Manager: Pep Guardiola
Bench: Buffon, Cech, Casillas; Zanetti, Abidal, A. Cole; Hummels, Vidic, Puyol, Chiellini, Nesta, Pique; S. Ramos, Maicon, Srna; Schweinsteiger, Cambiasso, X. Alonso; Pirlo, Lampard, Scholes; Kaka, Fabregas, Modric; Ribéry, D. Villa, Di Maria; Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Drogba; Agüero, T. Müller, Eto’o
Best player: Lionel Messi
Best team: FC Barcelona 2008-12
Best club: FC Barcelona
Best match: FC Barcelona – Real Madrid 5-0, 29.11.2010
A preliminary remark: when people compile Teams of the Decade, they most often restrict the meaning of the term ‘decade’ to something like the 80s or the 90s. I don’t. When I say ‘decade’, I simply mean a time span of 10 years. This post will be the first in a series of articles in which I compile Teams of the Decade. I will work my way back in time in 5 year steps. After this post, the next one will be about the 2000-2010 Team of the Decade, which in turn will be followed by the 1995-2005 Team of the Decade and so forth back until the 1950-1960 Team of the Decade. I will stop there because the lack of footage for players before 1950 makes it impossible for me to form an opinion about them that is truly my own. I chose to go back in steps of 5 years, because that seems to be a good compromise. Going back in steps of 10 years is unfair towards those players who have performed the best around the turn of a decade (take Xavi, for example). Smaller steps would mean a lot of repetition; a 2004-2014 Team of the Decade won’t be that different from a 2005-2015 Team of the Decade.
Inclusion in this team is based solely on quantity and quality of performance during the respective period of time. It’s not about whether a player has won a lot of trophies, or fits some artistic ideal, even whether a player was ahead of his time in itself isn’t a criterion. It’s about performance and performance alone. You don’t necessarily have to get top marks for both quantity and quality of performance to be included. If the quality of your performances was outstanding, you have a chance to be included even if, for example, you only performed on that level for, say, 5 of the 10 years. But the lack of quantity of performance will speak against you. Also, the chances of any given player to be included, of course, heavily depend on the quality and quantity of performance of other players who played in the same position during the same period of time. This is all still a bit vague, but since fantasy football teams are far from being exact science to begin with, I think that’s okay. The main point that I want to emphasize simply is, that both quantity and quality of performance matter. I define the 2005-2015 decade as starting with the final whistle of the 2005 Champions League final and ending with the final whistle of the 2015 Champions League final.
Germany has a long tradition of fine shot stoppers. The likes of Oliver Kahn, Sepp Maier and Toni Schumacher were among the best keepers of their time. Manuel Neuer is the next in line and has a real chance to outshine even the best of his predecessors. In fact, he already comes close. It’s possible that he hasn’t reached the half way point of his career, but his performances during the last couple of years warrant such praise. Especially his 2014 World Cup ranks among the best tournament performances by a goalkeeper ever. Take the game against Algeria: , with any other goalkeeper Germany would have lost that match, as Rene Maric correctly observed. Something like that is hard to find. Maybe Maradona against England in ’86 is another example. That’s the kind of performance level we’re talking about – albeit without the cheating.
Neuer is famous for his ultra-modern interpretation of the goalkeeper position. His game isn’t restricted to his penalty box. He regularly places himself 20, 30, even 35 meters from his goal and manages to cover pretty much half the pitch by himself. This enables his team to play a high defensive line which again is a necessary condition for pressing the opponent deep into its own half. Due to this causal connection the modernity of Neuer’s game is connected to what modern football is tactically all about.
By some people, Neuer’s playing style is called revolutionary. Others retort that other shot stoppers before Neuer have also played as a so-called ‘sweeper keeper’ and point to players like Edwin van der Sar and Lew Yashin. My opinion is that both statements are true. Yes, others before Neuer have interpreted their role in ways similar to that of Neuer. They have left not only their goal, but also the penalty box and they were capable of quality participation in their team’s build-up game. The thing is, Neuer does so in such an extreme way and with such remarkable results, that calling his playing style ‘revolutionary’ indeed seems justified, although the characteristics of his game aren’t unheard of.
Neuer started the decade at Schalke 04, where he stayed until 2011, when he transfered to Bayern Munich. Since 2010 he is the first choice goalkeeper for the German national team. During the early years of the decade he was rightly considered a massive talent, who was already capable of miraculous performances like this one. Around 2008 or 2009 he came of age performance-wise and could be considered a world class keeper. He confirmed this status during the next couple of years and in the 2010 World Cup. Roughly by 2013 he started to transcend the world class category, culminating in the 2014 World Cup.
Due to his young age, Neuer can’t be awarded top marks in terms of quantity of performance. But the quality of his performances during the last couple of years, see him narrowly edge out the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Petr Cech, who also had a very good decade.
It’s not really a question of whether he should be included, but where. Lahm is equally adapt both as left and right back and has played in both positions for a extended timespan. Since there’ve been better right-backs than left-backs during the last ten years, I play Lahm as left-back in order to maximise the overall quality of the team.
Among contemporary full-backs, it is often Dani Alves who gets singled out as somebody who has transformed the way this position is played. How he manages to bomb forward time and time again, while still doing a lot of defensive work is claimed to be something new. This is nonsense. There have been full-backs, a lot of them Brazilians, doing the same for decades. Roberto Carlos and Cafu are only the most obvious examples. If you want to watch a truly innovative full-back, have a look at Philipp Lahm. If the likes of Alves and Cafu could be described as ‘full-back/winger’, Lahm is something like a ‘full-back/playmaker’. Now that is a role description you don’t find very often. In fact, I’m struggling to name a full-back, either contemporary or historical, who is as playmaking as Lahm is. He often is an integral and creative part of his team’s combination play. That is made possible by his excellent understanding of the game coupled with a fine technique. He may not be the player to show off flashy skills, but Lahm boasts an almost flawless first touch, very good close control of the ball and plays precise passes with great assurance. These characteristics enabled Pep Guardiola to play him in central midfield. I can’t think of any other full-back who was regularly used in a creative midfield position, which further strengthens my claim that Lahm’s interpretation of his role is somewhat special.
So Lahm is a very good player when it comes to participating in his team’s build-up and combination play, but since he most often plays as a defender, one might ask: can he defend as good as he does those other things? Ignoring the implication that how a player contributes to his teams build-up game has nothing to do with the defensive side of the game, one can answer by stating that Philipp Lahm is indeed very good at defending. To send him into aerial duels against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Sergio Ramos may not be the best of ideas, but apart from that Lahm has a lot of defensive qualities. Given his surpreme overall understanding of the game, it’s not very surprising that he anticipates the opponent’s moves well and is generally well positioned. He’s also a fierce tackler, best exemplified by his ‘Philipp Lahm trademark tackle’. That action tells you a lot about the defender Philipp Lahm: fierce, yet clean and calm, effective and intelligent.
Lahm receives top marks for the quantity of his performances. He basically was a world class performer from 2005 right through 2015. Indeed one of the things you hear most often about him is that he hardly has a bad game. In terms of quality of performance there was no other left-back in the last decade who managed to reach Lahm’s level for an extended period of time. Consequently there is no way that Philipp Lahm can be left out of this team.
Tim Rieke from Spielverlagerung.de thinks he is the best centre-back of all time. I’m not quite sold on that, but I nevertheless pick Thiago Silva for this team. What’s so good about him? Counter-question: what isn’t? Silva is 1.83 meters tall, which is slightly below the ideal current height for a central defender. Apart from that, though, he is in all respects a world-class player. Especially remarkable is his footballing intelligence, which does show, among other things in his positional play and his clever use of the ball. Also his defensive game shows virtually no weaknesses. On the contrary, a lot of his actions demonstrate a certain calmess and are often very cleanly executed. Now that I think of it, the strengths of Silva and Philipp Lahm are very similar. (Only that Lahm’s career has more to offer quantitatively.) No wonder: many of the players that I have selected for this Team of the Decade are characterized by a high footballing intelligence. I want to emphasize, however, that it’s not just me having a soft spot for smart players, but I think intelligence is still is an underrated virtue in football. By and large, smart players are the better players.
Some other central defenders get better marks for quantity of performance (Pepe, for example), but in the end Thiago Silva makes the cut because of his outstanding quality. Also note that some other high-quality central defenders of the last ten years fail to get top marks for quantity of performance, too. (Puyol, Vidic, Piqué, Hummels)
A final remark: of all the selected players, Thiago Silva is the one from whom I have seen the fewest matches over the last 10 years. Spontaneously, I would estimate that I have seen at least 100 games from all other selected players, but in the case of Thiago Silva my estimation would be that I haven’t seen much more than 50. That is certainly enough to make a well-informed judgment about to him – especially since many high-profile matches are among the ones I watched – but still, in his case my judgment rests on a relatively weak empirical base.
I called Thiago Silva a very complete defender with virtually no apparant weaknesses. Am I willing to say the same about John Terry? Not quite. As strong as he is when it comes to classic defensive duties like tackling and marking an opposing striker, as limited are his skills, when it comes to some aspects of the modern defensive game. Unlike players like Thiago Silva or Mats Hummels, he is not a player in the tradition of the great liberos (liberi?) of the past. John Terry is not a modern Beckenbauer or Baresi. Rather, he’s in the tradition of more conservative defenders like Jürgen Kohler or Tony Adams. As I said in the part about Thiago Silva, I prefer players with superior footballing intelligence. Having said that, one must be no second Beckenbauer to have a great career at the highest level.
As of 2005 Terry was a world-class centre-back. As of 2015 Terry was a world-class centre-back. And for most of the time in between, he was, you guessed it, a world-class centre-back. As far as I can see, this can be said about very few other defenders of the last decade. Like his fellow Chelsea FC legend Frank Lampard, John Terry stands for reliable top performances over a long periode of time. Lampard narrowly fails to make the cut, because other players boast a similar quantity of performance during the last decade, while offering an even higher quality of performance. In the case of John Terry no other centre-back can keep up with him quantitatively and there is no second player next to Thiago Silva, whose quality of performance was much better than Terry’s and who managed to maintain that quality for long enough to make up for his lack of quantity of performance.
Mats Hummels once was on his way to gain a place in this team, but his performances during the last two years (excluding the World Cup, where he was brilliant) were too weak to warrant a place in the starting eleven. Especially since Terry is anything but a makeshift solution: if one wants to defend in a conservative block, you will be hard pressed to find a more reliable and defensively stronger player than John Terry. His strength, his experience, the speed and agility he used to have, his toughness and his tackling stand out. It seems that he isn’t a very likeable person, but he sure knows how to defend.
At the height of his career, Dani Alves was able to play as a de facto-winger, putting constant pressure on the opponent, while still being able to defend a player of the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo. Very few full-backs manage to do so on a constant basis. Or more precisely: only Dani Alves does. Unlike many other players in this team, Alves was never the cleanest of players. One does not get the impression that he has a big master plan in mind either. His game is more about ferocity, speed, hard work, technique, “determination” (to use the favorite word of all British football commentators) and his inexhaustible energy reserves. Don’t get me wrong, though, Alves is much more than just an athlete. He may not be the most strategic of players, but he’s not a one-dimensional player either. For the last seven years, his link-up play with Lionel Messi has been one of the great constants of FC Barcelona’s attacking game. Overall, one can say that Dani Alves is stylistically a member of the rich tradition of elite attacking Brazilian full-backs, also featuring the likes of Roberto Carlos, Cafu, and Carlos Alberto.
He receives the best possible mark for quantity of performance. Many people know him primarily as a FC Barcelona player, but one should not forget that he also was an essential part of the excellent Sevilla team that won the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2007. The only player who could have really endangered his place in this team is Philipp Lahm. Since he’s already included as a left-back, Alves’ place in the team is well secured.
Many years from now, people will rave about Xavi and Iniesta – Xaviniesta – the fantastic midfield duo that propelled FC Barcelona to two Champions League titles and Spain to two European Championships and a World Cup, all that in the matter of four short years. Xavi and Iniesta will be remembered as absolute legends, and rightly so. But whoever talks about the Barcelona and Spain midfield during those years would be very wrong to mention only Xavi and Iniesta. There was a third player in that midfield and he deserves just as much praise as the other two get. I’m talking, of course, about Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder of both teams.
I say it this very directly: I think Sergio Busquets is the best defensive midfielder of all time. True, he’s got some weaknesses: he’s not much of an athlete, although he does run a lot, so the team he plays in needs to be make sure that he does not have to win any sprinting duels against opposing attackers. But if one does so, then he delivers performances that I have so not seen by any other player past or present. There have been players with similar characteristics – Redondo for example, but also the mature Frank Rijkaard – but Busquets’ performances during some of the last years have been on an altogether different level.
I will not say too much about the playing style of Sergio Busquets, as I already did so elsewhere. In summary it can be said that Busquets is a monstrously intelligent player, whose quality of performance with and without the ball simply is the benchmark for his position. He boasts a nearly perfect basic technique and a great passing game. He is pretty thin for his size of 1.89 meters and remarkably slow. Would he be a faster, more dynamic and stronger player than he is, he would be even better. However, since his weaknesses can be concealed and his strengths are exorbitant, he deserves the place in this team.
With 27 years, Busquets is the youngest player in this team. He has not participated in top international football before 2008. This speaks undoubtedly against his inclusion. However, shortly after his debut in the first team of FC Barcelona in 2008, Busquets reached a level of performance that could be described with the term “world-class”. From 2011 to 2014 his performances were even better than that. Then he played a weak World Cup and an equally disappointing first half of the 2014/15 season, only to be again close to reaching his level of 2010/11-2013/14 in 2015. In the seasons 2012/13 and 2013/14 I rated him as the best player in the world. No other “true defensive midfielder” has even come close to achieving that in the last 10 years. (Pirlo had fantastic years, but for me he isn’t a “true defensive midfielder” because he can’t play as a lone defensive mid.) Other defensive midfielders have the played the whole decade at a very high level, but in this case, Busquets unmatched quality of performance make him my choice for this team.
Xavi Hernandez was perhaps not the best player of the past 10 years – this title undoubtedly goes to Lionel Messi – but he might just be the most influential. Xavi has changed football. Like no other he embodies the shift (back?) towards a more technical, more intelligent football. Now we must not pretend that the midfielders in the years before Xavi were all the mindless physical machines who couldn’t complete a ten yard pass. Such a caricature simply does not reflect reality. However, Xavi has shown that you don’t have to be a muscular box-to-box player, who bases his game on outpowering opponents, in order to be at the very top of the modern midfield game. If one has excellent technique and intelligence – and Xavi has plenty of both – one can more than just compete even if one is 1.70 meters tall and rather lightly built. Having said all that, we should not forget that Xavi is a physically impressive player in some respects: up until 2010 he was a pretty agile player and also had tremendous stamina. This is quickly overlooked as Xavi wasn’t the kind of player to cover the whole length of the field in full speed, but he often was the player covering the most ground during a match.
Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly right to note that Xavi’s great strengths were his technique and footballing intelligence. As for the technical side of his game, Xavi embodies what La Masia is all about. He needed few touches to control the ball and execute whatever he wanted to do with it. Xavi rather seldomly chose to do the spectacular, although he certainly was capable of it. His playing style was marked by a cool technical excellence, which may be at first glance unspectacular, but ultimately very effective. Similarly, his passing game: always high-class, not so much looking for the spectacular moment, but steadily contributing to increase his team’s dominance over the opponent one pass at a time.
As for the footballing intelligence, one can not praise Xavi highly enough. He is a prime example of a great midfield strategist. Not only were his actions aimed at initiating succesful combinations, he also had a strategic masterplan in mind. For that matter, there are very few players in the history of football who did so as well as Xavi Hernandez. Among the fans of FC Barcelona, his flawless game was almost a running gag. Virtually never saw you make him a mistake. Xavi was one of those players who led football commentators to say: “This is unexpected – a misplaced pass by Xavi!” From 2008 to 2012 it was him on whom FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team build their game – with overwhelming success.
Here is a little anecdote about Xavi Hernandez, it involves perhaps the most beautiful moment in my life as a football fan: on the 16/01/2010 I was sitting on top of the upper tier at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Guardiola’s Barca play a league match against FC Sevilla, a team that a few days before kicked them out of the Copa del Rey. I saw a spectacular game. Barca played fantastic football and eventually won the game 4-0. Iniesta, for me, was the man of the match, but the most memorable moment was provided by Xavi. This moment. I saw a fraction of a second before he played that pass what Xavi was up to and jumped up screaming. Some seconds of tension followed – will Pedro score? – before finally: jubilation. What a pass, what fucking genius. I tell this story because this pass is in my view one of the best Xavi ever played. It marks the height of brilliance he was capable of.
It is no coincidence that the pass I just raved about was played during the 2009-10 season. In that season Xavi looked more often for the final pass and generally played more like a number 10. I haven’t seen so many brilliant through balls by a player in a single season until Messi’s 2014-15 season. In the years after 2010, Xavi played deeper, in the engine room of the team, where he laid the foundations for their success. Instead of putting cherries on of the cake, he focused even more on baking huge cakes, so to speak. From about 2011 the quality of his performances slowly went down, also because by that time he had lost some of his agility. The last high profile match which he dominated probably was the European Championship final in 2012 against Italy. Until then his alter ego Pirlo had played a better tournament than he did, although some of the criticism of Xavi’s performances were certainly disproportionate. In the final however, Xavi led the Spaniards to their third major trophy in 4 years and also won the direct duel against Pirlo.
It’s widely known that Xavi was fully recognized by the football community only relatively late in his career. In a way, that is not very surprising as it took Xavi until ~2008 to reach his peak. But if one looks at some Clasicos from the early 2000s, you will find that even back then, Xavi was one of the best players on the pitch. I would therefore say that to some degree the younger Xavi simply was ahead of his time and because of that underestimated by the public.
It will by now have become abundantly clear that I rate the footballer Xavi very highly. (The person Xavi always seemed quite likable too, until he went to Qatar.) He is one of the 3-5 players in the recent past that I think have done what it takes to become all-time greats. His place in this team was never in any doubt. I often emphasize in football discussions that one should not judge individual players based on the trophies they’ve won, but in the case of Xavi I would like to close with an actually not so short list: 8 times Spanish champion, 3 times Spanish Cup winner, 4 times won the Champions League, 2 times European Champion, 1 time World Cup winner. Xavi Hernandez.
For a long time I thought that Andrés Iniesta is one of those players who are rated very highly be pretty much everyone. He personifies the beautiful game without being a show-off, is a hard worker, which means that no one could come up with the idea to call him lazy, and he even seems to be a likable person. To my surprise, there are quite a few people who think the player Iniesta is vastly overrated. Some of them, like Rob Fielder, the author of the Complete History of the World Cup, can by no means be dismissed as clueless.
It’s striking that those who think Iniesta’s overrated, often are part of the faction of football fans, whose view of the game is strongly influenced by statistics. I myself think statistics are a very useful tool for the evaluation of football, but do not believe that today – or in the foreseeable future – they can replace the information one gets from watching the game oneself. However, if one’s view of the game is strongly influenced by looking at statistics, it is not entirely surprising that Iniesta does not seem to be a stand out player. He scores few goals and, to my knowledge, doesn’t assist a lot either. The Goal Impact metric rates him highly, but not as highly as, for example, Busquets or Gerard Piqué. In particular, a very superficial statistical approach that grounds the evaluation of offensive players only on goals and assists (ie not the Goal Impact), can easily come to the conclusion that Iniesta is not a particularly good player. But the fact that he scores few goals and assists little, shouldn’t keep us from appreciating his class. What makes him such an excellent player, is that he can at the highest of levels still make the difference. That may sound like a cliché, but it’s a true one in Iniesta’s case. Like a good surgeon he is able to manipulate massive and high-caliber defensive formations in such a way that somewhere a little bit of space opens up, one his teammates gets a small speed advantage over an opponnent or a small gap emerges somewhere. It often goes unnoticed that it was Andrés Iniesta who made these things happen, because the results of his actions often emerge 2,3, or even 4 passes after his action, but that definitely does not take way anything from the importance of what he does. A small bit of space, a small speed advantage, a small gap, all that does not sound like much, but when your opponent himself is a world class team, there is hardly anyone who can generate these things in such regularity as Andrés Iniesta. At Spielverlagerung.de they call players like him “needle players“. That is quite fitting. He infiltrates even the most solid defensive formation. And he doesn’t do so by trial and error, by repeatedly trying the impossible. On the contrary, Iniesta plays very rationally, opting to simply keep posession when he isn’t able to find an opening. I see no reason why in principle statistics shouldn’t be able to quantify things like that, but by now it should be clear that a superficial statistical approach simply overlooks what’s so great about Iniesta. But that is the problem of such a statistical analysis, not Iniesta’s.
Like Xavi, Iniesta started the decade as an elite level footballer, but wasn’t able to truly shine until 2008. The 2008 European Championship and the 2008-09 season would change this. After a personally disappointing 2009-10 season, in which he had multiple injuries, he played a strong World Cup and some consistently outstanding seasons. Approximately from 2014 onwards, the still ongoing autumn of his career began and his performance level started to go down a bit. The highlight of his career probably was the 2012 European Championship. Iniesta was deservedly voted player of the tournament. The highly favored Spaniards had a lot of problems against very defensive opponents and a lack of dynamic players ensured extended stalemates. Again and again, however, it was Iniesta who was, as described above, able to shift the balance of the game in favor of the Spaniards. Sometimes it seemed as if he was solely responsible for the transition from the second into the third third of the pitch. When Spain hit top form, such as in the final against Italy, Iniesta was one of several brilliant players. But when Spain was stuck, there was only one savior: Don Andrés. An all around great tournament performance which was, fortunately, recognized as such. In summary, one can say that Iniesta had a very good decade in terms of quantity of performance and an even better one in terms of quality of performance. It is the latter that secures his inclusion in the team despite players like Frank Lampard having a maybe even better decade in terms of quantity of performance.
There are a lot of people who see Cristiano Ronaldo in a tight duel with Lionel Messi, a subset thereof are the people who see him as an even better player than Messi. Then there is a group of people who think that Ronaldo is significantly overrated. Not only does he not come close to match Messi’s quality, no, he does not even belong to the 10-20 best players in the world. I am positioned somewhere in the middle. The qualitative difference between Messi and Ronaldo is too great to justify a debate, but Cristiano is in some respects and, ultimately, all things considered an enormously strong player, who belongs to the absolute world elite and whose career as a whole justifies mentioning him as a player of historic quality. He’s not among the best players of all time, but certainly among the best of his generation.
What kind of player is Cristiano Ronaldo? An adjective that is often used to describe him, especially when comparing him to Lionel Messi, is ‘complete’. He is a complete player, or so they say. I don’t agree. Especially during the last couple of years his game lacks any noteworthy creative element and no one can claim that he is, or ever was, a particularly strategic player. If Xavi always has a whole football field in his head, the mental image in Cristiano’s head would be a goal. This is reflected by his at times shocklingly poor decision making. Hardly any modern player of world class calibre is as willing to take the direct route to goal, even if it is highly unlikely that the respective action will actually result in one. In addition to that, his defensive output is often marginal. Some of the teams he played in have paid dearly for that. So, no, Cristiano Ronaldo is not a particularly complete player.
Okay, for the moment I’ve said enough about his weaknesses. If one focuses too heavily on his limitations, it can happen that you don’t see the wood for the trees: Cristiano Ronaldo is, if used correctly, a devastating footballing weapon. His physique, his dribbling, his finishing, his coolness in front of goal, his runs towards goal – all this is impressive to the highest degree. Cristiano Ronaldo is a goal machine. A look at his statistics is sufficient to verify this. His skills in dribbling have meant that he played as a winger for most of the time, but in some way his profile really is more that of an elite central striker.
In my opinion Cristiano has become an increasingly less complete player as his career progressed. I watched the 2006 World Cup semifinal between Portugal and France as well as the 2008 Champions League final in recent days and in both games Cristiano looks much more varied, much more creative, much more playmaking than his present self. Does that mean that the younger Cristiano was a better player than he is today? Not necessarily. Keep in mind that the young Ronaldo scored significantly less than the more mature one. Throughout his career, Cristiano Ronaldo focused his game more and more on his greatest strengths, which are, as I said, all linked quite closely to scoring goals. The strike rate of 1 or more, which he achieved in recent years, is the result of this conversion. On a general level, it seems a good idea to use a player in a way that allows him to use his greatest strengths. However, the question remains if Cristiano could have been a different, more varied player than the one he actually did become. A creative, intelligent, and more selfless Ronaldo is a very tempting idea indeed. Anyway, Cristiano’s actual development was marked by an increasing focus on his greatest strengths. The result is a player who, in certain areas, is as good as anybody in the history of the game, but cannot be considered among the very best players ever all things considered.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not the player who makes his team as a whole better and helps to achieve dominance over the opponent. His game is more about the decisive moment than about the overall balance of the game. If you give him his moment – his chance, his half-chance, a high-speed counterattack – he’s a safe bet to use it. This reflects his limitations, but also shows his quality.
As for quantity of performance, nothing speaks against his inclusion in this team. In 2005 he had the status of a super talent, and a little later, he was far beyond that. His quality of performance was constantly excellent during the whole decade. He is a long way from being a serious contender for Messi’s throne and he’s not as complete as some people think, but his place in this team, for me, is beyond question.
Robben started the decade with a good time at Chelsea, then went through a period of ups and downs at Real Madrid, began excelling at Bayern, then briefly fell into a hole, only to excel again at Bayern for the rest of the decade. Added to this are good to very good performances for the national team. Only a series of injuries prevent him from getting top marks for quantity of performance. The quality of his performances reached a peak during the last 2-3 seasons at Bayern and during the 2014 World Cup. That makes for a very strong decade. Maybe not of true historical dimensions but strong enough to justify his inclusion in this team – also because other candidates fall short in one way or another.
Until the 2009-10 season, Robben was one of many players who participated at the highest possible level, he was a regular starter for some of the best teams in the world, but he didn’t manage to stand out compared to other elite players. His move to Bayern Munich resulted in him reaching the next level. To this day, I count his first season at Bayern among the best of Robben’s career. He decided games regularly and became much more of a goal threat. Among the ones he scored were beauties like this or this one. Van Gaal played the left-footed Robben as a right winger, which enabled him to repeatedly pull inward and aim shots at the far corner. His new-found focus on scoring goals, however, also played a role in the only significant crisis of his time in Bavaria. He was, in my view quite rightly, criticized for playing to egocentric and not being a teamplayer. He contributed little defensively and too often went for glory himself instead of seeking to combine with his teammates. The peak of this crisis was marked by the missed penalty in the Champions League final in 2012. The way he reacted to that criticism was remarkable: he remained as good a dribbler and as much of a goal-threat as ever while at the same time he became much more complete as a player. Now he started to do lots of defensive work and became much more of a teamplayer. Guardiola at times even played him as a wing-back in the 2014-15 season. Some years earlier this would have been unthinkable.
Before I say anything else: Based on my relatively good knowledge of the great footballers of the past, I feel reasonably confident in saying that Lionel Messi’s last decade is unparalleled in quantity and quality of performance. Nobody has ever played that well for that long. Messi totally dominated world football during at least 6 of the 10 years of the last decade. (2008 to 2015 minus one year injury 2013-2014.) Other players had such anni mirabili (is that the correct plural?), in which they have achieved a level of performance that’s not only above world-class, but also above what you might call ‘historic class’, but I believe that no one had 6 of them. In addition, Messi’s quality of performance during those wonder years was in my opinion better than the quality of performance of, for example, Pelé or Maradona during their best years. Including him in this team is therefore not only justified, but simply a necessity. He’s also named as the best player of the decade.
The beginning of Messi’s reign over world football is usually associated with the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona in 2008, and rightly so. Guardiola sold the previous superstar of the team, Ronaldinho, gave Messi the number 10 shirt and put the fate of the club in his hands. Messi justified the trust in his person with a never-ending series of top performances. One must not forget, however, that there was also a pre-Guardiola Messi. The very young Messi from 2005 to 2008 was often labeled a “super talent”. That’s not entirely wrong but also not quite right. Usually players are called ‘talents’ when they’re not yet able to perform at the highest level on a constant basis, but people think that they have what it takes to do so in the future. But even the very young Messi already produced world class performances on a constant basis. When Ronaldinho, at the height of his power, said that he wasn’t the best player at FC Barcelona, let alone the world, because there was this young player named Messi, this was not just flattery among friends. If you look at matches from that time, you will find that Messi was already able to dominate top class opponents. He was perhaps not as good as he would later become, but from 2006 onwards he was a serious candidate for the title ‘best player in the world’. What prevented him from consolidating that status at the time, was his susceptibility to injury. He did not manage to stay fit for a whole season. But when he was fit to play, his performances were very convincing. Keep in mind that he scored what is probably the best goal of his career before Guardiola arrived.
By 2008 Messi began his global dominance. In the 2008-09 season he played first as a right inverted winger and in some important games as a false nine. In the 2009-10 season he was an inverted winger and, especially when Iniesta was absent, a No.10 behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And in 2010-11 he finally made the change to the middle and played as a false nine for the whole season. In the years 2011 to 2014, Messi became more and more of a true nine. In particular under Tata Martino he was used close to goal in order to get as many chances as possible. His defensive workload was subsequently minimised. Under Luis Enrique this development was stopped: Messi was restored to the right wing, where he played not only as a winger, but also as a wide playmaker. In addition, he was granted the freedom to shift to the centre whenever he liked to do so. His play became even more varied and Messi even more important for his team.
As of 2015, Messi is by some distance the best dribbler in the world, by some distance the best scorer in the world and by some distance the best playmaker in the world. I do not think there has ever been another player who was all that at the same time. Pelé had the goalscoring and dribbling, but not quite the playmaking quality. Di Stéfano lacked the dribbling skills. Maradona did not score as many goals, although one needs to take into account the fact that he played in the low-scoring Serie A of the 80s. Cruyff fares quite well in all three categories, but was not significantly superior to his contemporaries in at least two of them. Messi might still become defensively stronger and more strategic, but apart from that, it’s hard to say what Messi could do in order to get even closer to the ideal of the ultimate offensive player.
I’ll end this piece with one more observation: Messi regularly does incredible things on the pitch. Be it long solo runs during which he outdribbles half a dozen opponents, scoring outragous free kicks or playing perfectly timed passes through a packed defense. But one thing stands out: for all the magic he does, Messi is a vary rational player who knows very well what he can and what he can’t pull off. Almost never does he try things that he knows are impossible even for him. Has anyone who ever seen Messi try to shoot from a distance of more than 30 metres? Or attempting a bicycle kick? His game involves little unnecessary embellishments. Multiple stepovers, useless back-heels and other ornaments are virtually non-existent in his game. A look at the goals he scores reinforces this view. If he can choose, Messi almost always goes for the flat medium hard shot, aiming for a spot about 30 centimeters away from the post. That’s highly rational. For all his unlimited talent and all the unbelievable things he is capable of, Messi is a true La Masia graduate. For he knows that simple football, while being the hardest to execute, is ultimately the best football there is.