Midfielders are the heart and soul of any football team. While strikers get their plaudits for putting the ball in the net, they are only as good as their team’s midfielders. It’s the men in the middle of the park that make the difference. They can as easily make an average attack look lazer sharp as they can make a solid defence look as permeable as sand. The 2011-12 season saw old pros such as Scholes and Pirlo show their class while the young brigade of Hazard and Kagawa made people sit up and notice. TheHardTackle picks out its five nominations for the best midfielder for the End of Season Awards. It was not an easy choice.
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
Juventus acquired Pirlo as a free transfer from title rivals Milan and the rest, as they say, is history. The Rossoneri wouldn’t have known back then that the decision would eventually come back to haunt them and prove to be such a watershed moment. Pirlo pulled all the strings for the Old Lady as they went on to complete a remarkable unbeaten league season on their way to winning back the coveted ‘Scudetto’. At the ripe age of 33 Andrea Pirlo is still head and shoulders ahead of all his contemporaries as the “L’architetto built Juve attacks from his withdrawn position in the centre of the park as teams up and down the country failed to neutralize his magical wand. Clearly there is no substitute for class; Pirlo is the archetypal deep lying playmaker, a role he has perfected with consummate ease.
Stat Attack: The master craftsman averaged a jaw-dropping 86 passes per game with close to 87% completion rate. He made the most key passes in the season (125) across Europe and was also the player with most number of successful long passes (414). To add to all this, he had 13 assists (highest in Serie A) and three goals to his name.
Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
Manchester City finally quenched their thirst for a league crown after 44 years of waiting and it’s fair to say Yaya Toure was the bedrock of their triumph. The Ivorian has been the engine room of this extravagantly assembled City side, driving them forward and turning defence into attack with his power and precision. Mancini’s Citizens felt the heat when Toure had to leave the squad for the African Cup of Nations as none could do his job anywhere as effectively. Not only that, the Citizens felt his loss even for the 45 minutes of the second half against QPR, as they failed to break down a relegation battling team and almost paid the price for it without the services of the ex-Barcelona midfielder.
Often underrated and stereotyped as just a defensive player, Toure is as efficient in the opposition half with an eye for a pass and a bullet like shot. Probably the most complete central midfield player in the English game at the moment, sky is the limit for him and Manchester City would do well to secure his services for a long duration. Yaya really comes into his own on the bigger occasions and that as a quality is rare and invaluable. The title run-in saw the best of the Ivorian maestro as he at times single-handedly pulled City through troubled shores.
Stat Attack: Despite being termed as a defensive midfielder, Toure averaged the highest number of passes (75) for the Blues (2nd best in the league, only behind Arteta) and assisted 6 goals and scored nine as well. His pass completion was also an exceptional 90.5% but other than all the stats, he was probably the most influential player for City (arguably ahead of Aguero as well).
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)
Xabi Alonso, the fulcrum around which this brilliant Real Madrid side revolves had yet another stellar campaign as the Los Blancos successfully won back the La Liga crown from the all conquering rivals Barcelona. One of Mourinho’s untouchables, Alonso made 36 league appearances and 52 in all competitions as Madrid displayed ruthless efficiency in sweeping past all and sundry in their wake. As expected, Alonso was the lynchpin with his ability to launch in numerous Madrid breathtaking counter attacks that no defence worth their salt can keep out.
As clichéd as it may sound, Xabi is the heartbeat of this magnificent Madrid side pumping blood through its veins and even though Cristiano Ronaldo grabs all the headlines, the Madrista know their Spanish midfield is almost as integral to their success.
Stat Attack: Alonso averaged more than 78 passes per game all season which shows his worth to the Madrid side full of superstars. He also averaged close to 10 long balls per game which shows his ability to switch the play and his influence in Madrid’s brisk counter attacks. Xabi worked under strict instructions from his manager to play as the deepest of his front six which was the main reason behind his lack of goals (only 1). Moreover, a truck-load of yellow cards (19) highlight his selflessness to stop the opponents by hook or by crook and with all of Madrid’s attacking prowess, Xabi is just the player they need in their side.
Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund)
Shinji Kagawa is the toast of entire Europe and has turned a lot of heads including the giants of the game. The diminutive attacking midfielder played an integral role in Dortmund’s best ever campaign culminating in the league and cup double. Kagawa’s efficiency in the final third has been instrumental in Klopp’s side’s meteoric rise in the German game. The Japanese has the finesse and shrewd footballing acumen to unlock even watertight defences and his low center of gravity makes him a tough adversary to mark. Kagawa’s star is on the rise and with all the A-listers vying for his signature; the Japanese has the world at his feet.
Stat Attack: The Japanese was a certain goal threat for the German champions as he found the net 17 times and assisted a further eight from his position as an attacking midfielder. Although he is no match to the likes of Pirlo or Alonso in terms of distribution, he more than makes up for it via his brilliant runs and his ability to link-up with the front men and creating goal scoring opportunities. Also, an average of almost 2 dribbles per game shows his comfortable nature on the ball and his ability to take on the opposition defenders on his own.
Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona)
Xavi Hernandez is beyond comparison now and is possibly the best midfielder of his generation. This season, much like the seasons gone by, he proved to be the first among equals. Furthermore, the Spanish midfield general added goal scoring to the list of his qualities making him the most complete midfielder of his generation and carried the Barca side to the brink of glory. Even though the Catalan giants finished second to Madrid, it wasn’t a sly on Xavi’s brilliance as he continued to dominate every turf he stepped foot on.
There will never be another Xavi Hernandez. One of the bonafide greats of the game and ominously for his opponents, could be getting even better, yet.
Stat Attack: If Pirlo’s stats were jaw dropping, Xavi’s stats are simply beyond belief. He averaged close to 95 passes in the league while that number goes to an astronomical 121 in the Champions League with the pass completion rate well into the nineties. The Spaniard assisted 8 goals in the campaign and scored 14 himself which marks his best scoring season till date. His midfield partnership with Iniesta is still the best in Europe not only amongst clubs but also the international teams as well.
Andrea Pirlo having comprehensively beaten everyone in the race is THT’s midfielder of the season 2011-12 after rolling back the years for last 12 months or so. Pirlo has been the fulcrum around which Antonio Conte’s plans revolved. Gianluigi Buffon said ‘it’s the signing of the century’ when Juventus secured Pirlo from Milan on a free transfer. Well, his words have not fallen completely out of place after the season Pirlo had with the Bianconeri. Certainly one of the best midfielders of his generation, Pirlo once again proved there is no substitute for class.