The Fifa world rankings rarely fail to raise an eyebrow. Óscar Washington Tabárez is one of the world’s great coaches but are Uruguay, who scraped a 2-1 win over Chile on Thursday, really the sixth-best side in the world right now? Nobody who saw England’s notional first-choice centre-back pairing of Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez in separate action for their clubs last Sunday would feel comfortable with their ranking of fourth. Germany 14th: when do we start talking seriously about Jogi Löw? And Belgium, whom England face on Sunday, top? Even after 12 straight wins before Thursday’s draw with Ivory Coast, even as their Golden Generation lingers at the summit, how many of their side would get in an Earth XI to take on Mars?
There is a danger in posing such questions of sounding like Michael Owen, boldly insisting that no Croat would get into the England side after Steve McClaren’s team had failed to qualify for Euro 2008, twice losing to Croatia. But the exercise of picking a World XI is useful, less for the names included in the final lineup than for what the process says about the state of the game (or at least it does if you do it properly, rather than acting like Florentino Pérez in his gálacticos pomp and just ramming together loads of famous players).
One Belgian, clearly, gets in: Kevin De Bruyne, the model modern attacking midfielder, technically impeccable and a constant fizz of energy and imagination. A couple of years ago, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Eden Hazard would all have been part of the discussion, but age and injury have diminished them. Thibaut Courtois is on the shortlist for goalkeeper but only if you’re not too set on playing with a high line.
Which hints at the biggest issue. Who is the coach and how is he playing? Jürgen Klopp, Bayern’s Hansi Flick and Pep Guardiola are obvious contenders, while the main argument against RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann is fears about how he may accessorise his spacesuit. But given our lack of knowledge about how Mars play, the need to research them thoroughly and that we want to present the best our planet has to offer, and so need a figure of great integrity who can be relied upon never to be distracted from the football and has the intellectual capacity to adapt to whatever innovations the Martian game has to offer, there’s really only one candidate: Marcelo Bielsa. That means hard pressing, a high line and, assuming Mars play one up front, a back four.
This is a Bielsa side, so workrate, tactical discipline and reliability are essential. There can be no place for overt individuality, so no Lionel Messi, no Cristiano Ronaldo and no Neymar. It also means a goalkeeper confident playing behind a high line with the ball at his feet. Arguments can be made for Alisson, Ederson and Marc-André ter Stegen but now he has recovered from the ankle injury that undermined him at the 2018 World Cup, Manuel Neuer is the most imposing.
Some positions seem straightforward. Despite his struggles against Aston Villa, Virgil van Dijk remains by some distance the world’s best centre-back, a ball-playing defender who is also a master of the traditional arts of heading, tackling and marking. Robert Lewandowski, the leader of Bayern’s press, industrious, smart in his movement and a lethal finisher, is the only option at centre‑forward. Sadio Mané’s importance to Liverpool’s press make him an obvious choice on the left; Kylian Mbappé may be even quicker, offers a similar goal threat and would hopefully adapt to a harder press than he is used to at Paris Saint‑Germain to operate on the right.
Full-back equally seems uncontroversial. There is a need for players familiar with pressing, who can get forward to overlap and have the pace to recover if possession is lost: Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right and Alphonso Davies (or Andy Robertson) on the left.
Which leaves three positions: the right centre-back and two in the heart of midfield. Holding midfield in a Bielsa team requires such a specific range of abilities, it’s tempting just to select Kalvin Phillips, but a name more experienced at the highest level is probably required. Sergio Busquets or Fernandinho in their prime would have been ideal. When he was at Ajax, it looked as though Frenkie de Jong would develop into that player, but he has stagnated at Barcelona. That means it has to be Joshua Kimmich, a great reader of the game who also has the requisite passing ability.
That refines the decision on the left of the midfield triangle. It must be a player prepared to shuttle box-to-box, supporting Kimmich while also capable of arriving late to offer a goal threat, a player who can physically impose himself on a game, while covering for the forward surges of Davies. It makes sense to pick the player who does that at Bayern every week: Leon Goretzka.
That brings us to the biggest problem: right centre-back. This is an era of very few great central defenders, perhaps because law changes and the demands on those who operate in a high line mean it is a position undergoing radical evolution. The best – Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Aymeric Laporte – all prefer to play on the left. Age has caught up with Gerard Piqué, Matthijs de Ligt has not entirely convinced at Juventus and that means the best option is to pick Raphaël Varane and hope either Mars don’t press him in a way that makes him lose his composure in the way he did against Manchester City in August or that the team structure offers sufficient protection.
Not surprisingly, the past two Champions League winners dominate; correspondingly, the presence of one player from La Liga and none from Serie A suggests their relative status, at least if a physically demanding Bielsista pressing game is seen as preferable. That it is – for all the inherent vulnerability of a high line if the pressing isn’t right – dictates a lack of obvious starriness about the team; there can be no passengers at interplanetary level.
That perhaps is the key point here: this is a celebrity-obsessed age but the strength of its best football teams lies in the cohesion of the whole.