The clock strikes 81:38 in the heart of the Spanish capital as all eyes perch on Joao Felix, who receives a pass from Stefan Savic. Unmarked, with no one to close him down, the Portuguese spots Renan Lodi marauding down the left flank and plays a tantalizingly perfect lobbed pass into his feet. Lodi, looking up, spots no pass available, and without giving Sergio Herrera any chance to think twice, drills one into the top corner. The scoreboard reads 1-1 as Real Madrid hold their breath in the Basque country.
Now with all the momentum in the world, Atleti could not falter. At the end of a disasterclass all afternoon, Luis Suarez optimistically played the ball to Kieran Trippier, who put it through to Yannick Carrasco.
Given the Belgian’s reputation, no one would dare close him down inside the box. Carrasco made full use of that and slot the perfect lay-up near the six-yard area, and Suarez latched on it to it with the hopes of a fifth La Liga in mind and made no mistake as the ball hit the back of the net.
This concluded the penultimate game of the season, but a similar story played out on the final day as Suarez’s 21st goal of the season secured Atletico Madrid’ first La Liga since 2013/14. The writing was on the wall for a long time; Atleti wanted to be taken seriously right since they hit six past Granada in their opening game of the season, and despite fumbling several times in between, they delivered.
Suarez’s transfer came hand-wrapped in glistening gold for Diego Simeone and Atletico, but was he one of the best players as another topsy-turvy La Liga called curtains? Barça Universal runs the rule over the Spanish league to find its best XI and manager.
Jan Oblak | Atletico Madrid
Jan Oblak represents La Liga royalty and is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, bar none. He has come up clutch for Atletico time and time again since becoming the first-choice in 2015/16 and is the final and easily the most consistent member of Diego Simeone’s reputed iron wall of a defence.
Keeping 18 clean sheets over the course of 38 games, the Slovenian clocked yet another Ricardo Zamora trophy, equalling Victor Valdes and Antoni Ramallets’ incredible record. He missed out on the trophy last year but was pretty much unstoppable in 2020/21, and the proof of the pudding lies in his displays in ‘do or die’ games likes against Barcelona, where he made seven saves.
The statistic that best explains Oblak’s mindboggling level is ‘PSxG+/-‘ (Post-shot expected goals minus goals conceded), which tells a keeper’s performance based on them preventing a higher quality shot, which results in higher xG, and how often it is conceded. Oblak leads all his peers across the top 5 leagues, with a +9.8 PSxG+/-, which means he saved nearly 10 shots that would have surely made the net bulge. Fulham’s Alphonso Areola is next best with +7.6.
Jesus Navas | Sevilla
Nobody expected Jesus Navas’ return to Sevilla to go as it has since 2017. Donning the captain’s armband, the piercing Spaniard took over the right-back slot and made it his own with little to no competition. He also served as arguably their best player during the run to the Europa League last year, inspiring them to wins when the going truly got tough.
With six assists to his name in 34 appearances, he is our pick for the right-fullback spot. Not only was the World Cup winner a menacing presence to deal with for anyone coming up against him courtesy of his pace, Navas never let his team down in the attacking third. With 63 key passes, he ranks fourth among other La Liga creators in the category and is second only to Lionel Messi when it comes to passes into the penalty area with 84 of his own.
A true captain’s work paid off in full as Sevilla finished fourth in the La Liga table, capping off one of their most impressive domestic seasons. The biggest miss for Luis Enrique’s Spanish squad for the EURO 2020? Only time will tell.
Jules Kounde | Sevilla
At the age of just 22, Jules Kounde has become the centre-back for the future, and already one of the best across Europe. His sensational performances throughout the La Liga season mean he is the first picks of two CBs in the team.
Participating in 34 games in the top-flight this campaign, Kounde managed to guard Sevilla’s goal successfully on 15 occasions, slowly becoming the poise to Diego Carlos’ ruthlessness. No one in the league quite anticipates the game like him, and it shows with how little he actually tackles.
The Frenchman is just about as good as they come with the ball, with his solo dribble goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey standing as proof of the same. In an insanely well-drilled Sevilla side, Kounde is the only player allowed to leave his position, and his 5840 yards of progressive carrying (sixth-best in the league) is proof of the same.
Additionally, his comfort on the ball is further on display with his passing, as he has accumulated 165 passes into the final third – the 10th best in the league and second only to Clement Lenglet among defenders.
Stefan Savic | Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid see Sevilla’s two picks and raise them another one of their own with Stefan Savic. No one quite expected Savic to come through as he has this season for Atletico, especially given the number of experiments Simeone tried in defence. However, the Montenegran became the only constant in a sea of change for the league winners, completing 33 games.
With 15 yellow cards, discipline has been a huge concern for Savic, but often he was responsible for making last-ditch tackles, covering for Kieran Trippier on the right, and shuttling upfront to win the ball back.
Playing much further up compared to his previous seasons, he found composure on the ball and did not rush to clear whenever he got the chance. Despite that, Savic averaged 1.3 interceptions, 1.2 tackles, and 3.1 clearances per game. He was also only dribbled past once through the course of the campaign.
Jordi Alba | Barcelona
Barcelona’s first entry into the team of the season, Jordi Alba, found his feet under Ronald Koeman pretty quickly and was seldom a doubt in the starting XI when fit. In 35 appearances, Alba contributed directly with three goals and five assists while averaging a hugely impressive 1.5 key passes per game.
Through the first half of the season, when the team struggled to find consistency, Alba continued to plunge, combining with Lionel Messi to create bucketloads of chances. His absence was duly noted in the initial stages when Sergino Dest and Junior Firpo had to take shifts covering for him.
He ranks just below our right-back Jesus Navas with 82 passes into the penalty box and has the fourth-highest accumulative xA in the league with 7.6. Not to forget, he also has the highest big chances created for any defender with 13 and the joint-fourth among all players in the league.
Alba competes with league winner Yannick Carrasco for this spot, but given the latter has played as solely as a wing-back and even as a pure winger at times, it would be unfair to give the spot to the Belgian. That said, Alba has to desperately improve his defending if he wants to continue starting for the club.
Right Central Midfielder
Marcos Llorente | Atletico Madrid
Marcos Llorente is proof that coaches should constantly experiment with players’ positions, allowing freedom of choice and movement, because one moment of craziness can lead to a season (or more) of fruitfulness.
A defensive midfielder by trait, Llorente was used as a no. 8 by Simeone in bursts, but it was against Liverpool when he absolutely exploded onto the scene, breaking their lines of press with picture-perfect runs using his dynamism. Since then, there was no looking back, and the Spaniard now stands in contention as La Liga’s MVP after an incredible season.
With 12 goals and 11 assists to his name, he is the only other player apart from Iago Aspas to reach double digits in both categories this season. Additionally, Llorente also recorded the biggest difference between his goal tally and xG with +7.7, beating Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Karim Benzema in the race. Truly a season for the books.
Frenkie de Jong | Barcelona
Signing from Ajax for a big-money move, Frenkie de Jong has been touted for great things in his career and is already showing the signs. Ronald Koeman’s plans to make the Barcelona XI around the Dutchman turned out to be true to a large extent, but he did not expect that de Jong will need to be played as a box-to-box midfielder to make it happen.
De Jong started the season parenting Sergio Busquets in the heart of the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 and was one of Barcelona’s only performers during that time. However, shifting him to a more attacking role helped him unlock his potential as he ended the season with three goals and four assists. It could have been more, and quite easily so, had he not lost his finishing touch in the home stretch of the season.
The former-Ajax sensation excels in carrying the ball over long distances, skipping over tackles. Despite playing as a defensive midfielder for a huge part of the season, de Jong managed to progress the ball 8123 yards through carries, and 11989 yards through passing. Barcelona fans are in for an absolute treat if this is what de Jong has in store for them moving ahead.
Left Central Midfielder
Toni Kroos | Real Madrid
One of the finest midfielders to grace the game, Toni Kroos came through with yet another sensational season, one that serves as a testament to his longevity.
Real Madrid have suffered through a rocky road of injury troubles all season, and Kroos has missed out on ten games himself, but his three goals and four assists are enough to etch his name as one of the performers of the season. In fact, he beats out Lionel Messi as the player with the most key passes per 90 – 2.8 vs 2.3. Moreover, he also leads the charts for most passes into the final third per 90 with 11.6, compared to Sergio Busquets’ 10.4.
If Kroos had managed to stay fit during the final stages of the season, there is a serious chance that Real Madrid could have very well defended their crown.
Lionel Messi | Barcelona
The top scorer of any league is an automatic pick if you are making the team of the season, but Lionel Messi is no mere goalscorer. He does things on a pitch fans have never seen before and probably never will. In what could be his last season in Spain, Messi is our pick for attacking midfield.
Leo has 30 goals and nine assists in 35 games in the league and averages a goal every 86 minutes. He also has the most key passes (77), most players dribbled past (156), most fouls drawn in the Spanish League. If that is is not impressive enough, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner leads the charts for passes into the penalty area (145), through balls (23), progressive passes (317), shot-creating actions (241), goal creating actions (38), progressive carrying distance (8270 yards), and carries into the final third (192) in the top 5 leagues.
Messi was way off in the race for the Pichichi till about the turn of the year, but once he shifted into sixth gear, there was no one better. One way or another, Leo’s accommodation in this team is probably the one that needs the least justification.
Gerard Moreno | Villarreal
Joining Villarreal back from Espanyol for a fairly large amount, Gerard Moreno had a huge responsibility on his shoulder. He had scored 16 goals for the Catalan outfit in 2017/18 and was expected to replicate the same, but failed to deliver during his initial season back with the Yellow Submarine.
Since then, however, he has blossomed into an exceptional footballer who is more than ready to carry Spain’s burden in the European Championship come June. Evidence of it lies in his 2020/21 campaign, where he has pushed Villarreal to a UEFA Conference League finish in 7th place and a place in the final of the UEFA Europa League against Manchester United.
With 23 goals and seven assists to his name, Moreno has the third-highest direct goal contributions across Spain and the 11th highest across the top five leagues. In fact, it is just a single involvement shy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s 31 of the season.
Karim Benzema | Real Madrid
Real Madrid, and now France’s talisman, Karim Benzema, rounds off our La Liga Team of the Season with a place on the left side of the strike partnership. Benzema has single-handedly carried all the burden of Madrid’s attack; coming up trumps one too many times across the season.
Thanks to his goal against Villarreal on the final matchday, he ended the season with the joint second-highest goals at 23 but overtakes Moreno with his brilliant nine assists in the campaign. Benzema has been an elite all-round striker throughout his career, but it has never been as visible as this season, with his ten big chances created and 1.1 key passes per game.
Benzema has dragged Madrid through the season despite all their injuries, but he will have no time to rest with his inclusion in the France EURO 2020 list. Trouble on the cards for Florentino Perez and co.?
Manager of the Season
Zinedine Zidane | Real Madrid
La Liga saw a host of exceptional managers throughout the season. Right from Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, Sevilla’s Julien Lopetegui, Real Betis’ Manuel Pellegrini, to Celta Vigo’s Eduardo Coudet, all coaches have done a sensational job in their own right. Still, Zinedine Zidane topples them all with his achievements this season.
After leading Real Madrid to the title with exceptional changes in the defence, Zidane had the pressure to retain the title. And even though he failed, he took a team with 65+(!) injuries in a single season to a title race that lasted 38 gameweeks. Zidane did not have his captain Sergio Ramos for almost the entirety of 2021 and managed to juggle the Champions League and La Liga, all while doing the double over Barcelona and losing no games against the rest of the top four.
At the end, they managed to concede just 28 goals – the second lowest in the league, while scoring 67 – joint second-highest. Zidane leaving next season could turn out to be a host of incredible news for Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Yassine Bounou (GK): Starting between the sticks for Sevilla, Yassine Bounou was fantastic throughout the season, making big saves in big games. He also scored the equaliser vs Real Valladolid but had to compete with the best goalkeeper in the world for his spot.
Pau Torres (CB): A rock at the back for Villarreal, Pau Torres was an incredible part of Villarreal’s run to 7th place. Exceptional on and off the ball, he could very well be onto bigger and better things as early as this summer.
Javi Galan (LB): Javi Galan played 37 games at left-back for Huesca, but his solitary goal and assist were not enough to keep Huesca from relegation. However, after a season as impressive as this, it is tough to imagine the Spaniard in the second division.
Casemiro (DM): One of the best players for La Liga last season, Casemiro did not let his form drop this time around. Additionally, he was always available for the capital outfit when they needed a goal or two and recorded the second-highest goals (6), the fifth-highest assists (4) for them.
Luka Modric (CM): Luka Modric was the engine of the Madrid midfield and an undeniable presence in the team with 35 games under his belt. At the age of 35, Modric showed why he is still world-class, scoring five goals and assisting three.
Iago Aspas (ST): The top assist provider in the league this season with 13, Iago Aspas was the shining light in a revamped team. He participated in 33 games, scoring 14, and creating a total of 16 big chances and averaging two key passes per game. What else does a man need to do to get a call-up for his country?
Luis Suarez (ST): Despite being Atletico Madrid’s leading man in front of goal all season, Luis Suarez’s 21 goals were just shy of Karim Benzema and Gerard Moreno’s incredible showing. That said, El Pistolero won his side 21 points from losing positions and undoubtedly deserves mention.