Mini Blether: The Best Players I Ever Did See

During a recent Footballblether trip, sitting over a few birre in a Milanese bar, we discussed our current “Fantasy XI” based on the players who we feel would or could make up the best team in current world football. This discussion got me thinking about the best players I have ever seen (in the flesh) and made me wonder how that particular XI would look.

The below is the best representation of this. Now, while writing this it has become clear that this XI is not necessarily the team who would definitely win all games or be the best in the world (if that was the case I would just pick the Italy or Spain teams which I saw after they won their respective 2006 and 2010 World Cups, by definition the best teams in the world at the time). This team is about the players who, in the context of a particular game or games, have brought a smile to my face and left me raving about them come the full time whistle.

For the purposes of this team, I’ve chosen a fluid 4-3-3 formation, which could arguably become a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-2-1-1 depending on the circumstance or personal preference. This represents the best formations or approach I have seen in games and, well, allows my favourite players to be shoehorned in as well!!

Goalkeeper: Gigi Buffon

An easy or obvious one to start. Big Gigi. He played in goals for Italy against Scotland and was essentially imperious. Great handling, footwork and a general air of confidence and solidity throughout. Such was his aura that even when Scotland made rare forays towards the Italian goal and managed to muster a shot on goal, one was never confident that it would trouble Buffon in the slightest. Seldom have I been as demoralised and had a feeling of dread when my team had a clear cut chance – that says a lot in my book. Great keeper and my number 1.

Right Back: Darijo Srna

Bit of a curve ball choice maybe, perhaps also controversial given a ban he picked p for doping, but a classy player nonetheless and a right back who I really enjoyed watching – both for his national team Croatia and also in Serie A for Cagliari. An attacking full back, capable of operating like a right winger, for a while he opitimised something of a Hipster’s chice – a free spirited, attacking full back from Croatia and plying his trade in Ukraine. Neat and tidy on the ball, impeccable footwork, but with a fair dose of determination and no shortage of bite in the tackle, Srna left an impression on me after watching. As someone who often got shunted to full back in my playing days, he represented something to aspire to – a perfect mix of devil, creativity and leadership.

Left Back: Andy Robertson

Had to have a Scotsman in there. A player who has consistently brought a smile to my face when watching for Scotland. The mix of his pace, attacking prowess and an ability to whip beautiful crosses into the box with a lovely left foot all combine to make Robertson a great choice for left back. Added to this the background story – Amateur footballer with Queens Park to Scotland captain through hard work and raw ability, it’s a great story and he’s a great player to pick up the left back shirt.

Centre Half: Vincent Kompany

I watched Kompany for Belgium against Scotland in Brussels. Not since I watched or played in boys club football where there was a player who had had an early growth spurt and was essentially a man playing against boys, have I seen a player physically dominate so much. Just a man mountain who seemed to have the Scottish players at arms length, swatting players aside with ease, taking the ball off professional footballers like they are statues and then smashing one into the top corner from 30 yards, just quality.

Centre Half: Bruno Alves

Another potentially controversial choice. Alves wasn’t a player that I held much regard for after his spell in Scottish football. However, I saw the big man pay for Parma and wow – what a man. An absolute man mountain who marshalled the Parma defence to a successful clean sheet, a magnet for any cross or high ball as he battered everything away from danger. Topping it off with swerving free kicks and a cult hero status from the Parma fans, an absolute nailed on pick for my other centre half.

Midfield: Toni Kroos

Loved watching Kroos for Germany, even if it was at the expense of Scotland. Effectively just a complete midfielder and a master puppeteer in terms of controlling the pace of the game, controlling possession and particularly in a Scotland v Germany game in September 2015, deciding or dictating when Germany (world champions at the time) should push and score and when they should just sit back and take it easy. My memories of that game were that while Germany won 3-2 and on paper this looks close, Scotland were always at arms length and Germany, with the master conductor Kroos in the middle, could basically choose if and when they would like to score. An absolute masterclass and a performance that left me in awe at the time.

Midfield: Andres Iniesta

Just an exceptional player. In an era where Guardiola’s Barcelona and by association, the Spanish National side changed the way people thought about football, this guy was at the very centre. Was lucky enough to see Iniesta playing for Spain and was simply untouchable. Popped the ball around the midfield with so much ease that it almost looked like a training game for a short minute, until suddenly you realise that he, or a teammate is actually in your team’s box and about to take a shot. Absolutely mesmerising. At times he would pop passes off that even from the stands you didn’t actually see beforehand, it would take you a couple of seconds to catch up with play even as a spectator – opposition players had no chance. A player you would gladly pay the entrance fee to watch and well worth a place in this team.

Midfield: Andrea Pirlo

Again a midfielder that you could sit and watch all day. My first encounter with Pirlo was at a time when I was only vaguely aware of the ability of this guy. It was 2005, Scotland were playing away to Italy at the San Siro and as well as an all round midfield masterclass, Pirlo in his own nonchalant style just whipped in 2 brilliant free kicks for a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Azzuri. Amid the frustration that Scotland had lost on my first venture abroad to watch them, there was a stark realisation and appreciation that I had just witnessed one of the world’s greatest midfielders show exactly how it is done. Alongside the free kicks, Pirlo orchestrated the game, much like Kroos above, dictating the pace and when his side would attack – until this point a concept which was totally alien to me as a spectator of International football. I left this match with a whole new appreciation of how the midfield role should be carried out.

Forward/Winger: Marco Reus

Saw Reus play for Borussia Dortmund and was mightily impressed. Jurgen Klopp was still in charge of Dortmund at the time, with the rock and roll football and “gegenpress” tactics proving to be blueprint which so many sides would now follow. Reus, I felt, characterised this style immaculately. Explosive pace and quick thinking, mixed with sublime quality and an overall team ethic, Reus stood out in a Dortmund side not short on quality. A player who made you stand up every time he got the ball, a player who made you smile while watching. Has to be in the side.

Trequartista: Tomas Rosicky

Verging on man crush territory with the Czech legend. A player who seemed to be in about 40 yards of space every time he got the ball, admittedly playing against Scotland, but nonetheless just an exceptional level of game awareness and quality. Finding pockets of space on the half turn and causing havoc for the Scottish rear-guard on more that one occasion. Rosicky was a class act to watch and left you with equal doses of frustration and awe with his ability to slowly deconstruct the defence and pull the attacking strings for his side.

Striker: Robert Lewandowski

Had the pleasure of watching him both in his Dortmund days under Klopp but also for Poland against Scotland. An absolute goalscoring machine. I saw him score tidy striker finishes, free kicks and even run from 30/40 yards through 1-on-1 with the keeper and slot the ball home. A player who could also mix it up with big bad centre halves, but who was just lethal when given a sniff of goal. A brilliant number 9 and a must have up top. Admittedly, the great Luca Toni was close to getting the number 9 shirt here following performances I saw for Italy and Bayern Munich, but Lewandowski just edges it here with what I feel is a more ruthless finishing ability (just).

So there we are, my all time top 11. As above, perhaps not the greatest XI that have ever been assembled, but a snapshot of the best players I have seen and those who have impressed me most and left me in awe or with a different perspective on the game afterwards – as a football fan, I pay my money to be impressed and for football experiences, these players certainly delivered when called upon.

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