When the dust has settled on a football season, when the trophies have been lifted and the stadiums have fallen silent, all that is left are the memories, the statistics and the cold, hard facts of who won and who lost.
Outstanding individual achievements are enshrined in the awards handed out at the season's end: top scorer, most clean sheets, player of the season and all the rest. But every now and again, whether because they played in an unglamorous position or were simply outshone by a rival, a player's performances do not quite receive the level of recognition that they deserve
Selected from the last 10 years of European football, here are five players who weren't named Player of the Season but whose performances deserve to be celebrated all the same.
Juan Mata (Chelsea, 2012-13)
Before Jose Mourinho and David Moyes, before he left Chelsea and joined a building site of a Manchester United team, Juan Mata was briefly one of the most creative midfielders the English game has ever seen.
In the 2012-13 season, which was his second campaign at Stamford Bridge, the Spain international amassed a remarkable tally of 29 assists across all competitions. In the last 15 years of top-level European football, it is a figure that has only been matched by Lionel Messi, who produced the same number of assists with Barcelona the season before. (German website Transfermarkt credits Mata with 35 assists, but that figure includes assists for penalties won and goals scored following rebounds.)
Mata also chipped in with 20 goals in all competitions—the best figures of his career to date—which meant that in the 64 games he played, he was directly involved in no fewer than 49 goals. Chelsea's key creative figure, he netted in home and away wins over Arsenal, scored two goals and supplied one assist in a 4-2 win at Tottenham Hotspur and bagged an 87th-minute winner at Old Trafford in May 2013 that took Rafael Benitez's side to the brink of Champions League qualification.
Fittingly, the former Valencia man was the architect of Chelsea's 2-1 win over Benfica in the Europa League final in Amsterdam, teeing up both Fernando Torres' opener and Branislav Ivanovic's stoppage-time winner. He was voted Chelsea's Player of the Year for the second season running, and although he lost out to Tottenham's Gareth Bale for the major individual honours, he was named in the PFA Team of the Year.
"He's been phenomenal," said Chelsea captain John Terry. "It's not just his goalscoring—it's his assists as well. He's fantastic; he brings so much to the team. He's a magician. He has a great first touch and fantastic vision."
Mata fell out of favour when Mourinho took charge at Chelsea in the summer of 2013 and has never quite hit the same heights in his six years at United. But for one superb season, he walked on water.
Grzegorz Krychowiak (Sevilla, 2014-15)
He would leave fans of Paris Saint-Germain and West Bromwich Albion with few fond memories, but in his two seasons at Sevilla, Grzegorz Krychowiak looked like one of the best defensive midfielders in the game.
A €4.5 million summer signing from French side Reims in 2014, Krychowiak needed little time to settle at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. Tasked with marshalling the space in front of the back four alongside the imposing Stephane Mbia, the Poland international helped to lay the foundations for a season in which Sevilla would finish fifth in La Liga and enjoy the second of three consecutive Europa League triumphs.
A destroyer rather than a creator, Krychowiak excelled at thankless tasks, be it intelligently closing off space or robustly shackling opposition playmakers. In one celebrated snapshot of his qualities, during a 2-2 draw against future champions Barcelona in April 2015, Krychowiak chased down the fleeing Lionel Messi and dispossessed him with a textbook sliding tackle.
Perhaps the most apt demonstration of his influence came during a game against Real Madrid the following month. While Krychowiak was off the pitch receiving treatment for a broken nose during the first half, Madrid scored twice. Sevilla's 3-2 loss brought an end to a run of 34 home games without defeat.
His crowning glory arrived in the Europa League final against Ukrainian side Dnipro. Playing on home soil in Warsaw, Krychowiak cancelled out Nikola Kalinic's opener with a predatory strike that set his side on their way to a 3-2 victory. His performance helped to earn him a place in the Europa League Squad of the Season and he was also included in La Liga's Team of the Season.
"Dreams do come true," he told Reuters at the National Stadium. "This has been a wonderful year for me, crowning all my work until now."
In 2016, after another Europa League success with Sevilla, Krychowiak followed coach Unai Emery to PSG in a €30 million deal, but he failed to break into the first XI. He was relegated from the Premier League with West Brom while on loan at The Hawthorns in 2017-18 and is now plying his trade at Lokomotiv Moscow.
Nene (Paris Saint-Germain, 2011-12)
The last Paris Saint-Germain star of the pre-Qatar Sports Investments era, Nene ended up being crowded out at the Parc des Princes by all the incoming signings. But in his last full season in the French capital, he shone with an intensity that foretold some of the glories to come.
A willowy attacking player with a lethal left foot, Nene arrived from Monaco in the summer of 2010 and scored 20 goals in all competitions in his first season. The QSI takeover in 2011 attracted a glut of new attacking players to the club—among them Jeremy Menez, Kevin Gameiro and Javier Pastore—but Nene rose to the challenge in style. Despite spending the majority of the season playing wide on the left, he finished the campaign with 27 goals and 15 assists in all competitions and was voted into the Ligue 1 Team of the Season.
PSG's fans quickly took to Nene, whose dazzling performances brought to mind the displays that his compatriots Rai and Ronaldinho had produced in the same shirt, and he was particularly effective when playing in front of home support. Eighteen of the 21 goals he scored in Ligue 1 came at the Parc, where he netted doubles against Dijon, Caen, Toulouse, Evian and Sochaux, and a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Rennes.
Had it not been for surprise package Montpellier, Nene's season would have been even more memorable. Rene Girard's side pipped PSG to the title, and Nene also lost out on Ligue 1's top scorer award to Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud despite the pair finishing level on 21 goals apiece. Giroud took the honour by virtue of having scored fewer penalties.
Come the following January, Nene was gone. Having lost his place in the team following the arrivals of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lucas Moura and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Brazilian hot-footed it to Qatar to play for Al-Gharafa. He still received a medal for his contribution to PSG's title success, but it was in the previous season that he had truly made his mark.
"In my second year, I was the top scorer in the team," he told L'Equipe recently. "I scored 28 goals [sic], which is huge for a midfielder. … At that time, I was really at the top. Having players like Thiago Motta, Pastore or Menez around made it a bit easier too. But the big regret was not winning the title."
Esteban Cambiasso (Inter Milan, 2009-10)
It is a mark of Esteban Cambiasso's understated efficiency that you could take any of the five title-winning seasons to which he contributed during his glittering 10-year spell at Inter Milan and construct a persuasive argument that his importance to the team was overlooked.
A brilliantly disciplined and tactically intelligent defensive midfielder, Cambiasso was one of the linchpins of the Inter team that won five consecutive league titles in the first decade of the 21st century, culminating in a historic treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League crowns under Jose Mourinho in 2010. Practically all of Inter's triumphs during that gilded period bore Cambiasso's fingerprints, but he was never more influential than on the team's journey to European glory in 2010.
Along with goalkeeper Julio Cesar and centre-back Walter Samuel, his Argentina team-mate, Cambiasso was one of only three players who was on the pitch for every single second of Inter's seven knockout matches in the Champions League.
He scored a crucial first-leg winner against Chelsea in the last 16—a goal that he would later describe as the "most important" of his career—and produced a defensive-midfield masterclass in Inter's immortal semi-final second-leg display against defending champions Barcelona at Camp Nou, snuffing out danger at every turn. The final took Cambiasso back to the Santiago Bernabeu, where he had previously trodden the turf in the colours of Real Madrid, and he was every bit as influential, helping to keep Bayern Munich at bay in a 2-0 win.
Along with his Inter colleague, Javier Zanetti, Cambiasso was overlooked by Argentina coach Diego Maradona for that summer's World Cup in South Africa, where a badly unbalanced team would be torn apart by Germany in the quarter-finals. But nobody who witnessed his importance to Inter would ever underestimate his worth.
"He was fundamental in my golden team," Mourinho said in 2015. "He is one of the players who means a lot to me."
Emil Forsberg (RB Leipzig, 2016-17)
Neither Emil Forsberg nor RB Leipzig had ever played a Bundesliga match prior to the beginning of the 2016-17 season, but by the end of the campaign, they had both become part of the furniture.
Just 12 months after being promoted, Leipzig finished second in the Bundesliga, and Forsberg played a pivotal role in the club's successful adaptation to life in the top tier. No player in Europe's five major championships could match his tally of 19 assists, and the scurrying Swedish midfielder also weighed in with eight goals, helping him to secure a berth in the Bundesliga's Team of the Season. He averaged more goal involvements (goals and assists) per minute than any other wide player in the top five European leagues.
"When the season started, I exploded," Forsberg wrote in an article for The Players' Tribune in June 2018. "I scored eight goals and created another 19—which is pretty damn good for a winger."
If there was volume to Forsberg's assists, there was also variety. With Leipzig drawing 2-2 at Bayer Leverkusen in November 2016, he teed up Willi Orban for a back-post header with a sublime cross from the right that brought to mind David Beckham in his Manchester United pomp. In April 2017, he set up Marcel Sabitzer for the opener in a 3-2 success at Mainz with a sensational backheeled volley. Days later, he created another decisive late goal against Leverkusen with a low cross from the right that allowed Yussuf Poulsen to slide in a crucial 93rd-minute winner.
There were five assists from corners; one from a free-kick. And countless perfectly weighted balls into the channels, many of which were seized upon by Timo Werner, who scored no fewer than a third of his 21 league goals from Forsberg's passes.
Forsberg has not even got into double figures for assists in each of the three seasons that have followed, which throws the achievements of that majestic maiden Bundesliga campaign into even sharper relief.