Best XI of Europe's Criminally Underused Players
Everybody wants to be a star, everybody wants to be a starter. But in the modern football world of expansive squads and managers indulging in rotation, the simple fact is: Not every player makes the first XI on a weekly basis.
Sometimes it's justified because of form or fitness, or a simple question of quality, but at other times it seems incredible that a particular player doesn't receive more game time than he does.
Here, we've rounded up a best XI of under-used players around Europe this season, some of whom could well be looking for a move in the summer if matters don't change in the next few months.
To qualify for consideration and selection, players must have made eight or fewer league starts, totalled less than 800 league minutes this term and not have missed a considerable chunk due to injury, as those players aren't underused, they simply aren't available for the manager to pick.
GK: Jasper Cillessen, Barcelona
Barcelona's decision to dispense with Claudio Bravo propelled Marc-Andre ter Stegen to No. 1, with new signing Jasper Cillessen as his back-up.
While the Dutchman doubtless knew the situation going in, he has been nothing short of excellent when given the chance in cup competitions, really pushing his German team-mate to stay in the side.
Cillessen has managed just a single game in La Liga this term despite showing his quality.
RB: Luke Shaw, Manchester United
Poor old Luke Shaw: can't get a game at Manchester United, and even in our XI he has to be shunted out of position to make the side.
A strange dearth of top-tier right-backs not getting a look-in, and a plethora of left-backs suffering that very fate, means we have to shoehorn in the England international—but he's certainly worthy of inclusion.
Whether it has been a question of fitness or a simple lack of appreciation from manager Jose Mourinho, Shaw is well down the pecking order at full-back after just six league starts this season. Will he fight his way back in, or are his days at United numbered?
CB: Nicolas N'Koulou, Lyon
For a long time, Marseille's Nicolas N'Koulou was a sought-after centre-back; he finally made the move to Olympique Lyon in the summer—and it has quickly gone wrong for him.
N'Koulou started the campaign in the side, but poor performances and seemingly a loss of confidence—after being booed by his former fans against Marseille—saw him relegated to bench duty just a few weeks into 2016/17.
He played at the AFCON but hasn't featured for a single Ligue 1 minute since October and hasn't even made the bench since mid-November. It's a little quick to be giving up on him, unless there are some underlying issues yet to come to light.
CB: Medhi Benatia, Juventus
Juventus are well-known for their near-impenetrable defence, so when they signed Medhi Benatia from Bayern Munich in the summer, Italian attacking lines must have been sighing with resignation.
It hasn't quite worked out as planned, though. The back three where he would have expected to feature prominently has been ditched for a flat back four, and even now, with Andrea Barzagli having recently been injured and Daniele Rugani still not established as a regular, Benatia has barely played.
A record of eight league games, 600 minutes and no appearances in Serie A from the start of December to mid-February, although partly due to Africa Cup of Nations duty, highlights his lack of action.
LB: Juan Bernat, Bayern Munich
As mentioned, we had our pick of left-backs, but Bayern Munich's Juan Bernat tops the list in terms of unused talent.
A regular under Pep Guardiola with his shifting systems and willingness to utilise David Alaba in central defence, midfield or anywhere else, Bernat has been sidelined by the more rigid systematic approach of Carlo Ancelotti, starting only six times in the Bundesliga.
He's only 23 and already has a big reputation, so don't expect Bernat to hang around too long at the Allianz Arena if he's not wanted.
RW: James Rodriguez, Real Madrid
The poster boy for the criminally underused, James Rodriguez has made a paltry five starts in La Liga despite still being one of the most effective players at Real Madrid in terms of game time to goal-scoring and creation.
Continually left benched as Zinedine Zidane picks a regular cast ahead of him, James frequently appears in the rumour mills as a result of his lack of game time over the last year or so.
Despite his small contribution, it seems either Madrid still want him or they want to receive an enormous fee for his services; either way, he deserves a lot more game time than he gets.
CM: Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea
Cesc Fabregas has become an unwitting victim of Chelsea's huge improvement this season: The change in system to a two-man central midfield has left him as Antonio Conte's least-preferred option, with N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic reigning supreme.
The Spanish midfielder continues to impress when given the chance, scoring or setting up his team-mates off the bench and helping to alter the flow of games, but he still hasn't managed a continuous run of starts.
He has been named in Conte's league XI just five times.
CM: Renato Sanches, Bayern Munich
Back we go to Bayern Munich, and mega-expensive Renato Sanches has so far not been able to build a regular role in the team, managing just four Bundesliga starts in 16/17.
Naturally, he has a huge cast to try to surpass in his bid to win a spot—Thiago, Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal, Joshua Kimmich—but, after such a promising last campaign and his big summer with Portugal, more would have been expected of the teenager.
It's not time to panic, but Sanches' quality needs to be used more often.
LW: Nicolas Gaitan, Atletico Madrid
Another big summer signing who hasn't shone, Nicolas Gaitan doesn't have the luxury of being a teenager; the 29-year-old hasn't done the business for Atletico Madrid, and he's far from the first signing Diego Simeone has refused to give a run to.
The Argentinian winger has only started six times in La Liga, totalling under 600 minutes including sub appearances, as the likes of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Angel Correa have won Simeone's trust instead.
Gaitan has shown for years he has the quality to succeed at the top level, but at Atletico you have to showcase that quality, then get a starting spot—not the other way around.
CF: Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid
Despite having a better goals-per-minute rate than Karim Benzema and far better overall performances this season, Alvaro Morata is continually left on the bench at Real Madrid.
While Benzema has toiled, wasted chances and not shown his usual link-up-play abilities in 16/17, Morata has worked tremendously hard, scored at critical moments and won the admiration of supporters.
But manager Zinedine Zidane continues to leave him out for big games, and the strikers aren't subject to the same sort of rotation as other areas of the team. Seven Liga starts is the end result for Morata.
CF: Lucas Perez, Arsenal
We have a second Spanish striker to round off our team in £17 million summer signing Lucas Perez, who has so far equated to costing the Gunners around £70,000 per minute of Premier League action.
Just two starts in the league have left the former Deportivo forward with a single goal to his name in the English top flight, and he's not always the player to get the nod off the bench even when Arsenal have been chasing the game or well clear and resting starters.
Lucas' endeavour and channel work would make him a starter at many other clubs, but he's continually overlooked and ignored at the Emirates.