Last week we did a piece comparing the three best English midfielders in recent times – Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes. Let’s take it up a notch if that is possible. This time let's go for the best midfielders ever. Three figures: Zinedine Zidane, Dennis Bergkamp and Ronaldinho.
The question ‘who was better’ does these footballers a disservice because it is unfair to strip them of their legacy by comparing them directly as complete packages. But if we are to split their different attributes, we can easily determine who was better at which. Let’s go with it.
The obvious choice is Ronaldinho. Compared to the other two Ronaldinho's ‘love’ for the ball. If Zidane and Bergkamp were the more pragmatic and no-nonsense in their approach, Ronaldinho channeled the inner kid in him, played with the ball and infused joy into his viewers. His quick reflexes gave him an edge over others and a ticket to play around with the ball.
Who takes it? Ronaldinho
This umbrella term encompasses the practical execution of football basics: from shooting and passing technique to skills and ball control. They all had their strengths. Ronaldinho was best at dribbling and skills. Bergkamp had an unmatchable first touch and a precise shot. Zidane was the master at keeping the ball and had a powerful shot. It is difficult to chose among them, but I will for Zidane for the foresight which was an inseparable part of his technical executions.
The less quick the reflexes the more vision a player must have to succeed in dribbling past opposition or spot a run of a teammate to whom to pass the ball. If Ronaldinho relied on his quick reflexes to do the trick for him, Zidane and Bergkamp had to rely on foresight to succeed. Both of them drew pictures in their mind quicker than their body moved. Their efficiency relied on good technique and efficient touch.
But if Zidane slightly pipped Bergkamp in using his vision to keep the ball, the Dutch master could also interpret the movement of the players around him to execute a killer pass – something which Thierry Henry appreciated a lot.
No contest here. The range of Bergkamp passing was just beyond astonishing: long passes, through balls, short passes, lobbed passes, he could do it all. Not only that but the receivers often found a ball tames and presented on a silver platter with bags of space around them. If any of the other could challenge him, Ronaldinho was the man, on through balls. The Brazilian could spot a run perhaps as well as Bergkamp and had the technique to give a pin-point pass.
Look for the free space, release and pass: it was what Ronaldinho and Bergkamp did. Keep the ball and pass sideways or back: what Zidane did.
This is very easy. Bergkamp and Zidane were never that quick to begin with. Ronaldinho, on the other hand, had pace integrated to his game. His trickery provided an extra dimension, which was extremely hard for defenders to deal with.
All three of them possessed an intuitive feel for the first touch, but Bergkamp scooped from rare inner sources. Just remember his goal against Argentina in the 98 World Cup. Or his masterful taming of the ball against Leicester. Or to take it further, his calculated first touch for that famous pivot goal against Newcastle.
Ronaldinho went beyond taming the ball too, but with perhaps more swagger than elegance. While Zidane’s first touches revealed something bordering on genius but touched with the occasional cheeky sloppiness.
Positional responsibilities play a role: Bergkamp was a support striker, but he could play equally well at the central attacking midfielder position. Zidane was a deep-laying midfielder – a player who controls the tempo of the game, but he could also single-handedly decide matches.
In that regard, Ronaldinho was positionally similar to Bergkamp, but he posed a more direct threat because he could explode into free space with an incisive dribble, while Bergkamp preferred to pass into that same space.
Oh, boy. So refined were all three’s shooting skills their shots entered artistic space. It's hard to compare artists. What Bergkamp could do, Ronaldinho could too. There is a joke about a family of tomatoes walking down the street. Papa Tomato turns back and yells at trailing Kid Tomato: “Ketchup!” Zidane was neither Papa, nor the other two. He didn’t need to catch up too. His shot was more powerful just as Ronaldinho's and Bergkamp's was more precise.
Tie: Bergkamp, Ronaldinho, Zidane
Players with a quality of such magnitude not only shine in their respective clubs and national teams, but leave a mark on the history of football too. Undoubtedly those three were part of a bunch of players who exemplified the higher planes of the sport.
Zidane overshadowed legends such as Didier Deschamps, Thierry Henry, David Trezaguet and Marcel Dessaily in the French national side. Only the completely and utterly lost in bias failed to notice he was the most important player in the team. The event that showed his importance was the 2006 World Cup when, having come out of retirement, Zidane drove his country to the final, earning the competitions Best Player award.
If Bergkamp was a leader amongst leaders in an unlucky Netherlands national team, he was a humble god at Arsenal. With his arrival at the club in 1995, Arsenal transformed from a boring 1-0 side to one that played the most attractive football in Europe. Coincidences have little to do with his man’s career. Since his retirement in 2006, Arsenal have not won another Premier League.
Before Messi, Barcelona was dancing under the tune of the samba king. Ronaldinho stood head and shoulders above everyone else during his five years at the Catalan club. But he also won trophies in every club he played.
Goals and assists
The players’ positional differences played a role here, with Bergkamp and Ronaldinho being more offensive players than Zidane.
Zidane – 144 goals and 92 assists,
Bergkamp –202 goals and 155 assists.
Ronaldinho – 179 goals and 141 assists.
Number of accolades won
Zidane won trophies in every single club he played – 15 trophies during his career. But he was the absolute king on the individual accolade front – 49 among which a Ballon D’or in 1998 and three times FIFA World Player of the Year.
Bergkamp stashed away 16 trophies during his career while he did not receive as much recognition on the individual front – 18 accolades – perhaps due to his fear of flying which caused him to miss many away games.
Ronaldinho won 18 trophies with clubs and the Brazil national side and 33 individually. He won the Ballon D’or once in 2005.
What did their contemporaries think of them?
“Played football like it was a dream – you couldn’t even imagine some of the things that he was capable of doing with a football.” Peter Schmeichel
“A genius and a pleasure to play with because he would always find space in which to receive the ball.” Emmanuel Pettit
“I have always said Dennis Bergkamp will remain the best partner I have ever played with.” Thierry Henry
“He played like a ‘general’ in midfield. He has technique, tricks, passing and also had the ability to score some of the best goals.” Marco Van Basten
“When Zidane stepped onto the pitch, the 10 other guys just got suddenly better. It was magic.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic
“A true artist.” Marcel Dessaily
“You cannot compare anyone with Ronaldinho. He made history at Barcelona. He made history in the Brazil national team and he continues to make history.” Neymar
“Ronaldinho is a total class – a great player. He’s quick, powerful and has extraordinary technical qualities.” Zidane
“It is always a difficult talk to pick out the best player, but, for me Ronaldinho has been the player who played for the longest at the top of his game.” Pele