Archive for the ‘Moar’s Weekly Musings’ Category

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.

Bacca Gam

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.

Gâlcă

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.

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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.