It is that time again, as we approach the final straight of my look back on some of the finest footballers over the past decade. I have now taken a look at the best goalkeepers, right-backs, centre-backs, left-backs and midfielders of the last ten years, in that order, and as I always say, if you are new to the channel or to this series I’d recommend going back and starting with the goalkeepers video since I go into a bit more depth with regards to my criteria for selection in the introduction there.
The expectations put upon wingers have been totally transformed during the 2010’s. Great wide players of the 2000’s like David Beckham and Luis Figo were primarily providers, but the rise in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations have seen wingers revert almost to old school inside-forwards. The number of goals scored by a handful of wide players this decade from Lionel Messi to Neymar have perhaps distorted our expectations of wide players, and the numbers posted by the likes of Raheem Sterling and Mohamed Salah have, to a certain extent, been normalised.
Having said that, the right wing and left wing sevens were among the most difficult to compile in this series as far as I am concerned, primarily since wide players tend not to be as consistent over such a long period of time as many other positions – with a few very notable exceptions, of course. Just a reminder, a very good right winger in 2010 like Jesus Navas or a brilliant right winger now like Serge Gnabry will not feature, since this series is about the best players over the entire decade rather than the best peaks.
Here are my 7 best right wingers of the decade:
7. Raheem Sterling
As I warned in the introduction, this seven was the most difficult yet in terms of finding seven players who have been consistently brilliant throughout the decade, and the result is two inclusions who haven’t been playing top level football for the entire 10-year period. Raheem Sterling is by far the youngest player to feature in this series, only just having turned 25, and at the start of the decade he had just signed for Liverpool and was playing for England’s under-17’s.
His breakout season in 2012-13 as a teenager at Anfield was followed by two superb campaigns on Merseyside, in which Sterling cemented his reputation as one of the outstanding young footballers on Earth. He joined Manchester City in 2015, the mid-way point in the decade, for a potential £49 million in a deal that was criticised by a lot of people that have since been made to look rather silly.
Sterling has been utterly sensational at the Etihad, particularly since the arrival of Pep Guardiola, who has made Sterling one of the most productive wide players in world football. Sterling has only been playing top flight football since 2012, which limits him to a generous seventh placed inclusion, but his form over the last few seasons ensures that the likes of Jose Callejon, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva miss out.
6. Mohamed Salah
The two best right wingers in the Premier League right now are the first two inclusions in this seven, and like Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah hasn’t been brilliant for the entire decade unlike most players in this series. Salah is a couple of years older than Sterling, but he only started putting in top class performances at the highest level in 2015, arguably a little later than the Man City man. With that being said, Salah was playing top flight football in 2010, albeit in the Egyptian Premier League, so that rather balances things out.
Salah joined Swiss side Basel in 2012, where he had 18 very good months before being snapped up by Chelsea. He never really got much of a look in at Stamford Bridge, but impressed during a half-season on-loan at Fiorentina in 2014-15. Salah spent the following season on-loan at Roma, who signed him permanently for €15 million in 2016 and sold him to Liverpool for a potential €50 million just 12 months later.
As with Sterling’s move to Man City, there were critics of the price tag Liverpool paid for Salah, but it too has proved a masterstroke. The Egyptian has bagged 80 goals in 123 games on Merseyside, coming sixth in 2018 Ballon d’Or voting and fifth in 2019. Again, it’s only the second half of the decade in which Salah has really excelled, but his performances have been sufficiently brilliant to see him qualify for a seven in which I’m not blessed with options.
5. Jakub Błaszczykowski
From this point onwards this seven is much more similar to those that preceded it in this series, as 33-year-old Jakub Błaszczykowski was already a very established first team player at Borussia Dortmund when the decade began. A fleet footed and direct wide man, Błaszczykowski joined Dortmund from Wisla Krakow in 2007, and he spent the next nine years at the Westfalenstadion.
He was Borussia Dortmund’s Player of the Year in his debut campaign, albeit that wasn’t this decade, and he was Polish Footballer of the Year in 2010. The 2012-13 campaign, in which Dortmund reached the Champions League final, was arguably Błaszczykowski at the peak of his powers. The Polish superstar was as creative and dangerous as ever, as well as chipping in with an impressive 14 goals.
Błaszczykowski left Dortmund in 2016, having spent his final season contracted to the club on-loan at Fiorentina, and he made a permanent move to Wolfsburg. In February of this year, Błaszczykowski returned to Poland and returned to Wisla, and he is still a full Polish international, currently with 108 caps to his name. Clearly Błaszczykowski has faded as the decade has gone on, unlike the first two entrants in this seven, but he has been playing for the entire ten year period and largely with exceptional consistency.
4. Angel Di Maria
Angel Di Maria is a tremendous footballer who has spent the vast majority of the last decade playing on the right flank. He began the 2010’s in fine form at Benfica, soon to join Real Madrid in the summer of 2010 for a potential €36 million. He played almost 200 games in just four seasons at the Bernabeu, with his final season under Carlo Ancelotti being his most impressive. Off the back of winning a Copa del Rey and Champions League double with Real and reaching a World Cup final with Argentina as a key man in both, Di Maria was signed by Manchester United for a club record fee.
He would spend just a single season at Old Trafford, and history will remember him as a flop in the Premier League. In truth, Di Maria had the third most assists in the division, ahead of David Silva and Eden Hazard and trailing only Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla. He by no means set the division alight, but he wasn’t dreadful either. PSG were still willing to spend a fortune on him, and that decision has been largely justified. Now aged 31, Di Maria has scored 40 goals over the previous two campaigns, and looks likely to hit 20+ again this season with 9 from 19 in total so far. Di Maria is a brilliant dribbler of the ball, he can create goals, score goals and he has an impressive work rate. He’s also been at it for the entire decade, so he takes fourth.
3. Gareth Bale
It has been a rollercoaster ride of a decade for Gareth Bale, but anyone who denies that he has been among the best wingers on Earth over the last ten years is deluding themselves. It was at the start of the decade that Tottenham realised that Bale might not be a left-back. Harry Redknapp shifted Bale to the left flank for the 2010-11 season, and Bale came into a world of his own. In October 2010, the youngster struck a superb hat-trick against Inter Milan and all but ended Maicon’s reign as one of the world’s finest right-backs.
He was soon shifted to the right flank, where he could cut inside onto that explosive left foot, and his last season at Tottenham was among the finest we have seen during the Premier League era. Bale scored 26 goals in 44 games, picking up the Premier League Player of the Season, FWA Footballer of the Year and PFA Players’ Player of the Year awards at the end of the campaign.
Real Madrid made him either the most or one of the most expensive footballers of all time in 2013, and Bale bagged 22 goals in his debut campaign. His time at Real Madrid has been a typical Real odyssey of brilliance, disillusionment and disputes, as Bale has been pivotal to an extraordinary era of success at the Bernabeu, whilst also having repeated injury struggles and question marks over his commitment. Through it all, Bale has continued to be a brilliant footballer and a real threat with superb big game credentials. A fully fit Bale throughout the decade may be pushing for a place in the ultimate 2010’s XI, but the reality is a player who takes bronze in our right wing seven.
2. Arjen Robben
In seven or eight of the last ten decades, Arjen Robben might have gone down as the finest right-winger of that ten year period, but not in this one. The Dutchman has been an absolute sensation for not one, but two decades. His professional career began in 2000 with Groningen, and he was already a full Dutch international by 2003. It is the 2010’s we are interested in, however, which means we pay no attention to Robben’s performances at PSV, Chelsea and Real Madrid.
At the start of the decade, Robben was already mid-way through his debut campaign with Bayern Munich. He went on to spend exactly ten years in Bavaria, and what a ten years it was. Robben scored 144 goals in 309 games for the Bundesliga giants, and I think about 130 of them must have been after cutting in from the right flank and curling the ball into the left-side of the goal. It’s an old cliche but it’s true, every team knew what Robben was going to do for almost 20 years, but even in his late 30’s few could stop him.
Lightning quick, brilliant on the ball and devastating in front of goal, the Ribery and Robben partnership on the flanks was formidable at Bayern, and together they won 20 trophies in 10 years. The 2013-14 campaign was arguably Robben’s finest, as he scored 21 goals for Bayern and made the 2014 World Cup Dream Team with Netherlands, a combined effort which saw him finish fourth in Ballon d’Or voting. Robben only made the FIFPro World XI once, primarily due to the man up next, but there’s no doubt that he deserves second in this seven for me.
1. Lionel Messi
There’s little point in me waxing lyrical about Lionel Messi for too long, 90% of you will already have heard me do that in the past and all that’s changed is that Messi continues to go on and on. He recently picked up a record sixth Ballon d’Or, and if it were up to me he would already have at least eight. The fact that there was even a debate about who ought to have won this year’s Ballon d’Or shows how numb most people have become to Messi’s brilliance. If any other footballer performed to the level Messi has over a 12 month period, they would hoover up about 80% of the votes. It will only be when Messi has retired, and maybe a year or two later, that people really start to realise the magnitude of his brilliance.
There is a debate to be had with regards to whether Messi ought to have featured in the right wing, centre-forward or even midfield seven in this series, but whichever one he was included in he would have comfortably topped. In his first season of the decade, Messi scored 53 goals in 55 games. Last season, he scored 51 goals in 50 games. No player has made more assists since records began, and the stats only tell half the story. Messi began the decade as the best player on Earth and he ends it as the best player on Earth, with notable landmarks including setting the record for the most goals scored in a season and the most goals scored in a calendar year of all time. He will go down as the greatest footballer of the 2010’s, and almost certainly now the greatest of all time.