Despite my predisposed reticence toward granting any Manchester United player an ounce of credit (I've been an Arsenal fan ever since I watched a Dennis Bergkamp highlight at age seven—I know, I know, but I'm an American; what else was I supposed to do?), I've always felt that Ji Sung Park, the swiss-army knife of the United midfield for well-on six years now, has always been vastly underrated.
It runs counter to my club allegiance, but I can't help it. As someone who's played the game at a high level, I can appreciate a player who works his tail off match in, match out. Why Park has never become a first-team regular is beyond my reckoning. I'd pick him for my side.
It's hardly his fault. Whenever Sir Alex Ferguson has called upon the South Korean international, he has delivered, time and again.
Park is often a first choice of the illustrious Scot manager during Champions League play, where his experience and industry work wonders with remarkable consistency.
Yet despite his track record, he has never been a regular in the starting United XI, ceding a potential spot on the wing to more acclaimed players such as—this season providing a perfect example—Nani and Ashley Young.
He has never complained (at least not to my knowledge), he has never drooped his shoulders during a match to show his displeasure at his stop-start situation. He simply plays, and gives his all.
That's the mark of a consummate professional.
In diagnosing similar servants within the classic English top four (United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal), I found that each side had a player with similar traits to Park. They don't vie for the spotlight on a weekly basis. Rather, their play speaks for them. And it hits high decibel levels.
More power to them for it.
Perhaps it is a fitting testament to the industrious Korean that Sir Alex Ferguson perceived him an important enough instrument within the United side that, despite his exclusion from the '08 Champions League's penultimate match in Moscow against Chelsea, Park started the '09 and '11 finals—both against FC Barcelona.
Despite the incredible disappointment that must have accompanied hearing the news that he would not start in '08, it had to be somewhat comforting for Park to learn that Ferguson proclaimed that decision as "the hardest of his career."
Quite an incredible sentiment from a man who has won every possible title as a coach, and who has coached some of the most talented players in world footballing history.
The premier European competition has long served as Park's grandest stage.
His inclusion in the starting XI is far more irregular in domestic play, but Ferguson, whatever you may think about him, is an admirer of consummate professionals.
It is little wonder, then, that he frequently turns to the South Korean for the most difficult of European ties.
Case in point: Park has started both of United's Champions League group stage matches so far this season (away to Benfica, at home to FC Basel). Curious, then, to think that he has only played in three Premier League matches in 2011-12. The Scot has his reasons, I reckon.
Park will never win renown for his goal-scoring prowess, but he has netted on the biggest stages, namely against Arsenal.
In the 2009 Champions League semifinals it was his opportunistic strike—taking advantage of an ill-timed slip by Gunners left-back Kieran Gibbs—to slot home United's first goal in the return leg at the Emirates.
In a Dec. 2010 league match against the Gunners, he scored the lone goal during a bitingly cold match at Old Trafford.
Now retired from international play, Park will have the rest of his career to dedicate himself to (presumably) the United cause. Champions League opponents must be quaking in their boots.
It was a toss-up between the Ghanaian international holding midfielder and defender Branislav Ivanovic, but Essien takes the plaudits in my book simply because, no matter how great his performances, his renown often seems relegated to the most steadfast connoisseurs of football.
Maybe it's better that way. Essien will never be the media lightning rod provided by teammates Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, or Fernando Torres. What he will always be, however, is a player with fastidious dedication.
He has scored wonder-goals (2008 against Arsenal, 2009 against Barcelona), and he has defended with aplomb from his central role. What more could you ask for?
Like so many top players, it is regrettable to see his career so heavily influenced by injuries. When on form, Essien is regarded by many to be one of—if not the—premier holding midfielder in the world.
His capability as a defender, coupled with his prowess going forward, are of the highest quality in world football.
He follows in the same vein as the other players in this list: understated, yet a consummate professional steeped in talent. There is little else a manager can ask for in a player.
This picture is truly worth its merit. I have long held Kuyt in high esteem for his near-unequivocal work rate and fearlessness to launch himself into tackles—all for the good of his team.
For those who miss acclaimed television pundit Tommy Smyth (not so much for his "bulges the ol' onion bag calls on goals) as for his unfailing pre-match assessment of Kuyt in ESPN telecasts of Champions League play: "He is a tireless worker"; this one's for you.
Kuyt's considerable skill as a footballer often becomes lost amid the sweeping stereotype people seem adamant to place upon him.
Can a player be an industrious worker and be technically gifted? Outside of Barcelona's relentless defensive pressing scheme, it wouldn't seem so.
An anecdote: in Dec. '09, I was watching a Premier League match between Liverpool and Arsenal in a Parisien pub. Upon watching Kuyt net the first goal of the match for the Reds—poking home on a broken passage of play from nearly six yards out, my friend turned to our group and said, almost disdainfully, "That is such a Kuyt goal".
I refrained from delivering a response at that juncture—I was far too upset at seeing the Gunners concede a goal—but upon reflection, I wondered: what, exactly, is wrong with a player who throws his body with abandon into every nook and cranny of the pitch with an insatiable desire to win the ball, all for his side's benefit.
Kuyt has been a regular starter with both Liverpool and Holland for years, and it is not because of his "pluckiness" as a player.
His skill as a winger is of equal renown to his industry. There's little coincidence that he's often the man to take Liverpool's penalty kicks (that, er, miss against Everton an obvious exception to the general rule).
But what perhaps struck me most about Kuyt was his handling of a rumored move (ESPN) to Inter Milan during Liverpool's slide over the past two seasons.
He stayed put during the club's most trying times, and when manager Kenny Dalglish elected to start Jordan Henderson over him to start the season, we heard no moans of egregiousness and injustice from the Dutchman.
His word is his bond, and he is currently under contract with Liverpool. You'd be hard pressed to hear him say otherwise. More power to him for that.
I would never have imagined, in watching Arsenal take on Manchester United in a late-season fixture in 2007-08, that I would one day consider Alex Song one of the irreplaceable components of the side.
On that day, Song started in central defense, a precocious—but largely unproven—talent. He looked out of his element against the eventual league champions, I reckoned—jumping for the offside trap when it would have behooved him not to; lunging into tackles when he should have held his ground.
Song has come a long, long way since that day.
One could make the case that he has worked as hard—if not harder—than any other Arsenal player over the past three-odd years.
He has grown from a reticent center back to the first-choice central holding midfielder—a role that is so crucial to allowing Arsenal's creative players to spring forward in attack.
That left-footed goal against Bolton a couple weekends ago seemed to seal his culmination as a complete player. Would anyone have expected Song net on such a strike back in 2008? I'll be the first to admit that I certainly wouldn't have had my hand raised.
His work rate is to be applauded. But it is the fact that he is never in the rampant rumor mill, a potential move away from the club the headline blaring from fans' computer screens, that truly marks his character. He does not seek acclaim.
When Song was required to slot back into central defense recently after a fresh spate of injuries, there were no Soccernet headlines going on about his displeasure at being forced into a more "limited" role. He saw a need for the club, and he filled it. Simple as that.
Like each player named within these slides, Song goes about his business with the measured approach of a true professional. And he goes about it well.
There is something incredibly refreshing about that no-nonsense approach to the game. While his iconic hair styles might beg to differ, the fact remains that Song has provided a veritable rock amid an oft-swirling storm in recent Arsenal seasons.
That might not win the plaudits, but it sure as hell wins the respect of fans.