European Football

La Liga Team of the Season Part 4: Honorable Mentions

I changed my mind quite a bit here…

Welcome back to the La Liga Team of the Season, where today we will go over our honorable mentions. These were quite difficult for me to pick, much more so than the Premier League honorable mentions. With how open La Liga has been this season, there have seemingly been plenty of really good performers on several different teams, and that has made my job much more difficult. I changed entries, added and removed players, and tossed around ideas constantly. This was hard.

So let’s get this over with before I change my mind again…

Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid)

Courtois is a phenomenal goalkeeper, one of the best in the world. And because he plays in La Liga with Oblak, he can only get an honorable mentions spot here. You really hate to see it.

Courtois is a fantastic shot-stopper, actually being near the top of the league in total saves and being top in save percentage despite playing for Real Madrid (which says quite a bit about Real Madrid’s defensive issues at times this season). He has come up big at times for Real Madrid, especially in big games and especially in the Champions League. He is very good, he just has not been as good as Oblak. He also has not had the level of heroics that Oblak has had. While Courtois will be among the heroes should Real Madrid win the league, he will not be hailed at the level of Oblak. It was that minor, almost nit-picking, difference that gave Oblak the nod in the starting team and left Courtois for the honorable mentions.

Yassine Bounou (Sevilla)

Like I said in the original team. There was such a tough decision between the goalkeepers. I decided to put two goalkeepers in the honorable mentions to make up for that, and this might not be the goalkeeper that you expected to be here.

Yassine Bounou has been among the revelations of the season for Sevilla. Largely acting as the back-up and cup goalkeeper last season, Bounou was one of the heroes of Sevilla’s run to the Europa League title, famously saving a penalty from Raúl Jiménez and standing on his head to keep Manchester United out. The Moroccan international stepped in as the starter this season and continued in that same run of form. He is currently third in total clean sheets while maintaining a save percentage and goals against stats that rival Courtois and Oblak. His athleticism and reactions have also been on display on both ends of the pitch, saving Sevilla with great saves while also famously scoring a goal against Real Valladolid in a 1-1 draw that kept Sevilla within realistic distance of a league title. While it looks like Sevilla will not be champions this season, Bounou has still been outstanding and deserves individual recognition, even if it is over the also-world-class Marc-André ter Stegen. I could also put ter Stegen in this team, but four goalkeepers would be absurd.

Stefan Savić (Atlético Madrid)

Choosing a defender, especially when weighed against an extra goalkeeper, was incredibly difficult. Lucas Vázquez and Kieran Trippier were deserving of recognition, as is Mario Hermoso, but I will choose to highlight Savić, who has been a tank for Atlético Madrid this season.

The stats do not really back the Montenegrin, but trust me, he has been great. Known for his strong tackling and admirable aerial ability, he has been a true defensive force for Diego Simeone’s team this season. Especially when the defense dealt with issues and absences, especially around usual defensive stalwart José María Giménez, Savić has been a source of consistent solidity in a Colchonero defense that needs consistency to remain title challengers. Even in the hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2 system Simeone has employed, Savić has been able to cover the space needed and be a reliable rock at the back in a team more attacking than the usual Atléti sides. While many deserved recognition, Savić deserved it just a little bit more.

Daniel Parejo (Villarreal)

Ok, on to the midfielders, which was an absolute nightmare to decide.

Dani Parejo has been a very unique player in his career, playing a very specific role in the midfield first for Valencia and now for Villarreal, but being so sought after and praised for being as good at that specific role as any player in the league. The stats I included sort of tell that story. He is a player that works in the base of the midfield, playing the passes and making sure everything is ticking while also being a sort of shield for the defense but not being the most defensive midfielder. He is very much like Jorginho at Chelsea, a player known for his passing and ability to run the show in midfield while not necessarily being athletic or asked to do quite a lot or cover a lot of ground.

Parejo is not like many other midfielders in the league, but he is so important to Villarreal’s team as a whole. He is the one that allows the ball to flow from defense to attack. His calmness and passing ability also helps to make Villarreal fairly press-resistant (as Arsenal recently figured out) and a team that is able to change tempo and apply more attacking pressure at the push of a button. Gerard Moreno, mentioned in the last part, is clearly Villarreal’s most important player, but I would also say that without Parejo, Unai Emery’s team would not be having as successful of a season as they currently are.

Renato Tapia (Celta Vigo)

I swear, the midfield was so hard to choose. There were so many options. Frenkie de Jong had his breakout season for Barcelona. Koke was the eternal engine room for Atlético Madrid. Luka Modrić was solid, albeit aging, for Real Madrid. Sergio Canales, Fernando, Mikel Merino, Jorge de Frutos, Carlos Soler, and Yannick Carrasco all deserved praise for great seasons.

But I went a little out of left field. Celta Vigo are not a good team, although they are comfortably mid-table this season, which is an improvement on their relegation-fighting previous few seasons. They are more talented than previous years, and while they are definitely not good, they have more than one very good player. Maybe the most important thing that made Celta Vigo a halfway decent team this year was the addition of Renato Tapia, who joined the team on a free transfer from Feyenoord. He has since been a defensive force, putting in blocking, tackling, pressuring, and intercepting numbers that are frankly ridiculous. He is among the league leaders in all four of those categories while also being comfortable enough on the ball to be among the league leaders in successful dribbling percentage. That is quite a wild combination, and Tapia’s addition to the team has sured up a midfield and defense that is usually much worse than they were this season. It takes quite a talented player having a great season to beat out some of the big names I mentioned previously, and Tapia definitely fits the requirements. While the starting team was basically set, Tapia did enough to at least earn a spot here.

Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad)

Oh, what could have been for Real Sociedad.

La Real were among the brightest starters to the league season this year, playing incredibly enterprising and bold attacking football spearheaded by bright young talent paired with the newly-arrived David Silva. They clearly slowed down drastically as the season bore on, especially as injuries hit the team, but they still did enough to win a Copa del Rey this season.

Much of their success is thanks to this man. Mikel Oyarzabal is one of the brightest young players in the world, and I will still consider him that even if he is already 24. The Spaniard has been La Real‘s attacking dynamo this season, being among the league leaders in goals and assists as well as most creative stats. He even earned a player of the month award for his performances. While it was not enough to save Real Sociedad from mid-table mediocrity this season, he still continued his meteoric rise in the Spanish football world, undoubtedly locking in a crucial role in the Spain team for the Euros this summer. Pep Guardiola failed to sign Oyarzabal last summer, and after another strong season, I am sure that there will be more teams desiring the Basque forward this summer.

Luis Suárez (Atlético Madrid)

Alright, yes, I did not include Luis Suárez in the starting team. I stand by that decision, but he still definitely deserves some recognition. He was only arguably the biggest transfer story in the league in the summer and arguably the signing that transformed Atlético Madrid into a team that looked bothered to score goals. He was kind of important.

Suárez revitalized himself with Atléti, showing his decline while with Barcelona could be delayed at least for another season or two. His declining pace probably helped Atléti, as it encouraged Simeone to structure the team around rapid passing plays and attacks that start higher up the pitch rather than the long-ball heavy style that epitomized Cholismo in previous years. These higher attacks allowed other players in the team, namely João Félix, Thomas Lemar, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, and Yannick Carrasco to enjoy much improved seasons, but it also allowed Suárez to show his still-very impressive technical ability that remains despite his age. He is still able to play on the ball, move off the ball, combine with attacking players, and finish at an incredible rate. Atléti allowed him to play to his strengths, and he definitely did.

Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)

We love highlighting players who are very important to their team’s success. Here is quite possibly the epitome of that idea.

Iago Aspas is basically “Mr. Celta Vigo”. He has been the man that has almost-single handedly kept Celta in the top flight over the last few seasons. Despite playing for a fairly poor team, he has been among the top scorers in La Liga over the last few seasons, which is absurd. He has been less important this season than in recent seasons, given that Celta have improved and will likely finish mid-table at worst, but he has still been fantastic. Even in a season where Celta are not as reliant on Aspas, the Spaniard has still scored or assisted a little less than half of his team’s goals this season. He is usually also the highest scoring Spaniard in the league, or at least close, and while Gerard Moreno has blown by Aspas, the Galician striker has made up for it by currently leading the league in assists, having what is easily his best creative year of his career. The 32 year old veteran has reinvented himself, which you do not always hear. Choosing between him and Gerard Moreno for the starting team was tough, and while I do think I made the correct decision, Aspas deserves special mention here.

And there you have it. Thus concludes our La Liga Team of the Season. It was difficult to choose, but I feel at least fairly confident in these picks. La Liga has been surprisingly more entertaining than usual this season, with a title race that was once four but now three, one that could have multiple twists between now and the end of the season. Despite the overall drop in quality of Spanish football (which is why fewer Spanish teams are making it further in European competition), La Liga is quite a fun league to watch.

Agree with my picks? Think I left someone out? Let me know in the comments. Be sure to come back next week when we cover the third of the top five leagues we will cover: the Bundesliga!

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