ZM’s European Team of the Season

May 20, 2010

With only one game left of the 2009/10 season, it’s time to create that inevitable, impossible-to-please dream team from across the major European leagues.

Playing in a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 system that remains the most popular formation throughout Europe, it also reflects the current emphasis upon centre-backs who can pass the ball, attacking full-backs, ball-playing central midfielders and versatile attacking players.

Goalkeeper:

Pepe Reina, Liverpool

It’s remarkable that any Liverpool player has managed to emerge from this season with their reputation enhanced, but Reina has saved Liverpool from yet more misery on countless occasions. Whilst his season will probably be remembered solely for the unfortunate/hilarious ‘beach ball’ goal at Sunderland, he still managed to keep the (joint) highest-number of clean sheets in the Premiership, for the fourth time in his five Premiership seasons. Incredibly, despite this record he has still never got into the PFA Team of the Year, suggesting that despite his consistent individual brilliance, he remains underappreciated. Have some of his best saves from 2009:

Right-back:

Daniel Alves, Barcelona

It is often assumed that full-backs who attack constantly are also weak defenders, a tag that seems to have been given to Alves. But he’s consistently shown he is more than a competent right-back defensively, rarely being beaten on his own flank, and covering his full-backs well from balls over the top from the left. Rarely has any footballer possessed such speed and stamina, and Alves is as close as any footballer has come to being able to play in two positions at once, right-back and right-wing, once Messi has drifted inside. And when he does get forward, he can do things like this:

Centre-back:

Lucio, Inter

Quite possibly the signing of the season. Getting Brazil’s captain at a knock-down rate last summer was one of the best pieces of business Jose Mourinho has done since leaving Portugal, as Lucio has formed a mildly terrifying partnership with another South American veteran, Walter Samuel. Lucio is remarkably unconventional for a top-notch defender – whereas many of his class are calm, assured players who read the game well and look to be playing it at a stroll, Lucio is a rugged, dramatic player who seems to want to exaggerate every tackle, clearance and coming-together with an opponent. Everything Lucio does is the outfield equivalent of a goalkeeper’s ’save for the cameras’. Regardless, when it comes to the pure nitty-gritty of defending, he is one of the world’s best and has had a tremendous first season with Inter. The way he handled Didier Drogba against Chelsea was particularly impressive:

Centre-back:

Gerard Pique, Barcelona

If Lucio is a throwback to the brutal South American defenders of years gone by, Pique is every inch the modern centre-back. Able to bring the ball forward as well as spread to the flanks to widen the pitch, Pique is also excellent defensively and his reading of the game is superb. Last season’s Champions League final against his former seemed to be a watershed moment for Pique – transforming from a decent centre-back to a world class one, and he’s continued that form this season. How many other centre-backs could score this goal?

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Left-back:

John Arne Riise, Roma

Many thought Riise’s career as a top-level player was over when he was forced out of Anfield by Rafael Benitez, but this season’s form has shown he still has a few years left in him yet. Perhaps the key to his rejuvenation as a player was finding a club that suits his playing style. At Roma he does not merely have a license to get forward, he has strict instructions to get forward – with their left-sided attacking width coming from Mirko Vucinic, their main striker, Riise overlapping is important to allow Vucinic to cut in and offer a goal threat. He has made one or two mistakes when defending at the far post, but has made up for them with some crucial goals, such as against Juventus:

Central midfield:

David Pizarro, Roma

Is this man Europe’s most underrated footballer? Few players can control a game as completely as Pizarro can, and he was vital in Roma’s near-triumphant return from the dead. Pizarro is essentially an Andrea Pirlo-style deep playmaker, sitting infront of the defence and spraying passes around the pitch. But whereas Pirlo often seems unconvincing when forced to take on a slightly more defensive role, Pizarro is a more complete midfielder, battling to win the ball before keeping hold of it expertly. There is no better footballer that will be absent from this year’s World Cup. Check out the tackle and cross for Riise’s goal above, and here’s highlights of his performance against Fiorentina this season:

Central midfield:

Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona

Two seasons in a row, Xavi has dominated the biggest club game in Europe at the Bernabeu. Four assists last season in the 2-6, both assists this season in the 0-2. And it would have been more, had Lionel Messi not missed two fairly basic one-on-ones with Iker Casillas. He is probably the most reliable, consistent passer of the ball in the world, and ZM’s passing statistics for Barcelona games generally resulted in a ludicrous dominance from Barcelona’s vice-captain (see here, here and here. Now aged 30, he continues to get better and better. Here’s his two assists at the Bernabeu:

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Attacking midfield:

Wesley Sneijder, Inter

There can be few players in Sneijder’s position who have adapted so quickly to a new league. From the first game of the season, where he helped inspire Inter to a 0-4 victory over Milan, it was clear that he was to be Inter’s main man this season. Whilst the trequartista role has declined in popularity in recent years, Sneijder thrived in that advanced position behind two strikers, whilst also able to play a slightly deeper position, sometimes in a 4-2-4 when Inter went chasing games. His passing ability in open play, his direct running and his free-kick ability make him a wonderful player to watch, and a very difficult one to stop. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge he dominated the game and it was fitting that Inter won the game after a superb Sneijder through-ball:

Forward:

Arjen Robben, Bayern

Another Dutchman chucked out by Real Madrid last summer, Arjen Robben has been the Bundesliga player of the year, and had a vital impact in Bayern Munich’s run to the European Cup final too. His ‘winners’ against Fiorentina and against Manchester United were two of the goals of the tournament in terms of pure technical quality, and even better considering the importance of both. Robben has generally stuck to the right-hand side in Bayern’s fluid 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1 system, cutting onto his stronger left foot to score 16 goals in 24 league games, and is therefore the posterboy for the recent popularity of inverted wingers. Now a Champion in four different countries – Holland, England, Spain and Germany – Robben is playing for the first time as the key player at a top club, and is playing his best-ever football as a result. The Fiorentina and Manchester United goals have been played non-stop in recent months, so how about his incredible winner in the German Cup semi-final against Schalke:

Forward:

Lionel Messi, Barcelona

Inclusion into the band of all-time greats might have to wait until he has performed brilliantly on the international stage, but Messi’s form over the past two seasons has already elevated him to the best footballer of this century. The most immediate comparison there is to Zinedine Zidane, but for all the Frenchman’s moments of magic, at no stage in his career did he play football as consistently well as in Messi’s last two seasons. Able to play wide-right, as a central playmaker or as  false nine, specific position doesn’t seem to matter for Messi. His record of 34 league goals equals Ronaldo’s legendary record of 1996/97, and having played two games fewer and further from goal, Messi’s record is probably even more incredible. He is still only 22. Here’s his hattrick against Valencia:

Forward:

Wayne Rooney, Manchester United

Many in England protested that Wayne Rooney was being played out of position for the past couple of seasons when he often featured on the left flank, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo more of a forward role. The consensus, however, was that his ‘true’ position was as a deep-lying forward, creating chances more than finishing them. It’s a surprise to most, therefore, that he has played the best football of his career as an out-and-out striker, a poacher inside the 18-yard box – it’s not long since he was given the ‘a scorer of great goals, but not a great goalscorer’ tag. Rooney has actually played three distinct roles this season upfront. Firstly, in a 4-4-2 as an out-and-out striker who looks to link with Dimitar Berbatov, his strike partner, who plays slightly deeper. Secondly, as a lone striker playing purely as a ‘poacher’ in games United dominate possession in, in a vaguely similar way Ruud van Nistelrooy used to. Thirdly, also playing as a lone striker but playing as a false nine – dropping deep and looking to create space for midfield runners, like against Arsenal. Like Messi, Sneijder (and Cristiano Ronaldo) Rooney is proving that the very best attacking players can play well in a variety of roles. His goal away at Arsenal showed the value of the false nine role brilliantly:

ZM’s European Team of the Season