Manager: Zinedine Zidane
Bench: Buffon, Courtois, Donnarumma; A. Sandro, Azpilicueta, Rose; Ramos, Umtiti, Chiellini; Martinez, D. Luiz, Varane; Lahm, Walker, D. Alves; Busquets, M. Dembélé, Casemiro; Kroos, N. Keita, Hamsik; B. Silva, Alli, Isco; Hazard, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez; Benzema, Suarez, Aubameyang; Robben, O. Dembélé, Mbappe
Best Player: Lionel Messi
Best Team: Real Madrid
Best Match: Real Madrid – Bayern Munich 4-2 a.e.t., 18.04.2017
The selection is based on the two criteria quantity and quality of performance. I want to thank my guest authors: the two Tobis, Tobi and Tobias Günther from miasanrot, and the two Daniels, Daniel from Eiserne Ketten and Daniel. As always, my blogposts have greatly profited from your contributions!
Picking a goalkeeper was quite hard this time. Neuer is without a doubt the keeper with the highest potential but there is a bit of a worry that he had it just a bit too comfortable at Bayern. How do you rate a keeper who probably would have saved a lot of shots but actually didn’t have to? Of course, there is some hyperbole involved in even asking that question. Neuer did contribute a lot, not just in theory but also in practice. First of all, he actually had to save quite a few shots during the first half of the season when Ancelotti’s Bayern didn’t look as assured as they did later on (before they shot themselves in the foot against Real Madrid). Secondly, Neuer, as we all know by now, does more than just save shots. He is also essential for Bayern’s possession play.
What finally convinced me to field him, were two matches in particular. I’m talking about the quarter finals versus Real Madrid. Bayern’s biggest test this season and the one they ultimately failed (despite dominating Real for long spells when they played with eleven men). He performed brilliantly in the first leg and very well in the second. When his team really needed him, he yet again showed the world why he is one his way to maybe become the best keeper ever once his career has finished. The first leg performance was probably the best I’ve seen from any goalkeeper this season.
All things considered, I don’t think any other goalkeeper was ahead of him. But please feel free to point to tell me why I should have fielded a different player instead.
Marcelo is small, and bustling. While that would generally be an intriguing description for a full back, a few years ago the exuberance of his play, the overflowing energy of his compact body made people think of him as unfocused, a bit random in his actions.
That changed as he went through the prime of his career. The three out of four Champions Leagues Real have just won may come to be known as the Ronaldo era, but they are probably more to do with them having absolute world class players in central midfield and throughout defense.
Marcelo is that, as he now pairs his energetic play with being one of the better playmaking full-backs in world football and with great decision making and situational awareness. With those qualities, Marcelo contributes to the way Madrid can dominate (phases of) games like the Champions league final against Juve or the first leg against Bayern by recovering cleared balls and quickly putting attacking pressure back on the opponent. Marcelo is one of the factors that ensure Madrid get enough moments to make their individual brilliance pay (something he is also often involved in).
Playing on (all of) Madrids left side, Marcelo has plenty of space to move into in attack as Ronaldo takes up scoring positions. Because, especially when Isco wasn’t playing, Real at times had few players to move and play in the attacking half spaces, that role also oftentimes fell to Marcelo. Because the 29 year old has physical and technical attributes of absolute world class level, he is devastatingly effective in those situations.
It could have been worse. It could have been much worse. When Mats Hummels returned to his home club Bayern Munich at the start of the 2016/17 season, he was sitting between two chairs. At Dortmund many felt disappointed or even betrayed by his decision, since Hummels himself had shown little understanding for the transfers of his team mates in the years before, and he had given the impression, that only a change abroad could stand in the way of ending his career in Dortmund. In Munich the champagne corks didn’t really pop either when his return became known. 35 million Euros are still a lot of money for a player of his age, even in Munich and especially when spent on a position where many Bayernfans saw no need for improvement at all. Jerome Boateng had just been selected as Germany’s Footballer of the Year, with Javi Martinez and Holger Badstuber two long-standing defenders and fan-favourites seemed to have finally overcome their injury problems and David Alaba as well as Joshua Kimmich had proved under Guardiola to be more than just useful replacements in central defense. In addition to that, during all these years at Dortmund Mats Hummels had represented an “enemy” so convincingly that his transfer didn’t really feel like the return of a lost son.
How Hummels managed to silence the critics in a very short time is a textbook example. He didn’t allow journalists to drag him into a pointless debate about who’s being the boss in the Bayern defense, nor did he seek to win the sympathy of the Bavarians in a cheap way by ostentatious badge-tapping or with cheeky teasings against Dortmund. He just did his job with such self-assurance and in such an unagitated way that he quickly became a fixed point within the team. He was involuntarily supported by the fluttering inconsistency of Boateng’s performances in the first half of the season, which contrasted with the deliberate clarity of Hummels actions. His performances throughout 2016 may not have been spectacular, but he radiated security.
In the World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in October (3: 0), the public could catch a first glimpse of how it is to have two world-class centre backs with outstanding skills in build-up play. With precise diagonal balls, at times breathtaking throughballs and a rarely seen sovereignty when outplaying the Czech pressing attempts, Hummels and Boateng took the opponent apart and dominated – as centre backs – the entire pitch. That the duo didn’t manage to deliver a similar performance for their club, was in part due to the fact that Boateng got injured in late autumn and thus Hummels had to form the defensive couple with Javi Martinez. In this combination, too, Hummel’s role resembled at times a sweeper, who predominantly operated from a deep-lying position. The much more aggressive Javi Martinez had the more spectacular actions in the first 2/3 of the season and was the more striking player, while Hummels played solidly in this phase, but didn’t really shine.
The fact that he still deserves the team of the year is mainly due to his outstanding achievements during the decisive games in spring, when he delivered a series of stellar performances, often topped by heroic rescues like his mega-tackling against Frankfurts Hrgota in March. Ironically, his best games came after he had hurt himself at the ankle and, according to his own information, wasn’t able to make a sprint at all. In both of his best performances – the return game in Madrid and the Cup semi-final against Dortmund –Hummels was dependent on routine and positioning in order to avoid sprinting against „slowpokes“ like Cristiano Ronaldo or Aubameyang. How seemingly effortless he mastered this, becomes apparent when you compare Bayerns defensive organisation in these duells with and without him on the pitch. The extent to which his absence affected the Bavarians is large. In the first leg against Real, that Hummels missed due to injury, Bayern completely lost any order after being reduced to ten. Something that repeated itself, when Hummels had to be substituted in the Cup semi-final against Dortmund (2: 3), where he left the field at the score of 2: 1, having himself scored the goal for the lead.
It is not that far-fetched to say that Bayern Munich with a perfectly fit Hummels during the decisive stage of the season wouldn’t have had to drop out of Champions League and Cup, in any event his absence was a heavy blow. And considering the question marks at the beginning of the season, whether Bayern would need someone like Hummels at all, that alone is already quite a remarkable award for a defensive player.
Juventus Turin clearly boasted the best defensive unit this season… until the Champions League final that is. If one had to pick one of their defenders as the MVP of that group of players, my choice would be Leonardo Bonucci.
For a description of his characteristics as a player and why he is so good, you can just check out my last two Teams of the Season. This is the third time in a row that Bonucci makes the first eleven. No mean feat.
Bonucci is, in my opinion, the most complete centre back in the game today. He possesses all the classical skills you expect of an Italian elite defender, his physique is the right mixture between strength and agility, and he is really strong in the build-up game. I’m not sure he really is the best in the world in any of these categories but I don’t think there is a central defender who combines these traits as well as he does.
From what I’ve seen, Bonucci played on a constantly high level for the whole season. His Champions League final wasn’t that good, but then again this applies to the whole Juventus team.
A quick note on Sergio Ramos: He was instrumental in securing Real Madrid’s first double in 59 years. Especially his late headers saved Real on more than one occasion. He is also a strong defender in a very classical sense, with very good marking skills. However, his weaker build-up game, his sometimes questinable positioning and the fact that you still can’t be really sure that he won’t try to massacre one of his opponents result in him being benched.
For the last decade or so, picking a right-back was a pretty straightforward choice. Most of the time, Lahm was an automatic starter. And in those rare instances when he wasn’t, players like Dani Alves and Javier Zanetti were a sure bet to take the place instead. So this team is the first in quite a while in which an entirely new face can be seen on the right side of defence. That face belongs to Dani Carvajal.
Well, he not an unknown player for some time, I have to add. He was the first substitute right-back for the last two Teams of the Season. On both occasions, he was narrowly edged out by Philipp Lahm. This time, he just makes the cut. Lahm, in the last year of his career, was still playing at a very high level – but so is Carvajal. In the end, I could have chosen either one. It was my impression that Carvajal shone just a bit more in some of the biggest games this season and therefore I chose him.
In contrast to Lahm, Carvajal is a bit closer to your “average” world class right-back. He is not as playmaking and intelligent, but physically stronger, more dynamic, faster and more aggressive than Lahm. He is also a very good footballer, though. He possesses a good first touch, close control and is a strong dribbler (no Marcelo, though). His attacking contributions are numerous but, yet again, not as exceptional as those of Lahm and Marcelo. If you want to watch Carvajal at his best, take a look at my Match of the Season.
Last season Kanté sat on the bench of my Team of the Season. He had no chance to make the first team because Busquets, whom I rate very highly, blocked the defensive midfield spot. I even named him Player of the Season.
This season, things look a bit different. Busquets had a sub-par year and Kanté has continued his rise to superstardom. Well, to “defensive midfielder superstardom” which really isn’t superstardom at all… but I digress.
Whenever I watch Kanté play, I can’t help but to think of a Swiss Army knife. He’s useful, compact, multifunctional and has these short snapping movements. He is a very fine defensive midfielder when it comes to shielding the defense. He wins a lot of balls, is tenacious, has a good feeling for the space around him, and his low centre of gravity enables him to operate close to his opponents without too much of a risk of getting unbalanced by their movements. The comparisons to Claude Makélélé are, generally speaking, well warranted.
While basically nobody doubts his defensive credentials, their have been a few voices questioning his work with the ball. He isn’t very intelligent, they say. He just plays the short unimaginative pass to his next teammate. I don’t think that is true. Have a look at the (high quality) friendly between France and Spain in March 2017. This was the first time Kanté has ever faced Sergio Busquets in a direct duel. At the end of the match it was obvious that Busquets possesses a certain brilliance that Kanté lacks. Potentially, he is the better player. But statements that Kanté had been “found out” were wide off the mark. In fact Kanté played well and proved that he is not just a ball winner. His passing was, as usual, constructive and intelligent. I have no doubt that Kanté could perform very well in a possession oriented team like Guardiola’s Manchester City or at Bayern.
From what I’ve seen (and heard) Kanté performed well – if not better than that. I don’t think any other defensive midfielder has matched his consistency this season while performing at about the same level. For a particular highlight, watch him in this league match versus Manchester United.
When the entire flow and rhythm of a top team are controlled by a single player, it’s either a good or a bad sign. For Bayern in 2016-17, it was both. While the more individualism-based approach of Ancelotti took away a large chunk of the Guardiola-led cohesion, it turned into a big opportunity for certain players to step up and gain influence. Nobody did that better than Thiago Alcantara.
Thiago’s technical abilities were obvious from the very beginning when he left Barca to join Bayern in 2013. He instantly turned into the team’s most creative midfielder, the jazz to Toni Kroos’ clockwork. So why didn’t he live up to his potential throughout his first three campaigns in Germany? Simply put, injuries. Thiago missed almost half of the team’s matches under Guardiola – especially the first two years included several long breaks. The bad luck finally seems to have left his body.
What type of player is Thiago? Imagine La Masia producing a midfielder for the modern game and you have it. His strengths are no surprise and almost stereotypical of a (now former) Guardiola player – creativity, vision, passing. Twenty years ago, the Spanish international would’ve been a quintessential number ten. These days, he’s much more than that – as proven this season.
What made Thiago’s 2016-17 a special campaign wasn’t him showcasing his strengths but proving how complete he has become. Whatever his role in central midfield is, he delivers. He’s replaced Thomas Müller as well as he’s replaced Xabi Alonso. This is made possible by his defensive abilities. Whether it’s intercepting an opponent’s pass or winning a tackle, Thiago did (and will continue to do) so on a high level. He’s not the world’s best defensive anchor but it’s far from a liability, instead turning more and more into an asset – after all, he led the Bundesliga in interceptions. Not bad for a creative playmaker.
It is a pity that Thiago’s form went down a bit just in time for the big clashes against Real Madrid. Because of that, he wasn’t capable of showing the world what he has turned into: one of football’s most complete midfielders. Here’s hoping that he stays fit and this is only the beginning of his peak.
Luka Modric by Daniel
When I reflected upon the question who was most impressive in midfield for the first during the first half of the season, the thought of including Modric seemed almost unfathomable. While he is certainly one of modern football’s most prolific midfielders (hence him being a staple in these teams), I couldn’t shake the feeling that some of Real Madrid’s struggles were in part because of Modric’s inconsistent performances.
Sure, there were still some great games. Like in the first Clásico of the season when he shined defensively with vital interceptions. But the thought couldn’t escape me that, being aged 31, Modric’s career might just be in decline.
Boy, was I wrong. Just in time for Bayern Munich, he overcame all of the problems he might have had and dominated the game with quick dribblings and passes on a level he has rarely done before.
Kroos and Modric are two sides of the same coin. They depend on each other, yet only Modric makes this team because while the German performed consistently well, his Croatian partner was arguably man of the match in every single Champions League game on Real’s road to Cardiff ever since the quarter-finals.
For most of the season Cristiano Ronaldo did not feature in my plans for this team. I was even thinking about him not even making the bench. Then he started scoring for fun in the latter stages of the Champions League and here we are again. Cristiano takes his usual spot on the left wing, just like he did so many times before (although his on the ball actions happen mostly in the centre-forward position).
This season has, from what I’ve heard and read, marked the point when wider circles, including parts of the Real Madrid fanbase, noticed that Ronaldo really isn’t as complete as some pundits still think he is. In fact he is quite the opposite. Ronaldo is, and has been for some time, a single-minded goal machine. That sounds a bit mean but it isn’t meant as criticism. Because he is just brilliant at what he does. When I think of him nowadays, my mental image is him jumping to meet a header, perfect timing and with almost unstoppable force. (Okay, there is another mental image of him in my head as well.)
As a goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the all-time greats. Those hundreds of goals didn’t just happen to him, they are a result of his outstanding qualities. Sure, he’s played in strong teams and he is a player who in fact needs that support, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s had a splendid career and performed at a really high level. He dropped well below his usual level for some spells this season but his return to form in the new year was eventually enough to earn him a spot in front of players like Hazard, who is in fact much more complete, and Neymar, whose almost endless potential was on show only infrequently this season.
The arrows that go from Ronaldo’s dot in the lineup are really important this time. Nowadays, he may still start games as a left winger and will occupy that spot when he isn’t on the ball, but only to start runs into the centre forward position. 2016-17 was the season in which his transformation into a true centre forward further accelerated.
Just like last season there have been a couple of strikers who managed to produce a world class season. For me, Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, Karim Benzema and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fall into that category. Some others like Harry Kane and Edinson Cavani I struggle to properly judge. For now, I see their performance level as being slightly below the other four.
Benzema is surely the odd one out in that group because he scored far fewer goals than the rest of them. This is partly down to the fact that he isn’t as good a finisher as the other candidates, but has a lot to do with his role in the Real Madrid set-up as well. Unlike the other ones, he isn’t his teams main goalscorer. That would be Cristiano Ronaldo. Benzema open up space for him and acts more as a creative player. As he did in his finest moment this season against Atletico Madrid.
Ultimately though, Benzema scored too few goals to make a solid claim for a place in the first eleven. This doesn’t apply to Suarez and Aubameyang who both scored plenty. While Suarez has the ultimate striker’s mindset and is almost unstoppable on one of his best days and Aubameyang is a devastating weapon in transition moments, I think Lewandowski is the most complete centre forward we have in world football today. He has the physique, he has the technique, he has the instinct, he has the coolness. He’s also a rather creative forward, second only to Benzema on this list.
It’s a shame he wasn’t fully fit when Bayern took on Real Madrid, but by and large he was a model of world class consistency this season and therefore makes the team.
… is still Lionel Messi. Basically, that is all you need to know. But while I’m at it, I can elaborate a bit. 2016-17 was in my opinion not one of Messi’s 3-4 best seasons but still belongs to the plateau of excellence that he ascended in 2008 and hasn’t left since. In particular, I rate Messi’s current season as worse than his 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2014-15 seasons, roughly on par with his 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons and superior to his 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons.
Yet again, Lionel Messi is the leading candidate for the title of “best playmaker“, “best dribbler” and “best goalscorer“. No other player in world football can claim to be a strong contender for more than one of those awards.
Two signs of a slow decline were noticable this season: firstly, Messi has lost a bit of pace and acceleration. Which was to be expected as he turns 30 later this year. Secondly, I saw 2-3 performances from Messi this season that were not only sub-par by his standards but by absolute standards as well. Take the match against Eibar on the last matchday of the La Liga season. Messi sees plenty of the ball but makes a lot of bad decisions, some technical mistakes and generally struggles to find into the game… until he scores a wondergoal. But still! Usually sub-par Messi games are characterized by him not receiving the ball. He doesn’t shine when teams manage to shut him out. As long as he is able to participate, he will do so brilliantly. That’s his cheat-code-like quality. This season, there were some games when he struggled even while he participated. This is entirely human and therefore new for him.
But apart from these few matches, he was once again the man to carry his team. “Messidependencia” was once again a big thing in Barcelona (and Argentina, of course). The team never really found its step going forward, but he transformed them into a force to be reckoned with. He did so mostly from the No.10 position, playing more centrally than during the last two seasons while still sometimes starting from the right wing.
Naming him player of the season was no hard choice. As long as he stays at his usual level and Busquets doesn’t have one of his freak years while Messi simultaneously has one of his weaker ones, I don’t see who could rival him. Age will slow him down eventually but until then he will keep his crown. Messi continues to build his case for being the best ever.