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Discussing The Struggles Of La Liga’s Big Three

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Two La Liga experts join Om Arvind to explain the reasons behind the Big Three’s poor start to the 2018/19 season.

LaLiga Hosts Roofop Viewing Party Of El Clasico - Real Madrid CF vs FC Barcelona Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for LaLiga

I teamed up with two La Liga experts, Siddharth Ramsundar (@Tacticalfouling) of tacticalfouling.com and José C. Pérez (@jcperez_ ) of betweentheposts.net, to discuss the struggles of the Big Three because it’s the international break and we’re bored. Below are our responses to three prompts we drafted.


What’s wrong with Spain’s Big Three?

Om Arvind

La Liga teams have performed quite well against the “Big Three” this season. Pablo Machín is a genius coach that is doing great things with Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, despite their struggles overall, have produced impressive pressing performances vs. Real and Barca, and the likes of Alavés and Leganés have been immensely organized in their defensive blocks. That being said, that doesn’t mean that Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid haven’t faced internal issues this season.

Real Madrid

Besides the difficult schedule, Los Blancos have also suffered from injuries to Marcelo, Isco, and Carvajal. The loss of the former two has been especially significant because both the Brazilian and the Spaniard are two of the team’s most creative players. Consequently, not having them available when taking on three well-designed deep blocks in a row (Atlético Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Alavés) really hinders Real’s ability to penetrate and fashion quality shots on goals.

But that’s still not enough of an excuse for the form of Karim Benzema, who, after a bright start to the campaign, has looked just as listless as he did for most of last season. His shot figures and xG p90 has somehow managed to get worse after the exit of Ronaldo (the expectation was that Karim would get more of the shot volume pie with the departure of the Portuguese’s 6-7 attempts per game) and he’s not creating enough for others to compensate for this; he’s managing just 1.02 key passes and 0.06 expected assists per 90 minutes.

Julen’s tactics must also shoulder some of the blame. While he’s already improved his team’s counterpressing ability and midfield structure (Casemiro actually plays like a DM in possession now) significantly in the post-Zidane era, Madrid appear to lack inspiration in the final third. Part of this is down to Lopetegui’s own cautious nature in possession stemming from his time with Porto, where he placed a strong emphasis on holding onto the ball and creating safe passing options in favor of taking more offensive risks.

But some of it is also down to the excess fluidity he has encouraged in Madrid’s front three. A portion of this free movement is necessary to compensate for the flatness caused by Kroos dropping deep to conduct play, which is a must with Casemiro in midfield. However, the constant switching of flanks and interchanging of positions between Bale, Benzema, and Asensio/Ceballos has become chaotic over the past couple of matches and is perhaps indicative of a lack of defined attacking patterns.

Whatever the reason, Lopetegui needs to create a more structured offense because Asensio is suffering in this role. The 22 year-old is simply unable to cope with the demands of having to constantly adapt to ever-changing surroundings. And to be fair, few players can.

If Julen can achieve that, things may begin to look bright again as Real are set to enjoy an easier schedule before El Clásico.

FC Barcelona

The fitness and good form of Ousmane Dembélé has proved to be a challenge for Valverde. The Barcelona coach has chosen to field a 4-3-3 in order to incorporate his burgeoning young talent and that has resulted in Messi being shifted out to the right-wing. As I have mentioned many times in the past, I do not like Messi as a winger due to his tendencies to drift inwards and play like a number 10.

If opposing teams are organized enough, they can collapse towards the middle of the pitch and clog zone 14 without worrying about an out-ball to the right, because, frankly, Nélson Semedo and Sergi Roberto aren’t enough of a threat.

The solution isn’t to ask Messi to stick to the right flank more, though. The lack of a real box presence (which Paulinho provided regularly last season and is something that Arturo Vidal has yet to mimic) eliminates vigorous crossing from Barca’s arsenal, meaning they have to rely on central combinations to find a way to goal. Barca’s only other attacking strategy comes from exploiting Jordi Alba’s offensive potency, but both that and the need to engage in central one-twos require Messi to play in the middle. The reason for the latter is obvious, and to best exploit the former, La Blaugrana need Messi to ghost into #10 areas to play diagonals to the diminutive fullback.

So, if it’s bad for Messi to play on the right because he drifts into the center while simultaneously being needed in those spaces, what should Valverde do? Simple, play Messi in the center. The best option is probably to move back to the 4-4-2 that was so successful last season. It gave Lionel the freedom to move wherever he pleased without messing up the right-sided structure of the team, and the threat of two wide players (more or less playing close to the touchline) gave space for Messi to combine with Suárez in front of the box.

The downside of this is that it might hamper Ousmane Dembélé’s offensive freedom, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to make an impact if he’s willing to shoulder more defensive duties.

Aside from that tactical conundrum, Barcelona have also been in trouble due to a couple of other factors. A fortuitous red card against Clement Lenglet certainly did not help their cause vs. Girona and the benching of Messi for a half against Athletic Bilbao left the Basque side with enough time to snatch a draw.

Piqué’s form has also been terrible. If he’s not busy assisting his opponents...

...he’s making hilariously poor tackles that are gifting other teams goals.

Atlético Madrid

Los Colchonero’s issues at the beginning of 18/19 stemmed from what it has always seemed to stem from ever since Diego Simeone took Atlético from perennial losers to legit big team status - trying to transition towards a more offensive, possession-based system.

Over and over again, Simeone has tried to make The Mattress Makers a more proactive team before deciding against it and returning to his old formula. With the arrivals of Rodri, Lemar, and Gelson Martins, it finally looked like Cholo was determined to make the switch, but recent evidence suggests that he has already reverted to the old way.

To be clear, Atlético have actually had more possession in the past three or four games than in their encounters at the beginning of the season, but that’s due to the quality of opponents faced rather than a distinct style-change from Simeone. Atlético, due to their recent prestige, are always going to have 60% possession against a Huesca, but that doesn’t inherently signal a philosophy shift.

Simeone is still clearly unwilling to take the necessary risks to make his team a good offensive side, despite having designed fundamentally strong build-up patterns for his team. For better or for worse (and by recent results and history it definitely seems like “for better”), Diego’s Atléti will always be a defensively-focused side.

The issue then arises with the signings of Lemar and co. The new blood definitely make Atléti better with the ball regardless of how conservative Simeone wants to be on offense, but the desire to focus on defensive solidity above all else might be at odds with the players he wants to start. Does that discrepancy in philosophy and personnel make enough of a difference to significantly weaken Atlético’s defense this season? Time will tell.

Siddharth Ramsundar

Real Madrid

It’s been an understandably challenging opening to the season. World Cup summers take a bigger toll on sides that are decaying or in transition (and I think this squad is both). The opening schedule has been challenging. Ronaldo hasn’t been adequately replaced. Injuries to key players have slowed down the side. Yet they are 2 points off the top with a considerably easier 7 week schedule coming up compared to Barcelona. There’s a good chance Madrid hit their stride when Isco and Marcelo return to the side and they’d be topping the league in a good amount of shot simulations.

So what’s wrong with Madrid? The fact that we’ve learned little about Lopetegui’s acumen in attack, Gareth Bale could still go down anytime, Benzema’s end-product has turned into pixie dust, and Asensio hasn’t taken more shots.

FC Barcelona

On first glance, their squad, as loaded with talent as it is, lacks athleticism, balance and ultimately quality against decent teams. Messi dropping back into midfield would work if they could supply him with movement and cover against good teams. Or they could stick him forward if they had enough creativity and steel in midfield. But right now, Messi’s tendency to do the former without movement ahead of him is damaging the team.

Busquets is much slower. Semedo hasn’t worked out. Dembélé loses the ball a lot and makes it harder to find balance. Suárez doesn’t dribble like he used to. But Messi is really good. So is Umtiti. So is Rakitić. Suárez can still score. Dembélé could be harnessed better. Arthur helps.

It feels like Valverde’s plans for the team have also been affected by the World Cup, though he’s had these problems almost his entire tenure. Messi and Paulinho connected well enough last spring (with Messi finishing at crazy levels), and Ter Stegen was incredible too. I can’t help but feel there’s enough goalscoring and midfield talent in this team to play a lot better. Regardless, I feel the best version of the team is the one that plays Coutinho on the wing, though he could be better in midfield if Messi pushed up more.

Whatever Valverde does with Coutinho, he cannot bench him because Barca overpaid too much to sign him. That leaves the manager with the options of benching one of last year’s expensive signings or the effective Arthur - a difficult conundrum.

Atlético Madrid

Diego Costa isn’t firing, and the team isn’t that much better than last year yet, in that they create little and rely on Oblak to make their defense elite. Godín has slipped (like Ramos and Piqué). The World Cup has had an effect because they are, just like the others, in transition.

However, they definitely have the talent to make an all-time great Atlético run come winter, and if Costa starts firing they’ll definitely be a contender. Costa is a one-man contending machine when he’s on his game. Griezmann is a world class attacker. Rodri is firing. Koke is class. Saúl is great. They also have two quality wingers in Lemar and Martins. Oblak might be able to keep this up all year. They’ll definitely make a deep CL run, though I’m more skeptical about La Liga.

José C. Pérez

The Spanish Big Three all have some serious “tactical soul-searching” to do. Barca and Atléti have tremendously talented squads that suffer from some fundamental contradictions, while Real Madrid must find a system that helps them compensate for the loss of the greatest goal scorer in their history (and the lack of a proper replacement for him). Let’s go through each team one-by-one.

FC Barcelona

As ridiculously talented as this squad is, I believe it is fundamentally incoherent. Players like Semedo, Rakitić, Coutinho, and Dembélé are a better fit for a higher tempo game with more attacking transitions (i.e. counterattacks). But the veteran leaders of the squad—Piqué, Busquets, Messi, Suárez—have slowed down due to age and are a better fit for a slower possession game.

2017/18 Barca went for a conservative, possession-based approach which worked wonders in domestic competitions. The system protected Busquets and Piqué and put Messi closer to goal scoring positions. But Barca’s possession game was ultimately too flat and predictable to consistently disorder rivals in Champions League knockouts. To compensate for this issue as well as Iniesta’s departure, Valverde tried to spice things up in 2018/19 by going back to a Luis Enrique-esque proposal, with Messi starting from the wing and Dembélé on the left wing.

This turned Barca into a slightly more dynamic team on offense and gave Dembélé a lot of responsibilities (and opportunities for growth), but the defensive issues are unsustainable. Rakitić has to drift wide and away from Piqué and Busquets to compensate for the fact that Messi is a right-winger in name only. This generates huge issues when defending counterattacks. Barca have conceded 7 goals in their first 6 league games, when last season they conceded only 7 goals in their first 14 games!

In the most recent matches against Tottenham and Valencia, Valverde dropped Dembélé and started Arthur and Semedo. The slower tempo enforced by Arthur and Semedo’s work rate decrease the physical workload on Busquets and Piqué, stabilizing their defense. However, unless Messi has more ridiculous nights like the one against Tottenham, Barca cannot afford dropping Dembélé against top opponents. Their attack will often turn stale and predictable without the Frenchman’s speed, dribbling, and 1v1 ability, and the Valencia game exposed that.

Valverde is harshly criticized by Barca fans, but the contradictions of his squad have put him in a weird tactical middle ground where his team struggles to be super-dominant in possession (the Guardiola approach) or super-dominant in transitions (the Luis Enrique approach).

Atlético Madrid

The fundamental contradiction here is that Simeone is a conservative coach who now possesses the most offensively talented squad he’s ever had. He is still figuring out what exactly to do with it.

This has been the Atlético’s story for the last 2-3 years. Simeone tries to switch to a more offensive game plan to adapt to his players and the team fails to get great results in the first half of the season. In the second half, they go back to their old conservative plan, which looks increasingly shaky with an aging Juanfran and Godín but still gets results. In the end, the more offensive players end up having to adapt to the defensive system. This year it’s more of the same, but the contrast is even stronger.

The arrivals of Rodri and Lemar over the summer made me think that Atlético might finally complete that transition to a more rich and varied attack. They put Atlético in a completely new dimension on the ball, and on paper, a lineup with Rodri, Lemar, Koke and Griezmann, should be able to play their way out of any press. However, Simeone still asks his players to send it long to Costa when pressured. I understand Simeone turned Atléti into a European giant by using a more direct game plan, but this doesn’t really optimize the talent currently at his disposal.

It also doesn’t help that Godín, Costa and Griezmann—all key players in Atleti’s tactical structure—haven’t started the season well.

Real Madrid

Real’s soul searching is of a different nature. It’s not that they have contradictory talents like Atleti and Barca, but that the forward line simply does not have enough goals and off-the-ball aggression to fully compensate for Ronaldo’s departure. This forces Lopetegui to make miracles on the tactics board unless reinforcements come over the winter transfer window.

Real still plays well enough in the first two thirds; they build well from the back, play past opposition presses, control games, and reduce the frequency of successful counterattacks. But once in the final third, there are no clear ideas on how to create chances. For the last 3-4 years, creating chances meant getting the ball to Ronaldo in the box. He was the focal point and his departure forces Madrid to reformulate how they create chances.

That’s not an easy transition. If Zidane’s Real ran out of ideas, they could simply default to a “cross to Ronaldo” strategy. That’s not an option anymore. Bale is a volume shooter (4-5 shots per 90 minutes) but Real can’t focus most of their shot volume on him like they did with Ronaldo.

Julen understands this, and that’s part of the reason why he decided to go for a very mobile forward trio. This helps redistribute the shooting load so the attack isn’t as dependent on one person. However, Asensio, and especially Benzema, are not holding up their part of the shooting deal. Asensio hasn’t increased his expected goals (xG) and shot volume compared to last season and is struggling to finish his chances. Benzema has somehow managed to decrease his xG and shot volume (so much for the “Ronaldo held Karim back” narrative, huh).

Which team is more likely to figure it out and win trophies?

Om Arvind

Barcelona. Because they have Messi and because Ousmane Dembélé is likely to become even more of a threat as he continues to gel with this squad.

Real Madrid no longer have Ronaldo to counterbalance against the Messi effect and I just get the feeling that, no matter what he does, there’s no way Lopetegui is going to be able to solve the goals problem unless Los Blancos sign an elite No. 9 in January.

It would probably be unwise to rule out Atlético because have a strong chance if Madrid and Barca pull low point totals like they did in 2013/14, but their comparatively weaker squad quality limits them to an outside shot at the league title.

Siddharth Ramsundar

Because Simeone has done this before, Atleti will probably figure it out first. That doesn’t mean they’ll win the league—I just think they may find form first. Barcelona have Messi and Ter Stegen. Real Madrid have top players in every position. But as soon as Costa gets into rhythm, which I reckon coincides with an uptick in Atleti’s form sooner rather than later, the team is good to go for a few months. Costa has fired his teams to 3 titles in England and Spain in the past four full seasons.

In Regards to Real, we might see the team pick up as the season progresses. Same for Barca. But with the former’s circumstances and the latter’s upcoming schedule, there’s a decent chance things get worse before they get better.

In the long-term, I can’t pick between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the league. Madrid’s performance till now has been better, but there’s no generational goalscorer to pick up the slack and the coach might be fired soon. At Barca, Valverde feels a little under-qualified (his Athletic Bilbao teams were way different, even accounting for quality, compared to what’s expected at Barca). For now, since I project the teams equally, I’d give the edge to Los Blancos because their underlying numbers have been stronger against better opposition.

José C. Pérez

For the league, I’m putting my bets on Barca. You see, I spent the last 800 words talking about the issues with the collective structure of each team, but Messi and Ronaldo are tactical cheat codes. They allow a top team to score week in, week out, irrespective of collective issues, and that is immensely valuable in the context of a league tournament.

And this season, Barca retains their cheat code while Atlético and Real don’t really have that. Griezmann and Bale are, at their peak, among the ten most decisive forwards in the world, but they don’t have Messi’s impossible consistency. Those “easy, useless tap-ins” from Ronaldo against bottom half league rivals were worth a lot more than detractors gave credit for.

The UEFA Champions League is a different story. Messi might compensate tactical defects against weaker league opponents, but that’s not enough against high-level opposition in the UCL knockout stages. These rivals expose the physical deficits of Barca’s old guard and the incoherence of their squad composition. Messi—even if he feels more motivated than ever to win the Champions League—might not be enough.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that this year’s UCL looks super exciting, because it’s the most level playing field we’ve seen in years. Bayern, Barca and Real have declined, Premier League teams are on the rise once again, Juventus acquired the most decisive player in this competition, and Atléti loaded up on talent in the hopes of reaching a final that will be hosted in their home ground.

What/who else has caught your eye in La Liga?

Om Arvind

André Silva.

I’ve diligently followed his career at Portugal and was disappointed to see his form fall off a cliff after a bright start to World Cup qualifying. This likely wasn’t aided by a poor stint at AC Milan, but the high-octane, direct style of Machín’s Sevilla looks to have rejuvenated Silva and played to his strengths. Hence, the burly target man from Gondomar is certainly one to watch this season and he could easily tussle his way into a top five scoring spot if he keeps it up.

Siddharth Ramsundar

La Liga is more competitive than it has ever been. The Big Three are in periods of transition after a World Cup. Athletic Bilbao played their hearts out against Madrid before losing to rivals in coming weeks. Alavés beat Real. Leganés beat Barca. Additionally, it feels like you don’t need as much firepower to win the league in contrast to the last ten years. Furthermore, this is the biggest transition Madrid have been in since 2009, Barca have a weird Messi-centric crisis right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Atleti’s core parts ways after the end of the season. Sevilla are playing pretty well too. Thus, I think it’s fair to say that a 2013-14-type title race that goes to the wire is still on the cards.

José C. Pérez

Espanyol. After losing Gerard Moreno over the summer (and with him, half of their 2017/18 Liga goals), I thought these guys were relegation candidates. To make things worse, their new manager was Joan Ferrer “Rubi”, who represented a complete departure in style to the more defensive Quique Sánchez Flores. It looked like way too much change way too quickly.

Instead, Rubi turned the ship around in spectacular fashion, with Espanyol sneakily climbing to fifth place in La Liga. It’s no statistical fluke or hot streak either. They are among the top seven teams in the league in goal scored, expected goals, and pressing intensity. They are also top five in expected goal difference, in getting to the final third, and preventing opponents from reaching the final third.

Espanyol are one of the most well-balanced sides in La Liga, and because they are not over-performing in expected goal metrics, I believe their form is sustainable (maybe not sustainable enough to remain in the top five, but enough to fight for European spots all season).

This outstanding collective structure is built on a backbone of talented young footballers—Mario Hermoso, Marc Roca, Sergi Darder, Borja Iglesias—who are supported by veterans like Sergio García, Diego López and Javi López.