La Liga Under-23 Team of the Season
La Liga has finally come to an end, with Barcelona lifting the title and Levante, Getafe and Rayo Vallecano making the drop into La Segunda.
It has been another excellent year of viewing in Spain, partly because of the huge teams with global superstars on show, but also because of a large volume of younger talents who have enjoyed a breakout season, shown consistency for the first time or simply proved they can mix it with the best.
To honour and appreciate those younger starlets, we've selected our under-23 squad of the season based solely on games played in the Spanish top flight.
Exclusions and Criteria
We used only a few simple criteria for the selection process. Naturally, players have to be aged 23 or lower at the end of the campaign, thus excluding those such as Neymar and Koke who turned 24 during the year. They would neither be considered youngsters, given their status in their respective teams, nor would it be a surprise to anyone if they were included in a team of the year in most seasons.
Secondly, players had to have played in a minimum of 12 Liga matches. Some youngsters have shone in the Copa del Rey or in Europe, but we're focusing exclusively on the main competition. That means no Rafinha, Borja Mayoral, Lucas Hernandez or Adrian Marin, who all missed that cut-off point for various reasons.
As a final note, the competition for places in La Liga is fierce within most clubs, and so it is here in our lineup. An extraordinary number of young players have impressed this season yet have not even made our bench.
To give an initial guide as to the level to expect, none of the excellent Tonny Sanabria, Adalberto Penaranda or Inaki Williams made the cut in attack, nor did Mateo Kovacic, Raphael Varane or Jose Gaya—household names, but who never reached close to their best level during the past campaign. Jefferson Lerma, Burgui and many more lesser-known players were considered but ultimately missed out.
Our team lines up in a 4-2-3-1 system.
GK: Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid
Oblak is the stand-out goalkeeper in La Liga, regardless of age.
Utterly confident and assured with his handling, Oblak doesn't seem fazed by anything and has all the attributes to become a great.
He's tall and dominant aerially, has great reflexes and showed good distribution. Oblak now jointly holds the record for fewest goals conceded per game in a 38-match Liga season.
RB: Eric Bailly, Villarreal
Eric Bailly, Villarreal's pacey defender, played the entire way across the back four during the course of the season, filling in at full-back or centrally as injuries in the squad mounted.
Undoubtedly his best role is in the middle, but he was largely impressive wherever he played. Physical and aggressive in the challenge, he's happy to step out of the back line to cut out danger, and he'll overlap on the flanks using his speed and look to support.
He is still a little rash at times, but if he curbs that, he's a complete defender in the making.
CB: Josema Gimenez, Atletico Madrid
One of La Liga's best this season, Josema Gimenez was a cornerstone of Atletico's title challenge with his rock-solid performances at centre-back.
The Uruguayan led by example when partner Diego Godin was out injured and, while he strives to be as committed as possible with his blocks and challenges, he also progressed with his maturity and decision-making as the season wore on.
He still might make the odd error, as all defenders do, but he saves more than he gives up.
CB: Jorge Mere, Sporting Gijon
Sporting Gijon survived the drop on the final day of the season, and one of their standout performers in their first season back in the top flight was centre-back Jorge Mere, who only turned 19 in April.
Naturally for such a young player, there is a certain amount of improvement to be had in his judgment and in dealing with some circumstances, but overall, he performed incredibly well, given the players he came up against and the style of team he played in.
Mere is one of only a few extremely promising young Spanish centre-backs, and hopes are high that he continues to progress.
LB: Jonny, Celta Vigo
At left-back, Celta Vigo's Jonny Otto was a driving force behind his team's top-six finish.
Celta suffered injury problems in defence all season long, and Jonny had to feature out of position in the centre or on the right at times, but his style was always the same: comfortable in possession, utilising his pace and upper-body strength well and happy to move into midfield on the ball.
His delivery and end product in the final third can be erratic, but he provides a great link and solid foundation for Nolito to attack ahead of.
CM: Saul, Atletico Madrid
Into midfield and there was one must-have inclusion from La Liga: Saul Niguez of Atletico Madrid.
The versatile midfielder bossed the centre of the park against allcomers for a four-month period, when it didn't seem to matter if he played from the right, in the heart of midfield or any other role—he simply overpowered and outworked his opponents, then used his technique to impact in attack.
A danger with his running from deep and equally at home in either half of the field, Saul became an automatic pick for Atleti and would probably run most team-of-the-season choices close for a spot in midfield with all ages, not just under-23.
CM: Marco Asensio, Espanyol on Loan from Real Madrid
There were a number of options to partner Saul, but here we include the first of several players on loan in Marco Asensio.
While Espanyol's season as a whole wasn't particularly impressive, they did have one or two individuals who saw their stock rise over the course of the entire campaign, and Asensio was one of those. Most often deployed either as one of two attacking central midfielders or in a true No. 10 role, Asensio showed industry to go with his creativity and was the focal point for his team's counter-attacks.
Set-piece deliveries, timing of his through balls and no shortage of flair on the ball all saw him have a good season.
RW: Denis Suarez, Villarreal
Villarreal secured a top-four finish and UEFA Champions League football for next season using a settled side, of which Denis Suarez was a major part.
His best run of form came midway through the season when he went on a run that saw him score and create with regularity, but his all-round composure on the ball and creativity in the final third is what saw him impress on a regular basis, even when he wasn't making killer passes into the penalty box.
Denis might be back off to Barcelona in the summer, but whether that will be a short stay or giving him time to impact on the team is yet to be seen.
LW: Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad
Real Sociedad's down-and-up campaign eventually saw them emerge with two or three promising young talents giving a glimpse into the future, but the most exciting was Mikel Oyarzabal.
The left-winger has huge stamina, good pace, is confident in possession and works extremely hard, as well as clearly having a knack for getting into scoring positions.
If this was a breakout campaign for him, next year he should nail down a starting spot on a weekly basis; don't be surprised to see comparisons to Antoine Griezmann begin to emerge, and they would have some truth. He is direct, impacts matches and is already tactically important to La Real.
SS: Yannick Carrasco, Atletico Madrid
Our versatile option in attack is Atletico's Yannick Carrasco, who has operated on both flanks and as a second striker this season.
His pace and direct dribbling make him a real outlet on the counter, but also a threat in build-up play when he can suddenly inject tempo to the game and open up spaces on the run.
Carrasco presses hard and shows good awareness, but could do with finding more end product next season along with, perhaps, a little more endurance. He has enjoyed two outrageously good spells of form this term but will be seen as needing to score and produce more in the final third next season.
CF: Borja Baston, Eibar on Loan from Atletico Madrid
Our main striker is Eibar's Borja Baston, scorer of 18 goals in La Liga this season and putting himself in with a chance of competing for a spot at parent club Atletico next season.
He has good movement in the box, is a willing runner off the ball, works hard to close down the opposition and is clearly extremely confident in front of goal.
At age 23, he's on the cut-off point to be declared a young talent, but this was a first really productive campaign in the top flight for him. Even if Atletico don't want him, he has shown he can cut it at this level and will have no shortage of suitors next season.
GK: Alphonse Areola, Villarreal on loan from Paris Saint-Germain
The French stopper was one of La Liga's finest this season and played a huge role in the Yellow Submarine's top-four finish. He grew in stature and composure as the campaign went on.
CB: Aymeric Laporte, Athletic Club
His season was ended early through injury, and he perhaps didn't quite hit his very best form, but Athletic's first-choice centre-back was still extremely good through some stages of the season.
DM: Diego Llorente, Rayo Vallecano on loan from Real Madrid
Playing in a team that often ignored the organisation and quality needed defensively in La Liga, Llorente impressed with work ethic and responsible positioning as well as on the ball.
CM: Danilo, Valencia
There's a lot more to come from Danilo, and he looks more effective as a midfielder breaking forward rather than deepest as a holder. At times, he looked a class above for Los Che.
W: Charly Musonda, Real Betis on loan from Chelsea
Charly Musonda only played half the season for Betis, but his impact in the first three months was huge. With his trickery, pace, comfort running at defenders and exploiting space, give him an entire season in La Liga and he'll tear it up.
AM: Luis Alberto, Deportivo La Coruna on loan from Liverpool
Depor's excellent first half of the season was mainly down to Alberto's link with Lucas Perez up front. He played wide left and as a second striker and showed consistency for the first time in his career to create chances and score a few, too.
FW: Angel Correa, Atletico Madrid
Atletico's super-sub, Correa is such a handful to deal with. He has work rate, skill on the ball and aggressiveness to match the likes of Luis Suarez or Sergio Aguero in possession. Now he needs more end product to go with it.