There is no player on the pitch more treasured by his team-mates than a world-class midfielder. Without their service a striker’s supply is sealed off, without their shielding a defence’s weakness is laid bare.
They come in different shapes and sizes: the creator, the destroyer, the engines and the enigmas, the anchors and the orchestrators. Given these various flavours, to winnow the very best the world has ever seen down to eight choices, separated by four tiers of retired players only, has been fiendishly difficult.
We’ve given it our best shot …
“Think quickly, look for spaces, that’s what I do. All day. Always looking. Space, space, space.”
If Xavi had been born in a different era, the Russians would not have been the first to travel into space. Mercifully, for football fans, Xavier Hernandez Creus was born in Terrassa, Catalonia, 30 kilometres away from his spiritual home of La Masia.
There he would become not just a disciple of the Barcelona ethos but its greatest-ever proponent, and did he ever practice what he preached.
The man who set and re-set so many passing records is often lumbered with espousing ‘tiki-taka’, an often derogatory phrase associated with keeping the ball in midfield for the sake of it. But the No6 was a man of action as his incredible 184 assists for the Blaugrana, despite so many times playing the first vital pass rather than the final, attest to.
It was, as he says, because of his obsession for space. Wiping opposition midfielders out of it, setting forth others into acres of it. No midfielder in the history of football has had a deeper understanding of his craft.
Say one thing for Matthaus, say he never lacked for confidence. Equal parts brash, brazen and brilliant, at his pomp Matthaus was without peer in the engine room and boy did he know it.
The German juggernaut wrote as many headlines with his performances on the pitch as the quotes he provided off it, remarking once ‘a Lothar Matthaus will not be defeated by his body, a Lothar Matthaus will decide his fate himself’.
The fate of Germany and Bayern Munich was usually safe in his hands. Technically efficient rather than effervescent, his real strength lied in his forcefulness, whether that was the ground he covered, the players he shadowed, the shots he hammered or his sheer force of will.
Diego Maradona once described Matthaus as his toughest opponent and his defensive qualities eventually saw him retreat deeper before ending his career as a sweeper. That prolonged his career into his late 30s and the 21st century, but his legend remains in the early 1990s for his World Cup-winning feats.
Three Ballons d’Or in a row. If that does not seem particularly impressive in the era of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, consider the route he had taken before his greatest years at Juventus.
Platini was always on the cusp of a masterpiece in France. While blossoming into a free-scoring playmaker who made free-kicks his motif, he only won one French Cup with Nancy and was roundly vilified, quite unfairly, for Les Bleus’ early exit from the 1978 World Cup.
Even three years at the strongest club in France at the time, St Etienne, did not bring success on the European front, but Juventus brought forth his true value in 1982. As former president Gianni Agnelli famously said, ‘we bought him for a morsel of bread and he put foie gras on top of it’.
In what was the greatest league in the world, Platini cracked open Serie A with dreamy passes long and short, one-twos that invariably ended with the third in the back of the net. His best goalscoring season – 29 – coincided with Juventus’ European Cup triumph in 1984/85, which he decided with a single penalty.
The curly-haired No10 with the impish grin also brought joy to France on home soil, scoring an unfathomable nine goals in five games in an effort that brought the nation their first major trophy. Thierry Henry the striker may be Les Bleus’ top scorer on 51, but Platini the midfielder sits forever on 41 having accrued 51 fewer caps.
Zinedine Zidane picked up Platini’s crown, dusted it off, and wore it like a halo. Never has there been a midfielder of such angelic beauty.
He knew what his opponent would do before his opponent did. With defenders draped all over him, or with the ball hanging in the air, Zidane would still manage to float away, nonchalant, on auto-pilot. Whereas Xavi found space by never allowing a player near, Zidane would take pleasure in treating antagonists like a spinning top before swanning into the vacated area.
Whether the oft-told tale of Blackburn owner Jack Walker claiming his team didn’t need Zidane thanks to trusty old Tim Sherwood is true, his talent – the full breadth of which can never be told by raw statistics – was not truly understood until he followed Platini’s path to Juventus, before becoming the Galactico of Galacticos at Real Madrid.
In France he will forever be known as the man who delivered the nation’s first World Cup, with two almost identical headers against Brazil. Ironic, then, that his last blow for Les Bleus eight years later came via his head into the sternum of Marco Materazzi – but even that act only adds to the mystique of the most elegant player.
Andrea Pirlo was cool before ice ages were cool. So unflappable, so unflinching, that on one particular day in 2006, he chilled out all day in bed on the Playstation before winning the World Cup in the evening.
It is fitting that for such a laid-back character, Pirlo sank deeper into midfield for good once Carlo Ancelotti got his hands on him. Having started at his boyhood club Brescia as a No10, Inter Milan failed to utilise him properly before making the blunder of all blunders – selling him to their city rivals.
Pirlo was simply too slight and slow to flourish when stationed in the attacking third. Walk him back into his own half, just as Ancelotti did, and the Italian took masterful brushstrokes to the bigger picture.
Those swishes of his right foot, from 40 or 50 yards away, would invariably find others stronger, faster than him. Those swishes of his right foot, from free-kicks just outside the penalty box, would beat goalkeepers far more agile than him.
That he won a World Cup, two Champions League titles, and a combined six Serie A with Milan and Juventus as the fulcrum of those teams, is a demonstration of how unique the sport is: speed of mind will never play the pauper to speed of body.
Charlton was 20 years old when he was pulled to safety from the carcass of a plane that had killed 23 people, eight of them his team-mates. The first survivor of the Munich Air Disaster to be discharged from hospital, he was the foundation on which Matt Busby – who had twice received his last rites on his sickbed – rebuilt his Babes.
Just 23 days after emerging from the fuselage, Charlton lined up for Manchester United in an FA Cup tie against Charlton Athletic, and only infamous roughhouse tactics from Bolton forward Nat Lofthouse prevented them for lifting the trophy that season. A decade later, Charlton would mount the Wembley steps again and lift the European Cup.
Initially stationed as an inside forward before settling as an attacking midfielder, Charlton was the archetypal British player. His work ethic and tackling ability was unparalleled for his position but he also played with a powerful grace, replete with net-bursting strikes.
The modest son of a miner would never admit it himself, but it was said that at one point he was the most famous Englishman alive. With good reason, too – he scored 49 goals for England, a record that stood until Wayne Rooney broke it 45 years later, and his 249 United goals were eventually exceeded by the same man.
He did one thing Rooney, and every other Englishman since 1966, hasn’t. Win a World Cup for England.
When someone tries to tell you x and y is the ‘complete’ midfielder, show them a few clips of Frank Rijkaard. Zinedine Zidane once lamented that for Real Madrid to sell Claude Makelele was like removing the engine from a luxury car, but the combustible Rijkaard was both the motor and that golden lick of paint.
The Dutchman was nominally a defensive midfielder who would screen the defence, intercept and deploy his team-mates into attack, the sight of his long, bounding legs marauding through opposition lines was not an uncommon occurrence.
It helped that during his formative years at Ajax he played in a variety of positions, including as a wide midfielder and a centre-back for several years, before Arrigo Sacchi recognised that he had enough talent for his entire AC Milan team to revolve around.
Somehow, the structured, tactics-saturated style of Sacchi melded with Rijkaard’s own Rinus Michels, Totaalvoetbal-inspired upbringing in perfect harmony.
Indeed the San Siro’s Netherlands nucleus of Rijkaard, Ruud Guillt and Marco van Basten engineered back-to-back European Cup triumphs, before the No4 returned to Ajax for the most perfect of swansong triumphs, winning the big one again in his final act as a player.
To watch Laudrup play, it was as if he had CCTV access to all areas of the pitch. As former Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano once remarked, ‘he had eyes everywhere’.
The sequence would usually run thus. Laudrup receives the ball, finds room with a Cruyff turn, a dragback or his signature ‘La Croqueta’, a quick exchange to his other foot before surging past a defender. Then the pass: left foot, right foot, inside or outside of the boot, stopping time for the opposition even though the intended target never broke stride.
The game came so effortlessly to the Dane that it led some people to lament, including Johan Cruyff himself, that a matching work ethic should have lifted his standing to an indisputable all-time great.
It was under Cruyff at Barcelona that he rose to prominence after underwhelming as Platini’s successor at Juventus, connecting with Hristo Stoichkov and filling his trophy cabinet with four La Liga titles and a European Cup – before being dropped for the 1994 Champions League final and leaving the club in disgust.
Where did he go? Real Madrid, of course. His presence helped break Barca’s monopoly in Spain and, even now, both sets of fans almost hold him in impossibly high regard. But you get the feeling that Laudrup, who by his own volition played no part in Denmark’s Euro 1992 triumph, should be more appreciated the world over – and some of that is his own doing.
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