Since we’ve passed the midpoint of the season already and so much has happened, it seems prudent to look back over the events of the last half-season of La Liga football and reflect. I asked each of the writers at Managing Madrid to pick what they thought was the most interesting theme of the Liga (with a focus on Real Madrid, of course) thus far and write a paragraph or two about it. Here’s what they came up with. Let us know what you think!
- Mou and the Media (Gabe Lezra)
One of the interesting ongoing narratives of this Real Madrid season is the shift in media coverage of Mourinho. The formerly adoring Madrid-based press – and in particular the daily tabloids Marca and As – have done an about-face on the Portuguese manager, driving him to leak information about a possible departure this summer. It's unclear what exactly started this shift – there are several competing explanations, although they only really capture the whole picture in concert with one another.
First, there is the embedded xenophobia of some members of the Spanish media who are unwilling to accept a foreign manager in a club that embodies the traditional "Spanish"-ness of soccer. Second, there is Mourinho's decision last April to face Barcelona with a hyper-defensive lineup that featured center-back Pepe in a midfield role, a move that rubbed Real Madrid traditionalists the wrong way (they can't stomach a tactical defense, as Madrid has traditionally been a hyper-offensive side). Third, there's the uneasy relationship that the Madrid media has with FC Barcelona, a side that features between seven and nine Spanish players in their starting eleven, and plays a style of soccer that is more traditionally Spanish--this relationship has rubbed them the wrong way with respect to Mourinho, who starts more foreigners than Spaniards, and plays a more direct style than his Catalan counterpart.
Finally, there's Mourinho's own behavior in public: the insults, the games, the whining, the eye gouging, the complaining. All of this has caused a change in the Spanish press' coverage of Mourinho--and by extension, Real Madrid. What is unclear, however, is what will happen at the end of the season, especially if Madrid win la Liga, the Champions League, or both.
- Competitiveness in La Liga (Josh Zeitlin)
La Liga has often been criticized, often by fans of the Premier League, for being non-competitive. It is not just that Real Madrid and Barcelona have between them won every league title since 2004; not just that no other club has even come close to taking the title since Sevilla finished five points off the top in 2007 (last season 3rd placed Valencia was 25 points behind Barcelona and 21 behind Madrid, while the season before it was 28 and 25 respectively – this season, Madrid is already 16 points ahead of Valencia in third); not just the obscene statistics and point totals the Big Two continue to rack up; not just that Spain’s top two clubs will take home more than $180 million this year alone in domestic TV rights – more than double what last season’s Premier League champions Manchester United got – while Valencia is allocated just $63 million, less than what relegated West Ham received in England last season.
The problem lies more in the manner in which Real Madrid and Barcelona have won in the last few seasons. They barely drop any points at all and regularly obliterate their opposition; they regularly strip the other teams in La Liga of their best players (Dani Alves, Keita and Sergio Ramos from Sevilla, David Villa and Raúl Albiol from Valencia and Sergio Canales from Racing are all good examples), and even if they do loan them out they prevent them from playing against their parent sides. Madrid and Barcelona are just far, far too good for the other sides in La Liga to deal with. Draws are the new victories against the Big Two, and consequently, narrow losses are the new draws.
There have, however, been some bright spots during this troubling time for Spanish football. Valencian minnows Levante, in just their seventh season in the Primera, deep in debt, make just 2% of what Madrid and Barcelona do and promptly passing it on to their creditors, have no transfer budget whatsoever and pay their players an average salary of just €300,000 a year – what Ronaldo or Messi make in a week. This ragtag team made it to the summit of La Liga in October, beating Madrid and thrashing Villarreal along the way. More astounding still is that they continue to occupy 4th place, a Champions League spot.
Tiny Mirandés from Spain’s Segunda B division, with just six professional players in their ranks, have made it to the semifinal of the Copa del Rey, beating Villarreal, Espanyol and Racing along the way. Their top scorer, Pablo Infante – in fact, the top scorer in the whole of the Copa – couldn’t celebrate with his team after they scraped past Espanyol with a 92nd minute stunner because he had to open the savings bank he works at the next day at 8 am. These are small things, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and they don’t mean that any team is going to come close to overturning the Madrid-Barcelona stranglehold on Spanish football, but it does make the season a little more exciting.
- Team Mentality (Laila Ujayli)
This has been a season of ups and downs, and now Real Madrid, although eliminated from the Copa Del Rey, find themselves seven points above Barcelona in the Liga table. This turn-around from the last few seasons of Barcelona dominance can be at least partly attributed to one mid-season highlight: the strengthening of the team’s mentality. When Mourinho first arrived at Real Madrid, everyone was counting on him to bring along the "winning" mentality he had instilled at Porto, Chelsea and Inter.
What Madrid supporters did not truly expect to see is the amount of cohesion that the team has developed. Not only do they possess a winning mentality but a "never give up" one as well. That may sound cliché, but that is what los blancos have displayed so far this season. One recent example of this was the past Clásico. Being two goals down in the Camp Nou after a first half that your team dominated is disheartening, and honestly, many Madridistas, myself included, thought the game was over. However, in the second half Real Madrid rallied and managed to even the score. Although Madrid didn’t advance in the competition, the comeback alone showcased a remarkable amount of mental strength from the team, and the draw is something they can certainly look back to as the season progresses.
From a team barbecue to a surprise birthday cake to spectacular comebacks, the cohesive mentality the team has grown throughout the course of these few months is great to see, especially when you consider all the media drama that has surrounded the club in recent weeks. This mentality has allowed Real Madrid to earn vital points and fans will be hoping to see it continue and strengthen in the months to come.
- Barcelona’s Away Form (Timm Higgins)
One of the most interesting trends of the first half of the La Liga season has been the away form of the defending champions, FC Barcelona. They have made the familiar confines of their Camp Nou stadium a fortress, seeing to it that the visiting team seldom escapes with so much as a point. Away from home, however, they are human. So far this season, Barcelona has won 90% of their home matches with a 9-1-0 record. On the road is a different story, with the blaugrana notching a 4-5-1 record (including their only league defeat) away from home. Although they have overall performed reasonably well this season, Barcelona have been hit by injuries and lately seem a bit off their game, having drawn their last three fixtures.
They have also been a less productive team on the road, almost playing like the pitch is the last place the players want to be. In their games so far at home in the league, Barcelona have scored forty-three and conceded just two goals, for a goal difference of +41 and a for/against ratio of 21.5. Their exploits away from home, like Jekyl and Hyde, could hardly be more different. They have notched just sixteen goals and conceded a whopping ten, for a goal difference of +4 and a ratio of 1.7. Even supposedly superhuman Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi has had a tough time on the road, with just four of his twenty-two league goals (18%). Barcelona’s away form is clearly a big liability. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb when I say that this is the worst Barcelona side since the start of the Guardiola era. At the end of the season we’ll see if Madrid have managed to take advantage.
- The Reemergence of Kaká (Lucas Navarrete)
After a couple of disappointing seasons at Madrid and a series of never-ending injury problems and despite rumors he would be sold, Kaká began to prove his worth and repay the coach’s faith in him by turning in a series of excellent performances starting in October. He showed glimpses of the burst of acceleration he was known for when he was playing for AC Milan and began to see some continuity in his form. Mesut Özil had a poor start to the season, so Mourinho turned to Kaká to create goal-scoring opportunities and direct the team’s attacking play. The Brazilian as well as Ángel Di María forged a strong connection between the midfield and the attack and contributed lots of assists.
We have seen this season that Kaká is a very important player for Real Madrid when Mourinho decides to play on the counter. In the first Champions League group match against Ajax, Real Madrid made clear how dangerous this style can be when it is implemented by players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Özil . This has been one of the most encouraging things about Real Madrid this year. The team has shown it can play well with a possession style or with counterattacking. Kaká offers the team the ability to score very fast goals, as you can see here, but he also knows how to tear a defensive line apart with subtlety. If Özil keeps playing like he has been this past month, and if Di María recovers well from his injury, Kaká might lose his starting spot on the team. But if he manages to keep himself in shape, he could be a very valuable asset for Real Madrid coming off the bench and playing good minutes against teams that need to score a goal.