Written by: DillaTUDE
With the Real Madrid’s 4-1 mauling of Juventus in the Champions League Finals bringing the 2016-17 season to an end, the focus in the footballing world is now centred around the debate over who should win the 2017 Ballon D’Or. For this article I have decided to compile a list of the candidates for the Ballon D’Or by grouping each individual into three distinctive categories: goalkeeping; defence; midfield; and attack. This is due to the fact the modern analysis of football often places greater emphasis on attackers than it does defenders, which is reflected in Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance of the award.
• Manuel Neuer
• Gianluigi Buffon
• Keylor Navas
• Marc-André ter Stegen
At 31 years of age Neuer is right at the peak of his heights as a goalkeeper and this was exhibited through his goalkeeping heroics in the Euro 2016 penalty shootout against Italy in the quarter-finals which saw him save two spot kicks from the Italians. His finest moment of the 2016-17 campaign came against Real Madrid in the second leg of their quarter-final tie in which his Bayern side were ultimately beaten 4-2 on the night due to being 10-men down. However, his string of breath-taking saves in the match showed the world just why he is still widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the sport today and is shortlisted for the 2017 Ballon D’Or list.
The 39-year old Italian legend just capped off one of the most impressive seasons of his illustrious career. Buffon enjoyed great domestic success during this season as he captained his Juventus side to their sixth straight Serie A title as they edged off their closest rivals in AS Roma by a margin of four points. However, it was in the Champions League through which Buffon earned the cries out by many for a late Ballon D’Or run. The legendary shot-stopper was one of the main contributors to the Juventus defence which only allowed in four goals throughout the entire campaign until they ran into a Real Madrid team in the Finals who had managed to score in every single game they played that season. His finest display was undoubtedly keeping the greatest attacking trio football has ever seen in Messi-Suarez-Neymar scoreless in the 180 minutes he played against Barcelona in their two quarter-final ties, when that same trio managed to score four of the six goals Barcelona scored against PSG in their iconic 6-1 home victory. If there was a year in which Buffon deserved to win the Ballon D’Or then this would be it.
Keylor Navas has come under immense scrutiny in recent seasons and much of this is largely motivated by Real Madrid fans who have been eager to replace the 30-year old shot-stopper with the Spanish international David De Gea. However, the Costa Rican has silenced the majority of his critics and rewarded club manager Zinedine Zidane for his bravery to stand by his decision to start the goalie with a number of great goalkeeping displays in some of Madrid’s biggest matches this season. The fact that a club like Real Madrid who had no problem disposing of quality players like Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Iker Casillas and many others in recent transfer windows have firmly stood behind Navas, shows you just how highly rated a goalkeeper he is.
Marc-André ter Stegen
Of all the listed nominees Marc-André ter Stegen is certainly the wildcard. In fact, there are many who would argue that other goalkeepers such as David De Gea of Manchester United and Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea would provide much stronger cases. However, the lack of Champions League football for those goalkeepers has kept them out of this discussion. Out of a bitterly disappointing season for Barcelona, the 25-year old German who saw his role upgraded as the Barcelona’s official “No. 1” following Claudio Bravo’s departure to Man City, has been one of the few glimmers of hope for a Barcelona side that is in the midst of a rebuild. He not only finished second behind Athletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak with 13 clean sheets during the 2016-17 La Liga season, but Ter Stegen also finished third in total saves made in La Liga with 117 of them, which illustrates just how unusually porous the Barcelona backline has been this season. And although he’s certainly not winning this year’s awards, his great performances in between the frames have earned him a selection as Germany’s “No. 1” goalkeeper for the 2017 Confederations Cup with Manuel Neuer being ruled out with a knee injury. For many this could be seen as passing of the torch from Oliver Kahn, to Manuel Neuer and now Marc Ter Stegen as Germany’s next goalkeeping great.
• Sergio Ramos
• Leonardo Bonucci
• Mat Hummels
• Dani Alves
The captain of both Real Madrid and the Spanish national team has capped of an historic season in which his side not only completed their first “La Liga-European Cup” double since 1958, but also became the first club side to win back-to-back Champions League titles in the modern era, a feat which was previously unaccomplished. Whereas in prior seasons it was Cristiano Ronaldo provided the heroics for the club, this season Ramos has headlined Madrid’s victories with a number of crucial late game goals against Barcelona, Real Betis and Deportivo La Coruna which helped Real Madrid maintain their 3-point cushion over Barcelona throughout the season.
Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos will reel in most of the acclaim for Real Madrid’s successes this season, in the eyes of many Marcelo has proven himself to be both Madrid’s best and most consistent performer this season. The Brazilian international has merged a strong partnership with Ronaldo throughout the years but it was this season in which the tandem truly reached their peak powers. With Ronaldo losing the burst of pace he once possessed an “out-an-out winger” for Manchester United and his early years in Madrid, he has increasingly relied upon his teammates to supply him with a heavy dose of crosses and through balls. Of the six different teammates who have assisted Ronaldo’s goals it comes as no surprise that Marcelo tops the list with four of those in the league, the most notable these being the one he provided in Madrid’s second leg quarter-finals Champions League tie against Bayern Munich in which he dribbled through the entire Bayern backline before laying the ball off to Ronaldo who then slotted the ball off into the back net to secure Madrid’s place in the semi-finals. Although Marcelo may not win the award, being the first the first left back to finish in the top three votes since Paolo Maldini (2003) and his fellow countryman Roberto Carlos (2002) will certainly be refreshing for an award that has often neglected defenders.
The youngest member of Juventus’ famed “B-B-C” (Bonucci-Barzagli-Chiellini) has in the eyes of many surpassed Thiago Silva as the most complete defender in the world football. Whereas the likes of Marcelo and Ramos are more renowned for their attacking prowess, Bonucci is hailed for not only being able to gracefully play with the ball at his feet in setting up Juventus’ attacks, but also for his tenacious tackling that largely contributed to Juventus’ defence of this season only conceding three goals in their entire Champions League campaign until they were faced with an all-time great Real Madrid side at their peak of their offensive powers. If the Ballon D’Or rewarded the best overall defender in football then Bonucci would undoubtedly have the prize sealed.
Much like Bonucci, Hummels is of a new breed of central defenders who not only possess great defensive skills, but are also incredibly adept with the ball at their feet and advancing forward to link up attacks, which is a skill that has become ever so important in modern footballs possession based football. Despite his first season with Bayern Munich featuring injuries to not only himself but his other central back pairing in Jerome Boateng, his contributions to his new club in the second leg of their quarter finals tie against Real Madrid highlighted why in many people’s eyes Hummels is set to take the helm as “best defender in the world” and is already a worthy Ballon D’Or candidate.
For many in the footballing world, the decision by Barcelona to allow Dani Alves to leave on a free transfer to Juventus during the 2016-17 season was perhaps the biggest mistake that the club has made in decades. Not only has the impact been felt at Barcelona who for the first season since 2013-14 failed to hoist either the La Liga title or the Champions League title, but also at Juventus who went from being eliminated in the first round of the knockout stages to Bayern Munich to impressively making it all the way to the final stage of the tournament where they finished as runners-up to Real Madrid. If both Alves and Marcelo can stay injury free heading into the 2018 World Cup then it could be argued that Brazil have a very strong likelihood of avenging their bitter 2014 World Cup disappointments and winning the World Cup as they possess perhaps two of the best full backs in world football today.
• Luka Modric
• Toni Kroos
• Marco Verrati
• N’Golo Kante
• Thiago Alcântara
With the recent decline of the aging Andres Iniesta, the 31-year old Croatian playmaker has usurped the Catalan giants post as the best “number 10” in world football. Although Madristras found themselves concerned by the Croatian’s mediocre performances during the initial phases of the 2016-17 season that had left many worrying as to whether or not Modric was on the downside of his career, he managed to “wow” his doubters with a near perfect second half of the season which saw Madrid go on to complete their first “double” since the 1957/58 season. His finest hour of football came in the Champions League Final against Juventus where he managed to dictate the pace and tempo of the game in his “man of the match” performance against a Juventus side that had managed to blitz through their competition en route to the finals.
The 2016-17 season midfield of Real Madrid is arguably one of the most loaded midfields in football history. Certainly on no other team today will you find high calibre players like Isco, James Rodriguez and Kovacic relegated to a team’s bench, but when you have starters such as Toni Kroos then it’d be nearly impossible for any midfielder currently to snag away playing time from Madrid’s deep-lying playmaker. The improvements he’s made to his near-perfect game are illustrated through his rise from the 6th leader in assists in La Liga during the 2015-16 campaign to him now trailing in second behind Luis Suarez with his 12 assists. In open play, Madrid rely on the full backs Marcelo and Carjaval to supply crosses in the box for Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale to latch upon. However, when it comes to dead ball situations be it corners or indirect free kicks, there is no other player aside from Kroos that Madrid’s front free would prefer on the ball. At only 27 years of age Kroos’ reign at the top of world football is sure to last well into this decade and continue in the next, which means his name will remain a constant fixture on these types of lists.
The 24-year old PSG midfielder is amongst the most highly touted midfielders in world football today. His ability to transition from defense to offense and vica-versa have earned Verratti comparisons to Argentinian great Fernando Redondo. Whether he can live up to such a billing remains to be seen, but with performances like the one he had in the first leg of his Round 16 tie versus Barcelona in which he tormented the midfield trio of Iniesta-Busquets-Rakitic, Verratti’s continued to be featured when discussing the best players in football.
It can often be hard to assess the impact a player has on a club. However, in the rare instance of N’Golo Kante this is simply not the case. When signed for Leiceister City during the 2015-16 season he won them the league title and following his departure the next season they finished in the bottom half of the Premier League table at just 12th. Whilst, on the other hand, Chelsea finished just 10th in the league during the 2015-16 season and ended up winning the league when he joined despite still retaining the core elements of that 2015-16 squad. Similarly, the French national side were beaten in the quarter-finals of 2014 World Cup, and then ended up beating Germany along the way to making the 2016 Euro Finals after Kante officially represented the country. Before these past two seasons the discussion about the best defensive midfielder in football revolved around Sergio Busquets, Casemiro, Matuidi, Matic and Xabi Alonso, however, this debate has been put to closure by the way in which Kante has impacted football within recent years.
Thiago is arguably the most technically gifted midfielder in world football today. Thiago’s close-touch dribbling combined with his uncanny vision have led many to proclaim him as the “heir to Iniesta”. Following the departure of Pep Guardiola, Thiago has embraced a freer “number ten” role under the new tenureship of Carlo Ancelotti. With current crop of playmakers in Silva, Iniesta and Modric either having just about reached their peak (in the case of Modric) or on the decline of their career (Silva and Iniesta), Thiago is destined to become European football’s next best “number 10” and he should retain that title for many years to come.
• Lionel Messi
• Cristiano Ronaldo
• Eden Hazard
• Kylian Mbappe
Despite the failures of Barcelona this season, many would argue that the Argentinian had the best individual season of his career as he scored 54 goals in 52 appearances in spite of the fact that he was playing almost as a deep lying playmaker for his side. His next closest scoring rivals in Ronaldo, Lewandowski, and Aubemayang all lagged behind having failed to reach the half-century mark in their goal tally this season. If the Ballon D’Or is to be rewarded to the player who has provided the best individual performances this season and not to the player whose club side achieved the most success, then Messi would be the most obvious candidate for this year’s award and pretty much few more as in terms of pure footballing talent, the man simply has no rivals in football today.
Ronaldo began the season latter than Messi due to the knee injury that he suffered in 2016 Euro Finals and this not only reflected in his goal-scoring tally for the 2016-17 season but also in his early season performances, which led many to believe that the Portuguese international had finally reached the twilight of his career. However, he once again proved all his major critics wrong by pulling off a remarkable second half of the season in which he put on his best display in the Champions League ever. He managed to score in every tie from the quarter finals barring Madrid’s away fixture at Atletico Madrid and scored two hat-tricks in the process. For many his clutch performances in the latter half of season, particularly in the Champions League, and his club sides overall successes this year (Champions League, La Liga title, Club World Cup) have him atop of the list of candidates to win the Ballon D’Or, and it would be incredibly hard to argue against the case for Ronaldo picking up what would be a record-tying fifth Ballon D’or at the end of this year.
On paper, one could look at Neymar’s 2016-17 season in comparison to his 2015-16 season and suggest that the 25-year old Brazilian superstar had a down year, especially when you consider that he his goal tally dipped from 31 to 20. Yet, such a statement couldn’t possibly be further from the truth when actually watching the games that Neymar has played in this season, as he has arguably been their most impressive performer throughout the season. Like Messi, Neymar has had to be deployed deeper by Barcelona to compensate for the lack of creativity in Barcelona’s midfield, which has consequently reduced his goal scoring opportunities. Nonetheless, whenever the opportunity has arisen for the Brazilian to mark his stamp on the game he has certainly rose to the occasion as seen in Barcelona’s epic 6-1 which was a game in which Neymar not only scored 2 goals for Barcelona but provided the assisted for one of the greatest last minute goals scored by Barca right-back Sergi Roberto. The significant developments Neymar undertook in improving his overall game are seen through the fact that he ended up breaking the Champions League single season assist record set by Xavi with the 8 assists he produced last season, despite only making it to the quarter-finals. Neymar, along with Messi, would top the list of candidates likely to win the award if we were solely taking into account individual performances throughout the season and not the amount of trophy-ware a player garnered throughout the season.
This season marked a return to form for Eden Hazard as he increased his goal tally from just a mere 6 in the highly disappointing 2015-16 season to a much more respectable 16 goals during the 2016-17 campaign, and this was without playing Champions League football to further pad his stats. With such improvements to his overall game Eden Hazard has once reignited the fierce debate that exists in the footballing community over who the next heir to Messi and Ronaldo’s throne is between Hazard and Neymar. However, it must be stated that despite being the Premier League’s best performer throughout this season, until he proves himself in the Champions League, Hazard will find it hard to earn the title as the “best footballer in the world” as many have projected him to become in a few years.
Mbappe turned out to be the biggest surprise of the season as he emerged as the new “wonderkid” in football. With his 26 goals in 44 appearances this season, the French teen sensation has already marked his name as one of the best attackers in world football today. The blistering pace he possesses combined with his clinical finishing in the 18-yard box has led many to draw comparisons between Mbappe and footballing great Thierry Henry. If Mbappe continues to improve upon his game, then there a few who would challenge the belief that by the time his career is over the young Frenchman will have hoisted more than a few Ballon D’Ors.