European Football

La Liga Team of the Season Part 1: The Defense

A bit of Spanish flair this week…

Welcome back to our Team of the Season series. This week we will be venturing to the Iberian Peninsula to talk about Spain’s top flight, La Liga. As with last week, we start with the defense and progress up the pitch before rounding the series out with some honorable mentions.

Unlike the Premier League team, this one was actually quite difficult to pick. There were very few locks in this team, and that is reflective of just how competitive La Liga was this season. The honorable mentions in particular gave me quite a struggle to narrow down.

But might as well get this going before I change my mind again, so let us get started…

Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid)

It says quite a bit about the quality of goalkeepers in La Liga this season that I think this is a very difficult decision while also believing that Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak is the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment. There are three very good goalkeepers in La Liga, all three making a very valid and convincing claim at being the best in the league this season, but after much deliberation, it just has to be the Slovenian, doesn’t it?

Now yes, this might be slightly contradictory to how I worked through the goalkeeper position for the Premier League team, choosing Emi Martínez over Ederson due to the Argentine doing more with a less solid defense in front of him, but I promise it is different here. It is not all about the numbers with Oblak, even if they are incredibly impressive. Yes, Atléti are a very defensive team, and they have been so historically under Diego Simeone, and that does contribute to Oblak’s very impressive clean sheet and goals against numbers, but that defense is much less solid than it has been before. Gone are the days where the likes of Diego Godín and Juanfran anchored a suffocating Atléti defense. Their defense now is not bad, and I think Mario Hermoso and Stefan Savić in particular have had very solid seasons, but Oblak is needed much more than before to bail Atléti out of trouble.

And that is the bedrock of why he is in this team. While his individual save numbers may not be significant, there are so many examples where Oblak has come to Atléti’s rescue. Simeone’s team are, as you might know, in a title race at the moment, and they have seen a very significant lead early in the season dwindle down to the two point gap between them and second placed Real Madrid that exists at the time of me writing this. There are many times when this could have gone awfully wrong, but Oblak was there to save the day. His performances against Alavés epitomizes this perfectly. With four minutes to go and Atléti leading 1-0, Alavés won a penalty that could have snatched a late point, but Oblak stood strong to deny Joselu from the spot. Those two points saved could quite literally define the title race. Take them away and it is very likely Simeone’s team would not be top of the league.

It is not decided yet, but if Atléti do go on and win their first league title since 2014, there will not be a Colchonero hero that shone brighter this season than their towering Slovenian shot-stopper.

Jesús Navas (Sevilla)

And here we have another incredibly difficult decision (they do not get much easier). There are three players that could have occupied this position, and since neither of the other two feature in this team of the season (which was another difficult decision), I will go ahead and tell you that this was between Navas, Real Madrid’s Lucas Vázquez, and Atlético Madrid’s Kieran Trippier. Yeah, that Kieran Trippier. I could not believe it either.

Navas is just a dependable and consistent player on both ends of the pitch. Continuing to defy Father Time, the boyhood Sevillista has performed fantastically as a converted right back, able to find enough energy to bomb up and down the pitch at the ripe age of 35. He has been very solid defensively, with a positional sense and tackling ability that is all the more impressive when you remember he was a winger only a few years ago. His greatest contributions to the Sevilla team, however, have come in attack. He has been a constant attacking presence on that right side, swinging in crosses like a madman. He is the joint-top assist provider among all defenders in La Liga this season, as well as being in the top ten among all players for key passes and shot-creating actions. He also crosses the ball more than any player in La Liga which, while it does not seem like an important stat in isolation, it does look very good when paired with his very impressive chance creation stats and probably explains why Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri has the second most headed goals of any player in the league.

Navas is just barely ahead of the pack when it comes to the best right backs in the league. Sevilla have quietly had a phenomenal season, and while I would not feel comfortable betting on Navas hoisting another piece of silverware this season as Sevilla captain, it is worth noting that they have a fairly decent chance to win La Liga this season. Should that miracle happen, I imagine Navas will play a large part in it.

Jules Koundé (Sevilla)

France’s top exports in 2019 seem to have been wine, cheese, aircraft parts, and center backs.

Jules Koundé’s meteoric rise since his arrival in Andalusia prior to last season has been sensational. Only nerds like me knew how good he was when he starred for Bordeaux, and now he is showing his talents to the world for Sevilla as one of the best young center backs on the planet. He is a phenomenal defensive player, hardly putting a foot wrong when he is on form. He is also seemingly naturally gifted on the ball, to a degree that not many center backs are. His goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinals epitomizes this incredible gifted ability he has as a ball-playing center back (or even as a fullback if he really wanted to), really beyond anything that I have seen from most top quality center backs in the world.

What is even more remarkable is Koundé’s physical ability relative to his size. The Frenchman has a listed height (listed on Sevilla’s website) of 1.78m, which is about 5’8″-5’9″. You could probably add an extra inch or two if he let his afro grow out a little longer, but even then that is quite small for a center back, especially at the top level in football. He really does not play like a small player, though, and you can see his ability to take advantage of a burst of acceleration, low center of gravity, and quite impressive jumping ability to fill the physical skill void needed by top tier center backs. He has won the tenth most amount of aerial duels of any player in La Liga, which is remarkable given his height. He is very much a Samuel Umtiti-type player, with Umtiti being listed at 1.82m (about 5’10”), able to use an incredibly developed football IQ paired with a strong jumping range and fearlessness to succeed in a position that is seemingly demanding taller and more physically built players. Another comparison, going back a few years, would be former Juventus center back and World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, who was arguably the best center back in the world in 2006 despite being about the same height as Koundé.

The game has changed quite a bit even in the 15 years since Cannavaro’s peak, but there is still room in the game for a player of Koundé’s size to succeed in this position. He has so far shown his ability and talents are not limited by his height, and it seems that the sky is the limit for the 22-year-old Parisian.

Pau Torres (Villarreal)

This was another incredibly difficult choice, but again we have gone for a young and promising player enjoying a breakout season.

Pau Torres is one of the next great hopes for Spanish football. While I do not have much in the way of league-leading stats to pull from, he is another one of those players that you just have to watch and see how good he really is. He is a solid athlete, very smart defensively, a dominant defensive player in the air, strong in the tackle, and a threat from set pieces. He is also incredibly comfortable on the ball, which is not typical for a player as tall and lanky as he is. Unlike the aforementioned Koundé, Torres seemingly represents every trait that people look for in modern center backs, and his breakout season this year will likely put him on the radar for teams across Spain and across Europe.

This spot is just as much about who was chosen as who was not. To not take credit away from Torres, who is deserving in his own right, I think there was some outside influences that helped them. I am sure many who read this expected Sergio Ramos to be one of the two center backs, and I am here to tell you that he will not feature in this team or the honorable mentions. He is very good, yes, but he also missed 19 games this season. I made some allowances for missed games with Wilfred Ndidi’s inclusion in the Premier League’s honorable mentions, but I cannot get past missing half of the season. I would find it hard to include him in this, no matter how talented he is. Torres was just the second-best option, and while it was close between him and one other player, Torres’ breakout season was enough for me to earn a starting spot in this team.

Jordi Alba (Barcelona)

Jordi Alba has very quietly assembled one of the best seasons for a left back of any left back in the world, and this came after he and Barcelona started the season in a disastrous way.

It may have been Ronald Koeman’s move to a back 3, moving Alba to a wing back role, that turned things around for both Barça and for Alba himself. Being freed from a significant defensive burden, Alba was then able to do what he does best: attack. Bombing up and down the left side, he was seemingly at the center of most quality Barcelona attacks, which explains why he (surprisingly) leads the league in total touches. It is not just his crossing either, as he does not cross the ball as much as Jesús Navas, for instance, but he is such an effective and dangerous attacking player through his normal passing ability, dribbling ability, and his combination play particularly with Messi and Antoine Griezmann. He has been incredibly important for Barcelona in their resurgent year, one that could end with a league and cup double despite their poor start. He may have lost a bit over time, but he is still showing that, despite his age, he remains one of the best left backs on the planet.

And that is our defense for the La Liga Team of the Season. Agree with our list? Think we left anyone out? Let us know in the comments.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for part 2, as we cover the midfield.

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