GK, Luís Maximiano (Granada, 23)
Luís Maximiano arrived from Sporting CP last summer and quickly became Granada’s number one after his €4.5 million move.
Maximiano has been the last man standing in a struggling Granada side for most of the season. The club have been sliding south since the departure of arguably their greatest manager ever, Diego Martínez.
The young shot-stopper’s performances for the Andalusian outfit this season have seen him being linked with FC Barcelona.
At the time of writing, Granada have conceded 59 goals and it could be more but for the Portuguese. Maximiano has made the most saves in the league (113). Aitor Karanka’s side have conceded the fourth most in the league and currently sit just above the relegation zone in 17th place.
Granada have conceded seven penalties in 2021/22, with their number one stopping two. As well as being a vocal figure, the 23-year-old is also good on the ball and may just be the difference in Granada’s battle to stay in the top flight for another season.
RB, Ronald Araújo (Barcelona, 23)
The recent talk of Ronald Araújo being the future captain of Barcelona says it all about the Uruguayan defender.
Araújo has all the ingredients to become one of the best defenders in the world. Strong, quick and good in the air, he has had the added bonus of working alongside and learning from the highly intelligent Gerard Piqué.
Araújo has the highest percentage of aerial duels won in the Barcelona team (75.3%). The tall defender is also a threat at set pieces, scoring in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, and registering an impressive four goals from defence in 28 league appearances.
CB, Jules Koundé (Sevilla, 23)
If you met Jules Koundé on the street, you wouldn’t say he was a centre-back. At just 1.78m, Koundé makes the most of his average height alongside his more dominant defensive partner Diego Carlos.
Since joining Sevilla, the Frenchman has gone from strength to strength and has many suitors as a result. On April 29, WhoScored revealed that Koundé hadn’t committed a single error leading to an opposition goal in 90 La Liga appearances following his move to Spain from Bordeaux in 2019.
Sevilla have conceded the fewest goals in La Liga this season, an impressive 29 in their 35 games to date. Koundé has played a key role in their strong defensive displays across the campaign and offers protection to Bono between the sticks.
According to Artificial Intelligence platform Olocip, Koundé is currently Sevilla’s most in-form player with over 400 minutes played in the last month.
CB, Jorge Cuenca (Getafe, 22)
The 22-year-old Spanish centre-back is on loan at Getafe and will return to Villarreal in the summer after an important season in his development as a defender.
Quique Sánchez Flores was a shrewd appointment by Getafe. The former Atlético Madrid manager has dragged Los Azulones away from the relegation zone and has been pivotal in Cuenca’s season.
Cuenca has mainly played in a five-man defence, which has improved his ability to bring the ball out from the back and cover for the full-backs. With 29 appearances in La Liga this season, Unai Emery feels it’s the right time to call him back from his loan spell to add defensive cover to Villarreal’s backline.
At Villarreal, he will be part of the centre-back rotation alongside Raúl Albiol, Aïssa Mandi and Pau Torres, although there is a possibility that the latter could leave the club in the summer, with Manchester United among the clubs reportedly interested.
Against Real Madrid on 2 January, Cuenca was Getafe’s best defensive performer, according to Olocip. He is proving to be one of the great young defenders in La Liga and will only get better when he moves back to Villarreal and learns from the experienced defenders around him.
LB, Fran García (Rayo Vallecano, 22)
Fran García has been an ever-present for Rayo Vallecano this season, with the third most minutes played for the club. The 22-year-old has been a revelation at left-back, becoming a key player for Andoni Iraola’s side.
As good as he is going forward, he has improved defensively this season. García is fifth in the league for passes blocked – showing how good of a reader of the game he is at just 22.
The former Real Madrid academy player is third for passes completed at Rayo, operating as a key part of the team’s build-up. He is also strong defensively, with most blocks made for the Vallecas club this season (70).
He is second for interceptions made at Rayo, only behind Óscar Valentín and compared to players in Europe’s top-five leagues, ranks in the 91st percentile for progressive carries per 90 (7.12) as per FBref, as he constantly looks to create on the left. In La Liga 2021/22, García is in the top 10 for completed crosses into the 18-yard box.
Real Madrid are considering re-signing him from Rayo due to the expected departure of veteran left-back Marcelo. The La Liga champions have maintained 50% of the player’s rights. García’s termination clause is €10 million, of which Madrid would only have to pay €5 million.
DM, Martín Zubimendi (Real Sociedad, 23)
Zubimendi operates at the base of the Real Sociedad midfield in a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, or sometimes a 4-1-4-1. The homegrown player is the link between the defence and midfield for La Real.
Despite his young age, club manager Imanol Alguacil has placed his trust in Zubimendi to take the responsible pivot role.
He has played in 33 of the club’s 35 league games so far this season, gradually growing into the role and putting on impressive performances against both Barcelona and Real Madrid.
In La Real’s recent Basque fixture against Alavés, Zubimendi scored the winner with a second half header.
CM, Pedri (Barcelona, 19)
Pedri has only managed to play 885 minutes in La Liga this season due to injury. After playing over 70 games in 2020/21, the young midfielder struggled to stay fit and get another full season under his belt.
Pedri is only 19, and at 19, most players are still in their formative years. The former Las Palmas creator has skipped his formative years and is already one of the best players in La Liga.
The Canary Islander may have only featured 12 times in the league this season, but he was decisive in his time on the pitch, arguably the best performing player in the league at times.
With Pedri in the engine room, Barcelona picked up an average of 2.67 points per game in La Liga. He was key in their wins over title challengers Sevilla and Real Madrid, scoring a wonderful goal against the former at Camp Nou.
Barça’s number 16 popped up with a crucial goal in the club’s comeback win over Levante in April, coming off the bench to link up with team-mate Gavi and change the game.
He signed a new deal with the Catalan club until 2026 in October and can no doubt become one of the world’s greatest players under Xavi’s tutelage.
Already a crucial part of Luis Enrique’s Spain team, Pedri has always said that his idol is Andrés Iniesta, and he reminded Barcelona fans of the great Iniesta in magical moments this season.
CM, Gavi (Barcelona, 17)
On 29 August 2021, at the age of 17 years and 24 days, Gavi became the fourth youngest player in Barça’s history to make his debut in La Liga when he featured against Getafe but nobody could have predicted his impact since then.
Real Betis snapped him up as a schoolboy before he eventually joined Barcelona’s La Masia.
The trust and belief Barcelona have in the teenager is demonstrated in the number of appearances he has made this season. Gavi has played 31 times in the league, the third most in the entire Barcelona squad.
In those 31 league games, however, he has collected 10 yellows, something that should be improved as he matures. He has 36 successful dribbles in La Liga – second only to Ousmane Dembélé (51) in the Barcelona team.
Gavi’s first coach, Manuel Vasco, at the La Liara Balompié club in Los Palacios (Seville) was quick to predict his future.
“In a few years, you will see him in the First Division. When he was little, he played with his shoelaces undone, his tongue in his cheek and he didn’t know how to lose. He did things that were not normal when he was six years old,” Vasco told Diario AS.
The midfielder played with his laces untied as a kid and you’ll see him do the same at Camp Nou, just like Diego Maradona used to do because of his wide feet. He even has similar warm-up routines to former Barça forward Maradona, keeping the ball in the air with his head and shoulders pre-match to the delight of fans young and old.
A brilliant first season for Barcelona will see the club offer him a new contract, which is expected to be made official soon.
RW, Yéremy Pino (Villarreal, 19)
Yéremy Pino made history for Villarreal in October, becoming the youngest player in the club’s history to score in a Champions League match.
He is a hugely talented player, playing without fear on the right side of attack, and already has four senior caps for Spain, scoring his first senior goal for La Roja in March against Iceland.
This season, he has contributed six goals and four assists in La Liga for Unai Emery’s side, as he continues to develop his game.
Pino scored four goals for the Yellow Submarine in a 5-1 win at home to Espanyol in February. In La Liga, the young attacker has the highest shots on target percentage in the league (57.7%).
CF, João Félix (Atlético Madrid, 22)
The Atlético Madrid forward has been criticised for his displays since making the move across the border from Benfica.
His €127 million price tag hasn’t helped him either but during spells this season, the Portuguese forward became the key man in attack for Diego Simeone.
In 24 La Liga appearances, he has scored eight times and provided four assists. At times, he has been unplayable, both domestically and in Europe, and at just 22 was the best player in La Liga for a period between February and April.
LW, Vinicius Jr (Real Madrid, 21)
Vinicius has been the best performer in La Liga alongside his team-mate Karim Benzema this season. The Brazilian’s rise to the top has been rapid. In 2020/21, he managed just three goals and three assists in 35 La Liga games.
Fast forward 12 months and in 33 league games this season, the 21-year-old has scored 14 goals and registered nine assists, while putting in some devastating displays in attack.
Vinicius ranks first across the whole of La Liga in goal-creating actions, shot-creating actions, players dribbled past, carries into the final third, nutmegs, progressive carries and progressive carrying distance, as per FBref.
Amongst players in Europe’s top-five leagues, he ranks in the 99th percentile per 90 for progressive carries (12.95) and touches in the attacking penalty area (8.70).
Together with Benzema, he has been the standout player across the season and his performances have helped guide Real Madrid to their 35th La Liga title.