FC 100 best men's soccer forwards, 2022-23

Illustration by MASA

Forwards are more mysterious and harder to define in the beautiful game these days. They aren't strictly strikers as they once were, parked in the 6-yard box ready to poach. They're not quite attacking midfielders, orchestrating play from deep, nor are they wide players tasked with stretching opposing defences for teammates to exploit.

Instead they're a powerful blend of all of the above, talented enough to handle the free role and graceful enough under pressure to constantly deliver.

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This year's ballot had 50 entries from all over the globe and from all areas of ESPN FC, from writers to reporters, from editors to producers, from behind-the-scenes staff to on-air talent. Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden and Luis Miguel Echegaray were just some of the key voters, along with their FC TV counterparts Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop.

Voters were encouraged to take the following things into consideration when casting their votes: who are the best men's players right now, weighted toward their 2022-23 seasons. Voters were given discretion as to how much injuries played in votes; several players made the cut despite missing chunks of the season given the scale of their contributions and performances when healthy. Equally, performances in individual competitions (aka Champions League, World Cup) were considered, but were not the overarching factor, in casting a vote. Players whose efforts spanned the largest sample size of games should naturally rank higher than those who excelled in short tournament formats.

Why Mbappe beat Messi to the top ESPN FC 100 forward spot

Gab & Juls explain why Kylian Mbappe had to be named the world's best forward in the ESPN FC 100.

All player copy written by Bill Connelly, Constantin Eckner, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler.

10. NEYMAR, Paris Saint-Germain/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

He's 31, he's injured a lot, and he hasn't brought the long-sought Champions League title to Paris. But he remains one of the most prolific players in the world. In 29 matches in all competitions this season, Neymar scored 18 goals and served up 16 assists, including five to Kylian Mbappe and three to Lionel Messi. Only two players in Europe's Big Five averaged more than 1.11 goals and assists per 90 minutes in league play: Erling Haaland and Neymar. That's good company. You might not get 4,000 minutes a season from him, but when he's on the pitch, you're going to get nonstop goal contributions.

Expectations for 2023-24:

His lofty contract, combined with the steady injuries, make him a candidate to leave PSG this year if the club can actually find a suitor. Might one emerge in Saudi Arabia? Will Barcelona show interest like they do in everyone else? Will Manchester United ramp up a potential bid? Will the hiring of his former Barca manager, Luis Enrique, keep him in town? Only so many clubs in the world can afford him, but wherever he ends up, he should remain one of the most dangerous players on the pitch (when he's on the pitch). -- Connelly

9. Christopher NKUNKU, RB Leipzig/France

Why he's on the list:

It's pretty good business: RB Leipzig acquired Nkunku's rights from PSG, his hometown club, for €13 million in 2019. Four years, 70 goals, 45 assists, two DFB Pokal titles and a Champions League semifinal appearance later, and he's off to Chelsea for €65m.

Over four seasons, the 25-year-old evolved from a left midfielder to an either-sided winger to a forward, and he raised his game accordingly. His final season in Leipzig was marked by injury, but his 2021-22 season was near perfection: 35 goals and 16 assists (from 90 chances created) in all competitions, including 11 in UEFA competitions and a hat trick against Manchester City. He is an all-around forward, capable of linking up with others in buildup or exploding into counterattacks, and few in the game create more frequent, high-quality chances for themselves and others.

Expectations for 2023-24:

RB Leipzig certainly have hopes and expectations, but it probably goes without saying that the pressure will ramp up considerably for Nkunku at Chelsea. The Blues finished 12th in the Premier League, due in large part to a moribund attack. Nkunku is capable of providing an instant shot in the arm, and he will be very much expected to do so. -- Connelly

8. Lautaro MARTINEZ, Inter Milan/Argentina

Why he's on the list:

The 5-foot-9 Argentine, nicknamed "The Bull," has everything you'd want from a second striker playing off a bigger counterpart: guile, speed, lethal finishing skills with both feet and a heavy press against opponents trying to play out from the back. Alongside taller, more physical forwards Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku, Martinez matched his Serie A career best for goals, with 21, and doubled his assist total to six, while managing to stay fit enough to appear in all 38 league games.

In addition to helping guide Inter Milan into the Champions League final and a third-place league finish last season, Martinez played an ego-less support role for Argentina in the World Cup, chipping in a penalty against the Netherlands in the semifinals as his country won it all in Qatar. Former Argentina boss Mauricio Pochettino once called him "one of the best in the world" at what he does and he's still only 25.

Expectations for 2023-24:

It's hard to imagine Martinez staying at Inter for much longer given the club's financial state, and with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea both looking for his brand of dynamism in the box, this could be one of the summer's big transfer sagas. -- Tyler

7. Rafael LEAO, AC Milan/Portugal

Why he's on the list:

It has been a record-breaking season for Leao. He had his most prolific campaign overall, with 15 goals and eight assists in Serie A (improving from 11 and eight in their title-winning season last year), confirming that he is one of the best in the world at his position. Maybe the numbers in the Champions League weren't enough (one goal and three assists in 11 games), but his incredible run against Napoli was one of the highlights of the season. He was great individually, perhaps an even better achievement considering the fact that Milan were not good collectively and could not compete with Napoli for the title.

Expectations for 2023-24:

We now know that Leao will be a Milan player for the foreseeable future after agreeing to a long-awaited new deal despite being coveted by several top clubs in Europe. Keeping him, and his ongoing impactful play, is huge for Milan. At 24, he will need a better team around him to take the Rossoneri back to the top. The Euros with Portugal will also be high on his list, but in what role? So far, he is still a sub at the international level. -- Laurens

6. Marcus RASHFORD, Man United/England

Why he's on the list:

Rashford is coming off his best season after reaching 30 goals in all competitions for the first time in his career. It was a remarkable turnaround from his 2021-22 campaign, when he managed to find the net just five times.

After returning from the World Cup in December, Rashford scored in seven straight games for United and was also on target in big games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Barcelona. He's got the pace, quick feet and technical ability to be one of the best in the world, and last season he began to back up his potential.

Expectations for 2023-24:

The aim for Rashford in 2023-24 will be consistency. In 2020-21, he got 21 goals but struggled the following season. This time he will be expected to build on a successful campaign.

He has benefitted from Erik ten Hag's coaching and is regularly being deployed in his best position on the left of the front three rather than through the middle. He's set to sign a new long-term contract that will keep him at Old Trafford, and at 25, he's reaching the peak years of his career. Ten Hag is hoping to take United back to the top of European football and is looking to build his team around players like Rashford. -- Dawson

5. Antoine GRIEZMANN, Atletico Madrid/France

Why he's on the list:

You aren't supposed to become more active and more effective as you move toward your mid-30s, but Griezmann appears to be doing just that. The 32-year-old enjoyed an unexpected star turn as a midfield creator for France in the World Cup, then returned to Madrid and played at his highest sustained level in years. His 15 goals were his most in league play since 2018-19, his 150 ball recoveries were his most since 2015-16, and his 15 assists were the most in LaLiga and as many as he managed in his past three league seasons combined.

In his 13th season at the major club level, and his second after leaving Barcelona, Griezmann became a Bruno Fernandes-style creative force while maintaining the scoring ability that has defined his career.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Griezmann is signed with Atletico through 2026, so barring a shocking offer from a big Premier League club, he is likely to remain in the Spanish capital for the foreseeable future. And after what he did this spring, expectations are high. Atletico were the best team in Spain over the back half of the season, and Griezmann was the driving force. If he maintains his level, Atletico will probably do the same. -- Connelly

4. Mohamed SALAH, Liverpool/Egypt

Why he's on the list:

Liverpool had a disappointing season, finishing fifth in the Premier League and missing out on a place in the Champions League, but Salah still scored 30 goals in all competitions, including 19 in the league. He has now reached 30 goals in each of his past three seasons. It's a fantastic record for a player who doesn't play as an out-and-out striker, and to do it during a season when the team hasn't played well is even more evidence of his ability as a goal scorer. He's about as close as it gets to guaranteed goals.

Expectations for 2023-24?

Salah was the first to admit that Liverpool weren't good enough last season, and missing out on the Champions League will be tough to take for one of the best players in the world. He signed a new long-term contract a year ago, and with his future at Anfield secure, he will want to see Jurgen Klopp begin to build another team capable of challenging for the biggest trophies. If Liverpool are to regain their place as Manchester City's closest challengers next season, Salah will be expected to provide the bulk of the goals. -- Dawson

3. Lionel MESSI, Paris Saint-Germain/Argentina

Why he's on the list:

As long as Messi can walk and potentially run in a straight line, he should be included in any best-of list. Plus, he finally achieved his dream of leading Argentina to a World Cup title, which essentially puts him on par with Diego Maradona in the minds of many football fanatics at home. Assessing his level of performance may be difficult because Messi often has teammates running a few extra miles just for him, but there is a lot of magic left in the feet of one of the all-time greats.

Expectations for 2023-24?

Hat tricks against MLS teams and fun times in Miami are ahead for Messi. As opposed to other aging stars, he decided against fortunes on offer in Saudi Arabia and instead opted to join David Beckham's club that will still pay him a fortune. While we might experience the twilight period of his career in 2023-24, we will also see a different side of Messi as a person and undoubtedly influential figure in world football. -- Eckner

2. VINICIUS, Real Madrid/Brazil

Why he's on the list:

He's Real Madrid's most important player, and the most exciting footballer in LaLiga. Is there anyone you'd rather see running at a defender? Unless you're the defender, of course.

"He is [the best in the world] for me," coach Carlo Ancelotti said after a Champions League performance against Liverpool on March 16. "He didn't score today but he was decisive. ... Every time that he took a player on, he was dangerous."

Vinicius scored 23 club goals in all competitions last season and had the second-highest number of LaLiga assists (nine) behind Griezmann. He's not just a breathtaking footballer, either. He has taken a stand on racism, calling out Valencia fans who racially abused him during a game in May, and refused to bow to small-minded, joyless criticism of his goal celebrations. "I won't stop dancing," he said.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Becoming the best player in the world and a Ballon d'Or contender is a legitimate target for Vinicius, if not this year, then in the next three or four. He's got the talent and relentless work ethic to make it happen.

Vinicius will want to up his goal scoring numbers again -- they dropped a little last season after a remarkable 2021-22 -- and help Madrid win LaLiga, and compete in the Champions League. He'll miss playing with Karim Benzema, but he'll enjoy the increased opportunities to link up with Rodrygo.

Vinicius is just as ambitious off the pitch. The plan is to leverage his success with Madrid and Brazil into becoming a genuine global icon, transcending football. You shouldn't bet against it. -- Kirkland

1. Kylian MBAPPE, Paris Saint-Germain/France

Why he's on the list:

Where do you want to start? On the pitch? Fifty-four goals in all competitions. A hat trick in the World Cup final, a tournament in which he was the top scorer. A fifth consecutive Ligue 1 top scorer award. Another Ligue 1 title. Some outrageously good moments and a legitimate shot at the Ballon d'Or in 2023.

Off the field? A big new deal with PSG a year ago followed by frustration and disappointment with the club's strategy throughout the season, a clash with the French FA over image rights with the support of his France teammates, and a letter to his club confirming that he intends to leave as a free agent in June 2024.

What a year.

Expectations for 2023-24:

Where will he play next season? That's the million-dollar question. PSG? Real Madrid? Somewhere else? Regardless, he will be right up there with the best, scoring, assisting and winning trophies and plaudits. He wants to go even higher than where he is now, and he will. The Champions League is his biggest objective and he will aim for it again next year. He will also want to redeem himself at Euro 2024 after his penalty miss against Switzerland in the last one. -- Laurens