It’s the season for lists. As we all know, assuming we aren’t denizens beneath the nearest rock, The Guardian has a list of the 100 top footballers in the world. As with every year, it sparks many conversations, not least of which is “Whuuuuut?!”
This is exactly what lists are supposed to do. They can’t be accurate, they can’t be scientific, because how in the hell can you science football qualities? The late, unlamented Castrol Index tried it, but there were two weeks when Thierry Heny was the world’s best football while Messi was plopping in goals from the moon, and people were like, “Sheeeeit!” That’s the danger of endeavors that apply objective science to the subjective. “Did you friggin SEE that goal?!” is about as scientific as most of us get, the sterling work of the soccer analytics crowd notwithstanding. But even those folks, when you point to Iniesta, just shrug and say, “Elf shit.”
Most of us watch lots of football. My man cave still has echoes of weekend matches bouncing off the wall. A typical weekend involves Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Premiership, Portugal, Holland, and anything else I can get my goggle eyes on. In all of those countless hours of football, were Satan to show up and demand a list of the 20 best players at the cost of my mortal soul … fire-retardant undies beckon.
Most lists are gibberish until you get to the final third, if you will, like most teams. A top 100 list is silly until about the last 15, because those are the players that separate themselves in that subjective sense. Ribery is on the Guardian list, but he only played 9 matches this year. Now, maybe those 9 matches made those who watched them faint and fart fire, but naw, bruh. Probably not. Robben is up there. Barça players lurk on the list, seemingly in places that put the lie to the team’s exalted status. And culers natter and scoff about “So and so is better than Pique? In what lifetime?” And so it goes, until Messi takes the top spot, then it will be “Aaaah, I knew it all along.” But that’s what lists do.
Even when the Guardian takes a host of pundits, folks who watch and know the game, they can’t come up with a list that everyone agrees on. Hell, it probably isn’t even a list that they all agree on. So any top footballers list, even theirs, isn’t science. It’s somebody saying, “These guys rock.” And hell, anyone can do that. Watch.
Top 5 footballers in the world, without a hint of science or math:
5. Robert Lewandowski. The top of this list is heavily achievement weighted, of necessity. An extraordinary player doing wonderful things for his team, such as Etienne Capoue at Leicester City, gets notice, but at some point the best players do the best stuff for the best teams. Lewandowski came to a lot of notice during that absurd stretch of the season where he was scoring bags of goals like falling out of bed. But this Bayern Munich striker was snagged from Borussia Dortmund for the precise array of gifts that he brings to the table, which is predominantly the ability to put the ball in the back of the net. He isn’t pretty, his goals are mazy, crazy runs that make boys tape posters to their walls. For culers, he’s a lot like Samuel Eto’o, in that if you get him the ball in the neighborhood of the goal, the ball has a very high probability of going in. If you look at his ESPN Soccernet stats, they aren’t all that impressive: 25 goals in 45 games from 177 shots. Messi or Ronaldo would have to go into the sanitarium for depression if they scored 25 goals over the course of a season. But those two players have skewed the production expectations for goal scorers. Lewandowski is a force. He’s evil, and he’s always there. When he isn’t scoring, he’s driving defenders insane, which means that other teammates can score. He isn’t much for trickery or gimmicks, and is as likely to score a goal from just sticking his foot out the right way as anything else. But he scores. A great scorer isn’t necessarily someone who scores a ton of goals, though 25 goals is a lot of goals. He also scores key goals. There Bayern is, lolling about, lateral passing some opponent to death as a defense scurries about in preservation of that 0-0. Then suddenly, the ball is in the net, and Lewandowski is gallivanting about, hugging folks. And that’s it. It’s strength, it’s quickness, it’s knowing where to be and more importantly, where someone isn’t going to be. Phrases such as “impact player” are stupid, because what do they mean? And yet, there are players who affect a match in significant ways, whether they score a goal or not. Bayern Munich was one of the four best club sides in world football last season, says the Champions League semi-finals. Barring a set of injuries, who knows what might have happened to their season last year? But a lot less would have happened had Lewandowski not been their BLUF (Big Lug Up Front).
4. Luis Suarez. You can say all you want about his qualities as a human being, and many do. What you can’t argue with is the astonishing production of this player. Suarez is a fully realized Diego Costa, with all the vexation and villainy, but in a very different way. Costa pushes, shoves, falls over and sneaks stuff. Suarez is physical when he needs to be, but his biggest thing is that he never. Stops. Moving. Ever. If you’re an opposing CB, he is impossible to track. And you can’t hand him off to a different player, because he will outmuscle an FB and do something that will make your team sad. So he needs a CB, preferably two of them. But even then, he’s always moving. A CB isn’t going to track him out to the halfway line, but if you don’t and he gets a running start, you’re screwed. A CB will try to track him as he lurks off the shoulder of the defense like a sinister David Villa, but there again exists a problem that makes Suarez unplayable: he is capable of generating astonishing force, shotmaking and angles from a ball from which most strikers can do precisely nothing. So a ball that the ordinary striker punts back to midfield, Suarez can turn into a goal. Yet he also has this annoying quality, one that for all we know might be part of his back of tricks, where he can’t even seem to perform a basic task correctly, seeming to have two cinderblocks for feet. Touch after touch is fumbled away, or he will topple over at the slightest contact, holding some body part. Then, suddenly Suarez will exhibit a pillow-soft touch, and one-time a ball that bends at a 90-degree angle into the top corner. But he doesn’t just score goals. He scores big goals: first goals, winning goals. As a player who came to Barça with a lot of baggage, along with his 80+m price tag, his debut in the away Classic, a 3-1 defeat, left many questions. But as he rounded into form, he proceeded to work into his team’s attack in a way that made it unbeatable. Messi and Neymar were waiting for the thing element in a pure striker, someone to take the crosses and turn them into something dangerous, but who also had a sense for the kind of associative play that for a while had Suarez’s assist totals keeping pace with his goalscoring. But as with Lewandowski at Bayern Munich, Suarez gave all the crosses, all the passes into the box, a purpose, a terminus.
3. Neymar. At a recent Chicago Penya gathering, someone asked how to characterize the willowy Brazilian, and the only words that came to mind were, “Worth all the aggravation.” Everything that was predicted for him has come to pass, but he has added a work rate that makes him a dogged pursuer of loose balls as well as a capable contributor to the team’s press. When Neymar came to Barça, a lot was made of his seeming unwillingness to track back. But under the tutelage of Luis Enrique, he is a worker in the mold of Thierry Henry. He doesn’t cover as much ground but he is just as willing. This sits atop a player whose ankles must be ball bearings, and who understands not only his game but the game that his team needs to play, and needs him to play. The theory of Neymar was that he would solve the problems of the left-sided attack, which was then represented by Iniesta, who is wonderful but the ball just won’t go in the net for him. Neymar also represented a very different kind of attack. Iniesta came by stealth. Neymar came via Brazilian bombast, with an in-your-face flair that capitalized on his pace with and without the ball, and an exceptionally quick first step. The initial complaint was that Neymar stopped the ball too much when he arrived. What we can now see is that he was developing and learning to use the skill set that he has. When Neymar stops, he is generally then going to blow past his defender. It was always known that Neymar could dribble. What wasn’t known was how he would adapt to not only needing to score goals, but learning to play with the best player in the game in Lionel Messi. Neymar adapted by making himself subordinate, but not in a paralyzing way like Alexis Sanchez. He understood that Messi was the best and the boss, but he also understood that he had to play his game in the best way that he could, and the team needed to do some adapting to that game. Barca plays faster when Neymar is on the pitch, while also playing in a way that enhances the attack’s versatility and capabilities. He can score goals, from the extraordinary to the mundane. He was, essentially, the second most important player in attack, capable of holding his own with Messi.
2. Sergio Busquets. A Twitter conversation about Iniesta with a metrics person led to an admission that there is really no way to quantify what players such as Xavi and Iniesta do. They are one who makes the pass that leads to the pass that becomes the assist. Statistically, there is no justification for those kinds of players, yet having Xavi and Iniesta on the Ballon d’Or podium was as natural as could be. Busquets is another anomaly. To say that he is valuable argues for MVP status, rather than excellence, so we need more than that. Simply put, Busquets is the greatest “creative destroyer” in the game today, and quite possibly the best player of his kind that the game has ever seen, a statement complicated by the fact that there really hasn’t been a Busquets before. His game embodies everything that Johan Cruijff talked about, most notably reading the game and having the foresight that makes a player seem fast, because he knows where the ball is going to be. He isn’t a defensive midfielder per se, nor is he a holding or attacking mid. He’s just a midfielder. Busquets struggled for a bit when the Barça system left him with too much space to cover, and his athleticism, or lack thereof, became a problem. Adding Ivan Rakitic to the roster had the benefit of compressing space for Busquets, and allowing him to work in quadrants. He has a magical first touch, a sense of where everyone is on the pitch at the exact moment he will receive the ball and where they will be a second after, and that same quality Xavi had that allows a midfielder to influence movement with feints and turns. Busquets is never caught not facing up the pitch, shoulders open, ready to distribute. And by adding more attack-minded passing to his overall game, he has gotten better. Busquets has always had the octopus legs that reach out to destroy counterattacks before they get to the oft-vulnerable back line. But he has added assists to his game, as well as the ability to play farther up the pitch, working in tandem with Iniesta as Xavi used to. As Barça has reverted to an adapted type, a modern variant of the possession football that has been misnomered tika-taka, Busquets’ command and control aspects have become even more vital. Without him, the Barça attack is different. With him, the attack folds time and space, and adds one-touch elegance and that mythical, magical la pausa.
1. Lionel Messi. His spot at the top of this Top 5 is presumed, but it isn’t as easy as that. When Barça added Neymar and then Suarez, Messi’s world changed, and for the better. The parallels between Messi and American basketball legend Michael Jordan continue to astonish. Jordan really reached his fullest flower when he had other top-quality players to play with, but those players also had to understand their roles. The presence of those players broadened Jordan’s game, and the potential that his vision and athleticism could add. They also meant that he didn’t have to drive to the basket every time to dunk so that the Bulls could score. Messi, with Suarez and Neymar, could step back and liberate his fullest competitor aspects. Messi wants to win football matches. If Barça lost 3-4 but Messi got a hat trick, he wouldn’t he happy. If Barça won 1-0 and Messi had a hand in the winning goal, he would be giddy. He just wants to kill. Two sons have matured Messi in a way that has made him a more complete player in that the game doesn’t matter as much. It’s purer for him. But Messi also got two cohorts who change how he can and does play. Never has Messi played more like his number. It used to be that people would grumble as Messi took the ball in the midfield, because he was going to run at goal and just had more ground to cover. Now when he takes the ball in midfield, he has options. He might run, he might pass, a versatility that has made the best player in the game even more dangerous. The diagonal ball to a streaking Neymar or Alba opened up many an offense. One-touch passes and layoffs found Neymar and Suarez in space. But Messi hasn’t just developed as an attacker. He has also developed as a player who has never been more aware of his immense skills and how best to use them to help his team win. Suarez and Neymar have liberated Messi, and rather than doing as a lesser player might, which is to resist that change and fight them for primacy, Messi reveled in having high-quality teammates, and adapted his game to that situation. To say that the best player in the game got better is mind-bending, even as it is precisely what happened. Messi has never been a more complete player, never more capable of dominating a match by scoring, dictating tempo or lacing in the exact right pass. A selfless superstar is a rare thing, but that is what makes Messi work. He just wants to win, and has put his prodigious skill set at the disposal of his team. That Messi is in this spot on this list is no surprise. But few could have predicted that he would become even greater by becoming fully selfless.