A number of teams in La Liga reinforced with big money imports this summer. It is clearly far too early to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions as to how those moves will shake out long term, but here is how some of the new arrivals got on during the opening weekend.
Frenkie de Jong At Barcelona
Frenkie de Jong has quite the load to carry. Within the club, he is viewed as a player capable of updating Barcelona’s style of play; outside of it, he carries the hopes of those who would like to see a return to a more classic, Cruyyfista approach (however that might be defined). The one constant is the expectation that he will improve the Barcelona midfield. There was a lot not to like about Barcelona’s performance in their 1-0 loss away at Athletic Club on Friday. Particularly in a first half in which their hosts pressed and harried and then broke quickly with direct balls into the channels. Barcelona’s best chance arose from an errant backpass. While there was little allowing for 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz flying through the air to begin his season-long retirement tour with a beautifully struck late winner, Barcelona didn’t really do enough to have much cause for complaint at the final result. With Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets on the bench, De Jong lined up as the deepest of the three central midfielders alongside Sergi Roberto and Carlos Aleña. Roberto served his purpose by finding space between the lines with some off-ball runs, but with only a jittery Aleña in close quarters, De Jong struggled to spark much forward movement through the centre of the pitch. Shadowed by Raúl García, he at least tried to use that close attention to open up passing lanes for others. And it was clear that his teammates already have full confidence in his ability to receive under pressure. That is what you are supposed to be getting with De Jong: a “press-resistant” midfielder. That generally held through his debut. He performed 26 actions whilst under pressure, and lost the ball just once (the yellow arrow below). With Athletic clogging the centre, and without Lionel Messi (injured) to help link things together, Barcelona primarily built down the flanks. Right-back Nelson Semedo led the team with 17 deep progressions (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third), six more than any other player; left-back Jordi Alba ranked third, with nine. (For an idea of how strange that is, Barcelona’s full-backs ranked seventh and ninth on the team in deep progressions per 90 last season). But De Jong did come in second on that list, with 11. The half-time introduction of Rakitic provided him with a bit more freedom to move forward. He also displayed the advantages of having a midfielder who not only reads the game well but also has the necessary athleticism to cover ground and stem counter-attacks at source. (Notice, too, how he curves his run to prevent a pass to the right) When Busquets returns to the base of the midfield, De Jong will have a reliable partner to bounce passes off and provide the necessary cover for him to advance. Finding the right equation there is likely to prove one of Ernesto Valverde’s easier tasks this season.
Atlético Madrid’s Shiny New Star
The anticipation was building. Would the new signing live up to his pedigree? The lights dimmed for Atlético Madrid’s NBA-style entrance routine, and a cheer roared around the ground when his name was read out. Kieran Tripper was ready for his debut in La Liga. Atlético lined up against Getafe with a diamond midfield. Thomas Lemar headed it, with Koke and Saúl sat in deeper alongside Thomas Partey to allow the two full-backs, Trippier and fellow debutant Renan Lodi, to push up high and wide. After a few early excursions through the centre, it was down the right that Diego Simeone’s side got most of their joy. One switch to Trippier was met by a nicely cushioned first-time pass towards Koke’s run into the inside channel that was only seen off by an excellent piece of recovery defending from Marc Cucurella. And then a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot pass from Saúl released Trippier for a first-time low cross just too close to the goalkeeper. The third time the ball came his way, he swung a cross into the area that Álvaro Morata, doing well to maintain his position ahead of the Getafe defender Djené, headed home. That was to be the only goal of a spiky encounter that only saw marginally more shots (10) than cards (eight). The latter included a red card apiece. The first was handed out to Getafe’s Jorge Molina, who, alongside Luka Modric, became one of the two opening weekend victims of the new law that makes fouls on the achilles from behind a direct red card offence. There will be tougher challenges to come for Trippier. Especially defensively, where he was rarely attacked directly by a Getafe side seemingly content to swing in crosses from slightly deeper positions. It was nevertheless a solid debut that garnered almost universal praise. Both AS and Marca described him as possessing a foot like a glove. “He put together a very good match,” Simeone said afterwards. “Getting forward, showing quality and precision.”
Atlético’s Other Shiny New Star
Oh, and João Félix, you know, the real, €126-million centrepiece of Atlético’s renovation, did this: And then went off injured with a knock not long afterwards. What we saw before that was a few neat touches, one stretched effort on goal, and a player who despite his relatively slight frame was willing to compete and draw fouls from one of the most aggressive teams in Spain. It was little to go on, but what little there was showed promise.
Nabil Fekir At Betis
It would be easy to look at the fact that Real Betis lost at home to Real Valladolid on Sunday evening and assume that Nabil Fekir had an underwhelming debut following his move from Lyon in one of the most fascinating transfers of the off-season. But that was far from the case. He was one of the best players on the pitch. The pattern of play was conditioned by the early dismissal of the Betis goalkeeper Joel Robles for a clumsy foul on his fellow ex-Evertonian Sandro Ramirez. After an initial spell in which the usually defensively minded Valladolid somewhat awkwardly took the initiative, Betis began to find a bit of rhythm, put some passing moves together and even worked the ball into some fairly decent positions. Fekir was key to that. Borja Iglesias was left alone up top, and Cristian Tello was tasked with drifting from flank to flank to provide width as appropriate. Fekir dropped deeper and took responsibility for advancing the team forward, primarily off the dribble. His activity chart from the match shows the degree to which he involved himself in play in all areas of the pitch. That shouldn’t have been all that surprising. This chart of all of his carries and dribbles that began in his own half at Lyon last season shows that he has always been a player capable of individually progressing the ball from deeper areas when required. Betis were unfortunate to lose out to a late winner after playing for over 80 minutes with 10 men yet still edging the balance of chances. Things won’t get much easier for them this coming weekend away to Barcelona. In Fekir, though, they appear to have a player who on first viewing, at least, looks capable of elevating the team in difficult conditions. Header image courtesy of the Press Association