With Fernando Hierro having just been appointed director of the Spanish Football Federation, with a view to rejuvenating a set-up which is seen as hackneyed and stuffy, I thought it high time we took an in-depth look at the Spanish team (7th in the latest FIFA World Rankings), comparing it position-for-position with other top sides such as France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and finally, fellow perennial-underachievers, sunny Steve McClaren’s England.
The national teams of the self-appointed “best leagues in the worldâ„¢” are not competing well, whilst fellow European giants France and Germany and South American stars Argentina and Brazil, whose domestic leagues have been claimed to be in decline (despite the burgeoning attendances in Germany and the renewed competitiveness of the league, and the excellent performances of a largely French-dominated Lyon side over the last few years), have had far more sustained success in world and European competitions. However, it should be remembered that Spain’s fortunes are on the up; this is demonstrated by the fact that Luis Aragonés has one of the highest winning percentages (65%) out of any managers over the last four years, bettered only by his predecessor Iñaki Saéz’s 65.21%.
To carry out such a comparison it might be considered necessary to settle on a top eleven for all of the above sides; this is no mean feat if one considers the immense complexities faced by international managers whose players may perform in domestic and European competitions for their clubs, but never at international level. As such, my comparisons will be with the teams sent out by each nation in their last competitive fixture, or with possible teams for upcoming qualifiers, based on squads announced, with one or two amendments permitted per team in order to account for injuries (e.g. I will include Milan’s Ronaldo, an injury victim at the moment, in my analysis of the Brazil front line).
Note: We will do so leaving aside all club versus country debates, which certainly provide appetising if indigestible food for thought, but which do not quite enter into the framework of this article. Beyond this introductory note, I will also leave aside perorations regarding the possibility that political conflicts (Catalan and Basque demands for independence, for example, and the debates regarding the legitimacy of the Selecció Catalana) are responsible for a certain “lack of identity” in the Spanish national team, and therefore affect players’ motivation and performance.
No such in-fighting or nationalist struggle exists in English politics (Scottish/English politics are another thing altogether) — unless we include the supposed divisions of the England camp into different teams, a phenomenon which is likely to be produced in all nations with either talented footballers or a competitive league in which talented footballers are spread out amongst various squads — and yet the English national side has managed to produce just as many “bottlers” as has the Spanish one, even if the Spaniards have not yet reached the heights of 1966 and has an inferior record in recent major competitions.
I will begin by listing the team sent out by Spain in their crucial European Championship qualifying match against minnows Latvia on the 12th September, a match through which Spain limped before eventually coming out 2-0 victors.
Iker Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Juanito, Marchena, PernÃa; JoaquÃn (Angulo, m.78), Albelda, Xavi, Silva (Cesc, m.69); Villa (Iniesta, m.48), Torres.
Now that we have familiarised ourselves with the Spain line-up, I will proceed to compare the Spain team with that of other nations, with a view to understanding whether there really is a gulf between the countries. I will award points to the nations I believe to be the strongest in each position.
Iker Casillas is certainly one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and this is an area which can have a crucial bearing on the rest of the national team’s performance. England, Argentina and Brazil certainly have poorer goalkeeping quality (in my opinion, Paul Robinson’s recent form doesn’t even
merit the number 13 jersey, and I have been scratching my head for years to figure out what Milan see in Dida – it says something when you are a poor man’s David James!), whilst Germany’s Lehmann has made an error-strewn start to the season, and his temperament is questionable. Only a handful of goalkeepers in world football, including Gigi Buffon, can be considered formidable rivals to Casillas (Coupet has never really [been given the opportunity to] perform[ed] at a major tournament).
My points go to Spain and Italy
There are few better full backs in the world than Sergio Ramos, and he has the ball skills of a midfielder. Gary Neville is always injured, Micah Richards is superb but inexperienced and lacking some positional awareness, Cafu is excellent but aging, Zanetti has not been adequately replaced (mistake not taking him to 2006 world cup?), Friedrich is a good but not brilliant player and the above-average Francois Clerc is somehow keeping out Arsenal crowd-favourite Bacary Sagna. Ramos’ only challengers in this group comes from Sevilla’s Dani Alves, without doubt one of the best right-backs in the world, and Italy’s Zambrotta, who has passed his peak, even though he remains a very good player.
Points go to Brazil and Spain
Atlético Madrid’s PernÃa is a very good player (his crosses are particularly potent), but I would not put him in the mould of Abidal, Cole or Lahm, who I believe to be a level above the naturalized Argentinian PernÃa, Argentina’s own Gabi Heinze (where is the pace?) and Burdisso and Brazil’s Gilberto (Carlos no longer represents the national team, and Marcelo is not there yet). With Grosso not setting the world on fire at Lyon, Italy have no prime candidate for this spot.
Points go to France, England and Germany
It is at centre back where Spain’s candidates look utterly pedestrian. Marchena is a very good player, but I would not rate him world-class, whilst Juanito is not even in the top 5 centre backs in La Liga. If one compares this with Italy’s Cannavaro, Nesta and Barzagli, England’s Ferdinand, Terry, Campbell and Richards (the former twice named in the World Cup “best eleven”), Germany’s Metersacker and Metzelder (perhaps the weakest of the other teams?), and Argentina’s Milito, Coloccini and Ayala, Spain’s duo seem positively outranked.
On paper, France have an extremely strong centre-back line (Mexes, Gallas and Boumsong, although none of the three played against Scotland) and even Brazil, a team more renowned for its attacking players (although see Tim Vickery article on Brazil’s centre backs), boasts stalwarts Lucio and Alex.
Points go to England and Italy
Spain’s midfield line of JoaquÃn, Xavi, Silva and Albelda is certainly formidable, although it is inexplicable that Fabregas does not start in the centre of the park, as I rate the Arsenal player as the best player of his type in the world at present moment (far superior to Barça’s Xavi, on current form). Equally, Everton’s Mikel Arteta has deserved a look-in for the last two years, and whilst he mightn’t be able to oust Albelda, he is certainly better than current substitute Miguel Angulo. Iniesta should be a regular for Spain and Barça (Rijkaard has awoken to this fact).
Fabregas would get into the midfield of any side in the world, Iniesta is not quite there yet. France’s Malouda and Ribéry can be considered better than JoaquÃn and Silva (although Silva is improving radically and will be one of the best in the world, without doubt), Brazil’s Kaká and Diego would be hard to topple (Gilberto Silva should not be underestimated, but I don’t see him as any better than Fabregas or Albelda in the same type of position). Argentina’s midfield offering, especially Mascherano, Riquelme, Maxi RodrÃguez (all “world-class”) is pretty frightening, although I’d take Fabregas on recent form over Riquelme at full pelt. England’s Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard (no Lampard, I’m afraid, and no Gareth Barry or SWP) would hold up well against the best from other nations, as might Ballack (on form), and Italy’s Pirlo and Gattuso.
Points go to all teams except Germany
Spain’s Torres and Villa are among the best (and most in-form) strikers in the world today. Other top strikers are Italy’s Toni (Inzaghi is too limited, and no other Italy striker currently shows the consistency needed, even if Di Natale is going through a good patch), Argentina’s Tevez, Aguero (beginning to show the consistency needed) and Messi (I still consider him a striker and not a midfielder), Brazil’s Ronaldinho and Ronaldo (included as a special option, due to his goalscoring record), France’s Henry, Anelka and Trezeguet (although none of these three tends to perform to their highest ability at international level), (maybe) Germany’s Klose and England’s Owen (Rooney just does not perform at international level, or at least has not done so for some years).
Points go to Spain, Argentina and Brazil
From these (albeit slightly superficial) comparisons, it becomes clear that Spain’s first eleven is by no means inferior to other top nations in most positions, but that a weak centre means that the team will probably be held back in the future. The player-to-player analysis also seems to me to demonstrate that Argentina’s midfield contains a host of very good, but not outstanding, players, and that the South American no. 2 ranked team in the world need to strengthen in defense. Brazil, unsurprisingly, rank highest for their attacking attributes (including Alves as an attacking full back), England offer a very strong central spine (Ferdinand-Terry-Gerrard) but lack flair, and Germany possess little in the way of world-class talent. France and Italy, both of whom ranked highly in this analysis, have different problems; France’s attack tends to underperform in crisis situations, whilst Italy lack world-class striking talent away from Toni (they will miss Totti), as well as world-class wingers.
Why, then, have Spain failed on the international stage? Lack of identity? Poor management? Bad luck? (e.g. vs. South Korea) Obsession with single players? (Raúl, Hierro). We’ll leave this for a future article. For now, why not read about and discuss England’s failure?