When Xabier Etxeita made his Spain debut last October in La Roja’s final qualifying match in Ukraine, it seemed like the Athletic Bilbao centre-back had a very good chance of earning a place in the squad for this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament.
Having already qualified for the finals, Spain’s match in Kiev was very much a test of various fringe players. Pre-tournament friendlies can only tell so much about players, while a competitive away match in a stadium as intimidating as Kiev’s Olympic Stadium is about as close as it gets to the real deal. The fact, therefore, that Etxeita played all 90 minutes in this dress rehearsal suggested he was very much in Vicente Del Bosque’s plans.
He played well in the match too. His tackling was excellent and he was the one taking the initiative and the responsibility for the back line, organising Nacho Fernandez, his centre-back partner of the evening. Spain kept a clean sheet in a tough away fixture and Etxeita could be pleased with his shift.
Having followed his international debut up with an excellent few months for his club, it seemed likely that Etxeita would get another call up when Spain played friendlies against Italy and Romania last month. That he didn’t was a serious indicator that del Bosque is no longer considering taking him to France. He was certainly healthy at the time, but was simply ignored.
It may be an error to ignore the Athletic man this summer. He was never going to start at the tournament, with Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos Spain’s obvious regulars at his position, but he would be a far better candidate than Real Madrid’s Nacho and Barcelona’s Marc Bartra, the two other centre-backs likely to go in his stead. He has played more than twice the minutes in La Liga this season than Nacho has and almost six times more than Bartra has, while he has also played better than his rivals. Etxeita has made more defensive actions per 90 minutes than both Nacho and Bartra, defensive actions being tackles, blocks, clearances and interceptions. His total of 9.4 per 90 minutes is more than Nacho’s 8.6 and Bartra’s 9.2.
At 28-years-old, perhaps Etxeita is a little too aged to go to a major tournament as a backup and del Bosque may simply be taking the 26-year-old Nacho and the 25-year-old Bartra given that they are more likely to replace Pique and Ramos when the latter two retire. There is some logic to that argument, but with Pique and particularly Ramos both prone to a suspension, there is a good chance that one of the backup centre-backs will be required to suit up at some point. It is all very well taking younger players along to give them the tournament experience, but more important is having a centre-back ready to step in if needed this year.
Having missed just six League matches all season, Etxeita would be far more ‘in the zone’ than Nacho or Bartra, who have each just played a handful of La Liga minutes, and usually against weaker sides. Etxeita probably won’t go to France this summer, but that could prove a big mistake if Pique or Ramos pick up a suspension or injury.