HARSHAVARDHAN GHADGE | 22nd October 2021

There are players who you want to copy on the turf; players who you consciously try to imitate and then there are players who make a home in the part of your brain that subconsciously influences how you wish to play every time you step out onto the grass. This article is about those geniuses that did that for me.

Footballers who remind me why I love this game the way I do. 

Without further ado…

Goalkeeper: David De Gea

Let me just put it out there. David De Gea, for me, is Manchester United’s greatest custodian of all time. I am up for debating, but before you come at me with pitchforks and PowerPoints, go back to 2017 and take a look at the dumbfounded faces of Alexis Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette who just had two almost certain goals saved, within seconds. 

I have never seen a goalkeeper win games on his own. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Spanish shotstopper almost single-handedly managed to keep United relevant for three seasons running. 

As I write this, he has just pulled off two saves courtesy of which, the Red Devils are still in the game against Atalanta and not staring at humiliation.

As the déjà vu takes over, I speak on behalf of everyone that adores the red side of Manchester that we are indebted to David De Gea. 

Right-back. Philipp Lahm 

Pep Guardiola has coached some of the most tactically astute and iconic players to ever kick a ball. The list of players he’s coached ranges from Sergio Busquets to Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden may as well join that list.

And yes, he’s coached a certain Lionel Messi as well, I just wanted to put forth a couple of different examples for once.

However, there is only one player that he has ever labelled as “the most intelligent player that he has ever coached”. That man is Philipp Lahm.

I wonder if Lahm ever thinks about that. Not that a level-headed, feet-on-the-ground kind of bloke like the Bayern legend would ever get carried away by the praise. But that tells you everything you need to know about my favorite ever right-back. 

As humble as they come, Lahm would be as ideal a son-in-law as he was the model captain whose feet only left the ground to make headers that belie his 5-foot 6-inch frame, and whom Guardiola quite rightly places amongst the giants of the Bayern pantheon. 

And when he did try his hand, or rather his feet in defensive midfield, the German icon was the best player on the pitch.

A treble-winner, a World Cup champion, stacking up countless accolades for years and a spotless record of going a full season without having your name taken in the book., the ‘Magic Dwarf’ has been there and done it all.

 Centre-back: John Terry

Think of a ferocious English defender from the last decade, one that moved with heightened purpose and menaced his opponents just because attackers were powerless against his excellence.

I don’t blame you if the image of John Terry in Chelsea blue donning an armband on his right arm just popped up in your head.

There’s good clichés and bad clichés. And JT being the unrelenting centre-half who would take a bullet for his team and then take a bazooka to avenge his team’s pride is a good cliché.

A great one, actually.

The Premier League’s greatest ever central defender, what always fascinated me was how his undying commitment to the cause seemed impossible to waver, even when he was being baited and taunted by opposing fans.

When he stepped on the green grass as the lynchpin of the backline at the Bridge, there was an air of safety that tied the knot between the Chelsea faithful and Terry.

In an age of groans, moans and exaggerated dives, of players clutching body parts and rolling around in fabricated pain that evaporates when they realize no one is buying it, John Terry got booted in the face by Abou Diaby, just to come on to the pitch to lift the title again.

The Englishman was liberated in a sense by his unshakeable desire to win and nothing else really mattered.

There aren’t many greater defenders at reading the game like the Chelsea youth product and when you combined a nasty streak and a monstrous mentality to that mix, you get John Terry.

Centre-back: Sergio Ramos

Zinedine Zidane once said, “What he (Ramos) has done, what he is, what he has shown in Madrid, I think he is the best in history.”

The legendary Frenchman knows a thing or two about the greatest players to ever grace the game to say the least, so who are we to argue with him?

Lisbon, 92:48. I was 13 when I watched Ramos leap from amidst chaos and send the ball spinning into the back of the net. My first taste of the frenzied state of emotions that football can make you feel.

And I have to say, Ramos Time needs a trademark at this point. For so long since, it has seemed, somehow in the Spaniard’s control to always come up clutch when the world is watching, as if he is able to bend the big moments to his will, and purely by will.

That goal in the Champions League final against Atleti might just be the most significant single moment in Real Madrid’s history. 

World football might not have anyone to offer right now with Ramos’s lionhearted personality, chest puffed out and a badge of honor imbibed decorated with blood and sweat of dominance for over a decade.

To Sergio Ramos, my Captain Fantastic forever. 

Left-back: Andy Robertson

A United fan opting for one of the faces of Liverpool’s return to their perch in his all-time XI should alone should tell you about the impact Robertson has had on my experience of watching the game we live and breathe. 

Before he became known as the Scottish sensation that taunted Lionel Messi while casually dropping a monsterclass against the Catalan giants, Robbo was just another lad hunting for a job. Another rags to riches story yet to be told. 

Andy Robertson is what Bukowski famously brands as his motto: “Don’t try.” The meaning, of course, is not literal. Bukowski says that if a person is passionate about their job, they will have no trouble trying or working hard for it.

That is the exact case with the Scottish captain and that reason may now be what has shot the young misfit to being the undisputed best in his position. He didn’t just try, he just never stopped. 

If you ask Jurgen Klopp to engineer a left-back that would fit his philosophy, he would just go on and build Robertson in his lab. Gegenpressing requires speed, tenacity and stamina in order to regain possession at the earliest possible opportunity, all the attributes you commonly associate Robertson with.

But all of that aside, Robertson is a certified entertainer who put the ball on a penny as well as anyone on the planet and is blessed with three pairs of lungs.

If he continues to raise the bar like this, Ashley Cole may have to start looking over his shoulder.

Defensive-midfielder: Joshua Kimmich

I ride or die for the German national team. I always have and it’s not just the electrically engineered brand of football or the slick Adidas kits. It’s both and so much more.

Hear me out on my hot take. Natural ability wise, Joshua Kimmich may already be Germany’s best ever player.

The right-back turned defensive midfielder is a reincarnated Lahm, destined to retrace his predecessor’s golden footsteps. The term, ‘heir apparent’ has never been more apt.

Ability and genius aside, Kimmich exudes natural authority, embodying ambition and an unbreakable desire to win like few others.

The 26-year-old is always in the thick of things, and over the years has developed into Bayern’s battling midfield enforcer, unafraid to throw himself into a tackle, but with the guile and vision to lob a divinely timed ball, slashing open multiple lines of defences.

If football is war, Kimmich is the general that would conquer the enemy and win over the treasures all at once. 

Watching Joshua Kimmich ply his trade is as smooth as driving on the Autobahn in a top tier German automobile. 

Central midfielder: Toni Kroos

What do I say about the midfielder who I base my game off already that I haven’t already said before? There is nothing about Kroos’ style of play that I haven’t already discussed.

With myself or with my mates as I harp on about the maestro of maestros.

Instead, let’s travel back in time to 2018 and revisit the final seconds at the Fisht Stadium. Two German conductors standing over the ball, just on the outskirts of the box.

The game felt dead, 1-1 with a man down, the German fan inside me was already drawing up mathematical charts in my head, wondering if Die Mannschaft would ever escape the group stage?

All hope lost, whistle blown, Toni and Marco just did a two-touch move and before the Swedes registered what hit them, Kroos pulled a rabbit out his Adidas boots and sent the ball flying into the top right-hand corner. Ecstasy.  

That in a nutshell for me, is Toni Kroos. No fuss, no fancy footwork, no mess at all. A sniper that obliterates his target from a mile, packs his artillery and walks away.

An assassin donning gloves, a Rolls-Royce of a playmaker. 

No.10: Thomas Müller

There are no hour-long edits on YouTube of Thomas Müller evading players with his quick feet or no charts that show how effective his shots from distance are. Müller can’t beat you with his cushioned close ball-control. He can’t beat you with his searing pace.

He just beats you. 

Everything about him screams normal, well apart from his humor, even his name. It’s not quite Radja Nainggolan who sounds like and actually is a warrior.

When Kevin De Bruyne or Bruno Fernandes put their art on display, they send defences sinking with one touch of the ball with an other-worldly grace. But then you watch the German, you find yourself thinking, “I could probably do that.”

But of course, you can’t. The term ‘football IQ’ exists because of gamechangers like Thomas Müller.

‘Raumdeuter’ as he’s famously dubbed, which translates to an interpreter of space is the German’s greatest strength.

The World Cup winner has mastered the realm of open pockets of spaces and punishes anyone who dares to allow him any space, collecting his wages by being at the right place at the right time. 

Andrea Pirlo was right, “Football is played with your head. Your feet are just the tools.”

And Thomas Müller has taken what is such a simple principle to the extent that he is an undeniable all-time great and a player who captivates like me not many can.

Right-winger: Mohamed Salah

Yes, another Liverpool player. I understand if my loyalty to United is under the microscope of doubt here, but it is what it is. I admire the Egyptian wholeheartedly.

Mohamed Salah is nothing if not prolific. But he’s everything else too. Ever since he activated redemption mode, he has taken the Premier League by storm with his blistering pace, silky touch, lethal eye for the back of the net, wavy hair and epic celebrations.

 Against Chelsea, van Dijk sent a searching ball towards the right wing and the Golden boot winner plucked it out of thin air, killed the ball with one touch and just like that was on his bike.

Thirty odd yards and five Chelsea players in between, any other forward would have lowered the gears, fearing he was going to lose possession.

But not Mo, a few touches and he unleashed a belter from the inside of his left boot. rendering all of Chelsea’s rearguard useless.

The net rippled and Twitter went into a frenzy. Awe-struck. A goal equal parts guile, pace and opportunism. 

But it is not just his on-pitch heroics that have me applauding Salah. The ex-Roma man, who is the razor edge in a winning machine, an inside forward who roams about the pitch like a thirsty spaniel is the humble hero of Merseyside off it.

Islamophobia, racism may be on the rise, but when Salah celebrates a goal by touching his head to the field and raising his index finger, a profession of faith, fans adore him so much that they mimic him. A change-maker throughout. 

In Liverpool, Salah’s shine may only be bested by Firmino’s teeth and not for long, if he continues in this rich vein of form. 

Striker: Robert Lewandowski

Keeping a count of Lewandowski’s goals is the toughest job in world football right now. Well right after defending against the Polish No.9 of course.

Neymar guarantees flair, Mbappe brings lightning quick pace while Lukaku bullies centre-halves for a living. But no footballer in the world delivers what’s on the tin as much as Robert Lewandowski.

Robert Lewandowski and goals are synonymous at this point. They’re pretty much the same thing.

As I said, defending against him has to be the hardest task of all but playing as a supplier in the Allianz Arena must be the easiest. The hitman in Bavarian red is the most ruthless, most polished striker my generation has seen.

 Apart from Lewa, only a certain Lionel Messi has had the power to send Pep Guardiola into a frenzy of shock and awe. Imagine having the luxury to throw a striker in who takes less than 10 minutes to dispatch 5 goals.

A lean, mean goal-scoring machine, a bonafide entertainer, a predator with the sharpest instincts in front of the goal. 

For me, Lewa was in a race with his peers and he’s gone clear to the point that he’s as invisible as he is invincible to his competition.

Left-winger: Cristiano Ronaldo

I’m a decade-old Manchester United fan. Guess who my favorite player is. Exactly. No prizes for guessing.

This might feel like a comparison, but bear with me. 

It is a no-brainer that Messi has God-gifted ability and talent beyond measure. Why do I love Cristiano so much? The reason why I adore Cristiano is the application.

There certainly are players who have been blessed with greater talent than the Portuguese and yet, Ronaldo is in a league of his own.

The world often hails Leo as an interstellar creature, with a level of talent so unbridled and immeasurable that he almost feels like a superhuman. But Ronaldo? He wasn’t born to bless with the world with the ball at the feet.

He had a dream and he made sure that he’d outwork everyone in any room ever. And the way Cristiano has proven that you don’t need to be superhuman to topple a God is why I’m always in love with him. A Batman to Messi’s Jesus-like infallible Superman.  

And that is it. That is why I idolize Cristiano Ronaldo, who raised the bar to levels even he never knew existed.

The Best of The Rest

Goalkeeper: Jan Oblak

If there ever was someone I wanted if Madrid had secured the services of De Gea, it was Oblak. Since his debut, Oblak has consistently posted goalkeeping numbers that are beyond just world-class. 

In March 2017, Atletico played Bayer Leverkusen, Jose Maria Giminez was caught in possession up the field and Julian Brand took the gift and bore down on goal.

Once he got inside the box, he pulled the trigger, but the Slovenian did what he always does. But that isn’t the end of it. The ball fell to Brandt’s teammate Volland but a despairing lunge from Oblak stopped his shot from going in once.

The rebound fell to Volland again and again Oblak dived and miraculously saved.

3 shots, 3 seconds, 3 saves. 

Go revisit the heroics of Jan Oblak in the Calderon. 

Left-back: Alphonso Davies

Football is packed with stories that inspire. Such is the tale of Alphonso Davies. If he kept a journal, it would make a fascinating read.

The best player to come out of the MLS, the face of Canadian football, a vital cog of Germany’s biggest club and all of this before he can legally buy a beer in America. 

I remember when he danced all around the left flank of Barcelona, leaving Nelson Semedo gasping for breath at the end of it, completing his ride with an assist. Who doesn’t though? 

It is where Davies has come from that forms the crux of his fascinating tale, but where he is going is the most tantalizing prospect of it all. 

No.10: Mesut Özil

If Özil wasn’t a footballer, he would have been a magician and the best one of them all. To be fair, he’s always been one on the pitch anyway, without the wand and the cape, but mystical nonetheless.  

Mesut dominated everywhere he went, leaving an imprint of his iconic style and artistry to carve out chances out of thin air. He glided over the pitch like Jesus on water and then cut open defences like it was Christmas pie. 

Wherever he goes, Özil will always have a fanboy in me.

Striker: Wayne Rooney

That overhead kick, that screamer on debut, that goal from beyond the halfway line, Rooney has so many iconic moments that his highlight reel can really be put next to any and every great.

A weapon of mass destruction that Sir Alex found, sharpened and then unleashed over the Premier League to wreak havoc. 

Despite plethora of legendary moments under his belt, Wazza chasing back the ball to the halfway line, executing a perfect tackle, winning the ball back and sending a searching ball into the box that was headed in at the last minute speaks volumes about the career of one of the most complete footballers English football has ever produced.

A selfless hero, a United

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