The withdrawal from World Cup Month has begun. From here out it’s only transfer rumors and the Tour de France to fill the gaping, Jules Rimet-shaped hole. While it lasted it was fantastic and for that we can be thankful. Here’s to Weltmeister Deutschland and muchos condolencias to Argentina, with a hearty pat on the back for the Dutch, the Colombians and Costa Ricans along the way. The less said about the hosts, the better. Before we leave Brazil, we’ll allow ourselves one final hit of the World Cup, by naming our all-star XI.
Goalkeeper – Manuel Neuer (Germany)
It’s really, really hard to look past the man who took home the Golden Glove award. This was the tournament of the goalies, with Keylor Navas, Guillermo Ochoa and Tim Howard coming up with performances that in any other year would have seen them take home the award.
Neuer, though, stood tall, dominating his back-line in such a way that one thought that the opposition simply could not score. Often goalkeepers are remembered because of their reflexes and anticipation; Neuer has those qualities but his strength lies in his ability to impose himself on the game, intimidating strikers and rushing out to play as a sweeper. His play outside of the box allowed Germany to play an otherwise-risky high-defensive line, laying the platform for their win.
Right Back – Philipp Lahm (Germany)
The World Cup winning captain comes in at right back, though he started the tournament in central midfield. His switch, during the Round of 16 against Algeria, sparked the transformation of the Germans into the machine that would triumph in Rio. An unfortunate injury to Shkodran Mustafi forced him to right back and freed up space for Khedira and Schweinsteiger to play together.
Lahm added a much needed stability and assurance to a defense that had looked decidedly shaky against the pace of the Algerians, and spurred his partners on to better things around him. They would allow just one goal (and that a consolation) for the rest of the tournament.
Center Back – Giancarlo Gonzalez (Costa Rica)
The Costa Ricans were the surprise package of Brazil 2014, and that was based in no small part on their defense. They conceded just one goal from open play, and caught twice as many players offside as any other team, a testament to the superb back five led by Gonzalez.
The Colombus Crew man also displayed a flair for last-ditch challenges, repeatedly coming in when others around him failed. Costa Rica might have rode their luck a little, given the performances of Gonzalez and Keylor Navas in the goal, but they used their defensive fortitude to spur themselves onto their best-ever World Cup performance.
Center Back – Mats Hummels (Germany)
Life as a defender tends to mean foregoing the glory that comes with scoring the goals that win games. Not so, though, for Mats Hummels, whose display in the quarterfinal against France will go down as one of the greatest seen at a World Cup. After heading the opener, he and Jerome Boateng conspired to deny Benzema, Valbuena et al for the rest of the game, restricting them to half-chances at best.
Needless to say, the rest of his tournament was similarly impressive and his work in bringing the ball out of defense was instrumental in starting the lightening counterattacks that helped take the Germans to glory.
Left Back – Daley Blind (Netherlands)
The Ajax man sparked the World Cup into life with two assists in the Dutch demolition of Spain, laying on Robin van Persie’s diving header with a cross of astonishing quality before clipping in Arjen Robben for a second. He was consistently threatening from left back, taking advantage of the freedom given by Louis van Gaal’s 5-3-2 formation to get forward, without disappointing at the back. His goal in the Third Place Playoff capped off an excellent World Cup.
Central Midfield – Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
After a several seasons of playing in central defense at Barcelona, Mascherano reverted to his natural position for Argentina, and was at his snarling, snapping best for the entire tournament. He reveled in his role as enforcer, flying into challenges and chasing down opponents, supplying balance to what could have become a massively top-heavy team. His dedication resulted in a torn anus, suffered blocking an Arjen Robben shot to force extra-time in the semifinal. He played on, of course, as he did after a nasty head injury in the final, and his duel with Bastian Schweinsteiger was one for the ages.
Central Midfield – Toni Kroos (Germany)
All of the German midfielders put in mammoth performances throughout the World Cup, controlling the tempo of games and holding possession, waiting for opportunities to arrive. Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Kramer all took turns in the center of the park, but Kroos was ever-present, maintaining the shape of the side, and providing a permanent threat breaking forwards, resulting in two goals against Brazil and a tournament-leading four assists.
Attacking Midfield – Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Arjen Robben doesn’t win many friends with his style but it is impossible to argue about his effectiveness. The Dutch winger might only play off one foot but defenders know exactly what he is going to do and yet seem powerless to stop him. He dives, but his direct dribbling creates the positions in which tacklers are compelled into risky challenges. Rafa Marquez was such a victim, resulting in the penalty that put the Netherlands into the Quarters. Sergio Ramos and Spain simply couldn’t deal with his pace and Argentina changed their style completely to nullify his effect in the semifinal.
Attacking Midfield – Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Argentina reacted to facing Robben but everyone reacted to facing Messi. In each game he was man-marked and followed around the field. Despite this, Messi managed four goals, and won man-of-the-match in four of the seven games he played. Arguably his moment of the tournament was not any of his golazos against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria, but this perfectly-weighted pass that split the Belgian defense. FIFA’s Golden Ball might seem a nod to the World’s Greatest Player™, but it’s hard to deny that Messi was excellent in Brazil.
Attacking Midfield – James Rodriguez (Colombia)
An undoubted star of the tournament and popular choice for the Golden Ball. He’ll have to be content with the Golden Boot as top scorer, securing six goals. The quantity was impressive and the quality even more so, from his volley against Uruguay – which must go down as one of the finest ever at a World Cup – to his dink over the Japanese ‘keeper. “Ha-mes” was the heartbeat of the Colombian team, dictating the play and displaying a subtlety of movement and range of passing that made Los Cafeteros many people’s favorite team in Brazil.
Forward – Thomas Müller (Germany)
It’s hard to say what Thomas Müller’s secret is. He isn’t as fast or as skillful, or as athletic as some, and yet he continues to impress on the world stage. What he is is a finisher, an opportunist, a ball-magnet in the box and a prodigious worker for his team. In a side that pressed from the front, Müller was the first line of defense, an integral cog in a high-functioning machine. His goal record is simply frightening, with 10 in 16 games at the World Cup. His teammate Miroslav Klose, whose 16th World Cup goal makes him the all-time top-scorer, cannot expect to be for much longer – Müller is still only 24 and will surely surpass his record.
Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
His showings against Holland and Greece propelled him into the very highest echelon of ‘goalies worldwide – Barca or Bayern await.
Ron Vlaar (Netherlands)
“Concrete Ron” was solid as his nickname suggests, particularly against Argentina, where he seemed to keep Messi & co at bay single-handedly.
Dirk Kuyt (Netherlands)
A manager’s dream. The nicest man in football played right-back, left-back, center forward and attacking midfield, and did it all in his trademark way, with buckets of enthusiasm, determination and intelligence.
Alexis Sanchez (Chile)
He started with a goal inside 12 minutes against Australia and kicked on from there, terrorizing defenses with constant running, pace and a huge bag of tricks.
André Schürrle (Germany)
The best man to have on the bench, Schürrle played directly and with accurate finishing that brought him three goals in six substitute appearances.
Louis van Gaal
Managing is all about picking the team, then knowing when and how to change it if things don’t go your way. Louis van Gaal used every possible opportunity to tweak things to his advantage, from the cooling breaks vs Mexico to swapping his goalkeepers before the shootout against Costa Rica. The Netherlands trailed three times and in all three came back to win. Manchester United fans will be salivating at the thought of the “Iron Tulip” getting hold of their team.
Take a look back at the rest of our World Cup Month features here.