La Liga: boring and uncompetitive… or so the clichéd – and rather ignorant – saying goes. Two hotly-contested clasicos a season is the entirety of some people’s La Liga viewing, often coming to the assumption that it is only a two-team affair. In some respects, they are correct, but more than anything this is a sign of two extremely talented and historic clubs outshining the rest rather than the others being absurdly poor. There are clear signs, however, that the muchly exaggerated gap between ‘them’ and ‘the rest’ is diminishing further.
Currently, the top four in the La Liga table look familiar – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla – and the bottom three are somewhat predictable too – Huesca, Rayo Vallecano, Leganes – but this is not the same as ever. Sevilla are, at the moment, top of the league – by a single point – and Real are in fourth, level on points with Espanyol and Alaves in fifth- and sixth-place respectively.
Other statistics also back up the argument that this season, there are differences. The top-scorers – Cristhian Stuani (8) and Andre Silva (7) – play for Girona and Sevilla. The most passes have been completed by Mandi of Real Betis, the man with the most successful crosses (Jonathan Silva) is at Leganes – and in the relegation zone – whilst no one has more assists than Alaves’s Jony – although Leo Messi has as many.
The problem was never so much that Madrid and Barcelona won every league title – although only a single title won by another team in the last 14 years isn’t exactly great – but rather the risk that they won it too easily. Every game was a win, every performance a show and, in many respects, the title race became mundane. If a league is judged by the competitiveness of its title race, then La Liga has certainly fallen short in that regard.
As has become the case across Europe, title-winners come from a small group of clubs – often those well acquainted with money. But realistically, the quality of the teams behind the league leaders is too readily overlooked. None more so than in Spain where despite not being involved in the title-race come April and May, there are teams with quality and expectations being exceeded.
This season in La Liga, nobody is winless or unbeaten – and we are only at match-day eight. Incorrectly, some suggest a league with leaders on 16 points after eight games is ‘cheap’ and reflects badly – by its very nature if everyone is capable of beating each other then competitiveness is rife, even if invincibility is not.
Only a few years ago an Atletico Madrid player confided that his side weren’t capable of winning a ‘100-point league’, but they didn’t need to. Their title victory in 2014 was arguably the most merited in recent memory, there were no record points tallies but rather a hard-fought campaign that brought plenty of twists and turns. Now, four years on, Sevilla lead the way with 16 points.
The reason? Well in part it is down to the failings of Real Madrid and Barcelona who have both only won half of their eight matches thus far. Atletico too have seemingly embarked on a now familiar early-season journey where they start trying to change before realising they were better off the way they were. The way things are in Spain, everything – and it literally is everything – is viewed from either a Madrid or Barcelona standpoint; having national newspapers and radio stations dedicated to both doesn’t help and often leads to many voices in the league going unheard, stories untold and club achievements unheralded.
That is why now, there is growing pressure on Julen Lopetegui and even Ernesto Valverde – who seemed practically unflusterable last season – is beginning to sweat. Real, for instance, have attempted to carry on as they were despite selling their greatest player of the modern era and leading goalscorer season after season without replacement. The attempt to make Madrid a more collaborative team and shifting from an individualistic approach to more of a collective one has lost efficiency early on.
No goals in four matches highlights Real’s current issues, but deeper than that there is a question of responsibility in a team now lacking its main character. And yet roll back 12 months and Cristiano Ronaldo was also struggling to find the net, signifying that this is in part down to chance. Real are creating chances but their efficiency is letting them down.
Likewise, Barcelona are far from convincing. They have been behind in six games in a row, highlighting that their issues lie in defensive. There is little reason to believe that their problems are systemic but rather individual errors and mistakes have cost them. Their performances have consequently suffered and the aura that was present only a matter of months ago is ebbing away.
Although La Liga has tended to be a two-horse race – and became a three-horse race when Diego Simeone arrived back in Spain – it was never because the rest were donkeys. Between them, Spanish sides have won nine of the last 10 European trophies; Spain accounts for four of the top six sides in the Uefa rankings whilst Villarreal and Celta Vigo have also been European semi-finalists in the last three years. Albeit European success may be more attractive to those in Iberia than England – due to the economic benefit of finishing in the top four of the Premier League rather than winning the Europa League – the achievements should rightly be noted nevertheless.
And yet more improvements are coming; none more so than the greater economic control of the league and the clubs which is bringing stability for both. Administration and insolvency have almost gone from the top two divisions, the television deal is now collective and the income is increasing. Changes have had to be forced through by the league in certain areas, and despite the flack that Javier Tebas rightly receives; he has certainly done something right.
The gap between top and bottom is not quite so stark. There is a gap but rather than between clubs in La Liga, it is between countries. The English Premier League is a marketing machine and one that its Spanish counterparts are trying to replicate. There is more and more emphasis on taking Spanish football to foreign climbs; recently there has been a push to position the league in the Asian market whilst there is much debate surrounding the supposed match between Girona and Barcelona taking place in Miami.
In the end, it comes down to increasing revenues for both the league and the clubs. There is a large difference in the resources available to the ‘average’ La Liga club and those in the Premier League; the measures being taken aim to narrow that as much as possible. There are signs that the smaller clubs of La Liga are benefitting– Eibar have led the way, but also Girona and Leganes have shown that small clubs with minute budgets can improve season by season and become first-division regulars. Espanyol, Alaves and Valladolid all currently sitting in the Europa League spots only signals their intent. And with no runaway league leader, there really is a lot to play for and a lot to be excited by.
Equality is something to strive for; Leganes (third from bottom) beat Barcelona (second from top), Betis beat league leaders Sevilla whilst Valladolid jumped from the relegation zone to top-seven in three matches. For La Liga to become more competitive it was always going to require the top-two dropping down a level or two rather than the others rising up. There are signs that there is movement in both directions. It is a mix of genuine shifts and chance, this is more than just a one-off and certainly not freakish.
But, in reality, it may not last. By the end, the same teams will most probably be there. But there is no denying that it feels a little different, there is increasing power, quality and headlines at the ‘other’ clubs. The gap is diminishing – how quickly and by how much is yet to be determined – but while it continues, La Liga will be even more enjoyable than it was before.