At club level, teams can use transfers to fill gaps in their squad, and ensure they don’t have an unnecessary surplus in one particular position.
International football can be much crueller, throwing together various talented players in the same role – some countries have a plethora of talented midfielders, but no top-class striker.
Here, then, is a ‘Countries XI’, illustrating which countries specialise in which role. Each individual country can only feature once, and for purpose of this exercise, international retirements have been ignored.
Goalkeeper – Poland
Poland have always produced fine goalkeepers – the memory of Jan Tomaszewski from 1973 still haunts English football fans, Jerzy Dudek was Liverpool’s European Cup final hero in 2005 and, famously, even Pope John Paul II was a goalkeeper in his school days.
In 2013, Poland lack genuine quality outfield but continue to produce a steady stream of keepers. Arsenal’s two main goalkeepers, Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski, regularly travel to international duty together, while Southampton’s Artur Boruc, PSV’s Przemysław Tyton and ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak, now at Brighton, have also represented the national side.
Right-back – France
Although France have also excelled at producing left-backs, the lack of competition in the right-back zone means Laurent Blanc’s side get the nod there, too. There’s no-one as talented as Lillian Thuram, granted, but Bacary Sagna’s return to form makes France look particularly strong in this position.
Sagna is battling it out with Rod Fanni, something of a late developer but now a true force for Marseille, plus Newcastle’s Mathieu Debuchy, an inconsistent performer but excellent at attacking. PSG’s former club captain Christoph Jallet is a more solid, understated option.
Centre-back – Brazil
Traditionally, you’d expect Brazil to be providing the number ten, or perhaps the centre-forward in this side, but with a relative lack of attacking talent to depend upon, Luis Felipe Scolari is more blessed with solid central defenders.
Thiago Silva remains the best in the world, and will captain Brazil at the World Cup next summer, while David Luiz remains a very good deputy, even if his positional errors remain something of a concern. As back-ups, though, Scolari has Dante, magnificent as Bayern Munich won the European Cup last year, plus Silva’s new centre-back colleague at PSG, €32m signing Marquinhos.
With Leandro Castan and Miranda performing well in highly impressive Roma and Atletico Madrid sides, plus Brazil-based Doria and Dede also under consideration, Scolari has plenty of choice.
Centre-back – Belgium
Belgium could realistically fill the vast majority of these positions considering their astonishing wealth of talent – full-back is the only area they’re struggling in, which is why they regularly field centre-backs in wider roles.
It means they’re extremely solid in the centre of the pitch, however, with Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany the primary defender, and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen a more technical partner. That means Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen and Atletico’s Toby Alderweireld are usually shoved out to full-back, while Zenit’s excellent Nicolas Lombaerts and Bayern veteran Daniel van Buyten are merely back-ups.
Left-back – England
Leighton Baines’ form has impressed so much in recent years, that many have wondered how England could include the Everton man and Ashley Cole together. Can either play right-back? How about utilising Baines’ crossing ability from the left of midfield?
All the options are uneasy compromises, however, and instead Roy Hodgson will have to settle for a fine back-up. For this week’s squad he has also called up a third right-back, Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs, while Luke Shaw is arguably the most highly-rated English player of his age group, after some excellent displays this year for Southampton.
Central midfield – Spain
This position picks itself – Vicente Del Bosque has spent the past five years desperately attempting to cram as many central midfielders into the same side as possible. For the Euro 2012 final victory over Italy, he essentially played six passers in the same side – Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva. Only Silva would be uncomfortable in a deep midfield role.
Then there’s Javi Martinez, one of the most impressive performers in last season’s European Cup, and youngster Thiago, now at Bayern Munich. Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata could do a job here, Atletico’s Koke and Mario Suarez have been capped, and Atletico’s Ander Herrera and Benat are further options. The likes of Mikel Arteta and Borja Valero, excellent over the last 18 months at club level, will remain uncapped until they retire.
Central midfield – Italy
Traditionally the home of great defenders, Italy continues to produce some fine centre-backs – but aside from the quartet at Juventus, there’s not outstanding strength in depth. Instead, the midfield positions offer more promise.
Andrea Pirlo has been at the top for a decade, but his reputation is at an all-time high because of a great couple of seasons at Juventus and a fine Euro 2012, while Roma’s Daniele De Rossi has been revitalised under Rudi Garcia this season, after failing to get along with previous coaches. Riccardo Montolivo has matured since his move to Milan, while Alberto Aquilani has thrived after making the reverse move to Fiorentina last summer.
Claudio Marchisio is on a poor run of form, but has been pivotal in Juve’s back-to-back title successes, while two PSG midfielders combine nicely at club level: all-rounjder Thiago Motta has been utterly superb this season, while the creative genius Marco Verratti is tipped as the next Pirlo.
Number 10 – Germany
In a similar manner to Spain, Germany have so many talented attacking midfielders that they’ve started playing without a recognised centre-forward, instead boasting a variety of interchanging players breaking forward from deep.
Jogi Low is particularly lucky that his options in this position all play slightly different roles. Toni Kroos is the ball retention king who drops deep to help out in midfield, Mesut Ozil is a roaming playmaker that specialises on the counter-attack and Mario Gotze is a brilliant dribbler with a fantastic turn of pace. Meanwhile, Thomas Muller is an all-rounder capable of playing upfront, while Julian Draxler – the outsider for the position, but the man who wears the number ten shirt itself – drifts cleverly into wide areas. No two are identical, but at least two will be on the bench.
Right-wing – Holland
Somewhat surprisingly, this is a weak position – perhaps because wide midfielders are increasingly number tens shoved out wide, and there’s relatively short supply of natural right-wingers.
But Holland have one of the best, in Arjen Robben, and if we exploit the Total Football-inspired love of interchanging positions, we can also include Rafael van der Vaart, who dislikes playing out on the right but can certainly do a job there, and Dirk Kuyt, a more hard-working, defensive-minded option. It’s not long since Holland played Robin van Persie wide, although that’s less likely nowadays. PSV’s Luciano Narsingh and his former teammate Jeremain Lens are more natural fits.
Left-wing – Portugal
Famous for rarely producing strikers, Portugal always compensate for that weakness with tricky, powerful and direct wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo has been played upfront in the past, but prefers to play high up the pitch, cutting inside from the left flank.
His effective replacement at Manchester United, Nani, usually plays from the right, but is one of the truest two-footed players around and can switch flanks easily, while Silvestre Varela has been a regular at Porto for some time, and is another capable of using either foot.
Zenit’s wonderful playmaker Danny often starts from the left flank, using the outside of his right foot effectively to bend the ball in behind defences, while youngster Bruma has just received his first full international call-up, having finished as the second top goalscorer at this year’s World U20 tournament.
Centre-forward – Argentina
More famous for their love of number tens, the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero clearly have elements of Diego Maradona in their game. But Messi has become the world’s most prolific centre-forward, Aguero is thriving high up the pitch alongside Alvaro Negredo at Manchester City, while Tevez played the false nine role superbly at times under Roberto Mancini.
Gonzalo Higuain offers more of a traditional goal threat, Ezequiel Lavezzi is better wide but can also play upfront, while Inter strikers Diego Milito and Rodrigo Palacio are both hard-working and clinical in front of goal.
Goalkeeper – USA
Tim Howard is approaching 100 caps, Brad Friedel has been retired from international football for eight years but remains a solid goalkeeper, and Brad Guzan is a regular at Aston Villa. Bill Hamid, who has impressed for DC United, is currently in the squad and has been linked with a Premier League move.
Full-back – Colombia
Jose Pekerman has options on both sides: Pablo Armero is a brilliant left-wing-back for Napoli, while Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado has impressed with his direct dribbling on the right. Another Napoli man, Juan Zuniga, can play comfortably on both flanks, while Milan’s Christian Zapata can be pushed out to right-back, too.
Centre-back – Serbia
Serbia boast Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic, Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, Dortmund’s Neven Subotic, Manchester City’s Matija Nastasic and Lyon’s Milan Bisevac. They’re even coached by a former centre-back, Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Box-to-box midfielders – Ghana
Having emerged into a world force with their powerful, direct midfield play on the counter-attack, the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Kevin-Prince Boateng all play slightly different roles, but are ideal alongside a more creative option.
Creative midfielders – Croatia
Luka Modric remains Croatia’s most renowned central midfielder, but the likes of Niko Kranjcar and Ivan Rakitic are similarly talented, if not as consistent. Milan Badelj can create from deep, while Inter’s Mateo Kovacic is one of the world’s most promising young central midfielders.
Wingers – Chile
Always playing with great width, Chile are fortunate enough to be able to field the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas out wide. The likes of Mark Gonzalez, Charles Aranguiz and Jean Beausejour are more functional, but understand the system well.
Striker – Uruguay
Diego Forlan won the World Cup Golden Ball in 2010 and remains a decent option, but Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and PSG’s Edinson Cavani have now superseded him and are amongst the most feared forwards in Europe. Abel Hernandez of Palermo hasn’t filled his potential but has been banging in the goals in Serie B and has a fine record at international level, while Christian Stuani is doing well for Espanyol and was crucial against Jordan this week.