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As the whistle echoed around Estadio de la Cerámica, Dépor were safe; safe with the lowest points tally (33) for a 17th placed team in the history of Spanish football. A 0-0 draw was enough. Ecstasy and elation – words so often appointed to surviving a relegation battle – were non-existent among a majority of players and, frankly, fans too.

Relief and frustration best described the finale to this torrid campaign. A season in which Lucas Perez departed, two managers arrived and plenty of in-fighting ensued. There’s a clear division in the squad, evidenced best by this video posted by Florin Andone on FaceBook.

Interestingly, bar a handful of players, the dressing room was largely muted. Club president Tino Fernandez’s only words in this video were “thank goodness.” This reinforced the fear of those in power at the club, as well as the powerlessness that Dépor had felt in the final stretch of games. The constant expectancy of others to drop points is, undeniably, the reason why the team managed to stay up this year. In fact, despite that impressive draw against Villarreal, it was Leganes’ point at Athletic Bilbao that cemented Dépor’s safety on a basis of goal difference and head-to-head.

In a year that was riddled with so much promise, built upon a seemingly stellar defensive-minded manager and Dépor’s best squad in years, it ended up being one of the most miserable in recent times. Dépor stayed up with performances akin to whimper after whimper. A mere 40 goals in 37 games, paired with just 7 wins, summed up the incandescent powerlessness of the squad.

A mixture of torrid luck between the start of the season and January completely rattled then-manager Gaizka Garitano, who seemed more interested in crying conspiracy in every press conference rather than address the issues at hand. While there were some glaring officiating errors in Dépor games, overturning those failings wouldn’t have changed much.

This idea of a witch hunt spread throughout the squad, with Raul Albentosa the most vocal of the team. It could be argued that this is where Dépor’s season collapsed and a division in the squad ensued.

It felt like a bulk of the players knew that their underperforming could always be defended and overshadowed by poor officiating. The others were simply playing harder than their teammates which contributed to a lopsided presentation of dedication and erratic performance levels.  Naturally, fans became enraged by the mixed signals given by the team. By extension, Garitano began tinkering far too often. First it was a flat starting eleven, then a more possession-based formation ensued, followed by a defensive-minded five defenders. The regularity in structural shifts added to the inconsistencies of the side and meant that players finding their feet within a system was nigh-on impossible.

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Garitano’s black attire perfectly encapsulates a diabolical season

Tino could have relieved Garitano of his duties by December and nobody would have bat an eyelid but, after somewhat controversially sacking Víctor Sanchez in the summer, he knew that he’d be left with egg on his face if the man he vouched to be better than Víctor lasted just a few months. This singular decision, a moment of inefficiency from the president, is likely the biggest contributor to one of the worst seasons the club has encountered in a while.

Eventually, after a full two months without winning a game, Garitano was shown the door. A 4-0 loss to relegation rivals Leganes shattered any hopes of Garitano turning things around. As his time came to an end, he had only won 5 league games – one of which came via Lucas Perez’s injury time penalty before the forward joined Arsenal. Amidst those wins came heaps of losses and toothless draws. Enough was enough. In came Pepe Mel.

February 28th, Depor sit above the drop zone by two slim points. Mel, renowned as one of Spain’s most notorious managerial stop-gaps, arrives promising safety for the club. He delivers. Just about.

The thing with Mel is that he’s an old school coach. His tactics are outdated and built solely upon balance and solidity. In Spanish football, that type of restrictive structure is far too rigid to compete against the majority of teams. What Mel does offer with his old school approach is terrific man-management. He can talk you into walking off a cliff, happily, with a smile on your face.

In his first four games, he talked and inspired the team to an unbeaten run. Enough of a confidence boost, one would imagine. Sandwiched in this run was a 2-1 victory over Barcelona (in which two Gallegos scored) and a 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid on his debut.

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The team celebrates Joselu’s equaliser against Barcelona

The team looked like a well-oiled engine; attacking together, defending together. Remember, though, Mel is old school. The issue with old school is a lack of freshness, a lack of motivation beyond your usual spiel. In every single pre-game changing room talk, Mel would repeat the same phrases: “play harder than them, stay in the game. Remain focused.” When you hear the same words after a while, regardless of how well (or poorly) you played just a few days prior, one can assume it’s fairly reminiscent to CD player constantly looping the same lyric over and over again. CD players are an apt mirror to Mel, too. Once fancy, now totally outdated. If you pick one up today, they’re cool for a short while before you revert back to a streaming service. In Depor’s case, the streaming service ought to be a fresher coach – kind of like the one they unjustly sacked in the summer of 2016. Just a thought.

After that invigorating Barcelona win: a loss against eternal-rivals Celta Vigo. A loss against Valencia. Depor would win just one game in the final 11. This included a humiliation at the hands of Real Madrid, a draw against a downed Granada and another draw to an already relegated Osasuna. The team was shot. Yet, before every game, “play harder than them, stay in the game. Remain focused.” Are these apt words for a team in a slump, fighting for their lives? The same tactics, the same players frozen out?

Until the last 2-3 games of the season, Mel had Andone and Emre Çolak on the bench – inarguably the two most influential players in the squad. He wanted them to be impactful substitutes, yet they would enter games when the games themselves were already lost. Way to frustrate your two biggest keys to safety.

In the end, Mel’s opening four games were just about enough to keep us up. The following 11 were also enough to see us drop a division if not for the sheer ineptitude of Sporting Gijon and Granada. Somehow, three clubs managed to be worse across 38 games.

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Mel in training

This is the vicious cycle that Depor have found themselves in. Three years of uninterrupted top flight football is a success story for a club who, when they dropped to the Segunda in 2013, were facing potential liquidation. Upon closer inspection, though, this is also a side that, for the last three years, has been kept up due to outside factors i.e underperforming rivals. These long periods of winless games have become contagious, rendering the team utterly complacent and wholly expectant of other results to go their way. It is a dangerous ideology to follow, purely because next season could be the one where teams are more competitive and less torrid. Depor could be one of the three horrendous teams that drops, purely because they’ve grown accustomed to becoming bystanders in their own destiny and future.

Relegation for the club right now would almost certainly spell liquidation. Safety was not something to celebrate in the grand scheme of things; it was a necessity. The club needed to stay up, not to save face or protect an identity, but to save the club from disappearing.

It’s clear that the squad right now is one that breeds complacency and distrust in one another. While this is the first time in years that a Depor squad has been comprised of permanent players more than loanees/one-year contracts, it is a sad truth that the squad needs to be disbanded. Bar a core of players along the lines of Andone, Çolak, Lux, Bergantiños and Sidnei – a mixed quintuple of talent and experience – Tino should be looking to offload a majority of the squad. It wouldn’t be reactionary, rather necessary. There’s too much in-fighting and distrust for this team to play outside of its comfort zone. Another year of it would likely sink the ship.

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Tino holds the key, but can he be trusted with it?

Sadly, though, Tino has confirmed Mel’s tenure at Depor will extend beyond the summer. This spineless act of pause is one that has marred Tino’s presidency and likely means he will keep the squad as it is bar the replacements of departing loanees.

Depor need an overhaul now more than ever. And they can sustain it, too. A fresh team and coach may take a while to gel, but it would more than likely inspire a renewed interest from the fans that extends beyond negativity and pessimism. A pipe dream for many, perhaps; it is for this writer. Depor’s future lies permanently in the slippery hands of Tino Fernandez. He holds the key to an overhaul, or negative stagnation. The diehard players of this team deserve better, the fans deserve more.

Safety was the goal this year and it was achieved. Just. 33 points is not enough to keep a team up in any other season. A repeat of this figure would spell doom for the club next year. Improvements are needed and big decisions have to be made. For now, it’s enough. Another year of LaLiga is upon us; another year where we can breathe.

Lucas

Lucas Pérez will be announced in the next 24 hours as an Arsenal player. As a Deportivo de la Coruña fan, I thought it right to scribble some musings on Lucas as a player.

You’ll read a lot in the coming days/weeks about Lucas from people who, quite frankly, watched him very little (if at all). I’m going to condense his history as a footballer into one small paragraph, since I assume most readers just want to know what kind of player he is and if he suits Arsenal.

Lucas is a Deportivo fan, born and bred. He used to sit in the stands with the Riazor Blues, now he represents the club (although not for long). He’s spent two phenomenal years at Depor, clinching goals that secured survival in back-to-back seasons. He even broke the club record of goals scored in consecutive games, toppling Brazilian legend Bebeto. Lucas performed against the biggest of clubs (as evidenced with two goals in two games at the Camp Nou), as well as the smallest of them too. To join Depor, Lucas had to travel around Europe first. When he did arrive, it included minimising his wage by triple and leaving a Champions League club (PAOK). The love and adoration he has for the club has also seen him turn down Leicester, Southampton, Napoli, Zenit & Sevilla this summer. But, when Arsenal come knocking, it’s hard to resist. Especially when you’re 27, at the peak of your game and performing at a club far smaller in current stature.

Now, about Lucas as a player. It says a lot that Arsene Wenger swooped in for the Spaniard after being turned down by Jamie Vardy. Stylistically, both are the same type of player: lean forwards with bags of speed and energy, always raring to break the defensive line and find themselves one-on-one. In fact, much like Vardy, Lucas suits the counter-attacking style of football. A style that Arsenal irregularly employ, which may be a sticking point. If Wenger does switch for this sort of style, which could be supported by the fact he’s chased down two identical strikers this summer, Arsenal may just have pulled off a bargain considering the current market. One interesting fact about Lucas is that he can speak English, having used it as a form of communication in Ukraine and Greece while plying his trade there.

“Lucas isn’t a prolific goal scorer” – that’s something you’ll be reading a lot over the coming days, supported of course by baseless statistics that don’t consider the fact that he only started playing as a striker last season. He’s often been an interior or attacking-midfielder, sticking close to the striker on his team. Arsenal have Olivier Giroud, a striker synonymous with performing at his best when he has a player that operates closely with him (Griezmann for France, occasionally Walcott for Arsenal). Lucas offers Wenger that duality in style: he can be the counter-attacking striker that punishes opposition defences or he can be a foil and creator for Giroud.

Lucas amassed eight assists and 17 goals last year. A career high. While that may seem measly in a time where footballers are filling their boots with 40+ goals per season, one has to consider the club. As a Deportivo fan, I have struggled in the last 5-6 years with strikers who end as top scorers for the club with just 7-10 goals. The issue they all have in common is a lack of creator in the side. Strikers are often forced to carve out their own chances here, so that’s a testament to Lucas’ comfortability and quality as a forward. He chases down possession, effortlessly carries the game forward and then applies a slick finishing touch. This, with no creator. Arsenal have Mesut Özil – a player crying out for more goal scorers to support – and the likes of a supporting cast of Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey etc. The list goes on. Lucas had virtually nobody last season, nor the season before that. He was plucking goals out of nothing, such as the one embedded below.

Lucas has also shown that he can bring the best out of players around him. Luis Alberto, for example, had his best season knocking in goals for Sevilla’s B team. At Liverpool & Málaga, he was fairly poor. At Depor, though, we saw the best of Luis Alberto. Why? Because Lucas, when working in tandem with another forward, is a fantastic footballer. And if he strikes this partnership with, say, Alexis or Giroud, then Arsenal fans are likely to be salivating come the end of the summer.

Am I saying he’s perfect for Arsenal? Not really. There are a few caveats. Will Wenger arrange the system around him? That’s one. But the other comes as part of Lucas’ main issue: he takes a few chances before he puts one away. That may frustrate some, but it’s also worth looking at the other side of things: will he score more if he’s less inclined to snap away at the half chances he creates and simply latch onto a perfectly weighted pass instead? Lucas also requires a bit of freedom if his game is to truly prosper. It’s far from clear what his role will be, but he is an upgrade on all of Arsenal’s wingers (bar Alexis) at the very least.

And, just briefly, since I mentioned Alexis, Arsenal fans will love Lucas Pérez for the same reason they love the Chilean. He works extremely hard – and not in an English “he runs about a bit” type. Lucas will bust a lung to revive a loose ball and, once he collects it, he will carry it forward. Unlike Alexis, though, Lucas is less of a dribbler so will look to release possession to a team-mate once he wins the ball back.

Is he perfect? No. And is he the striker Arsenal 100% wanted this summer? No. But I think he could prove to be an exceptional capture if, as aforementioned, the system is arranged to suit his game. He could be the perfect partner for Giroud and Alexis. Stylistically speaking, Wenger has a very versatile player on his hands that could be the key to saving what has been a miserable summer & start to the season.

 

I’d like to wish Lucas the best at Arsenal. Thank you for helping the city of A Coruña dream again; for the goals, the assists, the times you picked the team up from the rubble surrounding it. Thank you for that goal that sparked the revival against Barcelona that kept us up; the goal against Villarreal that also secured our safety the year after. Noraboa, boa sorte. 

My favourite Lucas Pérez moment: he tells Germán Lux that he will save Nolito’s penalty in the derby game, then tells Nolito he’s going to miss. Both things happen, and Lucas celebrates like this: 

Marcelino

The title may be out of Real Madrid’s distance and, while Atlético Madrid’s win over them may have lodged a significant distance between 2nd and 3rd, they are still in the top 3. Typically in Spain, there is quite a significant cushion between 3rd and 4th but this season has debunked that. Real Madrid, instead of meandering in 3rd place, now have to look over their shoulders because Villarreal are breathing heavily down their necks.

Marcelino’s men appear to improve with every passing season. It’s almost as though, by stripping them of their star players, they improve as a collective. This year, there is no outright gem. Everybody is contributing as the Yellow Submarine attack and defend as one cohesive unit. Their successes are attributed more to resilience and unity than individual talent or a purple patch of form. This is reinforced by their defensive record: a mere 18 league goals conceded in 26 games. That statistic has contributed to 14 clean-sheets for the season, including five on the trot. Only Atléti have conceded less goals than them, yet Los Colchoneros failed to register even one goal against Villarreal this season. Whereas last season they had the brilliance of Luciano Vietto and Gerard Moreno scoring heaps, they’ve traded that in for a more complete squad that recognises its limitations and does not attempt to play a brand of football that simply does not suit them. And this is why they’re on the verge of clipping Real Madrid’s heels.

Real Madrid last finished 4th 12 years ago; that side that finished 4th in 2004 had Zidane operating in midfield. While this season’s inconsistencies and poor results cannot be solely blamed on the man, it is ironic that the campaign could end with him at the forefront of another 4th placed finish. Because as much as Real Madrid have raucously tumbled this season, Villarreal have quietly climbed the table. That facet of their season is a strong reason as to why Villarreal could very well pip Real Madrid to automatic Champions League qualification. When the two sides meet on April 20th – European schedules permitting – it could be that Real Madrid are the team behind Villarreal. That is more a testament to Villarreal’s undeniable consistency this season than Real Madrid’s chaotic dip.

 

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Gameiro celebrates his goal against Molde in the Europa / [Image via Manuel Gomez]

As Kevin Gameiro’s low-shot nestled into the net against Molde, he became the highest goal scorer of all-time for manager Unai Emery, beating out Carlos Bacca and Alváro Negredo in the process. But not only did that goal make him Emery’s highest goal scorer of all-time, it counted for his 19th of the season in all competitions – two more than he amassed over the entirety of last season. The French striker is currently in his finest vein of form, but that wasn’t always the case at Sevilla.

When Gameiro joined Sevilla, his job was to play second fiddle to Bacca. Whether it be operating with the Colombian just to open up space for him, or entering the field of play with 15 minutes to go, it’s fair to say that Gameiro was severely underused and under-appreciated by Sevilla for a long while. He would often narrow their style of play and tread on Bacca’s toes. His game was made up of uncertainty both in movement and in finishing. It would take the 28-year-old several chances before he would bury one. The culmination of the aforementioned drawbacks meant that Gameiro quickly became someone who played in dead-rubber games or when fixtures became congested.

Bacca’s departure may have worried a multitude of Sevilla fans, but it eased the pressure off Gameiro’s shoulders and allowed him to spearhead an attack consistently. When Fernando Llorente arrived on a free transfer from Juventus, there was a small concern that Gameiro would once again find himself on the periphery of the starting 11. In short, that would eventually become something far from the truth.

The French forward appears to have something that the Spanish tend to call autocrítica, which is when you look at yourself in a critical manner and evaluate your weaknesses in order to erase or strengthen them. This is evident in Gameiro’s case because he plays like a changed, more improved player. Whereas before he was treading on the toes of his teammates, he now knows when and where to exploit space. His spacial awareness has increased which, in turn, is reflected in his goal tally this season. Most of his goals have come from supreme movement and commanding of the box.

Something that Bacca improved on when he was at Sevilla was his passing and associative play. A criticism of his was that he often looked for a pass to reach him, rather than go looking for it or involving others. When he altered that negative facet of his game, his popularity in European football rose, granting him a lucrative move to AC Milan. In Gameiro’s case, things are very similar. Gameiro now glides around the final third, looking to receive a pass, and release one of his own, or exploit defensive gaps. In fact, his three league assists were created from navigating of space on his own behalf and inch-perfect passes. By becoming a more well-rounded forward less obsessed with scoring goals, he has found that goal scoring is far more natural when you involve yourself in the bulk of play rather than waiting for scraps. By being on the move more often, Gameiro has scored more goals in a Sevilla shirt than he could have ever predicted.

With the Europa League, Copa del Rey and league still to play for, it wouldn’t be farfetched to predict 25 goals (or more) from the Frenchman this season. 29 goals in all competitions would be a return higher than what Bacca ever produced for Sevilla. To think there was a point where the quality of the two could not have been further apart is astounding and outright banal.

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With Karim Benzema’s national team future facing uncertainty, Didier Deschamps simply cannot afford to ignore Gameiro’s form and improvement as a footballer. He is no longer a player who solely scores goals. He improves and heightens the quality of his team’s play in the final third more so than Olivier Giroud or any other French forward currently active. Antoine Griezmann is his real competition, but that centre-forward role is more of a necessity at Atlético Madrid rather than an indication of where Griezmann’s future for France lies. Therefore, it is inconceivable to even ponder on Gameiro not making that flight for the European Championships. He is the most improved, most productive and hungriest natural centre-forward available to France if Benzema is excluded from the tournament. In fact, aside from Benzema, no other French centre-forward has scored more goals than Gameiro (in club competitions) this season. If France want a footballer who liquifies play in the final third and remains productive, then they must look no further than the 28-year-old. Especially if he ends the season the way everybody is predicting he will.

Gameiro has gone from being an inconsistent, enigmatic striker at Sevilla to a dependable fan favourite. That renaissance is solely down to his own mentality, deciding to improve himself rather than sulk on the bench and accept a bit-part role for the remainder of his contract.

Adan

It seems like not too long ago that Antonio Adán was being chewed up and spat out under Mourinho’s Real Madrid, amidst Iker Casillas’ uncertainties in the starting 11. Adán found himself being meticulously scrutinised by fans on Casillas’ side while also receiving cheap praise just for being the man between the sticks ahead of the veteran goalkeeper. With the ability to look back at this period in hindsight, some would argue that Mourinho actually acknowledged Adán’s talent; that he wasn’t merely a tool to damage Casillas with. The shot-stopper’s contract would run out at Madrid with Cagliari, and later on Real Betis, pouncing on the free agent.

The 28-year-old goalkeeper has been far from a saint at Betis, though. As prosperous as things have become for him, Adán arrived when Betis were in the Spanish second division and playing quite poorly. The goalkeeper often looked unaffiliated, almost as though he was better than a Segunda level player. Later on, it was confirmed that his issue was with the club seemingly not valuing him. To prove his worth to himself, Adán caused a rift with then goalkeeping coach Kike Burgos. The debacle ended with Burgos being sacked, proving the player’s worth to the club. It was either Burgos or Adán. By choosing the latter, Betis confirmed how highly they valued the goalkeeper. When Burgos allegedly told Adán, “are you aware of the damage you have done to me? This [coaching] is what I love to do most, you could destroy my career. My wife and children are crying…”, the 28-year-old replied: “I don’t care about your family. I’m thinking about myself. I have spent a whole month thinking that nobody listens to me at this club – by doing this, now I have their attention.” His methods were unfair and childish but, if one were to play devil’s advocate, it must be tough going from arguably the biggest club in the world down to the second division where teams are humbler and more united – where attention is handed out evenly rather than to the best players only. Adán, though, duly received the attention he craved and, since then, has turned into quite an outstanding goalkeeper. His performances helped Betis climb back into the Spanish top-tier and now he’s doing his utmost to keep them there.

This season, there has simply been not one goalkeeper better than Adán in La Liga. His importance between the sticks is unrivalled. Alphonse Areola (Villarreal), Jaume (Valencia) and Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid) have been excellent, but Betis’ shot-stopper is a cut above the names listed. Even most recently in the game away at Deportivo la Coruña, Adán was the difference between 2-2 (the final score) and 5-2. He made three stupendous saves that contributed to another point on the table for the Andalucían club. That wasn’t the first time, either. You can look back at most of Betis’ wins and draws this season and there is a probable chance that Adán was the key figure behind the result.

In almost every positive fixture for Betis, you’ll find Adán acrobatically throwing himself around to prevent chances from flying in. His reflexes are otherworldly, his calmness in one-on-one situations excellent. Conjoin pure ability with scintillating form and there is no way that Vicente del Bosque can ignore him ahead of anyone else. And that includes David de Gea. Adán has been, unequivocally, the best Spanish goalkeeper in Europe this season. Forget Rubén Castro’s goals, Betis would be rooted to the bottom of the table if not for the goalkeeper’s crucial stops.

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Decisions, decisions, decisions…

With pre-season friendlies a month away, it would be outrageous if Adán found himself not representing La Roja. Del Bosque has a track record of making very few changes to the squad and regularly sticks to his veterans, though, so it may be that Adán’s impressive form is wrongly disregarded for others. He may not be a fountain of youth that promises years and years for the national team – and he’s also not better than De Gea pound for pound – but Adán’s current form, which has lasted a good 18 months now, puts him head and shoulders above the regulars in Del Bosque’s repertoire: Casillas, De Gea and Sergio Rico. The 28-year-old has represented every single youth category in Spain but is missing that senior cap – something he is mightily deserving of.

Sometimes hard work and self-belief can truly pay off, even if underhand tactics are employed to ensure security. The best of relationships start rockily, and that of Adán and Betis has blossomed into something quite special. He is reaping the benefits of the stability offered to him. The Spanish National Team would be crazy to ignore someone at the utter peak of his game.

It wasn’t too long ago when an Espanyol quartet of Sergio Garcia, Stuani, Verdú and Simão was taking the Catalan club to unbelievable heights. Coached by the brilliant Javier Aguirre, Los Periquitos looked special and seemingly increased in quality. Fast-forward two years and this is no longer.

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Sergio Garcia, Verdu and Stuani celebrate in the 2013/14 season. Photograph: Alejandro Garcia/EPA

The club have fallen in every facet: from how it is run by the board to on-pitch performances. There is a disjointedness that circulates the air unlike anything witnessed at Espanyol this decade. An ever present side in the Spanish top-tier since 1994, Espanyol now look like a club that could sink back down to the Spanish Segunda División. 

There has been an amalgamation of issues that have hit Espanyol this season; they stretch beyond the usual “players aren’t good enough” or “manager isn’t good enough” argument. Those two issues are prevalent, sure, but the club’s uncertainty in how it has sold its rights is affecting the fans’ opinion of the club. The new Chinese owners openly admit to knowing very little about football, and their recent celebration of the Chinese New Year just outside the Cornellá El-Prat stadium has sent some fans into unequivocal uproar. A rather large portion of fans believe that the club is being commercialised, and thus a loss of identity is impending. This uncertainty, and gloomy outlook, is making them doubt the club. And in doing that, they doubt the players and manager by extension. It’s a vicious cycle that has completely derailed any notion of squad morale at Espanyol.

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Chinese New Year celebrations outside Cornellá El-Prat

The Chinese owners have gone on record to say that they want Espanyol in the Champions League in three years. While ambition is welcome at Espanyol, it is this precise comment that gives the fans pause; it makes them take a step back and question if the owners really understand the club that they have taken over. Furthermore, it brings back memories of Málaga. Sometimes Champions League football can be a beacon of prestige and money, but pumping all of your finances into reaching the coveted tournament isn’t worth it for the smaller clubs – they need to build their way there rather than taking the shortcut. Málaga learned the hard way and Valencia are more-or-less on their way there. Espanyol don’t want to be victims to this recurring theme in Spain but the owners appear to be completely oblivious to this.

The issues, as explained previously, do not reside with just one sector of Espanyol. As much as the owners have spread uncertainty, the management has been subpar at best and horrendous at worst. Sergio González, sacked ten days before Christmas, was the catalyst to this downward spiral that Los Periquitos have found themselves undergoing. The young coach, despite all of his talents, played with a negative mindset that constantly hindered the team over the course of 90 minutes. Sergio often made defensive substitutions with games poised at 1-1, 0-0 etc. encouraging opposition pressure when the game was even. In fact, there were some games where Espanyol were dominant before the substitution. One example of this was the game with Villarreal in August. With the game tied at 1-1 and looking to go either way, Sergio replaced a striker with a defensive-midfielder in the final 20 minutes. With 3 minutes to go of normal time, Espanyol conceded twice and lost the game 3-1. That is just one isolated incident, amongst many, that contributed to Sergio’s sacking. Despite his talents as a coach, he handicapped the team drastically.

Sergio’s replacement came in the form of Constantin Gâlcă, a former player of the club just like Sergio. The results have been similar. He has had next-to-no glories, garnering just two points in 2016 (worst in La Liga) and guiding Espanyol to within one point from the relegation zone. Gâlcă has been given one last chance with an upcoming game against Valencia, but his words have not filled any Espanyol supporter with hope. In short, Gâlcă wants to change the style of football ahead of this game. It is an act of desperation, a man frantically cycling through ideas to find something that works. Sadly, that represents Espanyol from ownership right down to the players on the pitch. It is feasible that the Catalan club may see three, possibly even four, managers attempt to make something stick from now until the end of the season.

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Constant rotation of the Espanyol defence has contributed to the club conceding 46 goals in 23 league games – joint highest in the league. That is, on average, two goals conceded per game. Centre-back Michaël Ciani, undisputed fourth choice for a while, has recently found himself a regular in the side. He is a player you would likely see at the heart of Espanyol’s defence if they were to be relegated. Right now, though, it is frustrating even as a disconnected neutral to see Gâlcă toy with the defence. He’s trying to make something work, correct an error, but it plays out like that scene in the first Mr Bean film where Rowan Atkinson attempts to wipe the wet Whistler’s Mother painting down only to stain it further. That is Gâlcă’s management in microcosm.

The players, in particular the captains, have recently entered the crosshairs of the fans. Espanyol are well-renowned for their legendary captains who would always work extremely hard, correct the issues of their team-mates and face the media. Most recent examples of this are Raúl Tamudo, Dani Jarque and Sergio García. As of right now, Espanyol have cowardly captains. In the most recent humiliation – 5-0 loss against Real Sociedad at home – captain Javi López and 3rd captain Víctor Álvarez walked straight down the tunnel without apologising, or even acknowledging, the home fans. By doing this, they also avoided any media interview. The only person to step up was 22-year-old Real Madrid loanee, Burgui. The captains are supposed to face the media as representatives of the team and performance on the pitch. Instead, a young loanee had to show his face. That says a lot about the current situation at Espanyol. Nobody knows where to look to for a glimmer of hope or salvation.

Burgui

Burgui showing his face after 5-0 loss, captains nowhere to be seen

Right now, associative play is non-existent at Espanyol. Passes are not being strung together successfully, attacks are almost always gifted to the Catalan club through opposition errors. Despite the big signings of Marco Asensio (loan) and Gerard Moreno in the summer, Espanyol have somewhat regressed in the final third. Asensio’s performance levels have dropped drastically and Moreno has failed to recapture the form he displayed last season at Villarreal. When the attacking stars are failing to consistently produce, and the defence is being tinkered with every game, it is hard for a team to even move without getting hurt. That’s Espanyol.

Espanyol are in free-fall and there’s no telling how long it will take for Los Periquitos to pick themselves back up when they inevitably hit rock bottom. As of right now, no manager or player can save them. Their destiny almost seems predetermined: relegation beckons.

Many will be familiar with the name Víctor Sánchez. After all, he was part of that golden generation of Deportivo players that won the Copa del Rey in 2002 at the Bernabeu. He may not be remembered for the flair of Djalminha or creativity of Juan Carlos Valerón, but he was the guy who would bust a lung to dominate the wings and always sustained a high level of productivity. Today, at the age of 39, he is the manager of the club in question: Dépor.

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Víctor lifting the Copa del Rey in 2002

Víctor returned to A Coruña on the 9th of April with the club in the relegation zone, having just sacked the underachieving Victor Fernandez. Dépor were in a rut, struggling to get points and failing to operate as a cohesive unit. Individualism was valued over unity and it was a major component of the club’s unsuccessful return to La Liga.

Víctor’s job was tough: keep Dépor in the top flight with only eight games to go. In those eight games, there were three prestigious opponents: Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. His only loss in those three games came against Atléti, with two draws in the others to keep Dépor in La Liga. The final game, in fact, was away at Barcelona. Los Blanquiazules were 2-0 down at half-time… 2-0 down with 23 minutes to go. Fast-forward to the final whistle and Dépor were celebrating on the Camp Nou pitch. Lucas Pérez and Salomão scored in the final 20 minutes to turn the game on its head and keep Los Blanquiazules in the Spanish Primera. It was a game of pure ecstasy, but Víctor was the puppeteer.

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Lucas and Víctor embrace at the full-time whistle

The 39-year-old’s arrival filled everyone with hope – from the fans, right down to the players. It was his first job as a manager and his hunger was clear to see. He immediately instilled a sense of belief in the changing rooms and the turnaround in performance levels was staggering. Take Salomão, the scorer of the goal that kept Dépor in the top flight, for example: he had barely featured all season, with the previous manager discarding him from the squad due to personal disagreements. He had no reason to play with such heart, desire and tenacity, but Víctor awoke those traits from within him and exploited them to turn the club’s fortunes around. It is those minute details that help define a coach, and that is precisely why he is being heralded as the brightest young manager in the country. To undergo your first job with heaps of pressure and come out of the other end unscathed and adored is undeniably impressive.

In the summer, Víctor worked closely with club president Tino Fernandez. The idea was to avoid making the same mistakes as in previous years: purchasing washed up journeymen and exhausting a partnership with super agent Jorge Mendes. The club wanted a fresh recruitment policy and the 39-year-old delivered just that. He went out of his way to bring Lucas Pérez back to A Coruña after a flawless loan spell – the striker needed little persuading, having grown up in the city as a supporter of the club. He made the decision to pick up some of the better, discarded players in Spain rather than going abroad for relative unknowns on the cheap. Thus Fernando Navarro, Fayçal Fajr, Pedro Mosquera, Alejandro Arribas, Cani, Fede Cartabia and Luis Alberto. These were players available on a free or happy to move on loan – their one thing in common? They all play in Spain. Víctor wisely opted for the more secure choices that would instill stability and immediate results to a Dépor devoid of that. His final signings: Borges, Riera, Sidnei and Juanfran were all returning to the club after loan spells the season prior. Jonathan Rodriguez and Jonas Gutierrez were the black sheep, arriving from Portugal and England respectively. The entire squad, bar Lucas, was assembled for zilch – with this crop of players, Víctor has taken the Galician club to unfathomable heights.

This season, Víctor has proceeded to amplify the quality of every single player in the side; he squeezes 15% more out of each individual. Moroccan midfielder Fajr was a fairly good – bordering on mediocre – player reaching his late 20s at Elche. Under the Spanish coach, he is now #9 in the list for chances created in La Liga. Furthermore, he has been capped by the Moroccan national team for the first time due to his outstanding club performances.

If our focus shifts to Mosquera, the same has occurred. He was a good defensive-midfielder at Elche, having failed to make an impact at Real Madrid, but now he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive-midfielders in Spain. He is constantly battling for possession, providing cover for his defence while also mixing it up with his passing to create chances. He has become integral to the way Dépor operate as a unit.

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Mosquera on presentation day

Lastly, and while there are other examples, none shines brightest than the Lucas one. Lucas was great in the 14/15 season, scoring some important goals amidst battling with recurring injuries. He scored six all season. As of now, he has 11 league goals in 15 games; his name is being widespread and campaigned in favour of a Spain cap & a trip to France for the 2016 European Championships.

All three of the aforementioned players are 27 years of age and were largely unknown on a grand scale up until this season. Víctor has catapulted them to humble stardom where they now transcend the opinions of their fan base and are widely accepted to be fantastic footballers.

It isn’t just his man-management or astute transfer policy that has helped him succeed. No, it is also down to his tactical flexibility. Víctor toys with different formations and player roles to exploit an opponent’s weakness pre-game and even during it. He started the 2015/16 season with an explosive attacking side that was scoring regularly and playing with no fear away from home. Yet in those extremely tough fixtures, the Spaniard shakes things up and plays with four full-backs to nullify the opposition’s overload on the flanks. It forces teams to move to the centre – where Dépor defend at their best with Mosquera, Sidnei and Arribas gobbling up possession regularly.

Víctor’s most impressive trait is the manner in which he meticulously analyses the opposition. Not only in-game, where he regularly adapts to the rival’s moves, but pre-game too. In fact, that is where he shines brightest. For the goalkeepers, he makes them watch the previous game of the upcoming opponent to see how they were shooting and from where. By doing this, it increases the goalkeeper’s awareness and gives him an edge over the rival players. It was successful most recently when Dépor triumphed in the Galician derby, with Germán Lux stopping Nolito’s penalty and his trademark technique of cutting inside and curling shots.

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Lux celebrates stopping Nolito’s penalty

With the strikers, he trains them all together and has them playing in different combinations to exploit an opposition’s weakness. Lucas is always the mainstay, boasting the ability to drop deep and carry the ball forward with blistering pace and technique. His partner differs from the towering Riera to the rapid and diminutive Jonathan. If he expects the opposition to deploy a high-line, he assembles Lucas and Jonathan together. If he is expecting a more combative game, then Riera joins Lucas to impose his physicality over the opposition’s defence.

Some managers attempt combinations, but fail to analyse the opposition’s recent games in-depth to truly determine how they will operate. Víctor’s attention to detail intertwines with a willingness to succeed and that is the key component to Dépor’s revival this season.

As of now, Víctor has undergone 26 games at Dépor losing a mere four times. He has won eight and drawn 14 – some of which have been against the more bigger clubs in the country: Atlético, Barcelona (twice), Valencia, Sevilla and Athletic (twice). When he returned to A Coruña he said, “This is a club that has suffered a lot. I want to bring hope back to Dépor.” He has done just that, and then some. Not only has he upped the belief and faith of everyone at the club, but he has allowed the entire city to dream of bigger and better things. For once, the dark cloud that has surrounded the club for the last seven years is beginning to disperse into sunlight.

Expect to hear the name ‘Víctor Sánchez’ roll off the tongue of many in the coming years from all corners of the footballing world. His ceiling is impossible to predict and he boasts the greatest of tools to succeed in the game. An adaptable, tactically savvy man-manager that can mastermind positive results with his impressive attention to detail, the sky really is the limit for the young Spaniard.

 

 

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If anything, at least Neville looks like a Torero (bullfighter)

It’s always refreshing to see a coach leave his home for an opportunity to refine his managerial palate abroad, but sometimes the move stinks more of PR than genuine positivity. Case in study: Gary Neville.

Valencia are one of the most demanding clubs in Europe – make no mistake about that. The fans have been ridiculed by board members, club presidents and now the sugar-daddy owner Peter Lim. This often works in a cycle whereby the fans become impatient with a new manager because he clearly does not understand the club’s identity, nor does he attempt to connect with them. There is always that barrier that the club places between manager and fans; all that the latter wants is for that to be knocked down, at least for the sake of transparency and honesty. For all his money, Lim has made two very underwhelming managerial appointments since becoming the owner of the club: Nuno Espirito Santo from Rio Ave and now Gary Neville – a man who has never managed before.

If one takes a look at those two managers, it is clear to see why Lim opted for them. Lim and Jorge Mendes are great friends and have investments in similar firms/companies, so Nuno was an easy appointment. He was relatively well versed in the Spanish language due to Iberian dialect and had Mendes as his agent to speed up the process smoothly. Essentially, Lim asked his pal for a favour. Did he learn from his mistake after the catastrophic 2nd-season reign of the Portuguese manager? Of course not. Why was Neville appointed? Without making sweeping judgements, it is quite suspicious that Lim has pumped a major investment into Neville’s Salford City. Valencia are now being run like a business which, perhaps, is what football as a whole while be operating as in the coming years. The frightening notion for the fans is that nobody is combating Lim; nobody can. Mendes now has a stranglehold over the club alongside a man who will throw money at every issue on the pitch, yet play a game of monopoly with the manager that has to pick up those wads of cash and translate it into a winning team.

Lim does things with his own best intentions in mind. He is like a magician; he entertains you with flashy objects (new players) while concealing the dirty trick. He is so powerful that he could, quite feasibly, remain owner for years to come without being challenged in the slightest.

Valencia isn’t run like a cohesive club; it is so painfully obvious that they are divided into clear sectors with no communication whatsoever. As aforementioned, the fans have a barrier to the manager. The players often have the same barrier, as seen with Alvaro Negredo, Rodrigo De Paul and João Pereira’s mistreatment by Nuno. The manager then cannot see the board members, the president or owner – but they can see him. It is almost like an interrogation room where everyone can see the culprit through blacked out glass, but he cannot see them. Managers become evil in the eyes of the fans, while those in charge cackle away.

Valencia’s last six managers (in three years) are as follows: Mauricio Pellegrino, Ernesto Valverde, Miroslav Djukic, Juan Antonio Pizzi, Nuno and now Neville. Here is where the issue lies. When those names are analysed and stripped apart, they have zilch in common. There is no similarity in managerial styles, nothing in-keeping with Valencia’s identity. They are just names quickly picked out of a hat – for good or for worse – that simply do not align with anything the club represents historically.

Valencia are not yearning for a powerhouse, Pep Guardiola-type manager. They just want, and need, someone who understands the club. A man who makes the effort to connect with the fans while also displaying strong managerial skills. Someone who does not allow himself to be puppeteered by the powers above. It may seem like that is asking for too much, but Valencia have been toiling with an identity crisis for almost ten years now and it seems as though things are finally reaching a saddening climax. Valencia Club de Fútbol could have its name changed to Valencia Enterprises and nobody would be able to tell the difference.

Ultimately, Neville knows nothing about the Spanish culture or language. Most importantly, he has never managed before. Everyone starts somewhere, but at one of the toughest clubs to conquer in Europe is a stretch too far. It reeks of David Moyes 2.0 but, in fairness to Moyes, he had a decade of experience under his belt and had always expressed a penchant for wanting to work abroad. Valencia need managerial stability above all else – they will not get that from a man who still has not found himself, or his style as a manager, just yet.

It’s great for Neville – it really is. You can’t blame him. He’s at one of the biggest clubs in Spain and will be absorbing a new culture, but he does not know what is awaiting him – and, if you speak to those six managers Valencia have appointed in the last three years, they’ll tell you it isn’t positive.

Javi Fuego

As Valencia legend David Albelda departed in 2013, it became apparent that Los Che were in dire need of a new anchor in midfield. Despite his influence over the years, Albelda regressed heavily in his final two seasons and struggled to keep up with the pace of the game; errors seeped in due to pressure, and thus the search for a new defensive-midfielder began.

Valencia swept in for Javi Fuego, 29 at the time, on a free transfer. Fuego had spent three excellent years at Rayo Vallecano, deployed as a box-to-box midfielder in Paco Jemez’s attacking system. Yet, when he was asked to sit and break up play, his true qualities shone. He allowed Roberto Trashorras to take a few more steps into the final third, he covered for when his wing-backs went on marauding runs and he cast a protective net over his defence that, ultimately, kept Rayo from being whitewashed game after game. With no contract renewal signed, Fuego was given his chance to seek pastures green – and, thus, Valencia came knocking.

Fuego struggled to fit in immediately, viewed as too aggressive to anchor a Valencia midfield that was often susceptible to being overrun. But he was able to give Dani Parejo freedom to dictate a game, and that helped the now Valencia captain reach the level that everyone had expected of him as a kid. That’s the thing with Fuego: not only will he protect the midfield, he will let the individuals within it express themselves and thus become better footballers. His rise from being a perceived liability to one of the most important cogs of Valencia’s ever-changing midfield has been unsurprising to most.

With the abundance of technical ability in Valencia’s current midfield options (Parejo, Enzo Perez, André Gomes and Rodrigo De Paul), Fuego has to operate as the key balancing act. He is the water carrier of the side, ensuring that things are safe for others to pile on forward and exert their various influences. Far from aesthetically pleasing, the Spanish defensive-midfielder racks up tackles and interceptions like no other. Take him out of the Valencia midfield and they crumble both due to opposition pressure and systematic changes from Nuno Espirito Santo to adapt to Fuego’s absence. This often involves Perez operating as a ball-winner, but his job is far less successful than what the Spaniard is capable of. Los Che look disjointed and easy to pierce through for opposition players. The defence becomes vulnerable, the full-backs lose their precious cover. Possession for Valencia then becomes a game of who can play the riskiest pass out of impatience to create goals. Fuego, on the other hand, is far from technically gifted but not entirely deficient with the ball at his feet; his safe passing is a necessity rather than a tool that handicaps Valencia.

Fuego was key in Valencia’s Champions League qualifiers, playing a crucial role in repelling Monaco attacks and alleviating pressure beset upon his defence. He is perfect for away games, capable of making tactical fouls to slow the game down yet always having the discipline to wait for the perfect opportunity to tackle (pictured below). In home games, Fuego can operate as the anchor who allows everyone to have fun. In away games, his importance multiplies by ten. He leads by example, barking orders to organise his midfield and ensure that shape does not break off.

Covering for his full-back. Could do the

Covering for his full-back. Could do the “normal” thing of slotting back in midfield, but he opts to stand off that position and wait for Monaco’s play to approach him as he predicts.

As he predicted, play comes his way and he applies pressure on the opposition player to win back the ball. But once he sees that the player has an open man to pass to, he retreats into the previous position to, again, await a run down his radius.

As he predicted, play comes his way and he applies pressure on the opposition player to win back the ball. But once he sees that the player has an open man to pass to, he retreats into the previous position to, again, await a run down his radius.

It's here where he finally commits, once the opportunity arises. He could have flown in twice in the previous seconds, but he waits. With that precise tackle, he wins back possession and Valencia embark on a dangerous counter. He is crucial to their system in Europe especially.

It’s here where he finally commits, once the opportunity arises. He could have flown in twice in the previous seconds, but he waits. With that precise tackle, he wins back possession and Valencia embark on a dangerous counter. He is crucial to their system in Europe especially.

The issue with Fuego and Valencia is that there is no true alternative to him. Signed in the summer was Danilo Barbosa – on loan from Sporting Braga – who arrived with a lot of hype and praise surrounding his game. At just 19-years of age, there is an almost 13-year gap between both him and Fuego. Danilo is far too inexperienced, but undoubtedly talented and enthusiastic, while Fuego will soon become susceptible to injuries like most combative players in their 30s do. It is a clear concern for Valencia, who seem a tad too engrossed in employing flashy players for the midfield rather than someone who can become the heir to Fuego in the next 2-3 years; as good as he is, there will come a time when this notion will have to be at the very least pondered on.

As of now, age is far from an issue in Fuego’s game though. He plays with an enthusiasm, concentration and energy that can be found in any player at his physical peak. This energy comes natural to him due to his previous ventures in the box-to-box role; he does not tire late in the game like Albelda did in his final years. If not for his age, the Spaniard would be one of the most sought after defensive-midfielders in Europe. Luckily for Valencia, his age repels many from attempting to pluck him away. Yet it is almost bewildering how sides with lesser-quality always enquire for Fuego – something not reflective of his quality; Valencia swat the enquiries away, but it begs the question: how understated is Fuego’s quality?

Ultimately, he is one of the best holding midfielders in Spain and vastly underrated not only in the country, but in Europe too. There’s a generation of veteran midfielders like him in La Liga that are still performing to a high level: Bruno Soriano, Tiago, Trashorras etc. They all play at a high level and retain an intriguing youthfulness to their game. The one thing in common between all of these names? They’re unequivocally important for their sides. Bruno leads and anchors, Tiago bursts from box to box breaking up play and initiating attacks while Trashorras is the playmaker – the man who dictates play and tempo.

If Peter Lim’s relationship with Jorge Mendes is to continue, then perhaps the heir to Fuego will be found in someone like William Carvalho who has been linked to the club already. Valencia cannot afford to have another Albelda situation on their hands where they neglect the age of an important player until he becomes physically incapable to carry out his role – and then ensues a scramble for names and numbers.

Fuego’s importance to this Valencia side is both impressive and scary. One injury and Los Che’s midfield snaps in half, but without injuries it looks like one of the most perfectly balanced midfields in La Liga.

ben

Canadian international, Ben Fisk, joined Deportivo in August as a free agent. Following an impressive season at Coruxo, and after leaving Vancouver Whitecaps, he was approached by Los Blanquiazules. The forward, aged 22, becomes the third Canadian to represent the club after Samuel Piette (now on loan at Racing de Ferrol) and Julian De Guzman.

Despite joining to represent the youth team (Fabril), Fisk has high hopes of breaking into the senior side.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with the youngster and ask him a few questions about his career, Canadian football and his big move to Spain.

Chris Moar:

What attracted you to Deportivo?

Ben Fisk:

I wanted to play at the highest level possible and, at the moment, I think La Liga is the best league in the world. Depor are a great club, with prestigious history, and I suppose it doesn’t hurt that they are located in such a beautiful city!

CM:

Do you have aspirations of breaking into the first-team right away?

BF:

Of course. My goal is to break into the first-team here as soon as possible. In 2-3 years, I want to be playing and scoring goals with the first-team here in A Coruña.

CM:

You mention scoring goals – would you say that is a particular strength of yours?

BF: 

Definitely. I’ve scored goals at every level I’ve played at and I hope to continue that here.

CM: 

On the topic of scoring at every level, you spent last season at Galician club Coruxo and scored a hat-trick against Tropezon. How did you find it there?

BF:

Last season was a great transitional period for me. I was adapting to the Spanish game, as well as living abroad and learning a new foreign culture. I enjoyed my time at Coruxo and I’m utterly grateful to them for allowing me to get my foot in the door of Spanish football.

Fisk kisses the ball that he struck to help Coruxo qualify for the Copa Federación.

Fisk kisses the ball that he struck to help Coruxo qualify for the Copa Federación.

CM:

How does Spanish football compare to anything you have witnessed? Have you learned things about the Spanish game that you wish you could pass on to other youngsters in Canada?

BF: 

As I said before, I think Spanish football is the best in the world right now. The difference between football here and in Canada is the tactical side of things. In Canada we address the physical, mental and technical side of the game very well, but the tactical side is either neglected entirely or poorly taught. With the national team, though, Benito Flores has really placed emphasis on our tactics and, for that reason alone, I think we will see more successful Canadian teams in the coming years.

CM:

Now that you are at a bigger club, could this be your chance to finally pick up a national team cap?

BF:

I’ve been in camp with the senior team a couple times now without picking up my first cap. But I’m very confident playing in that environment and confident in the fact that, if I just focus on playing well at club level, I will get my first cap soon enough.

CM: 

On the topic of Canada, how important is it that many young players have now, more than ever before, have started travelling around the globe in an attempt to develop their games?

BF: 

I think it’s very important for Canadian football that we have young players who are ambitious and getting themselves embroiled in different environments around the globe. It is a testament to both the mentality and quality of our players that we are able to find clubs all over the world. It only bodes well for our national team in the future, too. 

CM:

Just to wrap things up, since many Depor fans are unaware of your qualities, what would you highlight as a glaring strength/weakness and where are you most comfortable on the pitch?

BF:

I think my biggest strength is my combination of pace and dribbling ability but, if I look at my game critically, I would probably highlight my finishing as a weakness. It needs to be more clinical. As for my most comfortable position, I am happy anywhere in the final third – be it on either wing or up front.

I would like to thank Ben for giving me his time to conduct this interview and I wish him the utmost success at Deportivo.