La Liga 2019-20 Storylines, Part 2
Yesterday we looked at the top of the table, today it time for everybody else.
Can Getafe replicate last season’s success?
Getafe were undoubtedly the surprise story of last season (Alavés ran them close until dropping off badly down the final stretch). With one of the league’s lowest budgets and just two years removed from promotion, they put together a sustained push for Champions League qualification that was only ended on the final day of the campaign. Their fifth-place finish was nevertheless the highest in the club’s (relatively brief) history.
There haven’t been any major departures so far this summer (defender Djené Dakonam is the most likely to now attract interest), and the incomings all look suited to the well-organised, mid-block-press and break approach that has become their hallmark under Pepe Bordalás. They have added to their collection of worked-my-way-up-through-the-divisions-the-hard-way strikers with the signing of Enric Gallego from Huesca, picked up former midfielder Faycal Fajr, and brought in Marc Cucurella from Barcelona after a solid loan spell at Eibar.
The main doubt is just how well their squad will hold up to the joint stresses of league and European action. That might make eighth to 12th a more realistic aim than sixth and up.
How far will Real Sociedad’s young project take them?
Real Sociedad had the youngest squad in La Liga last season (with an average, minutes weighted, age of 25.3, down from 26.3 the season before) and appear to have doubled down on that strategy this summer by bringing in some more interesting talents: goalkeeper Alex Remiro (from Athletic Club), defender Mobido Sagnon (from Lens, and undoubtedly the rawest of the new arrivals), midfielder Martin Odegaard (on loan from Real Madrid) and striker Alexander Isak (from Borussia Dortmund).
Add that to three members of the Spain squad who won the European Under-21 Championship in Italy, including last season’s standout Mikel Oyarzabal; two solid central defenders in their mid-20s in Aritz Elustondo and Diego Llorente; and a smattering of more experienced heads; and they have the makings of a very good team with plenty of performance and value upside.
La Real’s underlying numbers jumped around all over the place last season. Even on the 10-match average plot, there are a number of clearly visible ups and downs in their xG and xGC. But the end result was a pretty much even goal difference -- both actual and expected -- and a ninth-place finish.
Pre-season seems to have gone well, and there is confidence within the group that they will be capable of challenging for European qualification. They are unlikely to get off to an especially good start. Both of their first-choice central defenders are suspended for their opener away at Valencia, and that is the first of four away engagements across their opening five fixtures due to ongoing work at their Anoeta stadium. But if they can build up some momentum thereafter, they could be one to watch.
Will Nabil Fekir transform Real Betis?
There is something slightly romantic about Nabil Fekir’s move to Real Betis, about a player who just a summer ago was close to joining one of the biggest teams in Europe now turning up at a middling, albeit well-supported, team in Spain. It seems like a move from a bygone age. “He felt it was necessary to take a risk on a new project after the frustration he felt after the failed move to Liverpool,” Lyon’s former head scout Gerard Bonneau told El Pais. “He always maintained that rebel spirit, and his cycle in Lyon had ended.”
Will it prove to be a transformative transfer for Betis? It could well be. When he’s on the pitch, Fekir is a very good player.
The question, the one that perhaps deterred more prestigious suitors, is to what degree his knees are likely to hold up. He has accumulated solid minutes over the last three seasons, but there are always niggling doubts related to the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered in 2015.
Betis will also have to provide him with a good supporting cast if they hope to make a push for European qualification in a crowded field that is also likely to include Athletic Club, Eibar and Espanyol in addition to the teams already mentioned. They were middle of the road last season, finishing 10th with the ninth-best xGD in the division. They’ve since sold Pau López, Júnior Firpo and Giovani Lo Celso. They are still expected to make some moves before the window closes, but in general terms their squad probably looks slightly weaker at this stage.
But add a goal-getting striker (it seems to just be matter of time before they get the Borja Iglesias deal over the line) to the mix and everything could well fall into place.
How far will Celta Vigo and Villarreal rise?
Neither Celta Vigo nor Villarreal expected to find themselves in relegation troubles last season, but that is exactly what happened. Villarreal spent nearly a third of the season in the drop zone only to eventually recover to 14th, while Celta ended the campaign fourth from bottom, just four points clear of relegated Girona in 18th.
Celta have repatriated former youth-team players Denis Suárez and Santi Mina to give Iago Aspas some much needed attacking support. If they can improve defensively (something they did towards the end of last season after Fran Escribá came in as head coach), they should be fancied to enjoy a more comfortable campaign this time around.
Villarreal might even be able to break the top 10. Pablo Fornals will be missed, but the signing of Raúl Albiol clearly raises the competence level in defence, while André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (on loan from Fulham) adds legs to their midfield.
Villarreal had underlying numbers more consistent with a mid-table team than a relegation fighter last season and can be expected to convert that into a better finish in 2019-20.
Can the promoted teams compete?
Last season, two of the three promoted teams went straight back down and all of them finished in the bottom five. But that hasn’t been the general pattern in recent years. Eleven of the last 15 promoted teams have avoided an immediate demotion back to the second tier. Four of those even managed to finish in the top 10.
It does, though, look likely that this year’s batch will struggle. Partly because of their own quality level, partly because other teams who finished towards the bottom of the table last season (such as Celta and Villarreal) have strengthened. Of last season’s top-flight teams, it is Real Valladolid who look most vulnerable (Alavés and Levante are other potential candidates). They had the third-worst underlying numbers and seem determined to do things on the cheap, relying primarily on loans from elsewhere. The departure of Fernando Calero to Espanyol has weakened their defence.
And so if the new teams have anyone penciled in as a side they might finish above, it is Valladolid. Of the three, Mallorca and Osasuna look most likely to have a chance of doing so.
Mallorca coach Vicente Moreno did impressive work at Gimnástic, and has now led Mallorca to two consecutive promotions. Owner Robert Sarver has a questionable record as an NBA owner with the Phoenix Suns, but things have gone pretty well at Mallorca so far. They do, though, probably need a couple more late-window signings to have a fighting chance.
Champions Osasuna have done some decent business this summer -- completing a permanent deal for Rubén García, a key attacking contributor during their promotion campaign, was vital -- and if they can get results at their atmospheric El Sadar stadium (where they only dropped four points last season) that will give them an opportunity to compete.
Granada have been hamstrung by having their budget reduced by La Liga following irregularities in payments to their forward Adrian Ramos last season. They had the best defensive record in the Segunda, with central defender José Martínez a standout performer, and if they can keep things tight, they might just manage to sneak survival. But Yangel Herrera aside, their signings are unconvincing.