Kicking off our end of 2021 discussions with a look at this season…
So, we are not quite sure when you will be reading this, so just to make sure we cover our bases…
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Joyeux Noël. Feliz Navidad. Frohe Weinachten. Buon Natale. Whatever holiday you may celebrate, whether it be Christmas or not, or even if you do not celebrate a holiday at this time of year, I hope you are well, in good health, and are able to enjoy some time with family or loved ones in these uncertain times.
Well, we have had quite a year for football, haven’t we? We had a few international tournaments that we were not supposed to have this summer, we finished a few domestic competitions that we thought would not be completed, we welcomed fans back into stadiums, and we all came to the realization that maybe, just maybe, the entire sport being controlled by a select few millionaires and oil-rich nations is not a good idea. But I digress.
We will provide a few pieces to round up this year and look to what we can be excited for in 2022, but this piece will act as a nice introduction to that. We are just about halfway through the domestic seasons in Europe, with most competitions in their winter break and many others trying to piece together whatever “Festive Fixtures” calendar the prevailing health circumstances will allow them to have. We have a pretty clear idea of who is competing for what this season, and I think we can largely conclude that this will not be the giant-killing season we had in 2020/21 (but there’s hope!). Regardless, I will take a look at the European leagues and give you my team of the half season along with a few honorable mentions.
But there’s a catch.
To set a bit of a challenge for myself and to add a bit of variety to this, I am only allowing myself to select three players per league. So utilizing the “Top Five” European leagues, plus the Dutch Eredivisie and Portuguese Primeira Liga, I must build a team of 11 players with six honorable mentions not using more than three players from any given league. It’s like a Squad Building Challenge on FIFA Ultimate Team, except without the predatory microtransactions. Since I do not play FIFA anymore, I need this skill to be practical in some capacity. And if I didn’t do this, it would just be a bunch of players from five teams and that’s boring.
Anyway, let’s get started.
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid, Belgium)
I am getting my money’s worth when it comes to Real Madrid players in this team, and for good reason. Los Blancos are truly showing the mettle of champions when it matters, and Courtois has been at his athletic and reactionary best for Ancelotti’s team, bailing them out on numerous occasions. He is among the best goalkeepers in the world at the moment, and since I cannot put in Alisson, Ederson, or Édouard Mendy due to the restrictions, the Belgian earns his spot here.
Right Back: Jonathan Clauss (RC Lens, France)
Yes, I am sorry, Liverpool fans. This is not Trent Alexander-Arnold, even though he has been phenomenal this season. The restriction limited me.
Clauss has been the central figure of the resurgent Lens team, having gone from promotion two years ago to being arguably the second-best team in the league this season. His dynamism and ability to influence matches from right-back is a skill not many in his position possess, and it is what allows him to be narrowly second in the league in assists going into the winter break. France call up coming soon? I hope so.
Center Back: Éder Militão (Real Madrid, Brazil)
We are finally seeing Éder Militão become the player Real Madrid thought they were getting from Porto. Confident, strong in the tackle and in the air, and positionally intelligent, it is hard to argue against the Brazilian being among the best performing defensive players in Europe this season, and it is hard to argue against him being among the best players regardless of position in LaLiga so far this season. Anyone who can fill the void left by Raphaël Varane this effortlessly deserves praise. He is one of the big young stars to look out for in 2022.
Center Back: Nico Schlotterbeck (SC Freiburg, Germany)
From one of the known quantities to a surprise package, Freiburg’s start to the season has been nothing short of wildly unexpected. At the base of that, quite literally at the base of their back three, is Schlotterbeck, a young German center back who has emerged as one of the best in his position in the league. Confident on the ball, strong in the air, and with a football intelligence beyond his years, he will certainly be one to look out for going into the new year. Whatever success Freiburg have at the end of this season will be thanks to their defensive solidity, with Freiburg having the joint-best defensive record in the Bundesliga this season, and Schlotterbeck will be crucial to that solidity.
Left Back: João Cancelo (Manchester City, Portugal)
Wild to think how the best left-back in the world at the moment is actually a right back. Cancelo has been nothing short of phenomenal acting as City’s inverted wingback, with a capability to play decisive passes with either foot. Strong enough defensively to get by, he shows his true quality in creation in a City team that is scoring for fun at this point. It is impossible to keep him out of any team of the year.
Center Midfielder: Bernardo Silva (Manchester City, Portugal)
Going from one Portuguese Benfiquista Man City player to another, Bernardo Silva has completed his evolution from creative winger to well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades midfielder in Pep’s system. Equally adept at progressing the ball and creating as he is at tackling and intercepting passes, he is maybe the most skilled midfielder in the Premier League right now and among the best players in his position in the world. He is one of the main cogs around which this brilliant City team turns, and he has a claim (albeit not the strongest claim) to being the Premier League’s Player of the Season so far.
Center Midfielder: Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich, Germany)
Thomas Müller is just doing Thomas Müller things. With 13 assists in just 17 games so far, he is head and shoulders above the rest of the Bundesliga when it comes to assisting, and it certainly helps that he is working within maybe the most potent attack in Europe outside of Man City. The German continues to reinvent himself and age like a fine wine, and he very likely stands as the best “Number 10” in the world at the moment.
Center Midfielder: Dušan Tadić (Ajax Amsterdam, Serbia)
Did you know that Dušan Tadić now holds the record for most assists in a calendar year? The Serbian recorded his 37th assist of the year 2021 in Ajax’s 2-0 win over Feyenoord a little over a week ago, surpassing the record set by Lionel Messi in 2011. Why is this not being discussed more? I have no idea, but it is a testament to just how good Tadić has become since he arrived in Amsterdam. With 11 league assists in just 18 games so far this season, he is, like Müller, significantly ahead of his counterparts in the Eredivisie in terms of creativity. He will certainly be a central figure in Ajax’s hopes for another underdog story in Europe this season (as well as in their title race against PSV).
Forward: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich, Poland)
I mean, what else is there to say at this point? Yes, he should have won the Ballon d’Or, that ship has sailed, but the man just continues to ignore his doubters and critics and continue to bag goals at an absurd rate. Bayern ended the Hinrunde with a 4-0 demolition of Wolfsburg where the Polish hitman scored his 69th goal of 2021 in all competitions, equalling Cristiano Ronaldo’s career-high mark set in 2013. It was also Lewandowski’s 42nd Bundesliga goal of 2021, breaking Gerd Müller’s record of most Bundesliga goals in a calendar year that was set back in 1972. It was also his 19th goal in only 17 league games this season, which is wildly impressive even if it is slightly behind the pace needed to break his record from last season. The guy is just absurd. What else can we say?
Forward: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, France)
With Lionel Messi’s departure this past summer, Karim Benzema has well and truly cemented himself as the best player in LaLiga. With 15 goals and seven assists in just 18 league games this season, Benzema finds himself leading the league in goals and second in assists, narrowly behind Rayo Vallecano’s Óscar Trejo. If you add the other five goals and one assist that he has put up in the Champions League so far this season, you really begin to see just how phenomenal the Frenchman has been. This has been a reputation-defining past couple of seasons for Benzema, and he is certainly seizing the opportunity to shine being outside of Messi and Ronaldo’s shadows.
Forward: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, Egypt)
There has not been a better attacking player in England this season than Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian’s 15 goals at about the halfway stage of the season puts him comfortably ahead in the Premier League Golden Boot race and narrowly behind the pace for his best goalscoring season since he arrived in England. His nine assists in the same timespan also makes him the league’s leading assister. Add on the other seven goals that he has tacked on in the Champions League and…yeah, we have another absurdly in-form attacker. Football looks to be blessed this season with potent attacking players, stepping up in a season where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have struggled. If this pace continues, Salah will most certainly be more in the Ballon d’Or conversation in 2022.
Kylian Mbappé (PSG, France)
We’ve all sort of forgotten about Mbappé, largely due to his choice to remain in Paris this long. Yes, PSG have disappointed in Europe recently and yes he was disappointing for France at the Euros this summer, but the kid has been on fire in Ligue 1. While his nine goals and nine assists in the league certainly are not as impressive as the stats of the previously three mentioned attackers, it is enough to have him leading Ligue 1 in assists and only be three goals behind the leader in goals. It is also about more than simple stats for Mbappé, whose influence on the pitch has extended well beyond his goal contributions. He is one of the few shining lights in what is a largely struggling and disappointing PSG team, and I genuinely think that PSG would be in a serious title fight and Mauricio Pochettino might be out of a job if the French prodigy was not in this team. But he is there, and PSG will likely win the league again, but it makes the conversations about his contract renewal that much more interesting…
Dušan Vlahović (Fiorentina, Serbia)
Dušan Vlahović has simply been the best young striker in Europe this calendar year. His 16 goals in 19 games so far this season is not only absurd for a kid who is only 21, but it is enough for him to take a three-goal lead at the top of the Serie A goalscoring charts into the new year. I do not know who Serie A’s youngest Capocannoniere winner is, but I imagine Vlahović would be there or thereabouts should he go on to finish as top scorer this season. On the topic of records, he also tied Cristiano Ronaldo’s league record for most Serie A goals in a calendar year with 33. His goals are also a large reason why Fiorentina entered the halfway point of the season in 7th and well in the hunt for a European place, and it sure does look like he will be playing his way into Europe next season, either in a purple shirt or not.
Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli, Senegal)
We are seeing the Kalidou Koulibaly renaissance this season. Age has not quite held him back, as the dominating Senegalese center back has returned to his very best this season. His defensive solidity and presence at the back has influenced and elevated the level of his teammates, and I do think he played a central role in Napoli’s incredibly strong start to the season and continuation in the Europa League. Napoli’s league form only fell off in the last few games, as they have lost three of their last four in the league all while their Senegalese talisman has been out with an injury. It sure makes the next month of Napoli’s season, while Koulibaly is away with Senegal at the African Cup of Nations, much more difficult, but it takes nothing away from Koulibaly’s phenomenal season so far.
Cody Gakpo (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands)
I now have another Dutch team to apologize to, because after writing off PSV’s title hopes in my apology to Ajax blog, PSV have seemingly begun to put things together and not only challenge Ajax, but end the first half of the Eredivisie season on top of the table. Even after losing Donyell Malen and even with Noni Madueke only playing eight league games, they are well and truly in the title race largely due to one man: Cody Gakpo. The Eindhoven-born PSV vice-captain currently stands on six goals and nine assists in just 13 games, which is an incredible return for a player who has really gone under the radar with PSV in recent years. If the Eindhovenaar side are going to continue on this form and win the league, Gakpo will have to continue being brilliant.
Jonathan David (Lille OSC, Canada)
It is now hard to dispute the idea that Canada has the two best North American players. Alphonso Davies is obviously a superstar, but we are beginning to see the emergence of Lille striker Jonathan David, who has enjoyed a phenomenal run of form after what was largely a disappointing first season in the north of France. David entered the winter break as Ligue 1’s top scorer with 12 goals, being maybe the most influential player in a Lille team that is still in the European hunt and even progressed to the Round of 16 in the Champions League for the first time since 2007. It remains to be seen whether this form will eventually level off, but at present moment David has staked his claim at being the best number nine in France’s top flight and will certainly be in the running for Ligue 1 Young Player of the Season at this rate.
Luis Díaz (FC Porto, Colombia)
Again, look away, Everton fans. I pointed out (rather cheaply, this was not a massive piece of insight) prior to the season that Porto winger Luis Díaz was set for a colossal breakout season following what should have been a colossal breakout performance at the Copa América this past summer. Díaz has certainly delivered, as his 12 goals and three assists in 15 games has carried Porto to an unbeaten record a little less than halfway through the season. Díaz himself has shone on every occasion and against every opponent, putting out such a consistently high level of performance that makes him seemingly the undisputed best player in the Primeira Liga so far this season. While his goalscoring form is only bettered in Portugal by the also stellar Darwin Núñez (who nearly made this team), it is the consistently high level of performance from Díaz that cements himself as the Portuguese league’s biggest superstar at the moment.
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