As you scan this year’s current La Liga standings, a few things stand out. Atletico sitting joint top is particularly pleasing; Malaga and Real Betis occupying the vacant Champions League spots is pleasant; and Real Madrid sitting nine points behind Barcelona after just seven games is astonishing. So far, this years Primera has been extremely unpredictable and, as you stare at the table further, you begin to see something perhaps even more strange than the aforementioned…Where are our good friends Valencia and Athletic Bilbao?
Remember those guys? Llorente and Soldado? Europa League and Champions League? No? Well they were the chaps who, besides the top two teams, gave folk a reason to watch and enjoy Spanish football last year. This season? Not so much.
First on the chopping board is Mauricio Pellegrino’s Valencia - right sir, explain yourself. Obviously Pellegrino cannot and probably would not answer such a blunt question, but there does seem to be some explaining to do after a surprisingly shaky start from Los Che.
After finishing third last season, Valencia president Manuel Llorente decided to show long-standing manager Umai Emery the back door. Llorente then hurried Pellegrino through the front entrance, arming him with a transfer budget and a brand spanking new Valencia philosophy. The vision was simple, all Pellegrino had to do was improve on Emery’s previous (best-ever) season, which would mean finishing higher than third. Right, so that just means they need to get more points than…Oh.
Did no one inform Llorente that the La Liga positions on offer start with third, behind Barca and Real (not necessarily in that order)? Wasn’t Emery already doing the best he could possibly do? Well, to be honest, no, he wasn’t.
The Valencia president’s decision to remove Emery was brave and was silently appreciated by most of the fans. But the new project will take time; Pellegrino does not necessarily need to finish above third; what he does need to do is to instill a new footballing philosophy into the Mestalla-based club. As well as results, the Argentine needs to install fresh discipline as well as making his team turn up for the big games and hold on to a lead.
All is not lost; holding-midfielder Ever Banega is making a quicker than expected return, adding huge experience to the side. And pairing Banega with Fernando Gago will form a more effective and solid midfield pivot. With Real and Barcelona already out of the way and a good win in the Champions League against Lille, Pellegrino can take confidence from his progress and begin to put his team back in the top four where they belong.
Sitting two places lower than Valencia in a nervy 16th place are Athletic. Last season’s neutral favourites differ slightly from Valencia. Did the San Mames side simply over-achieve last season?
Looking at their squad – especially the defence - and the big gaping hole that Javi Martinez once filled, you begin to wonder if we’ll ever again witness the skill and high-paced football we all marveled at last year.
Two cup final defeats last season dampened a fantastic footballing season for the Basque side. It’s surprising to note that Bielsa’s team only finished in tenth place after showcasing some fine pass and move football and often being likened to Guardiola’s Barcelona. But in retrospect, that tenth place finish speaks volumes. How does a team finish tenth when they are playing so well? Well, they couldn’t defend, for a start; fortunately for them they could score goals… well, Llorente could.
This season the defence has still not been fixed and, due to Martinez’ departure to Bayern while Llorente desperately tries to force his own move away, the goals have dried up too. A leaky back-four and a not-very-happy Fernando Llorente? Sixteenth place in the table right there.
This season Athletic do not have the Europa Cup campaign to use as their scapegoat, so Bielsa needs his team to perform in La Liga. They undoubtedly have the talent; players such as Muniain, Aduriz, De Marcos and Herrera all have the ability to win games and it’s up to Bielsa to begin to re-build and shape his squad into the tight unit they demonstrated last season: we all remember the Manchester United game.
Currently Real Sociedad sit above them after winning the Basque derby for the first time in two and a half years; surely things can only get better?
Obviously the season is still only seven games in and you could say this argument has been raised too early? But with speculation that the league title is already Barcelona’s and with Atletico, Malaga and Real Betis playing far above expectation, it does seem both managers may not have the time that they undoubtedly need.
Written by Matt Smith
Follow him on Twitter @ElasticoChop
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