The countdown continues. Spain’s unlimited depth in midfield is matched by a rising class of goal-scoring midfielders.
20. Xabi Alonso (SPA / Real Madrid)
It was surely the biggest blunder of Rafael Benitez’ Liverpool career when he allowed Xabi Alonso to leave for Real Madrid. The midfield lynchpin had been willing to stay, but was undermined by Benitez’ bizarre attempt to exchange him for Gareth Barry, a vastly inferior player. Many explanations might be offered for Liverpool’s abrupt plunge down the Premier League table last season, but surely none were more salient than the departure of Alonso, whose vision and intelligence had knitted the team together for half a decade. Alonso’s eagle-eyed passing accuracy and elegance on the ball recalls the refined style of countrymen Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Alonso prefers to sit deeper on the pitch, however, to make the fullest use of his extraordinary passing range – unsurpassed in the modern game. Alonso enjoyed a fine debut season with Real Madrid, bringing some much needed composure to the centre of midfield. He also cemented his status as a first team regular for his national team, playing in every match during Spain’s march to victory in the 2010 World Cup. A superb reader of the game, Alonso is Andrea Pirlo’s natural successor as the finest deep lying playmaker on the planet.
19. Gonzalo Higuain (ARG / Real Madrid)
Real Madrid appear curiously reluctant to recognise the worth of their prolific Argentinean hitman – despite his scoring 49 goals in 66 Spanish league matches over the last couple of seasons – a record bettered only by Lionel Messi. The perception is that Higuain is perhaps a bit lacking in the club’s requisite “star quality” – although quite how this is supposed to be defined remains something of a mystery. Regardless, Higuain’s habit of rarely being off the scoresheet has made it quite impossible to leave him out. He has rendered the €41 million singing of the much more hyped Karim Benzema almost entirely superfluous. A powerfully built striker, Higuain is also quick off the mark with excellent ball control. Most crucially, he has that rare and indefinable quality of somehow turning up in the right place at the right time to bury the ball in the back of the net. He scored a very healthy 4 goals in the World Cup for Argentina, including a hat trick against South Korea that was straight out of the poacher’s text book. Only capped 9 times for his country so far, Higuain already looks set to become the natural successor to Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo in the role of Argentina’s Number 9 goal machine.
18. Daniel Alves (BRA / Barcelona FC)
Some say that Alves’ form dipped for Barcelona over the course of the last season, but you wouldn’t know it from his overall contribution. He was credited with 15 assists across all competitions – an incredible statistic for a fullback. In fact, there’s a good case to be made that, with the decline of David Beckham, Alves has become the finest crosser of a football on the planet. As was the case with his countryman, Roberto Carlos, Alves belongs firmly in the tradition of the all out offensive Brazilian fullback. He is frequently seen charging furiously into attacking positions, but his lightning pace and sheer lungpower ensures that he is rarely caught out at the back either. It’s considered modish to decry Alves’ defensive capabilities, but the truth is that he is precise in the tackle and a fine ball winner. It’s just that he favours the more offensive aspects of his game. Unfortunately for Alves, he shares an international team with the other best right fullback in the game, Maicon, which means that he hasn’t received anywhere near the number of caps a player of his calibre deserves. Bought for €40 million, Alves is far and away the most expensive fullback in the history of the game. He’s also worth every penny of his transfer fee; Alves is as potent an attacking force as any world class playmaker.
17. Diego Milito (ARG / Inter Milan)
One of the best kept secrets in world football, Milito had been a consistently prolific goal scorer for Genoa and Real Zaragoza for years without earning much recognition. He finally hit pay dirt after passing his 30th birthday by signing for Inter Milan, immediately becoming a revelation during the club’s unstoppable march to the treble. Milito’s greatest asset is his impeccable sense of timing on his attacking runs. He’s perhaps not the sort of player who dazzles the eye with feats of ball juggling, but he’s almost always a thorn in the side of opposition defenders. His composure is unflappable, he plays fluently and intelligently, and he scores lots of goals. Whatever the occasion, Milito has brought his A game. He scored the goal against Sienna that secured Inter’s 2009/10 Scudetto on the final day of the season, he scored the winning goal against Roma in the Copa Italia final, he scored against Barcelona in the Champions League semi final first leg and he notched two in the final against Bayern Munich. In an age when top footballers so often disappoint on the grandest of occasions, Milito is the real deal: a player who always delivers the goods.
16. Iker Casillas (SPA / Real Madrid)
Some would claim that Casillas’ form was tapering off last season, but it seems grossly unfair to criticise a keeper for a handful of minor errors when he’s already supplied 11 years of outstanding service. Real Madrid have rarely had a genuine world class defence during all that time; it’s the phenomenally acrobatic shot stopping ability of Casillas that saves them from utter capitulation time and time again. Remarkable that Casillas was already in the Real Madrid first team at the tender age of 19. Usually it takes a decade for a goalkeeper to develop the kind of unflappable composure that Casillas makes his stock in trade. After winning 4 La Liga titles, 2 Champions Leagues and Euro 2008, you wonder how the guy manages to stay motivated year in and out, yet Casillas captained the Spanish national team to victory in the 2010 World Cup to complete the full complement of trophies for club and country. Most remarkable of all is that Casillas is probably only just at the halfway mark of his career as a top level goalkeeper.
15. Wayne Rooney (ENG / Manchester United)
A poor showing at the World Cup has unmistakably taken the shine off an otherwise excellent personal season for Wayne Rooney. Not only did Rooney fail to meet expectations in South Africa, it could be argued that he was actually the worst player of the tournament. Many explanations have been offered for Rooney’s spectacular failure, none of which are especially convincing. The truth is, it looks like he simply bottled it under the unfeasibly intense burden of public pressure. At the same time, it would be a mistake to dismiss Rooney’s considerable credentials as a player. Let’s not forget that he was quite simply sensational for Manchester United for much of the season, single-handedly carrying the team’s title challenge on many occasions. He stepped into the yawning chasm left by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and filled it with aplomb, hitting 34 goals in 44 matches across all competitions while spearheading United’s attack with his aggressive, all action style. Rooney’s sheer drive and physicality is tempered with fine technical acumen and underrated vision, but he will need to exercise more self control and apply himself with greater focus to truly join the ranks of the world’s elite players.
14. Wesley Sneijder (HOL / Inter Milan)
Another in a long line of technically outstanding Ajax Academy alumni. Sneijder is tougher on the ball than his diminutive build would suggest, but his real strength is in his ambidexterity; Sneijder can pass or shoot with power and precision off either foot. He has followed a somewhat controversial career path, developing a reputation for arrogance and tactlessness and getting turfed out of Real Madrid after a couple of seasons of mixed form. Sneijder definitively came of age at Inter Milan, however, proving to be precisely the kind of creative midfield force the club had been lacking in recent years. Sneijder’s skilful touches, defence splitting passes and spectacular long range shots were instrumental to Inter’s unprecedented treble winning season. The playmaker went on to become the joint top scorer in the World Cup with 5 goals in 7 matches, the strikes ranging from the sublime to the fortuitous. Sneijder is rapidly cementing a place for himself among the world’s most influential and creative attacking midfielders.
13. Cesc Fabregas (SPA / Arsenal FC)
The protracted and acrimonious transfer tug of war between Barcelona and Arsenal for Fabregas’ services threatened to overshadow his actual quality as a player. And what a player he has become, adding a bit of good old fashioned English steel to his Barca-Academy acquired finesse, to make for the complete central midfield package. Deployed further up the pitch last season, Fabregas has been racking up the goals and assists. He can run, dribble, shoot and thread through final balls with vision and panache. Largely a bit part player in the World Cup, Fabregas came on late in the final to set up Iniesta for the match winner. It’s only the remarkable quality of Iniesta and Xavi in the attacking midfield berths that prevents Fabregas from taking on a more proactive role in the Spanish national team. For any other side in the world, he’d be a guaranteed starter. Fabregas clearly, feels that his personal ambition has now outstripped that of his club, but he will remain at Arsenal for now. For how many more seasons that will be the case remains to be seen.
12. Frank Lampard (ENG / Chelsea FC)
The veteran midfield hit man continues to deliver the goods for his club season in and out. If Lampard can keep up his current level of form for another season or two, he will surely go down in history as Chelsea FC’s greatest ever player. When it comes to timing runs out of midfield to shoot on goal, there are simply none better in world football. Lampard’s tally of 27 goals in 50 games last season was a career best, and a record to compare with any top class striker. When you also consider that Lampard finished top of the Premier League assists chart, it all adds up to perhaps the most consistently productive player in the game today. Lampard’s performances on the international stage have unfortunately rarely matched his best form at club level, although to the player’s credit, he generally does better than most of his England team mates. Lampard’s long range shooting is first class, and he’s a much better passer of the ball than generally given credit for. Combined with his bustling work rate, steady efficiency and willingness to get involved in the play, it makes Lampard the most complete box to box midfielder in the modern game.
11. Gerard Pique (SPA / Barcelona FC)
When Manchester United let Pique go after four years and just a handful of first team appearances, they surely never envisioned that he would go on to become one of the world’s very best defenders. The return to Barcelona was an apt homecoming for Pique, as he spent his formative years with the club’s famed cantera. Within the space of a couple of seasons, Pique firmly established himself as an essential first choice for both club and country, winning 2 Spanish League titles, the Champions League and the World Cup, rarely putting a foot wrong in any competition. Considerably more elegant than your usual central defender, Pique has been justifiably compared to Franz Beckenbauer. He can initiate attacking plays from the back of the pitch and is often found gliding forwards with the ball at his feet; although rarely when it might compromise his team’s defence solidarity. More importantly, Pique is quick of both feet and brain, able to read the play and intercept attacks with consummate composure. Perhaps the most dramatically improved and clearly emergent talent to arrive in the world game over the last couple of years.
* Rankings continued in post above…