Since 2008-09 I have been compiling my Team of the Season at the end of every season. While my selection is certainly influenced by my limited knowledge and my personal preferences, I try not to build a team of my favourite players, but of the players who performed the best during that season. In order to establish which player performed the best in a given position, I look at quantity and quality of performance only.
So here’s my Team of the Season 2015-16. I define ‘2015-16’ as starting with the final whistle of the Champions League final 2015 and ending with the final whistle of the Champions League final 2016.
Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Best Player: Sergio Busquets
Best Team: FC Barcelona (Atletico would have won the title if not for their weak and uncharacteristic performance in the final of the CL)
Best Match: FC Liverpool – Borussia Dortmund
Bench: Navas, Buffon, Neuer; Filipe Luis, Alaba, Alba; Boateng, Piqué, Godin, T. Silva, Mascherano, Ramos; Juanfran, Carvajal, Mariano; Kroos, Weigl, Kanté; Vidal, Gündogan, Gabi; Iniesta, Ibrahimovic, Mahrez; Griezmann, Neymar, Vardy; Higuain, Kane, Lewandowski; Müller, Benzema, Özil
David de Gea
A lot of the players chosen for this team come from teams who have performed well this season. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Their fine performances were a key reason why their respective teams did well. The case of de Gea is a bit different. Manchester United, still his club after a summer move to Real Madrid collapsed under the most hillarious of circumstances, had a rough year. But not because of de Gea, but despite him. While his season started badly, he was omitted from the squad after said transfer saga, he quickly reached his by now usual level and bailed his team out with fantastic saves time and time again. Potentially Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. However, he had one of his weaker seasons. While he continued to be great on the line, it was his trademark sweeper-keeper game that let him down this season. He made too many uncharacteristic mistakes to make the team. Keepers like Navas, Buffon and Oblak had fine seasons, too. But from what I’ve seen de Gea has deserved the place.
Marcelo is typically described as a player who has a lot of offensive qualities, but lacks defensive prowess. Well, firstly: he has a hell of a lot offensive qualities! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fullback with better dribbling skills than Marcelo. Just remember his run that led to one of Madrid’s goals in the second Liga clasico of the season. Secondly, his classic defensive game really isn’t that bad. Maybe not particularly outstanding, but he is far from being a liability defensively nowadays. Also, attacking and defensive qualities shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. His attacking skills are a defensive asset, too. Opponents sometimes attack with more caution because they know what he can do to them on the counter. I don’t see too many players endangering Marcelo’s place in the team. Alaba had a sub-par season and apart from him, there are few left-backs who play on a really high level. Filipe Luis had his moments, but not all of them positive. All in all I think Marcelo’s nomination shouldn’t cause too much of a controversy.
Started the season poorly, but began to reach his best form by late autumn and never looked back since. Hummels is, in my opinion, one of those few active players who, at his very best, is capable to play at a level that is somewhat above the ‘world class’ category. Now, that doesn’t mean that these players are automatic starters in this team. You have to fullfil your potential in order to qualify. Hummels has featured in three of my All Star Teams so far (2010-11, Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014), but he missed out on a lot of them too. When he is off form, his proactive and in some way risky playing style can cost him and it did so in the past. But at his best Hummels is a truly outstanding player. He is one, if not the most playmaking currently active defender. His passing range and style reminds me of legends like Scirea, Baresi and, most obviously, Franz Beckenbauer. His defensive game is unusual, too. He frequently leaves his position to win balls in midfield. In order for that to work, his teammates need to balance out his moves. If the teams works together well, this defensive style has proved to be very succesful. Hummels isn’t the fastest or most mobile defender, but his understanding of the game make him an elite player and a true innovator.
For a description of his playing style, just have a look at what I wrote about him last season. I stand by what I said about him. (Although I should have emphasized more how good his build-up game is.) So instead let’s talk a bit about some other centre-backs who could have made the team: If not for his injury during the most important part of the season, Jerome Boateng would have made the team. While I rate Hummels’ build-up game even higher, Boateng simply marks the state of the art of centre-back play. There are just no weaknesses whatsoever in his game. Similar things can be said about Thiago Silva, but I must admit that I have seen too little of him this season, to truly judge his current level. Godin is an excellent classic central defender. A perfect fit for Simeone’s Atletico, but not as well-rounded as Boateng or Silva, nor as exceptional as Hummels. Piqué, like last season, has grown up as a player and performs at a very high level. I think Bonucci is a bit more dynamic while also having basically all of Piqué’s strengths, so I chose him. But in the end it has to be said that at least half a dozen CBs performed so well in 2015-16 that I could have included them. It was a good year for central defenders.
During the second half of last season and the start of this one, Lahm’s career seemed to be on its way down. Or so many people said. I have to say, I always thought there was a bit too much doom and gloom in these statements. Lahm always was and continues to be unable to play a really bad game. But yes, it didn’t look like he would make another Team of the Season anytime soon. That much was true. So what happened? It has to be said that there wasn’t that much competition for the right-back spot. Juanfran played a very solid and good season (apart from missing a penalty in the Champions League final). But apart from him there were very few players who could muster a decent claim for a place in the first team. But more important than that, Lahm’s performance level skyrocketed during the late autumn and winter. He basically became his old self again (well, maybe 90% of his old self). And that is one of the most balanced and possibly the most playmaking right-back in the history of the game.
Who knows me, knows that I like Sergio Busquets. However, and I want to emphasize this point, his inclusion in this team an me naming him Best Player of the Season are not meant to be an expression of me liking his playing style, but are the expression of my genuine belief that he was the best player in the world this season. I wrote about him a few times already, so I won’t repeat myself by describing his game in any detail. Let me just say that I haven’t seen a more intelligent footballer ever. This season he reached a new personal peak. His counter pressing movements close to the opponent’s box are unheard of and have proved decisive for Barcelona several times this season. His sphere of influence on the pitch is now bigger than ever. After his career stagnated from the World Cup 2014 to early 2015, the last 18 months saw him become his old self again and even surpass his previous peak. I’ve never seen a defensive midfielder play on a higher level than Busquets did this season. In a sub-par year for Leo Messi, Busquets takes the crown as Best Player of the Season.
They call him ‘Mozart’ for a reason. The natural heir to Xavi’s title as the best central midfielder in the game. He combines a fine undertanding of the game with great agility, fine technique and just enough physical robustness. Modric always seems to have a bit more space and time than most other players. Of course opponents try to close down on him, but his speed of thought and clever movements generate that extra second which gives him the edge over his opponent. In a way, he is wasted in the current Real Madrid team. Just imagine him in a possession-based team like Bayern or Barcelona. Alas, he plays for Madrid and is very succesful doing so. It’s just that their playing style isn’t a perfect fit for him. All the more credit for him playing at a very high level for several years. I don’t see who should endanger his place in the team. (Iniesta is more of a AM and I wanted to have a CM in my team.) Also played a fine CL final.
The Armenian obviously had a brilliant season. 11 goals and 20 assists in the Bundesliga alone is very, very impressive. Having said that, the question of whether to include him or not was one of the tougher questions I had to ask myself while compiling this team. With Andres Iniesta he had some heavy competition, but that wasn’t the only thing that made me hesitate. For me watching Mkhitaryan feels frustrating at times. Given his potential he should be the best attacking midfielder around for 1-2 years by a landslide (ever since Iniesta slowed down a bit (in most matches)). He is like a turbo-charged Iniesta. He has the technique (well, 90% of the technique), the ideas and the mobility, but is much faster and stronger than the Spaniard ever was. But despite his excellent statistics I cannot entirely shake off the impression that the success quote of his actions should be even higher than it is. And, secondly, I’m yet to see a fully convincing performance by him against a top, top opponent (basically Bayern, Barcelona and sometimes Real and Atletico). Iniesta on the other hand totally dominated the first Liga clasico against Madrid and again produced a performance for the ages in the Spanish Cup final. In the end, Mkhitaryan wins the place because of his consistency, but I stand by my judgement that he could be even better.
Yet again, Ronaldo scored loads of goals. 51 in 48 games is, obviously, an excellent goalscoring return. It was not a vintage season for him by any means, though. His overall impact on the game has grown even smaller than it was last year and a lot of his goals were scored against lesser opponents or when it didn’t matter that much. Antoine Griezmann, his closest rival for the place in the team after Neymar’s form collapsed in the winter, scored far fewer goals but proved against both Barcelona and Bayern that he is able to make the difference on the highest level. Both Ronaldo and Griezmann had a stinker of a CL final, so that can’t generate an advantage for one of them. In the end Ronaldo’s ability to totally dominate lesser opponents has to be respected. While I think that he is overrated in general, I stand by my praise of him that I expressed here.
I’ve seen many people name him as their player of the season. I think that this is a bit much praise for him. Yes, he scored lots of goals and also boasts a very good assist tally. But I think his statistics are a bit inflated by him having Neymar and Messi either side of him. Especially a Leo Messi who seems determined to become more and more of a creator. Add to that the fact that Suarez missed quite a few sitters this season and I think calling him player of the season is just a bit too much. But he did play a fine season, indeed. His combination play isn’t as well-rounded as Benzema’s but he’s one of the 3-4 complete elite strikers of today’s game. He works his socks off for the team and makes lots of runs in order to create space for his teammates. ‘El Gordo’ is a very physical player who uses every pound he’s got to guide defenders in the wrong direction. For me, Suarez is in no sense above the world class category but this season he was the best world class striker around.
Last season was Messi’s best so far. This one couldn’t keep up. Until December 2015 he had problems with injuries. It took him until the start of the new year to really hit the heights. He also had 2-3 sub-par games during Barca’s spring slump that cost them a place in the CL semis and almost cost them the league too. Add that up and Messi, despite still being obviously the most talented player around, doesn’t win the Best Player of the Season award. His inclusion in the team, however, is well warranted. Messi can play well below his best and still be among the best, if not the best player around. During his best part of the season he performed better than any other player did this season. Stylistically 2015-16 saw the continuation of Messi’s transformance into less of a finisher and more of a creator. His passing game is just on another level to any other player on earth. He can create a chance out of literally nothing. While this wasn’t a vintage Messi season, it was a very good one nevertheless.