One team, one rule: No Real Madrid or Barcelona. The best of the rest? If you like, but I prefer not to view it like that. The contribution of the following players has been substantial in terms of retaining a level of quality and depth in La Liga. For example, Chico at Real Mallorca is as important as Cristiano Ronaldo, both systematically and as an individual.
Here is the first part of my team, the second (Midfield and Attack) will follow this week (14th to 18th May).
GK: Thibaut Courtois
Atlético Madrid’s decision to bring in a young goalkeeper to replace another young goalkeeper has paid off superbly. The Belgian, on loan from Chelsea, has been a resounding success with the Madrid club and has adapted with ease. He’s a composed and confident individual, showing all the attributes that will help make him one of the best goalkeepers around. Not only does he command his area well, he has shown great reflexes and decision-making in his first season in Spain. How long he’ll remain with Atleti it remains to be seen, but he’s certainly established himself as a rival alongside David De Gea in terms of top young goalkeepers.
LB: Jordi Alba
Spain once had a left-back problem. They no longer do, and it’s because of Jordi Alba. The Catalan returned from pre-season with both a spring and desire in his step, and has since never looked back. The coaches at Valencia were instantly impressed with Alba’s performance in pre-season, and he managed to carry it into the regular campaign. Once seen as a converted left-back, he’s established himself in the role with assertiveness and it’s now time to regard him as a genuine figure in the position. Quick, intelligent and deceptively physical he can take the ball from you, or around you, in the blink of an eye. He can often show a degree of playacting in his game which needs to be eradicated, but other than that the 23 year-old is one the way to becoming one of the world’s best. European Championships await for him in the summer, and he’ll be in the thick of every move.
One of the main reasons (on the field) Real Mallorca surged down the home straight in April and May. Alongside Iván Ramis he’s been a solid performer; disciplined, dominating and intelligent. Joaquín Caparrós runs a rigorous defensive system that requires focus and commitment – Chico provides all of that and more so. He’s made 5.50 interceptions per game, hits 4.1 with his clearances and goes into the tackle forcefully. He’s also featured at right-back, as the 25 year-old showed his versatility when Mallorca were low on numbers. An essential player for a team that play the percentages.
CB: Javi Martínez
You have one of the best up-and-coming central midfielders in the world in your team. What do you do? You turn him into a centre back of course. Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Athletic Club de Bilbao signalled a changed in many aspects for the club, and one of the first and more notable decisions was to take Javi Martínez and convert him into a capable ball-playing centre back that operated as the root of the attack. Bielsa’s decision worked brilliantly, and gradually over the course of the season Martínez developed into an incredibly adept centre back. He moved out of defence well, laying in simple passes to Ander Iturraspe, while he was also directed to pump long angled passes into the channels and centrally to Fernando Llorente. Not only that, his defensive game has become more rounded as Martínez understood the positional aspects of the game in a more clear manner. Where his future lies, in terms of position that is, remains up for debate but there is no denying the World Cup winner has developed superbly.
Another full-back of the converted type who has grown in stature as the season has gone on. Juanfran had found himself becoming a spare part at Atleti before Sílvio, plagued with injury since his arrival from SC Braga, was struck down long-term and Luis Perea had become more of a liability around the club despite his cult hero status. The Real Madrid canterano was asked to slip in at full-back against Granada, and though he wasn’t spectacular he was solid. Since then he’s understood the role more as each game goes by, showing nous both defensively and especially going forward. He‘s offered the ability to cut inside and go out, as well as linking up with the creative midfielders. It’s no surprise the calls for an inclusion in Spain’s squad are growing.
Honourable mentions: Andrés Fernández, Roberto. J, Sergio Ballesteros, Javi Venta, José Casado, Iván Ramis, Andoni Iraola.