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Nationaliteam No.3: The Spanish Left Back

May 6, 2011

Pundits aplenty prior to the 2010 World Cup were backing Spain to be victorious, citing an immense pool of talent unrivalled amongst their peers and their endearing tiki-taka playing style. When pressed for any possible weakness of the team, they all looked at the left back position, held by Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila. Capdevila was by this time a definite starter for La Furia Roja and would continue to be an ever-present throughout the ultimate victorious World Cup Finals campaign. He was also the only player who started the final that did not represent either Real Madrid or Barcelona (David Villa had yet to play for Barcelona but his transfer from Valencia was announced prior to the World Cup). Capdevila was not the weak link that many had perceived him to be but the area of left back is still a weak spot in terms of quality in depth for the Spanish national team. This is evident particularly in La Liga. The list that follows shows the top six clubs in the current league standings and their established first choice left backs: Barcelona (Eric Abidal, excluding recent unfortunate circumstances), Real Madrid (Marcelo), Valencia (Jeremy Mathieu), Villarreal (Joan Capdevila), Sevilla (Fernando Navarro)and Atlético Madrid (Filipe Luis). Only 2 of the 7 left backs are Spanish. To look at it in terms of recognition for the national team, the last selected squad featured only the one natural left-back, Joan Capdevila of course. To provide cover, Alvaro Arbeloa was selected and while he can play at a competent level at left back, he is not a natural left back in the classical sense.

Over the past decade, the left back in the Spain national team has not been from one of the big duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Before Capdevila, Atlético Madrid’s Antonio López battled it out with Mariano Pernia (who was first at Getafe before moving to become a squad rival to Antonio López at Atlético) and for a brief time, one-time Chelsea player Asier Del Horno. Indeed before them, Real Sociedad club legend Agustin Aranzábal finally became first choice following many years playing second fiddle to the last left back to come from one of the big two: Barcelona’s diminutive and combative Sergi. Sergi was a Barcelona youth product who would’ve happily spent his whole career playing for the Catalan club but unfortunately, a falling-out with coach Louis Van Gaal saw Sergi spend the last years of his career at Atlético Madrid. That was after he had collected 56 international caps and had represented La Furia Roja in 2 World Cups (1994 and 1998) and 2 European Championships (1996 and 2000). While success eluded him and his compatriots at international level, Sergi’s robust playing style made him a Catalan favourite and he was an ever-present as Barcelona won 3 league titles, 2 Copa del Reys and the UEFA Cup Winners Cup.

Camacho & A Notable Adversary

When talking of left backs from Spain and indeed from the top two clubs in the country, there is no way of ignoring the shadow cast by a Real Madrid great. José Antonio Camacho’s achievements as a player have often been overshadowed by his subsequent erratic managerial career (indeed this season, he has been sacked from struggling Osasuna) but they cannot be ignored. While not a native Madrileño, Camacho would spend his whole club career with Real Madrid, playing just shy of 600 games in all competitions and in the process winning 9 league titles as well as 5 Copa del Reys and 2 UEFA Cups. He amassed a collection of 81 caps for the national team and was part of the side that finished runners-up to France in the 1984 European Championships. While as a coach the unwanted appearance of under-arm sweat patches particular during his reign in charge of the national team drew attention (his insistence on wearing blue shirts didn’t exactly aid the image), his constant willingness to run and hassle opponents as a player ensured that plenty of sweat was left on the pitch come the final whistle. The last left-back in his style was indeed Sergi as the recent left-backs have been more adept going forward and haven’t quite had the tenacity that Camacho and Sergi displayed in their times in the role.

The current situation that faces Vicente Del Bosque is one that intrigues in regards as to what will happen with the role in the team. Joan Capdevila is now 33 and the pace he once had is diminishing as happens with the passage of time and while he didn’t prove to be as weak as expected at the World Cup in South Africa, it is only a matter of time before he becomes a liability. Catalan native Fernando Navarro is a likely favourite to replace Capdevila at least for the short term though he hasn’t been called up to recent international squads. Atlético Madrid club captain Antonio López is still available for selection but a combination of injuries and losing his first-team place to Brazilian Felipe Luis has damaged his credentials. Lopez is only 29 and while not a long-term replacement, he could be an option but the injuries really have taken their toll and his pace is slowly diminishing. Another option could be another player from a less-fashionable club in the shape of Osasuna’s 25 year-old Nacho Monreal who has so far been capped 4 times by La Roja. In terms of a more long-term replacement for Capdevila, a distinct possibility could be in the shape of AC Milan’s Didac Vila who had impressed at Espanyol prior to his move in January to the Italian champions-elect. La Masia graduates Carles Planas and in particular Marc Muniesa could also prove to be viable future options for the national team. As every other position in the Spanish team has been lavished with praise and adoration, it seems only fair that the left back not be left behind in terms of recognition. The question is whether a player from the provinces will keep the recent trend going or are we about to see another player from the big two claim the position back for their own. Given Spain’s current international standing, it’s unlikely to be a matter that Spaniards will lose sleep over just yet.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2011 12:14

    I’ve not seen much of Antonio López or the other candidates you mention as possible heirs to Capdevila’s throne. Do you think that filling the fullback positions could present Spain with a genuine problem in the future?

    I wonder if Spanish football has a tendency to move the sort of nippy players who make for good fullbacks in the modern game further up the pitch, a la Pedro at Barcelona.

    • May 26, 2011 21:30

      In terms of an out-and-out left back then yes it could be a problem. I’ve seen Barcelona use the young player Fontas as a left-back not long ago. He’s a centre-back by trade. This use of player’s versatility is covering the perceived lack of depth in the left back role. It’s certainly going to be interesting in the coming two years as to what happens with Capdevila.

  2. ArfurGlassful permalink
    July 17, 2011 13:26

    People are you forgetting Newcastle United’s (but not for much longer) Jose Enrique ?

    One of the best left backs in the Premier League !

    • July 17, 2011 21:33

      Wouldn’t say forgetting him, he had an excellent season last year.

      This coming season is vital for him if he is to be considered as a genuine contender for the left back berth for Spain.

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