As we reach the end of 2015 and the midpoint of the decade, it is certainly an apt time to look back on these 5 years. These last few years particularly from the 2011-2012 season has seen Madrid once again rise to elite of Europe and claim their rightful place. After a dismal run in the Champions League from 2004 to 2010 where the team did not even make it past the Round of 16, we have since successively made it to 5 semifinals, adding the much coveted La Decima along the way. League titles have not come hard and fast but even title races we lost went down to the wire. Another significant change has been a distinct rise in quality of coaches and players. Florentino Perez has left a lot to be desired as president and has regularly infuriated the fans with absurd decisions but his ‘Galactico’ policy guarantees that the best players will always be at Madrid. In this article, I try to discern Madrid’s best 11 over the seasons 2009-2015. This would basically mean from the start of Manuel Pellegrini’s reign to the end of Carlo Ancelotti’s time. I have also factored in performances from the season thus far but with lesser weight given to them.
The end of the previous decade with Roman Calderon saw a number of mediocre players in the squad. While the players themselves were not terrible, they were nowhere near the quality or level required at our club. Rafael van der Vaart, Royston Drenthe, Christoph Metzelder, Klaas Jan Hunterlaar, Antonio Cassano and Julio Baptista are just some of the names that come to mind. A host of these players were discarded at the turn of the decade and in have come a truly elite bunch over the last few years. Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric are successful examples of this new bunch. It is testament to the shocking constant flux at the club that some of these players have already left for new pastures or were forced out to make room for the latest stars. Surprisingly, there has also been a constant nucleus in the team which has revived all the change. Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo are the pillars of this team and have been for over 6-7 years now.
The formation most used in the last 5 years has been a 4-2-3-1. The dynamic of the pivot has changed over time depending upon who partnered who. As far as I remember, the 11 below either never played a game together or certainly never played a run of games together. Starting from the back now:
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas: Chelsea fans often address John Terry as ‘Our Captain, Our Leader, Our Legend’. And that is undisputedly what Iker is to this club. His position in the club’s history and his status as one of the greatest captains and goalkeepers to have ever played the game cannot be debated irrespective of one’s personal opinion about him. The last 5 years were not the best for Casillas. He was at his usual top level till the 2012-2013 season in which he dipped. The 2nd half of that season saw Diego Lopez replace Iker in goal. I was almost tempted to choose Lopez over Casillas because that half of the season in which he was impeccable. The following 2013-2014 season again saw Lopez play very well and Iker only as the cups keeper. Again, 2014-2015 was a bad year for Casillas because his performances were definitely below average by his high standards. But nevertheless, he is the greatest goalkeeper to have ever played for this club and over the 5 year period ultimately deserves the spot.
Rightback Dani Carvajal: This was the only position in which there were no outright convincing candidates. Ramos, who played rightback from 2009-2011 has to come in at centreback where is he far better too. It would be a travesty to put in Alvaro Arbeloa, who played from 2011-2013, mainly because it is shocking that he is still anywhere near our squad. This leaves Michael Essien, our 2012-2013 makeshift rightback and Dani Carvajal. Carvajal had a very good debut 2013, finally providing us with an attacking outlet from rightback to match Marcelo’s antics on the opposite side. He was average last season but with no other strong contenders, Carvajal takes the spot.
Right centreback Pepe: A stalwart at the heart of the defence for so many years that it is tough to imagine Madrid without Pepe. Over the last 2 years, he has also significantly cut back on his rash and often crazy antics. This has allowed people to truly see what a great centre back he is. In terms of defensive abilities, he is not lacking in a single department. Raphael Varane is one for the future and will go on to control our back from years to come but the last 5 years belong to Pepe. It was said that this season he would be replaced but again that has not happened and he looks solid as ever.
Left centreback Sergio Ramos: Mourinho’s decision to move Ramos from rightback to centreback was truly genius. Just like Pepe and Varane, Ramos just has no deficiencies or weaknesses in terms of defensive abilities. He does have games where he just switches off too and occasionally they are big games. But on an average, he shows up to the biggest occasions. It is also a pleasure to watch him play because he truly plays for the club, with passion and his heart on his sleeve. He bleeds for the club in the same way a fan would and that is another reason why I love Sergio Ramos.
Leftback Marcelo: Marcelo is the posterboy for the new fullback. Adept defensively while also providing an additional attacking outlet down the wing. The change from earlier times is that a fullback’s attacking output is no longer a bonus but an absolute necessity. And there is no better attacking fullback in the world than Marcelo. Infact, with the exception of Lahm and Alaba, there are no fullbacks anywhere near Marcelo’s level. The man is an absolute monster and such a joy to watch. He brings that great Brazilian flair and has formed a deadly partnership with Ronaldo. His defensive work has been questioned but slowly and steadily he has polished up that aspect of his game. Fabio Coentrao, the other left back of the period had some very memorable games at the club. 2012 2-1 vs Barca, 2014 4-0 Bayern etc but he never stayed fit or played consistently at Marcelo’s level.
Left Centremidfielder Xabi Alonso: Alonso had to be the first CM/CDM in this team. When one attempts to describe the perfect CDM, he immediately comes to mind perhaps with a bit more pace. What does one need from a CDM? Someone who acts as a shield for the back 4, who drops in between the CB’s when the fullbacks push up, drop deep to start the play, keep the ball ticking and recycling again and again, demonstrate a wide range of passing to split open defenses and open up the field with crossfield long balls. That was what Alonso was: the very heart of our team. The entire game went through him and his presence allowed others to fully express themselves. Jurgen Klopp and Sir Alex Ferguson seperatly used Sebastian Kehl and Danny Welbeck to mark Alonso and thereby nullify Madrid. There can be no doubt about his position in this team and as also one of the greatest CDM’s of all time. It was a choice between Kroos and Alonso and I had to go with the latter.
Right centremidfielder Luka Modric: Alonso’s partner could not be Kroos because they play far too similar a role. Sami Khedira was Alonso’s partner for 3 seasons but I was never a big fan of his. A player like Modric would offer so much more in the pivot. Modric essentially is a CM that controls the game not by recycling the ball but by drifting through the middle third of the park. He moves with and without the ball in between the lines and thereby offers another area of control in between the CDM and the no10. Modric deserves this spot because of that stellar 2013-2014 season as well as his continued good form into last season.
Left wing Cristiano Ronaldo: There is not much left to be said about the man anymore. Greatest player to play for Madrid, 2nd best player of his generation, top 5 player of all time, greatest pure goalscorer ever etc. There is just no discussion about his place here.
Striker Karim Benzema: Up against Gonzalo Higauin and Raul for this spot, Big Benz has to take it. His place in the team has forever been under question with Mourinho initially despising him. However, he has really managed to take it up a notch since the 2011-2012 season. He is the complete striker and the perfect foil for Ronaldo. I would like to see Benzema place even further trust in himself and take his game to a whole new level.
The main debatable positions are the no10 and right wing. 4 players are in contention for the 2 spots: Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez.
No10 Mesut Ozil: Mesut Ozil is the greatest no10 in the world, without a doubt the greatest CAM and the greatest controller of play in the final third. Except for Messi. In a team with so many egos, a selfless team player was needed and Ozil was exactly that. He was Ronaldo’s greatest partner in crime as they fed off each other perfectly. In fact Ozil had an excellent partnership and chemistry with every player in the 11 during his time. He has a unique gift of being able to elevate everyone to the next level by merely playing his natural game. I was absolutely devastated when he was sold by Perez and still maintain that it was a horrible decision. He has managed to adapt and again prove himself in the Premier League as well. He was competing with James and Bale for this spot. James has simply not done anything significant at Madrid so does not feature. Bale will be discussed after the rightwing role.
Rightwing Angel Di Maria: Di Maria takes the rightwing spot for a number of reasons over Bale. Firstly, he overall performed better for Madrid at his time than Bale has. He was devastatingly stunning to watch in the 2013-2014 season though his performances came from left midfield which again is testament to how good he is. Di Maria overall fit the chemistry of the team better and really was what the team needed far more than Bale.