2016 has been a fascinating year for football. From Leicester City‘s league title triumph at odds of 5000/1, to Portugal‘s shock victory in the Euro 2016 final, to the bizarre rise of Will Grigg on and off the field, the last 12 months have not been short of entertainment. This five-part series looks at 50 of the most captivating footballers of 2016.
50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 1
After his record-breaking exploits at the end of last year, 2016 ran the risk of being an anti-climax for Jamie Vardy. Instead, the party continued for the man who was playing non-league football just four-and-a-half years ago.
He ended the 2015-16 season with a Premier League winner’s medal, his first goal for England—an outrageous backheel in the world champions’ backyard—a place in the PFA Team of the Year, a Football Writers’ Player of the Year award and a place in next season’s Champions League. In June, his fascinating story continued as he rejected Arsenal and scored against Wales at Euro 2016.
The 2016-17 season has been something of a hangover for the 29-year-old, but it has not been without its memorable moments. Another goal for his country against Spain and a breathtaking hat-trick against Manchester City showed that he has not lost his touch, and a place on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist—no mean feat in an Olympic year—was apt recognition for one of the most enchanting players of 2016.
2016 turned out to be an exceptional year for Dimitri Payet. A key player for both club and country, he took the Premier League and Euro 2016 by storm this year.
Payet had been injured for almost three months before returning to the West Ham first team in January, and he led his side to seventh in the Premier League table. He won acclaim for his flair and brilliant free kicks, including one from 30 yards against Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-final. His form saw him win West Ham’s Player of the Year award. He was also shortlisted for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
He notched up a goal and assist in the first two matches of Euro 2016, against Romania and Albania. He created 14 chances over the space of those two games and was named man of the match in both. In the quarter-final against Iceland, Payet again scored and assisted in France’s 5-2 win. France made it to the final before being defeated by Portugal, but Payet’s tournament had been an outstanding success.
So far this term, Payet and West Ham have failed to replicate their successes of last season. In spite of this, he continues to be linked with a move away from the club. Given what he achieved in 2016, West Ham fans will hope that he stays for many years to come.
Once seen as the weak-link in the Juventus backline, Leonardo Bonucci is now their key defensive player. After a typically impressive showing earlier in the year against Bayern Munich, Bonucci was described by Pep Guardiola as “one of my favourite ever players”. High praise indeed.
This year has been a huge success in his career. He helped his side win a record fifth successive title, scoring and creating important goals and keeping opposition attackers at bay. It’s these skills which not only helped Juventus lift the title once again but also break several records along the way, including a Serie A record ten consecutive clean sheets. At Euro 2016, he was at the heart of Italy‘s defence as they kept three clean sheets in five games.
This season, Juventus are currently seven points clear at the top of Serie A. Unsurprisingly, other top clubs are looking to lure Bonucci away from Italy, which has led the Italian champions to offer him a new contract. Few could argue that it wasn’t well-deserved.
Angel Di Maria
Di Maria was instrumental in Paris Saint-Germain’s march towards the Ligue 1 title in 2015/16 as he looked to revitalise his career following a disappointing season at Manchester United. Whilst Zlatan Ibrahimović was grabbing the headlines and in the end securing his own move to Manchester United, it was Di Maria who was lighting up the division with his play, scoring the winner in the Coupe de la Ligue final against Lille. He also set a league record for assists in one season—18. Add that to his 10 league goals in 29 league appearances and Di Maria’s team contribution cannot be overstated.
In all, Di Maria contributed 15 goals in 45 appearances that season. Given that he has only scored one goal in 16 appearances this season, it seems that once again the tide—just like the PSG fans—is turning against him. Perhaps he is missing Ibrahimović? Perhaps he is missing Real Madrid? Whatever the psychology, Di Maria needs to rediscover the 2015/16 form that made him the captivating player that he can be.
David Villa has had an illustrious and much-decorated club and international career both domestically and internationally. It was for this reason that eyebrows were raised when even at age 33 he decided to make the move stateside and play for New York City FC.
In two seasons in the United States, Villa has scored 40 goals in 62 games and was recently voted MLS league Most Valuable Player for 2016. Whilst NYCFC didn’t win the MLS Cup in 2016 this year, it seems pertinent that his achievements were recognised in this way.
Villa has transferred his professionalism and desire to succeed to the USA and in a league that is still in its formative years, and is adding to the credibility of MLS on a global stage. He was immensely proud at receiving his award earlier this month and described it as “one of the best days of my career”. If he continues to excite the people of New York, perhaps thoughts of retirement can be put off a little longer.
Hatem Ben Arfa
Few players in world football bring about strong opinions quite like Paris Saint-Germain winger Hatem Ben Arfa. The French international has experienced a unique career, with the past year certainly being no exception.
After flashes of brilliance with Newcastle United and a doomed loan move to Hull City, little was expected of Ben Arfa when he joined OGC Nice ahead of last season. 17 goals and six assists proved that the Lyon product was not finished just yet.
Ben Arfa moved to title-holders Paris Saint-Germain this past summer, but has struggled to replicate the same stunning form, starting only four league games so far. Possessing pace and a fantastic touch on the ball, he has the ability to open up any defence. But his attitude towards training and occasional lack of discipline can undermine his performances.
A January transfer may be on the cards for Hatem Ben Arfa. After his revival at Nice, however, it should come as no surprise if he is able to find success once more.
Until October 2016, Victor Moses looked to have endured yet another year of frustration. His career had promised so much after he secured a spot in the Wigan first team in 2011-12 and caught the eye of Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo, but a series of loan spells at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham United saw his stock plummet.
Indeed, despite a handful of substitute appearances under Antonio Conte, it looked as though Moses was to spend 2016/17 as a squad player for Chelsea, with Pedro, Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar all ahead of him in competition for the attacking midfield roles.
However, after a change of formation to a 3-4-3 following September’s humiliating 3-0 reverse against Arsenal, Moses has started—and won—eleven consecutive league fixtures for Chelsea in a right wing-back role. Conte identified the Nigerian as a capable defensive player, and his tireless work down the right hand side has seen the Blues concede just twice since he came into the side.
With Chelsea six points clear of second-placed Liverpool at Christmas, Conte may look back at his decision to pick the 26-year-old Moses as a key moment in the side’s title charge come May next year.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has accomplished nearly everything in football. His time at Manchester United, however, has only seen injuries and frustration.
Schweinsteiger spent over a decade with Bayern Munich and moved to Old Trafford last summer. Injuries limited him to only 18 appearances in the Premier League for Louis Van Gaal and he has yet to make a single league appearance this season under new manager José Mourinho. It has, therefore, been what hasn’t happened than what has happened which has made the German’s story one of the most interesting this year. With a rumoured move to Major League Soccer possible next month, 2017 could be a new chapter in the veteran’s career.
Scott Hogan is yet to become a household name, but his staggering goal return in 2016 suggests that he will be one of the players to look out for in the next few seasons if he can stay fit.
After an injury-hit start to the year, he made his return for Brentford in mid-March, before picking up another minor problem in his hamstring. He was back in the first-team shortly afterwards, and went on to score a staggering seven goals in only 163 minutes of action.
Those who thought he wouldn’t be able to keep up his incredible scoring exploits this season were quickly proved wrong; the 24-year-old sits third in the Championship top scorer charts with 13 goals. Brentford have been poor this season, but Hogan has been a rare bright spot in their play. If he can put his injury problems behind him, don’t bet against him going down the same route as former Brentford starlet André Gray and playing in the Premier League one day.
Cristiano Ronaldo capped off a scintillating 2016 by becoming the second player to have scored a hat-trick for a European side at the FIFA Club World Cup, helping Real Madrid to yet another title this year. He led Portugal to the Euro 2016 final before picking up an injury in his team’s victory over France to claim the trophy.
He has scored 42 goals in 44 appearances for his club, which is indicative of his phenomenal ability to create and score goals. His most important ‘goal’ was the winning penalty he converted to win the Champions League against local rivals Atlético Madrid. At the age of 31, Ronaldo is showing no signs of slowing down after yet another incredibly successful year.