Image via (EPA/EMILIO NARANJO)

Image via (EPA/EMILIO NARANJO)

When speaking about Isaac Cuenca, Pep Guardiola once said: “girls may not like him, physically, but on the pitch he does amazing things.” Unfortunately for Cuenca, it may now be managers and clubs who do not like him because he no longer does “amazing things”.

When Cuenca joined Deportivo la Coruña in the summer of 2014, many perceived this to be a coup of enormous proportions for the newly promoted Galician club. It was a chance for the forward to reinvent himself by reaching a high level of fitness, subsequently through game time, and build his way back up to the level some had touted him to accomplish before chronic injuries entered his career. Still, at 23-years of age, his career was far from conclusion. The move excited neutrals and fans alike, but Cuenca’s performances have been rather distasteful and disappointing as we near the season end.

The injury record was a fear initially, but the scariest prospect for Depor was that Cuenca only signed a one-year contract. Surprisingly enough, though, there is only a little percentage now that would like to see him at the club beyond the summer. In fact, even the board seem somewhat reluctant to dish out an extension – summed up by the lack of contractual talks in comparison to goalkeeper Fabricio and soon-to-be out of contract Juan Dominguez.

Perhaps the most concerning element of Cuenca’s game has been his greediness. The aimless shooting, ball hogging and reluctance to release passes has both frustrated his teammates and ruined the infrequent attacks that Depor struggle to create. In fact, Cuenca’s created chances count is only 16 in 27 games – a concerning stat when one considers that January signing, Oriol Riera, has created more. In addition, defensive and combative midfielder Álex Bergantiños has trumped those figures, too. For a player that lingers high up field and boasts a tremendous amount of flair, his lack of activity and contribution has been staggering at the very least.

There was a particular moment in January which, in the grand scheme of things, could end up condemning Depor to the Segunda (second division). Away to Levante – a relegation rival up until mid-April – Cuenca had a golden chance to secure a vital three points and head-to-head victory. Running from deep inside his own half, Cuenca broke through Levante’s defensive lines and found himself ten yards away from the opposition box. Now surrounded by five Levante players, Cuenca’s only sane option was to play a (simple) pass into the direction of an unmarked Jose Rodriguez, who had a clear path to enter a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper. Cuenca, though, decided it would be a good idea to blast a long-range shot miles over the bar and squander a chance to put Depor in a healthier league position. This sequence, though, was not a one-off. That was Cuenca’s season condensed into a 15 second moment.

Jose Rodriguez is in acres of space

Jose Rodriguez is in acres of space

Cuenca’s issues transcend poor decision-making on the pitch. In his press conferences, there have been countless rambling mentions of Barcelona and his past. This is a clear mental block that he is suffering from and it, evidently, affects his game. He appears to be struggling to come to terms with not succeeding there and agreeing to a termination of his contract one year short. But this lamenting of the past can only be put behind him if he proves his worth and quality; yet the hunger is not there. Barcelona have a lengthy track record of re-signing players who were once theirs in recent years (Pique, Alba, Fabregas etc.) and this should motivate Cuenca to grasp his chance at reinvention. Alas, it has not been the case whatsoever, disappointingly enough.

Cuenca’s attitude is another branch in his tree of poor mentality. There are moments where he plays as though he is above others – it is clear to see by his body language and languid movement that he believes himself to be playing a few notches below his talent level. Not only is this a complete lack of disrespect toward a club that offered him the chance to reignite his career, it creates a division between the player and fan base. Yet his confidence doesn’t seem to run low when he is outright criticised and lambasted by fans and the media. It contributes to this idea that he simply does not care about the delicate situation surrounding the club, nor the progression of his own career.

Injuries have lessened considerably since his arrival at Depor – an argument can no longer be concocted about his stagnation deriving from the lack of game time. He has played 27 league games, spanning under the tutelage of two managers, at a ridiculously low level. Chances aplenty have come his way to fix poor form yet he fails to grasp them firmly with both hands, rather aimlessly flailing one at them. The prospect of what could be is why Cuenca continues to get minutes ahead of the explosive Diogo Salomão – a player more deserving of opportunities with similar past situations to Cuenca’s.

The Catalonian is, without a doubt, the most talented and technically gifted player in the Depor squad. But technical qualities rarely ever outweigh the severe lack of mentality. And in Cuenca’s case, he has the poorest in the squad.

Let’s face it, the newly turned 24-year-old is the type of player who should be dragging Depor by the scruff of the neck and over the relegation zone line – especially when various other teammates are pulling their own weight. Cuenca cowers away from challenges and expectation which is concerning for a player who was destined to reach colossal heights when at Barcelona. The competitive mentality that he acquired there is bereft from his game now, and his performance levels drop drastically when he receives the ball irregularly or is asked to perform in defensive duties. For a club like Barcelona, which stylistically tends to mould their academy products into team players, it is borderline barbaric that Cuenca is anything but.

Cuenca’s saving grace for the rest of his career will likely be his name and the prestige attached to it from a young age. It is no surprise that bigger (currently) clubs like Benfica and Valencia are looking to acquire his services once he becomes a free agent in the summer. In the former’s case, it is clear desire to attempt to develop him and sell on for a healthy profit. But the latter is mind-boggling, especially with newly found heaps of income. They could do much better by spending a few million elsewhere. That is the harsh reality that now surrounds Cuenca’s career.

It wasn’t just injuries holding him back, but his attitude too. The move to Depor was supposed to humble and provide him with a platform to quickly rise up again and prove his quality. But he has thrown it back into the faces of everyone who has ever believed in him. From Pep Guardiola, to a club taking him in despite injury concerns. Cuenca may never reach the heights once expected of him but whereas that may be sad for some, it is through his own failings that he has reached this point.

Manquillo training

Manquillo training

With a high influx of wingers being converted to full-backs in Spain, it’s refreshing to finally see a naturally defensive-minded full-back rise to popularity. Javier Manquillo isn’t your everyday marauding, positionally undisciplined, young full-back. Manquillo has had his head rooted to his shoulders from a young age, and that’s made him into the highly rated prospect he is today.

In 2007, the youngster moved from the Real Madrid Cantera (academy) to Atletico Madrid’s. Whilst that jump is often seen nowadays, it was still quite a big thing in Manquillo’s time. Manquillo’s experience in the youth echelons of Atleti were quiet, with nothing quite flashy having happened; and that sums Manquillo’s character up. His rise from academy to first-team was completed in 2011 when he was taken on Atleti’s pre-season friendly trips and made his debut against Zamalek SC. Manquillo would find himself regularly training with the first team throughout the season, but only made his first competitive appearance in a Copa del Rey tie against Albacete late in 2011. He would not make another appearance all year, instead sitting on the bench and playing for the B team. Despite the lack of minutes, Manquillo was rewarded with a 5-year contract extending his time with Los Colchoneros until 2016.

In late 2012, at the age of just 18, Manquillo made his La Liga debut in a 6-0 thrashing of Deportivo. Not much could be deduced from his short cameo, but it was yet another milestone in his career. 2012 was also Manquillo’s first year with Spain’s U-18 squad, racking up just two appearances. Manquillo’s performances were so good, especially against Russia, that he was pushed right up to the U-19s in the exact same year.

Although 2012 had seen the youngster move one step closer to first-team football, it was the year 2013 that really catapulted him. Manquillo made his first start for the club against Levante in January and, by the time the first-half had ended, the fans were chanting his name. He had made some spectacular interceptions, and even assisted Adrian Lopez’s goal in said half. Yet another contract extension would be prepared for the young right-back, this one tying him down until 2018. Many would be mistaken, after that performance, in thinking that Manquillo is an attacker first and a defender second. It’s quite the opposite.

Manquillo, unlike the new breed of Spanish full-back, is a defender first. Despite being a dazzling runner with the ball, his end-product is still ridiculously raw. This is an area of his game which needs a lot of fine-tuning and, whilst technique can’t quite be taught, it appears that Manquillo has the technical ability but just can’t quite unlock it yet. His short passing is a good trait as it means his side can remain in possession, but it just seems as though Manquillo doesn’t want to try anything special in the fear of failing. Failure is something that youngsters tend to learn from, but Manquillo wants to avoid it altogether. Whether this is a detriment to his game or a sign of a dependable team player, the ambiguity of  such, paired with sporadic appearances, means that the conclusion is yet to be determined. But who can unlock this attacking ability from Manquillo’s locker? Diego Simeone likes his full-backs joining in attack and making telling contributions, but yet he also values defensive structure and stability over everything else. Simeone could also ensure that Juanfran works closely with Manquillo in an attempt to bolster his attacking nous and shape it around Atleti’s philosophy. But with the rumours that Atleti are open to loaning him out, with an option to buy, it could be inferred that Simeone isn’t willing to invest time in shaping Manquillo into an all-round full-back.

Manquillo vs Ronaldo

Manquillo vs Ronaldo

Despite his glaring attacking deficiencies, Manquillo is an outstanding defender for his age pool. One of the best defensive-minded young full-backs I have seen in years. His athleticism has left many an Atleti fan in awe, but it his reading of the game that makes him an absolute treat to watch. Manquillo commands his flank excellently, especially in his own third, and this is reinforced by his high tackling ratio last season. Manquillo successfully completed 14 tackles in just three La Liga appearances, an average of 4.7 per-game. Aerially, Manquillo is also superb. His leap means he can tower above most and, as his reading of the game is great, so is his judgement of aerial passes. Due to his overall defensive flexibility, Manquillo can operate at left-back too. His defensive work isn’t hindered in that position, although his attacking contributions decrease drastically. Due to his physical attributes, athleticism and demeanour many of his coaches have considered him as a potential centre-back. He even made a short appearance there for Spain’s U-19s. With the rise of versatility in modern football, players less talented usually get a shot at bigger clubs because they cover various positions. In Manquillo’s case, he’s talented and versatile.

Manquillo's 100%  aerial duels won against Valladolid, a side who play quite narrow and long-ball football.

Manquillo’s 100% aerial duels won against Valladolid, a side who play quite narrow and long-ball football.

Manquillo did well in commanding his flank against a Rayo Vallecano side who play expansive and direct football. 5/7 tackles won.

Manquillo did well in commanding his flank against a Rayo Vallecano side who play expansive and direct football. 5/7 tackles won. (IMAGE CREATED VIA SQUAWKA)

 

At some point, we do have to stop and really appreciate Manquillo. He nearly lost his life in last season’s match against Real Madrid. Many may have been watching as the youngster jumped for the ball, coming down and landing awkwardly on his neck. The footballing world gathered together and hoped that he would pull through, and he did. He fractured his C7 vertebra, which could have ended tragically if it had displaced. Thankfully, there was no displacement and Manquillo would just have to carry a neck brace for a few weeks.

Manquillo brace

Manquillo’s story is far from completed, in fact it’s only just started. What we have witnessed so far is a naturally gifted defensive-minded footballer who makes the art of defending fun to watch. His maturity levels are high and, regardless of where he ends up, I expect him to have an exciting and illustrious career. He has the potential to be the best in his position for Spain, and that mustn’t change. Wherever he does end up, he will need to be under the tutelage of a manager willing to work closely with his players. A club with stability.

 

Campeones!

Campeones!

Another season of exciting, unpredictable and generally pulsating Spanish football. My personal La Liga awards from last season went down well, so I thought I would give it another go.

Last season, we had Barcelona getting to 100 points and winning the title. This season, the Catalan club ended their campaign trophy-less. Simeone and his soldiers led the line for a while, and never really looked like relinquishing it. Eventually, one final invasion of the Camp Nou ensured that Atletico Madrid sealed the league title, breaking the league’s duopoly for the first time since Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in 2004. Real Madrid enjoyed domestic success, honing in the Copa del Rey and also conquered Europe as the long-awaited obsession with ‘La Decima’ finally came to an end. At the other end of the table, Real Betis, Osasuna and Real Valladolid bowed out of the prestigious Primera. Real Betis – without Ruben Castro for a long period of the season – struggled to get any positive results. Pepe Mel eventually got sacked, the club only picking up 6 wins all season. Betis go down, but will leave behind some exciting players willing to jump ship – Ruben Castro, Verdu, Cedrick (although a season in the Segunda would do him a world of good), Adan. Valladolid’s major downfall was their knack of drawing games as 17 of the club’s 36 league points came via draws. Their football was unattractive as one really began to wonder if there was any point of them being in the Primera. JIM’s Valladolid finally got relegated, dragging Osasuna down with them. Osasuna are renowned for their outstanding home form and yo-yo league standings – one season they’re in the top eight, the other they’re looking like they may go down. 13-14 was the season the side from Pamplona finally dropped down. Despite Oriol Riera being in good goal scoring form, Osasuna continued to struggle defending in wide-areas – their full-backs cost them dearly, as did their sometimes high defensive line. This flaw of theirs was their biggest downfall and a major reason as to why the club struggled to find positive results away from home – there was hardly any adaptation to opposition tactics.

Athletic Bilbao sealed a Champions League spot, playing some superb, direct football under the ever-excellent Ernesto Valverde. The side’s home form at the Nou San Mames seemed to play a big part in the revitalisation of the players’ mentality which had been scarred from the final season under Marcelo Bielsa. Sevilla, having won the Europa League, finished seven points behind Athletic Bilbao, missing out on a Champions League place. Emery’s men struggled to kill teams off – one of the reason why they dropped a fair few amount of points – but one thing the often maligned manager did was sort out the club’s horrendous away form. Villarreal bounced from the Segunda all the way up to 6th place, earning a European spot. They were running away with the Champions League spot at one point, until they sort of faded away in 2014. Bruno was spectacular in midfield, but his shine rubbed off. Despite losing their foothold of 4th in 2014, they still finished in an unexpected 6th place ahead of Valencia and Real Sociedad.

A special mention has to go to Paco Jemez – my manager of the season last season – and his Rayo Vallecano side. At one point they were in the relegation zone, almost down and out. But Jemez never gave up on his side, and even came up with his own slogan “to play football, you must first have a pair of balls”. That quote sums up Jemez – hardworking, passionate and undoubtedly outspoken. Jemez’s side went on an excellent ten-game unbeaten streak (if you don’t count the 5-0 loss to Real Madrid which, in fact, they played quite well in). Jemez maintained that his side should always attack, ignoring defensive frailties. If you can’t fix the problem directly, try to find a way around it. That’s Jemez’s philosophy, and it is always excellent to see this philosophy applied on the pitch and spread to the 11 players representing Rayo Vallecano.

Levante, favourites to go down at the start of the season, hired Joaquin Caparros – a man renowned for his hard-working attitude and ability to unite groups of players. Levante started the season with quite an open midfield, which led to them getting cut open far too easily by most sides executing 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formations. Caparros’ idea was to switch to a 5-man defence, with captain Juanfran leading the line. Juanfran, despite being 38-years of age, was one of Levante’s best players and most consistent performers. His ability to defend outside and inside the box, going wide if areas needed to be covered, showed that age is nothing but a number in football if you are physically fit. Keylor Navas was Levante’s greatest performer, and arguably the best goalkeeper in the league behind Courtois. Navas accumulated the highest amount of saves in the league, and is now gaining interested from big clubs all over Europe. Regardless, Levante went from relegation favourites to finishing 10th, only one point off 8th.

That summarises the season and the somewhat overachievers. Congratulations to Elche, Almeria and Villarreal for remaining in the league after promotion. Valencia were largely disappointing until Pizzi came along, Granada were underwhelming due to the lack of a goal scorer and consistent forward. Malaga performed excellently under Schuster from January onwards with the signing of Amrabat. Now, enough of the clubs. Let’s get to the meat and bone of this article, the only reason why you are reading: The La Liga End of Season Awards.

Player of the Season

One of the most under-appreciated footballers in Europe

One of the most under-appreciated footballers in Europe

Gabi is my Player of the Season, and it was a difficult choice. There was an array of players I could have chosen such as Modric, Rakitic, Courtois, Di Maria. The list is endless, which speaks volumes of how high performance levels were in the season past. Gabi has to be one of the most under-appreciated footballers in Europe. He sits in the centre, allowing his partner to roam a little further forward as he casts a net over his area and protects it. Gabi dictates the tempo of games excellently, but he can also operate as a box-to-box midfielder. His levels of energy are high and that, paired with his love for the club, means he will run for 90+ minutes and still perform at a consistently high level. Gabi’s defensive work is flawless as he excels in tackling and intercepting the ball, yet he isn’t a “destroyer”. Gabi can pass the ball as majestically as many. Why is he under-appreciated? Well, age is a big factor in the perception of many so 30-year-old Gabi may not have ‘time’ on his side for people to appreciate him. He isn’t a goal scorer, but he picks up a decent amount of assists – nothing mind blowing which you’ll see on stat sheets. To appreciate Gabi, you have to watch him play rather than interpret his performance levels in correlation with his stats. Gabi is an excellent footballer, and superlatives genuinely do run out when you have watched him game after game. Gabi is my Player of the Season, and watching him lift the La Liga title was a joy to behold for many-a-neutral.

 

Young Player of the Season

Arguably the best centre-back of his age pool in Europe

Arguably the best centre-back of his age pool in Europe

Aymeric Laporte has had a sensational season, reeling in interest from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Not only is the 20-year-old an excellent defender, he can also distribute the ball accurately. This is an important trait in modern day football as most big clubs favour a defender who acts as a spare midfielder in possession and can connect the defence to the midfield, allowing a side to retain and hold onto possession. In this regard, he is most comparable to Gerard Pique. Athletic can defend a few yards higher up the pitch because of Laporte’s excellent passing range as well as his reading of the game. Despite the experienced leaders around him, Laporte seems to thrive off being the player who controls the defence. His judgement of high balls was once a criticism of his game, yet Laporte has ironed that out over the course of the season. Quite frankly, it is scary that a player of his age has no genuine flaws to his game. He could play at the highest level possible, but Athletic will not allow him to jump ship unless a club matches his £30m release clause. Choosing Laporte meant that I did leave out Koke, Carvajal, Pardo, Rafinha – not an easy decision – but it’s a decision which I back 100%. Laporte is the next best defender and there is no doubt in my mind about it.

Manager of the Season

No eyebrows raised at this one. Simeone was arguably the best manager in Europe this season.

No eyebrows raised at this one. Simeone was arguably the best manager in Europe this season.

To break La Liga’s duopoly is incredible enough, but to do it on a shoe-string budget? Sensational. Who needs money when squad and club unity can bring you trophies? Atletico Madrid had an incredible campaign – not without its slip-ups – and eventually clinched the title with a draw on the final day against Barcelona. One thing admirable about Simeone is his ability to bring the best out of seemingly average footballers. Nobody thought much of Raul Garcia up until this season when Simeone, somehow, was able to squeeze every ounce of quality out of the Basque midfielder. Whether he was playing up-front, wide or just behind Costa, Raul Garcia always found a way to score crucial goals. Simeone’s countless practicing of set-pieces paid dividends as Atleti, in my eyes, became the best club from set-pieces in Europe. The direct, yet narrow football always seemed to be lacking a traditional winger to allow Simeone a spare part as a plan B but that perception was thrown to the side as Atletico’s narrow football led them to a La Liga title, a Copa del Rey semi-final and Champions League final. What Simeone has done with Atletico Madrid will never be forgotten in Spanish football history, let alone the club’s. How much further can he take them? There seems to be no genuine ceiling, especially with the plethora of talented youth coming through.

Goal of the Season

Pedro Leon’s goal was out of this world good. We have seen dodgy free-kicks loop over the goalkeeper, but that strike from the half-way line was the best goal all season. This was my toughest choice as I had to choose between Gabi vs Real Madrid, Costa’s bicycle kick, Aduriz’s thumping long-ranger, Iago Falque’s solo goal, Ronaldo’s back-heel, Bacca’s finish against Real Madrid and a load more. Words fail to describe this goal, so click on the video and watch it.

Signing of the Season

The Moroccan single-handedly changed Malaga's fortune.

The Moroccan single-handedly changed Malaga’s fortunes.

Amrabat joined Malaga in January, so some may struggle to agree with this. Before signing him, Malaga looked destined to drop out of La Liga as their side lacked a goal scorer and someone who created. They needed a spark from somewhere as they struggled to cope through their transitional period. It’s hard to justify 5 months of football as worthy of a Signing of the Season award, but Amrabat single-handedly changed Malaga’s fortunes. He added that much needed spark to the side, lifting everyone at the club – from the fans to the players – up. He is the sole reason as to why they beat the drop – along with Schuster’s uniting of the squad. Amrabat picked up two goals and five assists, bringing the best out of Malaga’s array of target-man type forwards with his magnificent crossing. Amrabat created key chance after key chance from wide-areas. It makes one think that, if they had signed Amrabat in the summer, where would they have ended up in the league? He brought excitement back to La Rosaleda which had been void since Isco’s departure. Mikel Rico and Bale both crossed my mind, but neither impacted their side as hugely, and to as much importance, as Amrabat did Malaga.

 

So what can we expect from La Liga next season? Well, the same as ever: exciting football, financial turmoil, final day battles for survival, European football and hopefully the league. Will Atleti be able to defend their title? Who will be the surprise package? What new signings will be made? Who will come up from the Segunda? The only answer to any of these questions is Eibar- they will come up from the Segunda… Providing they pay circa £1m before the 5th August, otherwise they face relegation to the 3rd tier of Spanish football. Ah, Spanish football. As exciting and dramatic as ever.

If you are looking for answers regarding Fernando Vazquez’s managerial credentials, you might as well close this article because none of that will be provided. I am attempting to make sense of Fernando Vazquez as a manager, including his sometimes head-scratching tactics. Sometimes things aren’t always rosy when you are sitting at the top of the league table by five clear points.

Vazquez smiles, some fans frown.

Vazquez smiles, some fans frown

When listening to Vazquez every week, and then watching his side execute the plans set out for them, it is clear to see that there is no real brand of football at the Riazor. Whilst this is all fine and dandy when you are playing in the second tier of Spanish football, it is sometimes scary for the fans who have seen their side go from masterminding one of the greatest Champions League nights of all-time – beating Ancelotti’s AC Milan 4-0 – to now scrapping with clubs such as Real Jaen, Barcelona B and so on.

Over the summer, due to reasons beyond his power, Vazquez saw many of his players leave due to financial restrictions and the end of loan moves. This meant that Vazquez had to operate with an extremely thin squad, devoid of quality and with a need to dip into the youth system. Vazquez promised a breath of fresh air with the Cantera (academy) players getting a lot of first-team football. Of the five players Vazquez mentioned, only one has really broken into the first-team and, at that, is arguably the most consistent player in the side – Pablo Insua. This was the beginning of the strange case of Fernando Vazquez and, since then, we have seen him toy with ideas and fail to execute them. It is almost as if he poses himself some challenges and questions, yet aborts them to play on the safer side. Whilst some, myself included, have berated him this season for performances lacking identity and clarity, it is hard to malign a manager who has his side sitting top of the second division by five clear points when, at the start of the season, many would have settle for a mid-table or play-off push (for the ambitious).

The brightest gem from the cantera, Bicho, who receives orders from Vazquez

The brightest gem from the cantera, Bicho, who receives orders from Vazquez

After talking to many Deportivo fans regarding Fernando Vazquez, it seems as though everyone agrees on the same thing: he needs to stop making negative substitutions. Deportivo will be controlling the game by one goal with 30 minutes to go and Vazquez will remove an attacker for a heavily defensive-minded player, usually switching the formation to a five-man defence. What this usually does is swing the pendulum in the opposition’s favour as they begin to hit Deportivo with a flurry of attacks. If the game is being controlled and the side look like being able to kill it off, there is no need to opt for a defensive style of play. Whilst some, looking from the outside, may see this as Vazquez being cautious and defending the lead, it often puts Deportivo in a precarious position. Against Tenerife, a couple of games ago, Deportivo were controlling the game after finding themselves a goal up for a good 60 minutes. Despite getting closer to scoring, Vazquez removed Juan Carlos, an attacking midfielder who had been creating chances, and replaced him with central defender Carlos Marchena. The side reverted to a five man defence and, a minute later, Marchena’s first contribution to the game would be to give a penalty away. Ricardo Leon scored and the game ended 1-1, despite Deportivo having the chance to capitalise on a poor performance from the opposition. Defensive changes don’t always solidify the defence; in fact, defensive changes like Vazquez’s usually mean that attacking players scamper around not knowing what their role and duty in the side is. It is almost as though Vazquez switches from an 11 player game to 5, sometimes 6.

One extremely strange thing about Vazquez is that he is a fantastic manager for the level he is managing in but the problem is that he rarely takes risks when they present themselves. To compare him to another manager in Spain, he is almost like Emery. Emery is a wonderful manager but his main flaw, and it is a huge one, is his inability to take risks in order to kill off sides that his team should be beating. He is happy to defend any lead. Vazquez’s problem is similar, yet he sometimes seems happy to defend what he starts off with when the whistle blows for the first time in a game. When Vazquez does take risks, Deportivo play some exciting football and this was highlighted in yesterday’s 2-0 over Recreativo de Huelva. This was the best I had seen Deportivo play all season as Vazquez opted to start the game with no defensive cover in midfield – something which delighted many who were basking under the sun in the beautiful stadium of Riazor. Vazquez played with Juan Dominguez as the sole holding midfielder, yet his role was still one where he operates from deep to link the midfield to the attack rather than sweeping up loose balls or battling to win back possession. Back-heels from loanee Rabello, a few step-overs from Luis Fernandez and some outrageous bits of skill from Sissoko really showed how dangerous this Deportivo side can be without the shackles being cast on their creativity and freedom on the pitch.

The players celebrate after the best performance of the season

The players celebrate after the best performance of the season

If he knows how capable his side are of playing an exciting brand of football and wiping the floor with most teams in the league, why is it that Vazquez has only realised, with seven games to go, that this style of football suits the side better than any of the previous styles? Vazquez plays the “defence” card whenever he is asked why his side never go for the kill and opt for this negative brand of football. Vazquez wins these battles with the journalists because Deportivo are the side who have conceded the least amount of goals in the league, yet Deportivo’s best performances in the league this season have seen them keep two clean-sheets whilst playing some exciting attacking football (0-3 Sabadell, 2-0 Recreativo). The defence play better when the plan is not to focus on them to do the dirty work and hope for a lucky attacking break. Insua himself said that he feels more comfortable pushing the defensive line forward than forcing it closer to his own goalkeeper.

Now, I do not want this article to seem as though I dislike Vazquez because I think he is a very good manager. My qualms with him have already been stated but I would also like to defend some of his decisions and why he does not take risks. When Vazquez arrived at Deportivo last season, with the side rooted to the bottom of the table, the first thing he did was bring Valeron back into the first-team and allow the side to play with freedom and creativity; Deportivo almost achieved the great escape from relegation due to this brand of football but the damage had already prevailed prior to Vazquez’s arrival. This shows that Vazquez is able to take risks and play for the win rather than being comfortable with a draw, ecstatic with a win and seemingly o.k with a loss. But one can understand why Vazquez has taken this approach in the Segunda (second division) this season: he knows that Deportivo do not have the best players in the final third (more applicable before January but point still stands) so focuses on building the core of the side around the defence which is seemingly strong. By doing this, Deportivo are able to slowly climb up the table, getting some points here and there on the road back to stabilising themselves as a club and reaching the first division. Vazquez has always spoken highly of the fans – they have kept the club ashore for the past few seasons despite the sometimes unbearable rocky moments – so it could be said that he does not want to disappoint the fans with poor, yet brave results. The kind of results that annoy you because you were good but conceded a fairly dodgy goal. Vazquez plays it safe and, by doing so, he has put Deportivo in a great position with seven games to go. That cannot be argued against.

I guess the overall point of this is to explain Vazquez’s tactics, give my opinion on them, but also to defend the man who sometimes comes under obscene amounts of scrutiny due to his negative approach to games. Whatever happens this season, I just hope that Vazquez continues to drag the team along to La Liga. From there-on out, if Vazquez continues at the club, he will have to rethink his strategies because the first division can be diabolical if you go into it negatively like Valladolid, Betis and Osasuna have, at some points, this season. Taking risks may come with a few thrashings but it can lead to continuously proving doubters wrong like Paco Jemez’s wonderful Rayo Vallecano side. Whatever Vazquez’s approach may be next season, he has his work cut out: extremely tight budget, the squad will become even thinner as loanees depart and some key players may even opt to jump ship.

culio-roja

 

With Deportivo La Coruña crowned ‘winter champions’ – a title thrown around for whoever is top of the league when the winter break commences – January loomed on the club as Lendoiro announced that there will be ins and outs in the transfer window. Many pondered on the departure of some fringe players with the addition of others better than them, but not many predicted the departure of Culio. The Argentine midfielder joined Depor in the summer of 2013 and made an impact straight away. He became a fan favourite almost immediately as he combined talent with a strong work ethic; he became the club’s most important and consistent player. The heartbeat of the side. Whether it was Depor putting the ball into the net, or coming close, you’d better believe that Culio was the man pulling the strings and creating those chances.

Don’t mistake Culio for just a playmaker; he can tackle with efficiency, and recklessness at times, too. Culio can play anywhere in midfield, bar the deepest role, as well as on either flank. In modern football, versatility is key and gives you a stronger chance of being a mainstay in the squad. Culio rolled versatility and ability into one enormous ball which, coincidentally, led to many ranking him as the best attacking midfielder in the Segunda. 

But why would Culio leave Depor? A club with a genuine chance at promotion, more-so than they had prior to him. A club where he was the first name on the team-sheet. One can only imagine that Culio’s departure was for two reasons, be it one or the other, or both. The first reason would be money. His new club, Al-Wasl, represent Qatar and are outrageously wealthy in comparison to Depor; therefore, wages offered would be higher than anything Depor could provide him with. The other reason would be club stability. Depor are susceptible to liquidation at any moment with a click of the administrators’ and judge’s fingers. Culio, most likely, wanted to surround himself in a calmer and more delightful atmosphere than the one casting a large cloud over Depor’s future as a football club. But there are also reasons why he should have stayed: a shot at La Liga. Depor have a chance of gaining promotion this season, having been top of the league for a good six weeks (as of writing this), and a couple additions to the squad would have pushed them even further to the ‘promised land’ of La Liga. Surely the chance of playing in the most elite league in Spain is far more exciting and challenging than the Qatari league?

Moving on, where does this now leave Depor? Despite being top of the league, it’s quite worrying to look at the future without Culio. He was by far the most efficient and consistent player as well as the most influential in the final third. In the three games Depor have played without Culio, they have scored a whopping zero goals. Even with Culio, chances were often created sporadically as he had to carry the burden of creativity. Fernando Vazquez and Lendoiro have promised signings, but the manager seems more intent on signing someone to put chances away instead of someone who creates them. This side needs a creator more than a goalscorer. Baston and Luis are, perhaps, too young to lead a forward line alone but have done fairly good jobs in spurts, especially considering a lack of chances put on a plate for them.

There are some internal replacements that Vazquez could look at, despite being in dear need of someone from the outside to replace Culio. The first option for Vazquez would be to push Juan Dominguez from the pivot up to an attacking-midfield position. Dominguez was always seen as the heir to Valeron, but tailored his game to a deeper position until the club legend departed in June, 2013. Dominguez has the nous to operate further up the field but doubts have to be cast over his creativity. His quick turns and innovative tricks with those nimble feet of his suit a role further up the pitch  but he has never been a consistent creator; he’s someone who dictates play and creates, sporadically, from a much deeper position. Moving him to attacking-midfield would mean a pivot of Wilk & Alex which, on paper, sounds quite good. Wilk likes to cast a net over the defence and cover a lot of ground in defensive areas whilst Alex, who is very good defensively, seems to be deployed as the deep-lying playmaker – a role which doesn’t suit him because he loses possession quite frequently. The pivot could be quite solid in defensive terms but Depor would lose someone who can recycle possession and carry the ball forward in Juan Dominguez.

A number synonymous with a creative player but can Juan Dominguez be Depor's creator? (image courtesy of riazor.org)

A number synonymous with a creative player but can Juan Dominguez be Depor’s creator? (image courtesy of riazor.org)

The second and third options can really be tied in together because both players are quite similar. The players in question are Juan Carlos & Bicho. Juan Carlos has sporadically featured this season on the right-hand side, a position which doesn’t suit his game at all. Juan Carlos is a traditional playmaker and nothing more than that. The only real problem with his game is that he can go missing for an unimaginable amount of time; he’ll create one chance and do just that. This is a huge problem because someone like Culio would at least get involved in an interchanging game with his wingers and drop deep to win possession back or collect the ball. Although Juan Carlos is being judged on his performances in a position which he is not accustomed to, he would really have to step up his game to assure Vazquez and the fans that he can fill the Culio-shaped hole.The third option is Bicho. Bicho is only 17-years of age, but his vision and footballing brain is incredibly advanced for his age. Bicho has been tracked by clubs like Manchester City recently which speaks volumes of his talent. Bicho frequently stands out as the creator in the youth echelons of Depor and Spain. He made his professional debut in Depor’s first game of the season against Las Palmas and, since then, has rarely featured in the league. In the two Copa del Rey games, Bicho struggled to shine as he, quite evident to the average viewer, was trying too hard to impress. This is a big problem for Vazquez as deploying Bicho as a regular attacking-midfielder would lead to the youngster feeling obscene amounts of pressure to replicate the performances set by Culio and Valeron before him.

Vazquez giving Bicho some instructions.

Vazquez giving Bicho some instructions.

Although the three options are cost-effective for the club, they have more cons than pros. Vazquez can either choose Juan Dominguez and play a fairly unbalanced pivot, losing Juan Dominguez’s influence from deep or he can opt for the invisibility of Juan Carlos and the inexperience of Bicho. This isn’t to knock any of the players either as I, personally, feel as though it could work for any of them if there wasn’t the risk of weakening another position or ruining their future potential due to pressure.

Vazquez could be looking at players from outside the club as potential Culio replacements. Whereas many names have been touted and thrown around, one of them Vazquez has commented on: Ariel Ibagaza (Olympiacos). Ibagaza is an attacking-midfielder who shares an insane amount of similarities with Culio. Both are outstanding set-piece takers, both give 100% in every game and both are frequent tacklers despite lingering high up the pitch most of the time. Ibagaza would be the perfect replacement but the only problem, and it’s a huge one, is his age. At 37, one has to imagine that Ibagaza is nearing the end of his career and a move to Depor would be one where he could enjoy his football in a less-demanding league than the Greek one. He would probably expect 2+ years in his contract because, at that age, players want stability more than hopping from club to club. Unfortunately, stability and Depor don’t go hand-in-hand. He would be given a one-year contract, one would presume, which would leave the club in a precarious position should the rise to La Liga occur.

Whatever happens regarding a Culio replacement, I hope that it isn’t an internal one. The club need to take promotion seriously, especially as it leads to a little cash injection which could be used to clear a bit of the debt. An investment now, using the Culio money (circa 300,000) would mean that the club are looking up, rather than down. An internal replacement would be a very coy move and one that could cost the club a sensational bounce-back to La Liga.

Walcott celebrates his goal against Manchester City

Walcott celebrates his goal against Manchester City.

From being a young and erratic winger to a mature, game winning forward, Theo Walcott’s progress and improvement over the last couple of years is staggering. Not only do you have to take a glimpse at his stats, you can just compare his performances from three years ago to now. Walcott has gone from being a player with no “footballing brain”, as Chris Waddle idiotically stated, to England’s most efficient and one of the league’s best wingers. If you believe that Walcott has no footballing brain, you probably are lacking a brain yourself.

Ever since that 11/12 season when Robin van Persie spearheaded the Arsenal attack, Walcott has always worked towards developing an understanding and forming a good partnership with Arsenal centre-forwards. Van Persie was a player who benefited very much from Walcott’s runs to the byline and cut-backs, leading to a few of his goals. This saw Walcott’s wing-play and confidence reach an all-time high. Walcott prospered from a prolific centre-forward who gobbled up all of the chances put on his plate. He would cut in far less in an attempt to continue this exciting partnership. The Dutchman eventually left but he left behind a quote which fulfilled itself last season: “he gets so much critics, he gave me loads of assists but I know he can score. He showed today [5-2 thumping of Spurs]  that he can score and he will score more. He will score more than 20 goals. Trust me.” Van Persie’s words will always be tainted after his switch to rivals Manchester United but these will remain as one of the very few with meaning in a positive manner.

Last season, Walcott registered his best return as an Arsenal player notching 14 assists and scoring a further 21 goals in all competitions. The highest Arsenal goal scorer and assist maker that season. Walcott’s performances were somewhat overshadowed by the contract saga as some fans believed he was holding the club ransom for his desired £100,000-a-week deal; other fans believed that he wanted to play as a centre-forward. In the end, there was another period of Arsenal’s fan base being split right down the middle. As they do. With everything. Moving on, Theo got both of his desires granted – which one was more of a factor we’ll probably never know. He ended last season with very interesting numbers but one has to look at his performance level and overall game to really notice how much he has improved over the past two seasons.

Back to the aforementioned bond and partnership with centre-forwards, Walcott found a partner in Olivier Giroud last season. Walcott assisted five of Giroud’s 11 Premier League goals; no pairing was more prolific than the two over the course of the season. Once again, Walcott found comfort in working with a front-man who thrives off crosses. Four of those five assists were crosses which Giroud finished first-time (three with his head, one with a flick of his left boot). It also has to be mentioned that three of those were from set-pieces. This is an area that Walcott has definitely improved in. He’s still not the best choice when it comes to shooting but his crossing from free-kicks, especially, are usually quite efficient. His corners are very good but Ozil has now arrived and rightfully takes 95% of them. Seven of Walcott’s 14 assists were from set-pieces which further enforces the improvement in that area of his game. The other assists, bar one, were all from the wing which is a testament to his ever-improving wing-play.

The partners embrace

The partners embrace.

Last season also saw Walcott improve on the physical areas of his game, fine tune them if you will. Playing at centre-forward made him realise that he won’t always have the luxury of playing off the shoulder of a defender. He was dreadful with his back to goal and his hold-up play was lacking in comparison to Giroud’s – understandable because he had hardly been tested in the position prior to the run of games. Wigan away, a game in which Walcott spearheaded the attack, saw a more quiet game from the forward but one that showed how quickly he learns from his mistakes. He won a penalty and Arsenal went on to win 1-0, courtesy of an Arteta goal, but more went into that performance than just winning a penalty. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan had lined up with a 3-man defence which turned into five when Arsenal were in possession. Walcott spent the entire game with his back to goal and held Caldwell off very well, shielded the ball and constantly fed Santi Cazorla. His maturity shone as he sacrificed his wanting to play off the shoulder for a more patient, physically demanding style to which he was not used to on the wing. His hold-up play is fantastic now. There isn’t a game that goes by where Theo doesn’t shield the ball on the wing and wait for Sagna to arrive on the overlap.

It is great to see that a brief spell in a different position can, not only improve your game, but culminate in others around you prospering from it, which brings me on to my next point. Aaron Ramsey’s prolonged time on the wings, as painful and frustrating it was to endure, has paid dividends for both him and Walcott. Ramsey’s spacial awareness of the pitch is magnificent now and he is more aware of the runs on the right-wing. Walcott prospers from Ramsey’s exquisite vision and execution of long-range passes which, when combined with the aforementioned awareness of runs on the right, almost always culminates in a direct chance being created. This combination was exercised many times in pre-season with Walcott scoring a couple. It has since continued but to no goal scoring avail, as of writing this. Whilst this has improved Ramsey’s vision and spacial awareness immensely, it has also seen Walcott prosper from a unique source of creativity.

One thing that Walcott has always had in abundance is his blistering pace, but he’s not always been a player who uses that to his advantage. Walcott, ever since he joined Arsenal and started making appearances, abused his pace. He was like when you’re driving on Grand Theft Auto and don’t take your finger off the right bumper on the controller. He would run and run and run… And lose the ball. The only time his pace would be devastating was when he would come off the bench to attack tired and dazed full-backs. In recent seasons, most notably last season, Walcott started to understand that he can take his foot off the pedal and dribble at a jogging pace rather than at Road Runner pace. He combines his hold-up play with his pace and balances the two. This is why he is better at linking up with team-mates: he’s slowed his own game down and offers the other nine outfield players a genuine outlet for passing continuity and fluidity on the right-flank.

One thing that has become apparent this season is that Walcott has continued to work on his all-round game. He has been very good in the air, picking up a goal and an assist courtesy of his head. His headed goal against West Ham was his first of the kind in his Arsenal career. Aerial threat isn’t a trait you would assign to Walcott, and it probably isn’t one you will ever have to, but it’s good to see that his leap is an inch higher than before and that he is eager to challenge defenders in the box as opposed to just lingering inside the box.

Walcott still has his faults, one of which angers many amongst the fan base: invisibility. Some say Walcott goes “missing” in games but I find it harsh to say he’s going missing if he’s scoring or assisting to win Arsenal the game. This is a problem in most fan bases where efficiency is mistaken for invisibility, thus leading most to believe that a player hasn’t turned up. Whilst he may not be ripping a full-back to shreds every game and making highlight reels, Walcott’s game centres around a more patient and mature one to the young forward who would put defenders on their backside yet lack the end product to do anything afterwards. I would much rather a player who is efficient than a player who is flashy but, largely, does nothing to influence the overall outcome of a game.

In regards to efficiency and invisibility, Ozil becomes the focal point of the rest of Walcott’s season. The German has been maligned by some due to his quiet performances but, even more-so than Theo, what he does best is what you don’t notice. If you take Ozil out of the team, you understand what he does. When Walcott sustained his injury this season, there was a lack of penetrative pace on the wing and someone who offers goals other than Giroud or Ramsey. No-one could replicate Walcott’s ability to stretch a defence and press them into their own box. This highlights Walcott’s importance. Ozil is the same. He didn’t start against Newcastle and Arsenal struggled to break down their defence and create chances. Jack Wilshere created the most chances (3), yet all of them culminated in shots from outside the box. With a more prolific and clinical forward, Ozil’s chances created will be more apparent and vital, as will his influence in the final third; even more-so than it already is. Walcott is the prolific forward and, once the two finally play together for a string of games, we could see them form a devastating partnership similar to the one Ozil had with Ronaldo/Di Maria at Real Madrid. Ozil’s creativity and movement in the final third means that he can slip Walcott in as well as interchange with the winger, allowing him to drift inside whilst Ozil occupies the berth on the right – a position he is comfortable in. Mix Ozil’s creativity in the final third with Ramsey’s vision from deep and Walcott has himself two players who are exceptionally aware of runs on the right-wing and have the vision to execute perfect passes which he can latch on to. It’s any forward’s dream and Walcott is close to living it once Ramsey and Ozil return from their respective injuries.

Once these two click, expect goals to fly in,

Once these two click, expect goals to fly in,

Walcott is a big game player, little of which there are at Arsenal. If we look at this season and past he’s scored against Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona and Spurs. This is a vital record for Walcott to add to because Arsenal have struggled to score against the big clubs in the Premier League this season (bar City). Giroud is dire in front of goal against bigger opposition so, if he misses chances, at least Walcott is there to take his. In a season where you could argue that five teams are in contention for the title, all close to each other on points, the league may be won or lost in those big games in the second half of the season. Walcott is the decider.

Having taken all of that into consideration, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to think, or even predict, that Walcott will break into 20+ goals, again, in all competitions this season. Even with his injury, which has contributed to him missing a large chunk of the first half of the season, Walcott has scored five goals in nine starts (in all competitions) and assisted four goals. Two of those four assists have been to Giroud and they have all been from crosses: Newcastle away, Walcott’s set-piece was touched in by Giroud and Spurs at home saw Walcott’s low cross flicked in at the near-post by the Frenchman. If those two continue with this partnership, Walcott may well find himself replicating his assists tally from last season.

Walcott is the key to Arsenal successes this season. His goal return is something that covers up Giroud’s inept and inconsistent finishing whilst his assists bring the best out of Giroud – his one-touch finishing. If Arsenal are to win the league, Walcott will be the vital cog. His contract will be revisited soon and winning a trophy would almost certainly cause him to pen an extension. Wenger’s invested a lot of time into developing Walcott and it’s finally paying dividends. He’s rare breed of winger and one that would be difficult to replace, stylistically.

 

In a fixture that has always produced goals, this game was no different than the others before. Real Madrid became the first team to win five consecutive games at the Mestalla and Valencia will feel very much hard done by regarding the final result. Looking at a result without watching the game will almost always gave you a false inkling of what happened – be it a team “struggling” against or “destroying” another – but looking at last night’s result and assuming that Real Madrid struggled would actually be a correct assumption because they did.

Line-ups

Despite starting up as a 4-2-3-1, Real Madrid were constantly switching to a 4-3-3 when defending and this could be used as an argument for why Isco wasn’t at his best last night. Isco has been maligned for his performances in a 4-3-3 due to his poor defensive contributions and the restrictions to his game; he thrives off playing in a 4-2-3-1, which he did at times last night, because it allows him to drift out to the wings when Di Maria or Ronaldo cut inside. Nacho paired Ramos at centre-back due to Pepe and Raphael Varane’s injuries whilst Angel Di Maria came in for the injured Gareth Bale.

Credit to MARCA for the image

Credit to MARCA for the image

Valencia lined up with a 4-2-3-1 which remained static throughout the game. Romeu paired Parejo in the pivot which, up until this game, had been quite a good pairing in the final weeks of Djukic’s management. Nico Estevez, the stand-in manager, didn’t experiment much and just let the players do the talking on the pitch. It worked to an extent.

Mellow first-half in comparison to end-to-end second-half

The game started with Real Madrid looking to dictate the tempo of the game and hold onto the ball for a prolonged time; they were successful in doing so. The first chance of the game fell to Ronaldo in the 17th minute whose wayward shot would forgive Romeu for the Spaniard’s awfully misplaced pass which triggered the Real Madrid counter. Xabi Alonso spent most of the opening 20 minutes deep into his own half, almost as a 3rd centre-back, in order to exploit the space being given to Marcelo – Alonso sprayed some impeccable, yet patented cross-field passes to Marcelo who would look to instigate attacks on the counter for Real Madrid.

Di Maria stole the show for Real Madrid as he came in to replace Bale, due to injury. Starting out on the right, Di Maria drew Bernat and Piatti close to him and combined a feint touch with a darting run to skin the two and rifle a shot in towards the far-post from a tight-ish angle. Bernat was at fault for this goal as he allowed Di Maria to cut into his stronger foot instead of forcing him wide; another player at fault could be Piatti who probably should have stuck tighter to his fellow Countryman.

Di Maria celebrates the opening goal (credit to Real Madrid CF for image)

Di Maria celebrates the opening goal (credit to Real Madrid CF for image)

Valencia would remain sloppy in possession for the entirety of the half – Romeu the main culprit – and Real Madrid would quickly pounce on these errors.

Four minutes later and Valencia found themselves celebrating a goal from Piatti. The Argentine scored his first league goal of the season and, to top that, it was finished with his head. The smallest player in La Liga, unmarked with Ramos ball watching, scored a header. Bernat’s cross was executed with the perfect pace and pin-point accuracy This is where Ramos’ poor game began. A couple of minutes later, Jonas was allowed to wriggle into the box, turn, take two touches and lash a shot at goal. Nacho bailed Ramos out this time as he should’ve been the one marking Jonas.

Only 12 minutes after Di Maria’s wonder goal and controversy had hit the Mestalla following a Ronaldo header from a sumptuous Di Maria free-kick. Why was it controversial? The foul leading to the free-kick shouldn’t have been given and Ronaldo was a foot offside. Regardless, the goal counted and Valencia were 2-1 down with six minutes to go of the half. Ronaldo scoring his 27th goal of the season and his 184th league goal for Los Merengues.

The first-half ended 1-2 and Valencia fans were quietly optimistic having seen how shambolic Real Madrid’s defence is. Estevez’s team-talk must have been inspiring because Valencia came out all guns blazing and were outplaying the away side for large chunks of the half. Bernat continuously opened up space for himself on the left-hand side and kept skinning Arbeloa in order to ping more balls into the box. 17 minutes into the 2nd half and Bernat’s incredible run past three players led to a Valencia corner; Parejo’s delivery was great and Mathieu rose the highest to meet the ball and head it past Lopez. Ramos, again, not tight enough to Mathieu and reacted far too slow to even challenge Mathieu. Mathieu scored his 1st goal of the season to tie the game at 2-2.

Mathieu celebrates the equaliser (credit to Valencia CF for the image)

Mathieu celebrates the equaliser (credit to Valencia CF for the image)

Real Madrid only did anything of note in the 70th minute when Ronaldo rounded Guaita and missed. Luckily for him he was offside. Ronaldo also found himself tracking back and helping out in defence as Valencia threatened to score another goal. Isco would be replaced, with 17 minutes to go, by Jese Rodriguez. Isco was furiously whistled off by Valencia fans (ex-player) and even Real Madrid fans who were unsatisfied with his performance.

Valencia continued creating chances and became wasteful. This was a recurring theme throughout the second-half as Valencia just grew and grew in confidence until it was eventually killed off with eight minutes to go. Jese picked up the ball in the box, unmarked with Guardado ball watching, and lashed a shot at the near-post. Guaita made a mess of it and was beaten. All of Valencia’s hard work was undone by a silly mistake at the near-post by a goalkeeper who is prone to the odd mistake. Journalists everywhere type up the words “super-sub” as Jese celebrates in a massive team huddle as Ancelotti urged his players not to get complacent.

AS headline 'Jese,  golden goal'. Jese celebrates with team-mates (credit to AS for the image)

AS headline ‘Jese,
golden goal’. Jese celebrates with team-mates (credit to AS for the image)

The game ended and Valencia exited the Mestalla empty-handed. A harsh result considering how much they dominated Real Madrid in the 2nd half. Real Madrid were awful on the night but having individuals capable of scoring whenever will almost always win you games that you otherwise wouldn’t with a team, say, like Valencia’s.

Di Maria

A few words are needed on Di Maria following that excellent performance. This is a player who is reacting very well to healthy competition with Bale. Six goals and seven assists  show how decisive and important he is when he gets his chance to start for Real Madrid. He was quoted, last night, saying “In the summer they tried to get me out all the time: they knew a 100m euro player was coming and that he would play. I’m not thinking of going, the manager knows that.” This quote further enforces the idea that Di Maria is actually enjoying having competition as he was given the chance to leave in the summer. Many teams will be interested in him but it’s important that Real Madrid hold onto him as someone who can win them games off the bench and be a star player when in the initial 11.

Bernat

Bernat was very impressive last night and, this season, has fully cemented his first-team spot after some good performances last season. His ability to operate anywhere on the left-flank is very handy for Valencia because they have someone whose defensive nous is as good as his attacking, be it as a left-winger or left-back. It’s important that Valencia build the team around this boy from the cantera (academy) as he could very well be the next gem unearthed at the Mestalla.

Ramos

It has to be mentioned that Ramos has been beyond woeful this season. Two mistakes leading to two goals last night pile onto his misery. He seems to be suffering from the same problem as Pique: constant rotation of the centre-back partner and no-one pushing him for his place. Ramos has played alongside Nacho, Pepe and Varane this season. He has struggled to cement a partnership with either one and has therefore not been able adjust his game. Ramos also has no-one pushing him for his spot. If Real Madrid had someone of similar quality pairing him and then Varane pushing for a first-team spot, both he and his partner are less likely to become complacent and will perform at an extremely high level. With the World Cup coming up for Spain it’s quite scary that both Pique and Ramos, the two first-choice centre-backs, are suffering from the exact same problem and putting in dreadful club performances.

Peter Lim, Valencia’s new buyer

Valencia, before yesterday’s game, confirmed that a Singaporean businessman worth circa $1.2bn was going to buy the club. Bankia, who deal with the club’s debt, are set to reply and finalise the deal before the end of the January transfer window. Lim tried to buy Liverpool in 2010 but was rejected. Here is what Lim promises the club:

  • Pay off all of Valencia’s debts.
  • Finalise the new stadium in 2 years.
  • Make funds available for squad additions including 30-40m euros in January.

Lim was supposedly attracted by the club’s social projects, including the building of schools around the world. 

Whilst Valencia fans are purring at the idea of their club becoming financially stable, one can’t help but remember Malaga’s injection of money which has now led to an unimaginable amount of debt. Here’s hoping that it works out well for them!

Iker

Save after save from Diego Lopez is met by cameras panning into the view of Iker Casillas. Commentators discuss his future week in, week out and repeat their points as the Spaniard becomes increasingly frustrated on the bench, reacting with bemusement to every save because he knows that the cameras are fixated on him.

Context

It all started under Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid reign, the Portuguese manager was adamant that Casillas took his first-team place for granted and did not work hard enough in training to merit guarding the goal every week for ‘Los Merengues’. Mourinho, out of frustration, would start Adan ahead of Casillas as he looked to give the Spaniard a wake up call – a rude awakening, if you will. Adan was dire and, with much reluctance, Mourinho opted for Casillas as the starter. Fast forward a tad into last season and Casillas picked up a hand injury (broken fingers) which set him back a couple of months. By the time Casillas had recovered and returned to full fitness, a new goalkeeper had already taken his place and was making waves, gaining plaudits from fans and pundits alike as well as receiving praise from Mourinho: Diego Lopez was the new kid on the block.

Mourinho left, Ancelotti arrived and still Casillas struggles with dispossessing Lopez of his first-team status. Casillas has been restricted to Copa del Rey and Champions League starts which, essentially, means a lot less game time than Lopez. The notion of a new manager filled Casillas with the hope that he would return to being one of the first names on the team sheet and, yet again, he has been given a wake up call. Casillas needs to move from Real Madrid and he is finally beginning to accept that. When baited by a reporter asking if he is considering leaving the Bernabeu, Casillas bit and replied: “If I am still not playing again in three months and you asked me the same question, then maybe I would say that I am thinking of leaving”.

There is a tear in the Real Madrid fan base regarding Casillas; some love him, some not so much. This all stems back to the pro and anti Mourinho division in the Real Madrid fan base and this is one of the bits of debris left behind after Mourinho’s destructive final year at the club. But how does Casillas view the fans? Does he view them highly enough to rule out a move to arch-rivals Barcelona? Victor Valdes is out of contract in the summer but Casillas becoming available could push the Catalan club to sell Valdes in January. San (Saint) Iker would be seen as the biggest traitor of all to make the jump from Real Madrid to Barcelona and vice-versa. Does he want to burn all bridges with Real Madrid or does he want to leave as the man who was, in his and many others’ eyes, unfairly treated and harshly scapegoated?

Casillas to City – it makes sense

I, for one, cannot see Casillas in a Barcelona shirt and would bet a lot of money that it will never happen. As silly and reactionary as Florentino Perez is, surely he would not risk strengthening his club’s biggest rival… Or maybe he would. Perez is as enigmatic as club presidents come. Personally, I can only see Casillas moving to Manchester City and it is a move that makes so much sense that it would be a tad shocking if Casillas opted for a different club.

Settling in would not be an issue in any way, shape or form for Casillas. First of all, he has spent many years captaining one of the biggest sides in Europe so he most definitely will not cower away and struggle to gel with his teammates. Manchester City have a very strong Spanish contingent, flaunting four Spaniards in their squad: Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, David Silva and Javi Garcia. Two of those four players, at some point in their respective careers, spent some time at Real Madrid, albeit mostly with the ‘B’ team but in and around the senior squad, and therefore should already be acquainted with Casillas.

Manuel Pellegrini would be a huge factor in Manchester City pulling off the signing for more than one reason. Casillas worked under Pellegrini in the 2009-2010 season, a season which was a success for Real Madrid, in terms of point tally, as they broke their record for most points in La Liga, only to be trumped by one of the greatest Barcelona sides of all-time. Casillas’ relationship with Pellegrini was a good one but the Chilean was harshly sacked after that season following his inability to win La Decima – an obsession of everyone affiliated with Real Madrid. Pellegrini said, upon his departure, “I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid. They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It’s no good having an orchestra with the 10 best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist. Real Madrid have the best guitarists, but if I ask them to play the piano they won’t be able to do it so well. He [Pérez] sold players that I considered important. We didn’t win the Champions League because we didn’t have a squad properly structured to be able to win it.” It would be bittersweet for Pellegrini himself if he plucked Casillas out of the Real Madrid team and went on to add some prestigious trophies to his CV with a Real Madrid boy.

Pellegrini gives Casillas orders at Real Madrid

Pellegrini gives Casillas orders at Real Madrid

Joe Hart’s dire form for well over a season has just hit rock bottom. Pellegrini has finally grown the courage to drop Joe Hart and bring Costel Pantilimon into the starting 11; whether this is permanent or not, only time will tell. Should Pellegrini freeze Hart out, this would pave the way for Casillas to walk straight into the Manchester City side in a very ironic manner. What Hart could find himself going through in the future is exactly what Casillas is going through right now. Casillas will demand assurance of being first choice which both Pellegrini and City will adhere to, without a doubt.

It goes without mentioning that this is a World Cup year. In Spain’s last two friendlies, Del Bosque has opted for Valdes between the sticks because of Casillas’ lack of game time. This could very well be Casillas’ last World Cup and he will want to be the first name on the team sheet as Spain set out to retain their World Cup trophy, much like they did with the European Championship. He would start the remainder of City’s games if he were to join in January, possibly missing out on a couple of cup games due to rotation and Hart being given (another) chance, and that would be enough for him to get right back into contention at international level.

Conclusion

Casillas would have a point to prove wherever he goes as many are now under the assumption that he is not as good as he used to be. Casillas has recently been linked to Schalke but I am certain that he would see that as a step down, especially if big money City come along to play. His price-tag I am unsure of but if he forces his way out it should not be much for those interested in him. Manchester City would be the perfect move for Casillas but will he battle it out with Lopez in order to show that he is not cowering away from a challenge or will he just play it safe and move to a club where he will play regularly and competitively?

Nacho & Gibbs (courtesy of MSN Sport).

Nacho & Gibbs

It’s quite common within the Arsenal fan base that the arrival of a player instantly means that a current one will be challenged for his spot and may lose his status in the squad. Whilst this is true in some cases, it’s far from it in others: Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs, in this instance. Nacho was signed, according to Wenger, to be a “left-sided defender” – not a left-back, explicitly. Nacho has the ability to operate in a more advanced role and can then work with Gibbs as a flexible and versatile combination which sees the two intertwine in positions when on the pitch at the same time.

Monreal was signed on the final day of the January transfer window due to Kieran Gibbs being sidelined for “four to six-weeks”. The Spaniard joined Arsenal for circa £8.5million and was seen as merely competition for Gibbs. Some thought Monreal was a panic buy but, shortly after the deal was announced, it was also met with the news that Arsenal had already agreed a deal with Malaga and that Monreal was set to join in the summer; the process was sped up due to the aforementioned Gibbs injury. Monreal left La Liga as one of the best left-backs in Spain and arrived at Arsenal to do so much more than just fill in for Gibbs’ injuries and provide competition for the Englishman.

Upon joining Arsenal, Monreal was placed up against two of the most physical sides in the Premier League: Stoke City and Sunderland. The Spaniard completed eight out of eight tackles in those two games and showed the Arsenal fans how solid he is when it comes to his defensive actions. After receiving praise from fans, Wenger went on to say that Monreal can be an attacking threat for Arsenal as a “left-sided defender”. Whilst it was perceived that Wenger meant he’s good at going forward, it turns out that Wenger meant he can play much further up the field. Is this surprising? Not really. Monreal played as a left-midfielder/winger for Malaga, at times, when Eliseu would start as a left-back; the positions were never fixed as both players would combine and change roles throughout the entirety of the game. If you look even further back to Monreal’s career, he also carried out the exact same role with Azpilicueta at Osasuna under Jose Angel Ziganda. This came after Osasuna had been hit with injuries to their full-backs. Azpilicueta moved over to left-back whilst Monreal operated as the man further forward.

Monreal possesses the traits to play further up the field as he is mobile, has a good left foot, is a great crosser of the ball and excels in combination play. Monreal can cut infield and provide Arsenal with the extra man in midfield as his ball retention and passing are exquisite in the final third – these two traits are essential if Arsenal are looking to press higher up the field and force the opposition into creating errors. Monreal’s crossing is another great asset of his. At Osasuna, he played with the likes of Walter Pandiani, a recognised target man, as well as Roque Santa Cruz at Malaga. Giroud could really flourish from getting on the end of these crosses as the usual ones that enter the box are quite inconsistent and erratic from those who deliver them.

It’s obvious that Wenger didn’t sign Monreal just to pose a threat to Gibbs’ squad status. Monreal was brought in as someone who can operate on the same pitch as Kieran Gibbs and offer an attacking outlet that none of Arsenal’s other full-backs can. This is a recurring theme, surely. Andre Santos, as much as he was ridiculed and maligned for his inability to defend, was actually an adequate player going forward. The difference is, Wenger hit the nail on the head with Monreal as the Spaniard can defend as well as he can attack unlike the bowling-ball-like Brazilian. Wenger targets left-backs who won’t tamper with Gibbs’ progression, or directly challenge him, but instead he targets ones that possess the ability to build partnerships with Gibbs on the left flank.

Most of Gibbs’ time in the academy saw the Englishman actually play in central-midfield as well as a left-winger. Gibbs, much like the aforementioned players, has developed his attacking game phenomenally. He can time runs, use his pace to perfection and is an adequate passer; his only faults in that area are his final balls and decision making. Ultimately, this is why Wenger targeted Monreal and Santos because they share the exact same traits in a forward position. What this means is that Gibbs can switch roles with Monreal and operate as the man further ahead as well as Monreal can. This gives Arsenal an air of unpredictability on that left-flank as well as the ability to switch from Gibbs’ pace to Monreal’s quick, incisive passing and pin-point crossing.

It’s not all about attacking, though. Monreal is usually brought on to help keep Arsenal’s shape and reinforce their left-side in order to keep the opposition at bay or hold onto a vital result. The fact both Monreal and Gibbs are excellent defensively, and going forward, means that they can switch roles to shut out different passages of play from the opposition and mark different players that someone like Cazorla or Podolski, on that left-side, wouldn’t usually mark.

Overall, the point I’m getting at is that Monreal isn’t at Arsenal just to play second fiddle to Gibbs and fill-in when the Englishman is in the “red-zone” or injured. Monreal is here to pair Gibbs on the same pitch in order to help hold on to a result or provide a unique attacking outlet like no other full-back in the squad. Wenger once said that “Monreal can be an attacking threat for us”  and that he’ll be looking to experiment with the two on the pitch at the same time. I think it’d be far too basic and superficial to look at Monreal just as back-up. Wenger has shown that he can play further up the field and will, undoubtedly, flaunt that option and experimentation more often as the season grows old and fixtures start stacking.

Insua applauds the fans.

Insua applauds the fans.

In November 2012, Deportivo La Coruña academy product Pablo Insua made his first-team debut in a 1-1 draw away at Athletic Bilbao. Despite playing just ten minutes, he made two crucial interceptions in a match which saw Depor climb out of the relegation zone for the first time that season. His chances were limited due to the club not wanting to risk fielding youngsters because of the imminent relegation fight and eventual fall into the Segunda. 

Insua then found himself making two more appearances in the 2012/13 season, both of which he’ll remember for the experience but will definitely want to forget when thought of in detail. Two weeks after that eye-catching performance away at Athletic Bilbao, Insua found himself starting against Atletico Madrid. Unfortunately for the 19-year-old (at the time), he was on the receiving end of an absolute mauling wherein which Radamel ‘El Tigre’ Falcao produced one of, if not, his greatest performances in the red and white of Atletico Madrid; the Colombian netted five times in a game which ended 6-0 to Atleti.

Fast-forward to March 2013 and Insua was making another appearance, this time one he’ll never forget due to the opponent: Barcelona. A loss was expected, and that’s what occurred, but Insua showed again why he’s regarded highly by those at Depor. He was put up against Messi and all of the other Barcelona superstars and held his own, showed maturity beyond his years and took away with him a very special experience: playing against a magnificent Barcelona team at the Nou Camp. In the post-match interview, Insua went on to say “I’m still speechless. I never thought I’d get to play against Messi and co. at the Camp Nou”.

So Insua racked up three league appearances, in La Liga, as Depor dropped down to the Segunda for the second time in three years. A year of new, unforgettable, individual experiences but probably a season to forget in general. With Depor in continuous financial turmoil, the departures of Valeron, Riki, Aranzubia and all of the loanees from the past season, Fernando Vazquez stressed the importance of promoting players from the youth echelons of Depor. When speaking of the youngsters, he only mentioned one individually and that was Insua; his words were “the only youth player that has a secure place in the first-team is Pablo Insua”. It was a promise Vazquez had made, one he has stuck by this season and one that he is being rewarded for.

Pablo Insua has been a mainstay in the Depor starting XI and one of the standout performers in a defence that, in the league, has kept five clean-sheets in nine games — Insua starting in eight of those nine. Insua reads the game ridiculously well for someone at the age of 20 who hasn’t had much regular football for the first-team; he’s made 14 interceptions in those eight games, further encapsulating the idea that he reads the game very well. Another one of Insua’s traits is his heading – the youngster stands at 6’2″ – which makes him the perfect partner to Depor’s diminutive makeshift centre-back, Álex Bergantiños.

Insua has had to deal with a lot in the early months of this season from handling the immense pressure on his shoulders of satisfying the fans who have seen their club relegated twice in three years, please Vazquez so that he continues in the starting XI and also the constant changing of his centre-back partners. For a centre-back, there’s nothing worse than not having your regular partner next to you and Insua has experienced this first-hand this season. Carlos Marchena, Uxio, Bergantiños and Kaka have all partnered Insua but none have been mainstays due to either injury or poor form. If you look at someone like Pique, for Barcelona, he’s been in relatively poor form in the past few seasons because of the constant changing of his partner; it’s two completely different scenarios, of course, but it’s great to see that someone so young and new to the team can deal with the constant changes and adapt to them.

Insua is a vocal, articulate character in the post and pre-match interviews. He speaks very highly of Vazquez and the fans but he’s also an extremely realistic person and won’t fill the fans with delusions of grandeur regarding the club’s current position – this is another factor as to why Insua’s become a fan favourite and yet another trait to his overall footballing package that leads me to believe that he will be a shoe-in for the captaincy in the future.

Insua, not only won over the fans with his performances, but also scored Depor’s first goal of the season in a 0-1 win against Las Palmas, the team whom Valeron re-signed for. His towering header registered three points for Depor and his colossus performances at centre-back have also been key in Depor picking up a numerous amount of away wins this season.

Insua celebrates his first ever goal for Depor, away at Las Palmas.

Insua celebrates his first ever goal for Depor, away at Las Palmas.

Insua’s performances for Depor haven’t gone unnoticed by the coaches in Spain as the Spaniard was rewarded with a Spain Under 21 call-up, as Julen Lopetegui felt he was the perfect replacement for the injured Sergi Gomez. Insua was an unused substitute but still traveled with the likes of Carvajal, Morata, Muniain and Deulofeu (big name youngsters). Some of these players, such as Deulofeu, Insua will be familiar with as they were both integral parts of the Spain Under 19 squad which won the European Championships in 2012 (funnily enough, I wrote about Insua during that tournament too).

Only a few pages in the book of Insua’s promising career have been written, but they have been enough to entice the smaller audience reading it. As the season progresses, there is no doubt that Insua will continue to put in some impressive performances and begin to catch the eyes of scouts from around Europe. Insua was once looked at closely by Chelsea and Manchester City so it’s apparent, to the general audience, that he’s a talented player who’s continuing to grow and progress in football.