As has been the trend with top flight football across the domestic leagues in recent seasons, the art of defending seems to have been lost somewhat, leaving room for floods of goals. This summer’s World Cup has been no different, with many describing the tournament as the best in living memory purely for excitement. Therefore, there can be no surprise that my list of top five players of the World Cup so far is dominated by attackers.
Louis Van Gaal took a Dutch squad to the World Cup with not a great deal expected from them. After recent disappointments and a lack of togetherness within the tournament squads, it was not unreasonable to think that they would not even qualify from the group. However, here they are in the quarter finals and have dispatched Spanish juggernauts and Chilean over-achievers in the process. The main reason for that has quite simply been the form of Arjen Robben.
The Bayern Munich winger has an important role within the group and seems to have embraced this position where he is very much looked up to. Van Gaal’s formation choice and tactical decisions have allowed Robben to play where he causes the most damage. In an almost un-markable role, you can find him anywhere across the supportive attacking positions and occasionally even as the point man who plays on the shoulder of the last defender. While we always knew Robben had the ability to beat players at will, he would only show it relatively infrequently. Marvelling at his change of pace and close control is all very well, but he had to demonstrate it on a more consistent basis.
This World Cup, he has certainly managed that. 2 fantastic individual efforts in their own right in the first group game against the holders Spain set him up for a terrific tournament and he did not disappoint against Australia; grabbing another to his name. This sparkling vein of form continued against Chile where he was a constant threat throughout and was able to set up Memphis Depay for a tap-in to seal the victory. The way that Robben has been able to maintain his level of performance game after game has been vital for the Netherlands’ safe passage to the quarter finals and will be equally so should they wish to go even further. While Van Gaal is under pressure to turn away from the 3-5-2 formation he is currently employing, with Robben in his current form there is no reason to doubt that he should stick by his beliefs. Arjen Robben is performing at the peak of his powers and it is not unreasonable to think that he could be the Player of the Tournament should this continue.
This young man has the weight of a nation on his diminutive shoulders, and so far it seems to have spurred him on to greater heights rather than crush his confidence. The entire Brazilian philosophy is built around maximising the time that Neymar can spend on the ball. Regardless of his less than impressive form he often exhibited for Barcelona in the past 12 months, he has almost always been at his dazzling best for Brazil. Before the tournament itself, Neymar had 49 international appearances and 31 Brazilian goals to his name, and all of this at the mere age of 22. What a superstar the boy is, and his World Cup form would have to continue in a similar pattern for Brazil to achieve their ambitions.
Lift off for the nation came when Neymar struck a left-footed equaliser in the first group match and then went on to grab another to spark an opening day victory for the hosts. We have seen him pop up all over the pitch to get involved in the play and as he has settled more into the position of talisman, confidence has grown further still. He would be a dangerous enough player if he just employed his lightning pace and exquisite close control, but now that he has truly begun to relax, we have seen some truly magical tricks added into the equation. The intelligence and vision required to pull off some of these manoeuvres is out of this world but Neymar doesn’t seem as though they even test him. Against Cameroon in particular, the global audience saw the Brazilian at his audacious best. While Chile did stifle him to a degree in their recent last 16 match, he was still the most obvious threat for large portions and even managed to convert an incredibly high pressure penalty without seeming to break sweat. If Brazil reach the World Cup final, you feel that it is inevitable that Neymar will have added to his 4 tournament goals so far, and it could well be the case that we are eulogising about some of his performances for years to come.
The best player of his generation has finally come to a World Cup party, having drastically underperformed at his 2 previous attendances. He had a great deal of pressure on him prior to the tournament because of this, partly put on him by the fans and media but there was also a portion that was self-induced. He knew that realistically, he would need to win a World Cup with Argentina to be universally regarded as a great alongside Pelé and Maradona, and certainly if he wished to be placed on a level all by himself. Argentina have had a crop of superstars in the same side for a while now, but this year they all seemed to have come together with Messi as their figurehead.
National captain has of course placed additional responsibility on his shoulders now but Barcelona’s star man has seemed to embrace it and grown to match the level. When his team mates have failed to perform at the required standard, it was he who stood up and delivered. Some of the desire we have seen to partner the skill this tournament has been incredible to watch. At moments when all seemed lost, Messi has produced the goods in ways we knew he had but were unsure if he would ever exhibit on the international stage.
In Argentina’s first game against Bosnia, a tepid display in the first half was feared as a sign of things to come. However, a moment of magic from an otherwise frustrated Messi turned the match on its head and sent the South Americans on their way to a relatively comfortable victory. Iran were their next opponents and were proving a particularly tough nut to crack. That is of course, until Messi popped up with a minute remaining to curl in a beauty from outside the area. A third goal for the tournament came in his third game against Nigeria in what was all-round a more open affair. The extra space he was afforded really allowed him to have a greater influence on the game and you can’t imagine that future opponents will employ the same tactics. While he wasn’t able to continue his scoring streak in their World Cup last 16 tie against Switzerland, he did look to be the most reliable and consistent Argentinian threat for the 120 minutes. Somehow mustering the energy from somewhere, it was his speedy break and ability to ride a challenge that set up Di Maria for the winner. Argentina are finally seeing the Messi that has been at Barcelona for years, and if a few team mates were to step up and assist, then maybe his displays could help the nation win the trophy.
Perhaps the star of the World Cup to date, James Rodriguez has lit up the tournament with some dazzling displays of skill, pace, and finishing. The multi-million pound signing for Monaco last summer has more than filled the void left by the injured Radamel Falcao and has stood out in a Colombia team that has no shortage of ability. Rodriguez is undoubtedly the man they look for, their talisman, their star player, and he has stepped up in every game of the tournament so far.
The first match for Colombia at the finals was against Greece and they began as they meant to go on, cruising to a 3-0 victory with James Rodriguez at the forefront of everything positive. Although his goal was only the final one of this game in the 90th minute, his overall impact was too crucial to ignore. The intelligence he possesses and his ability on both sides made him nearly impossible to pick up, floating into pockets of space and being the architect of the Greek downfall. The South Americans made it two wins from two when they edged out Ivory Coast 2-1, however the score-line did flatter the Ivorians somewhat. A further asset to Rodriguez’s game that we were not aware he had was exhibited in this match; darting runs in close spaces to get in front of his man and power home a header. Again, his general play was what drew my attention and the combination of work ethic and ability promised to make him one of the stars of the World Cup. A 4-1 rout of Japan continued Colombia’s winning form in the final group game and yet again, Rodriguez found himself on the score sheet after netting a sumptuous chip past the keeper.
As impressive as his displays had been, the toughest test to date would come in the last 16 when Colombia and Uruguay matched up. In this all South American tussle, space would be at a premium and every challenge would be close-fought. Determined to stamp his authority on the game, Rodriguez somehow found room 25 yards from goal and seemingly with all the time in the world, took the ball down on his chest before smashing it home off Muslera’s cross bar. An absolutely unstoppable effort that is the goal of the tournament for me so far and I would be astounded if it was bettered this summer. He was not finished there however, and effectively had the game tied up by half time when an intelligent run that was timed to perfection allowed him to easily convert Cuadrado’s knock-down. Even if you discount his overall impact on matches; which has been hugely significant, and simply look at his statistics, he has been highly impressive. In four World Cup matches so far, Rodriguez has notched up 5 goals and 4 assists to lead the race for the Golden Boot. If Colombia pull off a shock and find a way past the mighty Brazil, you have to expect that Rodriguez will have played a huge part and quite possibly outfoxed Julio Cesar on the way.
Bayern’s lethal forward was the winner of the Golden Boot in the World Cup in South Africa and he has started off like a train in this summer’s competition. Employed as the primary striker in a 4-3-3 formation by Joachim Löw, he predominantly plays through the middle but is certainly not averse to popping up on either flank. His hard work in combination with the quality at his disposal is lethal for opponents, and his hat trick against Portugal in the opening game was testament of that. Muller is capable of all different types of goals making it a very difficult task for defenders to try and stop him. He is technically gifted enough to beat a man, has enough strength and speed to power past an opponent, and is not afraid to exert aerial dominance if a longer ball is hit up to him.
Thomas Muller’s goals are of vital importance to this German side, with the major criticism of the squad before the tournament being a lack of firepower. While he did not score in his nation’s next group match, his contribution remained up there with the top performers on the day and repaid every faith in the crucial final game in Group G, netting the only goal during the 90 minutes. This secured top spot for Germany and ensured a safe passage into the last 16. The goal itself was a very fine finish from the left corner of the area. Using a USA defender as the way-post, he unleashed a beautifully measured curling shot that nestled in the far corner of Tim Howard’s goal.
While we did not see him add to a goal tally of four in Germany’s first knock-out game against Algeria, we were able to observe another attribute more clearly than in any previous match. Muller’s outstanding stamina and drive really came to the fore as the tie entered a period of extra time and as others all around him were tiring significantly, Muller never ceased to work. This commitment to the cause brought about chances for Germany in the most important of moments and eventually was one of the deciding factors in their win. If Muller continues in this fine vein of form, he could be the difference when they line up against France and possibly going even deeper into the latter stages of the World Cup.