The big question mark of Joselu
Alavés, like most Spanish teams, has experienced a quiet summer due to post-pandemic finances and has focused mostly on free transfers and loans. They signed center back Florian Lejeune permanently from Newcastle after he completed a solid 20/21 season on loan. The young and talented midfielder Manu García, a member of the Spanish U21 squad, has joined on loan from Sporting Gijón. Meanwhile, Uruguayan winger Facundo Pellestri will join on loan from Manchester United. While there have been other incoming transfers, these three will likely have the biggest impact this coming season.
Regarding departures, veteran captain Manu García (not to be confused with the younger one we mentioned before) finished his contract and left the club. However, the biggest threat has been the potential departure of target man Joselu Matos, Alavés' top goal scorer last season. Julen Lopetegui and Sevilla have expressed serious interest in him, and Joselu didn't play most of Alavés' friendlies while waiting for the move. However, the transfer now looks less likely, and Joselu played the latest Alavés friendly against Levante. Retaining Joselu would be a tremendous boost for Alavés and arguably the single most important factor that could keep them safe from relegation.
Finally, a more creative midfield?
Marcos Llorente, Darko Brašanac, Rodrigo Battaglia, Mubarak Wakaso, Tomás Pina, Pere Pons, captain Manu García. For half a decade, Alavés has been the home of combative midfielders who focus more on off-ball tasks and defensive work rate than creativity. This might change with the arrival of the younger Manu García from Sporting.
García is a more attacking midfield profile who prefers to play ahead of the ball and between the lines, aiming to assist teammates or go for the 1v1. While he has scored some spectacular goals from time to time, he is not a super productive player in terms of goals and assists. However, even if he cannot impact the scoreline directly, his qualities will be a creative breath of fresh air for the team.
While Javi Calleja uses 4-4-2 defensive setups like most previous Alavés coaches, he differs from them in the use of wingers. Instead of using only traditional fast winger profiles, at Villarreal (his previous team), Calleja liked to use more midfield-y and playmaker types on the wings, such as Moi Gómez and Santi Cazorla. Therefore, signing Manu García to play on the left wing of Alavés' 4-4-2 seems like a move that fits Calleja's playing style and philosophy.
To break yet another 4-4-2 deep block
It's no secret that La Liga has become the most defensive of the big 5 leagues, with the fewest goals scored per game. Many of the league's biggest offensive stars (Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo) have left in the last few years. Even teams as big as Sevilla have to let talented attackers like Bryan Gil go to Premier League teams to raise more money. This talent exodus has forced many La Liga teams and coaches to opt for more physical, defensive 4-4-2 strategies, focusing more on off-ball work than doing creative things with the ball.
Europe's Big-5 Leagues by goal-scored per game.— Football Today (@FT_Podcast_) January 19, 2021
Serie A: 3.11
Ligue 1: 2.75
Premier League: 2.74
La Liga: 2.41
We talk to @emctear about why La Liga is the lowest scoring in our latest episode. https://t.co/wbEdMio0SJ pic.twitter.com/rtO9SkbIBN
Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid starts the season by having to break down one of these 4-4-2 blocks. Unless Los Blancos somehow sign Mbappé this summer, expect this season to be as frustrating as the last one, if not more, when it comes to breaking down deep blocks.
For this game, Real suffers from the injuries Kroos, Carvajal, Mendy, and Marcelo. Judging from the Milan friendly, it seems like the starting back four will feature a center back duo of Nacho and Alaba, with Miguel Gutiérrez and Lucas Vázquez as fullbacks. In midfield, Isco might start alongside Modric and Casemiro. On the front lines, expect Benzema to start despite his late return to action due to COVID. Judging by the Milan friendly, he will likely be accompanied by Rodrygo and Bale.
For Alavés, coach Calleja will have his strongest XI available except for the injury of right-back Ximo Navarro, who Martin Aguirregabiria will likely replace. The goal of Pacheco will once again be defended by the solid pair of Lejeune and Laguardia and a rocky double pivot of Pere Pons and Tomás Pina. On the wings, Calleja might repeat what he did in the Levante friendly, moving winger Luis Rioja to the right to accommodate Manu García on the left. Joselu and Lucas Pérez will likely be their starting duo.
The impact of Alaba and Isco
Both for good and bad, there seem to be no major changes in how Real Madrid will play this season, but there are two smaller changes that call my attention: Alaba's offensive impact and Isco in central midfield.
Alaba has defensive weaknesses compared to his predecessors Varane and Ramos, but few can match his influence on a team's offense. Alaba is an outstanding passer, can carry the ball quickly into opposition territory, take set pieces, and shoot from a distance. He is a very dynamic player who's constantly looking to combine with teammates and rotate positions. This behavior will help break down opposing defenses even though it means he might get caught out of position in defense. Watch out for his potential link-up play with Miguel, Isco, and Rodrygo, players with a knack for quick passing combos. The key to unlocking the Alavés defense might be here.
After a few seasons of stagnation, it seems like Isco will be an important player once again under Ancelotti. In his previous Real Madrid tenure, Ancelotti turned Isco into more of a central midfield player. This process stopped when Ancelotti left the club, and Zidane saw Isco more like a ten or a winger. Judging by the Milan game, it looks like Ancelotti wants to finish what he started. Isco played once again closer to central midfield, with a lot of freedom for him and Modric to roam around and switch positions, both of them dropping deep to bring the ball from the back.
In terms of available personnel, this seems like the best option to patch up the midfield in the absence of Kroos. However, this expected lineup lacks good runners to attack Alavés' defensive line, so Vinicius and Valverde will come in handy to compensate for this, likely as second-half substitutes.