Ever wondered which league is truly the best in the world? Well, ponder no more, as friend of the site Gene Um – who happens to be Editor-in-Chief of SBNation’s superb Manchester United blog The Busby Babe by the way – got in contact with me about a fantasy match-up between the world’s two finest football leagues. There were a couple of rules, a squad of 18 players had to be selected, and only one player could be selected from each team, so no Ballon D’Or trio for me. Without further ado, here are the two squads and the tactical approaches of the two "managers". The whole exercise was brilliant fun; I hope you enjoy reading the results.
CHOOSING THE SQUAD
Me (La Liga): Well, much like how I felt when choosing the squad, where do I start? With La Liga supposedly catching the Premier League both in terms of quality, and continental competitiveness, I felt a certain responsibility when drafting my team. Sure, I could have picked a squad with a plethora of star names, but at the end of the day, what I needed above all was a functional team. In essence, that explains why I have chosen to omit Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid striker is a superb player – one of the best in fact – but think of CR7, and you do not think of a team player. Instead, I would have been picking an individual. A brand. Furthermore, just how would Lionel Messi and Ronaldo co-exist on the same team?
Messi is the star player on my team, as one might expect, but even that selection was a lot more difficult than it seems. After all, would Messi thrive in a different system? Do I have a suitable replacement for Xavi, or Alves? Fortunately, I think I do, so Messi is in my squad. As for Real Madrid, I toyed with the idea of picking Gonzalo Higuain, who for me is the best pure striker in world football, but eventually I settled upon Iker Casillas to keep guard in goal.
With the big two out the way, it was now a case of methodically trawling through the remaining 18 teams to try and ascertain the top three players in each squad and which position they played. As you might imagine from reading the last sentence, I took this rather too seriously. Anyway, my knowledge of La Liga as a whole is great, but at this stage I sought some advice from Bostjan (co-manager on Barca Blaugranes) and Allen Dodson from Villarreal USA who both watch more La Liga matches, rather than the highlights I watch.
Valencia’s pick was straight-forward; I wanted Jordi Alba at left-back, purely because he tore Barcelona to shreds in the same position, and is expected to re-join this summer, or the next depending on Valencia’s preference. Continuing on this Catalan theme, I have Alberto Botia to play centre-half and Javi Chica as my stay-at-home right-back. Gary Medel was one of the easier choices to play midfield destroyer, with European Championship winner Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna making the cut. Making a choice from Athletic Bilbao was tough though; how can you pick between Iker Muniain, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente? Many possibilities were considered, but I eventually settled on Llorente to create a Harry Redknapp style little and large combo in attack.
Full Squad: Iker Casillas, Roberto; Javi Chica, Ivan Ramis, Filipe Luis, Sergio Ballesteros, Alberto Botia, Jordi Alba; Gary Medel, Marcos Senna, Raul Garcia, Xabi Prieto, Santi Cazorla, Diego Castro, Coutinho; Lionel Messi, Fernando Llorente, Diego Costa.
Gene (Prem): Perhaps the most simplistic approach to choosing an 18 is taking the world-class players from the Champions League clubs and then supplementing the squad from the rest of the league. If anything though, the depth of these elite squads actually allows us the flexibility to pick from the plethora of talent (and tactical) options while trying to the make the most of the value from the remaining sides.
Due to the pursuit of balance, I struggled to choose Wayne Rooney over Nemanja Vidic and Antonio Valencia because someone like Robin van Persie is the clear Arsenal choice. In regards to United's 'noisy neighbours', I passed on David Silva, Vincent Kompany, and Yaya Toure because the Premier League has a dearth of full-back options -- hence my Micah Richards pick. I concede technical superiority to La Liga so I've tried to play to a Premier League strength by using Manchester United's 2007/08 counterattacking and European Cup winning side as a tactical template. Had I been choosing a squad to oppose the Bundesliga or Serie A instead, I'd likely have chosen either Silva or Juan Mata as my 'number 10' in a 4-2-3-1 system. Instead, I'm looking to have a more functional central-midfield.
Luka Modric is my heartbeat while David Luiz gives me a versatile and ball-playing CB. Lucas Leiva is an elite holding-player (modern football Makelele) so I choose him over Jose Enrique as my Liverpool player. While looking for another ball-winner to combat La Liga technical prowess, I passed on Marouane Fellaini -- who would have been vital on set-pieces -- and I choose Leighton Baines for my Everton player since I passed on Enrique (seriously, the world lacks decent left-backs). While still pursuing a ball-winner, I passed on Cheick Tiote as my Newcastle representative because I admired Steven Taylor enormously prior to his season-ending injury. Taylor's alertness compliments Luiz when the Brazilian steps out of the back. I eventually settled on the energeticStuart Holden and the combative Alejandro Faurlin as functional midfield options. From here, I simply tried to supplement balance and variety into my squad by providing both direct and interchangeable options: Matthew Jarvis gives me direct wing play, Grant Holt provides an old-fashioned and physical No. 9, Darren Bent is my poacher, while the likes of Rooney, Clint Dempsey, and Junior Hoilett offer versatility in attack.
Full Squad: Michel Vorm, Ali Al-Habsi; David Luiz, Steven Taylor, Wes Brown, Michah Richards, Leighton Baines; Luka Modric, Alejandro Faurlin, Stuart Holden, Lucas Leiva, Matthew Jarvis, Junior Hoilett, Clint Dempsey; Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Darren Bent, Grant Holt
STARTING XI + APPROACH
Me (La Liga): Despite my undying love of the Barcelona system, there is no way I ever thought about implementing it for this squad. Instead I have gone for a 4-2-3-1 as a base, with the team making the transition to a 3-3-3-1 in possession and a 5-1-3-1 in defense.
In summary, when I was creating this 4-2-3-1, my single goal was to put doubt in Gene’s mind. I have a pretty good idea of where he thinks his team will be most effective, and I have tried to set my team up to counteract that (without even knowing exactly what his XI will be). Iker Casillas will captain the side, lead by example if you will. La Liga actually has a few top quality keepers, but all of them pale in comparison to Saint Iker. Sure, he plays for Real Madrid, but I hold Casillas in the highest regard. His selection in goal is both a nod to the Premier League’s attacking quality and the shortcomings of my defense. Speaking of, the centre of my defense consists of an overweight 36 year old, and the star player from the league’s bottom side Sporting Gijon. However, this isn’t any old 36 year-old, this is Levante legend Sergio Ballesteros, possibly the only 36 year-old to have humiliated Cristiano Ronaldo in a footrace.
The two centre-backs are what some might call typical English centre-backs, both are over six foot tall and built like the proverbial, but Botia’s La Masia schooling will be vital as I look to build from the back. Javi Chica is another Catalan, but was raised at Espanyol rather than Barcelona. At right-back, what he provides above anything else is a physical presence, which coupled with Ballesteros, should nullify the left-side of the Premier League side. Gary Medel is pretty much a more aggressive version of Javier Mascherano and his ability to play at centre-back both liberates Jordi Alba and provides the defense with a little pace. When Medel drops back, I want Senna to move a little more central and dictate the play like Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso do for their respective sides. With Senna in the quarterback role, there is a huge gap between midfield and attack, hence Jordi Alba, and hence Lionel Messi.
Jordi Alba provides the overlap on the left, but to create the space Santi must play inside-left, hopefully drawing the right-back with him. However, if that doesn’t work, Santi is genuinely two-footed, meaning that he could provide the width while Alba surges into the corner of the area from deep. On the opposite wing, Xabi Prieto will be responsible for the majority of the crosses into the area from the right-side. Prieto is vastly underrated in my opinion; he is easily one of the best crossers in the league. Basically, Xabi Prieto is an old-school winger who lives to get to the byline and whip the ball into the box, think a slower Antonio Valencia. He will be supported at times by Lionel Messi, who I have given a free role in my team. As trequartista, Leo will drop deep to bridge that gap between defense and attack, similar to his role for Argentina, as well as drifting to the left, and generally ambling about. If my team is to be successful, Leo must be able to drop out of the game when he wishes, thus maximising the impact when he does get on the ball. Ideally, Messi will mostly embark on surging runs across the area to take advantage of the zonal marking Gene is likely to employ. In this situation one of three things will happen: either Messi will have enough room to shoot, space will open up for Llorente, or he will be forced to pass the ball out wide for a cross.
This is where Llorente comes in, playing on the shoulder of the last defender, I merely want Llorente to be Llorente. His presence is enough to unsettle even the best defenders, and theoretically, should create space for Leo Messi. What I want is for Fernando to drift away to the back post whenever the ball is on either wing, and from here, the winger will be able to float one towards the backpost for Llorente to score or set up a late runner (Messi), or they can take advantage of the attention Llorente requires by drilling one in near post for Messi or Santi to try and convert at the near post.
Individual roles/ tactics:
I want relative structural stability so let's start from the back. Luiz will have the freedom to step out of the back to join the midfield when my side is building attacking moves. In addition, the mobility of the Chelsea center-back will also allow him track Messi in his preferred inside-right zone in attack -- whether that be as a right-sided attacker, false 9, or number 10. Taylor will be my covering CB as his strong positional sense will be vital because I'll be asking my side to zonally mark. Even if Messi is deployed on the right, Baines is still my Dani Alves sort of player on the left and if Messi -- or whoever else is Arron's right-sided player -- doesn't track back, the Everton left-back can help create overloads on counters. Baines will be key for my side as he'll be the one counted on to provide width and stretch the opposition in the attacking third. No one can man-mark Messi so we'll attempt to defend him with a team approach.
Lucas will lean strongly to the left, which will also help if Messi is a false 9 since he tends to drift into this area anyway, and he'll act almost as a 3rd CB when he drops back. Holden is chosen over Faurlin because of his incredible industry -- he can disrupt play in the center of the park while also shuttling forward into the right channel at times. Richards will stay deep and tuck in and there will be elements of 3-4-3 when he comes in and Baines surges forward. The City defender also has the ability to choose his runs and get forward. In fact, I even have the flexibility to switch to a 3-4-3 in the middle of the match if I feel that it offers me a tactical advantage: Luiz and Richards could flank Taylor in my back three while Baines and Holden could operate as wing-backs outside of Modric and Lucas in the middle.
I should be a bit clearer when I describe my side as 'counter-attacking' one. This isn't a 'park-the-bus' approach where I pack 9 players behind the ball in my own half. My side will be organized in it's shape at all times and I'll even implement intense pressing in the early stages of the match (first 15 min or so) before sending instructions to step back into a 'false-pressing' mode for the remainder of the first-half. However, I will be soaking up pressure for the majority of this match and when I do win the ball, I won't be simply punting the ball and hoping for a beefy centre-forward to hold the ball up as my hopeless outlet. Rooney, van Persie, and Dempsey can all play in the middle and out wide and they hopefully will be deadly on the counter by playing quickly, interchanging, and switching to find optimal matchup. This should allow them to break with precision and efficiency (my favorite counterattacking goal ever | United vs Arsenal in 2009). Linking the trident with the midfield and defense will be Modric -- he'll likely have to play 3-4 yards higher than is the norm for him but he'll be a key player for me as I'll need him to dictate play.
As previously mentioned, Baines will offer some variety by providing width down the left touchline. His excellent delivery will hopefully find Dempsey at the farpost for headers or the clinical Rooney and van Persie for chances near goal. Furthermore, the fluid movement of the trident may also drag defenders around and create space for midfield runners (Modric and Holden).
Which side do you think would win in this fantasy battle, and why? Furthermore, who would you have selected from each league, and what tactics would you use?