A familiar name at the top of the pile…for now?
There have been many interesting stories and headlines around Europe’s Top Five Leagues so far this season, and maybe none of the leagues has been quite as intriguing as LaLiga. Spain’s top flight has a routine current leader, sure, but it becomes more curious and more interesting as you look further down the table. Barça and Atleti are where? How many teams are in the hunt for Europe? And who in the world are Rayo Vallecano, anyway?
And that is what I am here to talk about, in a series of articles about 2021/22’s LaLiga Stories. With help from our wonderful friends at LaLiga who have provided us with some amazing photographs to use to illustrate these pieces, I am here to talk about the headline moments from the first half of the LaLiga season and prepare you for what could be a very intriguing finish to Spain’s top-flight league.
We might as well start this off at the top, so to speak. Real Madrid enter this end-of-January international break top of the league, having largely been in the driver’s seat since the beginning of the season and looking every bit back to their very best under returning manager Carlo Ancelotti. Los Blancos are the pace-setters most certainly, and their success this season, largely, has been attributed…
…to these two.
Karim Benzema has been arguably Real Madrid’s best player since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, and it certainly is not irrational to say he has been the best player in LaLiga this season with his absurd 17 goals and seven assists in 21 league games. He is, by himself, directly responsible for over half of Real Madrid’s goals in LaLiga this season. This has already been a landmark season for the Frenchman, who became Real Madrid’s fourth-highest all-time goalscorer back in October and has launched himself further up the all-time Champions League scorers ranks, and he only continues to add to the tallies and highlights as he goes. Much like the wine made in his native Lyon, Benzema seems to only be getting better with age, and we might just be witnessing the Frenchman at the peak of his powers.
The big issue for Real Madrid in the post-Ronaldo era, however, has been who is able to provide the game-winning moments when Benzema does not. That is where Vinícius Junior’s emergence this season has revolutionized things. The Brazilian dynamo, who is still amazingly only 21 years old, has racked up a still fairly absurd 12 goals and five assists in 21 league games so far this season, being a brilliant foil to Benzema and helping to spearhead the most potent attacking force in LaLiga. These two players alone have either scored or assisted on 41 of Real Madrid’s 47 league goals and both have been named LaLiga Players of the Month, Benzema for September and Vinícius for November. We are now seeing a confident, daring, and inspired Viní Jr., the player we thought we would see when Real Madrid signed him from Flamengo in 2018. He is a player who may have been on the way out in Real Madrid’s Mbappé Dream Scenario initially, but this Viní now has Madridistas dreaming of what a Viní-Benzema-Mbappé front three could be. But that is for another time.
But simply boiling Real Madrid’s success down to two people would not tell the whole story. Yes, Benzema and Vinícius have both been phenomenal, but this has been a true collective performance. The midfield triumvirate of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro is still just as good as ever, even with Modrić now 36 years old. Thibaut Courtois has been maybe the best goalkeeper in the league over the last several months, pulling off several spectacular saves in big moments to preserve leads or save valuable points. They have had some important contributions from bench players, including but not limited to Federico Valverde, Lucas Vázquez, Marco Asensio, and the newly-arrived Eduardo Camavinga.
But maybe the one thing that has elevated Real Madrid from a very good team to potentially league and European champions this season is the center backs. The departure of Raphaël Varane and Sergio Ramos was always going to be brutal, but the signing of David Alaba and the emergence of Éder Militão has certainly steadied the ship. They have not filled the void left by the colossal pairing of Varane and Ramos, very few players could, but the Brazilian and Austrian have certainly built a strong connection and improved as the season has progressed. Militão specifically, whom I have highlighted in a previous blog post, has really grown into the talent that Real Madrid envisioned him being when he arrived in the Spanish capital from Porto, and the evolution of both him and Vinícius this season should excite Madridistas for the future.
So is there any risk? Have we just handed the title to Real Madrid already? Well…not quite.
There is still a challenge for them. Their lead at the top is only four points going into the meat of the season and the return of the Champions League. They will be playing on multiple fronts for the rest of the season, ideally. Their most recent 2-2 draw against Elche, coming from 2-0 down, certainly showed the spirit of champions but also revealed some, dare I say, exhaustion within the team. Weaknesses have begun to show.
Ancelotti certainly is not helping himself here, either, as the Italian has found his main 11 and has stuck with it, maybe not rotating his team to the degree that he should be. Real Madrid have six players (Thibaut Courtois, Éder Militão, David Alaba, Karim Benzema, Vinícius Junior, and Casemiro) who have played at least 1,600 of the 1,980 available league minutes this season. For comparison, the next three placed teams in the table as of the time of writing this (Sevilla, Real Betis, Atlético Madrid) have five players between the three of them with over 1,600 minutes played in LaLiga this season. There is a possibility that the amount of minutes and number of games, fighting on multiple fronts this season, will come back to bite them. Also, given how important Benzema and Viní Jr. have been in their scoring this season, the potential of losing one of them for an extended period of time, or the risk of one going through a rut of poor form, could be enough to derail a season.
It has similarities to Ancelotti’s final season of his first tenure in Madrid, where Los Blancos were top of the league from Match Week 10 to Match Week 25 and failed to win the league. All it takes is one or two slip-ups for Real Madrid to present an opportunity to another team. Who are the other teams chasing? Well, we will discuss them in Part 2.