Predictions for La Liga – 19/20

La Liga, next to Serie A, is probably my least favourite out of the top 5 leagues. While part of it is down to myself being unable to watch the games legally, I have other problems. It’s primarily down to my distaste for Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two clubs that dominate all discussion in Spain. Nevertheless, let’s look at the teams and players who will stand out in the 19/20 season, for good or bad reasons.

Outside Shout – Sevilla

While the signings of Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias have pushed Betis as top 4 contenders, I’d back Sevilla to do even better. I’m not claiming Sevilla are title challengers in any sense of the word. But with the quality and quantity of signings, they are arguably in a fantastic position to finish in that 4th spot.

Sevilla had a mixed 18/19 season. After a fantastic start to the season, which saw them top of the table at the end of November, it all fell apart. They dropped out of the top 4 after only winning 2 games between the start of December and the 10th of March. It meant the Europa League was their best chance of getting back into the Champions League. However, this ended in disaster, losing to Slavia Prague in the round of 16. This culminated in the sacking of head coach Pablo Machin, which left Sevilla with another rebuilding job.

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Who else to be at the helm of the tough task than Monchi. The Spaniard departed the team in 2017, joining Roma. However, after an unsuccessful stint with the Giallorossi, he returns to bring back the same magic he did for years. With all the top clubs desperate to bring in a director of football, there aren’t much better than Monchi. The value he managed to find out of the transfer market, especially Ligue 1, was remarkable. The likes of Lenglet, Gameiro, Banega, Navas, Sergio Ramos and Dani Alves were all discovered by the former Sevilla midfielder, showing his eye for talent is unrivalled. While his time at Roma wasn’t auspicious, with the Italian side dropping down the league during his two-year spell, returning to where his success began is the best thing for both parties.

With Joaquín Caparrós diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, the search for a new head coach was on. Julien Lopetegui was appointed head coach on the 4th of June, and I’m unsure what to think about it. Judging him based on a problematic four months at Real Madrid is unfair, considering how little he was backed in the market. While he was very successful with the Spanish national team, his managerial experiences at club level are not the most comforting. His most notable job was with Porto, where he finished 3rd with £57 million spent on 18 players, 7 of which were Spanish.

Joining a club that isn’t as insane as Real Madrid, where he will be given more time to take Sevilla back into the Champions League, will be fascinating. Lopetegui has always favoured a classic 4-1-2-3, a formation that Sevilla have not been playing in recent seasons. Lopetegui needs to resolve some of the consistent issues with the side, in defence and now upfront. Sevilla have sold two of their best assets in Pablo Sarabia and Wissam Ben-Yedder, meaning Lopetegui can start from scratch with the current core of players and plenty of new arrivals.

Sevilla did some of the best business in the window. They went out and resolved their most significant issues, being wide talent and defenders. Monchi targetted plenty of players from Ligue 1, with 4 of their 11 signings coming from the French top flight. Rony Lopes has left the sinking ship known as Monaco to finally play for a club where his talents can be showcased. Ocampos has arrived from Marseille, and while I’m not his biggest fan, I acknowledge he does offer a lot in terms of dribbling and physicality. Sergio Reguillon comes after unfairly being pushed out from Real Madrid. This is a delight to see because Sevilla have finally picked up a good left-back after years of being so one-sided, even if it is just a loan deal.

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Their best signing, by far, is Joan Jordan. The Spaniard had a very successful spell with Eibar, earning him a move to Sevilla. This is such an improvement over Vasquez and Mesa. The midfielder is solid defensively and offers a lot of ball-progression. This is one of the most sensible signings of the window, and I’m surprised other clubs weren’t showing interest.

Sevilla have made some signings where I have my doubts, but right now, they are in a great position to get that 4th spot. A balanced experienced yet youthful team that possess the qualities to challenge the other top sides in La Liga.

Overachievers – Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid’s summer can best be described as a mixed bag. Losing their best attacker in Griezmann, their best midfielder in Rodri and the hugely impactful Diego Godin was huge. While they did pick up over £200 million from only 3 of their sales, it meant a lot of work was needed to turn this into a Champions League squad once again. Atletico recruited without any sort of consistency, which is understandable. They brought in a mix of young talent in Felix, Lodi and Hermoso to keep the squad fresh on the long term, combining that with the experience of Trippier, Herrera and Felipe. It allows them to remain competitive in the short term while also giving them a future in two of their most important positions; attack and defence.

In concept, I do like a lot of their business, but during a closer examination, I have my doubts. Let’s start with Joao Felix. The teenage sensation arrives for a gigantic £113 million. There is no doubting the forward is talented, but substantial game time is something lacking in his repertoire. The 18/19 season was Felix’s first season of top-flight football and displayed some promising qualities. His shot location was generally fantastic, and his technical ability is undeniably excellent, but factors come into my reservations on this transfer. The first is Liga NOS. The Portuguese top-flight is difficult to judge when it comes to talent. Your club might pick up a Bernardo Silva, Alex Sandro or a Willy Boly, or end up with a Mangala, Jackson Martinez or Enzo Perez. Joao Felix could be just as useful as Griezmann, or even better, however, there is a likely chance the pressure on him might be too much. Felix is one of the only pacey forwards Simeone can use. There is no other player like him in the squad, with Morata and Costa both preferring the ball in the air. Atletico have paid a lot of money to seemingly beat the competition and remind the rest of Europe they are a threat.

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I’ve expressed my doubts about Marcos Llorente before, and my opinions on Trippier and Felipe aren’t nearly as negative as many. Simeone has a reputation of supercharging defenders, and I think he will find the value out of the pair. They definitely didn’t need to spend that much money on them, especially on Felipe, but they’re decent acquisitions in terms of the players they are getting. I like Hermoso and is arguably their best signing in the window, with the defender performing well in a similar system at Espanyol and still has time to improve.

So why are they, my overachievers? Most of their squad are recent summer arrivals and as noted, aren’t all likely to succeed. Simeone has a reputation for grinding out results better than any other coach in the game. He rarely uses the exciting talent given to him, and it makes me wonder if Simeone will just stick with his compact system, only to remain close with the top two. Atletico will finish the top four but will look bad doing so.

Underachievers – Barcelona

Barcelona have lost their traditions in recent years. While they have never been likeable, you could at least respect them for putting more faith in youth than big-money signings. However, the same luxury signings they seemingly mocked Real Madrid for making are now the players they want. This has culminated in a squad full of different players, and not in the right way. This team lacks pace in the attack and balance in the midfield. Even though I dislike the Griezmann signing, They did end bring in an understudy for the ageing Jordi Alba and one of the best midfield prospects in Frenkie De Jong. This squad is a general improvement over last year’s title winners, but many problems remain.

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Ernesto Valverde is by far the biggest and most frustrating problem at the club. I actually had a lot of respect for what he did during his first season. He turned Barcelona from a free-flowing, direct and pacey team into a very defensively solid and efficient one. It wasn’t the most entertaining watch, but it was working and kept Barcelona better than the rest of the league. In spite of their title-winning season, only losing a single game in La Liga, the fans were not happy. They didn’t just want to win, but in a way that Cruyff would be proud of. While insanely smug and arrogant, I can understand. Barcelona have the best player ever to grace a football pitch. Seeing him in the best attacking side in Europe and playing to his fullest while his career to starting to wind down is essential. Messi is the only reason why Barcelona have won the league under Valverde. While Messi hasn’t been at his untouchable best like he was back in 2011, this has been his most impressive time at the Nou Camp. In his thirties, he is still carrying his side more than ever before, and it’s comfortably established him as the greatest there is.

Barcelona have the best side in the league, but mediocre squad building and the wrong manager has made them weaker than they should be. They’ll underachieve through not playing to their potential. They will most likely win the league, but not nearly as comfortable.

Best Transfer – Frenkie De Jong

This is arguably the most of outstanding signing Barcelona have made since Ter Stegen. The former Ajax central midfielder was fantastic both domestically and in the Champions League, where he was vital in Ajax reaching the semi-final. He has so many qualities that persuaded Barcelona to pick up his signature. De Jong is an allrounder. He is good defensively while possessing a great passing ability and solid dribbling numbers. It allows him to be versatile in how he plays, whether as a ball-progressor or even or a centre-back. His ball retention is by far his best quality. During their dominant victory over Juventus, the old lady attempted to man-mark De Jong out of the game. This didn’t work; however, with De Jong dropping so deep that it made him difficult to mark. He would consistently receive the ball and dribble right through Juventus’ deep block. He was one of the most challenging players to dispossess in Europe.

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There isn’t even debate on whether he starts. De Jong has to play whenever he is available. The Dutchman, alongside Arthur, offers a young central midfielder with more risk on the ball than his teammates. Rakitic is not as adventurous as he once was, Busquets has been overplayed for years, and Vidal hasn’t really worked out in Barcelona since his arrival. De Jong’s versatility would allow him to not only excel wherever he plays but to give Busquets and Rakitic a chance to be rested. De Jong’s arrival has zero drawbacks and is by far their best business since Luis Suarez.

Potential Flop – Munas Dabbur

Sevilla’s business overall was fantastic, but their forwards were always going to be difficult to replace. Los Hispalenses lost 3 of their starting forwards in Ben-Yedder, Silva and Muriel. It left them with only Munir as a starting striker, leaving them with a lot of work to be done. I have my doubts about Luuk De Jong, but he can play as an effective target man. It’s their acquisition of Isreali forward Munas Dabbur where my suspicions are raised. The former Salzburg striker was fantastic during his time in Austria. Dabbur was a well rounded forward who could score as well as create. He was excellent in the Europa League, where he scored 8 in 10 and helped guide Salzburg to winning every game in their group. It’s obvious Dabbur has talent, but excelling in a league where Salzburg are a level above everyone else means there is an instant reason to be worried. He’s also 27. Usually, when taking a talented player from a weaker league, they need to be at an age where they can improve or have re-sell value. As per usual, I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Dabbur leaving the club in a year.

Monchi’s Failure! Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Review

Let’s move on the next game in the Champions League, which saw a struggling Roma side face a Porto side which are quite difficult to break down. While other games were being spoken more on, this tie still had some excitement to it, so let’s look at a game where Roma showed their best and worst sides, and Porto battled for their place in the quarter finals.

We’ll begin with the first leg, which saw Roma come out deserving 2-1 winners over their Portguese opponents. This was the game that Roma needed to win, and was arguably their biggest game of the season. Roma were missing Cengiz Under for this game, someone I didn’t realise was actually out until that first leg. It didn’t matteer much, since it was Nicolo Zaniolo who came in to replace him. The Italian has been one of the few bright sparks for Roma this season, and showed it in this game. He was the man of the match, scoring both goals and put in a very good performance for his side, taking 3 shots on target and completing 2 dribbles. I do think there are elements of his game he needs to improve, mainly his passing, but he gets into good areas and plays the role of a second striker very effectively. While Roma didn’t exactly dominate this game, they did put in a performance that was worthy of the victory, even with a complete collapse in defence costed them that clean sheet.

Porto weren’t exactly good at all, but not all is their fault. They were missing Moussa Marega, their top goalscrorer in the competition with 5 goals. While he isn’t the most technically gifted footballer around, he uses his physicality and aggression to his advantage. Without him, Porto just lacked that bite up the field, which was needed in this game. I mentioned how they needed to win the battle in midfield, and they struggled to do so. Pellegrini ran the show, creating 5 chances and having 4 shots. Pereira and Herrera just couldn’t get near him, and allowed him to pull the strings. I mentioned before that Porto were very fortunate in their away games so far in the Champions League, and they showed that against Roma. They managed 2 shots on target in the game, showing how much they struggled to take advantage of the possession they had. This is down to both of their strikers on the night, Soares and Fernando, just not being very good. Fernando only managed 18 touches, and both forward kept drifting out wide, making it very hard for Porto to create anything of note. They did manage that important away goal, thanks to Adrien Lopez getting on the end of a good ball in the box. While Roma had the advantage, Porto were definitely still in this tie.

The first leg showed Roma at their best, and the second leg showed them at their worst. I said in my preview that they needed to take advantage of that first leg because they had Lazio right before their visit to Portugal. To say their form took a cataclysmic drop after that win is an understatement. They scraped by with wins against struggling Frosinone and Bologna, but a huge 3-0 loss to Lazio hurt the side. Lazio aren’t nearly as good as they were last season, but showed a spark of their attacking prowess shown when they were so close to Champions League football. It left Roma low on confidence and going to face Porto, who had Moussa Marega back from injury. Roma were so much worse in this game than their first leg victory, and some of it has to go down to some of the changes made to the side that fought valiantly in Rome. He went back to a back 3 and changed an energetic midfield of Cristante and Pellegrini to accompany De Rossi and went to a midfield 2 of the captain and N’Zonzi. It gave the side zero protection from Porto, and allowed their opponents to comfortably control the game without the bite and speed that Roma had in the last game. It baffles me why Di Francesco would change a winning formula like that, in favour of a more pragmatic approach that didn’t work. It’s all down to Di Francesco because the players to have to take some of the blame. Manolas gave the ball away early in the game and allowed Corona to gift Soares with an open net. These players showed in both legs that they seem unable to keep track of runners, and the second goal showed that. Karsdrop was not tight enough on Telles, and Marcano just allowing Marega to make a run at the far post. It’s been a consistent theme of what has went wrong in the capital this season. With Di Francesco gone and Monchi close to Arsenal, the whole Roma project that looked so promising has now fell into ruin. While Di Francesco always has his doubters, me included, I do think Monchi should face some of the blame. I think he was hoping to have the chance to bring in prospects like Under and Kluivert time to develop into the players they are showing they could be. But the difference has been what changed since his arrivals. Both Milan clubs had massive investment which instantly put them back into the conversation for top 4, while Lazio and Atalanta were both making smart moves to push for those European football. Roma were lucky to even qualify for Champions League football last season. If it wasn’t for Inter dropping the ball, and Lazio having a slight consistency problem, I doubt they would have even qualified. Allison was the 2nd best goalkeeper in Europe last season, and saved Roma a lot of points. Replacing him with a relatively average keeper in Olsen was not a good move. Allowing both Strootman Nainggolan to leave, and replacing them with Cristante and N’Zonzi, two players who are not better than the ones who departed, left them weak in a position they were strong in for so long. Monchi seemed to change the plan of long term success to just trying to succeed on the short term. While signings like Pellegrini and Kluivert showed plenty of promise, it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day, to justify missing out on the attraction of Champions League football.

Porto were much better in this game, as it was expected. While their away record is fortunate at best, no one can argue just how good they’ve been at home in Europe. In the group stages, they scored 8 and only conceded 2. They showed Roma why teams fear them in their homeland. They were aggressive and attacked with plenty width. I complained that Pereira and Herrera didn’t do enough in the first leg, but they definitely brought their best in the home leg. Pereira especially was outstanding. He dominated that midfield, where he won 3 tackles, created 3 chances and had 4 shots. A good display from a player we know is capable of them. However the man of the match was comfortably Moussa Marega. He returned to the team in style. He forced Manolas to make the mistake, which lead to the first goal, and scored the second to ensure that Porto would go into extra time. He also created 2 chances and had 4 shots. While I don’t think he’s a great or even a good player, you cannot deny he is very useful and key to the way his side attacks. It is great to see Porto and Ajax, two historic clubs progress to the round of 16, in a world where the Top 5 leagues dominate every year. It gives hope that these leagues will only improve and continue to make smart business, the more their bigger clubs progress. Porto will not be an easy tie in the next round, and if they can just improve their away form, they could make it a tough tie for whoever they are drawn against.