I said on New Years Eve in 2014 that this year in the world of football would not disappoint, despite no major tournament taking place. Disappointed it certainly has not, as we’ve been treated to another 12 months of brilliant entertainment. Barcelona won the Champions League in emphatic style as they beat Juventus 3-1 in the final, Chelsea cruised to the Premier League title in May but now face a relegation battle, whilst in the women’s game, the USA won their record third World Cup as the tournament as a whole proved to be a huge advertisement for the female sport. As always, with the help of the Guardian’s and FourFourTwo’s top 100 players, as well as your votes I have compiled my top 10 players of the year, my team of the year, young player of the year, manager of the year as well as pick out my best goals from world football.
TOP 10 PLAYERS OF 2015
10. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal & Chile) – 27 years old – NEW ENTRY
Arsenal’s talisman is, according to Arsène Wenger, like a lion hunting his prey. “He is this kind of killer,” Wenger says. “When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop. His style is very explosive.” Of all the many compliments lavished upon Alexis Sánchez since his arrival in English football, this one gets to the heart of his no-holds-barred approach. The forward leaves nothing on the field; he goes and he goes; he is utterly relentless. It is supposed to take time for an overseas player to settle in England but Sánchez hit the ground running and he has carried on and on. Consistently superb during his debut season, when he helped Arsenal to win the FA Cup and scored a cracker in the final, he has continued to drive them and even fitted in a Copa América triumph with Chile over the summer. Sánchez has found the perfect match for his qualities in the Premier League and he is more than just a goalscorer. He injects the urgency and tempo, making things happen. His combination of pace, power, incision and ruthlessness is effective enough but when it is allied to his levels of industry and hunger, it is deadly. Written by David Hytner
9. Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich & Germany) – 29 years old – Last Year: 3rd (down 6)
No goalkeeper goes further than Bayern Munich’s and Germany’s Manuel Neuer. The 29-year-old has long left his line behind to become a truly postmodern No1, a defender in gloves, a keeper who dictates the rhythm and direction of his team’s buildup play with pinpoint passes from his own box. When he was 13, coaches at his boyhood club Schalke were so concerned by his lack of height that they considered using him as an outfielder. Neuer believes he could have held his own there too, but a growth spurt put him back on track. This year has been a relatively barren one for the World Cup winner, delivering only another Bundesliga title with Bayern – his third in four seasons at the Allianz Arena – but Neuer continues to set the benchmark for all-round ability. His ease on the ball makes it much harder for opponents to press the defenders – he is always available as an outlet – and his frequent interventions outside the box stifle many threats before they materialise. “It’s riskier not to intercept the ball,” he says, “because world class strikers make very few mistakes.” Needless to say, neither does he. Written by Raphael Honigstein
8. Sergio Aguero (Manchester City & Argentina) – 27 years old – Last Year: 9th (up 1)
Sergio Agüero is one of world football’s surest things in front of goal and the highest-placed Premier League player on the list. The explosive Manchester City striker has had another prolific year despite having suffered two spells on the sidelines due to a knee injury and a troublesome hamstring. His three goals in five games helped Argentina reach the Copa América final in the summer but, undoubtedly, his highlight of 2015 was the jaw-dropping one-man wrecking-ball job against Newcastle, in which he showcased his ability to poach, play off the shoulder, strike from distance and generally terrorise defenders like only a select few can. His five goals in 20 second-half minutes made it clear why the forward is generally considered to be the Premier League’s one true global star. His razor-sharp movement makes him a nightmare to mark but also a perfect foil for creators at club and country, such as David Silva, Lionel Messi and Kevin De Bruyne. His nerveless last-minute penalty against Borussia Mönchengladbach provided the springboard for City’s qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League. Uncomplicated, unerring and universally respected, his questionable fitness is his only drawback. He is in the midst of his peak years, and English football is lucky to have him. Written by
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG & Sweden) – 34 years old – NEW ENTRY
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to the top 10 after a year that saw him win the league with Paris St-Germain and almost single-handedly take Sweden to Euro 2016. Still a talisman for club and country, he seems determined to make the most of his final years in top-level football. He scored 19 goals in 24 matches in the 2014-15 season as PSG won the league by eight points and had 12 goals in 12 league games in early December 2015 as his club opened up a chastening 15-point gap at the top of the table. And that was despite persistent injury problems at the start of the 2015-16 season. Controversy, as always, was never far away and in March he lost his temper after a game against Bordeaux, swore at the referee and said that France was “a shit country”. The National Front did not take take kindly to his comments and its president, Marine Le Pen, said he could leave if he did not like living there. He later apologised. A personal highlight of the year came in November when he scored three of the four goals as Sweden eliminated Denmark in the Euro 2016 play-offs, the final one a beautiful free-kick from 22 yards out. Written by
6. Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich & Germany) – 26 years old – Last Year: 10th (up 4)
“It’s not easy to find somebody who plays this strangely,” is how the self-styled “space interpreter” once described his positional vagueness. But this year Thomas Müller, the son of a BMW engineer, has mostly been employed in a more central role at Bayern Munich, behind Robert Lewandowski. Closer proximity to the goal has resulted in increased output. Müller is on course for his highest-scoring season, having been prolific in the Bundesliga already. A very successful penalty-taking technique – Müller waits for the ‘keeper to make up his mind and does not look at the ball before his strike – has added to his impressive numbers. “Müller can play badly for 90 minutes but still score,” his former youth coach at Bayern, Hermann Gerland, once said. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch coach who mentored his breakthrough at the Allianz Arena in 2009, is an admirer: Manchester United were keen to lure him to Old Trafford this summer, but Bayern have declared him officially “unsellable”. Müller, a proud Bavarian, is so highly valued for his effectiveness on the pitch and leadership qualities off it that there’s already talk of the 26-year-old taking on an important role at the club after his career. Written by
5. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich & Poland) – 27 years old – NEW ENTRY
Pep Guardiola sounded strangely unenthusiastic when Bayern Munich signed Robert Lewandowski in the summer of 2014, like a small boy shrugging his shoulders after getting a Playstation at Christmas. “I congratulate the club to sign a player like Lewandowski,” Guardiola said, raising suspicions that Bayern’s manager really would have liked another midfielder instead. How ridiculous those misgivings feel now. After a slightly awkward start to 2015, which began with Lewandowski trotting off in the 71st minute of a 4-1 defeat to Wolfsburg in January, he has cemented his reputation as the deadliest striker in Europe and risen 25 places in our rankings. A significant moment in his Bayern career arrived when he scored twice in the 6-1 victory over Porto in the last eight of the Champions League in April and his numbers since then are startling. There was the five-goal burst in the space of nine minutes that turned a 1-0 deficit into a 5-1 lead against Wolfsburg in September, which sparked a run of 15 goals in six games for club and country, and he was inspirational in Poland’s successful qualifying campaign for Euro 2016. Lewandowski and Guardiola are a good fit after all. Written by
The top four have been voted for by you…
4. Luis Suarez (Barcelona & Uruguay) – 28 years old – Last Year: 5th (up 1)
For Luis Suárez, fourth place in the list reflects a stunningly sustained contribution to one of the great club football triple-acts. In 2015 he hit the jackpot, finding at the age of 28, after more than 500 games as a professional, the extreme outer limits of his own brilliant striking talent. Suárez was the No1 pick of 8% of judges, more than Cristiano Ronaldo, but his influence is stamped right across that top four. Switched to the centre at the end of last year the Uruguayan was Barcelona’s catalyst, glue, and alternately the brains and muscle of the side’s sublime attacking trident, creating space with his movement and hustle, linking brilliantly and helping to elevate both his front-running partners to new, or in Messi’s case renewed, levels. More than 40 goals for club and country were his most tangible contribution. Missing the Copa América because of his ban for biting during the 2014 World Cup is the only negative, and the most obvious argument against nudging Suárez, the star player who makes other star players play, even higher. Written by Barney Ronay
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid & Portugal) – 30 years old – Last Year: 1st (down 2)
Despite voting him as number one this year, you have decided that Cristiano Ronaldo is now the third best player in the world. Despite disagreeing with you, I’m a man of the people! It has been a strange year for the Ballon d’Or incumbent, although here even mild decline is a relative thing. At the same time Real Madrid’s all-time galáctico, by mid-December, had still managed to score 52 goals for club and country, set a new Guinness world record for all-time “most liked” person on Facebook, and churned out a familiarly relentless stream of goals, assists, shots and arm-waggling sprints from that bespoke centre forward role. Aged 30, with 12 years of elite level football behind him, there is a sense of Ronaldo’s powers not so much diminishing as condensing. This, it seems, is his way of ageing. He still runs a lot, just with an ever narrower range, more focused on shooting and scoring. Even in a so-so non-trophy year by mid-December Ronaldo still managed 327 shots at goal for club and country. His detractors will point out that he has been the hammer of the second-rankers with 28 goals – more than half his annual total – in eight games against Malmo, Espanyol, Shakhtar Donetsk, Getafe, Granada and Armenia. His supporters might point to the fact he is still jaw-droppingly prolific even in an unsettled Real team, under a manager with whom he appears to have an anti-chemistry, testament not just to his talent but to that relentless champion’s will. Majority written by Barney Ronay
2. Neymar (Barcelona & Brazil) – 23 years old – Last Year: 8th (up 6)
The man to break the Ronaldo vs Messi battle at the top is the latter’s teammate – Neymar, who will surely be the winner of this award in the future and he’s just 23. He has won the treble with Barcelona, been joint top scorer in the Champions League, including a goal in the final, and has played a leading role so far this season in the absence of Lionel Messi with performances that have been consistently extraordinary and fantastically fun too. That was perhaps best encapsulated by the remark made by his team-mate Luis Suárez: “We all know our roles,” the Uruguayan said. “I don’t dribble round three or four players like Neymar does.” It’s true, Neymar does, over and over again, a trail of bamboozled defenders left in his wake. “He’s electric. When he runs into the area, either they commit a penalty or he scores,” Luis Enrique said. And if that might sound frivolous, it is not: the productivity in 2015 has been quite astonishing. Dunga described him as the best player in the world and when he scored an outrageously good goal against Villarreal, flicking the ball over the defender before volleying it in, Gerard Piqué admiringly insisted: “I have no idea how he did it. If I tried that, I would fall over.” Majority written by
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Argentina) – 28 years old – Last Year: 2nd (up 1)
The Argentine claims this award for the first time since my blog began just over two years ago. There was a point last year when it felt like Cristiano Ronaldo had started to get the upper hand in his personal obsession to displace Lionel Messi as the sport’s principal showman. Ronaldo scored goals from any distance and any angle and you just have to watch the film-documentary about him to understand that it is the competition with Messi, more than anything else, that drives him to these heights. Yet his old adversary, once again, has that little extra on top. Messi is still the player you always want on the ball. He is still the player who takes the sport to its greatest heights and there is still that instantaneous ripple of expectation when he moves on to the ball, wherever he is on the pitch and whoever he is playing against. Remember, just to cite one example, that exquisitely delivered nutmeg to find the gap between James Milner’s legs when Manchester City played at Camp Nou in the Champions League? You might recall how, high in the stands, Pep Guardiola could be seen with his head in his hands, howling with laughter at the impudence of his former player. Messi does it as a matter of routine: the speed, the balance, the self-belief to back himself every time, the anticipation, the knowledge of how to make the ball do whatever he wants. And that hunger. Messi has been at the top of his sport for years but never leaves the sense that he wants to stop to admire the view. There is never a flicker of complacency, just that fixed expression and the clear sense that no matter who the opposition put on him, whoever kicks him and however much they try to negate him, he will always find a way. There is not enough said about the personal discipline that must go into maintaining that standard of excellence, but it is one of the principal reasons why this small man with the rarest gifts is a giant of the sport. Majority written by
Best Young Player of 2014 (VOTED FOR BY YOU)
To qualify for this award, players had to be 23 years old or younger.
3. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur & England) – 22 years old
It was tempting last season to wonder who wrote Harry Kane’s scripts. Having burst onto the Premier League scene in Roy of the Rovers style, he marked his debut for England in March by scoring with his third touch against Lithuania. Kane has continued this season where he left off the last, running tirelessly for Tottenham Hotspur and setting the tone for Mauricio Pochettino’s pressing style while scoring goals at a healthy rate. Kane has borne the pressure of being the only recognised striker currently at the club, and his strength, burst of pace and directness mark him out. Majority written by
2. Paul Pogba (Juventus & France) – 22 years old
Manuel Pellegrini asserted before Manchester City’s first Champions League meeting with Juventus this season that Paul Pogba still had a way to go before he could be considered the equal of Yaya Touré. The evidence on the pitch later suggested otherwise. Pogba dominated both encounters, alternating muscular interventions with eye-catching technique. Great responsibility was heaped on his shoulders after Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal left Juventus this summer, but after a disappointing start he has risen to the task. Pogba can today be considered the best box-to-box midfielder on the planet. He is also the highest-ranked Serie A player on this list. Barring injury, he is likely to claim this award next year with Neymar then ineligible. Majority written by
1. Neymar (Barcelona & Brazil) – 23 years old
It was obvious wasn’t it? Neymar was second in the main award and eligible for this award, so there’s no question marks over him being the best young player on the planet for the second year running. He has won the treble with Barcelona, been joint top scorer in the Champions League, including a goal in the final, and has played a leading role so far this season in the absence of Lionel Messi with performances that have been consistently extraordinary and fantastically fun too. That was perhaps best encapsulated by the remark made by his team-mate Luis Suárez: “We all know our roles,” the Uruguayan said. “I don’t dribble round three or four players like Neymar does.” It’s true, Neymar does, over and over again, a trail of bamboozled defenders left in his wake. “He’s electric. When he runs into the area, either they commit a penalty or he scores,” Luis Enrique said. And if that might sound frivolous, it is not: the productivity in 2015 has been quite astonishing. Dunga described him as the best player in the world and when he scored an outrageously good goal against Villarreal, flicking the ball over the defender before volleying it in, Gerard Piqué admiringly insisted: “I have no idea how he did it. If I tried that, I would fall over.” Majority written by
Coach of 2015 (VOTED FOR BY YOU)
3. Jose Mourinho (ex Chelsea)
I presume everyone was voting on the first half of the season, so I’ll steer clear of August onwards when it comes to Jose Mourinho, who is now out of a job after being sacked by Chelsea earlier this month. It was incredibly surprising, considering the Portuguese boss guided the Blues to the Premier League and Capital One Cup trophies in 2014-15. They topped the table by eight points and conceded less goals than anyone else as they raced towards the title with no one getting in their way. They lost just twice in the league between January and May, and Mourinho was awarded the Manager of the Year accolade.
2. Pep Guardiola (Bayern Munich)
Another man who guided his team to the league title in emphatic fashion is Pep Guardiola, who led Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title by 10 points in May. The Bavarian side also reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and German Cup as they continue to cement their place as their nation’s best footballing side. They don’t look like losing that unofficial title anytime soon, as they are currently eight points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table in the winter break. Guardiola has announced he will leave the club at the end of the season, but he’s likely to go out on a high, with Bayern still flying high in all three competitions.
1. Luis Enrique (Barcelona)
There were a few concerns when Luis Enrique was appointed the Barcelona manager in May 2015, but the former Nou Camp player took to the job like a duck to water, culminating in success in the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa Del Rey at the end of last season. The 45 year old couldn’t have asked for much more than the treble in his first season, and was rewarded with the league’s manager of the year award. He is currently on track to do the same again this campaign, and with the quality that he has in his side, you wouldn’t bet against similar success come May. An easy job? A job at the best club in the world can never be easy.
Team of the Year
Top Three Goals of the Year
Finally, we come on to my goal of the year award, which I have chosen from FIFA’s nominees. Every year since 2009, the football governing body has had a ‘Puskás Award’ celebrating the best goals of the year. They draw up a list of ten nominees which a panel then vote from. The list can include goals from November 2014 until October 2015. Note: You’ll have to watch the videos on Youtube, as copyright doesn’t allow for them to be shown on here.
3. Carli Lloyd vs Japan
2. Marcel Ndjeng vs Bolton Wanderers
1. Lionel Messi vs Athletic Bilbao
FIFA’s top three have been announced as:
- Alessandro Florenzi vs Barcelona
- Wendell Lira vs Atletico-Go
- Lionel Messi vs Athletic Bilbao
FIFA will announce their World Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Team of the Year and Puskás Award winner on 11th January in Zurich. Let me know what you think of my top ten and tell me any changes (if any!) you would make to it as well as my team of the year in the comments below.
Thank you for the huge support in 2015, this blog has progressed incredibly. I’ve done things I never thought would happen at my age, from interviewing professional footballers to attending the Football Blogging Awards. So thanks to everyone who has read, commented or shared – there’s big things to come in 2016!