoted La Liga outfit in 2017 from Middlesbrough, and he scored 41 goals in 67 games over the next two seasons. For context, that is more goals than Karim Benzema, Antoine Griezmann and Gareth Bale over that two years period, and a tally bettered only by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Iago Aspas during that time.
Stuani can play on either flank but is naturally being played through the middle in that kind of form, and he turned down the chance to join Barcelona in January 2019. The Catalan giants approached Stuani as they looked to strengthen in forward areas, but Stuani chose to sign a new deal at Girona and Barca signed Kevin-Prince Boateng on-loan instead. This season, Stuani is making a mockery of the Segunda Division with 16 goals in 15 games. His time at Middlesbrough may make you think Stuani can’t be that good, but the record suggests otherwise, and sometimes players just don’t suit a certain style or manager. All things considered, as unsure as I may have been, the Uruguayan has to top this seven.
0. Honourable Mentions
As I said, this was a mightily difficult seven to compile, and I will mention some unfortunate omissions who didn’t make the cut. Initially, I had to decide between picking the seven best non-top flight players based on performances this season or just who I felt were the best in terms of talent. Joe Allen, for example, is obviously a very good footballer, but he hasn’t been very good in a struggling Stoke City side this season. In the end, I must admit I sort of tried to pick players who fit both criteria, which I freely admit is a bit of a cop out.
Anyhow, in terms of shortlisted players who missed out, they include the likes of Leeds United stars Kiko Casilla and Pablo Hernandez, Real Zaragoza’s Cristian Alvarez, Huesca midfielder Pedro Mosquera and Stoke City duo Jack Butland and Badou Ndiaye. Even more notably, the likes of Japan star Shinji Kagawa and German international Ron Robert-Zieler surely have to be up there in terms of talent, but maybe not current form. Last but not least, quick mentions go to Stuttgart’s Daniel Didavi, Rayo Vallecano’s Borja Garcia, Huddersfield Town’s Terence Kongolo and Brentford duo Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma.