Spain’s total domination of European club tournaments over the past six years comes at a time when we’ve never written, read or spoken more about football at any time in history.
Which means that the explanation for 21 of the 48 semi-final teams and 11 out of the 24 finalists, gets ignored because it’s so damn straightforward.
Everyone’s looking for nuances, high-faluting theorems and ‘cleverer than you’ stuff.
Thus many miss the ‘bleedin’ obvious’.
Here it is, write it down and send it to your local club. This is gospel: Spanish clubs have better footballers!
That’s the baseline.
You can break that down into lots of little parts to make the whole, but it’s a fact, your Alpha-male player at Barcelona, Madrid, Atlético and Sevilla will be better than his equivalent in England. But so will the ‘Beta’ and ‘Gamma’ versions too.
England’s great clubs have one or two footballers who are not only excellent, but who could easily triumph at the Camp Nou, Calderon or Bernabéu.
Take the last Ballon D’Or long list as an example.
The top three, Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, all play for Spain’s big two.
Of the top 23, 11 play in Spain. Four play in England – but three of those, Alexis, Aguero and Yaya Touré, are only in the Premier because they were bought from Barça or Atlético.
Just to show that this isn’t a skewed sample the 2015 Ballon D’Or long list contained just TWO out of 23 footballers who’d played all of 2014 in the Premier league.
Spain had ten representatives, plus THREE more who’d played half of 2014 in La Liga before being poached by Chelsea and Manchester United (Courtois, Diego Costa, Ángel di Maria).
The best players are in Spain. And not just the creme de la crème. The key reason that Spanish clubs in Uefa have won 47 of their last 51 knockout ties is, again, better players.
By which I also mean at: Villarreal, Athletic Club and Sevilla.
Not just the Bale, Neymar, Griezmann, Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez elite – the fact is that clubs like Sevilla, Atlético and Villarreal (Valencia until recently) routinely scout better, select better, coach better, use the Director of Football role in tandem with a coach better and develop better from youth systems.
Leaving us saying about English football: ‘I can’t believe it’s not better?’
Youth development’s an issue on its own. So let’s concentrate on Spain’s scouting, buying and selling.
Spanish clubs who do well in Europe have a long-standing habit of spotting non-Spanish footballers in almost every market, but notably South America, Germany and France, long before England.
Rakitic (Schalke), Gameiro (PSG), Casemiro (Sao Paulo), Bacca (Club Brugge), Ever Banega (Boca Juniors), Mathieu (Toulouse), Keylor (Saprissa), Godín (Nacional) and Oblak (Benfica) are just some examples of players who would be perfect for leading Premier League clubs – who were bought relatively cheaply from the clubs listed and who’ve either gone on to win the Champions League, Europa League or play in the final for one of La Liga’s clubs.
But that’s a snapshot list for the last couple of seasons.
The true list stretches back – and features the same ‘we’ll buy them later for more money’ mentality. Premier League clubs either don’t spot well enough, or shy away from risk.
It’s not, by any means, that the Premier League completely lacks able scouts. It’s that the decision-chain is often inhibited by parochialism, lack of vision, lack of nerve, laziness and complacency.
Many who hold important roles, and possess big budgets, in England see Spain as a place where their work on promising foreigners will be done for them – scouting, training, proving and winning – until it’s time to spend vastly more than would have been the case if the player had been bought directly from his original club in Uruguay, Ivory Coast, France, Italy, Poland or wherever.
The key point is that, in the meantime, while the Premier League puts a layer of ‘insurance’ on an Alexis or an Agüero or a Griezmann, a Yaya or a Bravo and watch them develop in Spain for a few seasons – the teams these guys, and others, play for are winning domestically and in Europe.
There are two more absolutely crucial points in all this.
Firstly: Spanish clubs, generally, scout differently. Armed with less money than in England they’ll look harder for players of technical ability, of vision, of football intelligence.
The emphasis on speed, power, height is far less. The emphasis on not making a mistake in the market is interpreted differently.
In Spain, broadly, the thrust is: scout well, get it right. In England, broadly, the thrust is: don’t be the first to commit, don’t make a ‘mistake’ on a player of talent who’d not yet fully fledged. Wait until a guy is road-tested at another senior club in Europe then buy him for ‘right now’.
Secondly: The degree to which La Liga clubs buy ‘better’ is partly to do with the fact that most of Spain’s sizeable clubs have a very clearly defined football philosophy.
How they want to play, what kind of show they need to put on for their fans, whether they want re-sale on their purchases, or whether they simply want to get trophies and glory.
To that end there’ll often be very, very good directors of football or ‘Technical Secretaries’ who take the specific demands of the coach, apply them to the club’s scouting activities and present the coach with a range of player options.
Compared to the old fashioned ‘I want that particular player/star’, which dominated for so long in England the stats prove that systematic buying based on a clear, definable football philosophy and where the ‘manager’ is not the key figure in actually doing the deal brings more success.
But things may be about to change.
The fact that there’s a concentration of coaching excellence crowding the top echelon Premier League now (Klopp, Mourinho, Pochettino, Conte, Bilic, Koeman, Guardiola) should lead to new standards, new decision making, new philosophies.
These guys should be a magnet for the kind of footballers Spain traditionally spots first or retains well – but who now want to learn from or win with this coterie of brilliant coaches in England.
Across a given period, different types of players will be bought, a more continental brand of football will emerge, fans and media will have some of their perceptions changed – this could be the dawning of a golden era.
The vast coffers of money may begin to be spent better. Spent on players who don’t give the ball away cheaply, who have devolved on-pitch intelligence and who know what to do with possession.