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How can you improve near-perfection? Javi Martinez's Spain dilemma

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JaviIf ever there was a mismatch in football, it is Thursday's unfortunate encounter between Tahiti and current world and European champions Spain.

On one side of the equation sit the undisputed kings of the modern game – unbeaten in 23 matches and hungry for the one international trophy that eludes their illustrious cabinet.

On the other, a country ranked 138th in the world, with a population of 267,000 and just one professional player.

It makes David and Goliath look like an even contest.

But there is one man who will not care who Spain are facing. Indeed, for Javi Martinez, the outcome is rarely any different.

At club level, the Bayern Munich midfielder is an integral part of a historic treble-winning side.

At international level, however, the 24-year-old is merely a fringe player – a back-up option to the likes of Barcelona midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xavi and Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso.

“Javi is both a fantastic footballer and a great modern athlete,” Spanish football expert Graham Hunter tells TNS. “Bayern play an aggressive, athletic style which is tailor made for him.

“As a midfielder, he has a good football brain and that was helped even further when he played in defence for Athletic Bilbao. That heightens a player´s awareness of positional sense and his relationship with Dante and Boateng or Van Buyten behind him now that he's back in midfield.

“He uses the ball well, he has a goal in him, especially aerially and, knowing him, he's a tremendous positive effect in terms of winning mentality and hunger.

“But for Spain there are any number of hurdles for Javi. Not only the fact that the pivotes have been Busi and Alonso - and they rarely miss games - but also the fact that [Spain coach] Vicente Del Bosque seems to see either 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 as the means to address Alonso´s absence rather than uniting Busi and Javi in a double pivote tandem.”

Recently, Martinez admitted to Marca to “wanting to be Andres Iniesta for just one game”. And who could blame him if it meant getting an international start?

But when the former Bilbao man shared a pitch with the 29-year-old Barcelona star in the Champions League, he came out on top. Bayern beat the Spanish champions 7-0 over two legs and Martinez marked his idol out of the game.

Over the course of that successful European campaign, Martinez enjoyed an 87.7% pass completion rate, averaging 3.8 interceptions per game. And domestically, identical passing statistics were capped with three goals and three assists from the middle of the park.

In short, there is arguably no better defensive midfielder in world football right now.

But Del Bosque believes otherwise – and few could blame him for sticking to a tried and tested line-up that yields phenomenal results year after year.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” says Husmukh Kerai of Goal.com UK. “That’s the thinking from Del Bosque when it comes to Spain’s midfield. The trio of Xavi, Busquets and Xabi Alonso have been exceptional during La Roja’s recent success and have shown no signs of letting up.

“Sure, Martinez could hardly have done more during the domestic season with Bayern Munich to warrant a place in the team. The 24-year-old’s performance in the German side’s 4-0 win at the Nou Camp was masterful.

“But the reality remains that the Spanish national side, under its current management, will always favour players from either Barcelona or Real Madrid.

“Martinez certainly won’t regret moving to the Bundesliga, but it may have slowed down his path into the national team.”

Indeed, both technically and tactically, Busquets has become the complete midfielder as his career has progressed. Though the 24-year-old averaged fewer interceptions per game in Europe last season (2.3), his 92.2% pass success rate in La Liga and 92.4% rate in the Champions League dwarfed Martinez’s otherwise competent showing with the ball.

And with an overall pass completion rate of 94.9% and countless trophies to his name, Xavi’s place in the La Roja starting XI is rightly under no threat – even at the age of 33.

Such is the strength in depth of the Spanish squad that even Mikel Arteta – a consistently impressive stalwart first for Everton and now Arsenal – has never played for the national side.

Martinez, meanwhile, has at least been picked ahead of Alonso for the Confederations Cup, receiving a 15-minute cameo after replacing playmaker Xavi against Uruguay on Sunday.

But the 24-year-old should not hold his breath when it comes to fully breaking into the Spanish XI.

“Martinez's obvious competitor for that one position is Busquets,” ThinkFootball blogger Vinesh Parmar explains. “The Barcelona midfielder is the better of the two choices for the simple reason that his style suits Spain's play.

“The core of La Roja is made of Catalans – and that's arguably what makes them so strong. Look at other strong national teams – the core of their sides are from particular clubs: Germany and Bayern/Borussia Dortmund, Italy and Juventus, even Russia and Zenit.”

There may be hope in the long term, however.

Kerai believes “it is only a matter of time” before the Bayern man at least gets a foot in the door with the national side.

And Parmar adds: “Spain may need greater physicality in the team - Martinez would provide that.

“He can play as a ball-playing centre-back and his distribution is exceptional. That may mean him eventually taking over Xavi's position.”

Unfortunately for Martinez, though, an "eventual” breakthrough offers no comfort in the short-term.

“I suspect he´d be a great team mate to have, the bedrock of a successful unit,” Hunter says. “With [new Bayern manager] Pep Guardiola - who played in a similar position - ready to teach him I see only improvement ahead.

“Personally, I see him finding his place in the Spain team relatively soon and then making himself indispensable.

“But, it´s not just that the queue is long, it´s that it is full of very high quality players. C'est la vie.”

*All statistics taken from whoscored.com




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