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Meet “The Wolf” Starting 11: Underrated, Understated, Brutal Excellence

Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, these players do an unglamorous, often underappreciated job exceptionally well

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s mid-1990s masterpiece, there is a character whose brief appearance saw him enter the ranks of myth and legend. “The Wolf,” played by Harvey Keitel, is an immaculately dressed individual called upon by seasoned criminals when a job goes bad. When Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, two hit men played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, respectively, accidentally kill someone they are traveling with, their first thought is to contact the Wolf, whose services are available only at vast expense. They know that he’s the only one who can extract them from the horrific mess they have made for themselves.

Every successful football team needs its own version of the Wolf: a figure of quiet elegance who glides smoothly onto a chaotic scene and renders it peaceful again. Footballers like the Wolf are not so much underrated as understated: It’s not that you don’t know they are there, it’s just that they are so good at what they do that you begin to take their efficiency for granted. Here, then, in tribute to this character, is a starting 11 and a coach—drawn from those who have excelled within the past five years—who have played the role of the Wolf for their entire careers.

Formation

A team comprised entirely of Wolves must have a formation that offers the quickest fix for any team with a tactical problem, and that is one with a back three. When a team immediately switches from a conventional back four to three center backs, it is effectively saying, “We know that this ship has significant leaks somewhere, so we are just going to plug all the gaps in the deck while we work out where the worst breaches are.” Our Wolves will therefore assemble in a 3-5-1-1.

Coach: Antonio Conte

Conte almost seems to pride himself on restoring order to chaos. His most memorable recent feat came in 2016-17 when he took charge of a Chelsea team that was supposed to be going through a short transition spell. And it truly was—only Conte made that spell very short indeed. The key moment came when Chelsea were defeated 3-0 by Arsenal, at which point Conte changed his team’s formation to a back three, turned Victor Moses into a formidable wingback, and liberated Eden Hazard. The startling, remarkable result of his repair job was a Premier League title. Now at Inter Milan, he has revitalized the careers of, among others, Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young, as his team makes a charge at the Serie A championship.


Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas

Far too few observers paid attention to Costa Rica in the early stages of the 2014 World Cup, and even fewer paid attention to the man between their posts, Keylor Navas. That was their mistake. With this extraordinary shot-stopper guarding their gates, Costa Rica finished top of a group that included Uruguay, England, and Italy, three former World Cup winners, then advanced to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Holland in penalty kicks. Navas was then acquired by Real Madrid, where he won three straight UEFA Champions Leagues before he was controversially replaced by Thibaut Courtois, a player who has still arguably never reached the heights for Madrid that Navas did. Following his departure from Spain, Navas has since returned to the UEFA Champions League final, with Paris Saint-Germain, while Real Madrid have not. Perhaps, as their more sensible supporters might reflect, they sold their Wolf too soon.

Center Back: Emre Can

Given that he can play in a range of positions at a very high level, Can is arguably the supreme Wolf. His discipline, versatility, and leadership make him a rare asset to his team: He’s a little like Luis Enrique, only with much more chill. Can’s CV includes clubs as impressive as Liverpool, Juventus, and Bayer Leverkusen, and he can currently be found providing bespoke footballing solutions for Borussia Dortmund, where he has already excelled in both defense and midfield.

Center Back: Gerard Piqué

A strange thing began to happen with Piqué in recent years, which is that his organization of Barcelona’s defense has begun to be overlooked. That’s because the sheer amount of ground that he covers has somehow been accepted as normal, but it absolutely is not. Consider that, for Barcelona to maintain its extremely high line, it has relied upon his receiving and distributing the ball perfectly, with his goalkeeper and fellow defenders often far away from him. Once, watching his team against Valencia, I was struck by the loneliness of his position: two center backs almost on the touchline, goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen 30 meters behind, and midfielder Sergio Busquets 20 meters ahead, on the halfway line. If Piqué, the Wolf in the middle of them all, ever miscalculated, then there would be disaster. Yet he rarely ever did.

Center Back: Marquinhos

Marquinhos is a magnificent defender, and the bonus is that he may be even better when anchoring midfield. He is such a safe pair of hands that you would back him to catch falling glass and not cut himself. He somehow played alongside Thiago Silva in defense for several seasons at PSG and went largely unheralded, and then when Thomas Tuchel moved him farther forward, he steered his team to a Champions League final, where they lost to Bayern Munich. If anyone on this team is both understated and underrated, it is Marquinhos.

Right Wingback: Lukasz Piszczek

When it comes to the modern fullback, Piszczek is possibly the closest thing that the game has to Gandalf the wizard: He has been at Borussia Dortmund for an eternity, and he is capable of magic. A man who has won the enthusiastic approval of Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, and Lucien Favre at Borussia Dortmund needs no other accolades. A two-time Bundesliga winner and a runner-up in the UEFA Champions League, Piszczek has met very few left wingers he could not supervise.

Left Wingback: Andrew Robertson

Robertson’s consistency recalls that of another great Scottish fullback who played for Liverpool, the right back Steve Nicol. Robertson is so good, in fact, that he does what all true Wolves should: He disappears from view. Entire games will pass with an air of serenity emanating from his flank.

Center Midfield: Ivan Rakitic

At the start of the 2014-15 season, it was thought that no one could replace an aging Xavi as a starter in the Barcelona midfield. No one could reproduce the legendary Spaniard’s domination of a game, his relentless control of tempo. Fast-forward a few months, and Rakitic was scoring the opening goal in the UEFA Champions League final as his midfield play, including a superb relationship with Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, helped to spur Barcelona to a treble triumph. Fast-forward three years, to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and while Luka Modric took most of the plaudits in midfield, Rakitic was scoring the winning penalty in successive shoot-outs in Croatia’s route to the final. During his physical peak and beyond, Rakitic has always adjusted to the needs of his team.

Center Midfield: Mousa Dembélé

At his physical peak, there was arguably no one better at smuggling the ball through a congested midfield, whether with the dribble or the pass. At Tottenham Hotspur, Dembélé was so subtly superb for so long that many people first didn’t examine what he did, and then when they did examine it they didn’t understand it, and when they finally understood, it blew their minds. Time and again he brought the ball safely through the center circle, which for years was the most contested piece of real estate in modern football, and he frequently did it unnoticed.

Center Midfield: Santi Cazorla

To compose a team like this and omit Cazorla would be as disrespectful as cooking jerk chicken without using Scotch bonnets. He is the essential ingredient in any team, the player whose contribution always goes far beyond the merely statistical. If there were a statistic for “player most eager to receive possession when under pressure,” then he would regularly finish each season in the top 10. He earned the reverence of Real Madrid and Barcelona players at their peaks, rivaling their excellence even while on a humbler platform at Málaga. Yet, if any statistic is needed to solidify his credentials, then 81 caps for Spain during that astonishing era says it all.

Playmaker: Mesut Özil

It has to be. If you need to rapidly dismantle a defense and have the budget to match your ambitions, then Özil is your man. He is arguably the master of solving tactical problems in the final third, either against a deep-lying defense or on the counterattack. Like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction, Özil is discussed with both deep reverence and faint suspicion by those who seek to procure his services, as they wonder whether he is truly as good as reputed. However, the doubts evaporate the moment that he turns up.

Center Forward: Iago Aspas

The forward for this team must be someone who can endlessly summon extraordinary solutions from unpromising surroundings, and so the key candidate must be Aspas. A player of extraordinary talent, he is heralded at Celta Vigo, but sometimes his legend does not travel far beyond that. He has repeatedly rescued this club’s fortunes for seasons on end, and without him they would surely have plummeted in La Liga on several occasions. He is his club’s ultimate redeemer, and if this team of Wolves plays in the light blue of Celta Vigo, then he will surely redeem them too.