We’ve hit the business end of things in the Top 50 as the countdown moves into single figures with two Barca stars, two German internationals and a World Cup Golden Ball winner.
10 Mesut Ozil
Match of the Day’s assessment that few of the German side that tonked England 4-1 would get into the Capello’s team was used as another stick to beat the already bloodied carcass of analysis on the BBC’s flagship football programme, with Alan Shearer himself admitting post-match they “must look like mugs.” But the judgement was broadly correct: man-for-man few of the English players would have been displaced by the Germans; Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and possibly Miroslav Klose aside, the team was either made up of youngsters still learning their trade or somewhat average players.
Yet one player shouldn’t have really stood up for the comparison. Part-Turkish, Mesut Ozil is the type of player that England have very rarely been able to create: a fleet-footed playmaker with an actual functioning footballing brain. Ozil had just spent 90 minutes toying with England’s defence and played a major role in each of the goals; dragged John Terry out of position for the first and second, make a brilliant decoy run to make sure Thomas Müller had time and space for the third and sped past Gareth Barry before slowing down to allow Müller could catch up for the last goal. That sort of tactical awareness is never usually seen at his age.
Ozil had done brilliantly to replace Diego at Werder Bremen, managing 9 goals and 21 assists, but it was the World Cup that pushed him into the limelight. It wasn’t just the game against England either: Ozil had manoeuvred past Ghana and opened up space for others against Argentina.
The then-21 year-old suddenly became one of the hottest properties in football, especially with his contract running down. Bremen had their heads turned by a bid of around £12 million from Real Madrid and off he went. Any initial problems over competition for places subsided when he immediately slotted into the side, earning standing ovations against Osasuna and Ajax and leaving Kaka with questions over his Madrid future.
He may not have done enough to earn top spot in this list, but if there was a version for younger players he would surely place first.
9 Gerard Pique
It has been a monumental rise to stardom for Gerard Pique in the past three seasons, one which has seen him develop from a promising back-up at Manchester United to being regarded as one of the best central defenders in world football since his return to Barcelona.
His partnership with club captain Carles Puyol has been important for providing defensive stability in Barcelona’s recent success, and their partnership has been replicated at international level, as seen in Spain’s World Cup victory in South Africa last July. Pique’s ability as a ball playing defender and an immaculate reader of the game has seen him combine well with the more tenacious defender in Puyol. The defender’s form has been so impressive that the likes of Rafael Marquez, Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Henrique have left the club in search of first team football.
The past year has seen Pique cement himself in great sides. He played every minute in the World Cup, and was a key figure in a defensive line which only conceded two goals as the Spaniards secured their first World Championship. He was part of the historic Barcelona side which won six trophies in 2009, and played 32 league games in La Liga to help beat rivals Real Madrid to the title with a record points tally of 99. Despite a goal in the Champions League semi-final against Inter Milan, it was not enough and the defending champions were eliminated to the would be Kings of Europe, however his displays did not go unnoticed, and in January was named in the UEFA Team of the Year along with five of his club teammates.
At only 24, Pique has the best years of his career ahead of him and is already being touted as the future captain at the Camp Nou. Potential for greatness beckons for the Catalan, who is part of a Barca team which is regarded as one of the best ever. Pique will hope to ensure his name will be remembered amongst fans for generations, and can emulate the success of his idols: Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Fernando Hierro.
8 Bastian Schweinsteiger
Bastian Schweinsteiger’s transformation over the last year and a half has been nothing short of astounding. Since his debut for Bayern in 2002 Schweinsteiger never really was able to live up to his potential. He showed glimpses of it here and there but never really made his mark on a game consistently. He made his first few appearances as an advanced attacking midfielder before settling out wide for the next couple of years and even deputizing as a fullback. Despite the high profile he reached with Bayern and Germany it was clear that Schweinsteiger lacked the initial chops to be an effective wide player. It took Louis van Gaal and a tactical readjustment to turn that raw unfulfilled potential into a world-class player and leader of his teams.
In no time, the move to central midfield revitalized and revamped Schweinsteiger and helped establish him as one of Europe’s most dominant players. No doubt helped by his experience as a winger, Schweinsteiger was finally able to utilize his biggest strengths as a player and grow as an individual and with the team.
Equally comfortable in defense as in attack, Schweinsteiger became the lynchpin in Van Gaal’s Bayern domestic double winning side and Germany’s success in South Africa. Schweinsteiger stood out for his versatile and dynamic game, linking up play when needed but also being a defensive stalwart. The comparisons with Xavi began for good season last year as Schweinsteiger emerged as one of the premier passers in the game and was crucial in Bayern’s run to the Champions League Final and in Germany’s big wins against England and Argentina and eventual third place finish at the World Cup.
He might not have gotten the recognition at the various awards ceremonies but fewer players had a more consistent 2010 than Schweinsteiger, playing a big part in every competition he participated in for both club and country, and excelled amongst his peers. Even Jose Mourinho was impressed with the German and picked him as his player of the year, making no qualms about wanting him on his team. Schweinsteiger continued his great form into the 2010/11 season where he was Bayern’s best player in the first half of the season and helped his team to their best ever Champions League group stage finish.
Schweinstieger has also grown in character and stepped up as the figurehead and leader at both Bayern and the German national team in the absence (and eventual departure) of Van Bommel and Michael Ballack. His overall game and versatility embodies the attributes of true midfield dynamo and few players serve as a better example of the modern midfielder.
7 Diego Forlan
The scene was a wet Port Elizabeth, and a free-kick offered a chance of hope, and personal glory. It was the last kick of the game, and would take Uruguay into extra-time in the World Cup third place play-off if the ball ruptured into the net. A man, who was renowned for being the butt of the jokes when he played in England, hit the ball and winced in agony as it struck the crossbar, and thus saw him miss out on the Golden Boot.
The World Cup used to be a platform which offered opportunities for fans across the globe to see new players, and those opportunities only arise every so often. In the modern day this is not the case with global broadcasting of every league and the magical world of the internet, but in South Africa it presented a chance where Diego Forlan helped to mould a new reputation for himself.
After the arrival of Quique Sanchez Flores as the coach, 2010 proved to be a fantastic year for the Atletico Madrid striker. Despite finishing runner-up in the Copa del Rey after a 2-0 defeat to Sevilla, Forlan was inspirational in their Europa League campaign, giving his old Manchester United fans pleasure by scoring twice in the semi-final against Liverpool. His rampage continued at the courtesy of another English side in Fulham, and scored the two goals to defeat Roy Hodgson’s men in Hamburg. It was Atleti’s first major silverware since the double winning side of Radomir Antic in 1996.
The 2010/11 campaign has not been as enjoyable for the man from Montevideo, who even went on a 12 game streak without scoring. Speculation of his future may have been a distraction, although Forlan himself has not helped the cause stipulating he would be open to a move to a bigger team, and was reportedly subject to bids from Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur in January.
The past year has been one to remember, and Forlan, playing in the trequartista role, has helped bring a smile back to the Uruguayan fans faces, helping the two times World Cup winners put their name back on the map.
6 David Villa
Considered one of the most deadly forwards in the world, David Villa is nothing short of a goal mchine. Nicknamed El Guaje, which means the kid, he has been one of the most consistent strikers in world football over the last five seasons. He joined Valencia from Real Zaragoza in 2005 and scored 20 or more goals in every campaign for Valencia (28, 21, 22, 30, and 28 respectively).
In 2009-2010 he had his best ever club tally, netting 30 times and tying Raul for all-time leading scorer for Spain. He then went on to be the top all-time scorer for Spain in the World Cup Finals. In fact, in all competitions, both for Spain and Valencia, he appeared in 54 games and scored an amazing 43 times. The numbers that he produced for the calendar year were sensational, and it led him to be nominated for both the Ballon D’Or and FIFA Player of the Year. He ended up losing both to one Lionel Messi.
His 2009-2010 campaign with Valencia ended with no silverware. It was not due to the form of Villa though as he scored 28 goals in 42 appearances, adding another 10 assists along the way. His consistent form and mounting frustration with the politics of Valencia led him away from the Mestalla and into the opening arms of Barcelona. Just before the 2010 World Cup began, David was sold to the blaugrana for €40 million. He also netted himself a respectable four-year/€7 million a year new deal.
A lot of expectation was put on the Spain side for the 2010 World Cup Finals. He put up some impressive performances for his country, scoring five goals from 32 shots in all matches (2 v. Honduras, 1 v. Chile, 1 v. Portugal, and 1 v. Paraguay). No Spanish player had ever scored more than five goals for a career at the World Cup. Adding his previous three at the 2006 World Cup, it gave him eight overall and the all-time World Cup scoring title for Spain. He also was a good passer of the ball with 244 total passes, of which he completed 66% and in total, he logged 635 minutes on the pitch. All that effort ended with Spain hoisting the WC trophy, David being one of the main reasons for that success.
What does all this mean? David Villa is one of world football’s most consistent and creative strikers. He can play on the wing or down the centre. He can create something from nothing, or he can feed his teammates for goals. Few players could have had a better year than Villa did in 2010. He bagged a ton of goals, he won the World Cup, and he got a move to Barcelona to play with arguably the best team on the planet. Only Lionel Messi had a better year than Villa statistically, and one could argue, was the only player that kept him from taking home either the FIFA Player of the Year or Ballon D’Or. He has not missed a beat in the 2010-2011 campaign, already netting 17 goals a seven assists in 27 appearances for Barcelona.