International All-Stars: The Ultimate Better For Country Than For Club XI
Over the weekend I found myself watching a meaningless friendly between England and Switzerland, two countries that already qualified for the 2022 World Cup.
I considered turning the game off, but I found myself mesmerized by Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri, who continuously danced around English defenders, played inch-perfect passes and was in general an attacking menace. One of those delightful balls even assisted Switzerland's only goal.
For years now Shaqiri has performed at the highest level for his national team, all while existing largely as a role player domestically. He's not the only player who shines brightest when playing internationally. Whether it be a lack of playing time, injuries or just the wrong team, many players have performed much better when away from their clubs.
We created a starting XI that might not impress domestically, but it would surely take down anyone when playing internationally.
The Ultimate Better For Country Than For Club XI
GK: Jordan Pickford
For years now watching Everton Pickford and England Pickford has been like watching two different goalkeepers. In international matches he is confident and commanding; in the Premier League, unsure and inconsistent.
Over the summer, the Englishman only allowed two goals in seven matches while recording five shutouts, both best among Euro 2020 keepers. Part of this though was due to a lighter workload thanks to the indomitable England defense. At Euro 2020, Pickford faced just 17 shots on target in seven matches — only Gigi Donnarumma and Unai Simón faced fewer SOT per match.
He's also a different type of goalkeeper for England. Pickford ranked 19th out of 24 goalkeepers at Euro 2020 in percentage of crosses claimed, while also finishing 29/32 in this category at the 2018 World Cup. His 3.5 percent claim rate at international tournaments with England is half of the 7.6 percent rate he has across five seasons for Everton. With England, large-headed defenders like Harry Maguire defend against aerial balls, which allows Pickford to focus more on shot-stopping — a luxury he doesn't have at Everton.
RB: Serge Aurier
Since leaving Toulouse in 2014, Aurier has played for a trio of top clubs: PSG, Tottenham and now Villareal, performing well at all of them but never locking down a regular starting role for more than a season. His best performances during this period have come for the Ivory Coast, a side he has captained since 2018.
Now in his first season in Spain, the versatile fullback will hope that his international form will carry over to LaLiga.
CB: Shane Duffy
Other than a forgettable loan spell with Celtic last season, Shane Duffy has been a dependable defender with Brighton in the Premier League, the type of player that will always put in a solid shift and put his body on the line without hesitation.
But when he dons that green jersey, Duffy, as with many Republic of Ireland players, always finds that extra 10 or 20 percent. Every match he seems to be smacking heads with an opposing player or making a goal-line clearance. He does the little things that take him from a good player to a great player.
CB: Dedryck Boyata
Earning a starting role for a national side is hard, especially if that country is ranked number one in the world. That is, except if you're Hertha Berlin center back Dedryck Boyata. With a number of aging defenders around him, Boyata has been able to stake down a regular spot in the Belgian lineup despite his lack of exploits at club level.
His three seasons with Bundesliga strugglers Hertha Berlin were preceded by a long stretch with Scottish powerhouse Celtic — hardly the resume of a player you'd expect to suit up for the best team in the world. Yet the center back has been a dependable performer for his country.
LB: Luke Shaw
Maybe it was the buzz cut, maybe it was the fact that he finally had a healthy season under his belt, or maybe it was the infectious energy and enthusiasm of the rabid English fans, but Manchester United left back Luke Shaw played arguably the best football of his career at Euro 2020. Getting away from the toxic environment at Old Trafford probably helped too.
If he can stay healthy, Red Devils fans will expect the same type of performances from their fullback in the Premier League.
CM: Paul Pogba
"Inconsistent" is the best word to describe Pogba's performances for Manchester United. The talented midfielder has been better this year, to be fair, posting nine assists in the Premier League. Still, Pogba's Premier League performances never quite live up to his showings on the international stage.
While playing for France, Pogba just seems that much more dangerous as he plays with that extra little bit of confidence.
CM: Granit Xhaka
Mistake-prone would be a kind way to summarize Xhaka's time in North London. Cumbersome, overaggressive and petulant would be better ways to describe the Swiss midfielder's playing style for the Gunners. While there are occasional flashes of his grace and passing ability, Xhaka demonstrates his full talents far more often when playing international matches — where his vision and ability to dictate play make Switzerland one of the best attacking sides in Europe.
CAM: Xherdan Shaqiri
Shaqiri is the centerpiece here, the ultimate better-for-country-than-for-club player. Much of that comes down to the clubs he played for. Only twice in the previous 10 seasons has the Swiss winger played more than 50 percent of his club's league minutes in a season. Instead, he was usually coming off the bench or occasionally starting for the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich. His last year at Stoke City (eight goals and seven assists in 2017-18) was probably the closest he came to superstardom — at the club level that is.
The winger's goal-scoring rate for the Swiss national team is better than at any of his six previous clubs, and he has always been a world-class attacking threat during international competitions. His bicycle kick at Euro 2016 will go down as one of the greatest goals in the history of the competition. His brace against Turkey at Euro 2020 clinched Switzerland a spot in the knockout stages. Finally, his goal and four assists in the most recent round of World Cup Qualifying helped the Swiss finish ahead of Italy and book a spot at the 2022 World Cup.
Happy Birthday to Xherdan Shaqiri, here's a throwback to his bicycle kick vs Poland at the Euros. pic.twitter.com/pBwdb5VLaR— Elecspo (@elecspo) October 10, 2016
RW: Gareth Bale
If I said that Gareth Bale scored in his last 10 starts for Wales, would you believe me? I think anyone that saw his performance against Austria last week would say yes. While on international duty, Bale is one of those rare players who invokes fear in the opponent every time he touches the ball.
The Real Madrid man has played more minutes for his country than for his club during the 2021-22 season, but every time he puts on the Welsh shirt he is seemingly transported back to the mid-2010s. He has, after all, led Wales to their first two European Championships and is on the brink of helping them qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
GARETH BALE! OUT OF THIS WORLD pic.twitter.com/JcNsViMiMp— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 24, 2022
ST: Aleksandar Mitrović
It sounds implausible that a player who is firing in goals at a record rate for his club is better when suiting up for his country, but for Aleksandar Mitrović that holds true. The Serbian has 35 goals in 35 league matches for Fulham this year, breaking Ivan Toney's single-season Championship record with 13 matches still to play.
Mitrović averages a goal every 119 minutes across his four spells in the Championship; at the Premier League level, he is not quite so prolific (one goal every 289 minutes). Take the Serbian and put him on the international stage though and he is elite. Mitrović has 27 goals over his last 30 international appearances, including a run of 11 in seven matches.
LW: Andriy Yarmolenko
The classic case of an uber-talented attacker who has never quite put it all together, ironically, Yarmolenko has played his best football when suiting up for Ukraine.
The winger has played two more matches for Ukraine than he has in five seasons combined with Borussia Dortmund and West Ham, and he has scored 25 more goals for his country than for these two clubs. Thanks to Yarmolenko's two goals and two assists, Ukraine reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2020, the country's best-ever finish in the competition.