Manager: Jürgen Klopp
Bench: ter Stegen, Courtois, Neuer; Robertson, Guerreiro, Gosens; Boateng, Ramos, T. Silva, Upamecano, Hummels, Kimpembe; Carvajal, Hateboer, Cuadrado; Verratti, Marquinhos, Fabinho; Thiago, Henderson, Goretzka; Müller, Dybala, P. Gomez; Neymar, Mane, Gnabry; Benzema, Immobile, Haaland; Ilicic, Mbappe, Sancho
Best Player of the Season: Robert Lewandowski
Best Team of the Season: FC Bayern München
Best Match of the Season: FC Liverpool – Manchester City 3-1, 10.11.2019
The selection is, as always, based on the two criteria quantity and quality of performance. The 2019-2020 Season is defined as starting with the final whistle of the 2019 Champions League final and ending with the final whistle of the 2020 Champions League final.
I don’t think we have seen any goalkeeper, at least among those on my radar, produce an absolute standout season. Until the match against Bayern, I had Marc-Andre ter Stegen down for a second consecutive year between the posts, but he was one of the players who had a nightmare in what was Barcelona’s most important match of the season. Hence I changed my mind.
Jan Oblak on the other hand has been one of the default candidates for my selection in recent years. This is the first time he makes the first eleven, but he secured a place on the bench for the last two seasons. If I should summarize Oblak’s strengths in the most concise way possible, I’d simply declare him the safest pair of hands in the game. He doesn’t have an immediately noticeable special skill like Ederson, ter Stegen (their build-up game), or de Gea (saving shots with his feet), but simply is a very solid keeper who scores high marks in all areas and ranks as perhaps the best in the world when it comes to reliablity and the basics of shot-stopping. It’s not like his 2019-20 was above the level he showed during the last couple of seasons, but in a year in which the competition wasn’t quite as strong, he wins the first team spot. For a particular fine game of his, see the return leg between Liverpool and Oblak’s Atletico.
Without a doubt the newcomer of the season. Davies is the first teenager to make the first eleven of a Team of the Season since… oh boy, this will be slightly embarassing, since Jack Wilshere in 2010-11. And yes, choosing Wilshere over Busquets back then was not correct. Since there are no other teenagers in any of the Teams of the Season I compiled since I started doing them in 2008-09, the Canadian left-back is the only teenager I ever chose and stand by the decision of choosing him. (Having said that, Mbappe won Player of the Tournament in 2018 when he was still 19.)
It would be wrong to claim that Davies is already the most well-rounded left-back around. He clearly isn’t. His positioning and decision making in defensive situation is frequently off, as was evident in the Champions League final. However, his speed acts as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, letting him correct his own mistakes. Said speed is also key to his attacking game. He is a fine dribbler with a good sense for gaps in the opponent’s defense, but his unbelievable acceleration and top speed is what turns him into the most spectacular attacking weapon of any defense in all of Europe.
Exhibit A for his attacking prowess comes from the Bundesliga match against Freiburg and shows his top pace, link-up game and a quality low cross. Exhibit B will surely survive long in the collective memory. One of the most iconic assists in recent Champions League history. What a dribbling run!
In closing I want to briefly mention Andrew Robertson. He won the spot last season and I still consider him the most complete elite left-back around. He has played another fine season and is only narrowly beaten by Davies because of the latter’s outstanding end-of-the-season run (bar the shaky Champions League final).
This was another one of those very close decisions. Thiago Silva, at 35 years of age, produced another season of unfussed, immaculate defending and is a candidate for the silver medal in the ‘didn’t set a foot wrong all season’ competition (after clear winner Virgil van Dijk). But in the end I came to the conclusion that Alaba performed ever so slightly better. This has to do with the fact that the French season was cut short while the German was not. This might seem unfair on Silva, but this blog tries to mirror the facts rather than rectify injustices. A player who is injured all season does not deserve his absence either, but he still wasn’t able to perform and hence should not feature here. Hence Thiago Silva’s lack of quantity of performance speaks against him.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about David Alaba. He played for most of the decade as a left-back (and midfielder for Austria) and, after a very strong start to his Bayern career, his form dropped a bit. He became a very good left-back but not quite enough, in my opinion, to challenge for a spot in the first eleven of these teams. In fact, this is the first time he is selected at all since 2015-16, when he made the bench. All of that changed when he became a centre back. Quite good player Alaba became a world class performer once again. To watch him at his best, have a look at the “Germanico” (I’m sorry) against Dortmund last December. Alaba and Lewandowski produce masterclass performances but on that night I think Alaba may have been even better than this year’s Player of the Season. His playmaking is on another level. The cross field balls from his position as a left-sided centre back to the right-sided winger in particular are a joy to watch. And he is completely in command of every defensive job the Dortmund attackers throw at him. His pace and agility are one of the main reasons why Bayern could go on to implement the high-pressing high-defensive-line approach that won them the treble.
Virgil van Dijk
Maybe not quite as good as he was last season, but by and large van Dijk managed to conserve his outstanding form. He is now the undisputed premier centre-back in the game. I fail to find any weaknesses in his game. He is smart, gifted, strong, fast, experienced, a threat at set-pieces, and a leader of men. Hummels’ passing game is still a bit better and Alaba is still a bit faster, but the boss of Liverpool’s defense is the most complete package. Plus I don’t think there is anyone at all who is better than him when it comes to doing the basics of defending. Had van Dijk reproduced his 2018-19 season, he would have won Player of the Season this time around. Minor weaknesses like for example the game against Salzburg back in October mean that I rate him a bit worse than last season and van Dijk ends up in the ‘has easily won his place but not a contender for player of the season category’. Still, the benchmark for modern centre-back game and one of the major reasons for Liverpool’s domestic triumph. The era of van Dijk continues.
Just like van Dijk, the still very young Englishman has conserved his outstanding form from last season and played another world class year. To see what makes him special, just consider the fact that he registered 15 assists this season. Alexander-Arnold has a strong claim to being the best crosser of the ball in today’s football. He has in recent times been compared to David Beckham in this regard and I think this comparison is quite apt. The crosses of both players have this guided-missile-like quality that make even the supposedly easy to defend crosses from far from the goalline a real threat. His diagonal balls, too, are excellent. I’m not sure I have ever seen a fullback play better long passes than Liverpool’s right-back. For a particular great example of his special skill, see the match against Tottenham in late October. There is a second very strong right-back around who could rival the Englishman for a place in this team – were it not for the fact that he only plays the position on a part-time basis. I speak of Joshua Kimmich. But since he is included in the team as a defensive midfielder, the case for Trent Alexander-Arnold is overwhelmingly strong.
One of the central building-blocks in a Real Madrid team that won the league title. Casemiro will never be the hipster’s favorite and this is not solely down to the football hipster. Yes, he is no second Busquets and never will be. Casemiro is a reliable destroyer in front of the defense who is perfectly capable to keep it neat and tidy when in possession but will never be the player who elevates his team’s possession game to new levels. Having said, it would be wrong to say that he can’t be a difference maker in attack. He decided two Liga matches with his goals this season, including a very important brace against eventual Europa League winners FC Sevilla. Casemiro is one of the players in this selection who are currently at the peak of their careers. The 28 year old Brazilian, who also helped his country win last year’s Copa America which counts as a part of this season, has made the bench of a Team of the Season twice and now narrowly makes the first eleven ahead of other contenders like Marquinhos and Fabinho. To watch him at his ball-winning, defense-screening best, I recommend Real’s highly impressive Champions League home game against PSG.
Kimmich is one of the great modern utility players. Equally adept at right-back and central midfield, and even capable of playing in central defense, he has everything the modern game calls for. Flawless basic technique, sound decision making, a quite pronounced ferocious streak, the physical ability to keep fighting for 90 minutes, and the ability to provide something special at times. His 17 assists are testament to his ability to do more than just keep the machine running. He is not quite as capable with the ball and as imaginative as Thiago Alcantara, and he doesn’t have the (new-found) physical ability of Leon Goretzka, and he is not as dependable as Lahm used to be, but… he gets quite close. To matching all of them. Kimmich is one of the players who I expect, major injuries aside, to feature in these selections on a pretty regular basis for the next 7-10 years. For a standout performance at right back, look no further than the freak match against Barcelona.
Kevin De Bruyne
The best midfielder around was finally able to play another season without major health problems. His previous peak was the 2017-18 season and most people claim that his 2019-20 surpasses it. His number have reached an all-time-high, 13 goals and 20 assists in the Premier League are very impressive, but my subjective impression is that he was even more on fire 2-3 years ago. Be that as it may, he is back to playing at a very high level and at a higher level than all other attacking midfielders (bar Messi and Neymar if you want to categorize them as such). The Belgian is a player capable of exquisite acts of genius but what I find most impressing about him is to play the kind of passes, make the kind of decisions that the opponent expects, but with such quality as to make the opponent’s awareness irrelevant. For example, one of his trademark passes is a low angled cross from the right wing. It is suspiciously close to a low version of what Germans call a ‘Halbfeldflanke’, a cross that is played not from near the goalline but further down the field. These kind of crosses are notorious because, while they do reliably transport the ball into a dangerous area, they are far less threatening than they seem at first. Defenders see them coming and can have an eye on potential recipients of the cross at the same time. Hence playing them is often wasteful. But if you play them low, hard, and curling the way De Bruyne plays them, they become very hard to defend. For me, De Bruyne is a genius system player insofar as his specialty is not so much creating something out of nothing (although he can do that as well), but refining collective moves through his superior vision and execution. He is a very modern great.
Pound for pound, or more appropriate: match for match, the best left-sided forward this season was Neymar. The quality of his performances would even make him a serious contender for Player of the Season. And had he scored in the Champions League quarter-final or semi-final and performed better in the final, he would have won the starting spot in this team. So yes, this was close. Really close. But at the end of the day I think the quality of his performances was not quite extraordinary enough to make up for the severe lack of quantity. You see, Neymar only played 27 matches all season. The player who did win this spot, Cristiano Ronaldo, played 46. That difference was ultimately too large to overcome.
I have written a lot about Cristiano Ronaldo over the years and there is little new I can add. He once again was a very consistent goalscorer with 37 goals for Juventus and a staggering career-high of 14 goals for Portugal (remember that everything after last year’s CL final counts as belonging to this season, including the Nations League). A good portion of his league goals came from the penalty spot, but hey, you have to score them as well. His physique is not quite what it was 5 years ago, but what is much more noteworthy is how close he still is to his physical peak at 35 years of age and 18 years of non-stop professional football. I got the impression, especially in the first half of the season, that Cristiano had become more integrated into his team’s overall possession game again. The match against Lazio in December is a good example. He is a bit more selfless than he used to be, and has improved his one-touch game, which doesn’t make him a worse player. Juventus’ Champions League campaign was rather disappointing but Ronaldo was their best player when they exited the tournament against Lyon. Cristiano may no longer be at his absolute best, but remains a world class performer.
His first human season since 2013-14, when he had injury problems. This seems to be the beginning of… well, not strictly of post-peak Messi because I consider 2014-15 Messi’s peak and thus everything that came after that was post-peak Messi. But it might be the beginning of ‘post-seemingly-neverending-plateau-of-greatness’ Messi. With some variations, and one exception in the form of the aforementioned 2013-14, Messi has played twelve years at a level above the world class category. This season this streak came to an end. Will he be back? Given his age this is not a given. However, Messi is still a very, very good player. On his better days, like the second leg against Napoli, he is still his old self and therefore a class apart. And over the whole season he can be categorized as a world class player. Now, Messi’s ‘world class’ is different to other people’s world class. Messi’s defensive work is way below world class (primarily because of its lack of quantity, the quality is still great, ask Koulibaly). And his better actions are still way above world class. He can still influence a game like nobody else. But his ability to do so against top class opponents seems diminished. This might have something to do with Barcelona’s sorry state, but still, the performances weren’t there or came too rarely. His decision making, too, seems more questionable than it used to be. Whether this, too, is down to the fact that he is now solely responsible for creating any meaningful attacking effort is an interesting question. It would be fascinating to see this older Messi play in a quality team once again. Now, this was a lot of doom and gloom. Let me close with some numbers as an antidote: 33 league matches, 25 goals, 21 assists. Never mind anything I’ve said, this is still mightily special.
The first player of the season not to play for FC Barcelona. The Polish striker has crowned his career with his best season yet. 34 goals in 31 Bundesliga matches are an impressive benchmark. A benchmark that only gets more impressive when you consider that only 5 of those goals came from the penalty spot. There can be no doubt that Robert Lewandowski was the best goalscorer around this season. But one of the things that made his season so strong was that his game has become less goal-centric than it used to be. Lewandowski was never just a single-minded goal machine, but as his career progressed he came ever closer to being the complete centre forward. Well, let’s say the complete modern orthodox tall centre forward. Lewandowski will never be the kind of dribbling centre forward like Ronaldo Fenomeno or Mbappe. And he will never be a true playmaker upfront like Leo Messi. But within the tall and powerful centre forward role he has completed his game. He is now one of the hardest working strikers around and somebody who can play really well even if he doesn’t score. He is not just the final stage of his team’s attacking exploits but a fundamental part of their possession game.
The season of Bayern’s No. 9 contained a good handful of truly outstanding performances at the highest level. Among them are his performance against Spurs back in October, the Bundesliga match against Dortmund in November, and both legs of the tie against Chelsea. Watch those matches and you will see the current benchmark for playing as a centre-forward in world football.
I don’t think any player produced a season that stands above the world class category in 2019-20. Robert Lewandowski produced the kind of year a top class striker will produce when he is at his very best. But to say that Lewandowski has reached the level that Messi or Ronaldo played at during their respective peaks would be too much. He simply isn’t that special; his performance level is extremely high, yet still human. For historical comparisons to Lewandowski’s 2019-20, I’d suggest looking up the best seasons of players like Rooney, Raul, van Nistelrooy or Batistuta. I think these players performed at a similar level. At the upper end of the world class category, but not above.