As the 2019/20 La Liga has come to an end, it is time to review the season of for many the best league in the world.
And in the end, the race ends, the marathon reaches its finish line and the curtains close easily. People are crying, for different reasons, but mainly as they understand an era comes to an end. After 38 matchdays in La Liga, the final curtains were closed in style and left people wanting craving more action, even though for some the agony of playing every three days will finalise and make them rest for a few weeks.
The best league in the world for many fans closed yesterday with emphatic wins, a close relegation battle and a surprising race for Europe. It is true; the title was sealed on the penultimate matchday, but the title race was exciting and the two clubs in it, Barcelona and Real Madrid, made the league enjoyable enough to keep both sets of fans watching the two clubs religiously.
And of course, it wouldn’t be a La Liga season without controversy. Games like the Mallorca vs Celta de Vigo or the Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid have given the spectators a lot to worry about concerning VAR in its second year in Spain. But all in all, La Liga proposed its usual superb football with the most tactically astute coaches and flamboyant players.
A league where Diego Simeone, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Martínez or Julen Lopetegui are coaching will always be the league where the football is best, even when José Bordalas’ brand of football isn’t quite as popular as the others’. Also, a competition in which Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Santi Cazorla and Mikel Oyarzabal are balling out every weekend will always be touted as the best in the business, especially when its clubs are doing a job in Europe.
Talking of Europe, this year’s race was sensational, but after the COVID–19 outbreak, some teams lost pace in the race and fell off. So, in a deep review of this La Liga season, the following part will be a summary of the best and the worst of the 2019/20.
The best teams in the league
Many clubs have a fantastic history in the league. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic Club are the three clubs that haven’t tasted the Second Division yet. At the same time, Real Sociedad’s or Valencia’s golden ages were highlights of the league’s rich history.
The best teams in the league, respective of their alleged quality proposed spectacle and may have surprised many.
Of course, there are two giants in Barça and Real Madrid. They dominated the league and proposed pleasing football. Still, Atlético de Madrid‘s consistency along with Diego Martínez’s Granada, Imanol Alguacil’s Real Sociedad and Javi Calleja’s Villarreal played with so much soul it was really appealing.
Real Madrid based their improvement this course around a more rational defence | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images
Further down the table, newly-promoted Osasuna played a structured brand of football under Jogoba Arrasate and took points off Barça twice since the 2002/03 season. Los Rojillos veritably were an entertaining team to watch. Levante’s defence let the team down, but the attack was enough to win games against Barça and Madrid in the same season.
For Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla, it was a superb season that could have gone way better if they kept it together at the end. Finally, a little mention to Javier Aguirre’s Leganés, who were the 12th-best team based on form after the Mexican set foot at Butarque. They were dead last when he found them, with only 5 points might we add. But, while they couldn’t escape relegation, they fought until the last second against all odds, circumstances and adversity.
The most pleasing teams
A similar section to the last, but this one focuses more on the football displayed than the results. For example, Barcelona and Real Madrid were nowhere near the most pleasing sides in the league, and the merengues often won points by the skin of their teeth, especially in the end, while Barça struggled in multiple games.
In terms of pleasing teams, Real Sociedad have to be up there as they spent the whole season trying to play some incredible football and managed to score some sublime goals. Sevilla’s way of playing was lovely for the viewers’ eyes, and the performances of Lucas Ocampos, Jules Koundé or Diego Carlos were mind-blowing. Julen Lopetegui merits a lot of credit for his team’s football.
Real Sociedad generally were a joy to watch for fans | Photo by Juan Herrero via Imago
Rubi’s Betis had potential, and they had some stellar displays, but their finishing let them down, and it looked like the team repeated the mistakes they made under Quique Setién. Osasuna were an energetic and committed side, but their defence was insane and made everyone fall in love with them as they managed to sting many giants along the way.
Post-lockdown Celta de Vigo was also another pleasing team under Óscar García. They got what they wanted by staying up, but they should learn to be more consistent next year if they are going to taste Europe again next term.
Most disappointing teams
Of course, La Liga doesn’t present attractive football and expected results every time, and some teams have underperformed massively. One of the biggest underperformers were Valencia. The Valencians’ term turned to shreds as the board sacked coach Marcelino in September which could be seen as the watershed of the season. As Albert Celades failed to lift a shocked team, his efforts came in vain as the football and the results were too underwhelming for Peter Lim’s liking.
Albert Celades could by no means steady the ship at Mestalla | Photo by Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images
In the end, they finished 9th and went into free-fall as the club are intending to clear out the squad as it is rumoured they called the likes of Dani Parejo, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Francis Coquelin before their recent Leganés loss.
Besides, after finishing 6th last year, Espanyol fans had many hopes to repeat this form, but unfortunately could not do anything as the team failed massively. The Periquitos finish 20th and have gone down disgracefully. Moreover, Celta’s post-coronavirus form should not erase our minds as they were perhaps the most disappointing team this year. The Galicians did not live up to their fans’ afouteza and found themselves in a precarious position early in the year. They finish 17th, just one point below 18th-placed Leganés.
Real Betis record another disappointing season as they finish closer to the relegation zone than Europe, but things look brighter as Mauricio Pellegrini has signed for the Béticos. The future looks better at the Benito Villamarín. On the other hand, Getafe were the team with the most soul all season, but they found themselves outside of Europe after a disappointing run of form saw them dip in the table. They still have a way into Europe if they win the Europa League, as hard as it may be.
At last, Real Sociedad’s form in the last few games cost them massively, and they were close to a Champions League place before crumbling massively when it mattered. Thankfully for the txuri-urdins, they finished in 6th and accomplished their objective of getting into the European spots again.
Surprises of the season
In this section we look back at the most surprising and lovely players and clubs in this league. Having talked so much about Osasuna, their players must have made a real impact in a league that demands a lot in every game. For instance, left-back Pervis Estupiñán’s explosiveness down the flank was a breath of fresh air, and the Ecuadorian loanee from Watford played like a veteran for most of the season. While it was business as usual for Chimy Ávila, Roberto Torres surprised many and scored some crucial goals for the Basque side, including twice against Barcelona.
Minnows Eibar looked like going down at some point, but they played well enough to get points from big teams and stun others. Hats off to José Luis Mendilibar. Who did get relegated was Javier Aguirre’s Leganés, but they played well and deserved much better. It was a surprise to see a team so committed after experiencing a demoralising first quarter of the season.
In the end the outcome was not favourable for them, but Leganés won everyone’s hearts | Photo by Óscar J. Barroso / Zuma via Imago
Further north, Martin Ødegaard’s breakthrough season in La Liga came as a surprise for uneducated fans who didn’t watch him in the Eredivisie. The Norwegian showed how much of a superstar he is, and even though his form dipped due to injury, he was a surprise addition to a Basque side who had the surprises of Mikel Oyarzabal and Mikel Merino to show to La Liga. These two names aren’t surprises for the most knowledgeable La Liga fans, but they made noise outside of Spain and rumours link them to big transfers.
Diego Martínez’s Granada were so refreshing to see. For once, Granada weren’t a punching bag in La Liga and demolished their point record by qualifying for Europe. Sevilla loanee Carlos Fernández was one of the most significant assets of the team as he scored many vital goals. Besides their finish in La Liga, Granada reached the Copa del Rey semi-finals, something they hadn’t done in 51 years.
Seeing Sevilla in the driving seat and not crumbling under pressure was refreshing and lovely really. Lucas Ocampos surprised many as he finished as the club’s top scorer. Diego Carlos, Fernando and Jules Koundé showed many promises. Hopefully, they can replicate that next season.
Believe it or not, Barça were surprising this year…though negatively. First, the Catalans finished with their lowest point tally at the mid-season point in more than a decade, and they continued with this trend by only registering 42 points in the second half of the season. A course to forget for the giants, but they will surely bounce back. Notwithstanding, the two biggest surprises for the Catalans were Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, who were insane from start to finish as they cemented their place in the team for next term.
Players of the season
This section will be divided into four separate categories, as no player should be compared to Lionel Messi and comparing a defender to an attacker is plain stupidity.
Goalkeeper of the season
Marc-André ter Stegen and Jan Oblak have undoubtedly been one of the best keepers in the world for the past few seasons, but the best in the business in Spain this year was Thibaut Courtois. His Real Madrid side conceded the fewest goals, had the most clean sheets and defended like gods, but they would never have achieved anything without Thibaut’s help. Special mention to Athletic Club’s Unai Simón, who deserved to be Spain’s number one, and Levantes’ Aitor Fernández, who had to cover for his defenders’ repeated mistakes.
Thibaut Courtois found his best form with Real Madrid this campaign | Photo by Imago
Defender of the season
It is so cliché to pick players from the champions, but Real Madrid had the best defence in the league. Sergio Ramos may be this year’s defender of the year, especially after his goalscoring run in the last few fixtures. He defended magnificently and recorded the most clean sheets in the league – overall superb.
Osasuna’s Aridane Hernández shocked many and deserves a shout in this award, and his team won many points thanks to his solidity. Right-back Damián Suarez was tenacious in Getafe’s defence and won them many points down the right flank. The Uruguayan tamed many attackers while sparkling at times down his wing.
Athletic Club’s whole defence was solid, but one who deserves the shout the most is Yeray Álvarez. The defender who had cancer a few years ago had a superb season in the heart of the Basque team and was one of the best in the league. No wonder Athletic conceded the fewest shots in the league. Full-backs Ander Capa and Yuri Berchiche, mostly the latter, excelled too.
Gerard Piqué was astonishing as well as his teammate Clément Lenglet, who had another great season next to the Spaniard. For the other Champions League sides, Atleti’s Felipe and Sevilla’s Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé stood out in their first campaigns in Spain,
Midfielder of the season
Spaniards are known for their mesmerising midfielders and this La Liga season was nothing short of sensational for the maestros and their superb style of play. Villarreal’s Santi Cazorla has to be the midfielder of the year. The Spaniard’s second season with the Yellow Submarine was superb, and he lifted his teammates so much that Villarreal mounted a challenge for Champions League football. 8th before the break, they finished 5th and in the Europa League thanks to Cazorla mainly. As he joins Al Sadd this summer, European football will miss his class.
Santi Cazorla’s football will be greatly missed in La Liga | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Other midfielders have been superb this year. For example, Casemiro lifted his team from their ashes to win the league and was amongst the league’s best players, alongside teammate Toni Kroos. For Atheltic, Dani García was a great defensive asset while he brought something in the offensive department.
Dani Parejo wasn’t his usual self, but he still did enough to save Valencia at times, their best player this year. Thomas Partey was Atleti’s best midfielder and sharpened the midfield when needed. The Ghanaian oozes class and charisma when playing, an absolute gem of a midfielder. The entertaining Martin Ødegaard, from Real Sociedad, and José Campaña, from Levante, were a joy to the eye.
Forward of the season
This is the easiest part of the text, as there was only one winner all year. The man who broke the record for most assists in a league season and won the Pichichi award for the fourth time in a row: Leo Messi. The Argentine magician carried Barça, but they could not win the league.
Karim Benzema came close to win the Pichichi award, but Messi wasn’t too keen. An truly complete season from the Frenchman, though. For Villarreal, Gerard Moreno aided Santi Cazorla with some impressive goals to help the Yellow Submarine achieve Europe. Gerard is the winner of the Telmo Zarra trophy, for the highest scoring Spaniard in La Liga, and has had the best season of his career.
Gerard Moreno finished as La Liga’s third top goalscorer after Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema | Photo by AFP7 / Zuma via Imago
Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad’s talisman, finished as La Real‘s top assister and also close to Willian José in terms of goals. The attacker’s best season and he is set for a bright future. Iago Aspas’ heroics kept Celta afloat, including his superb free-kick at Balaídos against Barça a month ago. The Galicians finished a point in front of Leganés, and Iago was the best in that team again.
And you, culés, what did you think of this La Liga season?
Detailed Analysis: Dynamo Kyiv 0-4 FC Barcelona
In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced experienced manager Mircea Lucescu’s Dynamo Kyiv at the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex as the Blaugrana looked to continue their perfect UEFA Champions League campaign.
After a 2-1 victory in the home fixture for Barcelona, they now faced Dynamo Kyiv away from home in the Ukrainian capital. With both sides missing many key players due to injuries, as well as the pandemic in the case of Kyiv, it wasn’t a very promising fixture.
After the first half with some flashes of brilliance from Barcelona, the second half was what made the difference. Find out the tactics used, and the patterns seen throughout the match in this tactical analysis of Dynamo Kyiv vs FC Barcelona.
System: Dynamo Kyiv
Lucescu’s Kyiv side started out in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. Striker Benjamin Verbic would often be lower down the field than attacking midfielder Buyalskiy, primarily because the former had more defensive duties.
The midfield four was staggered, with Denys Harmash having more of an anchoring job and Shepelev moving up the field to join the attack. As the pass-map below shows us, the staggered midfield was a characteristic of the Kyiv side.
There was a clearly better attack down their right wing for Kyiv. The full-back and winger on the left, Karavaev and de Pena respectively, were much more defensive than Kedziora and Sharapenko on the right as we can see from the heatmap below.
This was due to two reasons. Shepeliev, who was one of the two central-midfielders with more attacking duties, was a passing option on the right which was further up the field than the other midfielder, Harmash on the left.
The other reason was that with Pedri and Philippe Coutinho, Barcelona had two players who could play both as attacking midfielders as well as left-wingers. There were many rotations down Barcelona’s left, with a lack of directness a pure left-winger provides that Kyiv were able to use to their advantage to have a higher point to start the attack from.
Koeman’s Barcelona has rigidly stuck to a double-pivot system throughout this season. This match was no exception as Carles Alena and Miralem Pjanic started in the centre of the pitch, with Frenki de Jong and Sergio Busquets out of contention. Pedri and Coutinho would switch frequently among themselves, due to them both being able to play through the middle as well as down the left.
Down the right, Fransisco Trincao would look to get further up the field and then come in narrow. This would open up space for Sergino Dest to run into behind him as we can see from the pass-map shown below.
As expected from Barcelona, building-up from the back was a priority. In midfield, Alena and Pjanic would circulate possession, with Pedri or Coutinho playing through the middle and looking for passing lanes. Something that helped Barcelona immensely was Alena’s quick-passing. The La Masia product was on the top of his game, and the directness and more impressively, the consistency he provided with the passing helped Barcelona switch the play quickly.
In the second half, as more and more substitutions were made, Koeman would implement a 4-4-2, with Alena and Matheus Fernandes as the central-midfielders.
There was a clear contrast of duties of the two midfielders, with the Spaniard dropping deep to collect the ball while Matheus stayed up. This was not a particularly effective formation, but with Kyiv drained out and frustrated, Barcelona were able to capitalize.
Buildups and Passing Characteristics
The Barcelona team was clearly skewed in terms of the formation, with the right-side being more attacking than the left. Down the left, in the first half the full-back Firpo would look to underlap rather than overlap, and in the second half, as Alba came on, more overlaps were visible.
This was mostly down to the left-back’s decision making, as Pedri and Coutinho would often switch positions between left-wing and attacking midfield, which is shown in the similar-looking heatmaps in the viz below.
In Koeman’s Barcelona, usually, one pivot is more of an anchor with the other having more attacking duties. However, this time around both pivots would drop deep based on the situation and passing lanes, often moving apart to create new lanes down the middle. This was similar to Koeman’s system at Southampton where he would have the double-pivot acting as more of a reference for the team than it is at Barcelona.
Taking a look at Kyiv, their build-ups were rarely lateral. They looked to play directly in terms of their passing. The two images shown below illustrate the recurring theme we saw from the Ukrainians. They would look to pass vertically, and they had the most chances in the final-third after quick combinations to catch Barcelona flat-footed.
Barcelona produced an excellent second-half display to turn the tides in their favour. Even though the first half was even, Barcelona finished the game very strongly. Here are the game stats at a glance:
Barcelona not only enjoyed a ton of possession, but they also out-shot their opponents by quite a margin. Barcelona’s pressing was also much better comparatively. Barcelona allowed Kyiv to have only 76% passing accuracy and registered a higher pressing intensity (indicated by the lower value of PPDA – a metric to measure pressing).
Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:
As can be seen, Barcelona fully deserved their victory margin by generating very high-quality chances and converting them extremely efficiently. Interestingly enough, all of the high-quality chances came in the second half.
Barcelona’s territorial superiority is shown in the following figure. Field tilt – a metric to measure final third passing share, and hence territorial dominance –was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor.
However, perhaps a bit more context is required here. Barcelona did spend their lion’s share of possession in opposition territory in the first half but were unable to generate clear-cut chances. There were moments where choosing to shoot would have been a better option, as indecision and a penchant for excessive passing led to nothing.
Buildup to shots and goals
Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Having been restricted to poor quality shots in the first half, it took some skill to unlock Kyiv’s defence in the second half. A neat interchange of passes involving Dest, Pedri, and Braithwaite led to Dest practically taking the ball away inside the box from Braithwaite’s feet and shooting low past Kyiv’s goalkeeper.
The second goal came soon after. A corner taken by Alena was flicked on Oscar Mingueza. Braithwaite met the flick at the far post to score his first ever Champions League goal. Soon after, Braithwaite doubled his tally from the spot after being fouled inside the box trying to score from a header.
Antoine Griezmann came on as a substitute late in the second half and bolstered his confidence by scoring Barcelona’s fourth and final goal.
Apart from this, Barcelona could have possibly increased their goal tally even further had second-half substitute Riqui Puig not missed a glorious opportunity. Following a wonderfully intricate buildup that stretched and tore Kyiv apart, Puig failed to score from close range. But the buildup itself was testimony that the youngsters of Barcelona can truly play some beautiful football.
Barcelona had a fairly comfortable day in defence. Their pressing up the field was much more intense compared to the La Liga game against Atletico, as shown by the PPDA time-flow chart here:
By virtue of fielding a bulk of young, energetic players, Barcelona could actually afford to maintain intensity all game. Here is Barcelona’s defensive heatmap:
Barcelona pressed aggressively through the center higher up the pitch, forching Kyiv to go wide and play long balls to escape pressure. And while Kyiv did that a few times, Lenglet and Mingueza aggressively won the ball back along each flank.
On the few occasions that Kyiv completely evaded pressure and progressed the ball high up, Mingueza showed brilliant skills to block shots or cut out dangerous passes. The following graphics – displaying Kyiv’s unsuccessful passes – clearly show how they had to play long balls from the deep to escape the press, and that they were unsuccessful fairly often.
Kyiv, on the other hand, chose not to press high. As shown, Barcelona had no problem passing out from the back.
Their major pressure areas were the middle and the defensive thirds. They tried their best to stifle all progression in the first half. They dealt with Dest’s crosses fairly well too. However, intricate passing and better movements by Barcelona in the second half unlocked their defence easily.
La Masia and youth to the forefront
Oscar Mingueza deserves a special mention along with Sergino Dest. Both youngsters produced sterling displays. Mingueza was calm and composed in defence, and very tidy in passing bar a couple of mishit long balls. He did not shy away physically from any duel and made some excellent blocks.
🗣 — Guillermo Amor: “Mingueza grew up at Barça and La Masia. He feels the Blaugrana colours and defends them.” pic.twitter.com/I2Qb8nT3dd— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 24, 2020
Dest used his recovery speed to great effect in sniffing out attacks down his side. But his biggest quality was in the offence. Fearless in taking on multiple players, playing neat passing combos with Trincao and Pedri in particular, he fully deserved his first goal in the Garnet and Blue, or we can say Black and Golden.
Carles Alena also got a rare start and justified his cause with a very assured and composed display. With an astonishing 99.1 % passing accuracy (106 out of 107), he kept the Barcelona midfield ticking. He also had two key passes to his name.
Riqui Puig finally got some minutes to play. He found himself in wide midfield role after Barcelona’s system changed to a 4-4-2 later in the second half. While he was not at his sparkliest best, he could easily have scored a goal had he kept his composure.
Matheus Fernandes and Konrad de la Fuente also made their first-team debuts in this game. Limited game time meant they could not particularly assert themselves.
The previous weekend was harsh for the Blaugrana. They succumbed to the battle on the field to Atletico Madrid and lost two senior members of the squad in Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto to possibly long term injuries. Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong were rested for this game, and Sergio Busquets was already ruled out with a previous injury.
Given all these setbacks, it was a wonderful display from the team and the youth in particular to overcome a tricky fixture. This display should also bolster the team’s confidence as they return to La Liga action next weekend against Osasuna.