Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo…

Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain.

It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, but yet we end every season in disappointment as one of the teams we expect to win the league always does. We saw the start of the Premier League season and hope that the bright start for Everton or Leicester or Wolves could lead to us seeing a different champion come May. While that is probably a false dawn, the situation unfolding in Spain is certainly looking more promising.

It has been clear for all viewers that the quality of La Liga has declined from the peak it reached a decade ago, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly shadows of their former selves. That did not stop those two from winning the last two league titles despite being in “crisis”, but now it seems like the issues going on at both clubs are beginning to seriously hold them back. A few years of papering over the cracks have come back to haunt both teams, and each of their poor starts to the season (especially Barcelona’s) implies more significant issues within the teams.

Barcelona’s almost-divorce with Lionel Messi this past summer was the boiling point of years of tension between players and board, as well as the poor sporting and development plan established by former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. On the pitch, they have barely held it together, having embarrassingly fallen out of the Champions League against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in consecutive seasons. Off the pitch, the club fell into significant debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the club being unable to enact the significant on-pitch changes needed. They have sacked two managers in the last two years, having a very messy divorce with Ernesto Valverde and ditching his replacement, Quique Setién, for ex-Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman. This brings them to this season, where the departures of Nélson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez, and Arturo Vidal led to quite a shake-up in the first team. While this was good in giving chances to younger talent, including the prodigal Ansu Fati, it left them without a first choice striker, having to use Fati almost as a false nine. Their strong dependence on Messi over the last few seasons has caught up, as the exhausted Argentine has started this season quite poorly. Draws to Aláves and Sevilla and losses to Real Madrid and Getafe leave them in eighth, lacking much in the way of true cohesion as a team. It has not quite clicked for Koeman, being responsible for the worst league start for the Blaugrana in 25 years. This is not just growing pains under Koeman, this is the manifestation of years of mismanagement at all levels. It feels much more systemic, and it feels like something that is going to stop Barcelona from winning trophies this season, in what could be Messi’s final eight months in Catalonia.

And for Real Madrid, things are also not going well. No, there is not the massive structural issues plaguing the club as there is with Barcelona. They won the league last season with basically the exact same team. However, that team last season had quite a bit of issues, specifically in attack and chance creation, that have not been solved. Zinedine Zidane’s team won the league last season by simply not being as bad as Barcelona, able to use what was normally a strong defense to grind out enough results to finish top. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo world in Madrid, the team has become significantly more defensive than in the past. Many times, if Karim Benzema did not score, there would not be many places where Zidane could find goals in his team. That worked last season, they were able to do what they had to do. They were great after the restart of the season, treating it as almost a knockout cup competition and grinding out results. This season, they have not been able to maintain that. It seems that the bounces, the calls, the luck that went Real Madrid’s way last season, and helped them grind out those close results, has stopped going their way. While they have not had as bad of a start to the league season as Barcelona, there are still signs that things are not right. A draw to Real Sociedad, a shock 1-0 loss to newly-promoted Cádiz, and their most recent 4-1 thumping against Valencia shows that the cracks that Zidane successfully papered over the last two seasons are still there. Bad European results also imply significant issues, as a team of Real Madrid’s pedigree should not be losing to a COVID-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk team or needing to come from behind to scrape out a point against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I am not saying Real Madrid are in crisis or Zidane’s job is in as much peril as Koeman’s, and I do still think Real Madrid will definitely contend for the title this season, but it is clear this Los Blancos team is vulnerable.

And both sides have been vulnerable for the past few seasons. None of these issues are really new, but each team were able to just paper over the cracks the last few seasons and figure out what they had to do to win the league title. The team that won it would have been the team that was less bad between the two. Why is it not safe to assume that they will not do the same again this season?

Well, the last two seasons, there has not been a team good enough to challenge the Clasico duopoly. Atlético Madrid finished second and third the past two seasons, but they were significantly behind the league champion each time. It has been a bit of a struggle for the usual third horse in the title race the past few seasons. Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad have each presented themselves as teams that were talented enough to challenge for the title the past two seasons, but due to form, injuries, or some other reason, they were never able to be consistent enough throughout the season to break into that top three. There just has not been a team good enough to contend with the two struggling giants, but this season, it is a different story.

The subheading of this blog implies a potential “year of Cholo”, so you know which team I am going to talk about. But Atléti are not the only team in this equation. Real Sociedad, as of right now, are top of La Liga and are the league’s highest-scoring side. La Real were one of the most enjoyable teams to watch last season, but many thought the departure of Martin Ødegaard would make them worse. While Ødegaard was immensely important for that team, they have seemingly survived without him, largely in part due to the contributions of the newly-arrived David Silva, the ever-reliable Portu, a budding superstar in Mikel Oyarzabal, and an incredibly reliable crop of academy graduates that are growing into underrated role players in the team. Villarreal are currently second, and while they have some issues to iron out with new manager Unai Emery, they are still a very talented team that could hang around the top of the table throughout the season. Sevilla was a team described last season as being a goalscorer away from being league title contenders, and while they have not had the best start to this season, they are still a quite talented team. If Julen Lopetegui can turn around their form, they are a team that could be in the fight at the top of the table. There are several teams outside the Claisco duo that have gotten stronger this season, making it a more interesting fight.

But there is one standing above the rest of the challengers. I truly believe this could be the year for Atlético Madrid to return to the top of the league. The oft-maligned Diego Simeone has had a rough last few years in Madrid, and there was legitimate concern that he was facing the sack during the first half of last season, when Atléti were struggling and at risk of falling out of the European places. A long unbeaten run, started after the league restart last season and carried into this season, has Atlético Madrid looking like genuine title contenders and, interestingly, looking significantly different from a typical Atlético team. While they have the league’s best defensive record so far, which is typical for a Cholo Simeone team, they are also the league’s second-highest scorers, scoring 17 goals through seven matches. It is easy to credit this to the free transfer signing of Luis Suárez, and in a way, that is correct, but it does not tell the whole story. As a team, in structure, formation, and pattern of play, they are more fluid and more attacking than the typical Simeone teams that came before them, and that makes them terrifying.

It revolves around Suárez, but it is not all his doing. On paper, Suárez is easily an upgrade on the rapidly aging Diego Costa and good-but-inconsistent Álvaro Morata, but how the Uruguayan fits into this team is what forced Simeone to crank up the attacking ability of the team. Due to Suárez’s specific traits as a player, as well as his age and declining pace, Atléti cannot attack in the same way they would normally, and Simeone acknowledged this when Suárez was brought into the team. Normally, they are able to play in that famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) low block, forcing the ball onto the wings, pressing the ball when it gets to the wings, and using a long ball for a forward to chase down in order to launch a counterattack. They are not able to do that with Suárez, and, as Simeone has pointed out, Atléti need to start their attacks closer to the Uruguayan in order for him to be fully involved and able to use his best traits as a player. This has caused Simeone to rethink his line ups, choosing now to include multiple attacking players in order for Suárez to play off of several forwards when in attack. These players, usually two of João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco, are able to combine with Suárez in attacking moves, creating a more fluid and less predictable pattern of build-up play and causing significantly more issues for opposition defenses than past Simeone teams have done.

This has been big for Suárez’s ability to bed into this Atlético Madrid team quickly, but it has also been a massive step in the development of João Félix. Now constantly in positions where he is not isolated and able to be involved in attacks, we are seeing the prodigal player we all expected to see when the young Portuguese departed Benfica for the Spanish capital. With seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season, Félix has instantly become arguably Atléti‘s most important player not named Jan Oblak, a player that is playing with incredible amounts of confidence and is involved in nearly every attack. If Félix is able to play at a high level throughout the season, then it provides Simeone with the dynamic, game-changing player that can get you something from nothing or be the reason you win a match, a player they have lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. And the amazing thing is they probably have three more of that level of player already in the team with Suárez, Llorente, and Oblak. Atlético Madrid are a team that has often been plagued with not being able to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in the team, as they are often trying to shoehorn talented footballers into a Cholismo system requiring more in grit than in goalscoring. If Simeone is able to strike the balance between having a defensively solid team and one that can score goals at a more accelerated rate, then he may have created the best team in Spain.

I will admit this could be a massive overreaction. It could just be a poor start to the season. However, the reason I am writing this about La Liga and not the Premier League is because it does feel genuinely like more than just a bad start. In England, we had teams like Leicester and Wolves get off to hot starts to the season, but there is no reason to seriously believe that Manchester City and Liverpool will not be the two main title contenders come the end of the season. I have no sizable reasons to be confident in Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the sole title contenders. The issues at both clubs are too significant and have lingered for too long to be written off as a poor start. With the quality teams surrounding them, especially Atlético Madrid, it feels like we are looking at the scenario many people have longed for: a major league where the “Super League” club did not win the title. While the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 feel predictable, La Liga feels wide open, and I am very excited to see how it all plays out.

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