Manager: Rinus Michels
Bench: Maier, Jennings, Hellström; Facchetti, Junior, Cabrini; Hulshoff, Schwarzenbeck, Scirea, Passarella, Luis Pereira, Trésor; Suurbier, C. Alberto, Gentile; Clodoaldo, Souness, Neeskens; Haan, Bochini, Bremner; Zico, Overath, Rivera; Dalglish, Heynckes, Dzajic; Lato, Rensenbrink, K. Fischer; Grabowski, Keegan, Simonsen
Best Player: Johan Cruyff
Best Team: Ajax Amsterdam 1970-1973
Best Club: Bayern Munich
Best Match: Ajax Amsterdam – Independiente, Intercontinental Cup 1972
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 1965-1975 Team of the Decade, the last one was about the 1975-1985 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 1970-1980 decade as starting with the final whistle of the 1970 European Cup final and ending with the final whistle of the 1980 European Cup final.
Finally, massive thanks to Tobias Escher. It’s an honour to have you on board as a guest author!
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Zoff:
“Zoff was a traditional and experienced goalkeeper, who favoured efficiency over the spectacular when making saves. He was particularly regarded for his outstanding positioning and handling of the ball, as well as his concentration, consistency, calm mindset, and composure under pressure; he also possessed good reactions and shot-stopping abilities. Despite his reserved character, Zoff also drew praise for his leadership, correct behaviour and organisational skills, which led him to serve as captain of his national side. Known for his work-rate and discipline as a footballer, Zoff also stood out for his longevity, which enabled him to have an extensive and highly successful career.”
From what I’ve seen, this seems to be an entirely fair description. Just like his heir Buffon, Zoff was a great allrounder. Not a modern sweeper-keeper or a colossus on the goal line, but somebody who refined the basics of goalkeeping to reach excellence. Rob Fielder pointed out that Zoff’s command of his area was particularly good.
Some of you may have expected to see Sepp Maier in the team. From what I’ve seen I think the German is slightly overrated. He had great reflexes but was always capable of making major mistakes and needed to have 1-2 succesful early moments or else he’d get nervous.
Zoff’s most famous moments came in the early 80s, but he remained at a world class level throughout the 70s and thus makes the team.
Behind Cruyff and Neeskens Ruud Krol is often mentioned as the third star player of the Golden Ajax and Dutch team of the early-mid 70s. He is idolised as a total footballer blessed with a surpreme understanding of the game more fitting for a No.10 than a left-back. In my opinion, this is a bit over the top. Yes, Krol was an excellent player, hence his inclusion in the team, but to declare him some kind of cerebral footballing genius is not something I would do. (But then again Franco Baresi, who was a footballing genius, cites Krool as his main inspiration, so what do I know.)
First of all people often forget how tough a player Krol was. Put him in a time machine so that he could compete in today’s football, he would need to change his playing style quite a bit or else get sent off every other match. While some other great fullbacks like Maldini and Lahm usually tried to solve situations without having to make risky tackles, Krol used them frequently. I can’t find the source right now, but I think I have read that he was voted toughest player of the Dutch league several times in a row. A real hard man.
Now that I have that off my chest, let’s talk a bit about the more positive sides of his game. In one way he certainly was a very modern player for his day and age: Krol was an early(-ish) example of the attacking fullback. He made a lot of surging runs, either overlapping the winger in front of him or going for goal himself. Krol was a very athletic player who combined strength and pace very well. From a purely physical point of view, he was pretty close to being the perfect fullback. Strong, yet dynamic and fast.
And of course, Krol had a good understanding of the game. In fact he became a better player in terms of understanding the game as he grew older. Or at least that’s my impression so far. He played as a libero in the 1978 World Cup and in the later years of his career in general. Doing so he relied much more on closing down angles and cleverly anticipating moves than he did in his earlier years.
As I said, I’m not really a fan. But I can’t (and don’t want to) deny that he was one of the best fullbacks of his time. With Breitner playing in midfield, I don’t see who could rival him for a spot on the team.
Football history produced many excellent central defenders. Some of them were elegant playmakers who also knew how to defend despite being not overly athletic. Think of Franz Beckenbauer or Laurent Blanc. Others looked a bit short for an elite defender, but more than compensated for that with their understanding of the game and their tenaciousness. Think of Franco Baresi and Daniel Passarella. Yet others had frames like heavyweight boxers but were limited (not bad, but limited) in footballing terms. Think Karl-Heinz Förster and John Terry.
Elias Figueroa on the other hand, and you might have anticipated this conclusion by now, had it all. The body of Nemanja Vidic combined with the footballing ability of Franz Beckenbauer (okay, maybe 0.8 Beckenbauers).
Complete defenders like him are very hard to find. Hierro and Jerome Boateng might be two other examples. But I think neither of them reached Figueroa’s level (in Boateng’s case: yet). Like some other players in this team (Müller, Beckenbauer, Cruyff) Figueroa gets top marks for quality of performance because he was one of the best ever in his position and a good, yet not outstanding mark for quantity of performance because due to age he slowed down towards the end of the decade.
To be able to do absolutely everything you can ask of a defender and to do so on a very high level for a long time guarantees your status as an all-time great. That’s just what Figueroa is.
Franz Beckenbauer by Tobias Escher
I have to admit: As a young person I could never grasp Franz Beckenbauer’s god-like status in German football culture. But when I watched Beckenbauer roam around the pitch, I could finally understand why Beckenbauer’s unsubstantial blah-blah as a TV-pundit, his numerous sexual affairs and his involvement in FIFA scandals could never overshadow his legend.
Beckenbauer started his career as a winger, which seemed reasonable: He was fast, he was versatile, he could nudge his opponents with his artistic tricks. But his vision and his sixth sense for the game soon saw him become one of the most prolific midfielders in world football. At the 1966 World Cup, he organized the German offense as a number six, becoming the focal point in every German attack.
But Beckenbauer sensed he could influence Bayern München and the German national team even more if he were to play a different tactical role. He became tired of man-markers shutting him down in midfield. Legend has it that in 1966 he was set to become a member of Helenio Herrera’s legendary La Grande Inter. The move was canceled because the Italian FA excluded foreign players from the Serie A after the disastrous 1966 World Cup. But on one of his trips to Italy Beckenbauer watched Giacinto Facchetti excel as a full back. Facchetti sprinted down the wing, the opponent defenders were unable to follow his pace.
Beckenbauer had an idea. Why play in midfield when he could start his runs out of the depth of the defense? He urged his coaches to field him as a libero, the free-roaming last-man behind a man-marking defense. The libero was a purely defensive role at that time – but Beckenbauer reinvented it. He used the free space before him to analyze the opponent, to pick up pace and to open up the field with long and short passes.
The new role suited Beckenbauer’s abilities perfectly. He could show his elegance in dribbling when darting forward and his vision when setting up opportunities for his team-mates. Beckenbauer was not only one of the most gifted player in footballing-history, he also invented a new tactical role all by himself. How many players in the history of football can claim that?
The Terrier. His nickname really says it all. Vogts was the ultimate nightmare for wingers in the 70s. He was the last fullback you wanted to face.
Except ‘fullback’ is a bit misleading in Vogts’ case. He played most of his football in teams that used man marking and Vogts was usually deployed as one of the specialised man-markers. When the opponent was in possession Vogts would simply follow his direct opponent to wherever he would go. (Even to the loo, as the old cliché goes.) But since he mostly acted as a right-back when his team was in possession and usually marked the opponent’s left winger or left-sided playmaker, I will field him as a right-back.
Vogts was everything people say he was and I, honestly, haven’t that much to add. He was a tenacious player, always staying close to his opponent. He tackled a lot and, like Krol, would have problems in today’s game. But since you basically couldn’t get sent off by commiting “normal” fouls in the 70s, Vogts’ way of playing was seldomly punished by the referees. He was a classic example of the “maybe you will get past me, maybe the ball will get past me, but sure as hell not both you and the ball!”-school of defending.
Possibly his finest moment came in the 1974 World Cup final. His marking job on Cruyff is the stuff of legends. And yes, apart from the first minute, he did very well. Interestingly enough, Vogts also made 1-2 fine dribbling runs in that final. By and large, and especially compared to some other players in this team, Vogts was a rather one-dimensional player, but those moments indicate that he wasn’t that one-dimensional.
Vogts gets top marks for the quantity of his performances. He was a top player for the full ten years. He was German footballer of the year in 1971 and 1979 and included in the World Cup All-Star team in both 1974 and 1978. Not the most stylish of players, but certainly one of the most dependable.
I knew I wanted to include him in the team. The question was where. Breitner played left-back for the first half of his career and central midfielder for the second. In fact, Breitner started out as a forward, but was tranformed into a left-back by coach Udo Lattek. Ultimately the competition for a midfield spot was weaker than at left-back and so I decided I would field Breitner there.
In his first few games as a left-back for Bayern Breitner focussed on the essentials of defending but he soon began to join the attack. In a way this was inevitable. Breitner’s über-ambitious character made him a player that had a hard time restricting himself to stay on the fringes of the action.
The German footballer of the year 1981 was an outstanding athlete. He was strong, quick and had lots of stamina. Running up and down the pitch for 90 minutes? No problem for the self-described communist (not a porn star, though). Breitner was a right-footed left-back. This meant that in addition to vertical runs along the touchline he would do some diagonal runs towards goal in order to shoot himself. He had a great shot from distance, as was on display in the 1974 World Cup.
As a midfielder Breitner was an all-action kind of player. Not unlike his successor Lothar Matthäus actually. A box-to-box midfielder who tried to impose himself onto the game by simply doing everything you can expect from a midfielder. This includes scoring goals. During his second Bayern stint he rarely scored less than 10 goals per season.
A final note on him, the basically omniscient Tobias Günther reminded me of Breitner’s habit to pass only to players who he deemed worthy of receiving the ball. It’s hard to think of a player whose whole approach to football was structured by hierarchies as much as Breitner’s was.
Now, this might be one of the least well known players I have picked so far. Not only for Non-German readers but especially for them. A few introductory words therefore might be in place.
Herbert, called “Hacki”, Wimmer was a mainstay at the legendary Borussia Mönchengladbach team of the 70s that won 5 German Championships and the 1975 UEFA Cup. He also was a starter for the German national team of 1972, often hailed as the best German team of all time.
The single most often heard description of Wimmer is “Netzers Wasserträger”, meaning the player who did the hard work for Günter Netzer, Wimmer’s teammate at Gladbach and the national team. Like in Gerd Müller’s case, more on him later on, this stereotypical description is both right and wrong. Right, because Wimmer really was a player with a tremendous workrate, whose job it was to fill the gaps on the pitch that others have left. But also wrong, because it leaves too much out. For example, Wimmer was a very good and dynamic dribbler who frequently played as a winger. Unlikely for a pure workhorse, right?
Wimmer is a historical favourite of the Spielverlagerung.de authors. They once called him a mix between Jack Wilshere, Gennaro Gattuso, Christoph Kramer, Kevin Großkreutz, Jordan Henderson, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lars Bender, Garrincha, Leon Goretzka and Alfredo Di Stefano. Now, this is a lot of hyperbole with a fair bit of nonsense, but it gives you the impression of a quite versatile player. And this much is certainly correct.
Wimmer was one of these players whose qualities without the ball are arguably as important or even more important to his game than what he does with the ball. (Actions without the ball are, generally speaking, very underrated. Kind of strange, because most players at most points in time don’t have the ball.) Wimmer had a habit of popping up wherever there was a gap in the formation of his team. His balancing presence on the field led Spielverlagerung.de to call him a “collective artist” because of the artful nature of how his actions affected the collective shape of his team. I have nothing more to add.
Well, maybe just this: why Wimmer and not Netzer or Overath and Neeskens? Weren’t they even better players? The answer to that is maybe, yes, and no. Maybe Netzer was better than Wimmer, but since Netzer’s career as a top player ended shortly after the middle of the decade his case for inclusion is sufficiently weakened. Overath was probably even better than Netzer, but he, too, quit playing before Wimmer did and left the national team even earlier. And Neeskens, well, I think he’s overrated. He ran as much as Wimmer did, but he made more mistakes and was a pretty brutal player who often was lucky not to get sent off. Maybe my selection of historical matches was hard on Neeskens and I’ll revise my opinion later on, but for now I think Johan, the 2nd, was pretty lucky to play next to Johan, the 1st, who made him look better than he actually was.
Ever wondered which players besides Pelé helped to create the image of Brazil as a nation of stylish football artists? I present to you one of the main culprits: Rivelino. The son of Italian immigrants was one of the four “ponta-de-lancas” in the legendary 1970 Brazil team (together with Pelé, Tostao and Jairzinho). All four of them liked to play in a free attacking role, both scoring and creating goals usually from the central parts of the pitch. But against all odds they managed to work as a unit. Rivelino acted as a left winger/midfielder during that tournament. Later on in his career he played deeper, as a central midfielder or even deep-lying playmaker. (For an impression of the older Rivelino, watch this video.) In this team he will exchange positions with Johan Cruyff from time to time and play as an attacking midfielder and left midfielder.
Rivelino was a cliché Brazilian kind of player. Outstanding technique, lots of creativity, daring to the point of arrogance, not necessarily a workhorse and with an eye for goal. He was a difference maker, not somebody who played a solid game for 90 minutes. Rivelino, unlike Pelé and Jairzinho, wasn’t a particularly great athlete. His dribbling style relied little on speed and agility, but was all about technique. His signature move was the elastico or flick-flack. Ronaldinho and Ronaldo are two modern examples of players frequently using this trick. The elastico tells you a lot about Rivelino. It’s usually done at low speed and requires little strength or pace, but lots of skill.
Having said that, some aspects of Rivelino’s game actually required speed and strength. Namely his shooting. Rivelino had a thunderous shot with his left foot. He was a danger from free-kicks and open play, even from distances over 30 meters.
The 1970 World Cup was undoubtedly the highlight of Rivelino’s career. But the fact that he was still going strong for both club and country in the late 70s makes him eligible for inclusion in this team. Since most great midfielders of the 70s were only great for parts of the decade (Netzer, Bremner and Zico, for example), there isn’t that much competition for a spot as an attacking midfielder in this team.
From today’s perspective Rivelino’s game can look a bit antiquated, but there can be no doubt that he was a world class player in his time. An embodiement of what makes football the beautiful game and Brazil football’s premier country. (And that moustache…)
Here’s a task: Try to build a team that is as competitive as possible by using only one player and his clones for all ten outfield positions. Which player would you choose? Johan Cruyff is my choice. Does that mean that I think Cruyff is the best player of all time? No, it doesn’t. I did not choose him because he is the best player of all time, but because I think he is the most complete. Johan Cruyff truly was the total footballer.
Most descriptions of Cruyff are about his understanding of the game and we will come to that. But first I want to talk about his physique for a bit. I think Cruyff was as close to having the perfect body for playing football as any player in the history of the game. Obviously different positions ask for different body types but Cruyff’s physique was at the intersection of most of them. First of all he had pace. And I mean lots and lots of pace. He was easily among the fastest players of the decade. Then he was an extremely agile player. It was once said that he could have been a better dancer than Nurejew. That might be wrong but it gives you an idea about the level of agility we’re talking about. Have a look at some slow-motion recordings of Cruyff’s dribbling style. He shifts his weight in no time at all, his opponents have no chance to keep up with him. He has the agility of a player 10cm smaller than him. Usually pace and agility come at a price. Players that combine these traits lack strength. Not so Johan Cruyff. He was more than able to hold his own against bullish man-markers. Add to that a pretty good jump. Good enough to outjump players like Schwarzenbeck.
I can’t think of no other player who combines all these traits. Someone like Cristiano Ronaldo lacks the agility. Messi lacks height. To name just two examples. Maybe peak Pelé comes closest, although I think he wasn’t as agile as Cruyff.
Johan Cruyff was a football idealist. I think a lot of what made him great (and even some things that stop him from being the greatest) can be summarized this way. His game pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be possible on a football field. In some aspects he has not been bettered yet. He, just like the Ajax team he played in, strived for football utopia. Obviously, neither he nor his team reached it, but they produced some of the finest and most succesful football ever seen along the way.
His idealistic streak is most obvious in his decision making. Like every other truly great player Cruyff made mostly good decisions and you can’t do that without a healthy dose of realism, but among the greats Cruyff certainly made more idealistic decisions than most of them. Like Robert Kennedy, Cruyff, when confronted with a situation, seemed to ask himself “why not?” rather than “why?”. Try to dribble past 4 players and play two consecutive one-twos at breakneck speed – why not? Advance towards the ball instead of retreat from the ball when you have just lost possession – why not? Eschew traditional positions and simply play everywhere – why not?
Cruyff’s idealism, coupled with his physique and his excellent technique, made him one of the best players ever and a true revolutionary. But what made him great also stopped him from being the greatest, at least in my eyes. Given his potential, he could have been the best of the bunch. Better than Di Stefano, better than Pelé, better even than Messi. I think he is in fact better than none of them. He’s great, a great and among the greatest, but not the greatest and not close to being the greatest.
Idealism comes at a price. When you’re trying what others don’t dare to try, when you’re pushing the boundaries and enter uncharted territory, you’re bound to make mistakes. There were some games when every other pass from Cruyff went astray, when he gave the ball away time and time again, sometimes in very dangerous situations. When you watch a highlight video of his dribbling skills, you will see many great runs by the Dutchman. But there is really just one great solo goal by him on these videos and it comes very late in his career. Why not dribble past 4 players and play two consecutive one-twos at breakneck speed? Well, because there is usually a less risky, more rational way to play. Why not eschew traditional positions and simply play everywhere? Well, because it can create chaos not only for the opponent but for your own team, too.
It’s the old plight of the revolutionary, you’ll get lauded for your ideas but usually someone else will be more succesful because he or she takes some of your ideas and adds a bit of pragmatism to them. Take Messi, for example. His playing style shares some similarities with Cruyff’s and his Barcelona team is heavily influenced by the Dutchman, but he is a far more pragmatic and rational player. He, too, will occasionally dribble past four players but by and large he won’t overcomplicate things.
A second reason why Cruyff did not become the greatest: he wasn’t exactly a top professional. He clearly loved playing football but was not as ambitious and determined as, for example, Alfredo Di Stefano. His form was at times erratic and there were some sub-par seasons.
Deciding who should be player of the decade was really hard in this case. Beckenbauer and Cruyff were the obvious candidates. Both had a stellar first half of the decade and slowed down in the second, resulting in moves to the NASL. Very little separates them. Ultimately I think Cruyff was even more influentual for Ajax and the Dutch national team than Beckenbauer was for Bayern and Germany. He really was their mastermind, worth 3 normal players and at least half a manager. Beckenbauer himself said that Cruyff was the better player of them two and for this decade at least I tend to agree with him.
Johan Cruyff, the total footballer, but not the best player of all time.
p.s.: Here is the ultimate Cruyff video.
Der Bomber. The ultimate poacher. A paradigmatic case of a fox in the box-kind of striker. If you drop Müller’s name in a conversation with a historically interested football fan, you can be pretty sure to hear one of the aforementioned sentences.
That is hardly surprising. Müller, after all, was one of the most prolific goalscorers of all time. Post 1950 only very few players can rival his goalscoring prowess. Puskas, Di Stefano, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are in my opinion the only rivals to his throne. Others, like Pelé, Eusebio and Romario, rival his numbers, but reached them in a far less competitive context (regional leagues, second rate national leagues). Müller basically achieved a goals-per-game ratio of 1.0 in every competition he played in.
But, and I think this needs to be emphasized, Müller was much more than just a poacher. He often left his centre-forward position, dropping so deep into midfield that calling him a false nine doesn’t seem absurd. He wasn’t much of a dribbler but possessed a fine short passing game that enabled him to contribute to his team’s combination play. When Franz Beckenbauer made his forward runs, Müller was his favourite partner to play one-twos with.
Reducing Müller to being a poacher thus is plainly wrong. Calling him a false nine actually is closer to the truth.
But, of course, I can’t and don’t want to deny that receiving passes in the box and turning them into goals was Müller’s biggest strength. I have never seen a player who was so good at turning defenders and winning that half-yard of space needed to poke the ball into the net. The combination of his brilliant first touch, his astounding spatial awareness and his strong stocky body made him virtually uncontrollable for defenders.
Müller, as you will have guessed by now, receives top marks for quality of performance. His marks for quantity of performance are a bit worse since he slowed down towards the end of the decade, but are still very good because he was world class (or better) for significantly more than half the decade. One of the first players on the teamsheet.
Gerd Müller – football’s greatest opportunist. And more than that.
Blokhin was a prominent figure in world football from the early 70s to the late 80s. He only made the bench of my last team because I’ve seen very little of the older Blokhin and what I saw of the younger one lets me think that he hit his peak in the 70s, not the 80s.
The Ballon D’Or winner and three time Soviet footballer of the year was an archetypical wide forward. Blessed with staggering pace (Cruyff is the only player in this team who could keep up with him), he was the undisputed star attacker of a Kiev side that beat some of the best teams in Europe with their counter-attacking style. One of their finest hours was the 1975 Super Cup in Munich. Kiev produced a defensive masterclass performance reminiscent of today’s Atletico Madrid side. Since Bayern dominated possession, Blokhin saw little of the ball. But once he did get the ball, Bayern were incapable of stopping him. He scored one of the best goals of his career in that match.
When I think of modern players who are similar to Blokhin, Antoine Griezmann, Gareth Bale (the very young Bale, without the muscles) and Thierry Henry come to mind. Add to that mixture the young Ryan Giggs and you get an impression of what he was like. A very quick wide player with fine dribbling skills and a more than decent goal tally.
Blokhin was arguably the best outfield player ever to come from the Soviet Union. Most of the time he played on the left side, but he was capable of playing as a right winger as well, which is were I field him for this team.