Team of the Decade 1985-1995


Manager: Arrigo Sacchi

Bench: Schmeichel, Köpke, Zubizaretta; Brehme, Pearce, Amoros; Bergomi, Julio Cesar, Belodedici, Blanc, Costacurta, Blind; Tassotti, Jorginho, Chendo; Sammer, Alemao, Dunga; Stojkovic, Deschamps, Hagi; Hässler, Stoichkov, Rai; Donadoni, Baggio, Mancini; Völler, Butragueno, Rush; Klinsmann, Romario, H. Sanchez

Best player: Franco Baresi

Best club: AC Milan

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 fifth 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 1980-1990 Team of the Decade, the last one was about the 1990-2000 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 1985-1995 decade as starting with the final whistle of the 1985 European Cup final and ending with the final whistle of the 1995 Champions League final.

Finally, massive thanks to @hyperpressing, Javier from @footballiaweb and Rob Fielder (@ademir2z). It’s an honour to have them on board as guest authors. Their contributions are much appreciated!

Walter Zenga

written by @hyperpressing

At the first sight many might be surprised about Zenga’s presence in the Team of the Decade ’85-’95. In fact Zenga’s best times came slightly before Schmeichel’s era and slightly after Toni Schumacher’s and Dasayev’s peak times. In the time between these big names, Zenga established himself to be the best over 5-6 years. Zenga was the only one to prove a certain continuity in his performances from ’85 to’95. He wasn’t a unique goalkeeper but he was indeed really good. His reflexes when it came to short-distance finishes or deflected shots was extraordinary. In 1vs1 situations he closed down the angle really well and stood still until the very last moment. The three consecutive titles for the best goalkeeper of the year from 89-91 are a further proof of his quality.

Despite that, I have to admit that in his period the competition for the goalkeeper position was not the toughest. Unfortunetely Zenga will always be remembered for his error in the semi-finals versus Argentina, which cost Italy the ticket for the final of the World Cup ’90 in his home country. Because of that, many forget that Zenga is still holding the record for the most clean sheets (515 minutes) in World Cup history.

Paolo Maldini

I already wrote a few pieces on Maldini, which is testament to his extraordinary career. What can I add that I haven’t already said? Well, how about this: most of you, when thinking about Maldini, will primarily think of the older Maldini of the late 90s and 00s. This is entirely understandable. These are after all the freshest memories. While Maldini was a player who defied age and was still playing at a very high level in his late 3os, he was by then a much slower and more conservative player than he used to be. If you’re watching the younger Maldini, for example playing in Sacchi’s Milan in the late 80s, you’ll find he was much more adventurous back then. He was a real attacking presence, often making overlapping runs to cross the ball. At times, he even went diagonal in the last third and drove towards the box in order to finish the move himself. Don’t get me wrong, he never was as attacking as, for example, Cafu or Roberto Carlos, but calling the young Maldini a conservative, primarily defending full-back wouldn’t be right either. The young Maldini was a physically outstanding player. He was one of the fastest full-backs I have ever seen while already being quite strong. Not as physically imposing as he would go on to become, but mixed with blistering pace, it was a pretty lethal combination.

While Maldini probably reached his overall peak at some point during the 90s (the 1994 World Cup Final is a good example), he was a player of the highest calibre right from the beginning of his career. I’d even say that during the first 5 years of his career he played better than during the last 5 years. By 1987, that is: before he turned 20, he was a true contender for a place in a hypothetical World XI. Maybe being a member of the Maldini-dynasty meant that he knew all the basics of defending even before he turned professional. There wasn’t that much left to learn for him once he stepped on to the big stage of world football.

Yet again, but probably for the final time, there’s hardly any question who should feature as left-back: the eternal Paolo Maldini takes the place.

Franco Baresi

Baresi is often said to be the second greatest libero of all time. Second, that is, only to the Kaiser himself. While I don’t want to argue with the underlying assessment of Baresi being a player of historic calibre, some clarificatory remarks are warranted. Historically, a libero was often the “free player” behind two man marking defenders (therefore the name libero). Baresi, for most of his career, didn’t play in a man marking system but in a zonal defense system, often even in a modern style back four. So, calling him a libero is slightly misleading. He was a “free player” in the sense of not having to mark one specific opposing player, but so were the other three defenders in Milan’s back four. Surely they weren’t all liberos, right?

Having said that, Baresi shared some characteristics with the classic libero of the 70s, and especially with Franz Beckenbauer himself. He was an eminently playmaking defender. A true orchestrator of his team, who just happened to play as a defender. In addition to that, he often made surging runs (both with and without the ball) to join the midfield play or even the attack. He scored relatively few goals (surprisingly few actually), but could be considered a real playmaking presence in the first and second third. With the ball at his feet, he probably wasn’t as calm as Beckenbauer, but then again… which defender is?

Before age caught up with him during the last 2-3 years of his career, Baresi was a very dynamic player. His low centre of gravity (he was only 1,76m) enabled him to quickly turn directions. That proved to be an asset both in his attacking game (he was a very good dribbler for a defender) and his defensive game. When he marked an opposing striker he could stay very close to him, thus impeding his every move.

But by and large, you don’t talk about physicality when talking about Franco Baresi. What made him a truly special player had little to do with his height, or his centre of gravity, but with how intelligent a player he was. He understood the cerebral side of defending like few other players in history. His positioning and timing was usually perfect and he was the brain behind AC Milan’s pressing movements and offside trap. Of course, Arrigo Sacchi and (later and to a lesser degree) Fabio Capello created these mechanisms on the training pitch, but Baresi was the one who orchestrated them on the field. Also, individually, he was outstanding at anticipating what the opponent was about to do. That enabled him to intercept passes without having to tackle an opponent directly.

Given his lack of height and his not overly imperious frame, one might assume that Baresi had some deficits in terms of “classical defending”, meaning winning direct duels, close marking, tackling and so one. But I can assure you that wasn’t the case. Baresi was quite a ferocious man-marker and well-schooled in the basics of defending. He even had a bit (!) of the terrier-like aggressiveness of players like Berti Vogts. A player uniting the strengths of Beckenbauer and Vogts, that isn’t too bad, right? (Having said that, contrary to public opinion Beckenbauer was very adept at the so-called “basics of defending”, too. He wasn’t afraid to get his shirt dirty.)

Once in a while, Baresi was prone to a major mistake. Like most players who do the exceptional on a regular basis, he would sometimes fail to do the simple things. From what I’ve seen, he even might have been more error-prone than Franz Beckenbauer. But that shouldn’t make you think he committed a lot of them. What I want to say is, that Baresi, like every other defender in football history, wasn’t perfect. He, too, made mistakes. (Judging how error-prone a historical player was is quite difficult, even watching a dozen or more matches won’t give you conclusive evidence).

As you might have seen in the beginning of this post, I chose Baresi as Player of the Decade. He played at an outstanding level for the full ten years. Maybe, and really just maybe, his peak was slightly lower than that of players like van Basten or Gullit. It was lower than Maradona’s, although comparing attacking players with defenders is some murky business. None of these players managed to sustain that level for long enough to endanger Baresi’s place, though. Maradona’s second half of the decade is virtually non-existant and while van Basten and Gullit did better, they didn’t do that much better. For ten years of defensive excellence, Baresi wins a place in the team and is named Player of the Decade.

Jürgen Kohler

For some time, I thought that Kohler, having already narrowly missed out on the 1990-2000 Team, would yet again narrowly fail to make the first eleven of this team. By switching to a back-three I was able to spare him from that fate. Jürgen Kohler, while certainly not the flashiest player, deserves inclusion because he was the best and most consistent man-marker from the late 80s to the mid 90s. He was usually assigned to the best opposing striker and tasked to keep him quiet for the whole 90 minutes. More often than not, that’s just what Kohler did.

His duels with Marco van Basten are the stuff of legends. The one most often singled out, to Kohler’s disadvantage, is the Euro ’88 semi-final between Germany and the Netherlands. Van Basten manages to win a penalty from Kohler and beats him to score another goal. The match is frequently cited as a sign that Kohler still had a lot to learn back then. For me, that picture seems pretty lopsided. For a start, the penalty was pretty dubious. Maybe by today’s interpretation of the laws of the game it was a penalty, but back then the fact that Kohler managed to make some contact with the ball was usually enough to render his action legal. And the second goal is simply van Basten playing at the peak of his powers. Kohler did very little wrong in that situation. I will return to that goal later on, when I write about van Basten.

One might think that Kohler reached the peak of his career sometime after 1995. In 1997, he won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund and was named German Footballer of the Year. One of his most memorable moments, this moment (from 01:33), also took place during that year. While he certainly played at a high level in the second half of the 90s, I think he was already in decline. For a man marker like him a very high level of physical fitness was key to his game. He needed to be agile, strong and fast to keep track of speedy and/or bulky centre-forwards. He possessed all these qualities before ~1995, less so afterwards. When you’re a man-marker, there’s only so much you can compensate through experience. That’s why, historically speaking, many man-markers became liberos in their later years.

Between ~1988 and ~1995 you would have been hard-pressed to find a better player to nullify your opponent’s best striker than Jürgen Kohler. That’s why he makes the team. He wasn’t complete, he wasn’t a playmaker in defense, but he sure as hell was a nightmare to play against.

As a prime example of what Jürgen Kohler was all about, have a look at this Serie A match between Juventus Turin and AC Milan in 1991. This is the kind of match that really tells you a lot about a player’s quality. It’s early in the season, there’s still everything to play for, and two teams of the highest calibre, with plenty of magnificent players in their ranks, battle it out under pretty much ideal conditions. As the game ends, it’s safe to say that Kohler was the best player on the pitch during the last 90 minutes. Time and time again he wins important duels, sometimes even with seeming ease! All three defenders of this team are on the pitch that day. All three of them produce masterclass performances. But Kohler’s was the best of them.

Ronald Koeman

The decade in question really wasn’t a good time for defensive midfielders. The prevailing formations of the time – the 4-4-2 and the 3-5-2/5-3-2 – were often interpreted in a way that didn’t feature a true holding midfielder. Both central midfielders acted more or less as box-to-box midfielders who tried to instill a certain drive into the game by making runs themselves instead of opting to stay deep and act in a more controlling way. Ronald Koeman, for most of his career, played as a central defender, but he could also be used as a holding midfielder and featured in that position at times for Barcelona and more often at PSV and Ajax. Given the lack of a truly outstanding natural defensive midfielder during the decade in question, I chose to field Koeman in that role.

Ronald Koeman is a favourite of mine. Not necessarily because he comes across as the most likeable character (although one shouldn’t judge a player based on one incident like that), but because he was one hell of a footballer. For me, what sets him apart was his extraordinary passing game and his sound decision making. You very rarely see him make any sort of major mistake. As for his passing, I don’t think there are many defenders in the history of the game with a better passing game than him. Short passes, medium passes, long passes (a specialty of his), he could do it all.

Without the ball, Koeman was quite capable, too. He wasn’t a giant, but due to his stocky frame, there was little danger that he would be outmuscled by even the most powerful of centre-forwards. He was a decent header of the ball and showed good positional sense. In many ways, Koeman was a very modern central defender for his day and age. The same could be said for his performances as a holding midfielder.

Koeman is probably most famous for his shooting and free kick abilities. A career total of 239 goals in 685 matches makes him one of the most dangerous defensive players to ever play the game. He even was the joint top scorer of the UEFA Champions League 1993-94 – while playing as a central defender!

When you want to look for weaknesses in his game, you might point to the fact that he wasn’t the most mobile of players. Very powerful, very strong, but not very dynamic. Since mobility tends to decrease as the player grows older, this might explain while he was primarily used as a defender while at Barcelona. Of course, mobility is also a good quality to have as a defender, but it might be argued that it is even more important for a midfielder. (However, Busquets is as dynamic as a rock and he’s among the best midfielders of all time.) Also, a young guy called Josep Guardiola (himself not the epitome of mobility) managed to break into Barca’s first team and occupied the holding midfielder position from then on.

As you might have noticed by now, I can’t tell you that many interesting things about Koeman. Great with the ball, great without the ball, very modern defender in general, remarkable goal scoring record, pretty consistent for the whole decade. He easily makes the team.

Frank Rijkaard

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but’s anually advent calender focuses on historical players this year. Every day they post a portrait about one of their favourite players from days gone by. Some days ago, they published a piece on Frank Rijkaard and it’s safe to say that it wasn’t exactly an homage. The fact that they included him means that they like him as a player, but the analysis mainly focused on his shortcomings.

It went something like this: Frank Rijkaard, in theory, was an utterly complete player. There was hardly anything he couldn’t do on a football pitch. But sometimes limitations offer guidance. Think of players like Xavi and Guardiola: they could maximise their strengths because they were aware of their weaknesses. Frank Rijkaard’s game, when playing in midfield for Sacchi’s Milan, lacked those guidance-offering boundaries. In theory, that’s not a bad thing, but as it turned out his game suffered from it. Both his movements and his passing was often a bit overambitious and therefore more error-prone than it needed to be given his talent.

In fact, they went on to say, he played better when limitations were imposed on him. For example, when he was forced to play as a centre-back like he sometimes did at Milan and most of the time for the Dutch national team. Playing as a centre-back goes along with not having the same freedom on the pitch as a box-to-box midfielder has (‘box-to-box midfielder’, by the way, is a much more accurate description of the Milan-era Rijkaard than ‘defensive midfielder’). Things were similar, when he grew older and returned to Ajax in 1993. By then, he had lost a bit of stamina and pace and no longer could try to be everywhere at once. And once his body no longer was what it used to be, he needed to focus on his cerebral and technical qualities, which he did possess, instead. Playing as a more positionally-conservative defensive midfielder, he became the corner-stone of a young team that went on to win the Champions League final in 1995, Rijkaard’s final game. These age-imposed limitations made him a better player in my opinion. His passing was more precise, his general decision making much improved. In those final years of his career he showed the world the full range of his tactical and technical qualities.

Now, it’s important to note one thing: the Milan-era Rijkaard wasn’t a bad footballer by any means. Somewhat overrated, maybe. Wrongly assessed, yes. But it’s safe to say that he indeed was a world-class player during those years. He covered a lot of ground, was an immense physical presence, and technically and tactically way above average. During the late 80s and early 90s most central midfielders had to be  jack of all trades. They were asked to attack, to defend, and maybe above all else, to run, run, and run some more. Rijkaard certainly did these things better than almost any other player on earth. Lothar Matthäus being the reason for that qualifiyng ‘almost’. There was never any doubt that those two players would constitute the central midfield of this team. They were by some distance the best specimen of what a central midfielder had to be like during that time in football history.

Lothar Matthäus

As you know by now, at least if you’ve read the part about Franco Baresi, I chose the legendary Milan skipper as Player of the Decade. I argued that players like Maradona and van Basten, who arguably had a higher peak than Baresi, lose out on terms of quantity of performance and therefore couldn’t threaten Baresi’s throne. In fact, they weren’t even the closest contenders. Lothar Matthäus was.

Matthäus was one of the relatively few players who performed at a world class level from 1985 right through 1995 (Baresi and maybe Koeman being the other players in this team who did so, too). Some injury set-backs aside, he was always playing at a high level, being his usual industrious self. Having said that, his career did have a rather clear-cut peak. His time at Inter, especially the years 1989 to 1991 and the 1990 World Cup, saw him playing at his very best. He won some major individual awards during those years, and while I don’t care about these things all that much, it’s safe to say they were well earned.

If there’s one adjevtive that best describes Matthäus’ game, it’s ‘energetic‘. The now honorary captain of the German national team was a player of tremendous energy. He had pace, he had stamina, he had vehemence, he probably was the ultimate embodiment of the type of central midfielder that dominated world football during the 80s and early 90s. He’s sometimes described as a holding midfielder, but that’s a misunderstanding. Yes, he was a player of great defensive prowesss, a player who could tackle well and won many balls, but that alone doesn’t make him a defensive midfielder. Position-wise he is best described as a box-to-box midfielder (before he became a libero in 1993). You could basically expect him to cover every blade of grass between the two penalty areas in any given match.

While his standout qualities were located at the physical and mental level (he had an exemplary work ethic, a real professional), one shouldn’t underestimate his technical and tactical capabilities. He had a solid first touch, was a very good dribbler and possessed an excellent passing game. Technically and tactically he became a more well-rounded player as the decade progressed. When you watch him play in the 1986 World Cup, he’s still somewhat “raw”. Very industrious, a great fighter (who man-marked Maradona in the final, earning Diego’s respect), but not yet a real allrounder.

Four years later, things had changed for the better. Matthäus’ passing game was much improved and he was more calm when in possession. The most-capped player in German football history never became a true playmaker, who orchestrated the players around him. He wasn’t a second Beckenbauer or Günther Netzer. But during his time at Inter he grew into a great midfield allrounder who could pass and dribble as well as he could tackle and run. Oh, and he scored quite a lot of goals, too! 40 goals in 115 Serie A games is a very respectable quota for a striker in Italy’s notoriously defensive first division, for a central midfielder it’s a minor miracle.

All in all, Matthäus receives top marks for both quantity and quality of performance. He was a top class player for the whole decade and at his best, he was one of the great midfield allrounders of all time. So why Baresi and not him as Player of the Decade? It was a close call, but I think Baresi’s level of performance was even more unchangingly great. From what I’ve seen, he hardly changed over the years. Matthäus performance level, while being very consistent in comparison to most other players, wasn’t quite as stable. Therefore Baresi is named Player of the Decade ahead of Lothar Matthäus.

Diego Maradona

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: why isn’t Maradona named Player of the Decade despite having probably the highest peak of all the players in this team? Because he basically only played for half the decade at any kind of noteworthy level. As a top-class footballer Maradona’s career ended not in 1997, but shortly after the 1990 World Cup. The fact that he was included at all in a ’85-’95 Team despite basically not performing at all for the second half of the decade is testament to what he did during the first five years. Alas, it was not enough to be named Player of the Decade.

Now, please don’t be disappointed if this portrait of Maradona will be rather short. I will write a longer one on him for the 1980-1990 Team of the Decade (telling you that he will be included in that team as well isn’t much of a spoiler, is it?).

For now, I won’t try to describe his career and playing style all that much, but do another thing instead: compare him to Lionel Messi. Now, these two players obviously share a lot of similarities. They’re outstanding dribblers, possess technical quality beyond measure and are highly creative. There are, however, some things that separate them. I think you can break it down to the following formula: Messi is Maradona schooled in La Masia. FC Barcelona’s football academy is famed for its focus on the Cruyff-ian ideal of football, which says that “simple football” is ultimately the best football but at the same time, paradoxically enough, the hardest to execute. Maradona and Messi possess roughly the same amount and the same sort of raw talent. Maradona’s control of the ball might even be a little bit better, but Messi is the more explosive player. But all in all, they are very similarly talented. The main difference between the two is that Messi was schooled in the Dutch-Catalan school of football while Maradona wasn’t. Due to his education Messi became a surpremely rational player, who, while working loads of magic, always plays a very sound, rational, and, in a sense, even predictable game. When Messi is confronted with a difficult situation he usually chooses the perfect solution. Maradona was more unpredictable. Of course most of the time he, too, chose the best available option (otherwise he wouldn’t be such a good player), but his decision making wasn’t as robot-like perfect as Messi’s. Sometimes, more often than Messi in fact, he would do brilliant stuff, that nobody could have thought of but him. Other times, however, he simply made sub-optimal decisions, tried too much, trying to do the genius thing instead of the right thing. In a certain sense of “genius”, Maradona was almost surely the bigger genius of the two. But, in my estimation, Messi is the better player. He does not surprise you as often (at least when you know what he is capable of), but in the end Cruyff is right: simple football is the best football. Maradona’s genius came at a cost. Messi’s cool monumentality does not.

Having said all that, there’s one caveat: back in Maradona’s time, football was even more defensive than it is now. Teams used to field loads of primarily defensive players and few offensive ones. For the attacking players that meant a greater freedom of expression, including a greater freedom to make mistakes. Loosing possession wasn’t such a big deal, since most of your teammates were there to cover for you. In times like these, doing the right thing sometimes wasn’t enough for an attacking player. Nothing but genius would suffice, even if it came at a cost. In light of that, Maradona was just the player he needed to be.

Michael Laudrup

written by Javier from @footballiaweb

Michael Laudrup was one of the greatest players of his time. Why? Because he did different stuff. Today you can still hear Spanish TV commentators say “that was a Laudrup-style pass!” 17 years after he retired and over 20 since his prime. When you hear that, you think, “that player must have been something else”. And he sure was! If you’ve never seen Laudrup play, suffice it to say that he was one of Andrés Iniesta’s childhood idols.

But what is a Laudrup-style pass? His trademark passes were through-balls, literally, balls that would cut the defense line through the middle, sometimes even more than one defense line with one pass. And you would think, “how did he see that gap? There wasn’t a gap there!” And yet, not only did he see it, but he put the ball in the perfect spot, and often he wasn’t even looking, but we’ll get back to that. You may think many players give through-passes – though not so many do, actually. But Laudrup didn’t give a pass to where his best-placed teammate was, that would have been too easy, too mundane. He was able to guess the exact spot on the pitch where his teammate was going to be two seconds later and he would send the ball there. Another quality that made him stand out was that he did that with any part of either of his feet. One of his most famous passes was to Romário against Osasuna (93-94). I’d never seen anything like it and I only saw it twice later in my life: once was Romário later in that season and the other was Michael himself in his last-but-one match ever against Nigeria in ’98. He lobbed the ball over the defense with the outside of his right foot while he was facing perpendicularly to the goal and Romário and looking the other way. Sublime.

But let’s go back to another outstanding quality: his no-look passes. Some players have attempted no-look passes, most notably Ronaldinho. But no other player was so effective at it. A no-look pass is not just about looking the other way at the moment of hitting the ball. A no-look pass is just that, not looking in the direction where you’re passing the ball, but looking somewhere that might actually trick your opponent into thinking you’re going to do something else. Laudrup did that day in day out, but most memorably in two consecutive Clásicos that ended 5-0 for the home team, once with Barcelona and once with Real Madrid.

But was Laudrup only a passer? His passing ability qualified him as the quintessential playmaker, the position he played in most regularly at Real Madrid and Denmark through the 90s. But Laudrup was also a versatile player, that’s why Lukas placed him as a left winger, a position he played throughout his season at Ajax, and one he occupied often at Barcelona. Cruyff used him on both wings, as a false 9 (Messi’s predecessor in that position), as a number 10 and even deeper, as an “inside” midfielder – as they’re called in Spain, interior – from where he could help the team produce more attacking football.

What made him such a versatile player, what were his other qualities? For one, he was an excellent dribbler, and he did it with both feet, so he was able to dribble towards both sides. He had a trademark dribbling which the Catalan press called ‘croqueta’, he would shift the ball from one foot to the other like he was kneading one of those popular kinds of Spanish tapas. He was also quite fast, he wasn’t Stoichkov of course, but he was fast enough. However, he wasn’t a great goal scorer. He played in positions where he should have scored more regularly. Maybe he would be much more appreciated if he had. He was also a very elegant player. The only other players that come to mind as elegant would be Zidane and Henry.

Lukas likes to justify inclusion in the team on the quality and quantity of performance during the decade. I think I’ve justified quality enough. As for quantity, he started out the decade at Juventus, where he displayed occasional spells of magic, but I guess only Cruyff could see the potential he had. Nobody in Barcelona thought they had signed one of Europe’s best player at the time, but that’s what he proved to be. Cruyff surrounded Laudrup with the perfect environment for him to shine, and shine he did! An attacking-minded team where Michael came in touch with the ball as often as he needed to, unlike at Juve, where he would go long spells without touching the ball, a situation that led him to consider his retirement at just 25! Fortunately he didn’t. Still on his quantity of performance, his 5-year tenure at Barça was excellent top to bottom, peaking in 91-93. And then in 1994 Valdano took him to Madrid to make him the cornerstone of his new project. That first season at Real Madrid, 94-95, was also an excellent one for Michael, his last one probably.

So there you go, from 85 through 95, ten years spilling drops of magic over European pitches. During his time in Barcelona, a sign hung behind a goal. It read: “Enjoy Laudrup.” Let’s do that.

[The best highlight compilation of all time has Laudrup as its subject. You can watch it here and here., LT]

Ruud Gullit

written by Rob Fielder (@ademir2z)

Has there ever been a more complete player than Ruud Gullit? A player who more perfectly combined the tactical, technical and physical aspects of the game? For in his prime the Dutch master merged power with grace, skill with athleticism, and became for a time the premier footballer in the world.

Starting out at Haarlem as a young sweeper it was only a matter of time before Gullit would move on to bigger and better things. Moves to Feyenoord and then PSV followed and quickly the wider world was aware of the prodigious gifts of this precocious talent. By the time that Gullit left the Netherlands, his remarkable versatility had become apparent.

Initially a ball-playing centre-back, he quickly adapted to act as an attacking midfielder and even a forward with a wondrous range of attribute. Tall and muscular, he was remarkably light on his feet, had a startling burst of pace and controlled the ball as if it was attached to his boot by a piece of string.

Although the Dutch missed out on qualification for both Euro 84 and the 1986 World Cup, the secret was very much out to the scale of Gullit’s ability. With media magnate Silvio Berlusconi rescuing AC Milan and vowing to transform them into a global powerhouse it was only natural that he should look to assemble a cast of the brightest stars. Gullit more than fit the bill and it required a world record fee to take him to the San Siro. In Milan he made an immediate impact, winning Lo Scudetto in his first season and going on to claim two European Cups as the Rossoneri took on the mantle of the world’s best team.

At international level there remains a sense that we never saw the very best of Gullit. Although he skippered the Oranje to Euro 88 glory he was probably not at his very best in West Germany and naturally fell into the shadow of his Milan teammate Marco van Basten who illuminated the finals with an incandescent brilliance. An opener in the final illustrated Gullit’s prowess in the air but he was unusually upstaged and although he impressed again at Euro 92 it was ultimately a campaign which ended in frustration. The 1990 World Cup was a disastrous tournament for Leo Beenhakker’s side and in 1994 a bust up with new manager Dick Advocaat, who wanted to play Gullit on the right wing, deprived the game’s greatest stage of one of its foremost exponents.

However, back in Serie A Gullit continued to impress and although injuries took a devastating toll on his knees, significantly lessening his impact, he still enjoyed a wonderful “Indian Summer” first with Sampdoria and then in England with Chelsea.

Looking back there remains a suspicion that we were deprived of Gullit at his very best. Without the knee injuries he surely would have been the decade’s premier player, forcing his will on the game through an array of strengths. Instead he missed large spells through injury and some of the explosiveness which characterised the young Gullit was naturally gone. Despite that he remained a tremendous leader, both on the pitch for club and country and off it as an anti-Apartheid campaigner, and an iconic figure within the game’s history. For anyone who saw him there were few more terrifying or exciting than the marauding Gullit, dreadlocks flowing, in full flight.

Marco van Basten

If you have read some of my other Team of the Decade posts as well, you might have noticed that this one contains comparatively little explanations of the type “why I chose player X over player Y”. For most positions, I knew whom to choose right away. The position of centre-forward, however, was different. Of course, Marco van Basten was the most iconic striker of the period in question, but several facts spoke against his inclusion. For a start, he didn’t play at all during the last two seasons of the decade. And not only did injuries cut his career short, two further seasons were severly affected by injuries as well (1987-88 & 1992-93). This means he doesn’t get particularly good marks for quantity of performance. Also, in what was probably the biggest tournament of his career (Italia ’90) he failed to deliver despite being tipped to become the standout player of the tournament by many experts before the World Cup. And finally, his goal tally is somewhat inflated because he took quite a lot of penalties. His biggest rival for a spot in the team is Jürgen Klinsmann. “The Diver” was a very consistent performer who failed to score less than ten goals in only one of the ten seasons of the decade. Also, he wasn’t as one-dimensional as he is often said to have been. For example, he was a very dynamic dribbler and possessed a pretty good link-up game. Talk of him being a “flipper” (pin-ball machine), because of his poor first touch, was certainly exaggerated – at least when applied to the younger Klinsmann before 1995.

Now, despite all that, I did choose Marco van Basten for a place in the first eleven. Why? Mainly because of the fact that when van Basten was fit, he usually was hands down the best striker of the decade. The quality of his performances is unmatched by other elite strikers of the time. At his best, he was the best centre-forward around.

Marco van Basten was a pioneer in his position. He was a true centre-forward, roaming the box, looking for headers or loose balls, a brilliant finisher. But at the same time, he possessed the technique of a No.10 and wasn’t as positionally conservative as the classic “fox in the box”-kind of striker. He could dribble and pass, as well as shoot or control the ball in tight situations. Also, he was more physically imposing than most strikers before him.

The best strikers of today, players like Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema, can rightfully be regarded as his heirs. They, too, are true centre-forwards, but very complete players as well. However, none of them is as physically imposing as van Basten. Players like Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba match van Bastens physique, but they aren’t as complete as he was. One player who has the body as well as the technique is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (In fact, he might have a better technique than van Basten ever had.) Fabio Capello, who coached both players, saw the similarities between them, too. He advised Ibrahimovic to study old videos of van Basten in order to learn to move as cleverly as he did. Zlatan, however, was quickly bored by watching old video tapes and never bothered to learn more about van Basten. One can only wonder what would have been possible if Ibrahimovic’s mindset had been different…

When talking about van Basten’s qualities, people often point to a handful of acrobatic wondergoals that he scored, like this one and this one. And yes, it’s true that he was capable of the spectacular. But as with most other players, he did those things infrequently. You can’t watch a random match featuring van Basten and expect the spectacular. He was no Messi or Pelé. His standout qualities were less eye-catching. Firstly, he was an exceptional, and I mean truly exceptional, header of the ball. Not only did he manage to outmuscle and outjump most defenders, his headers were often powerful, yet precise. Have a look at some of his goal compilation videos and you will see what I mean. Secondly, he was a great finisher. The art of scoring a “true striker’s goal” can look mundane at times, but everyone who was played a bit of football knows how hard it is. For an example, have a look at this goal. It’s a typical striker’s goal and in a way you wouldn’t be wrong to call it a “simple goal”. But look at how he not only manages to get the ball on goal but how he carefully guides it away from the keeper. Yet again, what he does is hardly magic, but that finish is a sign of true quality. You can expect any given elite striker to score this goal eighty times out of a hundred. But by van Basten’s finish you can tell that he will score it 98 times out of a hundred. That’s quality. Having said that, there is probably no better example of his artful finishing than this goal against West Germany at Euro 1988.

In contrast to some other people, I don’t think van Basten has any part to play in a “best player of all time”-debate. But he does take the striker’s spot in this Team of the Decade.



11 thoughts on “Team of the Decade 1985-1995

  1. The entire central axis has their stats inflated by penalties. All of Baresi, Koeman, Matthaus and Maradona did this to a greater extent than Van Basten. Only Rijkaard has no share of penalties in his production because he didn’t take them.


  2. Hey Tank,

    first of all I want to say how much I like this side, it’s really a gem. So glad I found it.
    Keep it going! I am looking forward to the Team of the 80s.

    I really like this team. In fact, I pretty much would include the same players as you have. And Baresi as the player of the decade? Splendid. I have to rewatch some games of Kohler and Matthäus!

    Do you think the Milan side AFTER Sacchi was the better one? If you do so, can you explain why?

    Thanks for the great read. I will now look over your other teams.


    • To answer your question: First of all, obviously both Sacchi’s Milan and Capello’s Milan (91-94) were sides of great quality. If I claim that one of them is superior, I don’t want to say that the other is rubbish.

      The main argument in favour of Capello’s Milan is that they were the more consistent team. 3 Scudettos in a row at a period of time when Serie A was probably the toughest club competition in the world, the long unbeaten streak and reaching every European final that they could reach make for a very, very consistent team. More so than Sacchi’s Milan. As we all know, they were the last side to win two European Cups in a row, but they couldn’t achieve similar feats on the domestic level. Plus their European campaigns were far less dominant than the back-to-back titles indicate.

      At their very best, Sacchi’s Milan were arguably the superior (and certainly the tactically more innovative) team, but Capello’s “pragmatized” version of the Sacchi-model proved to be more reliable.


      • I agree that Sacchi’s side at its peak was superior, but Capello’s was far more consistent. For my research, I am watching a lot of early 90s football right now and I can totally confirm the assumption that the Serie A was the toughest, and probably best, competition inthe world back then. So many great players! I still have a soft spot for it.


      • May I ask what kind of research you’re doing?

        Right now I’m stuck in the early 80s. Some interesting teams (Flamengo, Brazil, France) but apart from that mostly horrible to watch.


    • It’s mainly for myself as I am obsessed with football and its changing tactics. That’s why I really like your blog! I am somehow fascinated by Italian Football. It’s my second great love in terms of Football (the other one is my favorite team, the FC Barcelona – I am an ardent admirer since 1996!). Someday in the future I really would love to write something about the developments of Italian tactics, but that’s just a hazy dream I guess.

      In addition, I am also a historian and I want to write my PhD thesis on the cultural history of football. I have not really planned anything, but that will be the broad topic. This as well will take a long time to do.

      So, in short, I admire football, tactics, and history.


  3. It just occurred to me that you feature neither Vaderrama, nor Francescoli in any of your teams. Are they overrated in your opinion?


      • I guess the decades when the South American leagues were still relevant were much harder for you to judge on. Today the greatest players are all concentrated on only a handful of teams while back then they were much more spread out. How many games per decade did you watch, approximately?


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