Posts Tagged ‘La Liga’

Marcelino

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adan

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

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

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

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

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Decisions, decisions, decisions…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chinese New Year celebrations outside Cornellá El-Prat

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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Víctor lifting the Copa del Rey in 2002

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

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

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Lucas and Víctor embrace at the full-time whistle

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

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

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

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

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Mosquera on presentation day

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

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

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

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

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Lux celebrates stopping Nolito’s penalty

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

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

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

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

 

 

You already know who scored the most goals, who some opine was the best player; but have you seen a La Liga alphabet of the best and worst performers? Probably not. So, here is mine with almost (sorry, Levante) one mention of every club in the league.

A – Aduriz. The Athletic Bilbao striker produced his best league goal scoring season (18) and cemented himself as the highest scoring Spaniard in La Liga as well. Additionally, his five Copa del Rey goals steered Athletic to the final. The Basque club’s tough task will be when the 34-year-old requires replacing. Some bright names come to mind from the academy (Villalibre, Williams and Guillermo), but it will take a while until the towering forward’s influence can be remotely replicated.

Aduriz

B – Bueno. Like the former, Alberto Bueno turned in his highest scoring season ever in La Liga. The Real Madrid product helped Rayo Vallecano to another comfortable season finish by netting 17 – including four goals in one game. Such was the high magnitude of his performances that, once the season ended, FC Porto acquired his services.

C – Camacho. The Malaga midfielder’s season was his best since the 12/13 season. In fact, some would argue it was better. Casting a net over his defence, Camacho produced three successful tackles and three interceptions, on average, per game. A staggering amount for a Malaga side that were outplayed and overrun in midfield a multitude of times last season under Bernd Schuster.

D – Djukic. The manager was only at Cordoba for five months, but results did not quite reflect the influence he had on his players. For a while under Djukic, the players were happy and playing more positive and fluid football than under Albert Ferrer – whom they failed to win a game under. The squad just wasn’t good enough for any manager to save; three men tried. Djukic has had horrid luck choosing teams to manage since departing from Real Valladolid to Valencia. His talent as a manager is quite high, and he is still learning, but perhaps he should choose potential jobs better.

E – Eibar. Their fairytale story was almost as impressive and welcome as their scintillating form at the start of the season. At one point, they were as high as 8th – this, with the smallest budget and stadium in the league. They were overachieving by a long stretch of the imagination. But their squad size showed after January, when fixtures become thicker and targets intensified. They capitulated, picking up just 9 points from January 16th until the final day. Unfortunately, their story was cut short with no fairytale ending: a relegation on head-to-head. 35 points did not suffice for them the way it did with Deportivo and Granada.

F – Fabricio. The Spanish goalkeeper just has not received the praise he deserves. His season has been on par with that of Keylor Navas’ in his final year at Levante. Double saves, triple saves, last minute saves, one-on-one saves – he has done the lot to keep Deportivo in La Liga. Without him, the club would have gone down even before Cordoba. He made 77 saves and kept 11 clean-sheets; most of which were, without exaggeration, solely down to him. Even on the final day his influence was tantamount to Depor’s survival. Two double saves kept the Galicians in the game at the Camp Nou. A game which Depor would draw 2-2 to ensure safety.

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G – Gracia. Malaga struggled excruciatingly last season under Schuster, scraping the relegation zone and playing some negative football. Nordin Amrabat was their only spark and subsequent reason as to why they stayed up. Their appointment of Javi Gracia – to replace Schuster – was a masterstroke. Malaga have played some beautiful, expansive football with one of the youngest starting XI’s in the league. In fact, their forwards’ performances were of high enough level that Vicente Del Bosque deemed them good enough for the Spain setup: Juanmi and Samu. Gracia is a young manager fixated on playing good, attacking football through the prism of youth. With a better finisher than Juanmi, Malaga could well have finished in a Europa League spot or beyond.

H – Hernandez. Celta’s Pablo Hernandez scored one of the finest goals of the season – a mid-air back-heel flick past Moya – but his season consisted of sporadic starts and inconsistency in the final third. His influence was minimal, his involvement in associative play lacking. The Chilean was underwhelming despite the chance to have all eyes on him following that nonchalant goal against Atletico Madrid.

I – Iñigo. Real Sociedad’s defender was a highly sought after product two seasons ago for his stalwart defensive performances during a successful campaign from the Basque club. Although last season was poor, riddled with defensive errors and inconsistencies, this season was the opposite. He was outstanding, especially since Moyes’ arrival and insistence on a strong defence. Despite very few speaking highly of him, rest assured his performances were back to being consistent and excellent. He is ready for a move to better things.

J – Jonathas. On loan from Pescara, the Elche striker was one of the most impressive in the league. He scored and created circa 60% of Elche’s goals and was the standout reason as to why the club avoided relegation once again. His big upper-body, combined with pace and quick feet has drawn comparisons to Diego Costa quickly. I see him more in the mould of Bacca, personally. Speaking of which, he could very well be the Colombian’s replacement should Sevilla feel like parting ways.

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K – Krychowiak. Simply the best defensive-midfielder in the league at the moment. When Ivan Rakitic departed, many were waiting to see who the like-for-like replacement was, but Emery opted for a combative midfielder to shake up the system. Krychowiak has been phenomenal in breaking up play, protecting his defence and winning aerial duels. His passing range has been a plus, debunking the myth that combative midfielders have null passing range.

L – Luis Enrique. The Barcelona manager was quickly lambasted and vilified at the start of the season for “stripping Barcelona of its identity” as one writer scribed. Barcelona were winning without dominating, scoring just one goal – typically from a youngster. But patience is key and Luis Enrique is now on course for a treble-winning season. He has converted Barcelona from a tiki-taka style no longer suiting their set-up, to a more explosive attacking approach. This has coincided with what I believe is Messi’s greatest period of form ever. This focus on attacking has seen every ounce of power, technicality and intelligence squeezed out of the best forward line in Europe: Messi, Neymar and Suarez.

M – Mediterráneos. I may be cheating a bit, but Almeria’s stadium name is long enough and they deserve a bit of the spotlight. Their home form against sides battling them for survival was astounding. They comfortably outplayed and pummelled teams – for a while, they were feared for this trait. But their away form was lacking and the over-reliance of winning on home turf became apparent. Despite their relegation, Almeria played better football than the two teams that finished above them on the final day.

N – Nolito. The Celta forward was outstanding – bar a dip in form from January until February. He scored 12 and assisted 11 – a great return which placed Celta just four points away from a Europa League spot. His season was so good that Del Bosque called him up to the Spain squad. This was, without a doubt, better than his season with Granada or anything he ever produced with Benfica.

O – Otamendi. Valencia haven’t had a centre-back this good since Ayala’s departure. Genuinely. He has been the best centre-back in La Liga this season, and this after being a risky signing. He has scored important goals, defeating big teams, but has also been the key in a defence that only conceded 32 goals – especially impressive because most of it was made up of new players. It is no surprise that the biggest of teams are seeking his signature.

Otamendi

P – Pepe. The Portuguese defender is often ridiculed and parodied for his aggressive, air-headed nature but this season has seen a complete transformation. He has outperformed Sergio Ramos – something which has not happened since he arrived at the club. He was a rock in the heart of Real Madrid’s defence and is beginning to gain (genuine) praise that is not followed by sly remarks about his outlandishness.

Q – Quique Sanchez Flores. Aside from being the most well-dressed manager to ever grace a football pitch, it was a shame to see Quique manage for little over 40 days in La Liga. Employed by Getafe, he shortly left after a dispute with the shambolic board. He is an intelligent manager with an exceptional eye for analysis (as shown by his punditry on TVE and others). It would be nice to see Quique manage in a top league again and, this time, for a longer period of time.

R – Rico. Rare is the occasion when a 21-year-old goalkeeper, in his debut season, outshines the veteran ahead of him in such fashion that wins him a call-up to his elite national team. This has been the season of Sergio Rico. Replacing an injured Beto, he has become the undisputed number one. Reflexes, cross-claiming, handling… name it, he has it. The only thing needed from Rico is a full season to assess his weakness and strengths but, as of now, he has been one of the finest goalkeepers in the country. Which says a lot when you consider the quality of his fellow shot-stoppers.

S – Sergio Gonzalez. Another refreshing, young manager in La Liga with a lot of talent. Sergio almost took Espanyol to another Copa del Rey final, but his work in the league was as commendable. Up until the final day, the Catalan club were still in contention for a Europa League spot. His man-management ensured that the best would be seen again from Stuani and Garcia in attack but also instilled a strong, defensive foundation led by Diego Colotto and Alvaro Gonzalez.

T – Tiago. The Atletico Madrid midfielder had a fantastic season – one of the best at the club. And he’s 34-years of age. Staggering, yes, but he plays with a youthfulness to his game that helps him carry out roles either as a box-to-box midfielder or deep playmaker. He can win a header with proficiency as high as he can unpick a defence. He is combative; he is intelligent. There are few central-midfielders better than Tiago in La Liga. He is the reason very few have spoken of Gabi’s huge dip of form in comparison to last season. His age is also the reason very few will appreciate his quality.

U – Unai Emery. Another Europa League final, another 5th placed finish. He is Mr. Consistency. The football Sevilla have played this season is mouthwatering. The power, energy and efficiency is matched by none in La Liga. The amount of Sevilla players called up to the Spain squad can only be beaten by Barcelona and Real Madrid – those players can partly thank him for their breakthroughs. He has done all of this to enormous effect, putting him on Florentino Perez’s shortlist for future Real Madrid manager. And maybe it wouldn’t be too farfetched to see him there one day.

Emery

V – Vietto. Perhaps the most exciting, young striker in Europe this season. His darting runs, intelligence in build-up and high level of finishing has seen him lead Villarreal to a Europa League spot. Others have performed highly, too, but he is the magic behind things; the reason neutrals tune in to watch the Yellow Submarine. His strong technical level makes it very easy to get excited by his potential. There is no doubt that he will reach the very top. I would usually reserve this for players of his age, but he could definitely make the step up to an elite club and wouldn’t look a beat out of place.

W – Weligton. 13 yellow cards, two red cards. The 35-year-old lived a season that was personally lackadaisical and lethargic on the pitch. He may be an integral part of Malaga’s defensive system, but his errors are hurting them. He is great at clearing the ball, but anything that involves on-ground work can quickly see him caught out. His erratic nature, age and regressive quality means that Malaga should start looking for a replacement.

X – Xavi. I don’t want this to become a discursive essay on why Xavi is the greatest Spanish footballer ever, so I’ll cut it short: he is. This was his final season and, at times, he still showed himself to be the brain of the side. Used sporadically by Luis Enrique, Xavi has struggled less with the physical side of the game. He is on course for his second career treble – a perfect send-off for a perfect playmaker.

6racies

Y – Yoda. No, not the little green dude from Star Wars. This Getafe player has had quite an exciting season. He caught headlines with his name, but quickly turned discussions to the direction of his technical ability. He is a fabulous dribbler, with pace to burn and creative freedom to break out of Getafe’s restrictive approach in the final third. Despite not featuring as often as hoped, every performance added a bit of flavour to Getafe’s build-up and movement.

Z – Zuculini. This young midfielder embodied the wrong decisions that most promising players make. After joining Manchester City, it is believed that he had the choice to join three clubs: Valencia, Deportivo and Sunderland. Valencia was his choice, despite knowing that he wouldn’t play ahead of the pre-existing stars and the talented reinforcements made by ridiculously rich owner, Peter Lim. He could have opted for Deportivo – where the midfield was rotated more than any other position – or Sunderland where he would have comfortably added some flair to a typically physical midfield. Zuculini made zilch starts for Valencia and just one substitute performance. His loan was later terminated and he ended up at Cordoba, making eight appearances, with a distinct lack of motivation.

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.

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.

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!