Manager: Erik ten Hag
Bench: Oblak, Ederson, Alisson; Alba, A. Sandro, Laporte; Koulibaly, Chiellini, Marquinhos; Lenglet, Skriniar, Vertonghen; Kimmich, J. Cancelo, Walker; Thiago, Fabinho, Busquets; Milner, de Jong, Gündogan; D. Silva, Reus, Neymar; Mané, Son, Tadic; C. Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Mbappé; Sterling, Ziyech, Salah
Best Player: Lionel Messi
Best Team: Manchester City
Best Match: Ajax Amsterdam – Real Madrid 1-2
Marc-André ter Stegen
Leaving ter Stegen on the bench was probably the hardest omission in the 17-18 Team of the Season. He was already great last season but de Gea just edged him out. This season things look a bit different. De Gea, for one, played much worse, emulating his World Cup rather than last season (especially during the final months of the season). And ter Stegen – well, it might even be true that his 18-19 was just a little bit worse than his 17-18. This may sound pretty negative but it is not meant that way: ter Stegen’s 17-18 was breathtakingly good and if his 18-19 is almost as good it must be brilliant as well.
And it was. Ter Stegen remains at the very frontier of what it means to be a modern goalkeeper while being well-rounded, showing virtually no weaknesses. People (me among them) usually spent most of their time talking about ter Stegen’s contribution in the build-up game when praising him. This time I want to emphasize some of his more conventional virtues: ter Stegen is excellent both in 1-on-1 duels and routinely pulls off fine saves. His timing and composure enable him to do the former. His agility is a key factor for the latter. This, I think, is where the fact that he is not the tallest goalkeeper around actually comes in handy. His smaller frame may keep him from blocking half the goal without having to move, but helps him to move faster. When taller and heavier players are still busy shifting their weight, ter Stegen is already diving down. From what I’ve seen, there is hardly a keeper more comfortable with saving low shots heading for the bottom corners of the goal.
Grit, speed, tenacity, competitiveness, stamina, reliability – Andrew Robertson. The meteoric rise of the Scottish international (first ever to feature in a first eleven) continues. For long stretches of the season I saw him play at roughly the same level as Barcelona’s Jordi Alba. However, the latter’s form collapsed during the final stretch of the season, while Robertson kept his level.
Based on the attributes I used to begin this profile, you’d think that Robertson was a primarily defensive full-back. And indeed, I rate his defensive qualities highly. But he is also a player who recorded 11 assists this Premier League season. How does a fullback get that many assists? Usually, it is by crossing the ball to an imposing centre forward who heads it into the goal. But Liverpool usually plays without such a forward. Robertson registers that many assists, first, by doing overlapping runs and doing cutbacks or low and fast crosses across the goal and, second, well… by crossing to forwards who aren’t even that strong in the air. The first kind of assist showcases his unbelievable workrate (you have to run a lot to get that high up the field that often). The second kind of assist underlines just how good a crosser of the ball Robertson is.
The league match against Manchester United was one in which Robertson impressed me in particular.
Virgil van Dijk
The second man on the team sheet behind Messi. The Dutch centre back produced one of – if not the best season by any central defender I have seen since beginning to watch football in earnest (if you want to call it that) in 2008-09. Last season Liverpool had many fine players and one stand-out perfomer. That was Mo Salah. This season Liverpool had many fine players and one stand-out performer. That was Virgil van Dijk. He bears a great deal of responsibility for the finest Liverpool season in living memory.
What makes van Dijk such an amazing player is how he defends. This may sound as a logical truth for any very good defender, but in the modern game defenders have to fulfill so many tasks that you can be a very good centre back without doing the basics of defending better than, say, well. But van Dijk is the ultimate defensive wall. Tall, brutally strong, quick, with a turn of pace of someone 10 kilogramms lighter than him, a controlled yet forceful agression AND the complete cerebral package: positioning, timing, decision making. Koulibaly managed to offer a similarly complete performance last season, but van Dijk does it even better and more controlled. Van Dijk this season was as good as people claim Varane was during some of the last seasons (whom I always rated a bit worse (great player, though)).
Van Dijk’s possession play is at a world class level as well. Just not as great as his work without the ball.
To experience him at his best, watch the fantastic duel of centre backs that was Liverpool – Napoli back in December.
Let us hope van Dijk stays fit and remains at the current level. He may be a bit old to become a true historic great, but I have no doubt that his 2018-19, at the very least, borders on the ‘historic class’ category.
Pique is basically the only player from the Barcelona generation that came to prominence in the late 00s that I don’t rate as highly as most people do. Sure, I always saw his strengths, but other CBs struck me as more reliable. In some of Barcelona’s best years, Pique played really well as well, but when things went south so did his form.
2018-19 might just be the first season in which Barcelona didn’t play that well but Pique did. Without Umtiti, who was brilliant last season, he stepped his game up a notch and finally became the undisputed leader of the Barca back four. That he managed to impress that much is particularly telling because he often had to deal with attackers running at him – a result of the ageing midfield. Tested time and time again, he proved solid throughout (but even more so in the second half of the season). Not as good as van Dijk but for me Pique was the best of the “regular” world class centre backs this season (something similar, albeit in another position, applies to Henderson).
Barcelona’s away game against Manchester United showed Pique at his best.
What an interesting player! When I see Robertson, I see a player in the typical current mold of elite fullbacks: someone who likely played as a winger earlier on, but was transformed into a defensive player because of their defensive skills (and relative lack of offensive skills…). Then there is the Lahm-sub-mold: central midfielders at heart, playing as fullbacks. Alexander-Arnold doesn’t quite fit either one. He strikes me as a No. 10 with plenty of defensive skills and athleticism. (Only fitting that he takes corners and even free kicks.) This is quite rare. In a way he most closely resembles the Brazilian Marcelo. The latter resembles an old school Brazilian No. 10 while Alexander-Arnold is closer to a more modern version a la Kaka.
I already mentioned Kimmich. In my book he is Alexander-Arnold’s greatest rival for the title of ‘best young right back in world football’. Both registered an impressive number of assists this season, but in the end Alexander-Arnold profited from the opportunity to perform well in some additional high-stakes European ties: which he duly did.
I hope he stays on his current path. The right-back position often was the hardest to fill in recent years and players like Alexander-Arnold and Kimmich finally make my choices, well, not easier, but more enjoyable.
Alexander-Arnold was one of the players who performed really well in Liverpool’s own remuntada for the ages. (He took THAT corner…)
As Busquets’ (super-)powers fade, they say the next in line of great Spanish holding midfielders is already coming up. Atletico’s Rodri is who is meant by that. And while Rodri is a fine player indeed (he narrowly misses the bench), the statement is a bit misleading. The future (for 1-3 years at least) of the pivote is already here. It’s name is Dani Parejo.
Valencia’s No.10 (he dropped deeper and deeper in recent years) produced an outstanding Busquets-imitation-act for… well, most of the season, while adding his own twist to it. Parejo started slowly into the season, but from Christmas on I saw him as the best defensive midfielder around. The “Busquets-imitation-act” part already implies that Parejo has a fantastic tactical awareness, flawless basic technique and outstanding decision making (right things almost all the time, genius things in between). What he adds is an eye for the final ball and the ability to slot home the occasional penalty.
At 30 his remaining time at the top is limited, but if he plays like he did in 2019 so far, he could strengthen basically any top team in the world.
To see him at his best, pick any match against Barcelona or Madrid from the second half of the season.
Liverpool’s captain belonged to the wider circle of high quality players who stand a chance of making one of these teams for half a decade now. He never impressed me enough to make it to the first eleven or to the bench (which might have been unfair on my part), but he was rarely far off. This season two things changed. First, he further improved his game and managed to impress both in routine league fixtures and on big European nights. And second, the fight for a spot in the midfield grew a little less competitive than in the years before. The combination of both made me pick him out of a group of midfielders with a similarly strong season behind them.
Henderson is one of the best modern midfield alrounders. A player who is equally adept at dictating the rhythm of the game from a deep position as he is marauding through both half spaces near the opponent’s box. He doesn’t score or assist much, but is still arguably the most important element in Liverpool’s midfield machinery. It is in Klopp’s pressing scheme in which he shows his best qualities.
He will never be one of the greats, but this season he was the best of the “regular” world class midfielders in my book.
For a performance that showcases his qualities at their best, watch the CL group-stage match against PSG.
Talent-wise Neymar is by far the best left winger on the planet (who, like Hazard, also likes to drift to the No. 10 position). However, the Brazilian still hasn’t reached his full potential. Hazard, on the other hand, has. And the performances he has produced doing so make him the finest left-sided attacking player in the world today.
Hazard, like Bernardo Silva on the other wing, isn’t as quick as players like Neymar or Mbappé (although he is far from slow either). He is a complete modern forward. In transition situations, he can keep up with the counter attack. And in static possession situations, he can create opportunities by either dribbling and passing in tight spaces. 16 league goals and 15 league assists showcase his mature, well-rounded game. In a way, his playing style is that of a mortal Messi. This should be compliment enough.
One particular match in which he impressed me came early in the season. He entered the league match against Arsenal as a substitute and you immediately saw how the Belgian played on a different level than anybody else. Quite a feat given the amount of talent already on the field.
One of the most often-heard sentiments after Barcelona’s shock semi-final return leg was: “Such a shame. Messi would have really earned the Champions League title.” Not “the team would have earned it” or “the club would have earned it” mind you, but “Messi would have”. That really says all you need to know.
Messi once again transformed a mediocre Barcelona team into a contender for the title of ‘Best Team of the Season’. He did basically all a team does in the final third (and a good part of the second third) by himself. He was once again the best striker, winger and attacking midfielder in the world at the same time. Players like Agüero, Cristiano Ronaldo, Hazard, Bernardo Silva, Sterling, and (if fit) Kevin De Bruyne can claim to rival him for one of these titles respectively, but once again no one came close to rival him for all three. In short: the man I think is the best player of all time produced another season that strengthens his claim to GOAT status.
Messi became Barcelona’s captain this season and that, arguably, impacted his game somewhat. He played like someone who felt the responsibility of carrying Barcelona. In critical moments he demanded the ball even more vehemently than before and tried to force the game changing moment more than before. Had he not been injured for a month early in the season and had not Barcelona wrapped up the La Liga title early, his numbers might have been even more impressive as they are anyway.
The best player of the season by some distance. The only question is how long he will be able to keep this up. And maybe whether Barcelona can manage to build another strong team around him.
Manchester City had a big problem this season. They have many world class players but only one, who in my book even transcends this category: Kevin De Bruyne. He is their game changer. And he was injured for most of the season. That City nevertheless managed to fight a gruesome duel for the title with Liverpool to the end and come out on top is testament to several things: the quality of their manager, the quality of the overall (super expensive) squad, and, last but not least, the quality of Bernardo Silva.
After playing a good 17-18, Silva now entered the world elite for good. In the first half of the season he did so primarily as an attacking midfielder. Later on, he did so with equal aplomb as a right winger. Silva is an intelligent dribbler and passer who has also got an eye for goal. He is not the strongest or the quickest but an expert for tight spaces and near impossible angles.
As a winger I rate Sterling slightly over Silva. But since I wanted to field at least three players who played as proper midfielders this season (which Silva did and Sterling didn’t), the overall team dynamic made me choose Silva. He plays around Messi. When Messi occupies the wing, Silva acts as a No. 10. And when Messi is the No.10, Silva plays as a winger.
Central striker, as it often is, was the hardest to fill spot on the team sheet. Not for a lack of quality players, but because there were so many of them. Cristiano Ronaldo in particular is the 12th man of this team and is unlucky to miss out. But in the end, Agüero performed just a bit better in my book. In the relentless Premier League title race, he was one of Manchester City’s most reliable performers. This is the first time he ever makes the first eleven of any of my teams. Now, that is not why I choose him, but it is about time he features in one of my teams because he was one of the most consistent strikers of the decade.
I remember that when I first came aware of him ten years ago, I was thinking that he was some kind of Messi-style player (only a bit worse). I think this impression can still be found, at least in German football media. The truth is very different. Agüero is primarily a fantastic penalty box striker. To call him today’s Gerd Müller or today’s Romario isn’t far off (style-wise, that is). Now, as a Guardiola-player he doesn’t just wait near the penalty spot to convert chances but takes part in his team’s overall possession game as well but it remains true that he is first and foremost an artist of taking one milisecond less, one touch less, anticipating one awkward bounce first; short: of scoring goals from inside the penalty box.
Kun Agüero produced one of the striker’s performances that impressed me the most this season. His performance against Liverpool is at the same level as the best of Müller’s matches.