Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Bench: van der Sar, Buffon, Toldo; Lizarazu, Zanetti, Cannavaro; Stam, F. de Boer, Desailly, Campbell, Hierro, Montero; Cafu, Panucci, Di Livio; Vieira, Redondo, Cocu; Seedorf, Scholes, Veron; Giggs, Overmars, Rivaldo; Figo, Totti, Mendieta; Raul, del Piero, Henry; Kluivert, Vieri, Shevchenko
Best player: Zinedine Zidane
Best club: Manchester United
Best team: France 1998-2001
Best match: Liverpool – AC Milan 3-3, 2005 Champions League Final
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 is the third 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 1990-2000 Team of the Decade, the last one was about the 2000-2010 Team of the Decade. I’ll work my way 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: the 2004-2014 Team of the Decade won’t be that different from the 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 will 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 1995-2015 decade as starting with the final whistle of the 1995 Champions League final and ending with the final whistle of the 2005 Champions League final.
I have a soft spot for players who were, in one way or another, ahead of their time or interpreted their role on the field differently. Given these prefences Edwin van der Sar should be the man between the sticks for this team. But there is just no way past choosing Oliver Kahn. The German shot-stopper and He-Man lookalike was a rather conservative player, focussing on the basics of goalkeeping. Block shots, narrow angles, control your area, constantly bad-mouth… well, constantly advise the defenders in front of you. Kahn excelled in one-on-one situations and at saving so called ‘Unhaltbare’, i.e. shots that seemed impossible to save. He was blessed with lightning-quick reflexes. Most importantly, however, was his mental strength. Kahn was always focussed and had a very professional attitude towards his job. Boundless ambition drove him to constantly work on his game. All that resulted in him staying at the very top of the game for the full ten years of this decade. He reached his peak between ~ 1998-2002 (according to Bayern-expert Red de la Rubén), the absolute highlight being the 2002 World Cup where he was named Player of the Tournament. No goalkeeper has managed to achieve that before or since.
As I said, Kahn managed to sustain his world-class status for the full ten years. At his peak, he probably was the best keeper around. Before and after, he was among the very best. If it wasn’t for van der Sar’s slump at Juventus, he would have been a real contender. But as it stands, Kahn is my choice.
Great keeper, even greater poet.
“He sure knew how to attack, but his defending wasn’t so great!” That’s what most people will tell you when they’re being asked about Carlos’ strengths and weaknesses. And that statement isn’t totally off, as I should point out. True, he was so very good at attacking, that the defensive side of his game couldn’t keep up. But Roberto Carlos was far from being a defensive liability either! Sadly, a lot of people still think that defending only means putting in crunching tackles and winning one-on-one duels against an opposing player. But defending really is everything that prevents the opponent from scoring. And, for example, forcing your opponent to retreat because you are such an attacking presence does just that. Opponents often fielded a more defensive winger against Roberto Carlos in order to contain him. That diminished their attacking prowess and added to Carlos’ defensive quality.
The only other contenders for this spot were Paolo Maldini and Bixente Lizarazu. Maldini is fielded at CB, so he’s not available anymore. I like Lizarazu. I tend to think his decision making was better than Roberto Carlos’. However, Lizarazu had a lot of injury problems and played less than 20 league games in 4 of the 10 seasons. Roberto Carlos, on the other side, played 30 or more league games in every single one of the 10 seasons. I’m not even sure whether I’d rate Lizarazu’s quality of performance higher than Carlos’, but thanks to the vast difference in quantity of performance, it doesn’t really matter anyway. Roberto Carlos takes the spot.
“Best half-back in football history” – René Marić
Having narrowly missed out on a first team place for the 2000-10 Team of the Decade, Paolo Maldini easily makes it into this team. In a career spanning 25 years, the decade from 1995 to 2005 marks the end of his time at the very top of the game.
Paolo Maldini belongs to the very best of defenders in football history. But in comparison to the likes of Beckenbauer, Baresi and Figueroa, Maldini is in some ways different. All these players, and Philipp Lahm too, for example, transcended their position. They were great defenders, but also more than that. Most of them were playmakers from the back. Others, like Ronald Koeman, even scored a lot of goals when they weren’t busy producing defensive masterclasses. Maldini, the older Maldini at least, is different precisely because he wasn’t obviously special. He wasn’t ‘a defender and much more‘, but simply ‘a defender’. Well, that might not quite be true, either. He wasn’t ‘a defender’, he was ‘the defender’.
Have a look on this Ibrahimovic quote on him: “Maldini was the best and toughest defender I ever faced. He had everything: he was a complete defender, who was strong, intelligent, and an excellent man-marker.” I recently re-watched a match in which Maldini marked Ibrahimovic and I completely understand why Zlatan thinks about Maldini like that. Ibrahimovic, for all his individual qualities, didn’t stand a chance against Maldini. Maldini’s marking job on him was so thorough that pretty soon you just forgot that Zlatan was on the field. He was degraded to being a non-factor.
Now, please don’t think I want to tell you that Maldini was nothing more than just an, albeit excellent, bullish man marker. As Zlatan said, Maldini was a complete defender. He had brains and brawns. His ball distribution was average, but apart from that he could do it all. For example, while he was capable of physically hurting his opponents, he often didn’t need to because of his fine sense for positioning. His excellent reading of the game enabled him to control his opponents without having to tackle them or something like that. Speaking of tackling, he did that well, too.
During the decade in question, Maldini played both as a left-back and as a centre-back. I personally prefer the older Maldini as a centre-back and that’s why I field him in this position.
Maldini was among the 3-4 best centre-backs in the world for the full decade. You can’t say that about another player. 1995-2005 was a time with many fine central defenders, but Maldini easily makes the cut.
I already wrote a profile about Nesta, so I’m going to keep this short and explain why I chose him over some other great centre-backs. Nesta’s fiercest rivals for a spot in the team were Jaap Stam and Marcel Desailly. Both had a great decade, but I think Nesta had a superior quality of performance and quantity of performance. Take Jaap Stam, he was a very reliable defender. His game was about keeping things simple and provide stability at the back even against top-class opponents. But, in my opinion, Nesta was just as reliable as him and also provided a little more in some other regards. For example, Nesta’s build-up game was better than Stam’s and I also have the impression that Nesta’s defensive actions were a bit cleaner than Stam’s. He often managed to dispossess the opponent not by hoofing the ball in the stands but by winning possession in a controlled way. The same applies to Nesta in comparison to Desailly. He simply was the more cultured defender, while providing the same basic defensive stability.
He also wins on quantity of performance. Desailly spend the last season of the decade in Qatar and before that, in his last season at Chelsea FC, he didn’t play much either. Stam had some major injury problems from 2000 to 2002, costing him some of the best years of his career. Nesta’s career, too, was blighted by injury problems, but those only started after 2005. However, he did miss the final stages of both the 1998 and 2002 World Cup due to injury. But still, Nesta’s quantity of performance was superior to those of Desailly and Stam. Together with his advantage in terms of quality of performance, this means he wins the place in the first eleven. Having said that, there really was very little between him and Stam. Close call.
If you want to watch a Nesta masterclass, have a look at the legendary match between Italy and the Netherlands at Euro 2000. And if you want to convince yourself that Nesta wasn’t infallible either, watch him struggle badly against peak-Ronaldo in the 1998 UEFA Cup final.
Up until 2006 Thuram was the best defensive right-back in the game. He may not have provided a real threat going forward like other players did, but you could be sure that he would marshall his flank perfectly well. Thuram was a physically imposing player. Standing at “only” 1.82 meters, he is one of those players that you think are far taller than that, due to his immense strength and power. At his peak, Thuram had lots of pace and managed to combine his strength with agility. He was much more than just a physically strong player, though. His decision making was usually above average and he had a good technique and passing game.
The other obvious candidate for a place as right-back in a ’95-’05 team is Cafu. While Cafu certainly provides more going forward, I tend to think Thuram’s defensive game was a bit better. I really can’t say much more than that it was a close call between them two. I guess I had more of those “wow, that’s great defending!“-moments with Thuram and so he narrowly edges Cafu out.
“Whom am I playing against today, coach? – Edgar Davids – Oh fuck” I imagine this dialogue took place pretty regularly between 1995 and 2005. You know you’ll have a hard time when “the Pitbull” is your opponent. During those ten years fielding Edgar Davids in the middle of the park was something close to a sufficient condition for having a competitive team. Davids was a first class destructive force while at the same time being a great dribbler, a strange cross between Javier Mascherano and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Apart from his sub-par season at Milan, Davids was a world-class player for the full ten years. Most people will remember him as a Juventus player, but one should not forget he was also part of van Gaal’s remarkable Ajax team and was integral to Barcelona’s comeback as a footballing superpower in 2003-04.
Vieira surely is the biggest rival to Davids’ (and Keane’s) place in the starting eleven. I bench him because I think his decision making was a bit worse than those of Keane and Davids. He did plenty of good stuff, but he also did lose the ball or play the wrong pass now and then. Of course, so did Keane and Davids, nobody’s perfect (except peak Messi, Xavi and Busquets that is), but my impression is that Vieira did so more often than the other two.
Aggressive leader, a fierce competitor, leg-breaker, fighter, madman, AND brilliant footballer. Roy Keane was all that, but I want to emphasize that last part. If you speak German or are willing to work your way through a Google translation, please stop reading my words on Keane right now and have a look at this Spielverlagerung.de profile on him instead.
Still here? Okay, in that case let me explain why I agree with what ‘ze Spielverlagerers’ say about him. 1995-2005 wasn’t the best of times for structured attacking football. Basically most top teams tried to build a solid defensive block and hoped for their outstanding attacking players to create one more moment of genius than the opponent did. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United is the exception to that rule. Surely, defensive stability was high on their lists of priorities, too, but they also liked to have a lot of possession and had a very cultured passing game. Watch their 1999-00 Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid for example. Real managed to win it, but United were the much cultured team and created more than enough chances to win the tie. Roy Keane was at the heart of all that. Together with Paul Scholes he formed a midfield partnership that was, at the same time, more creative and more defensively solid than most of their contemporaries. Roy Keane’s passing and link-up play is way underrated. He wasn’t very flashy but possessed a nearly flawless decision making, making him a very modern and complete central midfielder.
The player of the decade, edging out Ronaldo because the latter’s career was disrupted by two major injuries in the late 90s. I already wrote a lengthy piece on Zidane for the 2000-10 Team of the Decade, so I’m going to keep this as short as possible.
Most people will remember primarily the older, post-2000 Zidane. By and large, that is entirely unproblematic, because the latter Zidane was in many aspects very much like his younger self. In one regard they are different, though. The younger Zidane was an immensely powerful player who knew how to use his strength and height very well. If you watch the older Zidane you easily forget that his physique was quite atypical for an attacking midfielder, because his game had become less physical. But when you watch the younger Zidane, this aspect of his game immediatly stands out. If you want to watch the younger Zidane at his very best, playing against a top-class opponent, take a look at the 1998 World Cup quarter-final between Italy and Zidane’s France. He’s surrounded by world-class players, but still manages to stand out (despite not scoring or assisting).
There was no real competition to Zidane’s place in the team. Bergkamp possessed similar (yet different) qualities, but since he’s also in the team, Zidane easily wins the spot.
Most attacking players between 1995 and 2005 didn’t fancy defensive work too much and few people questioned that. The 90s and early 2000s were a time when offensive midfielders, at least when they produced those moments of magic people expected from them, were allowed to fully focus on doing stuff with the ball. This means that Pavel Nedved was a player way ahead of his time, because he regularly worked his socks off for the team despite being its main creative player. Sven-Göran Eriksson sums it up nicely: “Nedved is an atypical midfielder, totally complete.” He might not have been entirely atypical had he played in 2015, but around the turn of the millenium he certainly was.
Most of the time Nedved played as a wide midfielder on the left flank or as No.10. I play him on the right flank because Zidane, too, prefered to play on the left. But since Nedved was a two-footed and generally polyvalent player, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Before I chose to shift Nedved to the right flank, Luis Figo was my choice as right midfielder. In stark contrast to Nedved, Figo was very much and old school creative wide midfielder. He didn’t do much without the ball and was forgiven to make some bad decisions as long as he created some, ideally decisive, moments of genius. Ultimately, I think Nedved’s modernity made him the better player.
A special player. If he had been faster, more agile and a bit more of a goalscorer, he could have been among the best players of all time. And I’m not talking about ‘among the 25 best players of all time’ because he might just be one of them. I mean something like ‘5 best players of all time’. Because intelligence-wise he certainly was among the very best attacking players in football history.
Dennis Bergkamp, without having to change his game all that much, could have easily played for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona (maybe as a ‘false 10’ in a 3-4-3 *drool*). Superb decision making, amazingly good technique and extraordinary spatial awareness made him a prime example of the Dutch/Catalan school of football. Bergkamp was a player capable of the outrageous, who nevertheless played a very rational and aim-oriented game. A rare characteristic he shares with Lionel Messi.
Same as with Zidane, there really was no player to endanger Bergkamp’s place in the line-up.
There is no Ronaldo, there are only Ronaldos. Two of them, to be precise. Pre-injury Ronaldo, also known as il Fenomeno, and post-injury Ronaldo, who was a world class striker, but no longer his old self. Pre-injury Ronaldo was the most exciting player world football had seen since peak-Maradona. Equally blessed with technique and an almost surreal physique, the young Ronaldo was uncontainable for even the very best of defenders. He didn’t do everything right, he wasn’t as rational a player as Bergkamp or Messi, but he just couldn’t be contained. He simply was too fast, too powerful and way too good a dribbler .
Post-injury Ronaldo was a different player altogether. He still had that technique and the goalscoring instinct, but the absence of speed and power meant that now he was, at least in theory, containable. He also played more like an orthodox striker. The younger Ronaldo, on the other hand, often dropped deep into midfield and could at times be called a ‘false nine’.
Even peak-Ronaldo never reached Messi’s level (worse decision making, not as playmaking), so people who think he could have been a better player than the Argentinean are, in my humble opinion, wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a unique player for his generation.
As with Bergkamp and Zidane, Ronaldo’s place is well-secured.