Manager: Alex Ferguson
Bench: van der Sar, Kahn, Chilavert; Lizarazu, Zanetti, Irwin; Blanc, Baresi, Costacurta, Aldair, Adams, Kohler; Thuram, F. de Boer, Ferrara; Dunga, Keane, Albertini; Sammer, Matthäus, Seedorf; Laudrup, Litmanen, Möller; Hässler, Zidane, Giggs; Bergkamp, Klinsmann, Shearer; Ronaldo, Weah, Cantona
Best player: Paolo Maldini
Best club: Juventus Turin
Best team: AC Milan 1991-1994
Best match: Juventus Turin – AC Milan, Serie A, 1991-92
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 fourth 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 1985-1995 Team of the Decade, the last one was about the 1995-2005 Team of the Decade. I’ll work my way back in time 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 is that both quantity and quality of performance matter. I define the 1990-2000 decade as starting with the final whistle of the 1990 European Cup final and ending with the final whistle of the 2000 Champions League final.
The 90s were the time of the burly ‘reaction keeper’ and Peter Schmeichel is no exception to that rule. He not only stuck to the basics of goalkeeping but excelled at them. Stopping shots was probably his greatest quality, as exemplified by several YouTube highlight reels. He had very quick reflexes and was outstanding in one-on-one situations. In a nutshell, he was the Danish Oliver Kahn.
As one of the most important players of Ferguson’s first and second great United team, Schmeichel performed consistently throughout the decade. One famous goalkeeper of the 90s of whom I’ve seen too little to make a final judgement is Jose Luis Chilavert. There is a chance that he could rival Schmeichel for a spot in the first team. I’ve seen him do some great stuff and some stupid stuff. Obviously, my knowledge about football history is quite limited, so for now I’m going with Schmeichel, but maybe I’ll have to revise that opinion when I do the next edition of these Team of the Decade pieces in a few years time.
I already wrote about the player Maldini in my last Team of the Decade, so I’m going to keep this short. Maldini played at an absolute world-class level in 1990, in 2000 and during the whole time in between. He was a young, yet already proven player when the decade began and kept on consolidating his status as the best left-back in the game for the next ten years. Even players like Hierro, who also performed at a very high level for the whole decade, weren’t that consistent. In his long and glorious career the years between 1990 and 2000 mark Maldini’s peak (not too bad, having a whole decade as your peak). Since the 90s lacked a standout performer like Messi or Pelé who truly dominated football for an extended period of time, I choose Maldini as Player of the Decade.
When I re-watched matches in order to make a better informed decision in compiling this team, Hierro proved to be one of the major revelations. I knew that he was a classy player and had him noted for a place on the bench, but after I saw him in a couple of 90s Clasicos, I just had to give him a place in the first eleven. While football history knows no shortage of fine central defenders, there are remarkably few of them who are truly complete. Even greats like Beckenbauer and Baresi, all things considered arguably better defenders than Hierro, weren’t nearly as complete as he was. Hierro was fast, strong, a fine man marker, a great playmaker, a real threat going forward, a superb header of the ball, agile and with a very good passing range – in short, the complete package. He even was a free kick expert, for God’s sake! I encourage you to have a look at Real Madrid’s home Clasico in the 1996-97 season: it’s Ronaldo’s first visit to the Bernabeau and he has a night to forget. Not necessarily because he does anything wrong but because Hierro’s defending is so good, Ronaldo – at his peak! – gets totally marked out of the game. (It’s a very enjoyable match in general, too.)
While Hierro’s role did change during the course of the decade (he played as an attacking midfielder during the early 90s and was the second best scorer in the Spanish league in 1991-92!), his quality of performance remained at a very high level. Several outstanding playmaking central defenders played during the 90s. Examples are Franco Baresi, Ronald Koeman, Lothar Matthäus and Laurent Blanc. Koeman and Baresi ended their respective careers well before 2000 and Matthäus and Blanc had major injury problems. Especially Blanc is a favourite of mine. A very, very composed and calm defender, who’s playmaking, although not always as spectacular as that of others, ranks among the best in history for a defender. Had he stayed fit he would have rivalled Hierro (or maybe Desailly) for a place in the team. Having said that, Hierro had similar strengths while being much more complete. As I said, at first I wanted to give him a place on the bench in my Team of the 90s, now I’m thinking that he has earned a place on the bench of my All Time XI. Probably the best Spanish defender of all time.
Not as complete as Fernando Hierro, but equally intimidating to play against. Desailly could play both as a defensive mifielder and as a centre-back. He combined robustness with great agility, the combination of both made him a physically ideal defensive player. When you watch him in his prime, like in the ’93 and ’94 Champions League final (I’d say he was the Man of the Match in two CL finals in a row), you’ll see a player who’s not only physically stronger than his opponents, but able to absolutely outpower them. His actions lacked the precision of someone like Alessandro Nesta, but he made up for that through determination and commitment. Obviously he wasn’t too bad at reading the game either, otherwise he wouldn’t be near this team, but he was more of an all action midfielder or, if he played in defense, a classic stopper who focused on nullyfying his direct opponent and didn’t try too much fancy stuff.
I actually prefer the younger Desailly, who played in midfield, to the older one who played as a defender. But there’s hardly any doubt that he was a world class performer in both positions. Jürgen Kohler, who was a similar player, was his main rival for a place in the first eleven. But the fact that Kohler’s abilities were rapidly decreasing during the final years of the decade and since Desailly stayed world-class until the end decided matters in favour of the Frenchman.
Cafu played in Brazil for most of the decade, before he really announced himself to European football fans at AS Roma. But that shouldn’t make us think that he only became a world-class performer in the Italian capital. Club football wasn’t as eurocentric as it is today. Quality players were playing quality football outside of Europe’s top 4 or 5 leagues back then. But there’s no need for you to trust me on this. Have a look at the 1994 World Cup final. Cafu starts on the bench, but is substitued on early in the first half – to great effect. The game ends goalless but Brazil play mutch better after Cafu is subbed on. He ultimately fails to get the better of Paolo Maldini, but hey, it’s Maldini he’s playing against!
Cafu is a typical example of the Brazilian school of attacking full-backs/wing-backs. He’s well known for his endless stamina that enabled him to be as much of a defensive presence as he was an attacking presence. He was a good crosser of the ball, but also possessed fine link-up play. The most-capped Brazilian player of all time established himself as a quality player in the early 90s and reached the peak of his powers sometime in the second half of the decade. Something similar can be said about Liliam Thuram, whom I chose as right-back in the 1995-2005 Team of the Decade, but ‘Il Pendolino’ impressed me more during the early-mid 90s.
I wanted to call him a ‘very modern’ defensive midfielder for the age he played in. But that wouldn’t quite be true, since the type of defensive midfielder that dominated world football after Guardiola called it quits wasn’t a Guardiola-like type at all. Both in Pep’s time and the years after that, very physical defensive midfielders were considered the state of the art in world football. Only in the late 2000s did things begin to change. More emphasis was put on technique, decision making and an overall understanding of the game. Only when (and possibly because) Guardiola became a manager did players like he once was one became more appreciated. In that sense, Guardiola was a ‘post-modern’ player in his day and age.
Guardiola was a player who defined himself not through his athleticism (which he mostly lacked) or his talented feet (which he had), but through his footballing brain. He definitely is a candidate for the title of ‘most intelligent player of the 90s’. He had outstanding spatial awareness, was very pressing resistant, surpremely rational in his decision making and combined all that with an extremely tidy and constructive passing game. In short, he was an, or even
the archetypical La Masia graduate. If you look for a present player who resembles Guardiola, Sergio Busquets is the obvious choice. Guardiola’s game lacked a certain edge, a certain cynicism that is at times present in Busquets’ game and Busquets is the more ingenious player, but generally speaking they’re quite similar. (Thesis: Busquets is the perfect blend of Guardiola and Redondo, he combines their strengths but lacks their weaknesses (except lack of pace).)
Recurring injuries apart, Guardiola remained a very consistent performer for the whole decade. He simply was a very classy player and, as we all know, class is permanent. One might suspect that I overrate him because of what he did as a coach, but I think he was actually vastly underrated back when he was still an active player.
For a true Guardiola masterclass, look no further than this match.
That Fernando Redondo is a cult favourite among football fans today can hardly be considered a surprise. In an age in which defensive midfielders were for the most part bullyish hard-men, Redondo was the direct opposite. He lacked pace and wasn’t the strongest of players either, but he made up for that through intelligence and technique. So far this may sound really similar to what I’ve said about Pep Guardiola and, true, they shared some similarities. However, there are also some differences between the two of them.
As I said, Guardiola was a hyper-rational ‘post-modern’ defensive midfielder with a fantastic passing game that enabled him to find the right solution for almost every problem. Redondo was a bit different. He resembled more a classic No.10 kind of player, only that he played just in front of the defense. While his game did contain a lot of rational elements (for example defending through good positioning), he also opted for the special, albeit not always rational option from time to time. For example he frequently tried to dribble himself out of trouble which is highly unusual for a defensive midfielder – especially during the 90s. All in all, he was more error prone than Guardiola (but then again, who isn’t?), but his unique playing style was also a big asset to his team. When what he tried to do worked, and more often than not it did, that meant his team had a big advantage over the opponent because their first line of pressure was taken out of play. In an age with few playmaking defensive midfielders having someone like him on your team was highly advantegous – even if he lost the odd ball. In some ways the contrast between Redondo and Guardiola is the contrast between the playing style of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona during the last thirty years in a nutshell. While Barca was influenced by the Dutch school of football, Real went for a more traditional, yet in their own way also very cultured brand of football.
Most people think that Redondo peaked at the very end of the decade. From what I’ve seen, I disagree. By then he lost more balls than he used to do in the years before while not being a significantly greater genius than he was before. When you want to watch him at his peak, have a look at how he combines with Hierro and Michael Laudrup during the middle of the decade. By and large, however, Redondo was someone who played at a very high level for the whole decade. As I said, a unique player. His inclusion in this team was never in much doubt.
As in the case of Hierro, Deschamps, at first thought, was more of a candidate for the bench rather than the first team. But watching a lot of 90s matches changed that perception substantially. Deschamps was the midfield general for three top-class sides during the course of the decade. First, for the Marseille team that won the Champions League in 1993, then for Juventus, one of the strongest club sides of the decade, and finally for the French national team that won the World Cup in 1998. As you might have noticed by now (and as I said in the beginning) I don’t choose player because they won a lot of trophies, and neither do I not choose them because they didn’t win any, but Deschamps track record indicates that he was a classy player and performed at a very high level during basically the whole decade. Actually watching him play confirms that suspicion.
Deschamps was a player whose main task it was to link attack and defense. He was able to receive the ball in small spaces, turn with it and play a precise pass to the more attacking players. His pressing resistance was very unusual for the 90s. Most central midfielders would hoof the ball upfield when they were pressured in order not to make a mistake. Not so Deschamps. There are some similarities in his game to Xavi’s playing style. Deschamps ultimately lacked Xavi’s paramount understanding of the game and his La Masia-groomed basic technique, but for the 90s he was the closest thing to the Catalan maestro. Deschamps was a tougher and quicker player, though. The Brazilian Dunga was very similar to him, but since his club career wasn’t nearly as great, Deschamps takes the place.
Finding a No.10 for this team proved to be quite difficult. I guess it’s safe to say that the 90s weren’t the best decade for attacking midfielders. Take the Brazil team of 1994, for example. At the start of the tournament they played with a real playmaker, Rai, who also captained the side. But after the group stage he was dropped in favour of another more defensive minded player. I, too, was thinking about fielding a team without any attacking midfielder, maybe adding another defender instead (Laurent Blanc, for example). Ultimately, I thought that would make for an overly defensive lineup, so I decided to field a true No.10.
The next question was which one to choose. There was no obvious candidate for me, because hardly any of them performed at a world-class level for the full decade. Michael Laudrup became a lesser player after 1996, so did Andreas Möller and Thomas Hässler. Dennis Bergkamp played as a true striker during the first half of the 90s.
In the end I chose Roberto Baggio. He, too, had a second half of the decade that was much less impressing than the first half, but since no candidate performed at his best for the full decade and Baggio performed exceptionally well during the early years of the 90s, he makes the cut.
Baggio was a classic ‘fantasista’, a player with lots of creativity, who provided decisive moments through acts of genius. Add to that a very good dribbling ability and you get a player whose game, when he was at his best, was almost ‘messiesque’. He wasn’t nearly as dominant a player as the Argentinean and I think people who say that Baggio could have been better than Pelé and Maradona are mistaken, but for some time during the early 90s, Baggio probably was the best player in the world. I’m not (yet) convinced that he was an all-time great, but in a decade without a truly dominant playmaker, he makes the team.
Romario probably was the striker with the second highest peak in the 90s. Only Ronaldo at his very best surpassed him. So why did I choose Romario and not Il Fenomeno? Let me start by saying that it was really close between these two players. The main reason why I chose Romario was the fact that Ronaldo didn’t play at all during the first couple of years of the decade. While Romario, too, had some weaker years, he still performed at a relatively high level. Therefore, Romario beats Ronaldo on quantity of performance.
To understand what the player Romario was all about, have a look at one of his most famous goals: this one. That goal versus Madrid is quintessential Romario. You see his technique, his close control, his acceleration and his composed finish. The Brazilian was a master of the penalty box, a Gerd Müller impersonator with South American swagger. While the main qualities of the man of the (not quite) 1000 goals were closely connected to, you guessed it, scoring goals, he wasn’t that one-dimensional. His link-up play, for example, was excellent too. For a demonstration of that fact, have a look at the 1994 World Cup final. Ultimately, the Brazilians weren’t able to break down the Italian wall of defense (largely due to masterclass performances by Baresi and Maldini), but the great link-up play between Romario and Bebeto sees them coming very close on several occasions.
I’ve got to admit that I’ve seen very little from Romario during the second half of the decade. His statistics at Flamengo and the Brazilian national team indicate that he did all right. Together with his very high peak during the first half of the 90s that is just enough for a place in the first eleven.
Some strikers are special. They transcend their position or add previously unheard of dimensions to it. Players like Pelé or Messi are strikers, but also much more than that. Or they remain within the characteristics of the position but do some of the stuff you expect a striker to do so much better, that they are in some ways more than an ‘ordinary’ world-class striker, too. Gerd Müller would be an example for that. Gabriel Batistuta was an ordinary world-class striker. A rather complete one with some characteristics you don’t see too often in a striker (he was a very decent free kick taker, for example), but by and large you’d do him no injustice by calling him an ordinary world-class striker. The thing is, being an ordinary world-class striker is a pretty great thing to be and Batistuta kept that level for most of the decade.
There were more exciting forwards during the 90s who reached a higher peak than ‘Batigol’ (Ronaldo is the obvious example), but none of them performed as consistent as he did. Batistuta was an all-round kind of striker. Great at headers, assured first touch, could participate in his team’s ball circulation, had good spatial awareness and, probably his greatest quality, he was a very clinical finisher. All these qualities are obvious when you watch the compilation of all of his Serie A goals. That compilation really impressed me. Obviously, YouTube highlight reels don’t give you the full picture, but ones like that tell you a lot about the player. Batistuta is not an all-time great, he’s not truly special. But he was a reliable world-class performer for the full ten years and that gives him the place in the team.