This is the 5th in a series of 6 articles about the 60 greatest players in the world with this one looking at those most undefinable of roles – the attacking midfielder and the winger. Gone are the days when flying wingers and box-to-box central midfielders are the order of the day in a 4-4-2 formation universally used. A modern day attacking midfielder has to be so much more than your old school south american ‘no.10’ and now incorporates many more types of players into the one label. Meanwhile for wingers, the trend seems to be to play them on the side of their weak foot cutting in (i.e. Robben, Ribery, Ronaldo), especially in Europe and technical skill is just as important as pace and power, although being quick is still extremely helpful (i.e. Arjen Robben and Gareth Bale). So, there is much to consider, especially when I have so crudely lumped the two roles into one rather unsatisfactory list, due to the grey areas that so many of these players fall into. All of which makes this another list difficult to select and I am sure you will wish to voice your opinions so please do so in the comments below and I hope you enjoy reading!
- Oscar – Favoured by Mourinho as Chelsea’s no.10 ahead of two time Player of the Year Juan Mata, as well as seeing off others such as Andre Schurrle and Mo Salah, Oscar has adapted to life at Stamford Bridge as well as any young Brazilian can be expected to. Slight in figure, but deceptively strong and determined, he often sees thing that others don’t and can play a defence splitting pass without even breaking sweat. Also now the leading creative midfielder for Brazil in a team backed full of hard-working and strong defenders and individualistic attackers full of flare, Oscar now has to carry out the duties once done by Ronaldinho, Kaka, Juninho and Robinho all in one team. He seems undaunted by either task and also popped up with 11 goals for Chelsea this season; a good number for a midfielder. Still only 22, he will only improve and he appears to be flourishing under the more important role given to him by Jose Mourinho.
- Mario Götze – There’s not many things a 22 year-old football-mad boy would want more than to have been Mario Gotze at about 6:30pm in the Maracana on the 13th July. At such a young age, his career seems to have already reached it’s pinnacle with a stunning extra-time winner in the World Cup final for Germany – how can it possibly get any better for young Götze? Well, the answer is, it can, a lot better. A fantastically agile player, who possesses terrific technical ability, vision, creativity and an eye for goal, playing for the best club and national team in the world and under the best manager in the world in Pep Guardiola the only way is up for this young star. Hugely well-thought of by all who play with and coach him, he just needs to add consistency and determination to his game and he will soon affirm his place as creator-in-chief for Bayern and Germany. He may never top that moment in Rio, but he can still see to the small matter of becoming the best midfielder in the world and no.1 on this list.
- Ángel Di Maria – Not as eye catching as some of his superstar team-mates but Di Maria is still one of the best around and, following his most impressive season to date, he is unlucky not to make the top 10. Already an impressive winger who combines pace, guile and skill with a fantastic crossing ability and a venomous shot when given the chance, this year Di Maria took his game to another level. He topped La Liga’s assist count with 17 (no mean feat with Iniesta and co. on the scene) and was also man of the match in the Champions League Final providing the impressive run and shot that created Real’s crucial second goal in extra-time. He also had an impressive World Cup until injury forced him out, scoring the crucial goal in extra-time that sent Argentina passed a resilient Switzerland side in the last-16 on their way to the final. Seems set to leave Real Madrid for pastures new as they deem him surplus to requirements in this new age of Galactico’s for them. Whoever he plays for next year (PSG or Man Utd look most likely) will be blessed with a versatile player who can play on either wing, behind the striker or even in central midfield and is fantastically gifted and effective wherever he plays.
10. David Silva – Manchester City and Spain – 28 – Injuries and inconsistency mean he isn’t higher on the list but when fit and playing well, Silva is still the Premier Leagues finest playmaker and vital for Manchester City. Struggled to hold down a regular starting place at the beginning of the season, largely due to injury and also the fierce competition he faces in his position. However, as the season wore on he became crucial once more on the left wing of City’s 4-4-2, cutting in to create chances for strikers who normally finish them (i.e. Aguero, Dzeko). His work is often unseen but many City fans praised him as the driving force behind their first title win and he is still part of the inspirational core of the team with Kompany, Toure and Aguero. Despite his undoubted skill, Silva can often drift out of games and be on the fringes of matches, especially since he has been pushed out wide, out of his favoured central role. Now aged 28, you feel it is now or never for Silva if he is to better his fantastic 2011 and 2012 but don’t be surprised to see it happen; he has a steely determination about him which suggests he can bounce back from the injury setbacks. Obviously a disappointing World Cup but should still be seen as pivotal to future plans for the Spanish national team. Mesmerising when on his game, there are few better at what he does.
9. Mesut Özil – Arsenal and Germany – 25 – Arsenal’s record signing initially made such an impact for the Gunners it seemed his arrival would signal the start of an age of title winning dominance for them once more but his latter season form saw a slump in fortune for both him and the club and Özil himself looked fatigued and downtrodden, lacking his usual spark and energy. At his best, Özil is a genius; he can pass, dribble and shoot and is capable of either instigating an attack or finishing it off. However, towards the end of last season he looked like the life had gone out of him and he no longer had the verve and dynamism that led Jose Mourinho and then Arsene Wenger to sign him. It was visible just by watching him; he wanted the ball here or there, he wasn’t tracking back, he was afraid of shooting, games passed him by and he even manage to win the World Cup without really being noticeable. However, he still has the opportunity to rediscover his brilliant best should Wenger once again make him vital to his plans without overusing him; the balance seems key with Özil – played too little he can become sulky and distant, played too often and he appears fatigued and complacent. The old Özil can lead Arsenal to the title and Arsenal fans will be desperate to see this artful magician smiling again, but more importantly playing like the world-beater he is.
8. James Rodriguez – Real Madrid and Colombia – 23 – When a player that has only just turned 23 has racked up a combined transfer fee of over €150 million, is the no.10 for the world’s biggest club and won the golden boot at arguably the best World Cup ever you know h. Before the World Cup Colombians were mourning the loss of star player Falcao to a knee injury and were fairly pessimistic about the chances, but by the end of it, they had a new star who was the 4th most expensive player in history and had lead them to within a narrow 2-1 defeat to favourites and hosts Brazil of the semi-finals, all whilst becoming the neutrals favourite and scoring the goal of the tournament. His fantastic trickery, passing, finishing and creativity make it easier to count the ways that James isn’t the perfect attacking midfielder than to count the ways he is. Already a great player before he exploded into a world star with his performances in Brazil, Rodriguez had been Ligue 1’s top assist maker and been named in the star Ligue 1 XI, but it was what he did in Brazil that really convinced Florentino Perez to pay €80 million for him. I’m sure you all watched the Worl Cup so there’s no need to re-write his much-lauded heroics but the bare facts speak for themselves: 5 games, 6 goals, 2 assists, 3 man of the matches, the goal of the tournament, the top scorer, the fan’s favourite and yet was beaten to player of the tournament by a distinctly average (by his standards) Lionel Messi. However, this small detail didn’t stop Real granting him his dream move and the rest is in the future. It was James’ World Cup, now can he affirm his name in the history books as Real and Colombia’s no.10? From what we’ve seen so far you’d think so.
7. Eden Hazard – Chelsea and Belgium – 23 – Despite an overall fairly disappointing World Cup in Brazil with Belgium, 2013/14 can be considered a successful one and further improvement is obvious for the tricky attacker. Hazard showed a consistency previously unseen by him in the premier league but also produced multiple excellent performances throughout the season, most notably when he scored a hat-trick against Newcastle in February and also against Sunderland in December where he was so fantastic it prompted opposition manager Gus Poyet to proclaim “Eden Hazard was outstanding. He was unplayable, as a manager I haven’t come up against anyone like that.” These performances coupled with a more mature and consistent approach were enough to make him the PFA’s Young Player of the Year as well as runner up in the main award to Luis Suarez. He was also on the prestigious 23-man shortlist for the Ballan D’or and many feel he can be a future winner of the award if he fulfils his potential. What Hazard possesses is that innate ability to instantly change a game with a piece of magic, something all great players have; an un-coachable instinct. He may be on the fringes of a game and you just start to think the opposition have him under control, then bang! He will produce an unending dribble, an explosive shot or a defence-splitting pass form nowhere. This was perhaps most evident during Belgium’s World Cup match against Russia, in which a win would secure qualification to the next round. Fabio Capello’s defensively disciplined side had contained Hazard all game and he was begin to look frustrated and isolated. However, in the last few minutes he burst into life producing a mesmerising dribble and cross to provide a tap-in for Divock Origi; Belgium win 1-0 and qualify with a game to spare. It is a trait often attributed to players such as Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. If he keeps up his great improvement, it wont be long before Hazard will be elevated to such status.
6. Marco Reus -Borussia Dortmund and Germany – 25 – Now Dortmund’s main man, they will hoping and praying they can get to the end of the transfer window with Reus still in their squad. With Lewandowski, Gotze, and Kagawa gone and others such as Hummells and Gundogan linked with moves away Reus is now so important for Dortmund that losing him would feel like the end of their brief spell at the very top of European football. A technical and versatile winger that also posseses terrific acceleration, Reus has the perfect blend of physical and technical attributes needed for Jurgen Klopp’s counter-attacking team and he is also well-suited to the German national team. Returning to his boyhood club two years ago, things couldn’t have gone much better and he is quickly becoming a hero for ‘Der BVB’. Whenever they needed a goal or moment of inspiration last season, Reus would come up with the goods, scoring 23 goals and making 18 assists in all competitions. It truly is frightful to think of the extra damage Germany could have inflicted at the World Cup (especially against Brazil) had they not lost Reus disastrously to injury in the 6-1 warm-up game drubbing of Armenia. His incisive, direct style of play and eye for goal make him Germany’s closest thing to a match-winner in an era of technically proficient pass-masters. It’s surely make or break time at Dortmund for Reus and should they miss out on success again next season expect every big team in Europe to be ready to pounce next summer with their cheque-books out, particularly a certain Munich based club. You feel he can still develop and improve so expect a rise on this list next year and a whole lot more of what we’ve been seeing as far as Marco Reus is concerned.
5. Neymar – Barcelona and Brazil – 22 – Neymar did not, by any stretch of the imagination, have a bad World Cup. When Brazil crashed out on that fateful day in Belo Horizonte , losing 7-1 to Germany, perhaps it was lucky that Neymar was nowhere to be seen, not even in the stadium for cameramen and TV studio-men to gawp at. In fact, he was in hospital recovering from the back injury that caused him to be stretchered off against Colombia and ended his World Cup. The injury that could have ended the careers of one of the most exciting young talents in football history. Neymar had been expected to win Brazil the World Cup pretty much on his own, in an attacking sense anyway and, as could only have been expected it didn’t quite happen; he wasn’t even given a full shot at it due to his tournament being cut short. And yet, despite Brazil’s national disappointment, Neymar played well; winning them games on his own and was still one of the players of the tournament despite how short it was. On his 50th cap in the opening game he was the catalyst for the 3-1 comeback win against Croatia scoring twice and he also managed a brace against Cameroon in the final group match. Things were going swimmingly; the World Cup was surely Neymar’s. Neymar then scored the winning penalty after a nerve-wrecking match against Chile. Against Colombia, Neymar assisted for Thiago Silva for the opening goal with the two most important players combining for the hosts. Little did they know that neither would play any part in the semis. Silva was suspended and Neymar got that terrible injury that could have left him paralysed had the impact been two inches further down his back. The rest, I’m sure, you know. Now, Neymar must try and leave the World Cup behind and focus on regaining fitness and fitting into a new-look Barcelona side where his agility, dribbling, finishing and two-footed mastery will be pivotal in the extaordinary 3-pronged attack alongside Messi and Luis Suarez as the Catalan giants look to rediscover their winning ways.
4. Arjen Robben – Bayern Munich and Holland – 30 – Never quite considered truly world-class until now, Arjen Robben is now truly one of the stars at Bayern and had an excellent World Cup. While most players approaching their thirties tend to lose a bit of pace, Robben has seemingly gained some and is officially the fastest player with the ball in world football after being clocked running at 37 km/h at the World Cup. And he doesn’t half use his pace. His classic move of faking right then cutting onto his favoured right foot is so inevitable you would think defenders would be wise to it by now but the pure pace and control he uses to execute it means it’s nearly always impossible to stop. There’s more to him than pace he is probably the most old-school winger on this list and he can cross perfectly, dribble expertly and can also whip in incredibly powerfully arrowed left shots when he wants to; all held together by that blistering pace of his. He also improved his goal tally, scoring 21 in all competitions and has improved his defensive work, often covering for buccaneering full backs Rafinha and Lahm. The diving remains a problem but Robben himself as admitted to trying to do it less, saying “I must not do things like this” after diving in a Bundesliga match against Bochum. He had a successful World Cup playing as a second striker alongside Van Persie in Louis Van Gaal’s successful 3-5-2 system and scored 3 goals as Holland earned a surprising 3rd place. Robben may never be everyone’s favourite but he is undoubtedly a class act and this late surge in his career may yet reap further rewards after he decided against moving to Manchester United along with Van Gaal in favour of staying with Bayern. His choice will delight Bayern and Robben is still young enough and good enough to win numerous trophies with the German champions.
3. Gareth Bale – Real Madrid and Wales – 25 – What a long way that young boy from the valleys of Wales has come since he signed for Tottenham Hotspur from Southampton in 2007. When you see pictures of that young boy and the man you see in the pictures released from Real Madrid’s pre-season training camp they like two different people. In the latter, Bale strolls around in the sun alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos with rippling muscles and long slicked back hair looking like a film star. But Bale doesn’t just look the part. Since being signed by Real Madrid for a reported £85 million, in the process surpassing his new team-mate to become the world’s most expensive player, he has completed a seven year transition from skinny left back hopeful to arguably the best right winger in the world and one of the greatest on the scene right now. Admittedly, as could’ve been expected, things didn’t start perfectly for him at Real. He struggled for fitness and was forced back into the side too early leading to an inevitable struggle to live up to his price tag. However, gradually he grew in confidence as he settled into the Spanish league and way of life and fought his way into the team, forced to play on the right due to Ronaldo occupying his ordinary left-sided role. It worked a treat and Bale, alongside Ronaldo and Karim Benzema formed a lethal front 3 as Real stormed to Champions League and Copa Del Rey success with Bale scoring in both finals. Everyone from the Premier League remembers Bale’s last season at Tottenham as one of the best individual campaigns of the league’s era and so it is frightening to hear that he has since got better without being his club’s best player. He was fast, he’s got faster. He had great control, he’s now a technical supremo. His shots and crosses were good, now he rarely misses as he scored 22 and made 16 assists across all competitions for his new club. How Tottenham missed him as their multiple new international recruits floundered in the Premier league when all they really needed was one man. Considering the difficulties of the pressure of his huge price tag, as well as playing for the biggest club in the world in a different country where he doesn’t speak the language, amongst some of the biggest superstars in the game without even having a proper pre-season, Bale’s first season in Madrid was colossal. Just imagine what he can achieve in his second. Cristiano, watch out! The man from the valleys is coming.
2. Franck Ribery – Bayern Munich and France – 31 – In another generation Ribery would be remembered as the best of the lot and would have been a certainty for the World Ballon D’or last year but unfortunately he will have to be satisfied with 3rd place. Bayern Munich have achieved success through a philosophy of incisive possession football perfectly matched to their technical and powerful players. It is built around a team ethic and there isn’t supposed to be any stand-out superstars. And yet, there is one and his name is Franck Ribery. His performances in the past year or so have made him a fan favourite at Bayern and a global superstar everywhere else. His driving runs are relentless down the left side for Bayern and he is a constant outlet for them as he uses his dribbling, pace and power to full effect often ending with a deadly shot or cross. Ribery also has an endless desire to play the game, as UEFA aptly phrased when he won their ‘best player in Europe’ award “a crowd-pleaser – one of those rare breed of footballer capable of enjoying his talents while expressing them. For France, his effects haven’t been quite so devastating but during his late development he has become more and more effective for them after making the left-sided role he loves so much his own and he was a big miss at the World Cup. It felt as though despite all their technical build-up and physical effectiveness at the tournament the French missed that one attacker who break through the defence and draws players into them creating space for others as was shown in the quarter against Germany. Ribery would have been that game changer and he was missed by his country in what would have probably been his last World Cup. He still has the Euros in his home country in two years and he may yet dispel doubts about his international prowess at the age of 33 and I’m sure he has many more trophies in his sight for Bayern. For now though, football can only watch and enjoy this magnificent player with the scar on his face.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid and Portugal – 29 – Cristiano Ronaldo once said “There is no harm in dreaming of becoming the World’s best player. It’s all about trying to be the best. I will keep working hard to achieve it, but it is within my capabilities.” Perhaps now he has finally achieved his dream. Ronaldo is as close as you’ll get to the perfect player he’s fast, skillfull, powerful, strong, technical, supremely fit, ambitious and prepares perfectly. All in all, perhaps the only thing holding him back is Lionel Messi and the constant comparisons made. When Ronaldo won the Ballon D’or in January there was a resounding feeling of the right man winning; Messi had been injured and though some claim Ribery had the best form of the three he was some way off in third. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s form had been brilliant. He led Real all the way constantly producing pieces of magic to drag them through games and his consistent brilliance became so reliable that even the poor form of players such as Bale and Benzema couldn’t stop Real winning. Also for his country he was quite literally a one man team at times but the tactic of ‘pass to Ronnie’ worked just fine and his match winning display against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s equally individualistic Sweden in the qualifying play-off for the World Cup was breath-taking. However, Ronaldo’s success seemed to always be blamed on Messi’s injuries and even Sepp Blatter sparked a row with the Portugal ace by labelling Messi as better than him and suggesting Ronaldo “spends more time at the hairdresser” at a FIFA conference in Oxford. However, Ronaldo’s form managed to win him the Ballon D’or and his 2014 has also been fantastic ending the season with 51 goals in all competitions and playing a key role as Real won the Champions League. However, he will be 30 next year and injuries have just started to creep in to the previously unscarred physical specimen and Ronaldo seemed restrained and tired at the World Cup and failed to make an impact as Portugal crashed out of the ‘group of death’. A return to Manchester has often been mooted and it seems it may happen at some point but for now Ronaldo is very much still committed to Madrid and they know if he’s fit then there’s no one better in the world right now. No, not even Lionel Messi.