World Cup 2014 best XI
Manuel Neuer, Germany
Other goalkeepers have made more spectacular saves, but Neuer’s all-round goalkeeping was by far the best in the tournament.
His performance against Algeria in the second round was remarkably proactive, and the type of display that genuinely might inspire the next generation of goalkeepers to play in a completely different way. He repeatedly swept well outside his penalty area, and on two occasions he wasn’t simply making interceptions or clearances, but instead getting stuck into 50:50 tackles.
When called upon to make saves, he could do that too – a double save from Paulinho against Brazil (albeit when the game was effectively over) was the highlight.
Jerome Boateng, Germany
Perhaps a controversial choice – Philipp Lahm is widely regarded as the best right-back of his generation, and captained Germany to victory. But Lahm spent the first couple of games in the centre of midfield, and didn’t play particularly well, making careless mistakes against both Portugal and Ghana. Had he played the entire tournament at right-back – a move which made Germany a better side – he’d be a shoo-in.
Boateng, however, played well throughout the group stage at right-back – in the game against USA, for example, he was the man who led the attacking with some dangerous bursts and good crosses. In the knockout stage he was switched to the centre and continued to excel. In the final his excellent defensive work compensated for Mats Hummels’ struggles, and he ran Bastian Schweinsteiger close as the final’s best player. Over the tournament, his performances were more consistent than those of Lahm.
Mario Yepes, Colombia
Now 38 years old, Yepes was considered one of Colombia’s weak links heading into this competition – his pace had gone, and he forced Colombia to play too deep as a result. But the absence of his regular centre-back partner Luis Perea meant the more mobile Cristian Zapata played instead, and this helped bring out Yepes’ best.
Zapata provided the pace, while Yepes could concentrate on playing as an old-school stopper: dominant in the air and precise with his distribution on the ground. His best performance actually came in Colombia’s defeat to Brazil, where he was tested more than in the group stage, but held strong and Brazil rarely threatened in open play. He didn’t make any mistakes all tournament, and was always in the right position to make clearances.
Ezequiel Garay, Argentina
Argentina’s defence was surprisingly dependable throughout this tournament, with Mario Gotze’s winner in the final the first knockout stage goal Alejandro Sabella’s team conceded – and that was their third extra-time period.
Garay is by far Argentina’s best defender – not particularly talented on the ball or flashy in his manner of defending, but simply solid and reliable. Against the Dutch in the semi-final he was particularly impressive – Holland simply couldn’t find a way around him.
Daley Blind, Netherlands
Left-back was arguably the weakest position in the competition, so it’s probably appropriate that Blind only spent part of his time there. Amazingly, he played left-back, left-wing-back, centre-back and central midfield throughout the competition, playing each role excellently, showing great positional discipline but also guile and ambition on the ball.
His opening performance during the 5-1 thrashing of previous champions Spain was his best, and included two fantastic assists from the left flank.
Javier Mascherano, Argentina
The competition’s best holding midfielder by a distance, and having played at centre-back at Barcelona for the past few years, it was highly impressive Mascherano was so consistent in his old, natural position at the base of midfield.
Surprisingly, he shone with his distribution as well as his destructive ability – see his great ball out to Angel Di Maria in the build-up to Leo Messi’s opener against Nigeria, or the way he constantly switched play right, where Argentina looked dangerous, during the semi-final against the Netherlands. His best moment, though, was the 90th minute tackle on Arjen Robben in that same game – Mascherano didn’t just guard his centre-backs from in front, he covered for them in behind.
Toni Kroos, Germany
In the final he was overshadowed by Bastian Schweinsteiger, and made the game’s biggest mistake with his woeful back-header into the path of Gonzalo Higuain.
But for much of the tournament Kroos was Germany’s key player, commanding the midfield zone with a mixture of physicality and technicality. His passes can be reliable and incisive, but more than anything he understands the situation of the game, boasting a Xavi-esque knowledge of how to position himself, and how to distribute the ball, particularly obvious in the 7-1 thrashing of Brazil.
He also delivered a stream of great set-pieces, which brought some of Germany’s most crucial goals.
Lionel Messi, Argentina
Messi shouldn’t have won the Golden Ball award for best player in the tournament, but he was in the top three.
In the group stage, Messi was more about moments than overall dominance – a fine goal against Bosnia, a long-range cracker in the last minute against Iran, then a thumping finish and a glorious free-kick against Nigeria. In the knockout stage he became a different beast, increasingly patient with the ball in the mould of an old-school Argentine number ten, rather than the turbocharged direct dribbler we’ve become accustomed to.
James Rodriguez, Colombia
The tournament’s best player. Let’s break it down game-by-game.
In the first game, a 3-0 win over Greece, Rodriguez dropped deep to overload the midfield zone, and sprayed some brilliant passes out to Juan Cuadrado to lead Colombia’s charge down the right.
In the second game, a 2-1 win over Ivory Coast, he did the same – and also headed in the opener from a corner, then made the crucial tackle high up the pitch in the build-up to the second goal.
In the third game, a 4-1 win over Japan, he was rested as Colombia were already through – yet in 45 minutes as a substitute he scored a clever goal and assisted two more.
In the fourth game, a 2-0 against Uruguay, he again dictated play in midfield, showed clever movement to open up space for others, smashed in the goal of the tournament and added the crucial second.
In the 2-1 defeat to Brazil, he was the game’s best player – the only attacker making things happening in a scrappy, aggressive, horrible game otherwise dominated by fouling.
He scored in all five games, finishing with six goals and two assists. In a way, it was actually his performance against the Ivory Coast that was most impressive – you expect a number ten to be commanding the game and maybe scoring goals, but you don’t expect him to be heading in from a corner and making crucial tackles.
By the time of his elimination, only Robben and Messi were close to matching his level of performance, and while there’s a vague argument that the player of the tournament should get further than the quarter-final, neither Robben nor Messi contributed enough to make them more deserving of that award.
Arjen Robben, Netherlands
From the outset this seemed a different Robben – even faster, even more ruthless, even more determined. His counter-attacking inspired the brilliant 5-1 win over Spain, then he scored another great goal on the break against Australia, and dominated against Chile as the Dutch finished with nine points.
His move out to the right against Mexico prompted the dramatic late turnaround, and then against Costa Rica his dribbling was the only chance of the game seeing a goal – he got four Costa Ricans booked as they attempted to stop him. He was quiet in the semi-final against Argentina, but ran the game in the third-place play-off, winning the penalty in the opening moments, and twice playing clever passes to overlapping players on the right, who crossed for the second and third goals.
Thomas Muller, Germany
Not a vintage tournament for strikers, and Muller actually ended up on the right.
But his hattrick against Portugal showed his quality in that position, combining lethal goalscoring with constant lateral running into wide positions to open up space for others. He also scored a fine goal against USA and the clever opener against Brazil, and when he didn’t score he was always dangerous – setting up goals against Ghana and Algeria, and dangerous in the final as both sides looked to attack down the right.
Like in 2010, Muller finished with five goals and three assists – no-one knows quite what he is, but he’s very good at it.
Philipp Lahm, Rafael Marquez, Ron Vlaar, Jan Vertonghen
Hector Herrera, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Charles Aranguiz
Alexis Sanchez, Karim Benzema, Neymar
David Ospina, Guillermo Ochoa, Tim Howard, Alireza Haghighi
Gary Medel, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Christian Gamboa, Mats Hummels, Serge Aurier, Fabian Johnson, Kenneth Omeruo, Marcos Rojo, Mats Hummels
Jose Vazquez, Oscar, Mathieu Valbuena, Luiz Gustavo
Juan Cuadrado, Ivan Perisic, Giovani dos Santos, Tim Cahill, Joel Campbell, Xherdan Shaqiri, Enner Valencia
World Cup 2014 best XI