Mainly because we have nice pictures for them now…
So the LaLiga season kicked off a few weeks ago, and it has already produced some very interesting results. Fresh off of Atlético Madrid’s triumphant title victory on the final day of last season, we go into this season not really being quite sure who the best team in the league is. These questions around the top are also paired with questions around the chasing pack, as many teams have worked to improve and present a strong claim to earn a Champions League place.
And I am here to answer the question of what you should be on the lookout for this season or, more specifically, who you should be on the lookout for this season. I do enjoy doing these “players to watch” articles, and you guys seem to love them, so I am bringing you a few players to watch in LaLiga this season. There are no real limitations, no ground rules about these having to be young players or only for certain teams. These are just the players who will be most influential on teams that could have notable seasons or could be fighting for notable honors or league positioning.
Despite me saying I will not restrict this by team, I will go ahead and say straight up that there is no entry for Barcelona or Real Madrid. I wanted to open it up to the rest of the league. The El Clasico rivals are the engine that drives the league, certainly, but I still want to use my position to highlight the stories and players from the other teams, especially going into a season where we could be having some very influential “others” in this league.
For players to watch for the big two, though, I would keep an eye on Frenkie De Jong and Vinícius. For Barça to be successful, Frenkie has to take that next step from pretty good player to Blaugrana talisman. They are never going to replace Messi’s absence, but Frenkie needs to become a player who can run the show and make a serious difference from midfield, the player we all know he can be. Vinícius was always a player with bags of talent, but he seems to be playing now with a composure and maturity that he has lacked in previous seasons. Before, it seemed that he was often in a rush and the game was still moving quite quickly for him, but now it seems that everything is starting to slow down, and he is able to find that calmness and control that eluded him previously. With Real’s defensive weaknesses, they need to score goals, and they need people not named Karim Benzema to contribute more to the goalscoring. If Los Blancos want to be successful this season, Vinícius has to become THE guy.
Ok, now on to the actual list.
And also, thank you to the wonderful people at LaLiga for providing us with these great photographs that you will see in this post.
Carlos Soler, Valencia
Carlos Soler is the most in-form Spaniard in the world at the moment. Is he the most in-form player that you likely have not heard talked about? Maybe so. Does he deserve your attention? Absolutely.
Soler has been at the center of the only good things about remarkably below-average Valencia teams in recent years. While before, he was simply the “other academy kid” alongside prodigal talent and fellow Valencianista Ferran Torres, he since became one of their only truly consistently good players, especially since the departure of the aforementioned Torres and club captain Dani Parejo. Now that Los Che are enjoying somewhat of a revitalization under new manager José Bordalás, Soler can finally be the central player for a definitively good team, and we can certainly say that he is the best player and vice-captain of his boyhood club. His combination of skills and well-rounded game allows him to be influential in a number of different ways, which has made him indispensable to Bordalás’ side and to his national team, with which he has recently won an Olympic silver medal, won his first senior team cap, and scored his first senior team goal. Like I said, most in-form Spaniard out there right now.
Soler’s well-rounded game is certainly what makes him a great player, and he has certainly played in multiple roles for Valencia and for Spain. He has played as a central midfielder as well as on the left and right, but he has found a home as the right midfielder in this Valencia team. While it is more of a wide midfielder role as compared to a true attacking winger, he still has the freedom to drift around the attacking third and has plenty of opportunities to be involved in the attack and create goal-scoring chances, most recently demonstrated by his smart cross to assist Maxi Gómez’s goal vs Osasuna in Match Day 4. With three goals and two assists in four games so far this season, it is hard to say that Soler could have started the season any better than he has. While many are still focused Torres when it comes to discussing top Spanish talents, we are closing in on the time for Soler to get his moment in the spotlight, and it will be richly deserved.
(Update: he got injured on Sunday in Valencia’s 2-1 loss to Real Madrid. Very unfortunate timing, but we are hoping for a speedy recovery so he can be back on the pitch and playing well again soon.)
Arnaut Danjuma, Villarreal
The “DanjuMagic” Show has officially rolled into the sleepy little town of Vila-real.
I think it would be safe to say that Arnaut Danjuma’s signing certainly raised a few eyebrows, especially given the money that the Dutchman went for. Villarreal, who were shockingly aggressive in the summer transfer window, signed Danjuma from Championship side Bournemouth for a whopping €23.5 million, which does not seem like all that much in the modern market but actually makes Danjuma the Yellow Submarine’s most expensive ever transfer deal. While his 17 goals and seven assists for Bournemouth last season is a very respectable return, he was coming from the Championship, which is certainly a big step down in quality when compared to LaLiga and the Champions League. But…well…he has certainly not looked out of place.
Danjuma has actually only played about 60 minutes of football for Unai Emery’s team this season, which makes it even more remarkable that he has scored two very meaningful goals in that time. His first goal for his new team came away to reigning champions Atlético Madrid (pictured below), while his second goal came in a 2-2 draw against Atalanta in Villarreal’s first foray into the Champions League this season. In a Villarreal attack that has not quite found its feet this season, especially with the lingering absences of Dani Parejo and Samuel Chukwueze, Danjuma has provided welcome and timely relief off the bench while certainly staking a claim to being the starting left winger in this team.
In a team that certainly has potential despite their difficult start, Danjuma has the ability to bring something unique to the table. While he does not have the skillful elegance of Chukwueze or Yeremi Pino, he brings more directness and an eye for goal that those other two do not quite possess. While he is likely not someone who will get 20-plus goals in a season, his positional sense and composure in the final third could be helpful in adding a few more goals to the team tally. In a team that is crying out for someone not named Gerard Moreno to score some goals, Danjuma could be a welcome addition in that regard. Danjuma and fellow Villarreal newcomer Boulaye Dia have the potential to turn an already pretty good Villarreal team into one to watch out for this season.
Iñaki Williams, Athletic Club
No player quite embodies the indomitable lion spirit of Athletic Club de Bilbao at the moment quite like their workhorse Iñaki Williams. But no player has been quite as inconsistent given the level of hype and expectation surrounding him either, and this is the enigma that embodies a player that mainly certainly thought would be more than simply the guy who is a very good LaLiga striker for FIFA Ultimate Team starter squads.
Yes, Iñaki’s six goals last season certainly is not a ringing endorsement for a player who wears the number nine for Athletic Club, and especially for the player who was charged with filling the void left by the retirement of club legend Aritz Aduriz in 2020. While he has certainly had his high moments, his belter of a goal against Barcelona to win the Supercopa de España last season being chief among them, his total returns certainly leave a lot to be desired for a center forward. Though that has never necessarily been who Iñaki is as a player, and the need to turn a dynamic winger like Iñaki into a striker probably would not happen at a club that did not have the very unique self-imposed recruitment restrictions that Athletic have. At the moment, the 27 year old Williams is Athletic’s best option at striker for the immediate future alongside the ever-impressive Raúl Garcia, but given that Garcia turned 35 a few months ago, you can sort of see why Athletic have felt the need to find whatever striker traits and instincts they can in Iñaki.
(Yes, technically Athletic’s best striker option available would be Antoine Griezmann, who is technically eligible to play for Athletic, despite not being Basque, due to his raising through the Real Sociedad academy. But, I mean, come on…)
This season feels a bit different, though, at least early on. Athletic Club manager Marcelino, has been quick to publicly ease the pressure on Iñaki, saying that it is not fair to expect goals from a player who is effectively not a striker. Marcelino has simply wanted Iñaki to play his game and worry about the statistics later, and this newfound belief from the outside has certainly given us a more free and daring Iñaki Williams early in the season. This, combined with Marcelino’s tactics centered around aggression and counter-attacks, has given us a player who is terrorizing opponents. This was most exemplified in their 1-1 draw against Barcelona, where Iñaki bullied Eric García the whole game, being directly responsible for his sending off in the 93rd minute.
There are still issues, and he should still probably be scoring more than he is. His one-on-one miss against Atléti this past weekend is the perfect example of that, a single moment that highlights the brilliance and frustration that makes Iñaki such an enigma. But this is still a player who is feeling a bit more confident than in the past. If Athletic want to continue with their strong start and match the ambitions that a club the size of Athletic should have, they will need a strong Iñaki Williams for the rest of the season.
And for those who love trivia, Iñaki has made his 200th consecutive LaLiga appearance for Athletic Club by the time you are reading this, hitting that mark against Atlético Madrid this past weekend. That is not 200 appearances total, that is CONSECUTIVE. He has not missed a league match for Athletic since April 2016, with this streak starting in a 1-0 win against Málaga (who have since been relegated from LaLiga). He is now remarkably close to overtaking the LaLiga record for consecutive league appearances, set at 202 consecutive appearances by former Real Sociedad defender Juan Antonio Larrañaga. The more you know.
Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo
This entry is mostly meant for those of you who only remember Iago Aspas as one of those failed signings during the Liverpool banter era of the early 2010s.
Aspas has been a crucial player for his beloved Celta Vigo for several seasons now, often being the main or sole reason that Los Celestes have survived several relegation fights. Despite playing for a team fighting at the bottom of the table, he was often there or thereabouts when it comes to the top scorers in LaLiga. He would also win the Zarra Trophy, awarded to the highest-scoring Spaniard in LaLiga, in three consecutive seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19 before finishing third in 2019-20 (behind Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno and Athletic Club’s Raúl Garcia) and second in 2020-21 (behind Gerard Moreno).
2020-21 was different in a number of ways, as early season struggles for Celta gave way to a resurgent second half of the season that saw them finish 8th despite having been in the relegation places in November. It was a season where Aspas did not need to score as many goals to carry his team as before, but he evolved his game to still be Celta’s best and, arguably at least, most important player by leading LaLiga in assists. He evolves his game, even at 34 years old, to stay influential.
And now, in 2021-22, we have a Celta team that looks to be fighting at the bottom of the table again. Having started the season with a draw and four losses, it does seem that whatever mojo that was used to have them finish in the top half last season has worn off. Once again, we will need to have some magic from Iago Aspas to keep the Galicians in the top flight this season. He is certainly capable of doing so, even as he gets older, but it might be a more herculean effort this season compared to previous years. When the going gets tough, Barry Aspas tends to bag goals, so it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on him as the season goes on, especially if things get tougher for Celta.
Robin Le Normand, Real Sociedad
The recent Real Sociedad teams have been known for their attacking flair and firepower. Led chiefly by the likes of Mikel Oyarzabal, Alex Isak, Ander Barrenetxea, and, in previous seasons, Martin Ødegaard, they were always an entertaining watch, guaranteeing the viewer goals and attractive football.
They have recently gotten a bit more defensively solid, however, and it was this defensive solidity that allowed them to remain in the European places last season, even after their attack was hampered by injuries. The main reason why their start to this season was so strong despite injuries to key attacking players was, also, defensive solidity. At the center of this in both seasons is Robin Le Normand, yet another bright and promising young player in this Real Sociedad team.
Le Normand broke into the first team for La Real in 2018/19, and while the Frenchman did not blow anyone away in his first season, he was reliable enough to be counted on consistently by first-year manager Imanol Alguacil. It was in the 2020/21 season, however, where Le Normand began to truly shine. When La Real‘s attack could not deliver, he worked his tail off in defense to try and hold on to leads or defend draws, often looking a player much more developed and mature than his age would suggest. While there were some pretty poor results in the second half of that season (namely a 6-1 loss to Barcelona), there were also some crucial draws or close wins that meant the difference between La Real finishing 5th instead of 7th. It also allowed them to grind out a 1-0 Copa del Rey Final win over arch-rivals Athletic Club, the club’s first major top-flight trophy since the 1980s, and central to all of that success was the oft-reliable Le Normand.
This season, you could make a legitimate argument that Le Normand makes up half of the best center back pairing in LaLiga so far, alongside Spaniard Aritz Elustondo, and he was most recently outstanding in Real Sociedad’s 0-0 draw against Sevilla this weekend, doing well to silence the threatening Youssef En-Nesyri. He is a fully evolved and confident version of himself, a capable modern center back who combines strength and skill well.
Now 24 and turning 25 later this year, Le Normand is among the experienced leaders of this La Real team, ready to step into the role of being among the leading players in his position in LaLiga. Able to combine a towering 6’2″ frame with athleticism, ball-playing ability, and certainly not a lack of confidence, Le Normand is the epitome of the modern center back. While he is not world beating and probably lacks the top-end potential of, say, his countryman Jules Koundé, Le Normand is a very good player in his own right and, at least in this small sample size, has been among the best center backs in the league so far this season. If La Real want to challenge for the Champions League this season, they will need to be consistently solid in defense, especially if key players in attack cannot always stay healthy. If Le Normand continues on this form, it might be the key to getting them into the top four.
Iddrisu Baba, Real Mallorca
Real Mallorca have been one of the main surprise packages in this early stretch of the season. Having taken a point a piece off of Real Betis and Villarreal, and with their only real blemish being a 2-0 away defeat to Athletic Club, there has been plenty to show that last season’s second division runners-up (who only finished second behind champions Espanyol on goal difference) certainly have the capabilities to retain their top-flight status this season.
While much of the attention on Mallorca, and much of my attention, to be honest, was centered around the likes of Takefusa Kubo, Lee Kang-in, and Fer Niño, a player that has certainly caught the eye of myself and others has been midfielder Iddrisu Baba. The Ghanaian had apparently been a mainstay in the Mallorca team during their promotion season, and he performed well enough to, allegedly, pique the interest of eventual champions Atlético Madrid, but he would eventually renew his contract with Los Piratas following their promotion to the top flight.
And he has been pretty good so far this season. A defensive-minded midfielder first and foremost, Baba has been great at breaking up attacks, winning the ball back in midfield, and recycling the ball to allow for fresh attacks or new breakaway chances for the more dynamic players. He plays a role that often goes under-appreciated, but he certainly does it well enough to get people’s attention. Even though he, like the rest of his teammates, did not play well in their rough loss in Bilbao, he was maybe the best player on the pitch in their 0-0 draw against Villarreal. His ability to be a one-man wrecking crew in midfield disrupted everything that Villarreal wanted to do, which was especially effective against a Yellow Submarine team missing a midfielder as influential as Dani Parejo. While their attacking players finding form is certainly important for Mallorca, being able to compete in the midfield at a top-flight level is going to be crucial in ensuring their survival. Having a player as talented and as tireless as Baba could be the difference in their finish at the end of the season.
Mallorca are a difficult team to judge at the moment. They are a team that could certainly finish mid-table or higher, but they are also one who could be fighting near the relegation zone come the end of the season. That mindset is partially a result of me having these sorts of broad discussions when we are only five weeks into the season, but it is also representative of Mallorca’s talent but also the risks that come with the step up in competition that they have taken. Regardless of where Los Piratas are playing next season, I am fairly confident that Iddrisu Baba will be playing for a team in the top half of the LaLiga table. If he keeps this level of performance up, he will certainly attract plenty of suitors from within and outside of Spain.
Óscar Trejo, Rayo Vallecano
Rayo Vallecano’s promotion playoff success over Leganés and Girona at the end of last season capped off a storybook promotion story for the up-and-down minnows from the southeast of Madrid. The overachieving club with a proud and passionate (and political) fanbase aims to make a splash in LaLiga this season despite being pretty heavy relegation favorites.
And they’ve started pretty well. Pretty, pretty well.
While they lost to Real Sociedad and lost pretty heavily to Sevilla, they also put out a 4-0 dominant win over Granada and a 3-0 win over relegation-fighting Getafe while also having a well-fought 1-1 draw against Levante, a game that if anything they would be disappointed that they did not win. There is some promise and belief that Rayo could stay up, and the addition of Colombian star striker Radamel Falcao on Deadline Day will only reinforce those thoughts. But Falcao is too old to do it all himself at this point, and they will need crucial contributions from players within the team already. And up steps Argentine midfield workhorse Óscar Trejo.
Trejo admittedly was pretty good but not phenomenal last season for Rayo in the Segunda Division, but he has started this season with two goals and two assists in the first five games. He has probably been Rayo’s best player so far this season, and he has shined for Los Vallecanos in their big wins so far. He has not always caught the headlines, especially since Falcao’s arrival, but he has definitely been the most effective and consistent figure within the team.
He is an efficient creative player, pairing that hard-working mentality with some great technical ability that allows him to tie the attack together and create chances for the admittedly “not as bad as many might think” Rayo attackers. I do not think he will have the staying power in LaLiga from a newly-promoted team that Iddrisu Baba probably will, I do think Trejo will be someone to watch this season. Falcao obviously has the star power in this Rayo team, but it will be the consistent performances of someone like Trejo that could be the difference between Rayo playing in LaLiga and playing in the Segunda next season.
Thomas Lemar, Atlético Madrid
Yes, I know I said I would be steering clear of some of the big teams in this post. Yes, I know I went back on that by ending this article talking about the reigning champions. But this is really a wild moment, as we are now firmly in a time that most people did not see coming a few years ago.
We are at a time when Thomas Lemar is a crucial player for Atlético Madrid. If you told someone two years ago that this would be the case, they would have thought you were insane.
When Lemar joined Atléti from Monaco for a whopping €72 million in 2018, there were incredible expectations on the shoulders of the diminutive Frenchman. His first two seasons in Madrid were, well, not all that good. Regularly whistled by the fans, routinely criticized by the media, and in a situation where it really looked like Diego Simeone did not trust him, Atléti seemed like they made a colossal mistake bringing in Lemar. And it was not a mistake they could correct without taking a colossal loss on the player, as there was no chance that they could get a team to purchase him for anywhere close to what Atléti paid Monaco for him. At the nadir of his time in Madrid, Atléti struggled to even find a team that would take him on loan. What a disastrous turn of events.
And then the 2020/21 season happened. Atléti obviously were crowned champions, and Lemar missed a sizable chunk of games with injuries and a positive COVID test, but when he played, he looked pretty dang good. I would go as far as to say that there were times during the middle chunk of the season that Lemar was one of Atlético Madrid’s best players. The end of last season and beginning of this season ratified those ideas. Lemar has evolved from a small but agile winger to an incredibly well-rounded midfielder. Capable of doing the hard work, pressing, and defending required by a Simeone team while also being able to charge forward with the ball, combine with the forwards, and make things happen, he has certainly turned into a lynchpin midfielder in this team. In many ways he has become the player that Saúl once was, even possibly becoming the player that many thought Saúl would become. He has gone from a player that was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in Simeone’s system to one of their best, if not arguably their best, attacking player. He has gone from an afterthought to a player that they actively miss when he is not in the team.
Lemar’s greatest skills are obviously in attack, but he certainly has grown as a player in his defensive intelligence and his pressing desire. Simeone’s move to the 3-5-2 when Suárez arrived may have benefitted Lemar more than almost any other Atléti player, as he now has more attacking freedom within the set up while also being able to become more of a “Simeone” player. While his stats are not remarkable to start the season, with only one goal and one assist through four games, that one goal, a 99th minute winner against Espanyol, could be really influential when we get into the business end of the season when Atléti hope to be contending for another league title. The striking thing about Lemar, though, is when he is not there. Against Athletic Club this past weekend, it very clearly seemed that Atléti missed him, not having the same sort of bursting attacking energy from the midfield. This is all insane when talking about a player who was actively whistled and heckled by his team’s own supporters only two years ago.
Thomas Lemar is going to be a player who has a significant say over who finishes where at the top of the LaLiga table this season. The Frenchman has completed the country’s biggest redemption arc in ages, cementing himself as one of Atléti’s most important players and one of the better attacking players in the league. “Watch Atlético Madrid” has not exactly been the best entertainment recommendation for neutral fans over the last decade, but I promise you, Lemar is a player to keep an eye on. When he is in the team, Atléti are better. He has the chance to turn into one of the stars of the league by this time next year.
And there you have it. Eight players from LaLiga to keep an eye on this season. These are quality players who have the potential to be difference-makers at all ends of the table, influencing the title race, European races, and the relegation fights. How well will they do this season? Well, you have to watch to find out!
Once again, thank you to LaLiga for providing the photos for this article.
Featured Image Credits: LaLiga
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