LaLiga is quickly becoming all that we expected before this season started. The theoretical top three (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico) struggle to win theoretically winnable matches, whereas the following group of teams (Real Sociedad, as well as Sevilla and Villarreal, who both have a game in hand) have quickly become potential contenders for the title. On top of that, a couple of nice surprises in the form of Osasuna and Rayo occupy Europa League spots, while Athletic, Valencia and Betis have shown promising glimpses of what they could become if they achieved some sort of consistency.
However, there’s a slightly disappointing touch to the whole thing so far, as though watching the bigger teams play terrible football took some brilliance out of the increased competitiveness of the tournament.
Let’s start with the biggest match of the weekend, Atletico hosting Barcelona. Once again, the visitors trusted their youth, and as it is usually the case their youth proved unreliable at the top level. I’ve empathised with Koeman’s situation more than once, but believing that your season will be salvaged by a bunch of kids under 20 years of age is delusional. “He does not have much else to work with”, you say. He’s a top-level coach, and even though I’m perfectly aware of how old the over-20-year-old part of the squad looks now that Messi has left, Koeman should be able to find alternatives so that one of the best paid teams in world football looks competitive in every match.
Of course, at times he’s tried just that. “Nico didn’t follow Lemar and there’s one player missing in the middle. Now you understand why sometimes we play three at the back”, he spat after the defeat at the Wanda, throwing under the bus a 19-year-old who’s played 175 minutes of LaLiga football in his life. The Dutchman was heavily criticised because of his three-man defence vs Bayern and Benfica in the Champions League but when he resorted to a more classic line of four the results were quite similar and he knew who to blame.
Not that Atletico look like title winners either, despite their intimidating squad, but their two consecutive wins in Milan and now versus Barcelona can bring some of the confidence that has seemed elusive in the first few weeks of the season. Even for a non-Barcelona fan like me it was painful to watch how easily they disposed of the Azulgrana on Saturday afternoon. The visitors never had a chance, never looked competitive. Again, you shouldn’t depend on youngsters to get you key wins in tough stadia, or else you will have your backsides delivered to you by teams who may not play like champions, but who are packed with seasoned veterans delighted to kick around a few up-and-coming kids.
Of course, Luis Suárez scored the back-breaking second goal with what seemed like an eternity of time to prepare his strike, and then pretended to call on the phone in a not very subtle reference to the way he was told he had been made redundant – I love this corporate world euphemism to say “was fired” – by Ronald Koeman last summer.
Things change quickly in just a week. Last weekend the sun shone again in Barcelona after their 3-0 win and Ansu Fati’s dream comeback, while Atletico had to think long and hard about their embarrassing defeat vs bottom of the table Alaves. The Rojiblancos have won their following two matches and they’ve recovered Lemar, João Félix and Griezmann for the cause, while Barcelona have lost both in Lisbon and in Madrid, with the huge pressure that two consecutive defeats and their disappointing performances will bring over Koeman.
Some Barcelona fans still wonder how on earth is the Dutchman on the Camp Nou’s bench; we’ll just have to remember that 1) They have no money to fire him and 2) Assuming they could find the money to pay for Koeman’s contract, according to LaLiga’s rules they would only be able to hire some kind soul ready to work on that mess of a club for EUR2.9Mn for the rest of the season, a figure becoming smaller with every passing day. Listening to Laporta say last Thursday that he totally trusts Koeman and that he only needs a few injured players to recover for the team to regain steam was dumbfounding indeed.
Again, looks like a long season for the Azulgrana, unless the players somehow realise that they are going to have to play for Koeman no matter what – and stage some sort of reaction. Next two matches for the Catalans? Both at home to Valencia and Real Madrid. Not for the faint hearted.
And speaking of consecutive defeats, here’s Real Madrid losing to Sheriff Tiraspol after squandering at least five glorious chances and then to Espanyol – theoretically their pet team – putting in such a dismal first half performance that it was hard to believe that the squad had somehow roped some of us in on the dream of a more than decent season.
The most frustrating thing about this Real Madrid is that the discussions about the team have not changed one iota in the last three seasons: people half expect that Hazard, Carvajal or Bale are suddenly going to become reliable, or that Isco is going to focus his head on football and physical shape. They also seriously think that Modric is eternal, that Nacho always delivers or that Lucas Vazquez can indeed fill in on any position. And the fact is that those theses have been proven wrong beyond any doubt every month for the last three years. More concerning still, if we judge by Carletto’s line-ups, it’s evident that he believes some of those to be true too.
The Italian manager has tinkered with the starting eleven in every match, as though he wanted to compensate for that season when he ran the starters to the ground. Not happy with that, he’s become fond of replacing three or four players at the same time, with the issues that this action can generate in a team that hasn’t played under him for more than two months. The issues are clear: there are no decent fullbacks available, and the defensive balance of the team suffers mightily when Carlo tries to cover those areas with players out of position. And of course, only Benzema can score consistently, something that has been the case since Cristiano Ronaldo left. My twopence: the team should play with both Brazilians wide open and Benzema in the middle, and with Alaba and Militão in the centre of the back four. Those five players will give you what you need in terms of offensive threat, stamina and defensive stability. Let’s see how the Italian evolves in the next few matches, although I don’t really mind a few negative results like these last three matches – they drew at home vs Villarreal last weekend – as long as he ends up trusting the most physical combination possible for the lineup.
But let’s not focus only on the top three, despite their interesting situation right now. Phil’s Real Sociedad wasted the chance to go top as they tied their match vs bottom of the table Getafe, with another goal by Oyarzabal. They will feel frustrated as they could not defeat the Azulones while their public chanted “Michel, vete ya” (Michel, leave now) to their head coach and former Real Madrid player. If you can’t take advantage of such a divorce between public and coach, you’ll remember these lost two points for a long while. The visitors looked dull, as though the chance to take the leading position was too much to digest. Phil will complain that there was a foul preceding Getafe’s goal [yep], and he will be right, but we missed more from the ball possessing visitors. They should enjoy more opportunities to become top this season, so let’s see if they are ready next time.
On this eighth matchday we saw the first coach lose his job. Paco Lopez, who had done a tremendous job with Levante after he saved them from relegation in 2018, was summarily fired leaving the team in a relegation spot. On Sunday they lost to Mallorca, which means that they haven’t won yet this season. For the neutrals, it’s a tough departure: Lopez made a new team of the tough / dirty Levante of yore, and through his talisman player Jose Luis Morales took the side to unprecedented heights. Lopez is now the Levante coach with the most wins in the Primera División. Painfully enough, against Mallorca Morales missed a penalty kick which could have saved Lopez’s job at least for another week.
Interestingly enough we enjoyed two “Piqués” this weekend, one in Mallorca and one in Bilbao. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the Piqué happens when the defender jumps at a cross, the ball goes past him and he raises his arms God knows what for. The forward behind him then heads the ball, which hits one of the arms of the defender and the ref awards the ensuing penalty. The original Pique cost Spain the elimination in Russia 18; this weekend, neither of the penalties were scored (both Morales and Raúl García missed from the spot, although García made up for hit heading home the winner versus Alaves a few minutes later).
The match in Bilbao saw Iñaki Williams break an old durability record: more matches played in a row, 203. He hasn’t missed a match since April 20th, 2016. He broke Real Sociedad’s Larrañaga’s record, who played 202 consecutive matches between 1986-92. As durable as he is, this scribe feels that Williams could become a much better player with the right coaching. Let’s see whether Marcelino can get more out of the forward.
Another interesting match between pretenders took place in Villarreal, where the hosts dispatched Betis with a couple of very well taken goals from their new hero, Dutch striker Danjuma. Having arrived from Championship team AFC Bournemouth, one wonders how much talent there is currently in England. The 24-year-old has looked fantastic since the season started, entirely adapted to the Villarreal structure in a matter of weeks. The Amarillos will feel a bit better after their extra time defeat in Old Trafford, while the Beticos should think long and hard about this performance, as they looked quite inferior to a direct rival. Their Europa League win at Ferencvaros on Thursday probably had something to do with it.
In other matches, the very Argentinean Elche defeated the also quite Argentinean Celta through a goal by Argentinean forward Dario Benedetto. Cádiz and Valencia drew level in Cádiz as the hosts’ coach, Alvaro Cervera, dropped seven players who had gone out in Madrid after their defeat to Rayo last weekend. And in yet another stinker from a top team, Granada deservedly defeated Sevilla in their first win of the season, buying some more time to their coach, Robert Moreno.
Now we head onto a two-week break that will bring some air to a few teams that need it badly. It’s going to be an entertaining season, but not a painless one…