Preview en español…
Welcome to the beginning of the LaLiga season for 2022/23. The curious, cramped, World Cup season is bound to be an interesting one on the Iberian Peninsula, and we are here to break it all down for you, similar to how we did for the Premier League previously. Unlike the Premier League previews, it will just be me doing this solo. As a United fan, Vikram’s expertise fades the moment it has to cross the English Channel. But anyway, let’s get started…
Today, it is the Top Four. Who will represent Spain in the Champions League next season?
Naturally, this is Spain. This is LaLiga. There are two very notable teams that we all know will likely end up at the top at the end of the season. I think we can all fairly safely assume that Barcelona and Real Madrid will finish in some combination in the top two places in the table, just as they have done in almost every season over the last several decades. Who will be champions? That is for a different article for a different day, but just assume the top two places will be occupied by some combination of the Clásico rivals. Now let’s have some fun and make some bold claims.
Villarreal will finish third. Not Atlético Madrid, not Sevilla. Unai Emery’s Yellow Submarine will finish third in the league this season and will continue on their incredible fairy tale story.
Though it is a bit less of a fairy tale this time around. It really is “put up or shut up” time now for Unai Emery, the weight of expectation has finally showed up. Villarreal were Spain and Europe’s loving underdogs the last two seasons, following up a historic Europa League Final victory over Manchester United with an improbable run to the Champions League semifinal last season in a tie against Liverpool that, if the ball bounced a few different ways and they were just a bit healthier going into the second leg, really could have ended in their favor. Despite the incredible heroics in Europe, Emery’s team was unable to finish higher than 7th in the last two seasons. While that might be commendable from the outside looking in for a plucky underdog like Villarreal, it truly is a bit disappointing when you really look at this team.
Villarreal have assembled one of the best teams in Spain, a squad with talent all over the pitch and multiple players that can be considered among the best in their position in the country. Gerard Moreno and Dani Parejo in particular are two players who would get considerable playing time and influence in 18 of the 20 teams in LaLiga. This squad, from top to bottom, is very good, and it got this way for two reasons.
Villarreal has operated very well in the transfer market over the last two seasons, but this summer in particular has set them up for success. While the move for Boulaye Dia last summer did not work out, the move for Arnaut Danjuma certainly has. The loans for Tottenham duo Giovani Lo Celso and Juan Foyth, with Foyth since joining the club permanently, have also been very astute transfers to add two high-level players to the core of this team. This summer, moving on talented but inconsistent fullback Pervis Estupiñán to Brighton for €17.8 million while replacing him with the equally-talented Johan Mojica from Elche for less than a third of that price was incredibly intelligent of them. They also added experience through free transfers for experienced LaLiga striker José Luis “El Comandante” Morales from relegated Levante and World Cup winner Pepe Reina from Lazio.
But most importantly, they have been able to keep the core of this team together. The core of players that won the Europa League two years ago and were a game away from a Champions League Final last season are still here. Despite significant interest from outside of Spain during the transfer window, all of Yeremy Pino, Arnaut Danjuma, Juan Foyth, Samuel Chukwueze, and Pau Torres are still at the club. The key spine of Gerard Moreno, Dani Parejo, and Raúl Albiol are all still there as well. As weird as it might be to say, the retention of Francis Coquelin and Etienne Capoue is also notable, and Capoue’s strong start to the season in particular highlights that importance. Add in the emergence of new young talents in Álex Baena, Manu Morlanes, and Nicolas Jackson, and you have the makings of an incredibly talented team in all areas of the pitch. Add in less of a European distraction this season, with Villarreal likely placing less importance on the Europa Conference League given their domestic aspirations, and it is easy to see how a third place finish is very possible for Emery’s team. There might be some concerns if Moreno or Parejo are out for extended time, and there might be concerns about their ability to consistently finish chances, but this is a team with serious potential on paper. Any finish that follows the trend of the last two seasons, however, and some serious questions will start to be asked of Emery. Make no mistake, there is serious expectation here.
Now for Atlético Madrid, well, it is a bit difficult to truly explain, isn’t it? After all, this is still mostly the same team that were champions of Spain two years ago.
Much of the issues in this team from last season still remain, however. This is still very much a team that does not know who they are or what they want to be. A team stuck in two minds, between two identities, unsure if they want to be the rugged, defensive Cholismo teams of old or if they want to be more expansive and attacking. This has left them in this weird 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid system that, while it did work wonders in their title-winning season, seems to have left them in a rut now. While partially highlighting just how important Kieran Trippier was in that title-winning season, it also shows the issue in mindset in this team. They inherently want to be more solid defensively, but the individual defenders in this team are not as good as Atléti teams of old. The move to the 3-5-2 was an attempt to get more out of this team going forward, but we now have a team that seems very incapable of creating any sort of attacking chances despite having a very talented set of attackers in this team, most notably including wonderkid João Félix.
As the old saying goes, the man who chases two rabbits catches neither of them. Diego Simeone seemingly wants his team to be two things at the same time, and in an attempt to make that a reality, they end up being neither of those things. The product we are left with is an Atléti side that is very confused, not playing to the level of the talent within the team, and one that is certainly vulnerable. And on top of this, rather clueless navigation through the transfer market the past few seasons leaves them incredibly short on quality in defense and not enough players able to connect the midfield and attack. In many ways, this team is a mixture of pieces that do not fit together.
Will they still finish in the top four? I think so. Cholo Simeone is still a very good manager, and he has shown on a yearly basis his ability to make the pieces at his disposal work well enough to at least keep Atléti’s Champions League presence tick over year on year. This team still has plenty of talent and they should be able to eventually overpower the lower teams in Spain. João Félix is still brilliant on his day. Marcos Llorente, Thomas Lemar, Rodrigo De Paul, and Ángel Correa can still be difference makers. Jan Oblak, despite a poor season by his standards in 2020/21, is still one of the best goalkeepers on the planet. There should still be enough here for Simeone to guide this team back into the Champions League once again.
The task is a bit more difficult this time around, though. The seas that El Cholo must navigate through are a bit choppier than usual. With the growing quality in teams outside of the main three in the league, there is much more competition for the Champions League places. Villarreal are not the only team that Atléti must check over their shoulder and keep an eye on. Added on to this are growing concerns about Atléti’s finances, questions from within regarding Simeone’s leadership, and now a dispute with Barcelona over Antoine Griezmann’s loan which could turn into a full-blown lawsuit, and there are certainly enough issues facing Los Colchoneros this season. Top four is a fight, not a guarantee, for Atlético Madrid.
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