Building the ultimate footballer: Ronaldo, Messi, Lahm and more

Craig Burley and Mark Donaldson give their take on what makes the ultimate footballer based on five core attributes.

Football players typically possess a key attribute (Arjen Robben and his left foot, anyone?) around which they build their game. Which got us to thinking: What if you could mix and match the individual skills of today’s world-beaters to create the ultimate footballer, the perfect weapon in both attack and defence? We think it would look something like this:

Mind: Philipp Lahm

Pep Guardiola once called him “perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career,” and he’s coached a few of the best at Bayern and Barcelona. Lahm has everything a modern player could want, but his prized asset is his mind. He’s proved he can play in at least four positions across the backline and midfield, understanding the tactical discipline needed for each job. That’s not an easy task. Some players don’t get tactics — Chris Waddle’s 2010 claim that Theo Walcott “just doesn’t understand the game” rings true for a lot of them — but Lahm is not one of them.

Runner up: Juan Mata

Heading: Sergio Ramos

Heading is a two-part job: attacking and defending. Sergio Ramos can do both equally well as the centre-back’s aerial prowess has helped him bag an incredible 81 goals during his career. A late thumping headed equaliser to help Real Madrid to the 2014 Champions League title; another to win the 2016 Super Cup against Sevilla and to tie the most recent El Clasico against Barcelona — Ramos is a man on a mission from set pieces. He has an incredible leap, a fearless approach in the air and keeps his eyes open when the ball powers off his forehead.

Runner up: Robert Lewandowski

Vision: Mesut Ozil

Every now and then a player comes along who just looks different from anyone else when they have the ball. Ozil sees things other players don’t. The Arsenal star has the ability to thread a pass through the eye of a needle, spray a long ball across the pitch or switch the play to start a counterattack down the opposite flank. Then there are his crossing, free kicks and corners, which usually land on the mark or float over the head of an opponent into a space most players wouldn’t be able to see. He’s football’s equivalent of an X-Men character with laser-guided vision — he’s that good.

Runner up: Kevin De Bruyne

Pace: Gareth Bale

There was a moment in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona when Bale knocked the ball past Marc Bartra, took a long diversion around the defender off the pitch and still managed to race past his man to score a vital goal for Real Madrid. The Welshman has afterburners that only a few in the game can match. Yes, the likes of Hector Bellerin and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have better acceleration, but Bale can cover more ground in a quicker time. Turns out that at full speed, he’s only two miles an hour behind Usain Bolt’s world record

Runner up: Hector Bellerin

Stamina: Alexis Sanchez

Sanchez is the definition of “defending from the front.” As a striker, Arsenal’s powerhouse charges all over the pitch, harassing defenders, goalkeepers, midfielders and sometimes even opposing strikers with his tracking back. Then, suddenly, he’s up the other end of the pitch scoring a goal. It’s one thing to have speed; it’s quite another to be able to keep up playing in a tough league like the Premier League for 90 minutes. “He is like a Duracell battery — he just does not give in,” was the assessment of teammate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Runner up: N’Golo Kante

Left foot: Lionel Messi

There’s a lot to love about Messi, but his left foot is what stands out above all else. Quite simply, it’s a magic wand. Capable of deft flicks, tricks, impossible feats of dribbling that look as if the ball is attached to his boot by a piece of string, passes that can bend the very fabric of space and time, and goals galore, Messi’s favoured peg is beyond comparison in the modern game. Indeed, it’s probably beyond comparison throughout history, although a certain Diego Armando Maradona might disagree.

Runner up: Arjen Robben

Right foot: Cristiano Ronaldo

Good luck trying to spot Ronaldo’s right boot at first, because it’s waving around at the speed of light, distracting an opponent from the fact that the ball is about to disappear past him. Ronaldo might well have the fastest feet in the game, but he also has one of the most powerful shots, and that comes from his right foot. With leg muscles the size of a small tree, it’s little wonder he can send the ball looping and dipping with such ferocity. It’s only a matter of time before a bronze statue of Ronaldo’s right foot ends up in his own museum. 

Runner up: Luis Suarez

Tackling: Javier Mascherano

Sometimes you just want someone alongside you who will give everything for the cause. Football is a battle, and there’s no-one in the modern game who is prepared to put his body on the line quite like Barcelona’s Mascherano (this is the man, after all, who “tore his anus” at the World Cup). When an opposition forward is breaking away on goal, you need speed, timing, bravery and precision to rob him of the ball; Mascherano has all of these attributes. While he may not be the biggest, his positioning and timing make the art of tackling look easy. No wonder he can be deployed as either a defender or defensive midfielder. 

Runner up: Sergio Busquets

Flair: Paul Pogba

Stylishness and originality come with the territory for the Manchester United midfielder, and we’re not just talking about his made-for-Twitter haircuts or sartorial sensibility. Never one to be predictable, Pogba is full of flicks and tricks, while his range of passing — particularly his ability to switch the play across the pitch — is sublime. At £89.3 million, he demonstrates that clubs like United put a premium on a player who has that rare combination of talent, flair and worldwide marketability. 

Runner up: Neymar

Technique: Andres Iniesta

Technique: you’re either born with it or you’re not. From an early age, it’s obvious which player will be a cultured midfielder and which will be a bruising centre-back. Iniesta was running rings round older opposition at the age of 12, and, having developed at one of the best youth academies in the world (La Masia), the Barcelona midfielder has made full use of his potential. Able to turn in the tiniest of spaces, his close control is unparalleled, and when he has the ball at his feet he knows exactly what will happen next.

Runner up: Luka Modric

Strength: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

He’s 6-foot-4, just over 80 kilograms, a muscular specimen and an expert in taekwondo. And, when he was 34, he broke Manchester United’s power record during his medical. Just imagine what he would have managed a decade ago! The Sweden striker, now 35, has a delicate touch, but also has an incredible way of keeping the ball away from his opponents by using a body that could double in any Expendables movie. Defenders usually bounce off him, he can bully his markers and wins almost every physical battle. Best of all, he’s shown no signs of slowing down, even in a league as fast paced as the Premier League.

Runner up: Yaya Toure


Handling: Thibaut Courtois

It should go without saying that a goalkeeper’s best assets are his hands. Courtois has a safe pair when it comes to catching, parrying, throwing or gesturing wildly to his defenders, inspiring confidence in those around him at Chelsea.

Mind: Manuel Neuer

You don’t get to be world-class without having a brilliant football brain and the Germany international is one of the best decision makers and calmest when it comes to pressure that you can find. He made the role “sweeper-keeper” his own and has to play with the mind of a defender half the time.

Reflexes: De Gea

When he first started out life as Manchester United goalkeeper, De Gea needed to hone his skills. But now, when an attacker shoots, he knows that he has to hit it perfectly to get it past De Gea. With his hands or his feet, he is awesome at blocking the ball.

Agility: Hugo Lloris

You need to have multiple skills to be a top class goalkeeper, but decision-making and speed come alongside agility as some of the most important. There is no goalkeeper who can scramble across quicker to make a save, or rush out to snuff out danger.

Consistency: Gianluigi Buffon

Come back when you’re a 39-year-old who made his debut aged 17 and has won everything there is to win. Buffon is the model of consistency; if you could clone him, every team in the world would want one in their goal.

Kicking: Marc-Andre ter Stegen

The art of kicking has now become one of the first things on a goalkeeper’s resume. In the modern game, nobody does it better than Barcelona’s No. 1 as the Germany international plays like another centre-back to help his side start off moves.

Jon is a senior editor of ESPN FC, based in London.

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