With the dust having settled on another superb year of football, now is a good time to reflect on players for whom 2016 was particularly remarkable: whether an experienced veteran continuing to roll back the years or an exciting prodigy taking the game by storm. Below is a featured team of such players, selected from the leagues we cover across the globe and written about by the analysts who have watched their every match. The selection is not an all-star cast, but rather a collection of players from varying levels who have each had an outstanding year worth highlighting.
What a difference a year makes. When Zinedine Zidane took charge of the Real Madrid first team on January 4th 2016, things were very far from rosy. Underperforming under previous manager Rafa Benítez, the side sat third in the league and had already been embarrassingly thrown out of the cup for fielding an ineligible player. There was disharmony in the squad and Rafa had to go, but at the time Zidane’s appointment represented a massive risk – for both the club and the manager.
The Frenchman had only one-and-a-half year’s experience managing B team Castilla in Spain’s third tier. While the fans were optimistic about the impact he could have on the side, there were serious questions that needed answering: Would he really be able to handle the intense pressure of leading Los Blancos, a club at which many vastly more experienced coaches had failed in the past? Would failure to deliver as a manager at the highest level tarnish his legendary reputation as a player? Would he be able to get the best out of a squad full of egos and get the players pulling in the same direction?
The club went all-in with their hand, but the gamble clearly paid off – and then some.
Zidane’s status as one of the best players to ever play the game and his strong ties to the club itself afforded him the instant respect of the whole squad, especially Cristiano Ronaldo – something that Benítez was never able to enjoy. It also meant that the always-opinionated Madrid media kept any external pressure to an absolute minimum. However, the Frenchman went on to demonstrate that he is also both a thoughtful and tactical coach and isn’t afraid to make big calls or pick performers over names. His calm and positive manner rubbed off on the team, who responded with big performances and, most importantly, goals.
Zidane won his first Clásico as a manager in April, ending Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten run in the process, and the team pushed their eternal rivals to the final day of the season for the title, finishing only a point behind in the end. Their disappointment was short-lived, however, as Real went on to beat Atlético Madrid on penalties in the Champions League final to add an 11th title to their glittering record in the competition.
The Frenchman’s side started the 16/17 campaign in the same fine form. In December, Zidane led his men to triumph in the Club World Cup in Japan before, in January, they set a new Spanish record of 40 consecutive matches without defeat.
After such a successful first year at the club, you can bet hopes and expectations are sky high for 2017.
Matt Kyle (Spain Primera División Analyst)
Follow Matt: @FRfutbolMatt
An outstanding 2016 has seen 23-year-old Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson cement his place as Benfica’s number one, and as one of the best in his position in Portugal’s Liga NOS.
Signed from Rio Ave in 2015/16 after starring for the Vila do Conde outfit, Ederson initially played understudy in Lisbon to compatriot Júlio César. However, starting in March Ederson deputised for the remainder of the season as César was laid low through injury, most notably putting in a superb performance against fierce title rivals Sporting, a match in which he kept a clean sheet on the way to a vital win for the defending champions. With Ederson in the team, Benfica went unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign en route to a third consecutive championship, and he has been immovable between the sticks ever since.
Benfica began 2016/17 in similarly dominant fashion, having lost only once in Liga NOS as they head the division by four points at the time of writing. The Eagles are also through to the last 16 of the Champions League, with Ederson keeping two important clean sheets against Dynamo Kiev as they finished runners-up to Napoli in Group B.
While the Brazilian has room for improvement, he boasts instinctive shot-stopping skills, and his decision-making resembles that of a goalkeeper far beyond his current years and experience. His record at Benfica attests to this, conceding only 29 goals and securing 22 clean sheets in his 42 matches for the club.
His performances have reportedly caught the eye of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, as he is rumoured to be willing to part with £25 million to secure his services. Ederson has yet to make his mark with the Seleção, although he had been called up to the 2016 Copa América squad before a muscle injury forced his withdrawal. But if he maintains his form at club level, then a breakthrough is inevitable. As Brazil legend Dani Alves recently stated: “I think Ederson is the future of this team”.
Jamie Farr (Portugal Primeira Liga Analyst)
Follow Jamie: @FRfutebolJamie
Lille have had a turbulent 18 months. The imminent arrival of a new coach, likely Marcelo Bielsa, would amount to a fifth head coach in less than two years. René Girard’s reign faltered and petered out at the end of the 2014/15 season, Hervé Renard’s dire spell at the helm came to nothing and Frederic Antonetti was unable to maintain any sort of presentable form without the mercurial Sofiane Boufal. The only consistently excellent (or even decent) performer during this period – Boufal aside – has been full-back Sébastien Corchia.
It is both a testament to the right-back’s ability and the lacklustre LOSC attack that he has often been their most potent attacking weapon. His crossing highlights reel would resemble some of David Beckham’s early work, with the pace and whip he provides that teases forwards and frightens defenders. Beckham is also an influence Corchia draws on for another of his weapons: the dead ball – with Bastia being his latest victim back in October.
After receiving a call-up from Didier Deschamps, whilst continuing to display both the technical ability and defensive intensity that make him such an effective outlet, Corchia may be starting to outgrow Lille in their current state. The 27-year-old’s quality has stood out by a mile in the vast majority of the Northern club’s outings so far this season. It is unlikely that he will leave in January, but a summer move to a bigger club should be in the offing – as he seeks to develop his career and realise the potential he possesses.
Adam White (France Ligue 1 Analyst)
Follow Adam: @FRfootballAdam
When KV Kortrijk ended the 2015/16 Belgian Jupiler Pro League season in strong form, their stubborn defenders were making names for themselves. Whilst the towering Maxime Chanot earned himself a glamour move to New York City FC, Kortrijk’s industrious right-back Adam Marusic, newly converted from right-wing, was garnering a steady stream of plaudits.
The summer transfer window opened and KV Oostende were quick to act, snapping up Kortrijk’s Montenegrin duo of Marusic and Zarko Tomasevic. Tomasevic’s season has been unexceptional; his compatriot, however, has established himself as the quiet driving force behind the Kustboys’ phenomenal season thus far. Whilst his skill-set makes him more of a Montenegrin Milner than the Bale of the Balkans, his influence has been critical.
Brought in to add squad depth along the right side, be this at right-back or right-wing, it was initially unclear how much game time the 24-year-old would get. Yet since starting against Club Brugge in the second game of the season, he has become a mainstay in the Oostende side; there is surely little coincidence that their only home loss this season came with Marusic sidelined through injury.
However, it was a stroke of fortune that brought the very best out of Marusic. With a defence hampered by injury, manager Yves Vanderhaeghe threw Marusic in at Oostende’s problem position of left-back, a position Marusic had never previously occupied. After just 2 games, left-back was a problem position no more. In Oostende’s 6-0 drubbing of Genk, Marusic was rampant, taking players on the outside and cutting back in on his stronger foot in equal measure.
Every successful team needs a utility man, and Marusic’s persistent endeavour has been key to Oostende’s exceptional season, which sees them sitting 4th in the league and in the semi-final of the cup. His exploits have not gone unnoticed by his national side either; he picked up six caps for Montenegro in 2016 and is a nailed-on starter when fit. He possesses the uncanny ability to seemingly be at both ends of the pitch simultaneously and his tireless work-rate has epitomised one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in Belgium this season. If Oostende make it into Europe next season, which looks an increasingly realistic possibility, then Marusic could soon find some high profile suitors knocking at his door.
George Nott (Belgium Jupiler Pro League Analyst)
Follow George: @FRvoetbalGeorge
Rewind 12 months and Dayot Upamecano would not have been a familiar name to most. However, after a year of meteoric rise, clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City were all linked with the 18-year old’s signature before Red Bull Leipzig snapped him up earlier this month.
It was a modest start to 2016 for Upamecano, who had to prove himself in the Austrian second tier with Red Bull Salzburg’s feeder club, FC Liefering. The 6ft youngster had previously signed from Valencienne U19s for €2.2m on a youth contract and it wasn’t until his 18th birthday on the 27th October that he signed his first professional contract – a three-year deal with Salzburg until 2018, including an option to extend for a further year.
By the time Upamecano had turned 18-years old, he had already established himself in the Salzburg starting line-up. Former Barcelona player and Salzburg Head Coach, Óscar García had taken Upamecano under his wing in the summer of 2016, transforming the French U19 international into a ball-playing centre-back who could also carry out defensive-midfield duties.
Since July, Upamecano has gone on to make appearances in the Champions League qualifiers, the Europa League group stage and started 75% of the club’s league games. Although guilty at times of ill-discipline, a sign that he is still relatively inexperienced at senior level, the Evreux-native became an integral part of Red Bull’s first-team. After 18 league games, it was Upamecano who unbelievably led the league in most successful dribbles – 44 in total – a signal of talent that did not go unnoticed amongst top clubs from around Europe.
By September, at the age of 17, Upamecano made his French U19 debut in a friendly against Serbia. He went on to make a further three appearances, starting their two U19 European Championship qualifiers against Estonia and Czech Republic, helping keep clean sheets in both games.
Although 2016 saw a whirlwind of excitement surround Upamecano, it is unlikely to come close to what 2017 has in store. With his €12m move to RB Leipzig secured, he now has the chance to prove himself as one of the best teenagers in world football.
Tim Armitage (Austria Bundesliga Analyst)
Follow Tim: @FRfussballTim
Michał Pazdan entered 2016 as a somewhat maligned figure. The Polish centre-back was an important player for club side Legia Warsaw, but was widely considered a weak link at international level where he battled Serie A makeweights Thiago Cionek and Bartosz Salamon for a place in Poland’s starting eleven.
However, the man previously dubbed ‘Kung Fu Pazdan’ for an overeager challenge on Ireland striker Jon Walters in 2013, proved the doubters emphatically wrong with a series of fantastic performances that carried Legia to a league and cup double, and shepherded Poland through to the quarter-finals of the European Championships, conceding just one goal (a Shaqiri wonder strike) in the process. Although his country would ultimately go out to Portugal on penalties, Pazdan was once again impressive, tucking Cristiano Ronaldo away in his back pocket for 115 mins, and finding unorthodox ways to cope with the forward’s movement during the other five.
He is now irreplaceable at the heart of Poland’s defence, and was a big part of Legia’s eventful return to the Champions League later in the year. The defender’s high point of the European campaign once more came against Ronaldo, as the 2016 Ballon d’Or winner was again shut down in front of goal by the tenacious Pole, helping the Ekstraklasa champions hang onto a 3-3 draw. Pazdan’s performance spawned a barrage of memes (and, bizarrely, t-shirts), and rounded off a magnificent year for the cult hero who is now a key player for club and country.
Ben Stebbings (Poland Ekstraklasa Analyst)
Follow Ben: @FRfootballBen
The Copenhagen captain has developed into an integral figure at club level in recent seasons but fully established himself as the dominant player in the Danish league over the course of 2016. Such form saw him sign a contract in the summer to head to Germany to join Werder Bremen at the turn of the year, despite belated interest from Everton.
Delaney really has been the heartbeat of the FCK side with his tenacity and endless energy meaning that he is never more than 5-10 metres away from the action. The central midfielder has developed a great range of passing to accompany defensive grit and fantastic aerial anticipation. Despite chipping in with his fair share of defensive duties, he retains an eye for goal, managing 6 in his 19 league appearances in 2016/7. Indeed, even though he has been playing in a dominant side domestically, he had no problem transferring this form to the European stage, where he notched a stunning long-range effort in the Champions league victory over Club Bruges.
It is difficult to recall Delaney having a bad game throughout the whole of 2016. He has contributed positively in every appearance and as such it was no surprise that 12 out of 13 opposition managers voted him as autumn’s best player ahead of the winter break. Treated like a hero in Copenhagen, Delaney should now be heading towards the prime of his career and if he can continue to replicate his high performance levels of the past 12 months it would not be a shock if he was to move onto bigger clubs in coming years.
Tom Sanders (Denmark Superligaen Analyst)
Follow Tom: @FRfodboldTom
“The Pasty Pirlo” has had his best year to date which saw him earn a move to Premier League giants Manchester City after a superb season with Australian side Melbourne City. During his time Down Under, Mooy managed 11 goals and a record-breaking 20 assists as he helped his side to the A-League semi-finals in the 2015/16 season. He was swiftly snapped up by Manchester City and has been sent out on a season-long loan to Championship side Huddersfield Town. On top of his club achievements, he was also Australia’s most reliable player as the only international to start all ten matches in 2016.
Mooy has had an instant impact on Huddersfield Town; he has almost carried the team into the playoff positions. He was recognised for his contribution by winning back-to-back Championship Player of the Month awards in August and September, and then landed the accolade once again in December. His first goal for The Terriers was also one to remember as he scored from 25-yards out with a wonder strike against rivals Leeds United. His form for Huddersfield has even impressed Pep Guardiola who at one point suggested that he may have a future with Manchester City.
Mooy’s year was capped off by taking home the PFA’s Australian Player of the Year. The 26-year-old looks to be coming into the peak of his career, and Australians all around the world will be expecting huge things in 2017. With the Confederations Cup coming up in June this year, Socceroos fans will be watching his progress with the hope that Mooy will continue to impress so that he can help Australia to cause some upsets.
Matt Riggs (Australia A-League Analyst)
Follow Matt: @FRfootballMattR
The 2016 J League season did not really produce a stand-out performer, with veteran Kengo Nakamura scooping the league’s MVP award in December. While age-defying consistency meant the Kawasaki Frontale midfielder was a worthy winner, more eye-catching performances in my opinion came from Yokohama F-Marinos’ Manabu Saito.
Saito has always been an exciting left winger; a throwback to the jinking wingers that graced the world game in the nineties and previously. Saito combines great technique and close control with a deceptive turn of pace. In previous seasons he has perhaps lacked the final pass or the ability to finish, but in 2016 he righted that wrong, posting a tally of thirteen goals and ten assists in all competitions – his best top-flight haul, earning him a place in the J League Best XI. Saito’s displays this year ensured a recall to the Japanese national team for the first time since 2014, though he has not got the game time under coach Vahid Halilhodzic that many feel he deserves.
A combination of his performances and internal turmoil at F-Marinos look set to see Saito move on from the Nissan Stadium, with reported European interest from 2.Bundesliga side VFL Bochum, as well as Yokohama’s Kanagawa rivals Kawasaki Frontale. As is typical of Japanese players, Saito has the technique to thrive in Europe, but his slight frame would be a concern if he were to leave Japan. Nevertheless, whoever prises Saito from Yokohama will have acquired a hard-working, highly skillful, and now composed finisher, who will look to push on next season and cement his place in the Japanese National Team.
Sam Robson (Japan J.League Analyst)
Follow Sam: @FRsoccerSam
21-year-old Gnabry scored six goals in the Summer Olympics, guiding Germany to the final of the competition. This was the perfect shop window for the winger, reigniting the potential Arsène Wenger saw back in 2012 when he handed him his Premier League debut. A move back to his native country always looked on the cards, with the player in high esteem at home following his exploits in Rio. Bremen managed to collect his signature in August for a fee reported to be around £4.2 million. German national media reported that Bayern Munich paid for a percentage of the transfer fee, giving the Bavarians the first option to purchase him in the future. Gnabry has since transferred his form to the Bundesliga, with seven goals and one assist to make him the club’s top scorer. This impressive domestic record earned him a call up to Joachim Löw’s side in November, where he scored a hat-trick on his debut.
It was clear from his debut that Gnabry has been relieved of some defensive duties, often staying high drifting into central roles to either get in behind the defenders, or dropping deep to get on the ball and use his creativity. His dribbling and unpredictability gives you the sense he is going to score or create every time he gets control of the ball. Whilst expressing his impressive ability in one-on-one situations, Gnabry has also shown his adaptability: moving into the striker role against Schalke as Nouri saw he was much quicker than Naldo – a tactical shift which resulted in Bremen’s second goal of the game. Despite starting a majority of the games on the left, he’s often been found in attacking midfield or the opposing wing, which shows his understanding with Max Kruse and Fin Bartels. With this confidence and regular game time he continues to flourish technically and tactically, which can only add to his chances of playing for one of the top clubs in the world.
Matt Turner (Germany Bundesliga Analyst)
Follow Matt: @FRfootballMattT
Pontus Engblom has been a revelation in the 2016 OBOS Ligaen season. After a thoroughly decent 2015 season for Sandnes Ulf in which he netted 17 goals in 26 games, Engblom bettered that with 26 goals and 7 assists in 2016. To say he was invaluable for Sandnes would be an understatement; without their talismanic Swedish forward, Sandnes could well have been in a relegation battle rather than a promotion chase.
Engblom is a forward who relies mostly on his off-the-ball movement and bursts of pace to beat opposition defenders. I would characterize him by saying his style of play is akin to that of Fernando Torres at his peak. One game that sticks in the mind from last season was Sandnes’ 6-2 demolition of newly promoted KFUM Oslo. Engblom scored twice in that match, but it was his movement and ability to beat every challenge thrown his way that really stood out for me. Engblom finished the 2016 season as top scorer, scoring six goals more than his nearest rival, Dao Bamba of Kristiansund.
Engblom’s contract at Sandnes has now expired and despite talk of him returning to the Allsvenskan with one of IFK Göteborg or first club GIF Sundsvall – a significant step up that Engblom may have been capable of making – he has instead signed for Strømsgodset in the Norwegian top tier. He still has a lot to prove in the Tippeligaen, as he has not quite lived up to expectations at a higher level having once been dubbed a ‘wonderkid’. But undoubtedly Strømsgodset have a real talent on their hands, and hopefully the Swedish forward can continue to display his recent form against Norway’s elite.
Ben Wells (Norway 1.Divisjon Analyst)
Follow Ben: @FRfotballBen.
Gabriel Jesus was probably an unknown name to many when it was announced he would be signing for Premier League side Manchester City back in August, but after a brilliant 2016 for both Palmeiras and Brazil, it’s no surprise to see why they’ve splashed out £27m for one of football’s most talented youngsters.
At just nineteen years of age, the forward is already receiving huge praise from notable legends of the game. “Right now, he’s the best player we have,” said Pele just last month, while Romario said “for what he has done in a Palmeiras shirt and in a Brazil shirt, I can say he is going to be our next great No 9.”
Gabriel’s breakthrough season came in 2015 when he was voted the best newcomer in the Brasileirão, a season in which he also helped Palmeiras to glory in the Copa Brazil. From then on he’s gone from strength-to-strength, playing a pivotal role for the Sao Paulo-based outfit who claimed their first league title for 22 years as they won Serie A by nine points.
Deployed at both left-wing and as a central striker, the teenager netted 12 times and claimed 5 assists in 27 appearances during the campaign which saw him receive the Brasileirão’s Golden Ball award for his efforts. However it’s his impact on the Brazilian national team during 2016 that has perhaps been most impressive. The forward scored three goals as part of U23 side that claimed the long awaited Olympic Gold in Rio’s Summer games, the first time Brazil had won the title and the one the country so desperately wanted.
It wasn’t long before he made the step up to the senior side, making his debut in September, with two goals in a 3-0 success as the Seleção won in Ecuador for the first time since 1983. Three more goals in victories over Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru have ensured he is now a regular starter upfront for Tite’s side who have recorded six consecutive wins to leave them top of the South America qualifying for Russia 2018.
City were able to fend off interest from Barcelona and Real Madrid for his signature, with his five-year move formally completed this month. The player himself said he was unable to turn down the opportunity to play under Pep Guardiola for the Manchester Club, who may hand him his full debut against Crystal Palace this weekend. The Premier League has certainly acquired an exciting talent, and one that could prove to be one of it’s biggest stars in years to come.
Alex Brown (Brazil Serie A Analyst)
Follow Alex: @FRfutebolAlex
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