WE'RE delighted to welcome Madrid-based journalist Brendan Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) to WLB. The Spanish football expert pens a bumper 2019/20 preview looking at the upper end of La Liga; will Barcelona to continue their domestic dominance or can a serious challenge come from the rejuvenated Spanish capital?
WLB Season Preview 2019/20 | La Liga: Outright
Given the fact that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have accounted for approximately 80% of the €1bn-plus spending in Spain this summer, it’s once again difficult to see anything other than the now traditional three-horse race when looking at the Outright market in La Liga.
We have seen a mass overhaul at the Santiago Bernabéu and Wanda Metropolitano with the likes of Eden Hazard and teenage sensation João Félix arriving to the Spanish capital. But will it be enough to challenge Barcelona’s overwhelming domestic dominance in Spain over the last decade?
One clear favourite
Barcelona (4/6 Boylesports) were deserved league champions in 2018/19 having showed impressive consistency in both attack and defence, and when times got tough at Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal, they had Lionel Messi.
Barca weren’t spectacular but they were the best and, once again, it looks like they are going to be really difficult to topple over a 38-game season. The Neymar talk continues to rumble on but an existing attack that already contains Messi, Luis Suarez and new signing Antoine Griezmann, supplemented by Ousmane Dembele is extremely potent.
The big concern for the Blaugrana right now is in midfield where Ernesto Valverde will have to figure out how to keep the boys up front happy, while also surrounding the declining Sergio Busquets with protection and, most importantly, mobility.
It’s not easy to pick holes in this Barcelona side when compared to their challengers but it remains to be seen how and where Griezmann fits into Messi’s team, because this is Messi’s team – just ask Philippe Coutinho.
However, Griezmann could be the exact tonic that the waning Suarez needs right now because this is the first time in years that his starting position may actually under threat – there will be games when this luxury trio will be reduced to a duo when the need arises to harness the midfield area. I suspect that the Frenchman’s arrival will reignite the fire for one last quality Suarez season at the very top.
Perhaps questions could be raised over Barca’s hunger. Having won eight of the last 11 league titles, you just wonder about their motivation to keep pulling the tough games out of the fire year-after-year, especially given their growing desperation to lift the Champions League. Last season by mid-March, Valverde’s men had already won over 20 points from losing positions, which really is quite remarkable.
Barca’s pedigree in the league is impossible to ignore; they have lost four games in two seasons (Levante, Leganes, Real Betis and Celta Vigo), and two of those defeats came when the league title was already wrapped up. Essentially, their Madrid rivals will have to produce a remarkable season to get close to the Catalans.
Here in Madrid, we have seen a phenomenal volume of transfers at both the Bernabéu and Wanda Metrpolitano. We were promised a Real Madrid (12/5 Blacktype) revolution and Florentino Pérez duly delivered in the form of Eden Hazard, Ferland Mendy, Luka Jovic, Éder Militão, Kubo and Rodrygo.
However, it seems that Madrid have failed to properly address a key area of weakness: midfield. A midfield duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric is simply not an option and a trio with Casemiro still lacks energy, mobility and aggression. It is therefore puzzling that Zinedine Zidane deemed both Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos surplus to requirements for the season ahead when they are the exact profile of player that Madrid are now desperately missing.
Llorente, sold to city rivals Atletico for €40m, is renowned for being a phenomenal athlete who gets through an incredible workload when on the pitch (there have been doubts regarding injuries in the past, however) and for his professionalism off it. It’s a deal that is difficult to understand, especially given the fact it strengthens their city rival who have already finished above them in the previous two seasons.
Ceballos could have provided Madrid with mobility and an ability to dribble past the opposition from a deeper position to free up space for the likes of Hazard and Karim Benzema to link up in attack. Also, Marcos Asensio, in what was to be his career-defining season at Real, is likely to miss the entire campaign after tearing his ACL and he is another player whose key traits are what Madrid are badly missing: energy, athleticism and direct running.
Once again, it seems that this Madrid team are built to challenge in cup competitions due to the ability of players like Hazard, Modric and Benzema to turn it on in the biggest games and they will be dangerous come Spring. However, when it comes to winter trips to the likes of Eibar, Alavés and Osasuna, will Madrid be able to match the intensity and aggression of the fervent hosts? I don’t see it.
As we approach the end of the transfer window, Madrid still lack that player who can link defence and attack while covering the necessary ground. The team feels compartmentalised, rather than a fluid unit: the defence continues to deteriorate (Real have kept consecutive clean sheets once in 2019; Kroos and Modric continue to be shadows as opponents counter-attack, and the attack is essentially left to its own devices, to create magic out of nothing.
It is totally disjointed and over a league season you get found out pretty quickly. In the last five seasons Madrid have scored a total of 63 (2018/19), 94, 106, 110 and 118 goals respectively. The gaping Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole has yet to be filled and there are simply not enough goals coming from midfield and wide forwards to mount a serious title challenge when you lack a rock-solid defence. Hazard should contribute 15 goals but they still need to find another 20 from somewhere.
One could argue that a second string XI consisting of players already sold/loaned out and those who look far from the Madrid starting team would actually be better equipped to perform over a domestic season, as was the case when Madrid last won the league with fringe players playing a huge role in the title run-in as Los Blancos juggled domestic and European commitments.
This season will be a test of Zidane’s loyalty to the old guard. Will he stick with the wandering Marcelo as he continues to do as he pleases or will he introduce Mendy, who would inject much needed power and pace on the left flank and reduce their vulnerability in this area? Hazard, Jovic and a maturing Vinicius Jr will inject energy and quality into the Madrid attack which will surely see a significant increase in goals, but will it be enough?
A new dawn at Atletico
The mood over at the Metropolitano is far more bullish as Atletico Madrid (18/1 Blacktype) have essentially constructed a brand-new squad with potentially five or even six new starters having replaced old war horses Diego Godin, Felipe Luis and Juanfran, as well as key young players Rodri and Lucas Hernandez.
Last season, Atletico were really thrown together: they were plagued by injuries all season; they were forced to play players like Saúl out of position; they carried an impotent Diego Costa in attack and, yet, they still finished second. This summer they have addressed key areas of weakness and have added much-needed youth and energy into what was becoming an increasingly aging, stale squad.
In Renan Lodi (lauded by the departing Felipe Luis as the best full-back by a distance in the Brazilian Serie A) and Kieran Tripper, Atletico now have two attacking full-backs, something which has always been of vital importance to Diego Simeone’s narrow, compact system (not if you listen to Danny Mills).
Atletico had almost virtually zero going forward from wide areas in the campaign gone by and this renewed dimension should really re-energise an attack which was too slow and predictable to break down teams who sat back with numbers behind the ball. The introduction of Trippier should see a sharp increase in set-piece goals, one of Atletico’s trademarks of Simeone years. Fun fact: in the 2013/14 title-winning season Atletico scored EIGHTEEN headed goals, and eight in the final nine games of the title run-in.
The likes of Felix, Lodi and Llorente are indeed unproven in terms of a 3-5 year body of work but these signings have Atleti fans excited again – they have bought totally into this new team and morale is extremely high right now among those who wear red and white. A fast start and continuing the momentum generated in pre-season is vital if Simeone’s men are to mount a serious title challenge.
Since moving to the Wanda, Atletico have been formidable at home: in two seasons they have suffered defeat twice, to Espanyol in an end of season dead-rubber and last season’s mad Madrid derby. Therefore, it won’t be their home form which dictates their season, but their worrying away form.
Towards the end of 2018 Atleti drew four of their final five games of the calendar year, which virtually made any title challenge impossible. It was Los Colchoneros’ ability to grind out those gritty 1-0 wins on the road over the years which made them so dangerous, and they need to find that steel and fighting spirit once again when they visit places like Vigo, Villarreal and Seville this season. If not, they can forget about getting near Barcelona.
This may prove to be a season or two too soon for this new Rojiblanco outfit but the locals have every right to be excited. Felix on first viewing looks a generational talent who could transform Atletico into a serious title contender. It’s hard to judge anyone seriously in pre-season but it’s also hard to ignore just how naturally talented he is; vision, technique, awareness and as the Spanish say, ‘he has goal’.
Moreover, Marcos Llorente will bring ferocious energy, aggression, recovery pace and, having been discarded by Zidane at Real, he arrives a point to prove; Diego Costa looks like that loveable guardian of shithousery once again (if he can stay fit), and attacking full-backs should provide more ammunition for Alvaro Morata who, at last, likes like he feels at home.
It cannot be ignored that in Griezmann, Hernandez and Rodri, Atletico have lost hugely important players while they will also badly miss the leadership qualities of Godin. But this is a brand-new era and new leaders will emerge; the last vestige of the title winning team, Koke, will have a huge role to play in this regard.
The betting angle
All things being equal, Barcelona will win the league once again, and with relative ease. Unlike Madrid and Atletico, their core unit is proven and trusted, and new signings such as Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong and Junior Firpo will add extra quality while taking a fair portion of the workload from the likes of Messi, Suarez, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic.
Real Madrid are 12/5 to dethrone Barca, while Atletico are somehow a 18/1 shot. I’m really struggling to see how bookmakers can rate Zidane’s men so favourably against their city rivals. The Frenchman has already showed signs of cracking in pre-season press conferences: he has cast off a number of big profiles in the dressing room which is only going to serve more of a nuisance than anything else, and it seems that of all the summer transfers, Hazard is the only one to be a guaranteed starter.
For me, not enough has changed at the Bernabéu, not by a long shot, to justify any support in the outright market. Despite a similar level of turnover, Atletico begin the season with momentum and belief; they are a united group and they begin the season without any doubts or drama regarding key players.
Over a league season I want to be behind a team who will show consistency and professionalism from August until May, rather than throwing the toys out of the basket come March. That’s why, for me, Atletico Madrid represent cracking each-way value in the La Liga outright market.
La Liga 2019/20 – Atletico Madrid to win La Liga (18/1 each-way Blacktype)
Brendy Boyle (@BrendyBoyle) is an Irish journalist living and working in Madrid. A season ticket holder at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Majadahonda, he covers all things football in the Spanish capital, from Estadio Butarque to the Wanda Metropolitano.