La Liga: Shadow squads come to the fore for top sides

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  • Winning form: Atletico, Real Madrid, Barcelona.

    Action returned to La Liga this weekend after the international break, and all eyes were on the top of the table. Much of the focus was on Real Madrid, partly because they hadn’t won since September 18th at Espanyol, drawing three consecutive league games (and a Champions League match) but also because of the absence of various key players.

    Sergio Ramos had been injured playing for Spain, Luka Modric and Casemiro were out of the midfield configuration, and James Rodriguez was also unavailable. A trip to Betis has never proved a comfortable one for Madrid, and with their Champions League game at home to Legia Warsaw scheduled for Tuesday, there was the potential smell of a mini-crisis in the air.

    It was the sort of game that a coach dreams of winning by half-time, so that the key players (those still standing) can basically relax in the second half, probably be substituted, and begin to focus on the midweek game to come. Sometimes dreams come true, and by the break Real Madrid were 4-0 up and it was the hosts Betis who were wishing they were back at their ranches, warming the toast by the home fire.

    It’s not much fun sitting in the changing-rooms at half-time, knowing that the only thing you can do for the next 45 is grit your teeth and spare the blushes. Hope springs eternal, however, and they pulled one back in the 55th minute, but Madrid went on to score two more and put their recent winless run firmly behind them. Their fourth goal was fantastic too. Check it out as one of the great counter-attack goals of the 21st century.

    Barcelona too had only taken 4 points from their last three league games, suffering a 4-3 reverse at Celta before the international break. This run had coincided with the absence of Leo Messi, who was last seen limping off the pitch in the 59 th minute of the 1-1 home draw with leaders Atlético Madrid.

    Their home fixture on Saturday against Deportivo was therefore also a litmus test of their ability to bounce back. Deportivo had not lost at the Camp Nou for the last two seasons, but their recent form (one win in six games) hardly suggested a tough game for the Catalans. And of course, the ‘revenant’ Messi was lurking on the bench.

    Barcelona are facing a rather tougher game in the Champions League at home to Manchester City on Wednesday, and so in terms of the coach’s half-time dream on Saturday, things went pretty well too. 3-0 up and coasting, Sergio Busquets made way for Messi in the 55th minute and it took the Argentine precisely three minutes to score, something he’d not done since September 17th in Leganes.

    Meanwhile, over in Madrid leaders Atlético, more of less sound of limb, were recovering from an early goal by bottom club Granada, eventually finishing up 7-1 winners – the only strange thing about the match being that Antoine Griezmann failed to score.

    But the principle remains the same. Facing a long trip to Russia for Wednesday’s game against Rostov, the only negative aspect of the match in the Calderón was that the half-time score was a mere 2-1. Sevilla would say the same, 1-0 up at half-time at Leganes, but only winning the game 3-2 with an 84th minute goal. They must travel to Zagreb on Tuesday.

    I watched the Betis v Real Madrid game on the TV, and my overall impression was that they will be hard to beat this season, despite the recent poor run. Real Madrid are usually hard to beat, of course, but the difference this season resides not in the depth of the squad (it’s always deep) but in the improving overall quality of the so-called ‘squad players’.

    Ever since the Champions League was extended and converted into a proto-parallel European league, and the business pressures on corporate football clubs to guarantee success became ever greater, the sets of 25 players have become what are known as ‘shadow squads’, where a coach is invited to ensure – either through the cheque-book or the youth system, that there are two players for every position.

    Whilst this may not sound very revelatory, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona now stand out from the crowd not by investing in ‘deep’ squads but rather in parallel ones, where each theoretical starter (called a ‘titular’ in Spanish) is shadowed by another international player. This is the big sea-change, the biggest contrast with previous eras.

    On Saturday, for example, Luka Modric and Casemiro were out of Madrid’s midfield. This was potentially problematic, since the new combination with Toni Kroos as pivot has proved successful. Casemiro not only protects his centre-backs well, his positional sense and clean tackling also release Kroos and Modric to do their stuff, less encumbered with defensive duties. It also enables them both to exert pressure higher up the field, when not in possession.

    So in came Mateo Kovacic, much improved this season with regard to positional discipline, and Isco, a player who divides opinion largely because he is seen as physically unimposing, and perhaps inconsistent. Nobody doubts his quality. It helped that Marcelo was back, of course, but the amusing thing about the pre-match chat was that this three-man midfield was somehow seen as suspect. Isco has 15 national caps for Spain, and Kovacic has played 31 times for Croatia. Sergio Ramos was out too.

    Was that a problem? Pepe is playing the best football of his career, and Raphael Varane (33 caps for France) continues to look one of the best centre-backs on the planet. He’s certainly the fastest. Indeed, Madrid’s defence looked better without Ramos, whisper it quietly.

    Further back in defence, Danilo looks much better this season and is good competition for Dani Carvajal, and Nacho (another full international) can slot in to either full-back position should the need arise. Fabio Coentrao (51 appearances for Portugal) is still around too. Perhaps the only positions where this ‘shadowing’ is less clear is when it comes to strikers.

    You could argue that Alvaro Morata, substitute on Saturday, is Karim Benzema’s natural shadow. The two players have similar characteristics, but players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale exist by virtue of their difference. There are no replacements for them, as such, and their absence obliges a coach to change the overall scheme.

    Perhaps the absence of these types causes the most damage to a side, until it eventually settles into its new patterns. Barcelona lack something without Messi, of course, but one day he will not be there. His occasional absences are a kind of rehearsal for Barcelona, a slow drip-feed of the truth of Messi’s mortality, of the fact that one day they will have to learn to cope without him.

    Meanwhile, Barcelona possess almost the same force in depth, although if you tried to argue that their goalkeeping slots are not as strong, Jasper Cillessen boasts 30 appearances for the Netherlands and is their undisputed Number One. The full-back shadows (Jeremy Mathieu and Aleix Vidal) look less convincing than those at Real Madrid, and if the MSN is broken up for any reason the jury is still out on Paco Alcacer.

    Then again, Rafinha continues to improve – although there is still no natural successor to Busquets, and Lucas Digne (14 caps for France), another natural left-back, got another game under his belt at the weekend.

    Sevilla, sitting in a dignified 3rd place at close of play, are only one point behind the two Madrid teams, but the validity of their challenge will surely be based on their ability to replace key players as easily as the big two. Do Atlético Madrid score highly enough in this respect? Good question, partially answered by Nicolas Gaitán, Atlético’s new signing who scored two after replacing Kevin Gameiro in the second half.

    Perhaps to compensate for the relative lack of shadows, all of Diego Simeone’s bench-men come onto the field with the dagger between their teeth – but that’s another story.

    Next weekend I’ll be visiting a La Liga stadium in the deep south for the first ever time. Stay tuned.