Caleb Cousens on why there's life after Xavi, Iniesta, et al.
The Elite Round of the European U19 Championships is underway. The Elite Round is the qualification round for the UEFA European Under-19 Championship, that will be held in Romania from July 20th to August 1st 2011. Once again, the future of Spanish football looks in capable hands thanks to the wonderful development systems in place at many of La Liga’s top clubs. La Furia Roja are currently at the top of their Elite Round group with two wins from their opening two group games in a difficult Group 2; and look like they could be finalists for the second year in a row.
Of course Spain’s Under-19 side last year lost in the finals to France and this year’s squad is mostly new faces in comparison to 2010’s talent-packed roster, which featured many players who impressed for their club sides the following season. It was always going to be tough to replicate what the likes of Sergio Canales, Thiago Alcậntara, and “Keko” Gontận did in the midfield but this year’s class is making their fans proud. The only returning face from last year is midfielder Jorge Resurrección, or “Koke”. In 2010, seven of Spain’s players were from FC Barcelona’s La Masia whereas this year’s team is made up of six players from Real Madrid’s academy.
In anticipation of another impressive class of Spaniards that could be gracing our television screens sooner rather than later. I thought I would take a look at the squad and highlight some of the youngsters who could make a name for themselves in the tournament this summer and beyond into next season. For anyone who has watched their first two Elite Round matches, this particular Spanish side as with the current generation, is run from deep in the midfield. Koke and Barcelona starlet Sergi Gómez are the midfield generals, linking the four defenders behind them to the quartet of attacking players up the field. The team is full of young talent but four youngsters stand out as players who could dominate headlines in the coming years.
Of course, the scary thing about the current Spanish national system is the sheer amount of talent at its disposal. Spain could have fielded two very dangerous teams at the 2010 World Cup, with the likes of Fabregas, David Silva, and Fernando Llorente warming the bench as it turned out. Many countries would kill for that kind of selection headache. Club teams all over Europe pay hundreds of millions of Euros for this kind of squad strength, but Spain has this type of depth at almost every age group, including the Under-19 level.
This is maybe best illustrated by the fact that La Masia product Sergi Roberto is not guaranteed a starting spot for the U19s. The Catalan teenager was a key figure in the promotion of Barcelona B to the Segunda Liga in 2009/10, and in the last round of games in La Liga this season Roberto was started by Josep Guardiola against Malaga CF where he played the full ninety minutes. He should feature consistently for Spain this summer, whether from the bench or as a starter. For example, the midfielder started Spain’s opening Elite Round match against Switzerland but came off the bench against Montenegro.
Sergi Roberto is in the typical Barcelona mould of creative central midfielders. He oozes class with the ball at both feet and is adept at breaking down defences. Unfortunately he joins a surplus of talented midfielders at the Camp Nou, and will have to be patient if he wants an opportunity to fight for a starting place with Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Thigao, and Dos Santos. He is not a scoring midfielder, preferring to play his teammates in on goal in a Xavi-like role. I would expect Sergi Roberto to be loaned out this summer so that he can play consistent first-team football and he will have no shortage of suitors – even on a short-term deal.
Of the six Real Madrid prospects playing for Spain’s U19 side at the moment, Álvaro Morata may be the most exciting. The ex-Atletico Madrid and Getafe CF forward quickly progressed through Real Madrid’s Juvenil squads, and joined Real Madrid Castilla after scoring thirty-four goals and winning two titles with the Juvenil A squad. This last campaign with Real Madrid Castilla, Morata bagged fifteen goals in twenty-eight appearances for a very impressive goal record. He made one appearance for the senior squad but found it difficult to stay in Mourinho’s team because of the side’s strength in depth in the forward position.
Perhaps Morata's most striking feature is that he stands at six feet, one and a half inches tall. The eighteen year-old adds some much needed size to the Spanish attack and introduces a physical threat similar to that of Fernando Llorente at Athletic Bilbao. Regardless of whether he stays at Real Madrid, he will have plenty of teams wanting his signature as he seems to score goals for fun. I would love to see him join a club on loan at the very least but at eighteen he still has a year or two to finish developing. Needless to say I am most excited to watch him this summer as I think he could add to his country’s rich record of producing Golden Boot winners at the UEFA European Under-19 Football Championship; with three winners in the last nine years.
Valencia CF do not get enough credit for the talent that their academy churns out for club and country. One of their wonderful players is leading the attack for La Furia Roja. Isco Alarcón can play anywhere in attack and is perfectly capable of controlling matches, despite his tender age. He has an excellent scoring record for the national team with fourteen goals in thirty-seven appearances. He operates in a similar manner to compatriots David Silva and Andres Iniesta, both of whom are wonderfully inventive figures across the final third.
Look for Alarcón to feature regularly for Valencia in the 2011/12 campaign. He has put in some impressive performances for Valencia B where he has bagged twenty-four goals in sixty-three appearances. Five appearances in the season just past for Valencia’s senior squad and a good tournament for Spain this summer could see Isco Alarcón fielded behind Roberto Soldado at the Mestalla.
Ignasi Miquel is unique; not only is he the only player on the Spanish squad to be playing his club football abroad, but he is also an absolute monster of a defender. Standing at a towering six feet and four inches he is already showing that he will be a world-class centre back. He is yet another Barcelona La Masia product that Arsene Wenger has signed for Arsenal and he could be a major feature for the Gunner’s coming campaign. If I had to guess I think he will have the impact of a Cesc Fabregas rather than Fran Merida (another Barcelona player Arsenal signed and let go).
I would liken him to Gerard Pique; he is athletic, and an aerial threat in both boxes. Miquel is unlikely to be a starter for Spain this summer with the likes of Marc Muniesa and Daniel Carvajal holding both centre-back spots at the moment but he could feature off the bench or in the case of an injury.
In short, La Furia Roja has many, many successful years to look forward to. Not only is the current crop of Spaniards perhaps one of the best national teams in history, but the U21 and U19 teams are some of the very best in the world as well. The country’s club’s commitment to youth development will surely allow for Spain to continue to compete for the highest international honours for the foreseeable future.