It there’s one phrase in football parlance which can best assess the quality of a team’s first XI, it’s ‘the spine’.
By its nature, the term refers to stability through key areas of the team, from the goalkeeper through to the forward, and it points to players cemented to the team sheet.
There’s flexibility in terms of the types of players who inhabit the spine, but for most clubs the four components are obvious to see.
If you want to gauge the trophy potential of the major players, then look at their spine – if the pillars are in place, decoration is all that’s needed to complement. But which team has the strongest spine?
Goalkeeper = Alisson
Defender = Virgil van Dijk
Midfielder = Fabinho
Forward = Roberto Firmino
Liverpool bloated the market price for two positions in putting their spine together by breaking world-record fees for a defender and goalkeeper.
Money well spent, though, as Virgil van Dijk and Alisson have emerged as the world’s premier talents in their respective positions.
Both are shielded by one of the best ball winners in the game in the form of Fabinho, while his Brazilian counterpart Roberto Firmino is not just a unique No9, but a perfect fit for the way Jurgen Klopp’s side play.
Firmino’s undetected movement in between the lines, energetic pressing ability, stylish passes and sharp finishing have given him a reputation among the very best.
Liverpool’s spine is reflective of a team who are the current European and World champions, soon to be Premier League kings as well. There’s no fault to be found, in their spine or form.
SPINE STRENGTH = 9/10
Goalkeeper = Ederson
Defender = Aymeric Laporte
Midfielder = Kevin De Bruyne
Forward = Sergio Aguero
No world records broken here, but City have been super smart with their acquisitions in key positions, spending a premium for premium players.
Ederson is a supreme passing goalkeeper and although he falls short of Alisson in terms of decision-making and shot-stopping, the Brazilian remains an outstanding No1.
Laporte is comfortably in the top-three for centre-backs and as has been witnessed this season through his injury absence, the Frenchman’s presence is absolutely crucial to City.
Then there is De Bruyne, the most creative player from Europe’s top-five leagues this season leading for both assists (15) and key passes (88). He’s football’s Einstein, manipulating space in ways us mere mortals couldn’t even see until it’s been done.
Oh and there’s also Aguero in the spearhead, the Premier League’s greatest ever foreign goalscorer – enough said.
SPINE STRENGTH = 8.5/10
Goalkeeper = Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Defender = Gerard Pique
Midfielder = Frenkie de Jong
Forward = Lionel Messi
The GOAT and his herd. Lionel Messi is the creator and chief goalscorer for Barcelona, so even though technically Luis Suarez is the tip of the attack, in truth it’s Messi who leads the side.
His position isn’t exactly tied to one place on the pitch but the side is built around allowing this flexibility for the Argentine. After all, it’s Messi.
Behind the club captain is De Jong, who is obviously very talented but hasn’t quite replicated his best form at Ajax in Spain just yet.
Plenty of time of course, but regardless he is still one of the most press-resistant players on the planet.
There is weakness at centre-back as Pique’s physical decline, perhaps focus on projects outside of football too, has led to instability at the back.
Even ‘keeper Ter Stegen, who was widely considered to be a peer to Jan Oblak, has endured error-prone displays this season. But they have Messi, so it’s impossible not to rate them in the upper echelon.
SPINE STRENGTH = 8/10
Goalkeeper = Thibaut Courtois
Defender = Sergio Ramos
Midfielder = Casemiro
Forward = Karim Benzema
On paper and reputation, Real Madrid’s spine could actually be considered one of the weakest examined here, but the reality is much different.
In Casemiro, Los Blancos can call upon one of the world’s most in-form midfielders, his incessant energy and tough-tackling is much missed whenever he’s not in the side, and he’s also produced in attack as well with four goals plus four assists this season.
Benzema, despite some of the irrational hate he gets, is still one of the most complete centre-forwards in world football and having scored 21 league last season and already reaching 18 in all competitions this term, the French forward has added goals since Cristiano Ronaldo departed.
Ramos is an indomitable leader, but at 33 he’s becoming more and more susceptible to the speed of opposing attackers, though he leads arguably the meanest defence in Europe.
That is thanks to Courtois who has emerged as a quality goalkeeper behind him, enjoying a stellar campaign with 11 clean sheets and just 14 goals conceded in La Liga this term.
SPINE STRENGTH = 8/10
Goalkeeper = Manuel Neuer
Defender = Jerome Boateng
Midfielder = Thiago
Forward = Robert Lewandowski
Bayern’s backline has been battered by injuries this season. Niklas Sule is out until the summer with an ACL injury which rules him out of examination here.
Lucas Hernandez’s ankle injury has kept him on the sidelines for the last three months meaning Boateng, a player they’ve actively tried to sell is their chief centre-back option.
There’s a reason why Bayern want to offload and the 31-year-old’s frailties is a major bone breaker for their spine.
Neuer is very much in the final phase of his distinguished career, but up front Lewandowki has shown age is just a number with his digits all about goals.
In Thiago, Bayern possess Europe’s best passer of the ball, significantly increasing the quality of their core. In comparison to the rest, it’s clearly weaker.
SPINE STRENGTH = 7/10
Goalkeeper = Keylor Navas
Defender = Thiago Silva
Midfielder = Marco Verratti
Forward = Kylian Mbappe
Money doesn’t buy everything, but in football it certainly does purchase a mighty strong spine. Neymar isn’t even included which demonstrates the depth of talent available to Thomas Tuchel outside his core group.
Mbappe is a Ballon d’Or winner in waiting, and the 21-year-old has already scored 23 goals in all competitions this season having smashed 33 Ligue 1 goals last term.
His scoring rate is approaching Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi levels and he’s afforded freedom to attack alongside Angel Di Maria and Neymar thanks to the balance Verratti brings in behind.
The Italian is one of the world’s best midfielders in winning and retaining the ball, while his influence in terms of dictating tempo is fundamental to the way PSG play.
Captain Silva is 35 and highly susceptible against speed, but he remains a colossal figure at centre-back, while the summer acquisition of Navas represents a significant upgrade in between the sticks.
SPINE STRENGTH = 8/10
Goalkeeper = Wojciech Szczesny
Defender = Leonardo Bonucci
Midfielder = Miralem Pjanic
Forward = Cristiano Ronaldo
When buying a dilapidated house, the intention is to renovate and then sell for a higher price.
Well, Matthijs de Ligt has undergone a similar transformation but in reverse with the Dutchman even benched in recent weeks.
That means stand-in skipper Leonardo Bonucci is ever-present, but his form has nosedived this season without Giorgio Chiellini by his side, committing heinous errors in judgement while his lauded passing ability has diminished.
Meanwhile, Szczesny is among the best goalkeepers in Serie A and is one of the few routinely absolved of blame for Juve’s struggles this season.
Pjanic, while being absurdly gifted technically, has faded from a playmaking standpoint which means the weight of expectation on Ronaldo’s shoulders is enormous.
The Portuguese is 35-years old but remains Juve’s most important player, evidenced by him currently enjoying a run of scoring in 10-straight Serie A games.
SPINE STRENGTH = 7.5/10
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