Guardian football writer Jacob Steinberg posed a fascinating question on Twitter recently: “After Zinedine Zidane, has there been a better attacking midfielder than Andres Iniesta in recent times?” An intriguing debate and one to which I’d unequivocally state that Iniesta, at 27, has already eclipsed Zidane. I’d argue that no-one, certainly no-one that I’ve ever seen, has ever been quite so comfortable on the ball or in possession of such magnificent footballing vision as the diminutive Spaniard. Equally beautiful to watch; both players shared that gloriously intangible yet blindingly obvious quality of being completely in control of a game.
There is very little to differentiate the footballing achievements of Zidane and Iniesta. Both players have won every major trophy there is to win and both have scored the winning goal in a World Cup final. Zidane’s ludicrous volley to win the Champions league final in 2002 perhaps the only significant difference; even then, Iniesta’s laser against Chelsea helped rescue Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League campaign from oblivion and could be regarded as the catalyst that heralded an era of European domination.
The debate is not one of statistics; the inherent ability to dictate the tempo of a football match is an attacking midfielder’s most important characteristic in teams blessed with the offensive potency of Real Madrid and Barcelona; France and Spain. Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that Zidane “didn’t hurt teams enough”, but the innate ability of Iniesta and Zidane to swagger through games while continuously propelling their teams forward has choked the life from countless opponents.
Iniesta controls football matches with a simple economy of effort, letting the ball work for him and always in close attendance to aid his teammates. The Barcelona number 8 is an incredible hybrid of two of his more feted club colleagues; a player who can pass the ball as well as Xavi and dribble it as well as Messi. His ability to find space is remarkable and his knowledge of what to do with the space utterly exquisite. No-one has ever been more immaculate in their timing of a final ball; Iniesta always plays the right pass at the right time. His peripheral vision is surely unparalleled in the modern game, and maybe the whole history of the game.
The prime example of Iniesta’s shimmering quality his assist for Eto’o’s opening goal in the 2009 Champions League final. As Iniesta danced forward, United’s defence appeared transfixed by his balletic dribbling; the Stadio Olimpico held captive by his grace of movement. This, and this, do Iniesta far greater justice than words ever could.
Zidane was a more imposing, powerful presence; yet similarly blessed with feet of feathers. His magisterial performance against Brazil in the 2006 World Cup a career-defining display from a player who simply played at a different speed to his opponents. Zidane’s unique ability to play as if in slow motion was never more evident than that evening in Frankfurt. His full repertoire of feints and pirouettes confused and confounded the Brazilians, while the strength of his footballing personality seized the night, and eventually the game. On extraordinary occasions like this, Zidane totally imposed the force of his will on football matches; a supernatural ability afforded to very few. The greatest individual performance I can ever remember, bar none.
Equally, Zidane proved his importance to the French team in absentia at the 2002 World Cup. France could, and probably should, have won a tournament of poor quality; yet without their stricken talisman they imploded hideously in the group stages. Zidane’s reputation grew immeasurably with each increasingly diabolical French performance.
Unfortunately, Iniesta will remain perennially underrated as long as he plays in the same team as Messi – maybe the greatest player of all time. Zidane did excel in both the Spanish and Italian leagues and while Iniesta need not prove himself any more, watching the little illusionist illuminate Serie A or the Premier League would be a delight.
The argument here may be slightly biased towards Iniesta as I’ve seen him play live four times, and on each occasion he was the outstanding performer despite sharing the stage with performers like Messi, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, David Villa and Wayne Rooney. Iniesta’s thorough understanding of his role in the framework of a team, in addition to his complete appreciation and trust of those around him was always a joy to witness in the flesh. The live stadium experience, much more so than on television, showed a player in occupation of a footballing brain unlike any other.
Elegant movement and dazzlingly quick feet, allied to a wonderful contempt for misplaced passes and wasted possession, total harmony with his teammates and capable of calling truly momentous, game changing moments to order; Zidane’s possession of these staggering qualities is inarguable. Yet Iniesta has combined the best of these attributes for a prolonged period of time and surpassed the great Frenchman; performing consistently with his wonderfully angelic quality that makes him, in this humble observer’s opinion, the greatest attacking midfield player of our time.