A Christmas Miracle: Spain Without El Clasico
The other week, while I was watching Spanish football’s defining (and damning) match, Real Madrid vs Barcelona, El Clasico, The Classical, I had a vision. The grass was soaked with blood. Severed limbs and heads littered the ground. Massacre at the Bernabeu, both sides had indulged in mutually assured destruction. What, thought I faced with such carnage, will happen to La Seleccion?
El Clasico’s importance to the Spanish national team cannot be overstated. Of the 11 men who started the 2010 World Cup final, three were merengues while seven were cules, David Villa having just signed for Barcelona that spring. What would its starting line up look like without those two great teams to populate it? As an eminently qualified EUROPEAN FOOTBALL EXPERT™ I decided to speculate with a hypothetical TACTICAL CHALKBOARD:
Yeah, suck on that other countries. Even if you completely remove the entire core of the team, Spain are still better (on paper) than just about everyone else. Maybe not quite World Champions, but the potential is there.
Alas, not all truths are self-evident, so some explanations are in order.
First and foremost, this selection operates under the assumption that national teams tend to prosper best when built around a core of players from the same club team. The current (real) Spanish national side is perhaps the best example of this but there are others—the Dutch national team of the 70s was built around Ajax, while their great West German contemporaries/archrivals were built around Bayern Munich. The World Cup-winning Italian sides of 1982 and 2006 were both peopled with stars from Juventus. So my visionary squad selections were made with this model in mind. At the moment the best clubs in Spain (after those two) are Valencia and Athletic Bilbao. You could argue otherwise but you’d be wrong and dumb.
So we start with the number 1. This one’s fairly easy, as Liverpool’s Pepe Reina is already Spain’s second-choice goalkeeper. Backup keepers should probably include Sevilla’s wonderful Javi Varas and Manchester United’s David de Gea. Varas has no international experience, while De Gea won last summer’s U21 European Championships.
Next is defense, and this is where Spain is perhaps most vulnerable without its top two providers.
Because of the tactical trends that currently dominate international football and the attacking inclinations of Spain’s fullback options, their hypothetical post-Clasico Massacre manager will likely have to play four at the back.
For right back Spain have many decent options, though few exceptional ones. I chose Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Iraola to start because aside from being pretty fucking good just in general he’s also clubmates with striker and target man Fernando Llorente, and so will be comfortable providing service into dangerous areas for the Basque hunk. Valencia’s Bruno Saltor provides a suitable backup.
In central defense, Villarreal’s aging Carlos Marchena will likely have to be called back for starting duty after having lost his place alongside Carles Puyol to his cule clubmate Gerard Pique. A seasoned veteran with a strong personality, Marchena’s a strong candidate for team captain.
There are only two good choices for Marchena’s defensive partner—Sporting Gijon’s Alberto Botia and Atletico Madrid’s Alvaro Dominguez. Of the two I’d favor Botia, if only because he’s been called up for the national team before. Both are only 22 so Marchena will likely have to spend most games constantly yelling at them and telling them what to do.
At left back Spain enjoy an embarrassment of riches. Valencia’s Jordi Alba is the strongest candidate and has already usurped Joan Capdevila’s starting place there. Other options include Liverpool’s Jose Enrique, Roma’s Jose Angel, and Malaga’s Nacho Monreal.
Moving on to the midfield. Given the fluid attacking inclinations of the other picks, it seems wise to employ a holding anchor with good distribution and solid defensive know-how. Villarreal’s experienced Marcos Senna could be called back up to fill that role, as could Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, but both Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez and Chelsea’s Oriol Romeu seem better candidates for the position given their youth and energy. Of the two youngsters I favor Martinez, as he’s been an important starter at Athletic Bilbao for several years now and is clubmates with striker Fernando Llorente and right back Andoni Iraola. Both Martinez and Romeu are capable of playing as central defenders, and could conceivably be used in that capacity should the need arise.
Now we get to the Good Shit, the attacking midfielders. You’d think that losing Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas would decimate any national team. In Spain though, you have Chelsea’s Juan Mata, Manchester City’s David Silva, and Malaga’s Santi Cazorla waiting to step up. The depth goes further—Athletic Bilbao academy graduates and U21 European Champions Iker Muniain and Ander Herrera are there to shore up the depth. Valencia’s Sergio Canales could slot in as well, though his eligibility is questionable as he’s on loan from Real Madrid. This also might be another position where the cool-headed and experienced Mikel Arteta might finally manage to get a look in, but truth is he’ll probably just be there for cover and calm, if at all. A fluid midfield trident of Silva, Mata, and Cazorla is just too mouth-watering to resist.
Lastly, there are the forwards. Here’s where I think justice would perhaps be best served in terms of selection. Pedro has never really been that good despite the statistics—a kind of Spanish Frank Lampard, if you will. David Villa has been in terrible form lately at Barcelona and shouldn’t really be a first choice starter there anymore, with both Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez upstaging him in style. This would be a golden opportunity for Spain’s truly best strikers to establish themselves on the world stage, and all without the marketing boost of being at a global brand/financially doped club. Valencia’s Roberto Soldado has been in white-hot form despite his team’s troubles in the Champions League, while Fernando Llorente is maybe the best classic number nine in the world now. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Gomez are really in his league. Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo also deserves to be in contention. And hey—I wouldn’t write off a Fernando Torres renaissance just yet.
Given the trauma of the Clasico Massacre and his long history with Real Madrid, it might be understandable if current actual Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque retired in despair and disillusionment. It might also be possible that he perished in the massacre itself, as el tecnico de la Seleccion tends to show up at El Clasicos to keep tabs on his players. So who then to replace him? Spain are one of those snobby countries that wouldn’t stand for a foreigner coaching their precious national team, so Mourinho would be out of the question. Pep Guardiola will have perished alongside his canteranos. And Rafa Benitez? I think we’d all rather die. For me, there is only one guy for the job—Valencia’s Unai Emery. Despite selling their best players every year while somehow still falling deeper and deeper into debt, Emery has kept Los Che competitive with the best Spanish and European football have to offer. How does he do it? I don’t know, but he’s great.
Look everyone, I know murder is wrong. I know mass murder is even worse. I know inciting riots and violence is pretty bad too. And yet, after compiling this team sheet and thinking it all through, I can’t help but daydream…
Merry Xma$ 2 all, & 2 all a good nite.