The golden laurel summer 2011: the 50 greatest players in the world

Lionel Messi

The benchmark: it's hard to think an individual player's club season that has been as perfect as Leo Messi's in 2010-11

10. Mesut Ozil

Real Madrid and Germany
Age 22
Position Attacking midfield/forward

“Ozil,” Jose Mourinho argued, “is unique.” And certainly in the Portuguese’s team. In a counter-attacking system with more rigorously defined positions than their rivals in Barcelona, Ozil is the one who lords it between the lines. With slick passing and sleek movement, it is the German who releases so many counter-attacks. Hardly surprisingly, his 17 assists were the highest number in the Spanish league after Leo Messi’s. As Xabi Alonso says, “he understands the game, sees things, combines… unlocking teams.” Even more impressively, Ozil’s level of performance never lowered – regardless of the competition.

Ability 17
Club form 16
International form 1/2
Total 80

9. Wesley Sneijder

Inter and Netherlands
Age 27
Position Attacking midfielder

Like many players who excelled in South Africa last summer, Sneijder suffered an understandable dip last season. And that was compounded by the instability at Inter. Nevertheless, his rate of productivity in terms of assists and goals stayed constant. And if he didn’t quite have the influence at the very elite level he did last season – which has effectively seen him drop out of the world’s top quarter of players – he remained effortlessly capable of knitting together Inter’s midfield and attack. One of the world’s premium-level playmakers.

Ability 18
Club form 15
International form 3/5
Total 80

8. Alexis Sanchez

Udinese and Chile
Age 22
Position Forward/winger

After Leo Messi, probably the most audaciously devastating attacking player in the world. Because, just like Messi, Sanchez’s ability offers something genuinely, elusively different. And the prospect of them combining in attack for Barcelona is frightening.

At Udinese, Sanchez already took his game to unique new levels. As the Italian league’s most influential player, the Chilean’s sensational streak between January and March essentially ensured his side broke the Champions League barrier. And he then took that form into the Copa America with some formidable displays and finishes. In an attack that perfectly suits his exact style of game, it’s going to be interesting to what levels the integration will take his game to.

Ability 18
Club form 16
International form 7/10
Total 81

7. David Villa

Barcelona and Spain
Age 29
Position Forward

By his own personal standards, a relatively poor season. And yet Villa still scored 18 goals in 34 games as well as the clincher in the Champions League final to claim the first major club medals of his career. Despite his own drop in goalscoring form, Villa’s resolve, link-up play and fluidity actually enhanced Barcelona. Also scored a series of winning goals in Spain’s Euro 2012 qualification campaign.

Ability 18
Club form 15
International form 4/5
Total 82

6. Samuel Eto’o

Inter and Cameroon
Age 30
Position Striker

His devastating early-season form – including some heroic displays in the Champions League – mean Eto’o arguably took Villa’s place as the world’s number-one number-nine. Indeed, as Barcelona endured a bit of bumpy patch around spring, it was even debated whether they would better served by their old centre-forward. Because, although Inter endured a chaotic season, one of the few constants was Eto’o’s form. And it was only his 21 goals and nine assists in 35 games that kept them so high.

Ability 17
Club form 16
International form n/a
Total xx

5. Carlos Tevez

Manchester City and Argentina
Age 27
Position Forward

Having so often come across as an unfinished product in the past, Tevez took his game to a new level over the past season. Operating as both a playmaker and a finisher, his form ensured no major European club was as dependent on one single player as Manchester City. Having scored a third of the club’s league goals and directly contributed a massive 16 points, Tevez was the difference between the Champions League delivery and another season in the wilderness. That is why he’s worth the trouble.

Ability 17
Club form 18
International form 6/10
Total 82

4. Andres Iniesta

Barcelona and Spain
Age 27
Position Attacking midfielder/forward

Quite simply, the best attacking midfielder in the world at the moment. Combining a portion of Xavi’s passing with an element of Messi’s elusive dribbling, Iniesta is a perfect link between the two. His ingenuity can unlock the tightest of defences.

And, after injury disrupted his previous two seasons, this was undeniably his best and most complete for Barcelona. Yet there was still something of a contradiction to it. Although it didn’t have the clear highs of moments like the last-minute strike against Chelsea or the winner in a World Cup, Iniesta was much more consistently effective than ever before. That clear line was reflected in the trajectory of his best passes the season: the glorious through balls against Real Madrid in both the 5-0 win and Champions League second leg.

Indeed, to a degree, it could be argued that Iniesta was the difference between winning the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 and missing out in between. Without him, they struggled to break down Inter’s barricade. With him, they lifted their game to the next level again.

Ability 18
Club form 16
International form 3/5
Total 82

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

Real Madrid and Portugal
Age 26
Position Forward

As the foremost athlete in the world game, Ronaldo again proved himself a simple force of nature. His sheer power – in terms of running, shooting, heading and simple presence – produced an incredible haul of 53 goals that should really brook no argument.

Except one remains. Other than the Copa del Rey final, none of Ronaldo’s goals came in Real’s biggest games last season. In that sense, they were almost all for nought. The team didn’t fully prosper from the individual’s performances.

And that leads into another theory about Ronaldo. As Jonathan Wilson has argued, his utter individualism can make him a liability in the biggest games. Rather than seek the most sensible option or pass, he will almost always go for glory regardless of the difficulty of the shot. To a certain degree, of course, Ronaldo’s goals only brought a minimum amount of trophies because he’s unlucky to be living at the same time as a unique and unprecedented Barcelona team. But then extraordinary require extraordinary achievements.

Ability 19
Club form 18
International form 4/5
Total 91

2. Xavi

Barcelona and Spain
Age 31
Position Central midfield

The player who has most come to define an era – for club and country. And, of course, Xavi kept that momentum going this season. The 31-year-old played over a thousand more passes this season than any other player in Europe this season, with 3,354. But the key point is that almost every one of them has had end product: and that’s Barca’s current position as the best team in the world.

As Michael Cox concluded on Zonal Marking, the consistency of his performances over the past three years simply beggar belief. It’s arguable that no player in history has kept up such a high level across all competitions for quite so long.

Ability 18
Club form 19
International form 4/5
Total 91

1. Leo Messi

Barcelona and Argentina
Age 23
Position Forward

The question, of course, is no longer whether he’s the best of his time. It’s whether he’s the best of all time.

To give that a little context, it is worth asking whether there has ever been an individual player’s club season as perfect as Messi’s in 2010-11.

As part of his remarkable haul of 51 goals, the Argentine scored game-changing goals in 14 separate league matches as well as the key strikes in the Champions League last 16, semi-final and final.

In short, he had a disproportionate influence on Barca’s victory in their two major competitions: the league and European Cup.

And even when Messi wasn’t scoring, he was utterly dominating games. Take, for example, the era-defining 5-0 win over Real. Messi provided two glorious through-balls to turn the Clasico from a match into a massacre. And they both contributed to his total assist haul of 22 – a European record last season.

By the end of the season, of course, there were the customary complaints that Messi couldn’t adapt his form for Argentina. But, just like the World Cup last year, he still utterly excelled in two of the four Copa America games – even if he didn’t score. Argentina’s inherent problems should no longer detract from Messi’s innate excellence.

Because, before that, the Champions League final was a fitting piece de resistance. In the first half alone, Messi nutmegged three different United players – including his relentlessly persistent marker, Park Ji-Sung. And, before he went and won the game, there was a point where he had waltzed through another three defenders at the edge of the box only to be faced with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand directly in front of him. Messi paused, poised himself… then prodded the ball aside for Pedro to shoot. It was a level of control just beyond United.
Of course, it was also a control beyond most players in the world. Or, indeed, in history.

Ability 20
Club form 20
International form 7/10
Total 94

 

Contents

Share your opinion

39 comments
taaol
taaol

I've come across some splendid remarks here concerning your write-up, and I also concur with them plus the information you've supplied. Thank you so much.


Icecubeguest
Icecubeguest

Neymar ANd Lionel Messi And Cristiano ronaldo And Ronaldinho Are The Best !

footpascher
footpascher

However, it struck me that on the one hand, you know the story of the “Colony: a great PSG or get lost”-banner, and that on the other hand, you seem to ignore the hard times the parisian supporters have been facing since 2010.

Football Pantheon
Football Pantheon

Oh, his ability's actually 16.5 ... although none of the 0.5s seem to have come up in the grid. Irritating.

Iain Duncan
Iain Duncan

Where did you get the 78 for Victor Valdes? If you dont include internationals then he got 32/40 which is 80% or if he gets 0/5 for internationals then he gets 71%. In the list he gets 78

swvolkmann
swvolkmann

I'm sorry but the validity of this otherwise excellent and exhaustive list is obliterated by the omission of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Not even on the 'Players that missed out'. Wow...just...wow. The World Cup 2010 confirmed him as the best central midfielder in the world that isn't Spanish. Granted neither him nor Bayern had storming seasons in 2010-11 but neither did many players on that list. If he was outside the top 25 it would be a bizarre anomaly. But outside the top 50? It's hard to find the words.

Shere_Khan1
Shere_Khan1

No Lahm? No mention of why the only player to be in the team of the tournament at the last 2 world cups missed out? Also i'd suggest Schwienstige.r

MamunHAli
MamunHAli

I like how the list has been compiled and after reading the comments from readers, like the intellect behind the arguments! I cannot argue with the list much either. If I be honest I had almost fallen out of love with football last year (due to not playing much of it myself and other reasons).

Just a shame Stevie G was not in that list anywhere and I really don't want to see the last of his ability... Not yet anyway.

Cant wait for the xmas edition where I hope to see a lot more changes and surprises!

olig23
olig23

An interesting read. Although I cannot fathom how Ronaldo's club form is merely an 18! The guy scored the most goals ever in a single league campaign. Moreover, he has 66 in 63 for Real. I appreciate that players are not judged only on goals but to have Ronaldo and Tevez rated the same is madness, Tevez has been great for City but not anywhere close to being as devastating as Ronaldo.

Shocked
Shocked

This list is a joke.

Modric ahead of Fabregas? Febregas destroyed Madrid in the bernabeau when he was about 19.

Alexis Sanchez at 8? He's only played well in a relatively poor team in a relatively poor league for a year.

I can go on.

Joke.

jirobevis
jirobevis

Tevez seems way too high for me, yes he had a great season but did nothing in Europe or for Argentina, and while he was undoubtedly City's most important player, apart from Chelsea at home I can't remember a big game where Tevez was instrumental.

Similar things can be said about Eto'o, didn't really do much in Europe and didn't compete internationally, Inter were never really contenders for the Scudetto so most of his performances had little significance or importance.

Rooney had a terrible start to the season but for me his contribution to United was far more important that Tevez's to City. Without Rooney United wouldn't have won the league or reached the CL final, without Tevez City would have still won the FA Cup but possibly would have missed out on a top 4, I don't think that warrants being the 5th best player in the world.

Also why is Robben the Budesliga's highest entry, surely last season was all about Dortmund?

Great list as usual though!

joeyslimjim
joeyslimjim

Marcelo had a better season than a lot of players on that list. I think you'll find he is more important to the way Real Madrid play, than what meets the eye. He is essentially another midfielder, and without Marcelo in the team Ronaldo, and the whole team look disjointed and toothless. Apart from Barcelona, Real Madrid never failed to score or lose with him in the side.

Mario Gomez, Van der Sar, Benzema, Borja Velero, Gotze all deserved at least a mention.

aplamm
aplamm

What about Schweinsteiger?

BenTN
BenTN

@MDelaneyST Why does Pastore have 78 and is in 37th when no one until 30th has that score as well? I'm sure it's just a slip, but it's strange

luther_bliss
luther_bliss

Very interesting and impressive list. Difficult to argue with most of it, although I do think that #18 is perhaps a bit harsh on Rooney. Perhaps I'm showing my colours, but I thought that given the guys Rooney had behind him in central midfield, he did exceptionally well in the second half of the season as a no 10, starting many attacks, creating goals and scoring them. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that United would have won the double last season had he played in the Fa Cup semi final against City, such is the way that he orchestrates United's attacks, as we saw on Sunday. Maybe I'm using hyperbole, but I'd say that having Villa and Pedro - who, given the service they received from Alves, Xavi, Iniesta etc, faded a bit after christmas - ahead of Rooney, is harsh to say the least.

y2k156
y2k156

Lot of work has gone on to this and hard to disprove the rankings. We can always argue though:).

For me, DiMaria was way more effective to put RM into where they are as compared to Ozil. I would swap him with Ozil. I also think that Villa at 6 is tad higher than i would have thought of his contributions last year. He was quite good in first half (when Barca were brilliant) but suffered quite a dip in second half when fatigue caught up with him.

Completely agree that Iniesta missing in 2010 (and the long bus ride) where huge factors in Barca's exit against Inter in 2010. Iniesta is a fantastic player and he is key to Barca breaking deadlocks against parked buses.

scott oliver
scott oliver

Hard to disagree with this side, other than, perhaps, to take Tevez out and swap for Suarez. (I am a Liverpool supporter, and don't disagree with the omission of Gerrard...although, I thought he might have merited inclusion in the 'Players who missed out and why' section.)

Of course, the great intangible here is how an individual player's output is affected by his team mates. For instance, you would imagine a virtuoso such as Messi - or, at a level below that, Suarez - flourishing in almost any side. Conversely, players as brilliant as Iniesta might struggle to have the same impact if playing for, say, Blackburn Rovers, where the circulation of the ball isn't quite so impressive. (In the philosophical idiom with which I'm familiar, Iniesta's talent would fail to be actualised, and would thus remain virtual.)

Much as with contemporary debates about the notion of collective, 'swarm' intelligence, this opens the debate about individual talent out on to questions of collective talent - i.e. where the whole displays 'emergent properties' that are more than the mere aggregate of the parts' capacities, but are the result of those parts' interactions (Barcelona and early '70s Ajax provide the best examples here).

SORRY ABOUT MESSING WITH THE SEQUENCE MICHAEL - DELETED AND EDITED AS YOU WERE POSTING !!!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@swvolkmann Cheers but, unfortunately, we didn't include the World Cup as part of our assessment. Just the start of the 2010-11 season. This is what made Schweinsteiger drop so much. Indeed, when we conducted a predecessor to this list in one of other employers at Christmas 2010, Schweinsteiger was in the top 20.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@Shere_Khan1 Only because it was based on form in the 2010-11 season! Lahm didn't replicate his previously excellent World Cup form!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@olig23 Many thanks for the words and comment.Yes, the only reason that Tevez has more than Ronaldo is because, ultimately, Tevez had a more holistic effect on his team's performance. His goals lifted City to the Champions League (hugely important) and also broke a 35-year trophy drought.Ronaldo, by contrast, didn't improve their overall league points and there is an argument, initiated by Jonathan Wilson, that his individuality is a actually a liability for teams in the biggest games. And that actually takes away from his team.

So, in that sense, his goals didn't mean *that* much. But it's still 18 out of 20, which is 9 out of 10... not far off perfect!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@Shocked Or perhaps it's more of a joke that you feel free to pass such critical comment despite not reading how such a list is comprised.Fabregas's performance at the Bernabeu at 19 is irrelevant since the list is primarily based on performances over the last season.Fabregas may have more ability than Modric - as the list actually illustrates if you'd bothered to look through - but he didn't apply it as well over the last season. That is undeniable.

As for Sanchez and a "relatively poor team". Well, surely if he lifted that "relatively poor team to Champions League" then that's a massive achievement?

I could go on.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@jirobevis I suppose the only reason that Robben is ahead is because the 'ability' aspect acts as a control. And, since many of Dortmund's players were so young last season, we still don't have complete idea of their ability.Tevez only so high because he was so important to City making that big breakthrough. But, in their position, there wasn't that much competition for Eto'o, Tevez. Rooney as you say but, unfortunately, we had to take a complete view of season which did stand against him! Expect him to be much higher at end of the year.

Cheers for the words!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@joeyslimjim All very fair points and Marcelo just missed out. He, along with every one of those players you mentioned, should be in those who just missed out.

Except Van der Sar actually... because he retired and is no longer active player by the time list published, we took executive decision to omit him!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@BenTN That is a slip! He should be on 76. A few things like that slipped through. Will rectify!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@luther_bliss I would completely agree on Rooney's late-season form. He was back to his best and approach Ronaldo/Messi levels. But unfortunately for him, the list had to view season as a whole and take into account first few months - where he was miserable! We're updating at Christmas, when I expect him to shoot up.Cheers for kind words too.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@y2k156 Many thanks sir. Interesting point on Di Maria. It's certainly up for debate, as you say!We did a similar list (for the Tribune paper) at Christmas and Villa was fourth so he has fallen in that since. Like many Barca players, though, they're such a fluid system that every player becomes inherently important, if you get me? And they did reach a sensational level last season.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@scott oliver Very interesting thoughts and thanks for the input. In fact, we plan to address this issue a little more in our forthcoming (and biggest!) list: the 100 greatest players of all time.

In something like this, though, we can only go on the evidence we've been given. And how a player applied his ability over the last year. I'm afraid Gerrard didn't at all, so he didn't get near the list.

Re Iniesta at Blackburn... you'd have to imagine he'd impress in patches but appear increasingly frustrated as he consistently tries. Nevertheless, a bigger club woul spot enough in his appearances to snap him up!

swvolkmann
swvolkmann

But as I point out, there are many players that had poor seasons that still command high positions on this list. Sneijder wasn't much better. So Schweiny should have fallen out of the top 10 along with them, but as I say I just can't understand not including him in the top 50. Also the title of the list is 'The 50 greatest players in the world', not 'The 50 best players in the world at the moment' or 'The 50 best players in the world in the 2010-2011 season'. And as I say, I'm just amazed that anyone that knows their football as well as you clearly do not regarding Schweinsteiger as one of the 50 best players on the planet, whatever his form may have been in that period. But at the end of the day it's your list, and as I say otherwise I think it's great.

Shere_Khan1
Shere_Khan1

@MDelaneySTWhy not Di Natale then or Gomez then? They both scored far more goals than Drogba or Forlan. Gomez scored plenty in the champions league.

olig23
olig23

Fair point on Tevez, an I do think he has been hugely important for Manchester City so I certainly can see where you are coming from on that one.

As much as I respect Jonathan Wilson I disagree with him on the Ronaldo argument, and this coming from an Arsenal fan. I think there is certainly some truth that his individuality could be detrimental to the team and that makes sense to me intuitively.

However, if I accept that this current Barcelona side are a once in a generation sort of team I think it is fair to say that Ronaldo has had a hugely positive impact on Real. During his first season Real set their highest points total ever in La Liga and in his second he broke the league record for goals by a single player. Had we not been witness to a truly special side in the form of Barcelona I am sure this Real team would be two time champions in practically all other eras. so I cannot see much evidence that his self serving style has had a negative impact on the team.

Ne3vertheless, I think this is a good read and of course there are always going to be aspect people disagree on. I just cannot believe I am defending Cristiano Ronaldo!

Shocked
Shocked

@MDelaneyST

I did look through how the list was compiled - and if your formula throws up such obvious errors maybe you should consider that it is the flaw.

Stats show that Fabregas created more chances per minute of on-field play than any other player in europe last season. If Messi suffers a hamstring injury this year are we to assume that he is no longer the world's best player?

"Hulk: The reason as brilliant as he was, the feeling remains he need a bit more road-testing on the biggest stage"

Ganso is on the list. Identify the big stage he excelled on last season.

Di natale scored 28 goals in 36 Serie A league games and doesn't make the it.

Alexis Sanchez is at position 8 because of his achievements. I don't contest that he should be on the list but putting him ahead of Vidic, Casillas etc. is a joke.

I stand by my opinion.

MyrmidonMaristrotc
MyrmidonMaristrotc

Iniesta at Blackburn would probable have an impressive season amidst inferior teammates, aka Charlie Adam at Blackpool.

@MDelaneyST

swvolkmann
swvolkmann

Ok we'll have to agree to disagree! Take care and keep up the good work, look forward to the next installment of this series. Will be looking for Schweiny's position with interest given his form this season! ;)

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@swvolkmann Schweinsteiger should, admittedly, be in players who just missed out.

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@swvolkmann We were actually going to call it exactly that: 'the 50 best players in the world in the 2010-11 season'... but unfortunately it was far too unwieldy (if still accurate) so just included the prefix 'summer 2011'. The rankings are exclusively taken from 2010-11 and Sneijder did drop considerably form his position in late 2010! He'll drop even further when we update it at the end of the year!

MDelaneyST
MDelaneyST moderator

@Shocked If you looked through how the list was compiled then why did you mention Fabregas's performance at the Bernabeu when he was 19. And we saw that Fabregas stat. But we also saw when he did and didn't create chances.

And, if Messi did get a hamstring injury then, although he would undoubtedly remain the most talented player in the world, he wouldn't - for example - be in contention for a Ballon D'Or. And, in fact, his ability rating on this list would keep him very high.

Ganso was utterly superb in the Copa Libertadores and Brazil's best player in the Copa America.

Di Natale just missed out. If there were 100 players, he would have made it. But 50 isn't that big a number. His goals weren't as important to Udinese as Sanchez's overall influence - which any Serie A watcher pretty much agrees. Sanchez was named the best player in the division by most pundits last season. Either he or Cavani. He also bolstered it with a good Copa America.

And he's also exceptionally talented. More so than Casillas and Vidic, whose performances he arguably matched/probably surpassed.