MADRID-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) analyses each La Liga club and looks to see where improvements can be made in 2020. Part 3 of 3.
Club-by-Club New Year's Resolutions (Part III)
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:
Variety can further boost the Basque attack
It feels like nit-picking when trying to find areas where Real Sociedad can improve in the New Year. La Real ended 2019 with a thrilling 4-3 win at El Sadar having gone toe to toe with Barcelona in Anoeta the week previous.
Imanol Aguacil would have bitten your hand off if you offered him their current position (5th) before the season began but despite frustrating home slip ups to Getafe (1-2), Levante (1-2) and Leganes (1-1) they find themselves only three points off third place.
Martin Odegaard’s fantastic season has been well-documented; Mikel Oyarzabal continues to play at an exceptional level; and we have also seen the rise of Mikel Merino in midfield. Real Sociedad are in a good place. But if this brilliant crop of players is to finish the season as they started, Aguacil would be well advised to add a bit of variety to his attack.
La Real’s slick attacking system, based on quick transitions, has stuttered against compact, deep-lying teams like Getafe and Leganes and these games have highlighted their tactical limitations. The script continues to read the same: Alexander Isak replacing Willian Jose or Willian Jose replacing Alexander Isak in the final quarter of games.
In 2020, I would like to see Aguacil develop a Plan B which incorporates both of his strikers. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be incompatible. Isak’s dribbling ability and ability to bring others into play paired with Willian Jose’s movement and predatory instincts could be a potent combination and a way to unlock teams who come to park the bus.
The Basque’s have been a breath of fresh air in La Liga this season but it feels like they still have a lot more to offer.
Pucela Push Key to survival
Valladolid’s season and a half back in the Primera has been solid and unspectacular in equal measure. When Ronaldo Nazario acquired a majority stake in the club, I fully expected his stature and connections to yield a string of number of high-profile signings and for Valladolid to become a somewhat of a glamorous destination for young samba stars and over the hill mercenaries.
This could hardly be further from the reality at Estadio José Zorrilla with the Brazilian’s prudency and cautious approach off the pitch being reflected by performances on it.
With one game of the first half of the first half of the season remaining, Sergio’s men have four wins to their name. All four came against bottom-half opposition. Valladolid are well down the rankings in terms of entertainment for neutral La Liga fans with their abrasive, safety-first style. They have scored 15 goals in the opening 18 games, drawing four blanks in the final six fixtures of 2019 (scoring twice).
With the likes of Sergi Guardiola, Sandro Ramirez and Enes Unal in attack it’s little wonder los pucelanos have consistently struggled for goals but still they continue to collectively underwhelm in front of their home support. Last season Valladolid earned more points on the road than at home and their form at Estadio José Zorrilla has hardly improved, two wins in eight against relegation rivals Eibar and Mallorca. The 3-0 win over Mallorca was the only fixture where the locals saw over 2.5 goals.
But there is potential. The standout moment for Gonzalez’s men last season was the absolutely crucial 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao thanks to a Waldo Rubio wonder strike. It was a win which effectively secured survival and it felt like the raucous home crowd got them over the line that day. Valladolid need more of this from the locals who will a big part to play in the push for survival.
And in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt for Ronaldo to start working his connections.
A change of Luuk needed for a strong finish
This past week Marca published their Revelation XI and Sevilla’s transfer market maestro Monchi will have been pleased to see two of his summer signings, Diego Carlos and Lucas Ocampos, make the cut alongside other obvious choices like Martin Odegaard and Fede Valverde. Fellow arrivals Sergio Reguilón and Fernando have also been a key reason for Sevilla’s excellent season thus far as they sit third two points above Atletico Madrid.
However, there must be just one thing nagging away at Monchi as he chews on his festive turrón and that is in the attacking department. With a very solid, compact defence and strong, textured midfield this Sevilla side are a Wissam Ben Yedder away from being a genuine title contender.
The Frenchman supplied 18 goals and nine assists in La Liga last season before being sold to Monaco. Moreover, the Nervión outfit have also felt the loss of Pablo Sarabia – another 12 goals and 13 assists to replace. That’s a big hole to fill and this feels like the only area where Monchi got it badly wrong in the summer
A combined five goals between Luuk de Jong, Chicarito and Munir is nowhere near good enough for a team with Champions League football ambitions and the blunt attackers have the rest of the team to thank for their lofty position. Sevilla have had a long lineage of brilliant strikers over the last decade or so but De Jong has been particularly disappointing who, through his excellent work rate, always appears to not be in the exact place he needs to be.
Without a reliable striker, holding onto a top four position could prove to be a real challenge with the likes of Valencia, Real Sociedad and Getafe are breathing down their necks.
Bats’ blind faith in the injury gods
Even by Valencia’s standards 2019 was one hell of a year. The club’s centenary saw Marcelino’s men finish the season like a steam train to pip Getafe to fourth place on the final day of the season before steamrolling a Barcelona still reeling from post-Anfield traumatic stress.
And then the storm which had been brewing over the Mediterranean eventually hit land in September culminating in the sacking of the man who had delivered such euphoria four months previous; his relationship with Peter Lim and his cronies beyond repair.
Albert Celades was entrusted with what most considered to be a poisoned chalice during a really toxic period, when everything pointed to things going belly up but he has steadied the ship without changing too much of last season’s formula and he deserves a lot credit.
Los che currently find themselves eighth in the table, far from where they want to be, but if any of the contenders are capable of catching Sevilla and Atletico Madrid in the race for Champions League football it is undoubtedly the men in white and black.
When fully fit and injury-free, Valencia are arguably now the third best team in Spain but this has precisely been the problem. In the final weeks of 2019 Valencia’s injury list read more like a possible starting xi, such was the extent of the crisis.
Celades’s men expended a tremendous amount of energy in recent weeks in thrilling battles against Chelsea, Ajax, Villarreal, Levante and Real Madrid while missing the likes Ezequiel Garay, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Cristiano Piccini, Gonçalo Guedes, Maxi Gomez and Kangin Lee.
That they have remained more than competitive in the face of such an injury crisis is a testament to the team’s collectiveness and the role of leaders such as Parejo and Garay in the dressing room. They had a free pass to put their feet up in the wake of the Marcelino mess but their professionalism has been admirable.
With tremendous individual talent like Gaya, Parejo and Rodrigo in their ranks Valencia have the potential to have a prosperous new year. But their fate is in the lap of the injury gods.
Santi Succession: planning for life after the little magician
It wasn’t that long ago that Santi Cazorla was warned by doctors that walking around the back garden was probably going to be the limit of his physical exertions.
Very few will look back fondly on 2019 with all that’s been going in the world but Cazorla’s recall to the Spanish national team at the age of 34 for the first time since 2015 was one of the rare feel-good stories of the year gone by. National teams of the calibre and depth of Spain do don’t sentimental call-ups and Cazorla’s inclusion was entirely based on merit.
With ten goals and ten assists for Villarreal in 2019 the little Asturian has been the principal reason for the Yellow Submarine’s resurgence. He has become the focal point for all things good at the Estadio de la Cerámica but the extent to which Javi Calleja’s men depend on Cazorla is alarming.
Despite summer reinforcements the Yellow Submarine’s defence continues to leak goals (1.4 avg) but easing the burden on Cazorla in that role of linking attack and defence is going to be critical for the short-medium future at Villarreal; at 35, after ten operations, every game is a bonus for Villarreal’s number 19. The return to form of Manu Trigueros is encouraging and he will see more game time as the season progresses.
Their attack is diverse and thrilling to watch but without a solid and well-oiled midfield Villarreal will struggle for consistent performances and the outcome of games will be dictated by their shaky defence or slick attack.
We may not have many more months of Santi wizardy left so for us La Liga fans its time to enjoy him. For Villarreal its time to plan for life after a man who was never supposed to be so important.