In matchday 31 and another round of matches in La Liga, the performances have yet again been impressive. Let’s review it.
The most competitive league in the world had another round of exquisite matches where the teams did manage to show their brilliance again. Matchday 31 of La Liga saw a new face on the touchline as Betis sacked their coach, Rubi, after their 1–0 loss at San Mamés last weekend. Alexis Trujillo came in as an interim manager for Los Béticos, and got them back to winning ways.
Also, with a new pilot in the league, the title race is getting heated, and the two big boys are giving their all to add another illustrious title to their collections. As usual, here are the best three games from the round of matches.
Villarreal 2–2 Sevilla
Villarreal hosting Sevilla always is an exciting game where the football treats the fans exceptionally well. Again, the two squads did not disappoint as they are both searching for European football next year. The game started as expected, with Paco Alcácer opening the scoring just before the 20th-minute mark. The cross from the right came precisely on Samuel Chukwueze’s head, but Tomáš Vaclík parried it only for former Barcelona striker Alcácer to tuck it home.
An action-packed afternoon at the Estadio de la Cerámica | Photo by Óscar J. Barroso via Imago
After some heroics from Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo, Sevilla’s Sergio Escudero equalised with one of the best shots in La Liga since the return. The left-back’s strike was rifled in off the net as it was too powerful to be saved. Just before half-time, old met young with the eternal Santi Cazorla crossing in a corner straight to centre-back Pau Torres’ head. The local lad’s header was a bullet, and the Yellow Submarine got the lead.
Sergio Asenjo playing at the highest level, Sevilla found it hard to pull the game back and tried everything that would get saved by the Spanish shot-stopper. Munir el Haddadi wasn’t impressed, though, and his insane volley was too much for Asenjo himself. The La Masía graduate justified his substitution with that strike as he salvaged a point for the Andalusian side.
Return was also a hot topic of this game as Bruno Soriano came back from three years of injury with a cameo at the end of the game. At 36, his return was great and a joy for La Liga fans.
Real Madrid 2–0 Mallorca
Real Madrid are seeking their 34th La Liga and, since going atop last week, they don’t seem like slowing down any time soon. Against RCD Mallorca, they had a few moments where they suffered a lot, but were ultimately dominant. Los Blancos‘ Karim Benzema missed a sitter in the first quarter of an hour, but the red side looked quite threatening early on. First, Idrissu Baba’s superb shot from range nearly would have gone in had it not been for the in-form Thibaut Courtois. Lago Junior then dribbled past two defenders, but his shot was too tame to trouble Courtois.
Real Madrid continue with their impeccable record after the break | Photo by Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images
After those two chances, Real Madrid tried to open the scoring, and they stopped messing around. An extraordinary pass from the defence, after an alleged foul from Dani Carvajal, came to Luka Modrić. The Croatian midfielder found Vinícius Júnior running at full speed, as usual in him. The Brazilian’s crisp finish landed in the top corner, and it was just a testament of his incredible form. After scoring the first against Barcelona in March and winning the penalty at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta last Sunday , Vinícius’ goal against Mallorca gave his side the lead.
Mallorca couldn’t fight back after the break, and the merengues played champions football against one of the weakest sides in Spain. Sergio Ramos grabbed the headlines after scoring an impressive free-kick into the top corner. This goal made him the defender with the most goals in La Liga, surpassing Ronald Koeman’s tally of 67. Real Madrid’s captain is determined to bring the title back to the Santiago Bernabéu, as it hasn’t done so for the past two seasons.
Real Betis 1–0 Espanyol
The post-Rubi era began at the Benito Villamarín on Thursday, and it ended well for Real Betis. Their caretaker manager Alexis Trujillo managed a win against Espanyol, who were trying to keep their heads above water after Mallorca’s loss in Madrid. Betis were a unit, for once, and didn’t rely on one individual as their whole team put on a show for whoever takes over next. They went attacking from the get-go and Barça loanee Emerson‘s performance was scintillating. The Brazilian was tireless and a constant threat against the Catalans.
After many attempts, Betis found their saviour in Marc Bartra. The former Barça defender lept like a salmon as his headed effort was unstoppable. Sergio Canales owned up after missing the crucial penalty in Bilbao last week and assisted Bartra from the corner. He then had a brilliant shot from just inside the box stopped by Diego López. As Betis tried to go for the kill, Espanyol became more and more dangerous and came closer than ever to a goal.
A fresh start for Alexis Trujillo’s Betis in La Liga matchday 31 | Photo by Fran Santiago via Getty Images
A final counter-attack could have given the point to the Periquitos, but Wu Lei missed a sitter from a few yards and Joel Robles, who pulled up a heroic save, was furious at his defence. Still, Betis came out victorious after a poor run of form, and that’s crucial for them.
What does La Liga matchday 31 mean for Barcelona?
On Tuesday, after a long first half in which Athletic Club de Bilbao neutralised Barcelona well, the Catalans found a way through Iván Rakitić‘s enthusiastic goal. With a 1–0 win, they did their job, but so did Real Madrid, as mentioned. The culés are still second on the head-to-head ruling and will hope for a Madrid slip-up in the near future.
How has the league table been affected?
After weeks of constant change, the Champions League places look settled as Atlético de Madrid are on an encouraging run of form following a 0–1 triumph over Levante, and Sevilla refuse to lose. Getafe’s 1–1 draw against Valladolid means they are still fifth, only separated from Villarreal by one point. Villarreal, after their draw, have climbed above Real Sociedad, who end this round of matches in seventh after coming back in fourth.
Valencia couldn’t send the Basques any lower as they also lost. The Valencians lost to relegation-threatened Eibar, who breathe a little more as they are now six points above Mallorca. The important victory at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta from Barça’s next rival Celta de Vigo keeps the Celestes alive in the league a little longer. Celta are currently seven points above the relegation zone. For Espanyol, Leganés and Mallorca, it looks bleak.
There were many impressive performances this week in La Liga. Let’s start with Barcelona, as Riqui Puig caught the eye in a super-sub appearance along with the goalscorer Iván Rakitić. In Madrid, Vinícius and Sergio Ramos had two exciting games. The other giants of the capital, Atlético de Madrid, had another excellent display against Levante, and natural midfielder Marcos Llorente showed how much of a goal threat he is as he caused the own goal.
Iago Aspas’ penalty against Real Sociedad keeps Celta’s head above water before hosting Barcelona on Saturday. And, of course, the return of Villarreal’s Bruno Soriano was a real sensation in Spain as seeing an old great come back after years of labour is always superb.
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.