There is always questions ahead of kick off each season. It’s not about who qualifies for European football. It’s not about which sides get relegated. There is only one issue in Spain. The perennial question that crops up every August revolves around which of the big two will win La Liga? Madrid have behaved like Madrid during pre-season and signed more stellar names whereas Barcelona have underwent something of a mini revolution with a host of new signings under the tutelage of new manager, Luis Enrique. So who will win La Liga?
Wait? It’s not a two horse race? It’s a three horse race again this season? :-
The Top Three – Season 13-14
Sure, Atleti may have won the title last season but that was a complete fluke, wasn’t it? They can’t compete again, even Simeone has admitted this:-
“I don’t like to lie to people and one thing is clear: We can’t compete with Madrid or Barcelona. Our rivals are Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic and third is our objective”
Of course last season, Simeone repeatedly told anyone who would listen that Atleti couldn’t win La Liga but they did. They couldn’t do so again, could they?
Atleti – The Cycle Continues.
“Last year was no fluke, it was a consequence of what has been going on at the club”
Can lighting strike twice? Atleti once more start as distant third favourites in the eyes of the bookmakers for the title. Their title.
There have been goodbyes and very good buys at the Calderon during the summer. Courtois, Filipe Luis and Costa moved to Stamford Bridge with the latter pairing gaining substantial income for Atleti that has been wisely reinvested in the team. Did people really think Atleti were ready to rest on their achievements thus far, accept their place?
In Simeone, Atleti possess one of the most highly rated coaches in Europe. And as La Liga champions and a team that were moments away from winning the Champions League, convincing players to stay whilst attracting new players was always going to be much easier than many suggested. Whisper it but Atleti are arguably stronger now than they were last season. Further departures were confirmed in Adrian, David Villa and Guilavogui yet the reinforcements are very impressive.
Oblak, Siquiera, Mandzukic, Griezmann (offering a new dimension to Atleti’s attack), Correa, Jimenez, utility defender Ansaldi from Zenit could be very important and Saul after a year at Rayo and Atleti have greater all round strength than before. And Koke has signed a new contract too. So can they do the unthinkable and defend their title?
Simeone has urged caution and acknowledged that this is a new team with all of the changes that have occurred:-
“We are finishing the group. We have changed, especially in attack. I see it as a new beginning. The solid structure supporting the attack is maintained but we are looking for the style that best suits us. We must have patience.”
The issue is not the quality of the side individually but the ability for Atleti to continue the collective play and intensity of their game that Simeone demands after almost 3 years in control. Is the hunger still there within the players? Can they still give everything for the side week in, week out? Can el Cholo get the new players to integrate quickly and adapt to the high workrate and tempo that he demands? If he can then Atleti can once more mount a serious challenge for the league.
“The structure of the team is not going to change. Stability comes with maintaining the same ideas: intensity and aggressiveness will continue to be the basis,”
And the players believe this too. Simeone’s on-field general, Gabi confirms as much:-
“We have a clear idea of how we want to play,”
And that is the key.
For Simeone, this isn’t the end of the cycle:-
“First it was the Europa League, then the European Super Cup, Copa del Rey, third in the League and the following year the League title and the Champions League final. The team and the club have done great work to retain many players and try and continue a great cycle.”
Simone believed last season and many doubted him. Despite his words, he believes again this season. Who doubts Atleti now?
Martino failed didn’t he? After all, a trophyless season at a club like Barcelona is a failure no matter what the contextual narrative is. And the Argentinean has admitted that himself:-
“I’m completely dissatisfied with the year that has passed and I’m always thinking that I’m the man responsible”
Former player Luis Enrique returns to the Camp Nou to take control of a squad with new players but still needing further overhaul work. Short spells at Roma and Celta Vigo have identified the style of Enrique. Similarities with Guardiola exist but also key differences. Expect Barcelona to continue with the attractive style of play but contain a rougher edge to them. “Lucho” won’t expect his side to be bossed or bullied physically on the pitch. It won’t be more of the same but a gradual evolution of style. You don’t abandon your footballing principles die to one poor season. You adapt and you evolve making subtle tactical tweaks. An overhaul is not required. The death of tiki taka has been greatly exaggerated.
With numerous new arrivals but also departures, each area of the team needs work to fit together. Pre season friendlies have seen players from the B team step up and there will be spaces available for those who perform to complement the squad. The real focus has been on the final third with the arrival of Luis Suarez even allowing for his 4 month ban. How does the Uruguayan fit in with Messi and Neymar?
With Xavi likely to play a diminished role, the opportunity will exist for Messi to drop deeper than before and play as a genuine no10 with Suarez as a no9 ahead of him and Neymar on the left. It’s a trio brimming with potential but it also leads to questions. Do Barcelona continue with a 4-3-3 meaning the right side needs a younger version of Dani Alves to operate the full length of the pitch or does the side switch to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1. With Mascherano now back in defensive midfield and Busquets possibly playing a little higher up the pitch, options exist. Barcelona has consistently failed to plan or address what happens in a team without Xavi. That problem can no longer be avoided and will be dealt with one way or another this season. It’s exacerbated with the looming transfer ban. Pending an appeal to CAS, Barcelona may be unable to sign any more players once this window closes until January 2016. Further activity is therefore likely for a squad that isn’t strong enough to survive until January 2016 without further reinforcements. The problem for Barcelona is their recent appalling record in transfer dealings. The likes of Alex Song, not a player Barcelona needed but a player Barcelona could afford, is still to be offloaded. Can Barcelona really make enough acquisitions of the requisite quality?
Surprisingly, Deulofeu has been allowed to leave on loan although the spell with Sevilla could see him ready to return next season and claim a place but the prospect of a permanent departure increases now. With limited options in attack, the likes of Munir now have far greater opportunities to establish themselves as members of the first team squad.
It won’t be permitted but it does feel like a transitional season is beginning for Barcelona albeit one that certainly contains more possibilities for the team than most clubs can even dream about. Xavi has spoken about the harmony in the squad and the need to capture at least one trophy this season.
“We’ve signed very good players both on a football and personal level. The human relationships are the best there have been in recent years”
That could be crucial. Enrique building a close knit squad could see challenges sustained despite the relative lack of depth to the squad. A testing season lies ahead for Lucho.
Real Madrid – A Balancing Act
When the opportunity arises to sign a player of the calibre of Toni Kroos for around £20million, it’s not really a difficult decision to make. And when you’re the President of Real Madrid, you don’t really consider if the club need another elite level player. If one becomes available, you sign him. And in a World Cup year, who else can you sign other than the star player from that World Cup and golden boot winner, James Rodriguez of Columbia. It’s a policy that Florentino Perez adheres too. It’s not his problem how all of these star players integrate into the team. That’s a problem for the Coach to contend with.
A problem that has caused successive coaches of Real Madrid notable problems as Perez has tended to make at least one marquee signing each summer during his tenure as President. Fortunately, in Carlo Ancelotti, Perez now has a Coach in charge of Real Madrid who has repeatedly proven his ability to squeeze a multitude of star names into a starting line up without compromising the team balance as a consequence. Whether Carlo Ancelotti actually wanted Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez is immaterial. He’s got them now and fitting them into the side is his problem. This could be Ancelotti’s most difficult assignment yet.
Where should Rodriguez play? Can Kroos and Modric play against the very top teams with no defensive support? It’s all about balance for Ancelotti this season. With the departures of Khedira and Di Maria seeming likely and in the case of the diminutive Argentinean completely baffling, the base of midfield remains the issue that Ancelotti must focus on. A pairing of Kroos and Modric is very attractive but defensively unstable as witnessed in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla.
Could Kroos replace Alonso in the Madrid side? At 32 and with limited mobility, his time on the main stage could be drawing to a conclusion. Last season in La Liga, Alonso averaged 65 passes per game, the most of any Madrid player with Ramos on 61 and Modric on 58. When it comes to interceptions (1.5) and tackles (2.4), Alonso makes more per game of both than any other Madrid midfielder. Unsurprisingly, he also commits more fouls too. A product of his lack of mobility or due to him being swamped with too many team mates pushing on? His defensive contribution is key for Madrid. Alonso played 26 league games for Madrid last season with los blancos taking an average of 2.38 points per game. Without him they took 2.08 points per game.
Could Kroos fulfil this defensive role? Last season Kroos made an average of 75 passes per game but on the defensive side only averaged 0.5 interceptions per game and 1.8 tackles per game. Does that matter? Given Bayern’s complete dominance of the ball, these statistics will be heavily skewed. Simply put, it’s hard to defend when you always have the ball. And it’s hard to analyse the defensive output for Kroos as a consequence. There is still an important role for Alonso but the real beneficiary should be Illarramedi. The Basque must step forward this season and demonstrate why he gained so many plaudits at La Real.
If Di Maria does depart, more is likely to be asked of Bale to operate partly as a shuttling role between midfield and attack. As adaptable as Bale is and given his early career saw him positioned at full back, he will be able to cope. But can he deliver as well as Di Maria? I’m not certain he can make the difference to the same extent as Di Maria does.
Madrid begin the season as clear favourites for the title. Individually, the squad is packed with quality and is arguably the best squad in world football. How that translates onto the pitch collectively will be the dilemma for Ancelotti this season. Get it right and you could see Madrid dominate all the tournaments they enter. Get it wrong and…well, you know how Perez tends to operate.
It’s difficult to look beyond Madrid even with the balancing problems that exist. The depth of talent within the squad is unrivalled and even though seeing Atleti successfully defend their title would be unparalleled in the modern era of European football, I just cannot see it happening. Atleti will have the greatest success in cup competitions once more as normal service is resumed on the domestic front. Barcelona to finish runners up to Madrid. Even if the collective fails, individually they can still win games.
The Battle for Fourth
Away from the title race, the battle for fourth place, assuming that the big three (funny saying that now) secure the top three positions, and final Champions League position could see a genuine contest between five teams. Four of the contenders could be involved in European football this season. Will that have an effect? The graphic below shows the final positions from last season:-
The Race for 4th Place – Season 13-14
Unai Emery likes to make changes. He changes this, he changes that. It’s what he does best along with managing to take one point from games in which his team should take three. He excelled at such a conservative approach at Valencia yet showed brief glimpses of shaking that image off a little at Sevilla as the Andalusians claimed the Europa League. Yet by narrowly missing out on 4th place with a typically cautious performance in a game they needed to win against Athletic Bilbao, Emery showed that streak remains within him.
It’s been another busy close season at the Sanchez Pizjuan for Monchi as he showed signs last season of getting back to his wheeling dealing best. Rakitic and Moreno depart for hefty fees but yet again it’s the players coming in that show real potential for the side. Iago Aspas arrives after a nightmare time at Liverpool to aid the attack but its the capture on loan of Gerard Deulofeu that could be really inspiring if the Barcelona youngster’s words are anything to go by:-
“My departure surprised me a bit, they made me come back from Everton and then later they told me I wouldn’t get minutes. But I don’t want to talk much about Barca, I want to talk about the year I am going to have here. I know that I am lacking some things from a defensive aspect and I will work to improve that. One of my aims is to show Luis Enrique he was wrong and above all show it to myself.”
And then the is arguably the signing of the summer. The sort of transfer that make you double check the fee involved because there had to be a typo in there surely? Ever Banega left Valencia to be reunited with his former manager for a paltry €2.5m. If Banega focuses on the football as he did during Valverde’s brief tenure at the Mestalla, Sevilla have a midfielder capable of dragging the team forward and one that will lessen the blow of losing last season’s talisman, Rakitic.
Emery showed last season that sometimes changes can be good as he juggled the squad on two fronts. If they can beat Athletic, Sevilla will finish 4th.
There is something very reassuring about a side managed by Ernesto Valverde. You immediately know the type of football that you will see. His sides always display the same style and personality and Athletic are no different. The chaos of the Bielsa era was pushed aside as Valverde guided the Basques to 4th place last season and Champions League qualification. Subject to their game against Napoli, the possiblity of Champions League involvement or at the very least, Europa League football to contend with, it’s a season that will stretch the Athletic squad fully.
Borja Viguero arrives to strengthen the attack with Kike Sola recovering from injury but alongside Aduritz there is still a question mark over who will score the goals. None of the three are prolific. As usual there will be a reliance upon the midfield and the team in general to supplement the forwards and weigh in with a few goals.
Ander Herrara has departed but Benat should take his place in the side and hopefully rediscover Betis form. With a limited talent pool upon which to draw, Athletic are reliant upon their cantera for new talent. It’s tie for the likes of of Laporte, Moran and Gomez to challenge for first team starting place on a regular basis Beyond that, will Iker Muniain consistently show his true capabilities rather than just fleeting moments?
For the first time since season 2004/05, Valencia begin a season with no European football on the cards. What was perhaps viewed as a disappointment when last season ended, could become a blessing in disguise for the newly appointed inexperienced Portuguese manager Santo, who takes the helm backed by the finance of Peter Lim following his takeover of the club.
The loss of Bernat to Bayern Munich is considerable but the arrival of Mustafi, fresh from his involvement in Germany’s World Cup winning campaign, should offset that loss. Mathieu has also gone as a reshuffled backline will include the Argentinean Otamendi.
Last season, Jonas with a paltry 9 league goals was top scorer in league. It’s simply not good enough for a side with aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League. To remedy this, Rodrigo has joined from Benfica. Yet Valencia have sufficient creativity within their ranks to provide for the striker. Alcacer, Piatti and Parejo are all fine players meaning the loss of Banega should not be felt in the central midfield area.
Just how important free midweeks are will become apparent as the season wears on. With no distractions, Valencia will be able to mount a challenge in the league alone. With a little luck, maybe the club will get through the entire season with the same manager?
Nobody expected Villarreal to perform as well as they did last season. And nobody will expect them to perform to quite the same level again but Marcelinho will need to continute the impressive form of the submarine. Again, another side who wil face the slog of Sunday, Thursday, Sunday football if a prolonged run in the Europa League takes hold and again, Villarreal has a squad that isn’t the strongest in terms of numbers.
Some good signings have arrived with Jonathan Dos Santos joining his brother at El Madrigal along with Rukavina and Cheryshev. Victor Ruiz comes in perhaps as a replacement for the departure of Mussachio. Whilst he has suffered in recent times since leaving Espanyol for Napoli, there is a good defender in Ruiz if Marcelinho can coax his best form again. The front end of the team has suffered with the loss of Perbet, Pereira and Aquino.
The Submarine will draw heavily upon the ability of Bruno, Trigueros, the aging limbs of Cani and the goals of Giovani Dos Santos if they are to replicate last season.
La Real could be the side to slip a little further down the pecking order this season. Whilst the loss of Bravo and Griezmann have been covered with Rulli and Finnbogason, you have to consider the drop in quality alongside the loss previously of Illarramendi. True, he has been replaced by Granero but the continued loss of such key performers to be replaced by quality but lesser quality as an effect. Arrasate can only do so much and with Xabi Prieto a little older and a little slower, much will depend upon the ability of Pardo. Can he confirm a place in the side and offer something different?
Much will also weigh heavily upon Vela this season. Finnbogason may have scored elsewhere but it’s a step up in quality for him this season. Vela will be the focal point for the attack now.
There’s always the nagging feeling with La Real that they are happy just to be there. That they lack the mentality to take the fight on that little bit further. A further slip down the league beckons for La Real.
And for the rest of La Liga, it’s the usual mix. Teams that will defy the odds and perform well whilst some other teams will go on prolonged runs of poor form and get dragged into the seemingly endless relegation mire that will go the final day of the season as is customary in Spain. And with the usual dozen or so permutations on who could be relegated due to the head to head ruling.
Unsurprisingly, the newly promoted minnows of Eibar and Cordoba are odds on favourites for a swift return to the Segunda. The third side to accompany them upwards into La Liga are also third favourites to return but things could look different up in Galicia this season. Deportivo have the ability to stay in the top flight.
Deportivo – Upsetting the Odds?
Last time around Depor didn’t have any problems creating and scoring goals but their leaky defence conceded 70, only fellow relegated side Real Mallorca conceded more than that. That problem was solved in the Segunda last season with the defence only conceding 36 goals but the trade off was an attack that hit just 48 goals in 42 games. Victor Fernandez favouring a more conservative style of play that gained the necessary points to get promotion. Don’t expect dramatic changes this season either. Grinding out points will be key to survival but more goals are still needed. To remedy this, the usual influx of players on loan have arrived at the Riazor. The revolving door policy doesn’t breed stability but such a term isn’t really understood at the financially stricken club.
One player who has joined permanently on a 12 month contract and who, with the greatest respect to Deportivo, should be playing at a higher level is Isaac Cuenca. If the former Barcelona winger can recapture his early career form before injury stalled his development, Depor will have a genuine creative force to supplement their attack. It won’t be a spectacular season but a finish outside the relegation zone is achievable and will be considered a success whilst confounding the bookies in the process.
The Boys from Vallecas – Rayo
If Atleti and their fans are wondering if lighting can strike twice, the fans of Rayo are pondering the unthinkable. Can it strike for the third time? Can Paco Jemez really lead Rayo Vallecano to safety for the third season in a row?
Sadly, I fear for Rayo this season. This may be just one step too far and the relative late season comfort they have enjoyed in the past two seasons may be missing this season.
“The team is under construction, but we’re slowly settling in.”
Construction is the apt word. For every season, Paco Jemez aided by Sportin Director Minambres set about rebuilding the foundations in Vallecas. This season, an astonishing 19 players departed leaving just eight first team players. So far, a further 12 players have joined. As normal, there seems to be an abundance of creativity with the likes of Jonathan Pereira, Aquino, Pozuelo and Kakuta but where will the goals come from? The loss of Larrivey could be significant as his replacement in Manucho doesn’t inspire confidence with just 14 goals in his 57 games for Vallodolid. And further back, the defence needs work. Rayo have conceded 146 goals in two seasons under Jemez in the top flight, a frightening amount.
With such a huge turnaround of players, an adaptation period would take time for any team. When you have a team with one of the smallest budgets in the league attempting to dominate possession and play one of the most expansive style of football in the league, that adaptation period is extended and mistakes will occur. For Rayo, this frequently ends in heavy defeats early in the season. Pressing opponents all over the pitch and playing a very high offside line is not something that comes naturally to all players. Positioning and coordination the team unit takes time.
The ability of players to adapt is essential. If not, Rayo will have serious problems hence the decision to allow new signing Boateng to depart just two months after arrival. The Ghanian unable to adjust to the demands of Jemez. Results may be unfavourable early on just like last season but don’t expect Paco Jemez to change. That won’t happen:-
“I’m not interested in just winning any old way… This is what we wanted. This is the way we are. This is what we are”
If it’s goals and excitement you want this season, Rayo Vallecano are the team for you. And with a little extra support, maybe, just maybe they can escape relegation.