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Behind Enemy Lines: UD Almería

Despite their Saudi backers, Almería won't be able to spend their way into La Liga success due to the league's financial regulations.

UD Almeria v Malaga CF - La Liga Smartbank Photo by Fermin Rodriguez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The history of Almería’s current sporting project started in August 2019, when the club was purchased by Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority. Al-Sheikh invested heavily not only in the club’s success but also in the local community. During the pandemic, he donated about 1.2 million euros to the city of Almería to help acquire medical equipment and goods. He’s given away thousands of Euros and luxury cars in prizes to season ticket holders and fans attending the stadium.

Within a year of the Saudi takeover, club management assembled one of the best squads in Segunda División, with players who would normally be outside the financial reach of the league. Some examples include future Liverpool star Darwin Núñez, Belgian winger Largie Ramazani (former Man. United youth player), and Nigerian striker Umar Sadiq.

However, it took a couple of years for Almería to reach the first division. The Almería board, led by Al-Sheikh confidant Mohamed El-Assy, did not have much patience with that whole pesky ‘coaching process’ thing and made a few rash decisions.

The first coach hired for the 2019/20 season, Pedro Emanuel, was fired in November despite having the team in second place. Accumulating four draws in five games was too much for the club management. Emanuel was replaced by Guti (yes, our Guti), who was then fired in June 2020 after not achieving direct promotion. As one might imagine, bringing in a new coach just before the promotion play-offs was not the greatest idea, and Almería lost the ensuing play-off tie against Girona.

UD Almeria v UD Las Palmas - La Liga SmartBank Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Shockingly, the 2020/21 season followed a very similar script. The Almería board fired coach José Gomes towards the end of the season when Almería lost their chance at direct promotion and replaced him with Joan Francesc Ferrer ‘Rubí’, the current coach. Once again, Almería lost the next promotion against (and again against Girona!). For this 2021/22 season, Rubí’s coaching job was never in danger because he kept the team in direct promotion spots at all times, eventually winning the league and promotion to La Liga.

La Liga regulations prevent a bombastic summer in Almería

Despite the enormous resources of their Saudí backers, Almería has had a quiet summer transfer window. They are placing their bets on interesting young players, such as Brazilian center-back Kaiky Fernandes, Serbian center-forward Marko Milovanovic, or Portuguese midfielder Gui Guedes. Meanwhile, they also completed the (contractually obligated) permanent purchases of right-back Alejandro Pozo from Sevilla and center-back Srdjan Babic from Red Star Belgrade. However, out of the new incoming players, only Kaiky Fernandes and former Alavés keeper Fernando Pachecho look likely to break into the team’s starting XI.

Summary of Almería’s summer transfer arrivals. Source: Transfermarkt

This stands in stark contrast to what we see in the Premier League. Nottingham Forest bought a brand-new XI upon promotion, while Saudi-backed Newcastle has moved rather slowly and cautiously in the market but has already captured big talents such as Sven Botman and Bruno Guimaraes.

Al-Sheikh and Almería cannot spend money in a similar way due to La Liga’s financial regulations. Their 20-million-euro spending spree this summer is already beyond what most of the league’s clubs can afford, but it has consequences. As of this week, Almería has only registered 16 players because they have overpassed their salary limit. It doesn’t help that their player salaries also increased automatically upon promotion to La Liga. Almería can only cope and increase their salary limit by selling their most valuable player, star striker Umar Sadiq.

Almería’s Style of Play and Expected Lineup

Almería coach Rubí has always been a person of possession-based systems. During their complicated 2013-14 season under Tata Martino, he was a member of Barca’s coaching staff, with rumors saying that Pep in Bayern was also interested in signing him due to his analytical talents.

His talent for coaching possession systems allowed him to lead Huesca to their first-ever promotion to La Liga during the 2017/18 season and land Espanyol in 7th place and European competition during the 2018/19 season. After a highly disappointing spell at Betis, he became Almería’s coach at the end of 2020/21 season.

With Almería, Rubí has mostly stuck to a nominal 4-2-3-1 shape, but the team has a very mature buildup phase that sees them change shape and player positions frequently depending on the opponent. Depending on the situation, the central midfielders might receive the ball beside the center backs, but they can also move forward to receive the ball like an 8, turning Almería’s shape into more of a 4-3-3.

An essential component of how they play with the ball is the behavior of wingers Ramazani and Portillo. They usually stay narrow and between the lines to quickly combine with other players instead of just staying out wide. The wings are usually left to the aggressive fullbacks, especially Alejandro Pozo, who significantly impacts the right side.

Even though these possession mechanisms might imply that Almería is a side that prefers short-passing and a slower buildup, they are not. They will try to go for more direct and vertical passes whenever possible, including long ball to striker Umar Sadiq. The video below is just a tiny sampling of their goals last year, but it’s interesting to see how many came from pressing and transition situations instead of slower possession attacks.

In defense, Almería is also a versatile team. They are willing to press high against some opponents, but against more talented sides than them, they are also comfortable in a more conservative mid-block, waiting for opportunities to counter through their fast, vertical passing sequences.

Against Real Madrid, expect them to use a similar lineup to the ones they used last year. The major doubt in the lineup was striker Umar Sadiq, awaiting a transfer out of the club, but reports indicate that he will start.

  • Goalkeeper: Fernando Rubio
  • Fullbacks: Alejandro Pozo (right), Sergio Akieme (left)
  • Center backs: Rodrigo Ely, Srdjan Babic
  • Double pivot: César de la Hoz, Samu Costa
  • Attacking midfielder: Lucas Robertone
  • Wingers: Francisco Portillo (right), Largie Ramazani (left)
  • Striker: Umar Sadiq

Key Opponents to Watch Out For

  • Umar Sadiq: The Nigerian striker had a solid claim to being Segunda División’s best player last season, with 18 goals and 9 assists. Sadiq is a complete target man who physically bullied most defenders in the division. It will be interesting to see how he does in a big five league against more physical opposition. Expect a major duel between him and Real Madrid’s more physical center-backs (such as Rüdiger or Militao).
UD Almería v UD Alcorcon - LaLiga SmartBank Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
  • Largie Ramazani: The young Belgian winger (former Man. United youth player) is Almería’s most prolific dribbler, so he’s Almería’s key man for destabilizing opposition defenses. With Real Madrid’s right backs (Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez) struggling in 1v1 situations, Ramazani could be Almería’s most significant source of danger.
UD Almería v UD Alcorcon - LaLiga SmartBank Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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