Capping off our best of the best in 2021…
We’ve had quite a year, haven’t we? Ups and downs. Surprises and shocks. Big games. The return of fans. 2021 has been fun for European football, and I am here to celebrate some of the best players, games, moments, and other things as a way to wrap up this calendar year of football. Some of these “awards”, for lack of a better term, will be for the best, some for the worst, and some just for a good laugh. But without further ado, let’s get started with the easy ones…
Best Player: Robert Lewandowski
No real need to explain, right? Bundesliga goal record for a season and a calendar year, could potentially break his own record this season. Best striker in the world by far and the player who has played at the highest level most consistently this season.
Best Breakout Star: Dušan Vlahović
Vlahović went from largely unknown to one of the best young prospects in European football overnight in 2021, ending the year as one of the best forwards in Serie A and having equalled Cristiano Ronaldo’s record for goals in a calendar year in Serie A. The young Serbian truly has the world at his feet, and I am excited to see what happens with him in 2022.
Best Player outside of the “Top Five” Leagues: Dušan Tadić
As mentioned in the Team of the Year article, Tadić has surpassed Lionel Messi’s record for assists in a calendar year, which is a truly absurd statistic that is impressive regardless of the competition he is playing against. At 33, the Ajax and Serbia captain is playing a crucial role for both club and country, and he will be crucial in Ajax’s quest for domestic and European glory in 2022.
Best Team: Manchester City
This was a little tougher. Chelsea obviously won the Champions League, but they have not done themselves any favors this season. Italy won the Euros, but they also are on the brink of failing to qualify for the World Cup once again. Man City, despite losing the Champions League Final to Chelsea, have been the most consistently outstanding team in 2021, running away with the league last year and looking on pace to do it again this season and potentially get that European honor they have longed for.
Most Surprising Team: Union Saint-Gilloise
I imagine many of you saw this and thought “who?”. But that is why we are here, right? Share the under-discussed stories that need to be shared.
Union Saint-Gilloise are a team in Belgium with a surprising amount of history given their relative size, even having 11 league titles to their name (albeit all being won prior to World War II). They fell on difficult financial times and spent a significant amount of time outside of the Belgian Pro League, but they won the Belgian Second Division last season to earn promotion back to the top flight for the first time since 1973. And, well, 21 games into the season, USG are in first. Yes, they are top of the league, seven whole points clear of reigning champions Club Brugge.
They are not only the surprise team of 2021, but this might just be the best story in European football at the moment. They are quite literally living the reality that many people try to create in Football Manager. I thoroughly hope they go on to win the title.
Most Disappointing Team: Paris Saint-Germain
I am sure that we all expected quite a lot when this PSG team was assembled during the summer transfer window. Adding Donnarumma, Hakimi, Nuno Mendes, Wijnaldum, Sergio Ramos, and, well, some guy named Lionel Messi, certainly caught the eyes of many. They were a super team, one that would set the world alight on their way to winning the Parisians’ first ever European Cup.
And…well…they kind of suck. Yes, they are still 13 points clear at the top of the Ligue 1 table. Yes, they will undoubtedly win the league again. But I do not think that is due to them being outstanding, moreso that there is no team capable of challenging them due to the league’s financial troubles. The new signings have not gelled, especially Messi and Wijnaldum, and many of their existing players are not playing to a requisite level. If it was not for Mbappé’s brilliance and several questionable refereeing decisions bailing them out, they might actually be in a league title race. And they certainly will be found out in Europe. This all reflects on Pochettino, who was supposed to be the manager that carried PSG over the line, but is actually the one responsible for formulating the team many consider to be the worst of the Qatari ownership era at PSG. This is not what was advertised in the summer.
Best Manager: Christophe Galtier
Christophe Galtier has been the man of the moment in French football currently, and it is a shame that he is not getting more deserved plaudits from outside of France for just how phenomenal he has been this year. From guiding Lille to an improbable league title in the beginning of the year to leading an upstart Nice side to 2nd at the halfway stage of the season at the end of the year, Galtier is really going from stride to stride in his young-ish managerial career. I do not think there is a manager in a major European league that has done more with less than Galtier, and he should be given much more credit on a continental level than he is currently getting.
Best Match: Croatia vs. Spain, UEFA Euro 2020 Round of 16
Partially because I did not want to put Switzerland-France, but also because this game was absolutely bonkers. Played almost like a basketball game, it was non-stop action on both ends of the pitch, delivering a thoroughly entertaining affair and offering a little bit of national team redemption for Álvaro Morata. It epitomized the truly crazy run that Spain went on in this tournament, even after I doubted them and manager Luis Enrique the whole way.
Best Moment: Villarreal’s Europa League Triumph
This was hard, choosing between this and Atlético Madrid and Lille’s final day of the season title clinching was an especially tough choice, but given how that Europa League Final went, I do not think this could be anything else. Villarreal’s triumph over Manchester United on penalties was historic for many reasons, but it will stand forever as the first major trophy won by the Yellow Submarine in their club’s history. And what a way to do it, in the way that penalty shootout went as well. Just a phenomenal day for Villarreal fans as well as hopeless football romantics like myself.
Best Goal: Armand Lauriente, Lorient vs. Nantes
Back? Yeah, absurd. Sure, the once-prodigal “future of France” goalkeeper Alban Lafont does not cover himself in glory in the Nantes goal, but the amount of skill, focus, and sheer confidence it takes for Lauriente to even attempt that, let alone score it, is insane. Goal of the year, without a doubt.
Best Transfer: Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United to Arsenal, £24 million)
Yes, I criticized the hell out of this transfer when it happened. Yes, I am thoroughly prepared to take my slice of humble pie now. Aaron Ramsdale has been superb since taking his place as Arsenal starting goalkeeper. His wild reflex saves aside, having that solidity at the back in defense and in their build up play has been life-changing for Mikel Arteta’s team, and that solidity has provided Ben White and Gabriel the ability to take risks and build a strong chemistry. Ramsdale is genuinely one of the best goalkeepers in the league this season too, this is not hyperbole. He’s joint-second in clean sheets, second in clean sheet percentage, fourth in goals against per 90 minutes, and third in save percentage. In a very roundabout way, Arsenal were probably right to sell Emi Martínez because they got a very capable replacement who is six years younger. Yes, the price is high, but this is still phenomenal business.
Worst Transfer: Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan to Chelsea, £97.5 million)
I am sure that Chelsea fans expected quite a bit when they re-acquired star striker Romelu Lukaku from Inter for a staggering £97.5 million this past summer, especially with him coming off of the outstanding season he had with Inter. What they have gotten, however, is not quite the dizzying highs they have expected. Only seven goals in 17 league and Champions League games this season is not world-beating, and his recent comments to the media about his issues with Tuchel’s system and his longing flirtations to Inter will most definitely not make his situation any better. He was supposed to be the man that carries Chelsea to unprecedented heights, but now it does not appear that he can be a difference-maker in a Chelsea team that is falling away from the league title race.
Best Underreported/Bargain Transfer: Mike Maignan (Lille to AC Milan, €15 million)
It is very difficult to land moves for budding superstars in the current transfer market. The demand is either too strong or the fee is too high. It is even more rare to land a budding superstar to replace a superstar that your team lost, especially when they leave on a free transfer. But that is what AC Milan did, losing Gigio Donnarumma on a free but landing ex-Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan for a paltry €15 million. Maignan is not Donnarumma, do not get me wrong, but the Frenchman was easily the best goalkeeper in Ligue 1 last season and should very soon become France’s starting goalkeeper. If he is not world class, he is very close to it, and landing a player of that talent level and potential for that little of a fee is staggering. He’s also only 26, and while he is still older than Donnarumma, he can still be Milan’s number one for the next five or more years.
Why I loved football in 2021: Underdog stories
From watching Lille and Atlético Madrid seal title victories on the last day of the season, to seeing Villarreal win the Europa League, to Denmark’s run to the Euros semifinal, to even watching Benfica beat Barcelona, 2021 had a lot for my hopeless football romantic soul to sink my teeth into. Yes, football has become a lot more predictable. Yes, this sport is slowly becoming more and more about the same dozen or so teams. But there is no replacing the emotion, the color, the vibrancy that football brings, especially when something improbable happens. Seeing the Atlético Madrid players run to the legions of their supporters waiting outside Valladolid’s stadium to greet their heroes still gives me goosebumps. As does seeing the crowds of Lille fans in the center of the city celebrating their first Ligue 1 title in a decade. Even the small things, like the Estádio da Luz roaring Benfica on to their upset victory over Barca, it reminds me of what makes this sport so unique and wonderful. And this is hopefully something that will remain despite the overall trend this sport is going down.
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