MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) analyses each La Liga club and looks to see where improvements can be made in 2020. Part 1 of 3.
Club-by-Club New Year's Resolutions (Part I)
It’s been quite a while since we’ve had such a competitive La Liga. It’s clear for all to see that the ‘Big 3’ are no longer the force they were towards the start of the decade but a fairer distribution of TV rights has seen the enormous gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in Spain close significantly and, quite frankly, the league is better for it.
Nine points separate the top six and while the gap between the mid-table teams and the relegation zone looks substantial, things could look a whole lot different come the latter stages of the campaign.
A lot of teams still have a lot of work to if 2020 is to be remembered for the right reasons.
Here are our New Year’s resolutions for all 20 teams in La Liga:
Viva la Vidal
Lucas Perez and Joselu have received virtually all the plaudits at Mendizorroza so far this campaign but if the second half of the season is to be relatively stress-free for Asier Garitano, then he better get thinking on how to get the best out of Aleix Vidal.
On-loan from Sevilla, the 30-year-old has proved to be an excellent acquisition for the Basque side but it still feels he could contribute much more in terms of goals and assists. Truth be told, Vidal is too good for Alavés and they should make the most out of him while they can.
Vidal has a lot more to offer.
Ibai can boost the Basque attack
A move which excited many La Liga fans has sadly largely failed to live up to expectations. A stand out performer for Alavés during the first half of last season, Athletic Club swooped in last January to bring back the Bilbao-born winger as he approached the final months of his contract at Mendizorroza.
However, due to a mixture of frustrating injuries and the sensational form of Gaizka Garitano’s core squad, Ibai has been unable to nail down a consistent starting spot.
The Basque outfit suffered only one defeat in their final eight league games of 2019 but did end the year with consecutive scoreless draws and that is exactly where the criticism of this Athletic Club side has focused on – their limitations in attack.
The team continues to rely on Iker Muniain to be their creative force but 2020 could be a whole lot more enjoyable for the Bilbao locals if Garitano can find room in his system for a versatile, two-footed player who can score goals and supply sumptuous deliveries to the likes of Raul Garcia and co.
With a current average of little over a goal per game scored, this is one area that needs addressing in the new year.
Get Cavani (or anyone) over the line – quick
This doesn’t really need much explanation. Diego Simeone has one fit and trusted striker to choose from at present and this dependence on Alvaro Morata is not wise for a team with a fight on the hands to avoid a nervous finish in the race for Champions League football; there is also the small matter of a last 16 tie against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Copa del Rey once Atleti return from the new Supercopa in Saudi Arabia.
As January signings go, Atleti would be doing well to find better than Cavani. He really does tick all the boxes for a Cholo Simeone team: work rate, guile and a proven pedigree for scoring goals. Los colchoneros have to-date scored less than Levante, Granada, Osasuna and Getafe, and a failure to get Cavani or a quality striker over the line could seriously jeopardise a top-four finish, something which the club simply cannot afford.
This could still potentially be a very productive season at the Wanda Metropolitano but the arrival of a proven striker will be the difference between success and failure.
Address the midfield mess
Ernesto Valverde is in the final stretch as manager at Camp Nou and, despite what for most clubs would be significant success, he will be remembered as a coach under which Barca lost the last vestiges of their identity. An average of 2.6 goals a game fails to tell the full story as a number of Camp Nou demolitions have papered over a string of poor performances away from home.
The actual goal tally of 47 deviates enormously from the Expected Goal (xG) numbers (31.40), which can be attributed largely to Lionel Messi making eight goals from outside the box in 13 games seem normal.
It’s clear that Messi cannot do it alone; if Barca are to return to a sustainable model of success then addressing their increasingly fragile midfield, which has parted like the Red Sea over the last year, is going to be a key priority.
Sergio Busquets is in the twilight of his career; Ivan Rakitic has been badly mistreated by both club and a large section of the supporters; doubts surround the professionalism of Arthur; Arturo Vidal is growing increasingly disgruntled at his lack of starts, and Frenkie De Jong is still finding his feet.
It’s not going to be an easy job for whoever takes over in the Summer of 2020 but Barca need to, once and for all, address their mess in midfield if there are to have any hope of challenging for the thing that continues to drive their captain – another elusive Champions League title.
It's time to rebuild solid foundations at Camp Nou.
Will the real Celta Vigo please stand up?
The more I watch Celta Vigo, the more I wonder to myself what exactly it is that this team is trying to do. The vast majority of teams in La Liga have a clear identity or system of how they aim to play the game of football but when it comes to Celta Vigo, I am completely stumped.
They made a conscious effort last summer of bringing in players who had a previous connection with the club but very little has changed. We still have the same Celta who are porous in defence, leaderless in midfield and totally dependent on Iago Aspas in attack.
Essentially, Celta’s identity is Iago Aspas and that largely explains why they are currently in the relegation zone. Óscar García is fully aware of this and if his side are to avoid another nail-biting relegation battle, then building a strong, cohesive core with the likes of Hugo Mallo, Denis Suárez, Stan Lobotka, Fran Beltran and Rafinha will be crucial.
2020 needs to be the year where the Celta squad stands up, once and for all, and climb out of this self-inflicted collective coma they have been in over the last 18 months. A failure to do so could see them in the Segunda next season.
And we have seen how well that has worked out for their Galician rivals Deportivo de La Coruña
Less press More success
José Mendilibar’s Eibar have become notorious in recent seasons for their aggressive, high press which, when it has clicked, has paid extremely high dividends. However, it is with increasing regularity that this high-risk, high-reward system has continued to yield diminishing returns.
Teams have become fitter, stronger and more astute and are no longer caught unaware with how the Basque minnows set out to play. Eibar have lost four of their last six at Ipurua, drawing a blank in each defeat, while shipping seven to Barca and Real Madrid.
To be fair, Eibar did lose their three standout players from 2018/19 in Joan Jordan, Marc Cucurella and Rubén Peña but the actual numbers align closely with the expected stats and indicators suggest that either Mendlibar’s abrasive ways are wearing a little thin with his squad or that teams are better prepared for the press. It’s probably a bit of both.
Is the prickly Basque coach capable of change?
I know what you did last summer: sweet f**k all!
Espanyol lost their manager Rubi last summer and also sold two of their best players in Mario Hermoso and Borja Iglesias. They replaced Rubi with David Gallego, a man who had zero first-team management experience. Moreover, they downgraded Hermoso and the ‘Panda’ with Fernando Calero and Jonathan Calleri and were tasked with Europa League qualification rounds in July with a bare squad and a new manager.
Five months later and Espanyol find themselves rooted to the bottom of the table with two wins and they have no one to blame but themselves. The board took a crazy risk in the Summer, choosing to skimp on reinforcing their squad and could end up paying the ultimate price.
Wu Lei and Calleri have scored a combined two goals in La Liga and a total of 12 goals in 18 games clearly illustrates where the Catalan’s problems lie. Espanyol need a proven goalscorer who can make an instant impact while the likes of Víctor Sánchez and Esteban Granero are past their sell-by date.
Quite simply, owner Chen Yansheng needs to get his wallet out in January.
Geta need more from M&M:
As we enter 2020, Getafe find themselves two points off a Champions League place, all the more impressive given their extra Europa League commitments and, after the highs of last season, to be able to go again. With seven wins and two draws in their last 11 league outings, Getafe are getting back to their best after an uneasy start and are well-positioned for another challenge for the European football places.
Marc Cucurella and Kenedy have added dynamism to the azulon attack but Bordalás’s men continue to outperform the expected stats. 2020 promises to be an exciting year for Getafe but they are faced with a tough start to the new year as Real Madrid, Real Betis, Valencia, Ajax and Sevilla all travel to the Colisuem Alfonso Perez between now and the end of February.
Jaime Mata and Jorge Molina have failed to reach the heights of 2018/19, scoring a combined eight league goals in the first half of the season. Ángel Rodríguez has stepped up in their absence and has been excellent, equalling Mata and Molina’s contribution.
However, if Getafe are to come through such a gruelling run unscathed, Bordalás will need his M&M to find their shooting boots once again.
Stop the rot
After a spectacular start to their La Liga return, Granada ended 2019 with one win in their last eight, suffering six defeats. Prior to this, Diego Martínez’s men won six of their previous eight, all to nil, and it is this defensive solidity which since escaped Granada.
Ten points ahead of the relegation zone, Granada’s early-season heroics should have earned them enough points to secure another year in Spain’s top flight. However, if their form from the latter stages of 2019 carries into the new year, the Andalucian outfit just might be in for a very uncomfortable Spring.
Martínez needs get to back to basics and make his team hard to beat again.
More of the same
With five points after 11 games at Halloween, Leganés looked dead and buried. A number of reputable managers such as Abelardo turned down the opportunity to become manager after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino – a testament to the seemingly impossible task at hand.
The ‘well-travelled’ Javier Aguirre was well down the list of preferred candidates and many, myself included, concluded that the days of mercenary managers coming in with the ‘un par de cojones’ attitude were long gone – how wrong was I!
The Mexican has quite simply done an incredible job at Butarque; his boisterous, jovial character has really lifted a dressing room which looked beaten. Lega have earned draws at Real Sociedad and Alavés while securing crucial wins against direct rivals Celta Vigo and Espanyol in recent weeks and Aguirre will be looking for a positive result at another direct rival, Real Valladolid, before a huge Friday night South Madrid derby on January 17.
Leganés’s New Year’s resolution is simple: more of the same.