MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) analyses each La Liga club and looks to see where improvements can be made in 2020. Part 2 of 3.
Club-by-Club New Year's Resolutions (Part II)
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:
Livin La Liga Loca
When it comes to Levante, us neutrals would say more of the same please. Paco López’s men have been one of the most entertaining and unpredictable teams in Spain’s top flight this season; they followed up a 1-0 defeat at home to the worst team in the league, Espanyol, with a win at Real Sociedad and three days later they came from behind to beat the reigning champions Barcelona.
We also recently saw them throw away a 2-0 lead to lose to city rivals Valencia at home for the first time since 2011 in a truly bonkers derby.
Seven of Levante’s last eight games in La Liga have seen both teams register a goal, little wonder given they rank number one in the league in shots conceded per game (16.6) while they are level with Barcelona in terms of shots per game (12.1).
The stats suggest they should have conceded a whopping 34 goals but an actual tally of 27 (still very high) shows how busy goalkeeper Aitor Fernández has been between the sticks. He is the portero with the most stops in La Liga in 2019 with 138.
If you’re a Levante fan you could justifiably wish for a more defensively solid new year. But right now, given they look well on the road to safety for another year and its highly unlikely they’ll go far in the Copa del Rey, why don’t they just enjoy the madness and fun?
Keep it up you crazy, unpredictable scallywags!
Stop paying the penalty
With one point from their eight away games since returning to the Primera – and only two away wins in 2019 in the Segunda despite their promotion – it’s pretty impressive that Mallorca will begin 2020 outside of the relegation zone.
The Son Moix outfit have conceded 21 goals in their eight games on the road and with such a leaky defence you can’t really expect anything more than the one away point. Moreover, Mallorca’s games are rarely drama-free: their 18 games have seen a total of 17 penalties awarded, Vicente Moreno’s men have conceding a whopping ten – the most in the division (Alavés in second with 8).
Earning points is never easy for the newbies in La Liga but Mallorca have not exactly helped themselves, giving away spot kicks at Celta, Valladolid, Alavés, Getafe and two at Valencia.
There have been plenty of positives in recent away games at Levante and Celta Vigo and the fact that, despite an abysmal record away from Son Moix, Mallorca are still outside the relegation is itself a positive. And with trips to struggling Espanyol and Eibar to come, there is a huge opportunity to land a blow on direct rivals.
The likes of Espanyol and Celta Vigo are surely going to improve in the coming weeks and points earned in Mallorca’s island fortress may not be enough.
Defensive stability and discipline on the road will dictate whether los bermellones will sink or swim come the warmer months.
How can you not love a man who pulls his shorts up to his shoulders; a man who can look absolutely exhausted after ten minutes but runs and rushes with the gusto of a schoolyard kid for the entire 90 minutes; a man who can waste farcical opportunities one minute while producing stunning instinctive over-the-shoulder volleys from 25 yards the next?
In an age of increasingly robot-like footballers drilled from an early age to play football a set way, free spirits like Chimy Avila should be embraced and cherished. El Sadar along with many La Liga fans such as @LaLigaGavila have taken little Chimy to their hearts precisely because of these virtues and flaws.
Despite contributing directly to 40% of Osasuna’s goals this season (8 goals, 2 assists), pressure on the Colombian striker to produce is increasing as fortress El Sadar continues to be increasingly less impenetrable. Jagoba Arrasate’s men have shipped ten goals in their last five in Pamplona, worrying numbers despite a nine-point cushion over 18th place Celta Vigo.
The Navarra outfit rank number one in La Liga in points won after the break (13) this season; their gung-ho waves of attack often overwhelm teams in front of their fervent home support but if 2020 is to be prosperous, Osasuna need to turn El Sadar into a place where nobody enjoys visiting again.
Time to get back to basics and tighten up at the back.
Release the Panda
There can’t be many, if any, teams in Europe’s top leagues (who haven’t been reincarnated in the form of a new entity a la Parma) whose transfer record dates back to the nineties as is the case at Heliopolis where Denilson’s world record transfer fee in 1998 still holds strong despite the big-money summer signing of Borja ‘The Panda’ Iglesias which, at €28m, just fell short of the €32m forked out in the heady days of club president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.
We all know how things turned out for the Brazilian and the Panda’s time at the Benito Villamarin hasn’t exactly got off to a rip-roaring start either.
The current situation regarding Iglesias is puzzling. With 17 league goals last season, he thrived under coach Rubi and it is therefore very curious that, despite obviously being a direct request from the new Betis coach, that Iglesias has not got going in Seville.
The form of Loren has been a factor but I’m confused as to why Rubi hasn’t placed more trust in the big-money signing which he personally requested. The Panda has lacked continuity to find his rhythm and, unless Rubi’s does give him a consistent run, it’s hard to see the Betis number 9 improve his numbers any time soon.
To be fair, Betis’s form has improved significantly in recent weeks and with three wins and a draw in their last five, it’s understandable as to why Rubi is averse to making any drastic changes.
Betis, it seems, have finally stumbled on the magic formula but Loren has gone five league games without a goal and there may never be a better time to set the Panda free.
Faith in Jovic can yield real rewards
Real Madrid’s final three games of 2019 were a microcosm of the season to-date: high quality and prolonged periods of dominance with very little return. Trips to Mestalla and Camp Nou are two of the more daunting away fixtures in the La Liga calendar but on both occasions los blancos were left to rue missed opportunities and a lack of finesse in the final third.
Eden Hazard’s injury came just as he was returning to his best but still something still isn’t right in attack and its clear for all to see.
Reports here in Madrid indicate that we shouldn’t expect to see any attacking reinforcements arrive in the January transfer window. And with a €60m striker, who scored 27 goals in the Bundesliga and Europa League last season sitting on the bench, rightly so; Madrid have a large number of young players in the squad at present and it is Zidane’s responsibility to get the best out of them.
Because of their pace and energy Rodrygo and, to a lesser extent, Viniciur Jr have had considerably more game time than the 22-year-old Serbian in recent months, Jovic playing a mere 35 mins in Madrid’s last seven league games.
It was never going to be easy for a young, big-money signing to adjust to life in a new country, a new language and a club which is subjected to the level of media scrutiny equalled by very few entities in world sport, if any. Modern football is a cut-throat business and very few clubs afford new arrivals the luxury of a 2-3 months bedding-in period, let alone Real Madrid.
But what’s the end game here? Does Jovic just sit and gather dust on the Bernabéu bench until Benzema finally succumbs to injury? Zizou seems pretty wedded to a set pair of systems, neither of which accommodate two natural strikers. As the weeks go by, the opportunities continue to dwindle for Jovic to play alongside and learn from one of the most intelligent and complete strikers in world football over the last twenty years continues to fade away.
Having just turned 22, Jovic is still far from the complete player but how can the Madrid hierarchy expect a player of this calibre to find his rhythm and gel with teammates when his minutes are rationed to such an extreme?
The Frenchman has got it right in defence: Madrid have conceded 12 goals in 18 games having already visited the Sánchez Pizjuán, Wanda Metropolitano, Mestalla and Camp Nou – very impressive. However, in line with current trends they are on track to score 70 goals. This would be an increase last season (63) but still a way off the numbers hit the previous five seasons: 94, 106, 110, 118, 104.
Seventy doesn’t feel like a tally that would be enough to topple Barcelona despite their well-documented vulnerabilities. We all know the reason for this statistical plummet but the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo continues to linger over the white house. Sergio Ramos is Madrid’s second top goal scorer in La Liga (3) and therein lies the problem.
It’s a catch-22 situation for Zidane; there is little room for experimentation and error in the title race but giving the Serbian a protagonist role with Benzema dropping slightly deeper could be the difference maker come the business end of the season.
In Jovic, Zidane has a player who scored 10 goals in 14 Europa League games last season. Placing faith in Fede Valverde, and to a lesser extent, Rodrygo, has reaped huge rewards so far this season.
It’s now time for Zizou to get out the drawing board once again and find a place for his Serbian star.