By Isa Sulayman
When doing these it is important to pick a formation that best accommodates the players you want to include but also one reflective of those deployed by the teams in the tournament. I always find it amusing when the PFA Team of the Year is still selected according to a 4-4-2 when it has long been seldom used by most of the teams in the league.
As was raised by the BBC panel when they were selecting their very own XI, the biggest decision here is opting between a back-three and a back-four. This competition certainly did confirm the resurgence of the back-three as a mainstream tactic in world football, with the likes of Holland, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile all deploying it. I will go for a back-four though seeing as three of the four semi-finalists and both finalists went with this. Given that this was a World Cup of the No. 10, it’s only appropriate to go with a 4-2-3-1.
Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Despite the amount of goals conceded, the standard of goalkeeping has been of an extremely high level over the past month. Navas, Ochoa and Romero deserve special mentions in particular but Neuer was a deserved winner of the Golden Glove in the end. The Bayern goalkeeper was the epitomy of dependable for his team, not only pulling off great saves but also providing truly inspirational commandment of his area. Most impressive though was his reading of situations coupled with a split-second reaction time which enabled him to provide almost an auxiliary sweeper role as a last line of defence when teams were able to exploit Germany’s high defensive line. This was best displayed against Algeria, in which he bailed them out time and again.
Philipp Lahm (Germany)
He may have only played three games at right-back but his performances in those games and the importance for the entire team of his repositioning were so vital that he still easily makes it into the XI. His presence automatically restored the balance to the previously substandard German defence but also opened up a lethal attacking outlet down the right, the interplay with Müller particularly potent. The semi-final against Brazil showcased the completeness of his game perfectly. At one end he comfortably neutralised a very offensive Marcelo, including one of the tackles of the tournament, and at the other he mercilessly capitalised on the freedom of the flank surrendered to him by the Brazilian left-back, clocking up two assists in the process.
Daley Blind (Holland)
Although he started out his career as a left-back, the Eredivisie Player of the Year has largely abandoned that role at club level in the last couple of years moving into midfield à la Gareth Barry. So you could’ve forgiven him for displaying some rustiness when thrust into the left wing-back position in a new look 3-5-2 system for the Oranje. There were no such problems though and he set his standard right from the off, being one of the stand-out performers in the 5-1 rout of defending champions Spain. Not only did he produce two delightful assists, one of which resulted in one of the goals of the tournament but he also put in an assured defensive performance covering a lot of yards in the process. In the end, he was an ever-present component in a Dutch defence that conceded only four goals throughout their campaign. A shout out also to Ricardo Rodríguez who enhanced his growing reputation with some real all-action displays especially in the agonising extra-time defeat to Argentina.
Mats Hummels (Germany)
He may well have been outshone by Jerome Boateng in the final but Hummels had an immense World Cup, barely putting a foot wrong. Of course this is of no surprise as he has been one of the best (and most importantly dependable) centre-backs in the world for a good few years now. He is quite simply a rock and his Man of the Match display in the quarter-final against France really was one of the best in the entire competition. Not only did he score the winner but he almost single-handedly preserved the advantage by putting in some heroic last-ditch blocks and tackles much to the frustration of Les Bleus.
Ron Vlaar (Holland)
No Villa bias here, I promise! This was actually a very tough call between Vlaar and his teammate Stefan de Vrij who himself had an outstanding tournament and played a significant role in establishing the impenetrability of Holland’s defence and really confirmed his status as one of the greatest defensive talents in Europe. I went for Vlaar though for two reasons. Firstly, I believe that his role in the centre of the back-three bore the greatest responsibility with Vlaar the one who generally man-marked the main opposition threat even pushing forward to break up play when necessary. And secondly, ‘Roncrete’ was the real leader and organiser in that back-line often instructing his two younger ex-Feyenoord teammates through the matches. Not to mention his leadership by example with inspirational performances against Spain, Costa Rica and Argentina in particular. The numerous ‘Has Vlaar let Messi out of his back pocket yet?’ jokes that did the rounds on Twitter a testament to his display in the latter.
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
My player of the tournament. Widely considered the best midfielder in the world just a couple of years ago, injury problems led to a decline that some feared may be permanent. But Schweini, as he is affectionetly referred to in Germany, sensationally roared back in this World Cup. He didn’t even start the opening two games, only coming in from the final group game onwards. Initially replacing Khedira and then taking an orthodox defensive-midfield role after Lahm was moved to right-back. It’s not a role that he plays often but he totally excelled, drawing upon his sheer physicality and undoubted reading of the game to do a sterling job of protecting the defence. The whole-hearted battling nature of his performance in the final will surely go down in German footballing folklore and will rightfully cement his place as an all-time legend.
Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
He may have lost the captaincy to Lionel Messi after Alejandro Sabella became the manager but the former Liverpool midfielder was still Argentina’s real leader on the pitch and by the looks of it, off it also. As was evident with him giving the team-talk during the extra-time interval in the final while Messi just walked away from the huddle. Like Schweinsteiger, Mascherano did a sublime defensive job from midfield. Excellently dispossessing opponents coupled with tidy redistribution of the ball and a general tactical awareness whereby he covered for the full-backs when they bombed forwards. It’d be nice to think that Barcelona might finally realise what an asset he is in his best position rather than continuing to misuse him as a centre-back.
Thomas Müller (Germany)
Just as so many of his compatriots before him, Müller seems to be a player for the biggest occasion. The Golden Ball winner in South Africa managed another five-goal tally, this time finishing just one goal shy of winning it again but that is ten goals in just two World Cups and he is still only 24! He’ll surely already have eyes on the all-time goalscoring record only just set by Miroslav Klose. He provides so much more than simply goals though as his three assists suggest. Müller is almost a representation of what German football has evolved into; he possesses all the classical German traits such as the unselfish prioritisation of the team ethic and the industry that goes with that, reflected in the incredible amount of ground he covers as well as the grittiness in his game when needed. Yet on the flip-side, he is a player of great finesse and technical ability as is evident in his awareness and movement and his capacity to even play as a false-nine.
James Rodríguez (Colombia)
The World Cup is always a terrific platform for a player to achieve instant superstardom and with a reported big money transfer to Real Madrid in the offing, that has certainly been the case for this man. Rodríguez not only individually lit up the tournament, scoring six goals which proved to be enough to earn the Golden Boot, but also represented all that was admirable about Colombia who themselves were a breath of fresh air. Skill, pace and technique; he provided it all and because of that, you always felt that at anytime he could conjure a moment of magic. Which is exactly what he did against Uruguay when out of nothing he produced a magnificent turn and volley to break the deadlock; the undisputed goal of the finals.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Probably the least deserving winner of the Golden Ball ever, Messi still makes it into my line-up mainly due to the way he dragged Argentina through the group stage and also the lack of real alternatives. This was the World Cup everybody was looking towards the four-time Ballon d’Or winner to make his own and potentially immortalise himself. As mentioned, this looked like being the case with him starring in group stage, scoring four of his team’s six goals as they topped Group F with a maximum points haul. Unfortunately, that’s as good as it really got with him barely doing much of note in the knockout stages other than a few flashes here and there. The flashes themselves were touches of brilliance I should add, including the [beautifully weighted] pass of the tournament against Belgium and the remarkable piece of skill to set up the late Di María winner which broke Swiss hearts. It wasn’t enough though and he became all too easily marked out of games resulting in large periods of anonymity. Sadly the moment in this competition that people will probably best remember him for will be the glorious chance he uncharacteristically missed in the final just after half-time.
Arjen Robben (Holland)
It’s ironic that such a high-scoring World Cup was marked by a distinct lack of impressive No. 9 displays. Robben was the closest I could come up with given that he generally played in a front-two. Possibly spurred on by that miss in the previous final, he took the forward role in his stride. In the opening match he completely decimated Spain who simply were unable to cope as he netted a second-half brace. As you’d expect the veracity of his pace proved devastating on the counter and Louis van Gaal’s system became increasingly reliant on the Bayern star to provide an offensive outlet. Although even he wasn’t able to muster that moment to break down a resolute Argentina side, being denied by a suburb last-man tackle by the aforementioned Mascherano.
I’ll be using the substitutes to bring some attention to under-the-radar players who enjoyed a fine showing at this World Cup rather than those who just narrowly missed out on making the XI.
Claudio Bravo (Chile)
The Chilean No. 1 was one of their key performers as they defied the odds a little to even make it out of what was a tough group, pulling off a string of sublime reflex stops in the process and demonstrating why Barcelona were happy to shell out €12m for him.
Giancarlo Gonzalez (Costa Rica)
Widely expected to be ‘whipping boys’ pre-tournament, Costa Rica provided one of the great World Cup underdog stories by extraordinarily making it to the quarter-finals, conceding only two goals in the process! At the heart of this well-drilled defensive unit was Gonzalez who proved especially formidable aerially and also made countless crucial tackles and interceptions.
Jermaine Jones (USA)
The experienced Beşiktaş powerhouse was the United States’ most impressive outfield performer as Jürgen Klinsmann remarkably led them out of the supposed ‘group of death’. Regularly being caught in the wars, Jones displayed immense energy, drive and power to continually unsettle opposition teams as well as provide an attacking outlet with his bursts forward. His equaliser against Portugal was an absolute peach.
Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Colombia)
Cuadrado carried his impressive club form into the tournament. James Rodríguez may have taken the spotlight but the Fiorentina winger was also a key contributor notching four assists, more than any other player. He also put in a steller defensive shift never neglecting to track back and help out Zuñiga at right-back.
Mathieu Valbuena (France)
The pint-sized maestro did his best to offset the unfortunate absence of Frank Ribéry and really did prove to be the spark for most of France’s good play, intelligently drifting inside from the left to dictate in the final-third. I seriously can’t remember him ever playing the wrong pass which is why Deschamps’ decision to sub him when they were chasing the game against Germany continues to baffle.
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