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DIEGO ALVES (Valencia) – 8.2
The Valencia goalkeeper broke the all-time record for the most penalty saves in La Liga after denying Atletico Madrid twice from the spot on Saturday.
Despite thwarting the spot kicks from Antoine Griezmann and Gabi, Alves still wound up on the losing side as Valencia went down 2-0 at home.
Alves has now come out on top 19 times from 12 yards in the Spanish division having faced 41 penalties.
UPDATE: Diego Alves has now saved 19 LaLiga penalties.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 2, 2016
IAGO ASPAS (Celta de Vigo) 7.7
Played as the lone striker, Aspas put in an exceptional performance. He held the ball up well and showed great energy. Brilliantly latched onto a ball forward and produced an emphatic finish for Celta Vigo’s second goal in their 4-3 win over Barcelona.
PABLO HERNANDEZ (Celta de Vigo) 7.6
Utilised behind Aspas on Sunday, he did well to close down the Barcelona midfielders and particularly stifled Sergio Busquets. Got on the scoresheet as well albeit with a lot of help from Ter Stegen.
Ter Stegen: "Yes. In the fourth goal I made a big mistake. I am really sorry. Without that goal we may have won the match" (weloba)— The Catalan Giant (@TheCataIanGiant) October 2, 2016
DANIEL WASS (Celta de Vigo) 7.9
Wass put in a good shift in midfield against the Catalans. It was his dangerous cross that led to Mathieu’s own goal which gave Celta de Vigo a 3-0 lead.
WISSAM BEN YEDDER (Sevilla) 7.4
A quality brace from the attacking midfielder steered Sevilla to a 2-1 win over Deportivo Alves. He opened the scoring in the 74th minute and following Laguardia’s equaliser six minutes from time, grabbed the winner in the 90th minute to secure three vital points.
It’s been a busy time, with a full mid-week menu of fixtures before the weekend, and the week to come maintains the rhythm, with the return of the Champions League – but I’d like to start this week’s column with a focus on full-backs, as they used to be called. On Saturday the Athletic Bilbao left-back Mikel Balenziaga scored the second goal in his team’s 3-1 defeat of Sevilla, thus contributing to the Basque side’s fourth consecutive win and their rise to the Champions League zone of the table. This was Balenziaga’s 332nd game as a professional (129 of them with Athletic) and it was his first ever goal. It was a good one too, executed in the manner of a confident winger, with a dribble and an accurate cross-shot that made you wonder what he’d been doing for the previous 331 matches.
Balenziaga’s drought is inexplicable, particularly when you consider the important offensive function of full-backs these days. They have always attacked, sure, but in the more distant past it was a matter of individual taste. If a team had a full-back who liked to dribble a bit, who was perhaps a converted winger, he would be used as an occasional offensive weapon. In general however, the entire tactical structure of the side was not based on these players, as it is increasingly now. Indeed, Pep Guardiola has gone a step further recently, by converting his Man City full-backs into proto-midfielders, players who ‘tuck in’ to the defensive-mid-positions and allow the conventional occupants of the space to play higher, to thus pressure more efficiently the opposing playmakers. Sergi Roberto is beginning to do this for Barcelona (Jordi Alba sticks more to the flanks) because he is a more disciplined player than was Dani Alves, and Roberto can be trusted in more crowded positions where full-backs sometimes panic. If you think about it, full-backs see the game from a very limited perspective. If you’re a right-sided ‘lateral’ (as it’s called in Spanish) then players are rarely to your right. Your actions are very linear, and based on the crowd of players mainly to your left.
To train these players to function in more limited spaces is interesting, but it can rob them of their attacking function. Marcelo’s recent absence from the Real Madrid line-up, to take a high-profile example, is one of the main reasons why they have drawn their last two games. His ability to stay out wide and high, holding possession or threatening the opposing full-back, means that the entire attacking midfield structure is given time to advance and get closer to the forwards – the basic mantra of Spanish football. Marcelo’s replacement on Saturday night in Las Palmas, Nacho, played well, but he never paused the play, never dictated it.
This idea of a full-back as playmaker is interesting. Listening to Spanish coaches for years on end (as a player’s father) the message most heard from the touchline was ‘No deje que se abren distancias!’ (Don’t get too distant from each other), meaning that the three axes of a team – its defence, midfield and attack – should always be physically close enough to communicate. It sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s actually the basis of modern football, and England’s inability to carry it off in the recent European Championships was significant to behold, despite the fact that they had two very capable attacking full-backs (Danny Rose and Kyle Walker). But that’s not enough. You have to base your strategy around them. The idea used to be that the midfielders would hold up the ball to give the full-backs time to advance. Now it’s often the other way around. It’s an interesting change in the basic shape of football.
Seguimos ⚽️👊🏼!! Força Barça !! 🔴🔵 pic.twitter.com/6kM3mnZzLF— Sergi Roberto (@SergiRoberto10) September 24, 2016
On Saturday, in Barcelona’s 5-0 stroll in Gijon, Sergi Roberto was instrumental in three of the goals with his precise crossing, but each time before he crossed he was already in an extremely advanced position, receiving the ball from attacking midfielders in the last third of the pitch – and yet if you watch the build-ups, it was he who usually started them. Atletico Madrid are another side whose two marauding full-backs, Juanfran and Filipe Luis, are also both fine exponents of the attacking art, and to some extent the potential menace of their play limited Barcelona last Wednesday night, especially after Leo Messi had limped off in the second-half. In the more barnstorming, more randomised patterns of the Premier League, Filipe Luis seemed lost with Chelsea, unable to attack with intent and limited to defending – diminishing him and making him into half the player he really is. Back in La Liga, he once again thrives.
It’s been an interesting week in general, with Real Madrid failing at the final hurdle in their attempt to set a new record of consecutive wins in La Liga, held to a draw in the Bernabéu in mid-week by improving Villarreal. This kept a positional status quo between the old duopoly, but Madrid’s subsequent 2-2 draw in Las Palmas meant that Barcelona crept up to within a point of the leadership. The nice thing is to see the more gradually stepped order of the leaders, with the top eight places separated by only four points.
I saw Las Palmas play on Wednesday night, in which they succumbed rather surprisingly to Real Sociedad, to the tune of 4-1. But everything went wrong for them – an unfeasibly early goal conceded, a penalty, and a sending-off. It was difficult to judge them, save noting that they are obviously better attackers than defenders. But Real Madrid would have done well not to underestimate them, and indeed set out to dominate the game, only to fall foul of a rather lucky equaliser by Sergio Araujo late on. The Spanish press’ painting of this draw, as if it were somehow the beginning of a crisis for Real Madrid, is patently absurd and distorts the real focus of the weekend, in that a range of sides are looking to compete this season, and democratise the league a little. Atlético are no-one’s fools again, Villarreal are yet to lose, and Sevilla might yet prove to be a threat, despite their set-back in San Mamés. Samir Nasri can be a difficult fellow, but he’s potentially a quality signing for Sevilla, for whom he scored on Saturday. He played well against Betis too, in the Andaluz derby which Sevilla won 1-0.
It’s been a decent week for Valencia too, after Pako Ayesteran was sacked last week, with ex-player and local hero Voro taking over – the fourth time he has acted as interim manager. That makes him Valencia’s eleventh coach in the last five years. Persuading someone half-decent to take over now might not be so easy. Then again, last weekend Valencia were pointless after four games, and now they have six points after two consecutive 2-1 wins against Alavés and Leganés. Next weekend they host Atlético, which should reveal rather more about their apparent improvement.
Atlético vs Bayern looks an interesting prospect on Wednesday night, preceded by Real Madrid’s tricky visit to Dortmund on Tuesday. Barcelona visit Borussia on Wednesday, meaning that Sevilla are the only Spanish outfit to be missing out on the week’s Hispanic-Teutonic theme. And don’t forget. Watch how those full-backs operate. It will probably be the determining feature.
Considering it is a competition which is often labelled – mainly by people who don’t watch it – as “boring and uncompetitive”, the upper reaches of La Liga is a very congested place at the moment.
True, the predictable old names of Real Madrid and Barcelona are at the top of the pile. But they have both dropped points on two occasions already this season, and a batch of teams are crammed together just behind them.
Of all those early-season success stories, perhaps the most pleasing for the neutral is Villarreal, who have overcome a horribly turbulent pre-season to re-establish themselves as one of Spain’s top teams.
After finishing last season in fourth place, they endured a terrible summer with several key players being sold, others getting injured and – on the eve of the new season – manager Marcelino being acrimoniously fired.
New boss Fran Escriba stepped into the chaos and rapidly saw his team dumped out of the Champions League in a playoff meeting with Monaco and start the league campaign with an unconvincing draw against lowly Granada.
Since then, however, it has been nothing but good news for the Yellow Submarine, whose convincing home victory over Osasuna Sunday left them still unbeaten with 12 points from six games, with new signings Alexandre Pato and Nicola Sansone both on the scoresheet.
Sunday’s victory came, of course, just a few days after Villarreal became the first team in six months to avoid losing in the league to Real Madrid, further dispelling earlier fears that their torrid pre-season would lead to a disappointing season.
Another team in yellow, Las Palmas, also took points off Zinedine Zidane’s men with Saturday’s exciting 2-2 draw, which saw them twice come back from behind, enhancing the Canary Islanders’ reputation as arguably La Liga’s most attractive outfit.
It has also been a good few weeks for Athletic Bilbao, who have won four games on the trot with veteran striker Aritz Aduriz – despite now being 35 years old – somehow still looking as good as ever, while rejuvenated playmaker Benat is classily pulling the strings in midfield.
Of course, Atletico Madrid can never be discounted and their record of two goals conceded in six games suggests they will once again be the hardest team to beat.
Then there’s Sevilla, who still appear to be finding their feet under new manager Jorge Sampaoli but have shown signs of real promise, with a visit to their Sanchez Pizjuan home ground looking a formidable task for any opponent.
And those high-fliers aren’t the only teams to make themselves heard in the opening weeks of the season, with top-flight new-boys Alaves, who beat Barcelona and drew with Atletico, and Leganes, another team to take a point from Simeone’s men, also enjoying moments in the sun.
So is La Liga becoming more competitive? Perhaps so.
Although it’s unlikely that the likes of Villarreal or Bilbao will be able to sustain a season-long title challenge, the more equal distribution of television revenue means ‘smaller’ clubs have a fresh ability to recruit top talent.
Villarreal, for example, splashed significant sums on Sansone and Roberto Soriano from Serie A, while Sevilla invested the proceeds of their summer sales on the likes of Franco Vazquez and Wissam Ben Yedder. There’s every chance La Liga will end up being a three-horse race between Barca and the two Madrid clubs.
But the other horses appear to be catching up, and there will be shocks along the way.