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.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.