The votes have been tallied so it’s time to reveal Back Page Football’s Top 50 Players in the World for 2014!
After a superb 2013/14 season that saw them claim the La Liga title, a number of Atletico Madrid players feature in the Top 50, starting with an exciting French winger. Part 1 also includes one of last year’s Top 10 who hasn’t enjoyed the most productive 12 months.
View the longlist and voting process here.
50 David Alaba (▼ 31)
(Bayern Munich and Austria)
2014 has been a strange year watching David Alaba. Whilst being part of a Bayern Munich side that continued its domestic dominance with the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal, Alaba’s game has undergone a transition.
Hark back to January and you’ll remember one of the best left backs in the European game, a player who offered a threat going forward as well as stability and consistency in defence. The perfect modern defender.
However, when you jump ahead to November (as unfortunately this is where his calendar year ends after picking up a knee injury), Alaba has become a something of a deep-lying defensive/box-to-box midfielder hybrid.
He now gives his defence extra protection where it’s needed, harries the opposition when in possession, and offers an attacking edge with driving runs from his deep role through the centre of the field.
His performances in this role have been unspectacular, but ruthlessly efficient. He now spends less time on the ball than before, which makes it difficult to recognise his importance in this possession based Bayern side, however he is very rarely out of position, be that offering another option in attack, or snuffing out one in defence.
Although in terms of statistics the Austrian appears to be having a worse year than last (his goals, assists and tackles are all lower for 2014 than 2013), by watching him for Bayern you can see how much more important he is to the side, and this will only grow as he becomes more familiar with what is a wholly new position both for him and the team.
Whilst this year’s list sees David Alaba at the bottom of our Top 50, as he grows into this role and Bayern grows with him, don’t be surprised if you see him much higher up the list this time next year.
49 Antoine Griezmann (► New Entry)
(Atletico Madrid and France)
In a year full of surprising performances in world football, perhaps one of the least surprising emergences came from a French winger who has honed his craft in the vibrant, creative atmosphere of La Liga.
That Antoine Griezmann has finally seized a place among the world’s best comes as no shock to anyone who had been watching him with Real Sociedad or any of the French national teams with which he has played.
The left-footed Griezmann had been a fixture on the wing at Sociedad for a number of years, but his performances with the team last season, as well as his shining displays for Les Bleus in this summer’s World Cup, brought him incredible attention away from the Iberian Peninsula and his home nation. He was one of the goal scorers in Sociedad’s 3-1 dismantling of Barcelona in February, which came in the midst of a world-beating 16-goal campaign.
Though he has experienced a tumultuous relationship with the French national team at times – he received a year-long suspension for what American sports would refer to as “conduct detrimental to the team” in 2012 – Griezmann’s national team career enjoyed a renaissance in 2014.
In Brazil, he slipped into Franck Ribery’s spot in the line-up when the Bayern Munich man went down with an injury during the World Cup. Occupying such sacred ground proved to be no challenge for Griezmann, who performed admirably during France’s impressive run to the quarter finals.
All of this yielded him a deserving transfer to defending La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, for a reported €30 million, for whom he has already contributed in spades. He already has five goals for Los Rojiblancos this season, including one in a Champions League losing effort to Olympiakos.
Fans of both France and Atletico seem to have much to look forward to with the 23-year-old Griezmann directing sideline traffic.
48 Arda Turan (► New Entry)
(Atletico Madrid and Turkey)
The most expensive Turkish footballer of all time, the creative force behind Atlético Madrid’s La Liga title win in 2014, and wearer of a gloriously thick, black beard, Arda Turan is an embodiment of Diego Simeone’s side’s blend of skill and steel.
His impact on the title-winning team has grown since his signing in 2011 as a hard-working playmaker, capable of sumptuous touches, fearsome long-range goals, and as strong in the challenge as he is tricky on the ball.
2014 was a break-through year for both Turan and Atleti, as the player drove his team towards both the title and a losing finalist’s spot in the Champions League, drawing comparisons with Lionel Messi for his close control, dribbling, and speed of thought.
Breaking the Real Madrid and Barcelona duopoly in La Liga for the first time since 2003/4, Los Colchoneros drew plaudits for a relentless attacking style in which Turan was a crucial component.
Pressing hard in defence as a wide midfielder in a flat 4-4-2, he then transitioned to a more attacking role as a winger in attack, pushing high and dropping inside to shoot or work tight, quick passing triangles or offering a dummy option for the strikers.
He has a knack of scoring when it matters too, netting to win the September 2014 Madrid derby at the Bernabéu and, earlier in the year, getting the last goal in Atléti’s 3-1 away win at Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals to set up the ultimately unsuccessful showdown with their cross-town rivals.
Turan has 79 caps for the Turkish senior side, scoring 13 times, and is as important a part of the national team as he is for his club side. He is also a charity ambassador, raising awareness around the Khojaly massacre of 1992 and campaigning against human rights abuses.
47 Mario Mandzukic (► New Entry)
(Atletico Madrid and Croatia)
Mario Mandzukic, the powerful, hard-running centre forward is deserving of his place in the Back Page Football Top 50 but it certainly hasn’t been all plain sailing for the Atletico Madrid and Croatia forward.
Mandzukic was a key focal point in Jupp Heynkes all-conquering side Bayern Munich side, replacing fellow countryman Ivica Olic and relegating German international Mario Gomez to a spot on the subs bench.
However the arrival of Pep Guardiola, the resultant modification of Bayern’s style of play and the confirmation of Robert Lewandowski’s arrival at the Allianz Arena meant that Mandzukic had to prove himself all over again. He rose to the challenges set by Guardiola, finishing the season as Bayern’s top scorer with a career best 26 goals in all competitions.
Despite his success he was dropped for Bayern’s 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup Final. For all his “nice guy” image this, and Mandzukic’s subsequent exit, were perhaps further examples of the Spanish coach’s ruthless side (just ask Zlatan Ibrahimović).
Mandzukic would leave at the end of Guardiola’s first season having won two league titles, two German Cups, a Champions League (where he scored in the final) and a World Club Cup during his stay in Bavaria burnishing his reputation as one of the world’s best centre forwards.
His next challenge was the daunting task of replacing Chelsea-bound Diego Costa at the Vincente Calderon as Atletico continued their annual tradition of selling their star striker. However, his early form for the Spanish Champions suggest he suits the style of play required by Diego Simeone.
On the international front Madzukic has established himself as the main man for Croatia, scoring crucial goals in qualifying for the World Cup, including the opener in their 2-0 playoff win against Iceland.
A sending off in that game meant he was suspended for the World Cup opener against Brazil but he returned to grab a brace in the following game against a Cameroon side in disarray, however an impressive Mexican side put paid to the Croatians hope of progressing to the next round.
46 David De Gea (► New Entry)
(Manchester United and Spain)
Aged just 24, David De Gea is already playing his fourth season in the Manchester United starting line. He didn’t manage to convince throughout his first two seasons under Sir Alex, but with Fergusons’s successors, he claimed his place between the sticks with a newfound confidence.
Although it’s easy to say that with Moyes’ tactics his chances at excelling as a goalkeeper were of an unhealthy level for one playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world, it was evident that this was a different De Gea from the boy he was in his first two seasons at Old Trafford, arguably saving The Red Devils from an even worse league campaign.
The spring of 2014 saw him collect multiple personal awards, being voted best United player by his team mates as well as by the fans and making the Save of the Season against an unleashed Luis Suárez.
The new season also marked the arrival of a new manager at Manchester, with Louis van Gaal taking the helm. A new manager who’s known to be extremely demanding of his goalkeepers, especially the footballing aspects of the job.
And even though almost every player in Europe has heard himself linked to Van Gaal’s side at one point during last summer’s transfer window, the rumours about a new goalkeeper were very scarce.
2014 also saw De Gea finally make his Spain debut. With almost every position in the Spanish national team up for grabs after the World Cup debacle, Del Bosque used him as a starter in a friendly against France in September.
Although his official debut consisted of seven minutes against El Salvador in a pre-World Cup friendly, he is slowly but steadily manoeuvring himself in pole position to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper for Euro 2016.
45 Branislav Ivanovic (► New Entry)
Underrated, maybe. Consistently brilliant; definitely.
For many years, Bransilav Ivanovic has been performing at the highest level without the plaudits he deserved but in 2014 he improved upon that form. The Serbian defender has played every minute, 2790 to be exact, of Chelsea’s Premier league campaign since the 3-1 victory over Manchester United on January 19th. Resilient, versatile, defensively sound and an attacking threat, it is understandable why he is among the first names to feature on Jose Mourinho’s team sheet each week.
The arrival of Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid raised questions on the future of Ivanovic; both a regular name on the team sheet and as a Chelsea player. However, in typical fashion, Ivanovic responded magnificently, scoring two goals in the first three games of the Premier league season. Four in total this calender year.
Mourinho’s side have been praised for their attacking fluidity this term, which Ivanovic plays a key role. He has created 14 chances this term meaning only Cesc Fabregas, Hazard, Oscar and Diego Costa have produced more for Chelsea this season.
The aforementioned attackers can go forward with confidence knowing they have a solid defence playing behind them. Ivanovic’s contribution? Over two key tackles and four clearances per game. Impeccable. The Serb, who Raheem Sterling likened to a ‘tank’, has won 60% of his duels this season.
His fine form for The Blues has not gone unnoticed as he has been short-listed for the FIFpro World XI Defender of the Year. A justified selection.
Despite the recognition, Ivanovic fails to consider 2014 a highlight due to the lack of silverware and the fiasco between Serbia and Albania in October, which he regarded as worst moment of his career.
Now approaching the age of 31, his ambition has not withered and if Chelsea are to finish champions come the end of the season you can guarantee that the calming presence of Ivanovic will prove crucial.
44 Marco Verratti (► New Entry)
(Paris St. Germain and Italy)
So often with young players the caveat to their mercurial talent is ‘confidence’. Player X needs playing time to improve his ‘confidence’, and so on. Marco Verratti does not need confidence.
Watching him dribble around his own penalty area with wild abandon against Marseille illustrates a belief in his own abilities that would rival his teammate Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Of course all the confidence in the world means nothing if a player doesn’t have the requisite skills to back it up. Thankfully the 22-year-old has talent in spades, in fact testament to his ability is that he is spoken about more so than players such as Yohan Cabaye, Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi. The ball seems to stick to his foot with little or no effort on the player’s behalf.
While some have suggested that a lack of height would affect his midfield performance, the Italian has used his low centre of gravity as a platform from which he retains possession with ease.
At Pescara he was labelled an heir apparent to Pirlo, a somewhat simplistic view – Verratti is a more combative, mobile player, perhaps illustrated by his eye-opening tally on yellow cards he has accumulated.
However, that is not to say does not subscribe to higher footballing philosophies. In an interview with L’Équipe the midfielder stated that “Football is entertainment“, and that “A beautiful touch is better than a physical action”.
Whilst his tightrope dribbles gave previous PSG manager Carlo Ancelotti heartburn, his current coach, Laurent Blanc, seemingly has no such qualms, installing Verratti as a first team regular, a commendable achievement considering the lack of fanfare surrounding his arrival from Pescara two years ago.
The next 12 months will be important for Verratti. In terms of club football he has become a vital cog in the PSG machine that will be looking to make an impact on the UEFA Champions League.
Internationally, Andrea Pirlo’s decision not to retire from the Azzurri has perhaps stalled Verratti’s progression, though as it stands he still represents Italy’s future midfield talent.
43 Carlos Tevez (► New Entry)
Carlos Tevez’s career has been anything but placid. Throughout the peaks and troughs that have been his life since moving to Europe eight years ago 2014 will rank as one of the most juxtaposed.
Now into his second season in Serie A the Argentine has seemingly settled and for once in a long while seems content, something that alluded him during his time in England. On the way to helping i bianconeri to yet another title Carlos hit a rich vein of form, contributing 19 goals and seven assists.
Already this season he is nine goals to the good and has installed himself as an integral art of the Turin giant’s plans to retain the league title. In contrast to this, Carlitos’ absence from Alejandro Sabella’s World Cup squad while not being a total surprise – he hadn’t featured since Sabella was hired for the position – was seen by many to be a mistake, something magnified by the Argentine’s reliance on captain Lionel Messi for attacking spark.
For a player both loved by his own fans and popular from his playing days in Brazil, the summer months will have been some he’d rather forget. Maintaining his prolific goal scoring form for his club may mean the final box ticked in terms of a ‘complete’ Carlos Tevez.
He’s always utilised his strength and low centre of gravity to his advantage to retain possession in the attacking third, while his bulldog tenacity means that the now in-fashion high-pressing tactics will be right up his street.
Tevez, much like his employers, will be hoping that the next 12 months brings a re-emergence on the continental stage, something neither party have enjoyed in the past few seasons.
42 Wayne Rooney (▼ 28)
(Manchester United and England)
How do you measure success? In many ways, 2014 has been monumental for Wayne Rooney personally after being named England and Manchester United captain. Louis van Gaal’s decision to appoint the forward as his on-field lieutenant in particular is significant, overlooking club mate Robin van Persie who had already been the Dutchman’s international skipper.
Renegotiating his club contract in February to earn an eye-watering £300,000 a week has seen him become among the most highly paid players on the planet.
On the pitch, however, he has only managed 13 goals for his club as he suffered groin, toe, foot and hamstring injuries at the back end of David Moyes’s ill-fated reign. His recent run of form has coincided with Manchester United’s resurgence up into the Champions League places. This is no fluke – but with Van Persie indifferent this season and Radamel Falcao seemingly destined to sit on the bench or in the treatment room, he has needed to step up.
England’s appalling World Cup showing wasn’t helped by Rooney’s laboured performances, although he was far from the only member of Roy Hodgson’s squad to underwhelm. His eight international goals this year have included three in friendlies, as well as strikes against San Marino, Estonia and Slovenia – hardly the strongest of opponents.
To his credit though, he is fast closing in on England’s all time top goalscoring record, currently with 46, only three off Bobby Charlton.
Rooney’s problem is that he hasn’t quite lived up to the expectation of his early career promise. Although his work rate has not been questioned, his added responsibility has made him a more selfless player but with less of the sparkle that set him apart before.
His central role in Van Gaal’s revolution should see him shoot up the rankings next year.
41 Robin van Persie (▼ 10)
(Manchester United and The Netherlands)
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired it was believed to have had a bad affect on Robin van Persie. David Moyes took over as Manchester United manager and almost immediately there was speculation of unrest for the Dutch striker.
A lot changed. The system in which the team played, training and, of course, personnel. Van Persie’s special routines at Carrington were no longer put in place and it resulted in a reoccurrence of injuries knocking him back off track.
In summary, what we saw was a deflated version of a player who won the league for United in 2012/13.
However, on the international stage Van Persie had a memorable World Cup in Brazil where the Netherlands beat the home nation in a third place play-off.
The 31-year-old striker scored four goals from six games in the competition; the pick of the lot being a header against Spain that has since been nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award 2014.
The 2014/15 season has brought a similar slump in terms of quality. The vast majority were of the opinion that having Louis van Gaal in charge at Old Trafford would give Van Persie the boost needed but that has not been the case as of yet.
If anything, Van Persie has been in passenger-esque form and is lucky Radamel Falcao had been absent throughout the beginning of the season because he would not have featured as often.
Is this the start of a decline with previous injuries taking their toll? A period of struggle is something every footballer goes through and Manchester United fans will be hoping that’s the case for their No.20.
Keep an eye out for the second part of the Top 50, coming later this week!