The best league in the world for many will be in action this weekend, a month after Real Madrid were crowned champions of Spain. In this preview of La Liga 2020/21, we analyse how teams have strengthened their squads and what are their chances this season.
A month and a half ago, La Liga closed its curtains with Real Madrid on top and Espanyol, Mallorca and Leganés waving goodbye to their stay in Spain’s most prestigious football league. The 2019/20 La Liga season was a long one, especially with COVID–19 interfering in a crisp title race and other teams’ despair, but the restart was a success sportively speaking.
After the coronavirus break, teams played decently, and some of the football on display was entertaining most of the time. While sides like Villarreal were excellent and mounted a challenge for the European places, Madrid won the title only because they were the most consistent team, not the most flamboyant one.
While Madrid kept winning, Quique Setién’s Barcelona stumbled over tricky challenges such as facing Sevilla and Celta de Vigo away from home and lost their composure at home against Osasuna, the game where they lost the title. After a month of disillusion, Barcelona have to pick themselves up and get their crown back, even though it will be hard for the Catalans with all the quality in the league. At least, they will have Lionel Messi for one last dance.
After some controversy for Friday games being forbidden by the RFEF, La Liga will return with a new exciting 2020/21 campaign on Saturday. As difficult as it may be, let’s review the teams and try to predict the season:
Athletic Club de Bilbao
Athletic Club had a decent campaign last year, finishing 11th under the pragmatic and somewhat defensive manager that is Gaizka Garitano. The Basques had a great campaign at the back but struggled up front, immensely after Aritz Aduriz had to retire because of a hip injury during the pandemic.
One of the three teams that haven’t tasted the agony of relegation in its entire history in La Liga didn’t change any component of their squad and are set to have a rock-solid defence but a lacklustre attack. At least, they have extended the contract of Unai Simón’s, the future of Spanish goalkeepers. It could be another midtable finish for Los Leones, unless Garitano shakes things up with arguably an unimproved squad.
Atlético de Madrid
Atlético ended the last term really well, climbing up the table from the sixth position to third as Marcos Llorente became a god amongst men while dominating every La Liga defence he faced. Under Diego Pablo Simeone, for several the best manager in the league, Atleti have a real chance to grab the title after seven years of being the bridesmaid but never the bride. They haven’t added real quality to their side, but it’s not like they needed it anyways.
After a year of ups and downs, João Félix will be hoping to finally establish himself as Atlético de Madrid’s star | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
Last season was a transition year for Simeone’s men as they had to rebuild an entire defence and struggled more than before in aspects of the game greats like Diego Godín mastered. RB Leipzig kicked them out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, but the rojiblancos won two incredible matches against Liverpool, the best English side nowadays. Atlético could be a force this year and, who knows, win the league.
Barcelona is in rebuild mode after their most humiliating loss in forever. After losing 8–2 to Bayern in the Champions, the culés had to deal with Lionel Messi’s bombshell and the fact the Argentine wanted to leave. Now, with Messi stating that he’s staying against his will at Camp Nou, it will be interesting to see what Barcelona do.
“I will continue at Barcelona and my attitude will not change, no matter how much I have wanted to leave”Lionel Messi
Also, the most significant change in Catalonia has been in the coaching department and not the players’. With Quique Setién having been humiliated, the strict Ronald Koeman came in his place and has already begun the rebuild the club he once made famous needs. With Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal leaving, the heavyweights have lost their credibility, and Koeman looks to build a squad with his Dutch potégés such as Georgino Wijnaldum or Memphis Depay.
The rumours around them are multiplying, and it’s clear Barcelona are looking for cheap deals instead of splashing the cash as they did in the past few windows. Koeman’s plan could work, especially if he utilises Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé or Antoine Griezmann more wisely than Ernesto Valverde. Barcelona, although still licking their wounds, could be a threat in this title race.
Fifteen years after suffering the agony of relegation in La Liga, Cádiz are back as they finished second in the Second Division behind Huesca. However, Cádiz’s promotion is still a shock, and the Andalusian side will have a relegation battle to worry about as they simply don’t have the quality to stay comfortably in La Liga. Their signings, though, have been impressive, especially with Álvaro Negredo and Augusto Fernández coming back to the league where they once shone.
Much like Huesca in 2018/19, Cádiz is the inexperienced side with basically no funds going against safety specialists in Celta de Vigo, Deportivo Alavés or Eibar. They could be a welcome surprise in the league if they manage to be safe.
Celta de Vigo
As mentioned, Celta de Vigo are safety specialists. While having a decent squad that was in the Europa League semi-final about three years ago, the players tend not to turn up in the games they “should” be winning. Last year, Celta picked up points against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid but lost miserably to Mallorca, for example. It’s their ability to be inconsistent that makes Celta de Vigo the most unpredictable side in the league, but also the most disappointing one.
Barcelona’s Rafinha Alcântara, after being one of the key pieces of Celta in his loan in the 2019/20, is set to move to the Premier League | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
With Renato Tapia, Álvaro Vadillo and Miguel Baeza as the main reinforcements, but with the key losses of Rafinha Alcântara and perhaps Jeison Murillo, Iago Aspas will have to carry his boyhood club on his back just as he has done in the past years.
Alavés aren’t a bad La Liga side, but they to always fall in the relegation battle at some point. Last year, some people feared Alavés would be the 2018/19 Girona after having a horrendous patch of form after the lockdown. The team got battered by Real Madrid, Barcelona or Celta de Vigo but still managed to assure safety in La Liga. Having added Rodrigo Battaglia and Deyverson to their squad, the Mendizorroza side will perhaps have a better campaign than expected, but they will still be a midtable candidate at best.
One of the tiniest sides in the league’s history, Eibar, continue to impress in La Liga ever since their promotion in 2014. José Luis Mendilibar’s side keeps defying the odds and has added José Recio from Leganés and Damian Kadzior, a Dinamo Zagreb regular, to their squad while keeping the core there. With their newly-found experience in the league, Eibar could have another calm season at the cosy Ipurúa with no relegation to worry about.
Another minnow promoted to La Liga, but this time there is a much sadder history behind the relegation to the second tier. The story of Elche in La Liga was a fairytale until they got relegated because of their horrendous finances. They finished 13th and got sent to the Second Division in 2014 and even spent a year in the Third Division.
Now, after winning the Segunda play-offs inexplicably against hotly-tipped Real Zaragoza and Girona, they have a whole lot to do to assure safety in the first tier. With next to no players added to the squad, Elche are basically going to war with their Segunda heroes and are hoping for a result. While they could still avoid relegation, very few people would bet on it.
José Bordalás played too much with fire last year and got burned heavily. It’s fair to say that his Getafe side isn’t the people’s team and his aggressive style of play makes everyone not want to play against them. Still, Getafe had a decent campaign last year and will indeed reiterate, particularly if they keep their identity, courage and soul.
While José Bordalás always argues that Getafe’s objective is to avoid relegation, they will not want to miss out on the European spots again | Photo by Olaf Kraak / ANP/ AFP via Getty Images
Getafe added Juan Camilo Cucho Hernández, who did well with two relegated sides in La Liga in Huesca and Mallorca. Also, Enes Ünal moved to the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez to reinforce the attack that has lost Hugo Duro to Real Madrid Castilla and Jorge Molina to Granada. Marc Cucurella will also be available for Getafe as they activated his buyout clause from Barcelona. If they play as they did two years ago, Getafe can achieve a European place next year but will undoubtedly not have to worry about a relegation dogfight.
Last season’s Granada was the prime example that newly-promoted sides can impress a lot or even challenge for Europe. They challenged and even surprised Getafe as they stole their place to qualify for the Europa League. Lifted by Carlos Fernández’s goals, Granada played magnificently while being the feel-good story of the season.
With Carlos Fernández now back to Sevilla, Granada will have to cope without him and have brought Jorge Molina from Getafe to compensate. They also secured another loan for Yangel Herrera and got other important low-key additions in Luis Milla, Alberto Soro or Kenedy. Now, hoping for another European challenge from Granada this time would be too much to ask, but they should be happy if they finish in the top 10.
When they got promoted to La Liga in 2018, Huesca looked a lot like Elche. A minnow with basically no funds who would surely be the whipping boys of the league but who could also surprise many. They didn’t deserve to go down in 2019 and showed last course that they deserve to be a Primera side by winning the Segunda league title.
Huesca managed to extend the loans of the players that got them there and also lure some old La Liga players to the club with Gastón Silva, formerly of Granada, joining on a free. Pablo Insua made his loan move permanent from Schalke. The tiny Spanish side also got goalkeeper Andrés Fernandez from Villarreal. Huesca could do better than in 2018 and maybe be the Eibar of this division, who knows. Hopefully, they do.
Since their promotion a few years back, Levante have been a competent side in La Liga, beating Madrid on a few occasions and ending Barcelona’s unbeaten streak in 2018. With José Luis Morales as the primary source of goals but now declining, it will be hard for Levante even to dream about a top 10 finish. They could also be dragged into a relegation battle but probably won’t have any issues with that. Another season finishing 12th in La Liga would be a success for the Granotas, who have had a busy transfer window but for now have managed to keep hold of the likes of Aitor Fernández, Enis Bardhi and José Campaña.
Osasuna were one of the most entertaining teams in the whole league last year. The Basque side did not lose in their two games against Barcelona in 2019/20 and played well enough to finish in front of the likes of Athletic Club or Real Betis. They bought Enric Gallego after his loan spell at El Sadar, and signed Lucas Torró and Juan Cruz to make up for Pervis Estupiñán’s return to Watford.
Tragically for Osasuna, their star forward Chimy Ávila suffered his second anterior cruciate ligament injury in eight months. He had just recovered from rupturing his ACL in his left knee, but now suffered the same injury in his healthy right knee and will be out for six to eight months. A massive setback for club and player. Nevertheless, if Osasuna keep playing the way they did, with or without him, they will have another decent campaign in La Liga where perhaps they could reach Europe. Still, they should be wary of the second season syndrome.
Betis were one of the most entertaining and promising sides under Quique Setién. Even so, they lost everything in the space of a season after Joan Francesc Ferrer Rubi came and then was sacked after a hugely disappointing term and run of form where his side couldn’t muster a win after lockdown. The finished 15th, a far cry from their 6th place in 2018. They have to do better this season.
Despite a poor spell at West Ham, Manuel Pellegrini will be returning to La Liga, where he excelled with Villarreal and Málaga | Photo by Stuart Franklin / Bongarts via Getty Images
Los Béticos made one significant change that is bringing in an experienced manager in Manuel Pellegrini, who then lured Claudio Bravo, Martín Montoya and Víctor Ruiz back to La Liga where they will hope to get Betis back on track. Don’t get your hopes up for Betis yet, though, but just wait for their project to really take place.
As reigning champions, Real Madrid will want to go from strength to strength and repeat last year’s achievements. Notwithstanding, with basically nothing spent to improve their squad, Madrid might have to worry a bit. They will be happy to see Barça still licking their wounds but will also have to keep them and Atlético in mind, with the latter having had a season to accommodate and being now hungry for success.
Real Madrid still have their best players and got Martin Ødegaard back from loan, but will have to ask more from Eden Hazard, who had a disappointing season and will look to improve. With so many young players coming through, Madrid look a bit rejuvenated and will have a squad to back up their pre-season credentials.
Real Sociedad were one of the best teams before lockdown last year. After that, they lost their Champions League place after a winless run in June and never looked like the team they once were. Having lost Martin Ødegaard, who enjoyed his time at Anoeta and will now go back to Madrid, they replaced the young attacking midfielder with David Silva’s wise feet.
Real Sociedad’s loss will be Real Madrid’s win | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Real Sociedad’s young stars will have to do better in the most stressful moments of the season and not break down as they did last year. Mikel Oyarzabal, Alexander Isak, Álex Remiro or Mikel Merino have to get it right this time and qualify for the Champions League.
Real Valladolid have had two bizarre terms in La Liga. After not doing badly at all, their form starts decreasing, and they get strapped to the relegation dogfight. They then, by the skin of their teeth, survive and go again next year. This year will surely be more challenging for Sergio González’s team, and they have to be more careful if they do not want to join the others to Segunda.
They have added some decent players such as Bruno González, Fabián Orellana and Shon Weissman, who comes from an insane goalscoring season in Austria, and they look to have prepared better for the challenge ahead.
Sevilla have been the second most active Spanish side in the summer window and have had a blinder of a transfer market. While they lost Éver Banega to the Saudi League, they replaced him. First, with Óscar Rodríguez signing from Real Madrid for 15 million Euros. Then with club icon Ivan Rakitić returning to the Sánchez Pizjuán after he left to Barcelona in 2014.
The Sevillans come from a superb Europa League title and finished fourth in the league, with no real headache this time around. They look so much stronger than a few years ago and will definitely want to keep this good vibe around the club. If Julen Lopetegui’s side keeps its solidity and strength they may be able to qualify for the Champions League again.
From one of the feel-good stories of the window to probably the most badly-run club in the whole league. Peter Lim quite literally killed Valencia this year after sacking Marcelino in September 2019. Albert Celades couldn’t steady the ship and got sacked too. Now, Javi Gracia will have to deal with a squad deprived of club legend Dani Parejo, who was let go for free to Villarreal, Francis Coquelin, also to Villarreal, Rodrigo Moreno, to Leeds United and Ferran Torres, to Manchester City. Dani Parejo’s tears when he left the club were matched by the fans’, who are forced to watch their beloved Valencia, champions of Spain at the beginning of the century, go into self-destruction for no apparent reason.
“I have felt hurt and sad by the situation for two days. I have always said that my intention was to retire at Valencia“Dani Parejo, former Valencia captain after he had to move to Villarreal
Valencia’s story will forever be one of the saddest in Spanish football history and hopefully, once Lim leaves, Los Ches will have something to cheer for again. Until then, the fans have to keep supporting their team.
To end this preview, it had to be the team that has arguably had the best window. Villarreal are a great side, and their squad is now much better than last year. Even if they lost their talisman in Santi Cazorla, they still kept Gerard Moreno or Pau Torres while adding Dani Parejo, Francis Coquelin, Gerónimo Rulli and Takefusa Kubo to their roster. All this while appointing Europa League specialist Unai Emery to manage a team of his size finally.
Villarreal are the winners of this window, no doubt, and they will have to back up their credentials with a strong season in search of Europe. Villarreal will have a superb squad full of youth and experience to go far in Europe too, especially with Emery in charge.
Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona
In collaboration with Anurag Agate.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.
A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.
Barcelona structure and formation
Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.
Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.
Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.
Atletico structure and formation
Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.
Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.
The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.
Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.
The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:
Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :
Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.
Buildup to shots and goals
Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.
Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.
Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.
Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.
In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:
Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.
Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.
For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.
Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.
The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:
Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :
Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.
Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.
The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.
Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.