After 29 fixtures of La Liga, Paco López’s Levante is 15th at 14 points behind Getafe (fourth). Beyond this rank, his club has the fifth-best attack record in Spain. His biggest success is to have transformed his team in his image.
Since his arrival, Levante have tried some new ideas, impressing through style and would achieve a climb with a European qualification in May. But how have they achieved all of this?
In 2017, while Las Palmas play out from the back and Eibar swear by one of the most effective pressing systems in Europe, Levante played poor football, they played with a low-block, waiting for the best chances to counter. Their lack of identity cost them some easy games and in March, they were 17th with 21 points (3 wins, 12 draws, 12 loses).
On March 5 2018, Paco López was appointed. With the former reserve team coach, they did better. They dropped their low-block, too prudent a disposition which didn’t allow them to chase the opponent in their own half. The Spaniard implemented his identity: “in attack or in defence we move as one”
It began a season ago. On May 13, 2018, during the 37th game of La Liga, the Valencian club hosted Barcelona in Estadi Ciutat de València. Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona, were unbeaten in 43 La Liga games while Levante had just registered seven wins in a row. After 90 minutes, Levante won 5-4 and caused the first defeat of Barcelona.
A few hours after the match, Ernesto Valverde declared in his post-game press conference:
“They are actually in good form, they are fast in counters and certainly was a surprising game. Although is strange because let’s be clear, it is not normal to concede five goals because we have never been in this kind of situation during the entire season. However, we have to consider the fact Levante is a team which can score anytime, which doesn’t play without the pressure of relegation. We have to recognise their merit”
In the last 11 fixtures, they won against Getafe, Eibar, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla,and Barcelona, concluding the season with 46 points with an astonishing total of eight wins, one draw and two defeats.
Despite this statement from Paco López’s team, Barcelona lost once again in the Copa del Rey (1-2) before correcting that by winning 3-0 at Camp Nou thanks to their number ten. On December 16 2018, Barcelona suffered for half an hour before Lionel Messi came on and changed the game as usual (three goals, 2 assists) and allowed to his teammates to beat Levante by 5-0.
This performance was not a surprise as they have beaten Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu 2-1 (they were 2-0 up in the first fifteen minutes). Paco López changed his line-up from a flat 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2.
Before his coming, the team tended to sit back and counter-attack. With Paco López the team adopts another mindset, they advance to trouble the opponent. At home or away, they play in a 3-5-2 shape. Enis Bardhi who was forgotten by the former coach Juan Muñiz, now is an important player for Paco López (28 La Liga games) and considered as one of the best young midfielders in Spain. Levante paid just €1.5m to sign the Macedonian midfielder from Újpest.
When Levante fail to recover the ball, they organise themselves in 5-3-2 with an intense engagement in specific areas of the pitch. This season, the Granota bloc can let the opponent pass the ball around the box and close all the access to the central region. They occupy this area very well.
Versus teams who play largely with the ball like Barcelona or Real Betis, they switched in defence the 5-3-2 to a 5-2-3 with five defenders and three ball hunters. With this set-up they avoid any embarrassing situation in the box. If the team try to press the rival in his own half and recover the ball near to the opponent penalty area, the responsibility goes to the median bloc.
José Luis Morales
The set-up profits the skipper, José Luis Morales, as known as “El Comandante”. He can transform the transition phases in two moves into something deadly. Firstly, he takes advantage of the movement of his teammates to find the space to conduct the ball. Then, thus Morales is a redoubtable by his placement, his faculty to eliminate his direct opponents and to lead the way to his team. He is the leader (8 goals, 3 assists) of this fast attack alongside his partner Roger Martí who has 10 goals. Further, two others are his shadows including talented winger Jason, a key piece of the team when they were promoted to La Liga. After a good campaign (1 goal, 4 assists), he will play for Valencia next summer. And the last one, Borja Mayoral (3 goals), on loan from Real Madrid.
Levante know their limits. The centre-backs avoid playing short, they usually use two options to build-up: direct play to the forwards or they play to the side. In possession, Cabaco, Postigo, Roger and Vezo try long balls towards Jason or Morales. Cabaco is the archetype of a no-nonsense defender, similar to Atletico’s defender. José Campaña often offers a build-up more nuanced and supports the offensive phases. The box-to-box midfielders Enis Bardhi and Rubén Rochina, play in the half-spaces, to attack or participate in the build up.
Against Celta Vigo, with the dangerous Maxi Gómez, two of their four goals came from these patterns. If Rubén Rochina was impressive, Levante shone on several points: recovering the ball, build-up, attack, and fast counter.
On the other hand, those midfielders and the forwards occupy the half-spaces or run behind the lines. They are usually overloading the central areas as the main characteristic of Paco López’s team is to play on the flanks (39% of the attack come from the left side, 37% from the right side)
If they impress many journalists in Spain for their offensive prowess (40 goals scored), they have something lacking in defence. They have conceded nine goals on set-pieces and four goals from penalties. In total Levante is the 19th best defence in La Liga with 49 goals against. The other issue is discipline, the Granota players have already received 79 yellow cards and 5 red cards.
After a draw versus Eibar (2-2) and just nine games to play in La Liga, Paco López will certainly do his best to remain in La Liga. He has morphed the team in just a year from an easy opponent to a tough opponent. What is for sure, though, is that many of those players will be transferred next season to better teams.