The new campaign gets underway in Spain this weekend. Here are some storylines to follow in La Liga during the 2019-20 season.
Messi and Griezmann: will it work?
Antoine Griezmann started off on the back foot in the Barcelona dressing room. Reports suggest that senior figures, including Lionel Messi, didn’t take kindly to Griezmann’s La Decisión video series (somewhat ironically produced by Gerard Piqué’s production company) in the summer of 2018, which eventually resulted in him announcing his decision to remain at Atlético Madrid. Off-field tensions aside, it is what happens out on the pitch that will be the most fascinating thing about Griezmann’s arrival at Barcelona (for his release clause of €120 million, although Atlético are pushing to receive more). He is used to being the central figure of the Atlético attack -- he was involved at one point or another in moves that led to 0.71 expected goals (xG) per 90 last season on a team who averaged just 1.03 -- and is now being dumped into a team with its own clear and established leader. In terms of usage rate -- which attempts to measure the percentage of a team’s attacks that end, whether positively or negatively, at the feet of a particular player -- Messi has topped La Liga in each of the last two seasons, with nearly a 19% share of Barcelona’s attacks in 2017-18, and over 21% in 2018-19. Every player who has joined the Barcelona forward line since Messi became its star has had to defer to him in some way or another, and it is likely to be no different for Griezmann. He’ll either struggle to adapt or maybe, having been the primary focus of opposing defences for so long, he’ll relish the extra space a more varied set of threats will provide him with. At Atlético, Griezmann was facilitator, provider and finisher; perhaps with Luis Suárez starting to wind down a little -- he took just less than half a shot less per match last season, and did so from marginally worse positions; only five La Liga players who played at least 600 minutes and averaged at least one shot per match across the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns saw their xG per 90 figure drop more than his 0.16xG per 90 decrease from season to season -- he will become more of a pure goalscorer at Barcelona.
Zinedine Zidane vs. Florentino Pérez, and Real Madrid’s Midfield
I like the business that Real Madrid did early this summer. Eder Militão, Ferland Mendy and Luka Jovic are three young players with the potential to resolve problem areas. Eden Hazard is the sort of guy you can fit into a variety of attacking functions and have him perform. They just looked to be a central midfielder away from an expensive but impressive rebuild. From the beginning, reports have suggested that Paul Pogba is the man Zinedine Zidane wants, but that president Florentino Pérez is less convinced. That isn’t the only thing they’ve butted heads over: it wasn’t hard to see an underlying motive in Zidane’s poor treatment of Gareth Bale, a Pérez favourite. The Premier League market has now closed, and given that Manchester United didn’t sign a direct replacement for Pogba, we can probably safely assume that isn’t a deal Madrid will now get over the line. Donny van de Beek seems set to arrive from Ajax, but it isn’t yet certain that will happen this summer. Madrid’s starting midfield for their league opener away to Celta Vigo will most probably be Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. It was the cornerstone of the club’s three consecutive Champions League triumphs, but as age continues to slow Modric, it is becoming increasingly sieve-like -- the Champions League round-of-16 defeat to Ajax made that patently clear. Meanwhile, Madrid now seem to be making a concerted push towards signing Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain. You can find a way of fitting both him and Hazard into the front line and making it work, but the midfield is in greater need of reinforcement right now. Without a refresh there, Madrid will again struggle to match Barcelona -- champions in four of the last five seasons.
How quickly will Atlético Madrid gel?
Settling in as a new signing at Atlético Madrid is never an easy task. Long is the list of players who wilted under ‘El Profe’ Ortega’s gruelling physical workouts or having survived that ordeal, were never quite able to meet the tactical demands of coach Diego Simeone. And this season, there are not only one or two seeking to integrate but a whole host of new arrivals brought in to cover the departures of a number of first-team regulars. Four of the eight players who saw most minutes for Atlético last season have left: Griezmann Rodrigo Hernández, Diego Godin and Filipe Luis. Juanfran and Lucas Hernandez, both in the top 15 in terms of game time, have also moved on. In have come, in order of transfer fee, João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Mario Hermoso, Kieran Trippier, Felipe and Renan Lodi. Héctor Herrera has joined from Porto on a free transfer. All in all, Atlético have spent nearly €250 million and recouped over €300 million this summer. It is a huge amount of turnover for a top-of-the-table club. The expectation would be that it will take some time for Atlético to get up to speed, but they’ve looked far from disjointed during pre-season. Félix, the 19-year-old, €126-million centrepiece of their rebuild, has looked very sharp indeed. And there is talk from the players of a switch to a more attacking style of play, perhaps based around a 4-3-3 formation. That is something we’ve heard before (most recently following the arrivals of Hernández and Thomas Lemar last summer); will it actually come to fruition? This would usually be the juncture at which I’d point out that Atlético’s underlying numbers last season indicated they weren’t quite as strong as their eventual league finish of second might suggest. They did, after all, only have the league’s fifth-best expected goal difference (xGD). But Atlético seem to be one of those teams who are doing something that helps them consistently beat the model: they’ve done so by over 20 goals in each of the last two seasons. It would clearly be foolish to write Atlético off, but if any season is to be the one in which a team from outside the established top three is able to leapfrog them, you’d think this would be it.
Can Valencia break the top-three monopoly?
Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid have locked down the top three finishing positions in Spain in each of the last seven seasons. But there could certainly be a decent argument made for Valencia breaking that hegemony this time around. By defeating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final in May, they became the first team outside of that trio to win a domestic trophy since 2010, and they have a settled squad with potential for improvement. That stability was seriously threatened a couple of weeks back when sporting director Mateu Alemany came very close to resigning in frustration at the refusal of owner Peter Lim to sign off on some of his deals. Had he done so, coach Marcelino would probably have gone with him. As it is, things have been smoothed over for now, although who knows how long that will hold. On the pitch, things look promising. Valencia had the third best underlying numbers in La Liga last season, with the best defence and the fourth-best attack. If Marcelino’s side can turn five or six of the league-high 16 draws they were involved in last season into victories, can manage to get something approaching a full season out of Goncalo Guedes (that is starting to become somewhat of a perennial if), and if new signing Maxi Gómez provides that little something different in attack they were missing at times last season, they could easily finish in the top three. It is, of course, pretty easy to play that game the other way: if Dani Parejo gets injured, if Guedes again struggles with his fitness, if Jasper Cliessen proves to be a downgrade on last season’s goalkeeper Neto... We’ll just have to see how things shake out.
Will Monchi’s Sevilla reshuffle bear fruit?
Sevilla’s business this summer has made it perfectly clear that Monchi has little respect for the work done by the two men who filled his sporting director role during his time at Roma. He has neglected to sign any of three loanees the club had options on, has loaned out two of last summer’s signings and has sold off Quincy Promes for a near €5-million loss. In their place, he has brought in 11 new faces at a combined cost of over €120 million. There is also a new man in the Sevilla dugout: Julen Lopetegui. By the underlying numbers, Sevilla were actually the second-best team in Spain last season. As I’ve said before, I think Pablo Machín was unfortunate to lose his job in March given the imbalances within the squad. The raft of new arrivals, which includes some profiles they were lacking last season, has improved depth, and I like some of their pickups, especially Joan Jordán. But I’m unconvinced their starting XI will necessarily be that much stronger, particularly without Pablo Sarabia (fifth in the league in terms of xG contribution (xG + xGA) last season), now of Paris Saint-Germain. Stay tuned for stories from the rest of the league coming tomorrow. Header image courtesy of the Press Association.