As we come to the end of the year, we look back on a great year of soccer. To celebrate the past year, and to look forward to the next one, people will be coming out with their teams of the year and other year end lists. Naturally, any list or team of the year will be dominated by the same players, the Messi’s, Ronaldo’s and Lewandowski’s will dominate those lists. But what about some of the other guys, guys that have flown under the radar but have been just as, if not more, influential for their clubs success over the past year.
This is the starting XI of those under-appreciated players in Europe. We’re going to use a 4-4-2 formation because in this day and age of one striker 4-2-3-1 systems, the old fashioned 4-4-2 has itself grown pretty under appreciated.
Jack Butland (Stoke City)
The Premier League has some great goalkeepers but rising fast to the top is 22 year old Jack Butland. The Stoke City keeper is second in the league in clean sheets (albeit partially thanks to Stoke’s stingy defending) and got his first competitive England cap back in September. If he continues his great form, and Joe Hart remains his incosistent self, we could see Butland as England’s new no. 1 as early as Euro 2016 this summer in France.
Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
If there’s one thing that consistently gets overlooked as a unit, that would be Arsenal’s back four. In previous years, there’s been good reason to overlook them but this isn’t previous years. This year, Arsenal’s defense has been tremendous and a pretty big part of that is due to the Spanish left back. Monreal gets up and down the left wing just like the best of them and has been fantastic defensively. Despite playing in a position where you get challenged by some of the best wingers week in and week out, Monreal has picked up just two yellow cards in all competitions this season.
Matthias Ginter (Borussia Dortmund)
Ginter’s tremendous 2013/14 season as a centerback with SC Freiburg earned him a spot on Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning team. It also earned him a nice move to Borussia Dortmund where things unfortunately did not get off to a good start. This season, BVB’s new manager Thomas Tuchel moved the German youngster out of the middle and over to right back where the defender has jump started his career again. Ginter has fit right in at his new position, flying up the right flank to help join Dortmund’s very dangerous attack. He’s back on track to develop into the tremendous defender we originally thought he’d become.
Toby Alderwereld (Tottenham)
It’s no coincidence that after Spurs signed the Belgian defender this summer, they fixed their sometimes leaky defense and created one of the best defenses in the Premier League. It’s also not a coincidence that once Alderwereld left Southampton their once stingy defense hasn’t been able to stop anything this year. Yet Alderewereld doesn’t even start in the middle for the Belgian national team as he’s forced to be out wide at right back. Is that an embarrassment of riches for Belgium or simply not knowing what they have?
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
Quietly Leonardo Bonucci has become one of the best defenders in the world. You hardly hear his name in the transfer rumors being linked to a big club has been a rock at the back for Juventus and Italy over the past five years. He was influential in Juventus’ run to the Champions League final last season and earned him a nomination for a place in UEFA’s team of the year.
Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
The most under-appreciated of under-appreciated players, even Manchester United fans seem to forget what they have in him. Carrick was United’s only major signing of the 2006 summer and the mood of United fans when it was announced was that of general apathy. Carrick? That’s it?
Now Carrick is under-appreciated by his own manager. Last season Manchester United won 70% of the matches that Carrick started. Without Carrick, that number fell to just 40%. It was when Carrick got an extended run in the team in November, December, and March where United took their charges up the table, only fading once he got hurt. How was he rewarded? Over the summer Louis van Gaal signed midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to replace him.
Despite the new signings, Carrick’s effect on the team didn’t end. From the start of the 2015 season until December 8th*, Carrick started 12 matches with United winning nine of them. He was left out of the starting XI 13 times (only twice due to injury) and United won just four of those matches. Maybe if Loius van Gaal appreciated Carrick more United wouldn’t be in such a tailspin now.
*December 8th is the day United were eliminated from the Champions League in their loss to Wolfsburg and is the exact day the team quit on Loius van Gaal. They haven’t earned a point since, not even Carrick could help that.
Miralem Pjanic (AS Roma)
Pjanic brings the creative spark to the center of the field. The Bosnian has starred for his country to help them qualify for the 2014 World Cup. This season he’s been starring for Roma, scoring two crucial goals in the Champions League that could easily be the difference between Roma and advancing as opposed to being bounced to the Europa League. The old school 4-4-2 allows Carrick to sit back while Pjanic gets forward to join the attack where he’s most dangerous.
Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
Last season the Danish midfielder made a habit of scoring winners and equalizers in the last five minutes of games. This season the goals may not be there but make no mistake Eriksen’s creativity and vision have been a major part of Tottenham’s strong first half of the season. People may be obsessing over Harry Kane and Dele Alli, but Christian Eriksen is a big reason why Tottenham are where they are.
Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
How is the guy with more than twice as many assists as the next best player in the Premier League under-appreciated is what you’re probably asking right now. Here me out though. I think Mesut Ozil is extremely under appreciated.
If you’re not an Arsenal fan and I asked you to name the best attackers (based on ability, not form) in the Premier League who would you say? You would easily name Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez, David Silva, Eden Hazard, and maybe even this year Riyad Mahrez before you named Ozil. If Germany had one game to win and I had to pick their five man midfield I would take Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Reus, Kroos, and Muller. I asked a German fan the same question and they gave me almost the same answer but said maybe you could swap Ozil over Kroos – maybe! That’s bonkers. Tell that to any Arsenal fan and they’ll have a heart attack.
The truth is Ozil is one of the best attackers in the world and easily one of the four best attackers Germany has. The fact that we all don’t see it that way means that yes in fact he is under-appreciated.
Pierre Emrick-Aubamayang (Borussia Dortmund)
Quick, based on all the hype you’ve heard this year name the most potent striker in the Bundesliga this year? You answered Robert Lewandowski probably thanks to that five goal in nine minute game in October right? Or maybe Thomas Muller who usually starts over Lewandowski at Bayern? Well the answer is Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre Emrick-Aubamayang.
The main influence behind this team, Aubamayang, mostly played on the wing under Jurgen Klopp. This season under Thomas Tuchel he has been deployed as the main striker. After scoring a career high 16 goals in the Bundesliga and 25 in all competitions last season, Aubamayeng has already eclipsed those highs with a Bundesliga leading 18 goals and 27 goals in all competitions. Did I mention that he did all this within the first half of the season? Seems like he doesn’t get the credit he fully deserves.
Seydou Dumbia (CSKA Moscow)
Quick pop quiz courtesy of Ian Darke
Which CL forward playing tonight has a better goals per game strike rate than either Messi or C Ronaldo in the competition ?
— Ian Darke (@IanDarke) November 3, 2015
If you started naming every big striker in Europe then you’d be wrong. What’s the correct answer Mr. Darke?
Answer is Doumbia of CSKA with 16 goals in 20 CL games.
— Ian Darke (@IanDarke) November 3, 2015
Darke tweeted that just before Matchday 4 in this years Champions League. At the time Doumbia was scoring .8 goals per game. The next best player (at the time) was Cristiano Ronaldo who was scoring .669 goals per game over his career in the Champions League. Thanks to Doumbia going goal-less over his next three matches and Ronaldo going on a tear, the numbers are a bit more even now. In 23 career Champions League matches Doumbia is scoring .695 per match, Doumbia is essentially even with Ronaldo’s now .7 goals per game. That puts Doumbia up there as one of the most potent strikers in Europe, yet you never hear his name linked with any of the big clubs. That’s the definition of under appreciated.
Matthias Ginter Leonardo Bonucci Toby Alderwereld Nacho Monreal
Christian Eriksen Michael Carrick Miralem Pjanic Mesut Ozil
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang Seydou Doumbia