Form Follows Function – On the Rationality of Lionel Messi

This is an old article of mine. Written in 2016, it was posted on the now defunct homepage that exclusively featured FC Barcelona-related material. I was recently reminded of this piece when reading some comments Mauricio Pochettino made about Messi and Neymar in an interview for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He said that while Neymar is a player aiming for the special and the spectacular, Messi simply does what is needed to get the job done. No embellishments, no experiments, instead: clean control, clean dribbling, clean passing. Neymar frequently had to be the ‘piggy in the middle’ in Rondo exercises, Messi never. I think the main point I make in this essay is still true and hence I am re-publishing the piece.

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Retro-Series: Team of the World Cup 1950

So I decided to start burning the candle at both ends.

In addition to my run through football history that goes backwards, started with the Team of the Euros 2008, and currently stands at the 2005-06 season, I have begun to watch football from the very beginning of football history. Now, of course, football history began much earlier than the 1950s. But football history that people can experience first-hand today by watching whole matches or at least extended highlights began in the early 50s. The earliest full match on that I am aware of, for example, is the 1953 FA Cup final. This is why I decided to start here, with football’s return to the global stage after the war, the 1950 World Cup.

Two things to note about this claim, however: first, there isn’t much footage. All the moving pictures from the whole World Cup add up to less than an hour of footage, I would say. I’ve watched it all, but not even all goals were caught on tape and/or have survived until now. Judging the quality of players who are typically not involved in the last seconds before the ball hits the net – so basically everyone apart from strikers and goalkeepers – is next to impossible based on the video material. My goal of forming an opinion that is truly my own based on watching the players can therefore be realised only in a much more limited way than later on in football history.

This is why I reached for help. The selection you see below will be the first on this blog that is not compiled by me alone, but with the help of an outstanding expert on all things football history: Rob Fielder. Rob, the author of both The Complete History of the World Cup and The Complete History of the European Championship, is a frequent contributor of player profiles on these very pages, but so far, I have kept up an absolutist dictatorial regime when it came to the final player selection. Grudgingly – or, jokes aside: gladly – I share this task with him for this team. Thank you for helping me, Rob!

The second thing one should know about the 1950 World Cup is that it was in some ways very different from most later World Cup tournaments. Not only was it the only one not to feature a final (but rather a final group stage), it didn’t yet include all the international superpowers of its day. Argentina, to name perhaps the most important case, decided not to participate. They could have fielded a team featuring both the veterans of La Maquina and a young, yet established Alfredo Di Stefano. Hungary is another important team that did not even enter qualification, same as all other nations from the Soviet sphere of influence. 1950 marked the beginning of the Hungarian golden era and we would have loved to see them play against the South American teams in particular. And even some teams that did participate did not do so with all their best players on board. Sweden, who ended up finishing third, did so without the best players from their best ever generation that won the Olympics (back then still an important football tournament) two years earlier. So, yes, it is still true that the 1950 World Cup marked the return of the global game after the war, but one should keep in mind that it is not quite the same tournament compared to later editions of the World Cup.

Manager: George Raynor

Bench: Maspoli, Stuber; Nilsson, Horvath; Tejera, Augusto; Gambetta, Bauer; Mitic, Andersson; Cremaschi, K. Nordahl; Jair, Bobek; Perez, Baltazar; Skoglund, Gainza; Miguez, Zarra; Basora, Sundqvist

Best Player: Ademir

Best Team: Brazil

Best Match: Brazil – Spain 6-1

Antoni Ramallets (by Rob Fielder)

Entered the tournament as a reserve choice behind captain Ignazio Eizaguirre but ended it as one of the most impressive performers of the finals. Although Ramallets wasn’t selected for Spain’s opener against the USA, he came into the side for the clash with Chile and made one outstanding save from Atilio Cremaschi as they won 2-0. Against England he was fortunate to see a header from Jackie Milburn chalked off for offside but then foiled a series of efforts as Spain claimed a narrow 1-0 victory. Three wins from three carried Spain through into the final group stage but they found things harder going there. Ramallets was still considered to have acquitted himself well in their 2-2 draw with eventual champions Uruguay and the score might have been even higher than their 6-1 defeat to hosts Brazil had it not been for the Barcelona man’s efforts. He might not have left with any silverware but Ramallets did return to Spain with the nickname “the cat of the Maracana”. 

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Update: Team of the Decade 2005-2015

One of the first things I did on this blog was to compile a Team of the Decade for the ten years between 2005 and 2015. That was back in 2015. It kicked off the Team of the Decade project for which I watched my way back through football history and compiled overlapping Teams of the Decade in 5 year steps. Hence the 2000-2010 Team followed the 2005-2015 one, and after it came the 1995-2005 Team, and so on. All the way back to the 1950-1960 Team of the Decade. No full matches have survived from the time before the 1950s and hence I was no longer able to form an opinion of my own based on the matches themselves. That is why I stopped there. The project culminated in 2017 with posts about what I think is the best Team of Football History and one about the single best player. The year 2020 naturally brought a new Team of the Decade that was duly added.

A further project of mine startet in the early days of the COVID pandemic. I had begun to compile a Team of the Season (first in an offline format) in 2008-09 and now begun a second, more in-depth voyage through football history that started at the point just before that: Euro 2008. I since watched, and wrote about, the 2007-08 season, the 2006-07 season, the 2006 World Cup, and the 2005-06 season. Which means what? Correct. I covered another full decade, the 2005-2015 one that this whole blog started with. Reason enough to update my previous selection. This is what this post is about.

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Retro Series: Team of the Season 2005-2006

Manager: Frank Rijkaard

Bench: Buffon, Julio Cesar, van der Sar; Lahm, Gallas, Zambrotta; Marquez, Carvalho, Puyol, Nesta, Cannavaro, Demichelis; Eboue, D. Alves, Sagnol; Cambiasso, Frings, Iniesta; Deco, Vieira, Senna; Riquelme, Hleb, Ballack; Lampard, Rooney, Kaka; Klose, Drogba, Shevchenko; Trezeguet, Messi, Adriano

Best Player: Ronaldinho

Best Team: FC Barcelona

Best Match: FC Barcelona – Chelsea FC 1-1, 07.03.2006

Petr Cech
No goalkeeper other than Gianluigi Buffon truly thrilled me this season. And the Italian superman was injured for considerable parts of the season. Hence a pretty even race for the spot in the first eleven ensued that, frankly, could have been won by other keepers as well. The decision didn’t get easier by the fact that none of the teams making it to the Champions League semi-finals had an outstanding keeper (Valdes, Lehmann, Dida, Barbosa). What I saw from Cech was dependable, high class goalkeeping. There weren’t too many Chelsea matches from this season available online but I have little doubt that my positive impression is representative of his season as a whole. For a strong performance see the (brilliant) home match against Barcelona.

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Team of the Season 2021-2022

Manager: Carlo Ancelotti

Bench: Alisson, De Gea, Lloris; Cancelo, Perisic, F. Mendy; Rüdiger, Skriniar, Matip, Laporte, Stones, Dier; Walker, James, Llorente; Fabinho, Casemiro, Rice; B. Silva, Thiago Alcantara, Kroos; Müller, Messi, Nkunku; Vinicius Jr., C. Ronaldo, Son; Lewandowski, Kane, Vlahovic; Mane, Jota, Leao

Best Player: Karim Benzema

Best Team: Real Madrid

Best Match: FC Liverpool – Manchester City 2-2, 03.10.2021

Ladies and gentlemen, it seems we have arrived in the post Messi & Cristiano Ronaldo era. For the last 16 years there has never been a Team of the Season the first eleven of which did not feature at least one of them. This time both make the bench, but they were closer to missing out entirely than to be in the starting lineup. Ronaldo was saved by his still impressive goal return and Messi by his Copa America, which counts as a part of the 2021-2022 season. I wouldn’t bet against one of them, or even both, having a fine World Cup at the end of the year but it currently seems like their reign at the very top is coming to an end. It may very well be a long time until we see their likes again. Applying my points system (see the end of this post) to these selections which currently go back to the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo stands at 68 points and Messi at a staggering 96. No one has more. Busquets is their closest pursuer with 50 points.

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Corona Retro-Teams: Team of the World Cup 2006

Was the 2006 World Cup a good one? It sure involved some memorable moments, some legendary performances, and is widely credited with changing Germany’s image in the world for the better. But when it comes to the actual football, I think the picture is a mixed one. There was one classic game, the semi-final Germany – Italy, but I think this is about it. Fantastic performances could be seen on the individual level, but rarely on the collective. Argentina’s performance against Serbia & Montenegro might be the clearest exception. Tactically speaking, it was a very conservative world cup. Defensive structure was king, attacking structure almost unheard of. ‘Tactics’ just meant fine-tuning the kind of medium-low zonal-marking block that almost every team fielded. Generally speaking, attacking hadn’t caught up with defending yet.

This blogpost tries to chronicle the exploits of the best players of the 2006 World Cup. You will find many players from teams who progressed far into the tournament. I think that is just the nature of knock-out style tournaments. Some of the players with the highest potential simply do not get the chance to shine because their teams crash out rather early. At the very bottom of the page you will find the updated spreadsheet of all my selections ever.

And, as always, enjoy!

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Team of the European Championship 2021

Euro 2021 is widely thought to be one of the better international tournaments in recent times. I agree. The ultra-cautious approach of the last World Cup and the last Euros was mostly absent and both we, the viewers, and the sport itself was better for it. It is fair to say that no single player had a tournament that ranks among the very best in history: there was no Zidane 2000, Iniesta 2012, or Neuer 2014, to name three recent(-ish) examples. Still, many players impressed and this blogpost triest to name the very best. A big thank you goes out to my co-authors Daniel Roßbach, Rob Fielder, Lewis Ambrose, and Niklas Baumgart. Daniel is a journalist for the Lausitzer Rundschau and your no. 1 source if you’re interested in the most recent Union Berlin pressing schemes. Rob is simply an authority when it comes to the history of football and the author of the only two histories of the World Cup and European Championship that can rightfully be called ‘complete’. If you like this blog, you will love his books! Lewis is a football writer for arseblog and One Football and, if I may say so, a damn good football player. (The Saka to Daniel’s Chiellini.) Niklas is a journalist at the world-famous Kicker magazine and his Baumgarts Fußballblog is perhaps the best German football history blog within the (broadly-speaking) analytical tradition. Highly recommended if you speak German! (It pains me to say that so far I cannot comment on the footballing skills of Rob and Niklas, but the day will come, my friends, the day will come!)

The co-authors enriched this blog by contributing player profiles, but keep in mind that the selection was mine alone. So if you are the kind of person who gets upset by selections like these, please direct your anger towards me. To immediately pick out one controversial decision: Jorginho is the 12th man, someone who did more than enough to warrant inclusion, someone who is among the top five players of the tournament, but who is relegated to the bench because there is another player in his position who I see narrowly ahead (primarily based on the match in which they met). Sorry, Jorginho.

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Team of the Season 2020-2021

Believe it or not, another football season has ended. This one wasn’t as disrupted by the Corona pandemic as the last season was, but it would be a stretch to call it a regular season either. Last season ended only in August, which meant that there was hardly any summer break and lots of matches had to be squeezed into an ever tighter schedule. Not the easiest of times for top performances. Still, some players defied the odds and produced performances of the highest calibre. This blog post chronicles their exploits.

Manager: Thomas Tuchel

Bench: Courtois, Oblak, Navas; Guerreiro, Angelino, Robertson; Rüdiger, Kounde, Nacho, Azpilicueta, T. Silva, Savic; Hakimi, Wan-Bissaka, Walker; Rodri, Kimmich, Busquets; Kroos, Barella, F. de Jong; De Bruyne, M. Llorente, Müller; Neymar, Grealish, C. Ronaldo; Benzema, Haaland, Lukaku; Kane, Son, Foden

Best Player of the Season: Robert Lewandowski

Best Team of the Season: Manchester City

Best Match of the Season: FC Liverpool – Manchester City 1-4, 07.02.2021

The selection is, as always, based on the two criteria quantity of performance and quality of performance. Ideally, the players selected have performed really well and did so for the whole season or substantial parts of it. The 2020-2021 Season is defined as starting with the final whistle of the 2020 Champions League final and ending with the final whistle of the 2021 Champions League final.

I want to thank my four co-authors Tobias Günther, Michael, Justin Kraft and Rob Fielder. The portraits they’ve written are the highlights of this year’s Team of the Season. I am very grateful to have you on board! The player selection is still done by me, mind you, so if you have any righteous anger to vent, please direct it at me.

Manuel Neuer (by Tobias Günther)
If you play as a goalkeeper for one of Europe’s big club sides, opportunities to show your full abilities tend to arrive only rarely in any normal season. However, the 2020-2021 season was by no means a normal season. Yes, the COVID pandemic still loomed large and empty stadiums were the norm. But football-wise, too, the season was rather unusual. Many elite clubs struggled. Bayern München, Manuel Neuer’s club, was no exception.

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Corona Retro-Teams: 2006-07

The 2006-07 season was in many ways a transitional season. The new world of Guardiola, prime-Messi and prime-Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t arrived yet but the era before that had clearly ended. The Galacticos had broken apart, Zidane retired, Bergkamp retired, Roy Keane retired, Ronaldo… well, kind of retired, Ronaldinho past his peak, Mourinho’s Chelsea past theirs, Capello’s Juventus gone, van Nistelrooy had left United, Henry had played his last good season for Arsenal, and so on and so forth. Tactically speaking it was a rather dull time. Most teams played pretty much alike, with a focus on defensive stability, happy to nick a goal on the counter but unwilling and unable to build any kind of planned collective attacking effort. Doesn’t sound like I want to convince you to repeat what I did and watch your way through the season, right? Well, maybe not quite as extensively as I did, but there is greatness to be found in this era. The 2006-07 season featured some good, very good, even borderline outstanding performances by some players. The purpose of this post is to chronicle some of these exploits. As always, selection is based on quality and quantity of performance – and on nothing else. The 2006-2007 Season is defined as starting with the final whistle of the 2006 Champions League final and ending with the final whistle of the 2007 Champions League final. The 2006 World Cup is excluded.

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Corona Retro-Teams: 2007-2008

Manager: Alex Ferguson

Bench: Casillas, Julio Cesar, D. James; Lahm, A. Cole, Maxwell; Ferdinand, Demichelis, Chiellini, R. Marquez, K. Touré; Maicon, Ramos, D. Alves; M. Diarra, Cambiasso, Christian Zanetti; Xavi, Scholes, Javier Zanetti; Gerrard, Lampard, Alex de Souza; Ribery, Robinho, Hleb; Toni, Adebayor, Rooney; Totti, Agüero, Del Piero

Best Player of the Season: Cristiano Ronaldo

Best Team of the Season: Manchester United

Best Match of the Season: Manchester United – Chelsea FC , 21.05.2008

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