The countdown of the Bundesliga’s Top 25 players of the season is slowly winding down and in Part III of the series we take a look at some of the best providers in the league as well as some young players that have achieved a breakthrough this year. We invited several well informed and resourceful Bundesliga writers and bloggers to narrow down from the many names that deserved recognition this season. Catch the previous parts here.
15. Lucas Barrios
Mario Gomez, Papiss Demba Cisse, and Milivoje Novakovic may have all finished with more goals in the league this season but it can be argued that neither are as important to their club’s style of play and identity than Lucas Barrios. Barrios finished the year with 21 goals and 10 assist in 41 matches for his club. No other striker created more chances for his teammates and no other striker was as crucial to their overall team philosophy than Barrios. When he was replaced by Lewandowski during an injury spell, Dortmund struggled to create the amount of chances and were significantly less efficient in front of goal. It was telling not only of his qualities as a player but of his influence in the team.
Having scored the most goals in World Football back in 2008 before his move, the Argentine-born striker arrived at Dortmund with fairly high expectations. Meanwhile, Dortmund were in desperate need of a reliable striker and focal point for their eccentric and attack-minded creative midfielders. A shaky first two months at the club did little to suggest he was the answer they were looking for but all that was about to change.
Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp’s plan since his arrival at the club was to build a tactically flexible side that did not rely on any one player in particular but would instead operate as a unit. At the heart of that flexible side was Barrios, who was mobile and astute enough to drop off, link-up and interchange with the likes of Mario Götze, Robert Lewandowski, Shinji Kagawa, Kevin Grosskreutz, and Jakub Blaszczykowski depending on the given line up. It was Barrios’s innate ability to interchange and play from either flank that made him the ideal candidate for Klopp‘s system. His nose for goal was more of a bonus to an already diverse skill set. With his inclusion, the team was streamlined to attack on all fronts, from the left, from the right, through the center, and through crosses, all because his set up included the perfect modern striker. Barrios’s strength lay not only in his instincts for goal but also in his ability to comfortably play in a more withdrawn role. It allowed Klopp to completely open up his side and give carte- blanche to his creative players, confident that Barrios would finish off most chances while also being able to create for others when necessary.
Despite having to contend with some injury issues, Barrios was still able to prove what an all around striker he was this season. Few goal scorers are more reliable or consistent than Barrios, never going longer than a match or two without a goal when fit. What distinguishes Barrios from most of his peers is his ability to step up his game when it truly matters. The bulk of his goals this season have come against some of the league’s better side, scoring in both matches against Hannover and Bayern Munich, their Europa League qualifier and the game that officially clinched them the title to name a few. It will be interesting to see Barrios perform next year as Dortmund embarks on their Champions League adventure. If he picks up where he left off Dortmund may very well have to contend with another player being targeted by Europe’s biggest clubs.
14. Sven Bender
In the age of 4-2-3-1 formations and the increased universality of players, specialists like Sven Bender are few and far between. In a sense, Bender is a throwback to the bygone era of Roy Keane and Makelele, the no nonsense precise and hard tackling defensive midfielders whose dirty work laid the foundation for the rest of the team to build on. Often unheralded and rarely credited in the same breath as their attacking counterparts, the traditional destroyer was an unsung but crucial part of most football sides years ago. And while Bender has executed those duties to perfection this season, he coupled that ferocious tenacity with a cool headedness and comfort on the ball that make him a perfect fit in today’s game. Dortmund are receiving plaudits from all corners. Barrios’s goal scoring, Kagawa and Götze’s playmaking, Hummels’s defending and Sahin’s brilliant orchestration are all rightfully praised but none of it would have been possible without the performances of Sven Bender, Dortmund’s true unsung hero.
At the start of the season Bender was still largely viewed as an understudy to captain Sebastian Kehl despite playing 19 matches last year and doing quite well. But yet another injury to the ex-Germany midfielder saw the smaller of the Bender twins grasp the opportunity with both hands. Eating up ground like a monster truck on meth, Bender’s high-octane game became the platform on which Dortmund’s artsy counter-attacks were built and executed. Sahin’s time on the ball and space to operate were largely due to the protection provided by Bender. Dortmund were comfortable getting forward in numbers, knowing that Bender provided a safety net behind them. His industrious pressing and hassling of opponents meant that Dortmund regained possession as soon as they lost it and were immediately on the attack again. It did not take long for National Team coach Joachim Löw to notice Bender and his stirring performances earned him his first full appearance for Germany against Australia earlier this year.
What is truly astounding is the fact that in 411 duals Bender only picked up two yellow cards, made more impressive considering that he played in such an active and perilous area of the pitch. Overall, Bender committed only 58 fouls in 31 league matches, less than two fouls per match. For a defensive midfielder, that is an incredibly low number but those who are familiar with Bender’s decisive eye for the tackle and reading of the game are not surprised by that.
Bender has come a long way in little time. Still fondly remembered are his standout performances in Germany’s EURO championship triumph at the U-19 level just two years ago. His winning mentality remained with him through his development and having just turned 22 last month, he can now call himself an instrumental part of yet another title winning side. The sky appears the limit for Bender, who has shown every quality a player needs to have a long and successful career. It is no surprise that a certain segment of Dortmund supporters believe that he, and not Nuri Sahin, was the straw that stirred the ultimately sweet Dortmund drink this season.
13. Franck Ribery
The last two years have been a difficult period for Franck Ribery. Between the off-field endeavors that caught up with him and the ongoing drama at the club, he was not exactly in the right state of mind to focus on his football. On the field, injuries and the arrival of Arjen Robben on the opposite wing have also seen the French winger’s star and frightening reputation wane. It is never easy for a player to find the right state of mind amidst constant changes and off pitch drama, particularly not the likes of which Bayern Munich present every now and then. It is a measure of the high esteem in which Franck Ribery is held that he figures so high on this list despite all the setback that are still burning bright in the retinas of supporters and detractors alike. In spite of all those hindrances, Ribery pulled his weight in ways that surprised even his biggest fans, playing a season, which saw him accumulate the highest numbers of assists in the league and in his Bayern career and a season that saw him grow in more ways than one.
In a way, Ribery matured a lot as a player over the course of the season. Perhaps his off field demons had a cathartic effect on him or maybe he finally benefited from having the right supporting cast around him. Whatever it was, Ribery seems to have reinvigorated his career and finally gotten back to doing what he does best, playing football.
When the Frenchman first moved to Bayern he surprised the league with his explosive play and dominated his opponents from start to finish. As the team grew over reliant on him as an attacking outlet other sides found it easier to squeeze him out of games. Although that was through no fault of his own, his personal problems off the pitch were and that made an obvious dent in his performances. For the first time, Ribery looked sluggish and sometimes even apathetic, many citing that the French winger was past it. Things started to turn around with arrival of Louis van Gaal last season and the introduction of a style of play that catered to Ribery’s natural footballing instincts. That along with management’s unwavering support through his personal ordeals seemed to refocus him. Ribery admitted that he needed to concentrate more on his game and put the past behind him, a startling self-admission from a player often tagged with an inflated ego.
Ribery leading the league in assists is impressive enough. What is more impressive is how crucial those assists were to his team’s performances. His assists not only decided matches but also came in crucial periods of the season. With Bayern’s title hopes fading fast towards the end of the Hinrunde Bayern needed to finish strong before the break. After missing six games Ribery came back and either scored or created a goal in 4 of 5 Bayern’s matches. The second half of the season was even more striking. Ribery set up 11 goals in 14 matches while also scoring 5 himself. Without Ribery, Bayern would not have been able to make a late push and qualify for the Champions League. As Ribery matured, his game also became more refined. With a drop in pace, he is more willing to take a step back and evaluate the situation before making a play. With that came also an increased willingness to help out in defense and remain more even-tempered in the heat of the moment. To take a step back like Ribery has is a surefire sign of growth. A single French foot might not be worth 50 million Euros anymore, but Ribery still remains vital to the Bavarian cause.
12. Christian Tiffert
A major component of Kaiserslautern’s successful season was the play of veteran midfielder Christian Tiffert. In his first season in a Red Devils’ kit, Tiffert came out of nowhere to become one of the league’s more outstanding playmakers. By season’s end, the 29- year old led the Bundesliga with an incredible 17 assists, outdoing higher profile players like Vidal, Müller, Götze, Farfan and Robben. Overall, Tiffert directly contributed to 19 of Kaiserslautern’s 48 goals during the season and was involved in countless others. It was easily Tiffert’s best season of his career. It is no coincidence that it was also Kaiserslautern’s best Bundesliga finish in a decade.
Tiffert signed with Kaiserslautern on a free transfer in April 2010, after several seasons with 2. Bundesliga side MSV Duisburg. The 29 year-old began his professional career with Tennis Borussia Berlin, and headed to VfB Stuttgart for a long stay early in 2000 before spending the 2006-2007 with Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga. At Stuttgart, Tiffert was part of Felix Magath’s “young and wild” side, a team that bewildered the league with their energetic attacking performances. While Tiffert was more of a squad player than regular he did gain valuable experience in Europe and got his first taste of a side striving on creativity. He won the Austrian championship with Salzburg but things did not quite work out so he was allowed to move to Duisburg where Tiffert’s transformation truly began.
Tiffert experienced hardships in his first year and a half at Duisburg, initially a starter but dropped due to form by then coach Rudi Bommer. Things got so bad that Tiffert even found himself with the reserves. The turning point came with the appointment of coach Peter Neururer who pulled Tiffert out of his hole and created a platform for his seemingly hidden talent. He finished the season so strong that he was made deputy captain for the following year and appropriately given the number 10 jersey. The following season Duisburg missed promotion but it was apparent that Tiffert had outgrown the 2. Bundesliga and decided against renewing his contract.
A Halle native not only led the league in assists but led his club in appearances, missing only one match. He was truly the one constant in Kaiserslautern surprising 7th place finish. Tiffert’s strengths lay in his passing. Whether it was his link up play, crosses, set pieces, Tiffert did it all with pin point precision. More importantly, Tiffert led by example and was key in some of his team’s most important matches this season. Amongst those were the home win against Bayern Munich, the comeback against Stuttgart after being down 3 goals, the 5:0 demolition of Schalke, one of the finer team performances anywhere in the league this season or the final couple of games of the season, which Kaiserslautern needed to win to pull away from the relegation zone.
His exemplary season with Kaiserslautern is not just an example of the player’s abilities but also a culmination of his journey, the early taste of the Champions League with Stuttgart, the failed year in Austria and the rollercoaster at Duisburg. The ups and downs shaped who he is today and turned him into a really influential figure. Dortmund’s Kagawa is often cited as the best bargain transfer of the season but you would be hard pressed to ignore Tiffert.
11. Andre Schürrle
Mainz 05 wunderkind André Schürrle, merely 20 years old, has seen his star rise this season from relative anonymity to a pricey transfer target as well a regular on the German National Team. He has played a crucial role in propelling Mainz 05 to their best season in club history and Europa League qualification. Schürrle began the season mostly as a substitute, starting only 2 of the first 7 games that Mainz won so impressively. Yet, remarkably, he still managed to score 4 goals and notched a crucial assist for Ádám Szalai’s winner against Bayern Munich. It did not take manager Thomas Tuchel long to recognize the sheer quality Schürrle brought to the team. Schürrle became an instant regular for Mainz and played more games than any other player on the team by season’s end. Considering Tuchel’s proclivity for constant squad rotation, that is an amazing feat for a 20-year old.
Schürrle’s strength likes in his pace and tireless running but he is more than just a workhorse. The young offensive all-rounder is quick with his feet and adept at reading the game like a seasoned playmaker. His tactical versatility and creativity have allowed his manager to play him all across the attack. Like the ideal modern attacking player, Schürrle is capable of scoring all kinds of goals whether that includes long distance screamers, clever chips or ice-cold penalties.
Overall, Schürrle scored 15 goals and assisted 5. No Mainz player has ever scored more than that in a single season. Schürrle’s positivity and hard working attitude was key in turning around Mainz’s fortunes in the second half of the season. After a blistering start to the season Mainz slowed down and won only 4 of their 12 matches after the break. With their spot in Europe in danger, Mainz needed to step up their game and ensure they finish strong. Up stepped Schürrle, scoring 3 in Mainz’s last 5 games, including a brilliant late winner against Borussia Mönchengladbach in April to secure the team’s first home victory in nearly 5 months. His performances endeared him to the Mainz fans, as did his easy smile and his part in the now famous “Bruchweg Boys” celebrations.
After the victory against St. Pauli on the last day of the season, Mainz fans had to say goodbye to their knight in shining armor. As is often the case with young talent across Europe’s top leagues, Schürrle’s potential inevitably caught the eye of a bigger fish in the pond, and Bayer Leverkusen secured his signature for a pretty €10 million. Schürrle will deservedly participate in the Champions League next season as his start continues to rise. One cannot help but get a special feeling about Schürrle, who also became the first player born in unified Germany to play for the National Team where his profile continues to be raised with every performance. With stellar performances against Australia and Uruguay this year, Schürrle has indicated his intentions of being a regular for years to come. With the 2012 EUROS right around the corner, who could bet against Schürrle playing a key role as Germany looks to knock Spain off their perch.