CR7 is long gone and Messi isn’t far behind… So forget what you knew back in 2015 and wake up to the current era of the Spanish top tier!
By Justin Bodanac
STYLE OF PLAY
If somebody was trying to convince you of La Liga’s pre-eminence in world football, the first word they might use is technique. That technique has taken many forms over the years – think Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, or Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, or just generally Barcelona – but it can be plainly divided into two schools: those who play with the ball and those who play without it. Top clubs can afford to play a possession-based game – playing longer combinations to dictate the tempo of a game. Smaller sides with less budgetary muscle have found success (read: survival) in allowing teams possession but organising in a way to stifle their creativity. Elements of the Spanish game that can often be overlooked are a commitment to press and a healthy appreciation for the 4-4-2 formation. Consequently, huge importance is placed on passing accuracy to either evade a press or transition out of one if possession has been regained. Whatever the approach, there is a general underlying respect for what has come before – to better it by respecting its existing values.
LIKELY TOP FOUR
Real Madrid (Last season 1st)
Sometimes okay is enough – at least that’s how Real Madrid’s La Liga title was perceived in some corners last season. It was unfair to expect young Serb Luka Jović to fill Cristiano Ronaldo’s boots (or even one of the toes) and the Gareth Bale sideshow did nothing for the club’s stability – yet Los Blancos had the best defence in the league and only lost three games during the entire 2019/20 campaign. Zinedine Zidane’s side still haven’t filled the CR7-shaped hole in their squad, but with Bale gone they can bring the focus back to the pitch. Stalwarts Luka Modrić, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Karim Benzema are all still producing, but well-passed 30. Zidane seems intent on using this season to integrate former wonderkids Vinícius Júnior and Martin Ødegaard into the core of the team, alongside young Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde and the aforementioned Jović. This all sounds perfectly reasonable, except Madrid has already lost to La Liga minnows Cádiz CF, and a Shaktar Donetsk side that had to omit ten starters due to coronavirus. One obvious answer to Madrid’s problems – James Rodríguez – was allowed to leave for Everton, where he is currently making a case for best player in the Premier League. Throw in an injury-prone Eden Hazard and rumours regarding Mauricio Pochettino, and things suddenly look slightly foreboding for Zidane. A recent victory in El Clásico will breed some good will, but Madrid will have to get their house in order before they can start to take proper advantage of the upheaval at Barcelona.
Atlético Madrid (Last season: 3rd)
Luis Suárez and Diego Costa starting up front under the tutelage of El Cholo himself, Diego Simeone? It’s so crazy, it just might work. Atléti has weathered its own upheaval – last season’s departure of Griezmann, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis, and more recently defensive midfielder Thomas Partey to Arsenal (Lucas Torriera coming the other way). If Simeone ever had the chance to catch Madrid and Barca napping, this is the time. But they need to improve the one element of their game in which they were sorely lacking last season – goals. Last season’s tally of 51 was only the seventh-highest in the league. Suárez and Félix are at vastly different stages of their careers but the signs are positive so far – combining for 10 goals already. The form of Marcos Llorente and Ángel Correa has also been a huge addition to the campaign. Most impressively perhaps is their defensive record – just two goals conceded – a league best. Simeone needs to ensure this excellent form continues unabated to have any chance of going close to the magic of 2013/14.
Barcelona (Last season: 2nd)
Let’s face it – even in a state of critical flux, with their dirty laundry airing like your neighbour’s most embarrassing underwear – Barcelona aren’t likely to fall off the face of the Earth. In fact, despite the Lionel Messi/Josip Maria Bartomeu soap opera, despite Luis Suarez heading to Atlético Madrid, despite new head coach/former alumni Ronald Koeman’s 38.78% win percentage at Everton, despite their worst start in 25 years, Barca have been finding a new way forward this season – through brilliant eighteen-year-old Ansu Fati (more on him and his unfortunate injury later) and the promising Pedri. If Koeman can continue to integrate the new era with the established core – while also getting meaningful contributions out of the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann – Lionel Messi’s swansong at the Camp Nou might have a surprise twist left in it.
Sevilla (Last season: 4th)
Sevilla’s fourth-place finish last season and record sixth Europa League title were stunning vindications for coach Julen Lopetegui following his torrid time as coach of the Spanish national team and at Real Madrid. But for the club, it was business as usual. Lopetegui’s side remains a balanced unit on paper after the transfer period. While striker Nolito, goalkeeper Sergio Rico, defender Reguilón and Argentine midfielder Éver Banega have all departed, the replacements are relatively on par. In comes classy Croatian Ivan Rakitić returning from Barca, battle-hardened Argentine defender Marcos Acuña from Sporting Club, attacking midfielder Óscar Rodríguez from Real Madrid and winger Suso from AC Milan (on loan). Perhaps even more importantly are those that remain from last season – Argentine midfielder Lucas Ocampos, Dutch forward Luuk de Jong and defender Jesús Navas. Of all the aforementioned squads, this one feels the least disrupted. It hasn’t been the best start to the campaign, but if the new additions can align with the current core, they could be poised to knock someone out of the top three.
FOUR TEAMS TO WATCH
Real Sociedad (Last season: 6th)
It’s time for these guys to shake up the establishment. Imanol Alguacil’s side produced an excellent campaign last season – finishing sixth in the league and making the final of the 2020 Copa del Rey (that final – against fellow Basque side Athletic Bilbao – is still yet to take place due to the coronavirus pandemic). Their dynamic brand of football relied heavily on the attack force of Mikel Oyarzabal (10 goals, 11 assists), Brazilian Willian José (11 goals), Swede Alexander Isak (nine goals) and Real Madrid-loanee Martin Ødegaard (4 goals, 6 assists). While Ødegaard has returned to Madrid, the rest remain. Sociedad also pulled off a coup in the addition David Silva (joining ex-Premier League players Nacho Monreal and Adnan Januzaj). His decade of experience at the heart of Manchester City’s midfield will no doubt add another dimension to their play over the coming season. Their early form in the current campaign has been impressive and fans will hope Sociedad can continue to ruffle feathers while the usual suspects focus on their own internal issues.
Villareal (Last season: 5th)
The name Unai Emery will send a chill down any Arsenal fan’s spine. But in Spain he is a different proposition. Having won three consecutive Europa League titles at Sevilla, his Arsenal tenure is the exception rather than the rule. Now at Villareal, the aim is surely a proper run in Europa while attempting to crack the Top Four in the league. The Yellow Submarine scored more goals than anyone outside the Barca and Real last season – thanks mainly to the partnership of Gerard Moreno and Santi Cazorla. But with Cazorla now at Al Sadd, Emery has had to re-jig the supply chain. Moreno and Paco Alcácer have started brightly up front already (eight goals in five games), and the addition of gifted 19-year-old Japanese midfielder Takefusa Kubo (on loan from Real), with ex-Valencia pair Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin, gives them muscle and technique in the centre of the park. Emery has got them humming at the moment, but remember: he went his first 20 games unbeaten at the Emirates, too.
Real Betis (Last season: 15th)
Remember when Real Betis made Brazilian step-over king Denílson the most expensive player in history at £21.5 million? No? Well that was 1998 and since then Betis has only won a single trophy – the Copa del Rey in 2004/05. Last season was a headache fans would prefer to forget – finishing 15th in fortunate circumstances – and it feels like now or never for a genuine change of fortune. Premier League winner Manuel Pellegrini has taken the reigns, with goalkeeper Claudio Bravo joining from Manchester City. There is talent in the squad with French forward Nabil Fakir, Portuguese midfielder William Carvalho, winger Cristian Tello and captain Joaquín. Pellegrini’s team has shown some spark against smaller sides but not much else so far. A top-half finish would be the very least of what the fans will demand… and deserve.
Granada CF (Last season: 7th)
Granada excelled beyond their wildest dreams last season – qualifying for European competition during their first season back in top tier. They have already furthered that success by progressing through the play-offs and into the Europa League proper, where they sit atop Group E. Diego Martinez’s side lacks any stand-out stars and that is perhaps its best quality. They will hope to continue their strong defensive form from last campaign, while also getting the most out of the likes of young Venezuelan attackers Yangel Herrera (on loan from Manchester City) and Darwin Machís. So far their form has held up remarkably well. Competing on multiple fronts will no doubt present Martinez with additional challenges, but expect the unexpected with this team.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ansu Fati (FC Barcelona)
The youngest player ever to… score for Barca in La Liga, score in the Champions League, score for the Spanish national team, score in El Clásico… and all before he turned 18 in October this year. It speaks volumes that Ansu Fati is no longer The Next… and can just be himself. An excellent finisher with a clinical read on the game, his tally of five goals in eight games so far (across all competitions) is head-and-shoulders above his more established teammates. While youth is often connected to speed and agility, his maturity in tight situations is his most impressive attribute. It’s all the more unfortunate that he’ll be missing over the next four months, recovering from surgery on a meniscus injury sustained against Real Betis recently. Fati was showing just how bright the future could be for Barca. Fans and admirers will be hoping for a quick and painless return to the pitch – and for a long and distinguished career to come.
Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad)
The stage is set for Mikel Oyarzabal to finally be noticed by the broader footballing community. An instrumental leader who registered 10 goals and 11 assists last campaign, Oyarzabal now has a platform in the Europa League to showcase his vast talents beyond Sociedad’s loyal fanbase. At only 23 years of age, the left-sided winger is on track to crack 200 appearances for the club this term and looks likely to eclipse his previous records, with six goals and two assists from nine appearances already.
Takefusa Kubo (Villarreal CF)
The young Japanese winger shone last season for minnows RCD Mallorca (on loan from Real Madrid), playing 36 games across all competitions before they were relegated. Kubo originally joined Barcelona’s La Masia academy in 2011 and had great success in his age group – but due to their violation of youth player transfer policies, he had to return to Japan in 2015. Madrid have since swooped but deemed him a work in progress. Kubo’s fearlessness on the wing and refined technical ability are a sight to behold – embracing the physicality that comes with running at defenders almost twice his size (and age). This season, Villareal offers a step up for Kubo in every way – a big club with genuine stars, a name manager and European football on the menu. The only question remaining is whether Emery has enough faith in the teenager to play him consistently, when he has so much riding on the season himself.
Martin Ødegaard (Real Madrid)
When the Norwegian debuted as the youngest-ever senior player for Real Madrid at 16 years and 157 days old, he was – like almost every wonderkid before him – almost set up to fail. The intensity of expectation and scrutiny from fans and media alike all but ensured a premature end to his budding career. However, after two seasons in the Dutch Eredivisie with SC Heerenveen and SBV Vitesse, followed by a stellar return to La Liga last season with Real Sociedad, Ødegaard is back at Madrid as a 21-year-old attacking midfielder of genuine class and talent. Zidane knows his squad can’t rely on aging superstars forever, and this year presents the perfect opportunity for Ødegaard to establish himself as an important part of the transition. With Isco appearing to currently be out of favour with Zidane, Ødegaard will be hoping is chance will come sooner rather than later.
FOUR CULT HEROES
Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)
If Iago Aspas was an iceberg, Merseyside only got to see the tiny bit floating above sea level (15 appearances, one goal). Celta Vigo supporters however, have been treated to his genius across 350 appearances, and that’s not including his time in their youth academy and B team. Since coming home to the Celestes in 2015/16 he has assumed the mantle of talisman and leader; his efforts keeping them from the drop for the past two seasons. Technically gifted and incredibly intelligent, he blurs the lines between creator and finisher, capable of drawing others into the game or taking it upon himself with individual moments of brilliance (watch this). At 33 years of age it would be easy to assume his best is beyond him, and yet this season he has already notched four times. However Celta fare this season, Aspas will no doubt be a joy to watch as he tries to keep them above water.
Joaquín (Real Betis)
Takefusa Kubo wasn’t even born when Joaquín made his professional debut for Real Betis on 26 August 2000. The crafty left-winger with the excellent cross quickly became an integral part of the Spanish national side of the 2000s, too. Though he left Betis in 2006 to play for Valencia, Málaga and Fiorentina, he returned in 2015 and has surpassed 400 appearances for Los Verdiblancos. Now 39 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. Last season he tallied 10 goals in all competitions, including a hatrick against Athletic Bilbao that made him the oldest player to do so in the league’s history (38 years 140 days). Expect him to lead by example as Betis attempts to pull itself out of the underwhelming malaise that sunk in last season.
Shinji Okazaki (SD Huesca)
When Leicester pulled a Leicester back in 2015/16 to win the Premier League, they were littered with beguiling personalities – the pin-eyed aggro of Jamie Vardy, the sleek movement of Riyad Mahrez, even Claudio Ranieri searching for redemption on the touchline. Okazaki was no exception – a rugged and tenacious forward who used his body as much as the ball itself to create opportunities in front of goal. After a deal at Málaga in 2019 went sour due to their financial difficulties, Okazaki found himself in Segunda División the with SD Huesca, where he made 36 appearances and scored 12 goals. Now back in the top tier and 34 years old, Okazaki will bring leadership and experience to a side likely to struggle all campaign.
Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
One person’s cult hero is another’s cult villain. But let’s face it – sometimes the villain is the reason you tune in. There is simply nobody else like Sergio Ramos playing the game today; as decorated a player as they come for both club and country, he has over 650 appearances for Real Madrid alone and has as many goals for the Spanish national side as football icon Alfredo Di Stéfano. The club captain is ingrained into Madrid’s identity and is an anchor point for the entire organisation while the big names come and go on the pitch and the touchline. He does what needs to be done (for better or worse). Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, Ramos has finished in Madrid’s top three goal scorers each season… in case you’ve forgotten – he’s a centre-back. At 34 years of age he seems more committed than ever, instrumental Madrid’s early season 20/21 success and already on the scoresheet – but with his current deal expiring in June 2021, expect Ramos to make this season a memorable one (again, for better or worse).