Atleti vs Rayo – Atleti Strong but Rayo Weak.

Atleti continue their very impressive start to the season with a resounding home win over a poor Rayo Vallecano. The game in some respects went entirely according to plan. Rayo tried to impose themselves on their hosts and played a very open and attack minded game and went consequently ripped to shreds by an Atleti side who are one of the most lethal counter attacking sides at the moment.

Line Ups

Simeone made a couple of changes from the team that had drawn 1-1 with Barcelona in midweek.
Raul Garcia and Tiago came into the side with Mario and Koke dropping to the bench.
Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Atleti vs Rayo Starting Line Ups

Paco Jemez named a starting eleven which had changed considerably since last season with players such as Leo and Piti having left the club. Saul on loan from Atleti, started the game in midfield for Rayo with former Atleti player Perea in attack.

One Way Traffic

Atleti only had 44% possession in this game, completing 269 passes from 362 attempted. Would that concern Simeone? No, not at all. The objective from Simeone is to achieve something when his side have possession. To have a goal in mind and not simply have the ball and recycle possession. It has led to an Atleti side that counter superbly well with swift, incisive passing that cuts the opponent open. It has also led to an Atleti that can toil against a low block.
Filipe Luis was very noticeable pushing high on the left aided by Perea moving infield. The full back was able to support attacks and repeatedly found space.
The most notable feature from a Rayo perspective was the squashed nature of their side in the midfield area with almost no influence whatsoever on the right flank with Perea very narrow and exerting no influence over the game. Rayo maintained their passing philosophy throughout as they enjoyed more possession and completed 399 passes from 489 attempted even if this approach indirectly led to the final Atleti goal when Rayo refused to clear their lines despite ample opportunity to do so:-
Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

Atleti vs Rayo Player Influence

The Naivety of Paco Jemez?

Paco Jemez is known for sticking to his footballing beliefs and not altering his view. Perhaps his most famous quote recently referred to Celtic’s ultra defensive performance against Barcelona when they lost 2-1. Rayo attacked Barcelona and lost 5-0:-
“I could play like Celtic did, but I would drop my head in shame when I looked in the eyes of our fans.”
Jemez remains true to his beliefs. Is this an act of folly or the act of a principled man? Whatever way you consider it, his game plan needs to be executed properly if it has any hope of working correctly. The key aspect of a high offside line is pressure on your opponent in their own half but Rayo simply didn’t press well enough. What emerged was a gap between the front half of the team pressing ineffectively and the defence positioned close to the halfway line. Rayo looked slow and unable to compete. That is more concerning than the failure of the offside trap.
The graphic below from the 36 minute shows the Rayo defensive line completely disjointed yet managing to catch Atleti offside just inside their own half :-
Rayo Offside Line

Rayo Offside Line

Atleti were caught offside on 14 separate occasions in the game yet just as often they broke through Rayo’s shambolic offside trap.
The high line cannot explain the terrible defending that enabled Raul Garcia to have a free header after 17 minutes to open the scoring or Diego Costa to arrive at the back post a few minutes later and score the second from a cut back by Arda.
The prowess of Atleti on the counter is well known as is the problems that Atleti can encounter when teams use a low block against them. Yet Jemez opted to continue with his high risk strategy and push men forward even though Atleti would provide a stern test of Rayo’s defensive capabilities on transitions. A Rayo defence substantially different from last season. Cassado, Amat and Figueras have all departed. The defence is new.
Given the manner in which Rayo play, there will always be a need for an adaptation phase. Rayo encountered similar defensive frailties last season before tightening up. These issues should be resolved but you can’t help feel that the overall drop in quality will play a role too. Until that adaptation phase has proven successful, should a more conservative approach be utilised?

What Jemez cannot do, however, is legislate for the poor passing of his side coupled with a lack of aggression in their play. Rayo were meek in their defeat. That is unacceptable as Jemez admitted post match. At the very least, Rayo must compete.

Rayo Attack

If Rayo were extremely poor defensively, they were just as bad offensively. They didn’t manage to register a shot on target until the 84th minute of the game. Apart from two off targets efforts from inside the penalty area, the remaining five shots from Rayo were all from outside the penalty area which neatly sums up their game. Rayo build from the back with short passing but they quickly ran out of idea as they approached the Atleti penalty area:-
Atleti vs Rayo Shots

Atleti vs Rayo Shots

When attacks broke down, Atleti countered swiftly and efficiently with Rayo struggling to regain shape in the transitional phase having committed so many men forward. Arda Turan’s goal was the perfect example. Miranda intercepted a loose ball on the edge of the Atleti penalty area and 14 seconds later Arda scored. Swift and merciless. Atleti had 14 attempts at goal with just five on target but all five resulted in goals.
Normally the central area of the pitch would have players from both sides but with Atleti letting Rayo come onto them, there was an abundance of space to break into. This substantial gap can be seen in the number of take ons that Atleti successfully undertook in the central area of the pitch as shown in the graphic below:-
Atleti Take Ons

Atleti Take Ons

Arda Turan in particular enjoyed himself immensely with one goal and two assists before Simeone withdrew him to allow rest ahead of the second leg of the Super Cup in midweek. Diego Costa continues to grow as a key player for Atleti too. The discussion around how a post Falcao Atleti would cope seems nonsensical now as the front man continues to deliver goals and performances.
Can Atleti Challenge?
Atleti secure 3 league wins in a row for the first time since last November. The professional manner of the victory will please Simeone. It would have been easy to reduce the intensity of their play and coast to a comfortable win but Atleti continued pushing for the full 90 minutes with Villa in particular, desperate to score.
It’s still far too early to say with any conviction but this Atleti side look as if they can again push the big two close this season. For the sake of competition within La Liga, hopefully they will.

For Rayo, Jemez knows the areas he needs to improve upon. Whether the players are of sufficient quality to undertake these improvements is another issue. He won’t change his ways which means the players will be in for a steep learning curve. Until they come to terms with what is required, expect some high scorelines in Rayo games. The team with the smallest budget in the league will continue to provide entertainment for their own fans and others.

The Arrival of the Armada

The current financial mess that clubs in La Liga find themselves in means there is little transfer spending in evidence in the domestic game. Aside from Barcelona and Real Madrid, only Villarreal, Granada, Valladolid and Elche have a net spend in transfer dealings. Cumulatively, the four clubs have a net spend of approximately £12m, enough to buy you half of Roberto Soldado. Spanish clubs have had to improve their scouting network and youth development to secure players for their squads. The days of big transfer fees in Spain are long gone except for the big two. Free transfers and loan are the order of the day. With high debts to service, it’s a buyer’s market for clubs willing to shop in La Liga. If you shop correctly. And a number of Premiership sides are showing exactly that. So far this season Premiership clubs have acquired 17 players from La Liga. And with over two weeks still to go until the transfer window closes, who would bet against other players arriving from Spain?

The list below shows the 17 players who have left La Liga behind to begin a new chapter in their career in the Premiership. For the likes of Joel Robles and Jonathan de Guzman who spent last season on loan, they will already know what to expect and no adaptation phase will be required. From the remainder, some are known whilst some will be complete unknowns to the average fan but one question will be on everyone’s minds. What will the players offer to their new clubs and more importantly, will they be a standout or will they be a flop?

The La Liga Influx
The La Liga Influx

Sevilla Selling

The Andalusian’s have sold six players to Premiership clubs this summer with four of these players having been developed in the club’s cantera. The loss of their prized asset, Jesus Navas, may well have seemed an unlikely event a few season ago. The problems of his severe homesickness overcome; Navas has left his hometown club where he has played since he was 15 to join ManchesterCity.

What Navas offers is fairly simple. He’s very fact and very direct. Navas runs, beats left backs and creates chances. Last season the winger averaged 2.1 key passes per game. If those are the plus points for Navas, the negative points can be neatly summed up but his apparent inability to shoot well. His finishing can be quite woeful at times and despite making some 393 appearances for Sevilla, Navas scored just 34 goals. Whilst that can be derided, what cannot be is the volume of chances that Navas creates. A European and World Champion, Navas is entering the peak of his career and the strikers at Man City should be the ones to benefit. Just don’t expect him to score.

Overpriced

Two of the top scoring Spanish strikers from La Liga over the past few years, both full internationalists, will have their eye upon challenging for top goalscorer in their new league. Alvaro Negredo moves to the Etihad whilst Roberto Soldado arrives at White Hart Lane. The two strikers both spent time at Real Madrid before moving elsewhere, scoring goals and moving on to higher profile sides in Sevilla and Valencia respectively. Despite their goalscoring records, there is a view that both have been overpriced. At a cost of £22million for Negredo and £25million for Soldado, neither is cheap and suggests that both Spanish sides were the real winners in negotiating such lucrative sales which enabled them to reduce debt and acquire replacement players.

What he does best.

What he does best.

Soldado has the better career scoring record with 193 goals from 397 appearances and is a typical penalty area striker who needs to improve his link up play outside of the box whilst curbing his penchant for dissent. Yet at 28, Soldado is unlikely to radically alter his ways now. For Negredo, there is more to his all round game and his lower scoring record with 139 goals in 328 appearances can be tempered by his other qualities to an extent. He can be used during quick counter attacks or as a central reference point in a crowded penalty area but he is very wasteful and frequently squanders good chances. Both will score goals, the real issue is whether they take the chances presented to them in key games.

Combined they have 25 appearances for Spain and 12 goals. That neither can establish themselves in an International side which, for all of its talents lacks a genuine world class striker, on a regular basis hints at an inability to make that final step to the very top level.

Premiership More Physical?

Spanish football is renowned for being physically weaker than the Premiership. The game is slower, there are fewer tackles and everything is just a little soft, isn’t it? The arrival of Fernando Amorebieta at Fulham and Gary Medel at Cardiff City will swiftly demonstrate that stereotypes should be avoided. Both are extremely physical players with Amorebieta collecting four yellows and one red in 11 appearances last season whilst Medel surpassed that with seven yellow and three reds in 32 appearances.

The Pitbull

The Pitbull

Both should have no problems settling into the higher tempo of the Premiership or will they wince under a hefty challenge. Amorebieta has a decent passing range on him for a central defender and long crossfield passes are a feature of his game. Medel can help set the tempo for his team by pressing and harassing the opposition quickly but he can be just as adept at collecting the ball and moving possession quickly. He is no Xabi Alonso but his passing ability is often overlooked. The problems both will encounter may lie elsewhere. For Amorebieta, the Venezuelan Internationalist is weak when pulled wide and can be beaten easily for pace and mobility when he is isolated. He needs protection from his full back. The Chilean Medel, meanwhile, has an extremely quick temper and is prone to making rash, impetuous challenges especially when the tempo of a game rises.

Swansea Under the Radar. Again.

Last season it was primarily Michu along with Pablo and de Guzman who arrived from La Liga and shone in South Wales. This season, Laudrup has again returned to Spain and acquired shrewdly. Alejandro Pozuelo, Jose Canas and Jordi Amat join the ever growing ranks of Spaniards at the Liberty Stadium for the combined sum of roughly £3million.

Pozuelo and Canas were key figures in helping Real Betis to defy expectations and finish 7th in the league.  Pozuelo made 29 appearances and scored 3 goals over two seasons for Betis. An attacking midfielder who rose to prominence whilst still in the Betis B team, his performances earned him several call ups to the senior squad before eventually joining the side, his first team action may be initially limited. Canas is a defensive midfielder who does the simple things well. He can tackle, intercept and make passes. His impact should be more visible from the outset and adds to the depth of options that Swansea now enjoy in midfield.

Bad hair. Good player.

Bad hair. Good player.

The two players from Betis will be used to a slightly more direct style of game than that which Swansea play. Betis tended to have less possession than their opponents and counter attack swiftly. This should present no problems to their third acquisition, the young central defender Jordi Amat. Although purchased from Espanyol, Amat spent the season on loan at Rayo Vallecano. At just 21, Amat is still raw as a central defender but has decent pace and intelligence.

Future Promise?

Three summer signings that may have been more low key over the last few weeks yet potentially could be excellent signings for their new employers.

The cliché may be well and truly worn out now, but this season there is the possibility of a former Barcelona player slogging it out on a cold wet winter night in Staffordshire. with Stoke City securing the Barcelona centre back Marc Muniesa on a free transfer. Touted as a future first team player a few season ago, he failed to make the step up and has seen injury blight his career over the past season with a torn cruciate ligament. Handed his top team debut by Guardiola, although he was subsequently sent off shortly after taking the field, the defender can operate as a left back but prefers to play in central defence. Part of the Spain side that has just defended their U21 European Championship, if Muniesa can recapture the early promise he showed in his career, Mark Hughes and Stoke City may have picked up a quality addition to the squad for free. How he handles a significantly more robust style of play though will be a determining factor in any success.

Another youthful arrival from La Liga will take his place at Selhurst Park this season under the watchful, if a little erratic, gaze of Ian Holloway. Jose Campana was captain of the Spanish U20 side that reached the quarter finals of the U20 World Cup. An excellent prospect in midfield, the technically proficient youngster leaves Sevilla after a fall out despite the club placing faith in him. Whilst his technical quality may not be in doubt, his temperament of the pitch is and whether the bright lights of London are the ideal place for him to regain focus remains to be seen. If Holloway can curb his more exuberant side, Palace may have found a gifted midfielder.

The Barcelona Starlet

The Barcelona Starlet

Roberto Martinez has secured something of a minor coup with the season long loan of Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona. One of the most promising youngsters in European football, the loan is also represents a display of faith in the regime that Martinez is trying to instil on Merseyside. Deulofeu scored 18 goals in 33 appearances last season for Barcelona B playing in La Segunda. Able to play on either wing or behind the main striker, the young Spaniard is versatile and very direct. Those have been questions asked over his decision making however with a tendency to shoot rather than pass being notable but entirely understandable given his age. If the rough edges can be quickly polished, Everton may well have a considerable gem on their hands this season.

The last time an armada this large arrived from Spanish shores, a hasty retreat followed shortly thereafter. It’s safe to assume this fleet is likely to harbour in England for some time to come.

Valladolid vs Athletic – Valverde Starts with a Win.

Valladolid and Athletic Club met on Saturday evening in the opening fixture round of La Liga. Two clubs with new managers who were both hoping to build on disappointing season’s last time out. Valladolid is under the tutelage of Juan Ignacio Martinez this term whilst Ernesto Valverde takes the helm at Athletic Club following the sometimes brilliant but quite often anarchic reign of Marcelo Bielsa.

Line Ups

Marino made his debut in goal for Valladolid otherwise the team was as strong as Martinez could field in the normal 4-2-3-1 format. As per last season, Valladolid would look to Patrick Ebert for creativity and Javi Guerra to score aided by Oscar breaking forward.

Vallodolid vs Athletic - Starting Line Ups

Vallodolid vs Athletic – Starting Line Ups

Valverde handed debuts to Balenziaga at left back, following his loan spell at Valladolid, Benat in midfield and Kike Sola as striker in the absence of Aritz Aduriz. With the loss of Javi Martinez and Fernando Amorebieta over the past two seasons, the veteran defensive midfielder Gurpegi stepped into central defence alongside Borja Ekiza.

Player Influence

The graphic below shows the player influence during the game and clearly highlights how the game developed primarily in the centre of the pitch with the forward players from both sides only fulfilling periphery roles for their respective team:-

Player Influence

Player Influence

Valladolid appeared more willing to sit a little deeper early on as Athletic made most of the running without really creating any chances. Athletic pressed very high when Valladolid passed the ball back to goalkeeper Marino with Kike Sola very aggressive in this regard but the home side always managed to play their way out of trouble with Athletic thereafter quickly dropping back into a 4-4-1-1 during the defensive phase.

The battle between Rukavina and Balenziaga on one side of the pitch is also clearly visible with both Ebert and Muniain moving further infield despite being nominally positioned on that flank. The Serbian had the upper hand over Balenziaga positionally.

 

Attacking Intent

Both sides were very comfortable moving the ball and building attacks but too frequently attacks broke down or stalled as the teams entered the final third of the pitch. The graphic below shows all of the passes into the final third of the field attempted by both teams. There are very few passes into the opposition penalty areas:-

Final Third Passes

Final Third Passes

 

With both teams fielding strikers who complement their system but are hardly prolific, it was necessary to get support into the penalty area yet neither side really managed this to good effect. For Athletic, Ander Herrara sat too deep in midfield and with Susaeta holding the touchline and Muniain not venturing forward enough, the result was Kike Sola being isolated and left to feed off scraps.  Yet behind the striker, there was ample movement for Athletic laterally between Muniain, Herrara and Susaeta but not enough vertical movement to stretch the opposition defence.

It was a similar picture for the home side with Javi Guerra upfield although support was closer to him on occasion with Oscar breaking forward from midfield and Partick Ebert moving in from the right, a tactic that offered much potential but which the German and Valladolid failed to take advantage of.

Valldolid tried to hit balls over the high line that the Athletic defence was holding early on but the lack of support that moved upfield quickly prevented this from really being exploited despite the evident lack of pace of Gurpegi and Ekiza. It’s an area that Valverde will need to consider. The central defensive area looks shaky.

A total of just five shots on target overall from both sides is evidence of the lack of attacking threat posed despite productive approach play.

Valladolid Right

With Ebert cutting infield and supported by the overlapping Rukavina from full back, Valladolid utilised the right side for much of their attacking play, particularly in the first half. They were aided by the continual inward drifting of Iker Muniain from Athletic. With Muniain cutting in, the Athletic full back Balenziaga was left with no cover during quick transitions enabling Valladolid to create 2 on 1 situations. These were never really exploited. Rukavina only attempted 3 crosses in the first half with only 1 being successful.

The graphic below shows all of the passes attempted by Patrick Ebert during the game:-

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Ebert Passes vs Athletic

Ebert Passes vs Athletic

An astute signing last season and a key performer for Valladolid, Ebert was sound in possession and scored the equalising goal for Valladolid after a decent move down the right but he never quite managed to become fully involved in the game. His passing was never as pro active as it could be with too many lateral or even backwards passes in the game partly owing to a lack of movement and options ahead of him.

In an effort to become more involved and help shape the game, Ebert moved into a more central position in the second half but was unable to find any solutions to the problems that Athletic were presenting.

Benat

Almost seven years after he made his previous solitary appearance for Athletic lasting just six minutes, Benat took to the field once more in the colours of Athletic Club and provided ample evidence of just how pivotal a figure he could become for Athletic this season.

Operating as the central player in a vertical line of three in the Athletic midfield, Benat really began to exert influence over proceedings at the start of the second half when Athletic took control of the game and dictated the tempo. This forced Valladolid further back with the adventurous runs of Rukavina curbed during this spell of the game. The graphic below shows all of his attempted passes:-

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat Passes vs Valladolid

Benat was also pivotal in the opening goal with his short flicked pass releasing Susaeta for the winger to score with a low shot following a wonderfully crafted move by Athletic.

His ability to enable Athletic to control the tempo of the game was crucial though. Playing faster, sharper passes when required or taking the ball under pressure and slowing the game down when needed. It’s a substantial change from the demands of Bielsa. The players are no longer constantly running either to win possession or when they are in possession. There is more consideration of the phase of the game. The tempo alters, the game remains under their control. The performance of Benat symbolises this.

Valladolid had no player able to perform at a similar level.

Promising Signs

Despite the defeat, Martinez should be reasonably content with the performance his side produced. Valladolid retained their commitment to building play constructively from the back even when placed upon pressure from Athletic. The game was also an important demonstration to the fans that Martinez can adapt after playing a fairly direct, counter attacking style during his tenure at Levante. With more technically minded players, a more expansive style of pay will be followed.

An excellent opening day win for Athletic and one which saw glimpses of the type of football that Valverde wants to deliver on a regular basis. The opening period of the second half, Athletic played some superb football prompted by Benat in the midfield area with Herrara pushing higher to support Kike Sola.

Questions remain however with Balenziaga given little support by the increasingly central Iker Muniain and much of the creative player lacking an end product but these are small points given the stage in the season.

The Year of Los Merengues?

It’s time for that split decision again. Sometimes you would be as well just flipping a coin to decide as the difference is minimal. Despite having 20 teams, La Liga will be won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid this season. Again. The remaining 18 teams are simply competing for positions 3 – 20. Atleti may harbour ambitions of breaking this duopoly but their squad is still someway short of a successful season long challenge. With regard to the remaining teams, there is no credible challenger in sight.

So pick up that coin and flip it. Or are things not quite as tight between the big two as some would have you believe? Is there actually a gap developing between the sides? And one that becomes more apparent as the clock ticks down to the start of the season? If I were a betting man, my money this season would be on Real Madrid to reclaim the La Liga title. Why?

Here are five reasons why los blancos will recapture the title from their rivals and win La Liga this season:-

Carlo Ancelotti – A Unifying Force

Stepping into the managerial cauldron that is the Santiago Bernabeu is Carlo Ancelotti. Whilst replacing Mourinho has proven to be a tough challenge elsewhere, the limited success that the Portuguese enjoyed in Madrid coupled with the fractious nature of his final season means the Italian may find a hospitable reception awaits him. Combine this with his much easier going demeanour and the dressing room wounds of last season are likely to heal over quickly.

A key attribute of Ancelotti has always been his ability to squeeze major players into his starting line up often in an effort to satisfy the demands of overbearing Presidents. At Milan, Chelsea and PSG, Ancelotti has succeeded in shoe horning a number of seemingly incompatible players into his starting eleven. To accomplish this successfully, altering his tactical set up has become a necessity. The Italian has used the 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 although interestingly, he has seldom used the 4-2-3-1 which was the default starting line up for Madrid under Mourinho. More of the same or a departure for Ancelotti?

Pragmatism and the lack of adherence to a particular system are his strengths. He will assess the players at his disposal and design a system around their skills. In that respect, Ancelotti is not your typical Italian coach who is married to one system. His versatility and flexibility will aid a Madrid side that became increasingly one-dimensional last season. Opponents knew how to close Madrid off. They were a reactive, counter attacking side. In truth, not that dissimilar to the PSG side that Ancelotti was building. At Madrid though with greater resources at his disposal, Ancelotti will construct wisely.

With league titles from Italy, England and France, who would bet against Ancelotti adding Spain to that list?

Tactical Options

This brings us to how Ancelotti will shape Madrid up this coming season. Ancelotti has utilised the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation in pre season and is known to favour this formation but his versatility has enabled him to deploy various formations over the years to maximise the players at his disposal. Assuming that Ancelotti does decide to primarily use the 4-3-2-1 formation, one of the key questions would appear to be the deployment of Ronaldo. If Madrid acquires Gareth Bale, it wouldn’t be to play him at left back which would mean a position behind the sole striker. This would surely mean Ronaldo as the no9 to avoid conflict between the two. Even if Bale does not arrive, serious consideration must be given to Ronaldo being the striker.

Carlo Ancelotti - Reassuringly unimpressed

Carlo Ancelotti – Reassuringly unimpressed

Alternatives at the moment for the striking role remain Benzema, Morata and Jese should he be elevated from the B team. Yet given his goal scoring ability in Madrid with 201 goals in just 199 appearances, it makes sense from an attacking perspective to place Ronaldo at the tip of the tree. Could Ronaldo outscore Messi if he is given the opportunity of being the central attacking player? It also makes sense from a defensive perspective too with Ronaldo frequently failing to undertake defensive duties and leaving his left back exposed when he has been deployed on the wide left position, a matter that has been capitalised upon by opponents most notably Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi final in April.

Further back, the midfield trio can incorporate two holders and a more creative force. The burden upon Xabi Alonso to build and create from deep should be eased and Madrid can become a more fluid side as a consequence. Width can be provided by Di Maria operating from a deeper starting position or by the full backs safe in the knowledge that there is a strong platform behind them to compensate when they push forward.

The basis for the greater tactical options now open to Madrid is also partly attributable to the quality and depth of the squad.

Quality and Quantity

The squad has seen the departures of Callejon, Albiol and Higuain. The loss of Albiol and Callejon who both had very limited playing time last season will not be missed but both the goals and assists that Higuain provided could be more of an issue particularly as it leaves just three players for the striking role in Benzema, Ronaldo and Morata. The squad is strong and could become even more so if the proposed acquisition of Gareth Bale proceeds as Madrid clearly want it to. It’s not a necessary signing though. Even without Bale, Madrid is strong throughout their squad.

Cast your eyes across the squad and you see position after position has quality and alternative options available. Who will start the season in goal, Casillas or Diego Lopez? There is Carvajal or Arbeloa for right back whilst Marcelo and Coentrao will do battle for the left back slot. Only really in central defence could there be a slight weakness with perhaps one more centre back being required to provide cover for Ramos, Varane and Pepe.

In midfield there is Alonso, Khedira, Modric, Ozil, Isco, Illarramendi and Di Maria all challenging for positions. The strong has genuine quality throughout and gradually now shows a stronger Spanish core too. Quality and identity now exists.

Spanish Acquisitions

In a surprising turn of events, Madrid is the side showing foresight and vision in their transfer policy with the acquisition of Carvajal, Isco and Illarramendi. Three members of the Spanish U21 side that just defended their European crown and potentially members of the Spain squad that travels to Brazil next year have joined their ranks. That three young Spanish players have been acquired signals an intent by Madrid to secure a core set of Spanish players over the longer term. A set of players who will form the heart of both Madrid and potentially the Spanish national side for years to come. It’s also about buying players who shone for the respective clubs last season within a system. Madrid has been a club that relies upon individual talent over the team but these signings indicate a tempering of that philosophy.

Isco - The Future Part 1?

Isco – The Future Part 1?

The fourth member of that victorious U21 side is already in the first team squad. Alvaro Morata continues to impress and will surely be granted valuable playing time this season to hone his skills. Will the names of Carvajal, Illarramendi, Isco and Morata soon be known for their exploits with both los blancos and la roja? This optimism should be considered cautiously though. It wasn’t that long ago that Madrid were signing the likes of Canales only to use him sparingly and effectively stall the players career during a key development phase. The same mistakes must not be repeated.

Illarramendi - The Future Part 2?

Illarramendi – The Future Part 2?

Barcelona’s Structural Problems

And this brings us neatly to the problems facing Barcelona. Whilst Madrid strengthens, their rivals appear to be caught in the headlights. They have already sold David Villa and Thiago and speculation continues to surround Fabregas. Somebody, somewhere in the whole Fabregas scenario is not telling the whole truth and the debacle rumbles on. Meanwhile, the circus of their failure to strengthen their defensive position continues. It’s unlikely that Puyol will last another full season without either succumbing to another injury or substantial rest and rotation. Bartra has been given limited first team exposure to date and add to this the departure of Abidal and the defensive fragility becomes clear.

The arrival of Gerardo Martino as coach should see a strengthening of the defensive unit but reinforcements are a necessity and not a luxury. It’s not just one centre back Barcelona needs, it’s two. Martino must also address the structural problems that Barcelona experienced last season. The player who could enable Xavi to rest has been sold to Bayern Munich.  Barcelona has to regain that freshness, the intensity to their game that has faded and gain a greater element of thrust and verticality to their attacking play.

The acquisition of Neymar could prove to be an excellent signing but it was in an area of the team not needing surgery. Are Barcelona falling victim to the cult of the galactico as Madrid demonstrate a commitment to younger players.

Whilst Barcelona sits and fails to resolve problems, Madrid strengthens. The negativity that engulfed Madrid as the Mourinho era came to a close will be eradicated with the arrival of Ancelotti at the helm. Harmony and balance can be restored both on and off the pitch. The balance of power is shifting once more. The title is heading back to Madrid.