Jblau asks: who was the best?

By Jonathan Blaustein 

I went for a long run yesterday, as it’s one of the few chances I get to let my mind wander.

It’s a great feeling, that freedom of mental movement, and it’s hard to come by these days. Most of us are accounted for, at all times, whether we’re working, cooking, Tweeting, or watching football.

But as I’m doing loops around the dirt roads of my neighborhood, I have the chance to contemplate nothing, and then see what pops into my head.

Yesterday, I began to think about my six years of football addiction. (This being the 7th season I’ve followed.) I wondered, for no particular reason, who was the most dominant footballer I’ve seen in that time?

Not the best. Nor the most consistent.

But the one player who, on his day, was truly unstoppable, in ways that were Earth-shaking, or mind-blowing, or whatever slightly over-the-top term you’d prefer to use.

My answer: Arjen Robben.

He’s the guy, back in his Bayern/Holland pomp, who did things that made me fall off my couch. I feel like Cristiano Ronaldo is all about power, pace and clinicality. And with Messi, the things he does well are hard to notice, upon first viewing.

Messi requires me to re-wind the DVR, and watch a play 3 or 4 times to appreciate his ghostly movements.

But Robben is a middle ground between the two. His quickness and speed allow him to create separation, almost at will. And his quick feet and ridiculous technical skills mean he can beat you with finesse too.

Anyone would probably say that both Ronaldo and Messi are better players than Robben, but I think that comes from the consistency angle I’m currently omitting.

Hell, I just watched Messi carve open Juventus, a few minutes ago, and the announcer said the same thing. Because Messi makes everything look so easy, it’s harder to appreciate just how rare his skills are.

But last year, now beyond his prime, I watched Robben beat half the RB Leipzig team, during Bayern’s furious-end-of-game comeback. This just a few months after we all saw him fake Coquelin out of his shorts, completely unable to stop a move that WE ALL SAW COMING. (Cut in on his left, make room for the shot.)

Many, if not most of you have watched professional football longer than I have. So I thought a mid-week post was the perfect time to ask: who’s the most dominant footballer you’ve seen?

Remember the game. It’s not the best. Nor the most consistent. It’s the guy who was essentially unplayable, on his day…



    1. If the question were, “most dominant player against one team,” then “Drogba against Arsenal,” would be the only right answer.

  1. I’m going to cheat and say Zidane. I watched him before we had non-stop 24/7 access to football where I lived, and he dominated his opponents. That World Cup, coup de boule…

    1. i remember the game against Denmark, when ZZ had his entire left hamstring/thigh completely bandaged in the 2002 WC (playing half injured), there was 1 moment of magic, where he jumps at awkward angle and controls the ball with his thigh. I can never forget that moment.

  2. Hate to say it, but George Best on his day was as unplayable as it gets. And incredibly annoying with it. Much like Arjen Robben…

  3. Easy, Thierry Henry – he scored goals like the Robben one at least thrice that I remember. Twice against Tottenham and once against Real Madrid.

    Then I just watched a YouTube and saw that he’s done that at least three times against Spurs and once more against Watford. Also Chelsea, Liverpool, Inter, etc. It’s like he did this all the time.

    What a player.

    1. You know I’m jealous that I never got to see him play for Arsenal. (Other than that tiny cameo against Leeds in the FA Cup.) I figured he’d get a lot of votes. Henry is not a small man either, right? Frankly, I think the reason Wenger is reluctant to go with Ozil, Sanchez and Lacazette together, so far, is that he’d have no size up front.

      1. Hmmn.. I would be worried if that was true. Neymar , Messi and Suarez do pretty good. Even though they are in a completely different league. I think AW went for Kolasinac specifically because of his front three’s lack of size.

        As for the actual question, I will go for Pirlo. Maybe not as productive as Henry / Robben but on his day he would simply humiliate any midfielder who even tried to get the ball off him. And will do it with a nonchalance that would make it infinitely worse for the opponent.

  4. “Who was the most dominant footballer I’ve seen in that time? Not the best. Nor the most consistent.”
    That’s an oxymoron. To be dominant, you need to be consistent too. But I get your point, i.e. dominant in one game or a few. I’d say Maradona in the 80’s, he could single-handedly win a game on his own. Baggio in the early 90’s, Ronaldo and Zidane in the late 90’s. Messi and Ronaldinho in the previous decade.

    1. Messi is the greatest of all time, no argument. But I’ve never seen him make a whole team better like Zidane.

      1. Huh?
        First off, I think that’s crazy (with all due respect). He’s been making that whole Barca team look way better than they would otherwise be for about a decade now.

        Second, the (admittedly vague) question is about dominance: the guy humiliates whole defenses for fun. I don’t see how his skills are as subtle as Jonathan suggests. Of course sometimes they’re subtle–and he certainly “makes it look easy”–but that he’s head and shoulders better than everyone else on the field is BLEEDINGLY OBVIOUS in about 95% of the games he plays (you *might* be able to argue that his powers have ever so slightly diminished in recent times, but this was certainly true in his pomp). The only reason that anyone could miss this is that he’s so consistently brilliant that we’ve become numb to just how good he is (even in those rare instances that he has a “quiet” game, he’s typically still one of the 2 or 3 best and most influential players on the field). Either that, or you just haven’t watched Barcelona enough.

        Here’s a way to make my point: take two of the other players that have been mentioned on here, Robben and Henry, and find the very best youtube highlight reel of those guys’ best goals/skills across their careers, moments where they made the opposition look like children. (I’m guessing, at a stretch, you could get 8-10 minutes of absolutely top shelf work by those two, but the length of the video doesn’t really matter.) Now, I think it’s barely an exaggeration to say that you could then compose/find 5 or probably 10 such videos of similar or greater quality from Messi’s career. If you don’t believe me, go spend the next few hours on youtube. (Zidane’s a bit different since he’s such a different style of player (and I loved him to pieces), but the same basic point about number of insane, dominant “highlight reel” moments in his career vs. Messi’s also stands.)

        1. Alas I don’t have time to waste on fully backing up my point with video evidence, so I’ll just provide this one as a taster:

          Note: I don’t include this one because I think it’s even close to the best video to show his career dominance; rather, I picked it because ALL THESE MOMENTS HAPPENED JUST IN 2017, which no one would suggest has been anywhere close to Messi’s best year. Thus, I picked it precisely because it’s essentially a collection of scraps and B-sides, if you will, and yet contains moments of otherworldly brilliance that few other footballers on the planet could match.

          1. Dude, I get it. Messi is great. In fact, I gave him credit for being so great that it’s hard to appreciate how great he really is. This was a game. A thought exercise. When I went back over the last 6 years, and asked myself who had made the plays that blew my mind, I came up with Robben. No one’s going to argue with you about Messi’s brilliance.

            Frankly, if I were taking my own game less seriously, I might include Henry or Zidane, both of whom I watched during the ’98 World Cup. But I barely remember anything specific, and wasn’t a major football fan in those days.

            Lighten up and see this for what it is. You sound like the guy who will argue, until he dies, that LeBron doesn’t belong in the conversation with Mike Jordan for GOAT.

            Dominique Wilkins was nowhere near as good as Larry Bird, but man, those windmill dunks. Such power. Such ferocity. Or Shawn Kemp. This post was more about the guys who do things that you can’t believe you just saw, b/c you realize the insanity in real time, rather than on replay.

          2. Dude, I could say the same right back at ya: lighten up and don’t be defensive! This is me as light as I get. I’m having fun! Sorry if that wasn’t apparent! I just happen to think the answer’s obvious, even granting your (well understood) caveats about it not being a “who’s the best” debate. The answer’s obvious (according to me) because Messi has had by far the most insane, and the greatest number of, jaw-droppingly insane moments on a football pitch. That’s my argument. Apologies if you think I’m taking it “too seriously,” but nothing could be farther (further?) from the truth.

          3. And yes, slowing down the replay to appreciate the skill more deeply is fun, but I find I can perfectly well appreciate Messi’s brilliance in real time. Maybe that’s the only real difference between the two of us here.

          4. Jblau

            It’s anathema to even mention LeBron and his Airness in the same sentence, unless the sentence goes something like “LeBron is proof that your physical gifts don’t make you GOAT and MJ, while no slouch, demonstrates that GOATness requires something else, something less tangible than size, speed and coordination.”

      2. Messi can’t be the greatest of all time: he never won the World Cup! Pele won it three times. Maradona, Zidane and Ronaldo: one World Cup plus a runner-up finish.

  5. I know he was a cheat, drug addict and overall nut job but I have never seen a footballer like Diego Maradona. My personal top 5 footballers of all time are;

    1) Maradona
    2) Cristiano Ronaldo (I rank him over Messi because he’s done it in three leagues and internationally and having to change his style and game as he got older… doesn’t mean I care much for him)
    3) Lionel Messi – self explanatory
    4) Pele
    5) Zidane – the prototype #10

  6. Tierry Henry. Full stop. To have had the privilege to actually watch him play in situ and not in youtube videos etc.

    Having said that, Georgie Best changed English football and we have yet to see an “impact” baller like him since.

  7. Synonyms for dominate from Merriam-Webster include vanquish, conquer, ,subjugate, subdue……
    I know everyone here knows this, my purpose is to show context. When I think ‘dominate’ these are the words that come to mind. In reality this is what Messi does but he is far too sublime to use these words. When I use (or hear) these words in a football context, only one player comes to mind for me. Didier Drogba.

  8. The one and only Dr J, Julius Erving. He was magical in that he single handed, made me a basketball fan. Not Kareem with his skyhook, not Bird with his fade away jumper but the Good Doctor with his sublimely delicate finger roll layup matched only by his thunderous dunks.

    As for football, picking a striker or a CF or an attacking mid is fun and offensive players are most associated with being “unplayable”. But there’s another guy who was unplayable and indomitable on his day. One of my favorite players of all time in any sport.

    His game against Newcastle United in November of 2002 caused The Guardian to gush:
    “The Arsenal captain dominated the afternoon with a demonstration of tackling, control, awareness and movement that was exceptional even by his standards.”

    The only the only, Emmanuel Eboue…

  9. Messi looks better than he is because of Ineista-period!
    Same goes with Henry because of Berkamp.
    How Cruyff and Beckenbauer are not mentioned is beyond me.
    There are many others not mentioned either that with modern training methods, diet, drugs and tactics who could make the shift to the new generation
    Maradona and Zidane for sure, and basically the whole 58-70 and 94-02 Brazilian teams.

  10. maradona, beckenbauer, and cruyff were before my time so i can’t say with full conviction that they were the most dominant. however i have seen plenty of amazing video of those guys and maradona was a sight to behold.

    when you say dominant, there’s only one name that comes to my mind and that’s patrick vieira. he dominated opponents in every way; physical, technical, tactical, psychological, etc. this man could beat any opponent twelve different ways. he was so dominant he would defeat an opponent in the tunnel before the game even began. patrick vieira could walk into any team in any era and be just as devastating. its not just that he was the most complete player this game has likely ever seen, he was the most dominant player.

    1. …a special shout goes out to ronaldo (the south american, not european). sorry, but he was far more dominant than henry; at his best, he was absolutely impossible to stop.

  11. Fat Ronaldo, Henry, Vieira, Cruyff, all good shouts. I would throw Maldini in to the mix.

    Or, I was playing pick-up 5-a-side with these Italian dudes on a basketball court, we were all average to decent players and there was this one guy… great bloke, lovely. Would be quiet all game, passing, passing, organizing, encouraging, being a generous team-mate… and then now and again he would turn it on for a minute, and just blast past everyone and rocket a shot into the top corner. Turned out he had played for the Siena B-side as a goalkeeper. Not even an outfield player. Not even first team. But the gulf in class between him and the rest of us just made me happy. Most dominant player I ever saw 🙂

  12. I am a Yank but have been regularly watching the game since 1986. Your question raises some interesting issues. You did not ask about scoring goals, you asked more about being “unplayable” by others.

    For me, there are 2. Paolo Maldini and Patty Vieira. I wish I had seen Des Walker in his prime and sung “You’ll never beat Des Walker.”

    In the last 31 years I have learned to focus on final third of the pitch. I have always focused on defence because that’s where I played, and unashamedly say that Nigel Winterburn is my favourite Gunner ever.

    I choose the two I did because, on his day, each was unbeatable. Maldini is the greatest defender I’ve seen. Apologies to our own Mr. Arsenal, but Maldini was like a god on the pitch. And PV4, when he wanted, was absolutely the most dominant player and the most important player in any XI.

  13. No one ever convinces anyone to change their mind on a topic like that.
    You like a certain player and and his style of play, and you tend to glorify most of what he does.

    Arjen Robben couldn’t do it for me ( sorry JB), too easy to defend against.
    Show him to his right and make him beat you there.
    Don’t recall one game against a top opponent where he dominated them.

    Thierry Henry? Better , but still no.
    A disqualifier must be his two European finals with Arsenal and close to eight chances to score without success.

    Messi has done it against everyone at club level and on regular bases with his left, right, and his head
    ( 2009 United final).

  14. I caught that RBLeipzig – Bayern game on the TV, so I understand JBlau’s fascination with it. It was a better game than the PSG-Barca comeback match, simply because terrible refereeing wasn’t a huge factor in the outcome. Supernatural things were happening all over pitch. RBL were insanely-well coached and raced into a spectacular lead (good thing Gazidis has Hassenhutl on speed-dial) and Bayern were led by an incandescent performance from Robben. Arturo Vidal was pretty great too. It’s well worth watching the whole game if you can find it.

    Zidane gets my vote. His style of domination was technical and tactical in it’s nature. And he took everything he learnt at club level onto the international stage and produced even better performances there. His Euro 2000 performance is still the pinnacle of football as art. Drag-backs, step-overs, controlling high balls, volleyed passes (love volleyed passes), free-kicks, those dribbles… in one tournament Zidane ran through the whole gamut of what it’s possible to do with a football.

  15. I would agree with Robben if the game was regarding one “dominant move” or a signature move which is that incredible pace down the right hand side cutting in and put the ball well beyond keeper resch in the opposite top corner of the net. That I would agree with because even though every body knows (players and viewers) what he is about to do they just don’t stop him.
    On everything else as a dominant player all around without taking consistency into account it’s Messi for me.

  16. Though I’ve always been more partial to Pat Jennings, David Seaman was, in his prime, an absolute wall.

    1. CR7, you can’t vote for yourself. It’s considered bad form.
      Also, stop looking to heavens with that ” God, why did you let this happen ” look on your face after each miss. It’s really annoying.

      1. Hey Tom, thanks for setting CR7 straight. We’re very luck that a football god has chosen to comment on this post, but it is a tad unseemly.

  17. Messi is an easy and obvious pick. Mine is my all-time favourite player, Paolo Maldini. Number 3 for AC Milan is hands down the greatest left back to ever play in Europe, and he was a fantastic center half as well. Pure class on and off the pitch and on his day an immovable force of nature.

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