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The penultimate part of this year’s countdown features yet more Bayern Munich stars after their stellar 2014, as well as two ex-Premier League stars whose absence has been sorely missed at their former clubs. All four improved on their 2013 position.
View the longlist and voting process here.
6. Philipp Lahm (▲ 11)
Right-back? Left-back? Defensive midfielder? Playmaker? Who, or perhaps more pertinently, where was Phillip Lahm in 2014? The answer is, at the top of his game, no matter what area of the pitch he occupied.
It is doubtful whether the 31-year-old will have a greater year than the past 12 months, not just unprecedented success, but it also altered how man from Munich was perceived.
In a post-Barcelona footballing landscape – now dedicated to the celebration of raw athleticism and six second vines – often the ‘thinkers’ of the game are overlooked, underestimated and ultimately taken for granted.
However, if you listen to those who know football, they know how good Lahm is. His club manager, a man who has worked with Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi, has called Lahm “cleverest player he has ever worked with”.
And whereas Guadiola has garnered so many plaudits for utilising the Bayern ‘veteran’ in numerous positions, surely an equal, of not greater, amount of praise should be heaped upon Lahm for the way he has taken to new, tactically taxing, positions with such aplomb.
2014 is the year that the ‘Magic Dwarf’ ascended into the halls of Germany’s greatest players. Whilst, at club level, the glory of a 24th Bundesliga title – won with a record seven games to spare – was tempered with semi-final defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League; the summer months provided the pinnacle of his career.
20 captains have lead their country to World Cup glory, including three Germans – Fritz Walter, Franz Beckenbauer, and Lothar Matthäus – but Phillip Lahm is the first to lift the trophy under the banner of a unified Germany.
There was a sense of manifest destiny in Germany’s World Cup success, a project with its genesis at the start of the century, realised in the Maracana, with an irresistible destruction of the hosts along the way. And reading into Lahm’s formative playing days, it seems there was a similar destiny at play, that this man was destined to captain his country to glory.
When Lahm was 19-years-old, Hermann Gerland contacted Felix Magath, with a view to loan the youngster to VfB Stuttgart, asked to describe the youngster Gerland responded that he was a player “who looks like he’s 15 but plays as if he 30”.
In essence that quote sums up Lahm’s brilliance – many players have technical ability or an engine that goes on and on. But few players on the planet have the mental application that Lahm has.
Germany are in a state of flux since the World Cup final, with national mainstays, including Lahm, retiring at the pinnacle of the international game. There is little doubt that Germany will recover, such is the mechanisms they have in place, what is slightly more ambiguous is how long Die Mannschaft will have to wait before a team player the equal of Lahm appears.
Germany’s loss will be undoubtably be Bayern’s gain, whom Lahm has committed to for the next four years. And with his recovery from a broken ankle on track, it seems ‘Mr. Reliable’ won’t be going anywhere soon.
5 Gareth Bale (▲ 6)
While Cristiano Ronaldo was busy staging his Bruce Banner goal celebration in the Champions League final in May for his upcoming eponymous movie, the world’s most expensive player had already staked a spectacular claim for best supporting role.
It may well be true that no one player is bigger than the club, but where Ronaldo and Real Madrid are concerned, the two have become merged – Bale astutely realised this when he signed at the Bernabéu last summer in acknowledging Ronaldo as the king of the capital.
The truth is, a player of the Welshman’s scorching pace, balance and control needed a grander stage to perform on than White Hart Lane.
No disrespect intended to Spurs, but once they had figured out that Bale was wasted as a full back, his unleashed potential simply demanded Champions League domination.
While Ronaldo continues to defy logic and laws of nature in his freakish battle with Leo Messi, Bale has adapted perfectly where others have failed, and therein lies his genius.
His stats only tell half the story. Twenty-six goals this calendar year is a fantastic return for mere mortals, and even more so when one considers 2013/14 was his debut season in a new country at an entirely different level of expectation to before.
A total of 168 shots in 58 competitive matches show where he believes he can make the difference. Twelve of his 16 assists alone set up Ronaldo.
Carlo Ancelotti’s system, with Benzema at the point of attack, supported by Ronaldo, Bale and James Rodríguez, has allowed Bale to develop as a player capable of fitting into an established hierarchy.
His crucial second goal from the Portuguese’s cross in the Champions League final demonstrated his killer instinct in the box, while his eye-watering pace to outstrip Marc Bartra in the final five minutes of the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona pointed to a man in immaculate physical condition. His sumptuous winner past part-time beatboxer José Pinto wasn’t bad either.
While ‘James’ was busy top scoring in Brazil, Bale spent the summer further bulking up his physique. Even his new penchant for sleeveless vests has helped him fit into the image-orientated circus that permanently surrounds every move a Real player makes.
The only risk would be that he allowed himself to be consumed by the impatient fervour that fuels the Bernabéu socios and tried too hard to emulate Ronaldo himself.
Ancelotti has raised his concerns at Bale’s recent inactivity in games – he made only 16 passes against Basel, six of which were to defenders, and only two more than Keylor Navas in goal – especially when he has been asked to cover more defensive ground in midfield.
It is a fine balance between the currency of popularity – goals – and of respect – graft, but the boy from Cardiff has shown the intelligence and maturity to cope with this pressure.
The question is, where does he go from here? World Club Champion, European Champion, Copa del Rey winner – now there’s just the small matter of conquering Spain itself.
4 Luis Suarez (▲ 7)
Luis Suarez’s brief but explosive showing at the 2014 World Cup serves to encapsulate his career perfectly.
The first of his two games in Brazil came against England. Uruguay had drawn their opening game against Costa Rica, which Luis sat out due to injury; they turned to Suarez, having not played since the pre-tournament surgery that almost scuppered his chances of featuring at all, to inspire them to victory. And inspire them he did as the former Liverpool and Ajax striker scored both goals in 2-1 win for Uruguay. It was Suarez at his clinical, ruthless best.
Mere days later, one of the most memorable individual performances against the English national side in a major tournament was doomed to be cast in the shadow of further Suarez controversy. We all know why. He bit an opponent. For the third time. It was Suarez at his unfathomable, flawed worst.
For all the personal faults, as a footballer Suarez is probably as close to flawless as you’re going to get. The aspects of his attacking game are second only to perhaps Messi and Ronaldo, but it’s his tenacity and sheer need to win that makes him so special.
A paragraph from Neil Atkinson’s match report following Liverpool’s 3-0 away win at Southampton in March for The Anfield Wrap probably best summed it up: “Around the eightieth minute Suarez tried to trip someone up with his head. Think about that for a second. Think about how many other people earning over five million pounds a year are doing that. Throw my head in at that lad’s knee. That’ll help the cause.”
And then there are the goals. They come in all shapes and sizes for Suarez.
On the very first day of 2014 the Uruguayan’s goal against Hull ensured that he became the first Liverpool striker since Robbie Fowler in 95/96 to score at least 20 goals in successive Premier League seasons. If equaling Fowler wasn’t enough Suarez then surpassed Fowler’s club record 28 Premier League goals in a campaign by notching 31 in 33 games and in doing so became only the seventh player in the history of the competition to break 30.
A winners’ medal didn’t quite come into his grasp but the individual awards did: Suarez won Player of the Season, the Premier League Golden Boot, and shared the European Golden Shoe with Cristiano Ronaldo.
A move to Barcelona came shortly after the World Cup and Liverpool have been broken ever since. Looking through their results in the first half of 2014 it’s easy to see why. Two victories stick out in particular: the 5-3 win away to Stoke, in which Suarez scored twice, and the 6-3 away win at Cardiff, where Suarez grabbed his sixth Premier League hat-trick. Liverpool cannot simply aim to outscore opponents anymore. The defence was regularly being bailed out by Luis (and Sturridge).
In Spain it’s been a slow start for Suarez. He’s scored three times in eleven games and provided a couple of tidy assists. Don’t forget, his first six months at Anfield were relatively quite too. This is just the calm before the storm; although whether the storm will be positive or negative for the fiery 27-year-old is anyone’s guess.
3 Manuel Neuer (▲ 29)
It’s rare that a footballer has such an impact in the course of a calendar year that they are credited with redefining the terms of their position.
That is, of course, what Manuel Neuer has done in 2014, especially with his performances in the World Cup. Neuer, die Mannschaft’s self-styled 11th man, was the generator of debate and heat maps galore this summer, when he managed in some games to have more touches or successful passes that most of Germany’s opposition.
While the Neuer-revolution has been overstated (he is not the first keeper to see the point of advancing beyond his box, of launching counter-attacking passes, or of seeing himself as much a part of outfield possession as the rest of the team; if you don’t believe me, read Jonathan Wilson’s The Outsider), there is no doubt that Neuer’s titanic self-confidence and ability have combined to impose this narrative on modern goalkeeping.
Neuer is at the apex of modern goalkeeping. The best rule their area, not just physically or with anticipation, but with an aura that swamps opposition attackers and makes great ‘keepers at their best seem invincible.
Neuer has exceptional reflexes, great hands, and, often seemingly a specific strength for German ‘keepers, is particularly good at dominating one-on-one situations.
To this repertoire of skills has been added the tactical nous of Pep Guardiola, seeing football as chess, using the additional man to create numerical imbalances, push the defensive line higher to encourage the press, and, in a way that perhaps no team has done since that Ajax group, see possession and movement as the privilege of the whole team, not just those wearing 2 to 11 (or whatever it is in the modern game; you know what I mean).
Germany won the World Cup and Neuer won the Golden Glove award for the best number one at the tournament, a double triumph for the man from Gelsenkirchen in what was, let’s not forget, a World Cup of exceptional goalkeeping: Navas, Ochoa, Howard, even Romero, all had outstanding tournaments.
While it would be easy to say that Neuer’s tactical impact won him the award, there were times, notably against Algeria and even Brazil, where he made crucial saves; he also made more than Romero, the other finalist’s keeper, across the course of the tournament.
This victory, together with Bayern Munich’s rollicking Bundersliga successes and Neuer’s personal impact on the position he plays, have seen him nominated for the Ballon d’Or 23-man shortlist and then making it into the final three, alongside Messi and Ronaldo, the first time a keeper has done this since Gigi Buffon in 2006. No keeper has won since Lev Yashin in 1963.
It says much for Neuer that he continues to strive to extend the limits of his role (sometimes with entertaining results, like the recent game against Hamburg), maintaining a steely focus and quiet determination.
Manuel Neuer is not the best player in the world, but he is the best goalkeeper and a worthy occupant of our top three.
Keep an eye out for the seventh and final part of the Top 50, out later this week!