Worst XI of 2013/14 La Liga Signings

Nick Dorrington@@chewingthecocaSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 22, 2014

Worst XI of 2013/14 La Liga Signings

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    With the Primera Division season having now come to a close, the time is right to analyse the purchases made by the league’s 20 clubs and pick out the worst XI of the 2013/14 La Liga signings.

    At the top end of the market, Barcelona lavished €57 million (plus more to advisers) on Neymar, while Real Madrid paid €91 million to sign Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur. At the lower end, the league’s less financially able sides were forced to trawl the bargain bins for free transfers, loans and cheap signings from the lower divisions or abroad.

    We present here a first XI of dud purchases, taking into account on-pitch performance, value for money and potential for future improvement.

    All transfer details and player-appearance records courtesy of Soccerway unless otherwise stated.

Guillermo Sara / Stephan Andersen: Goalkeeper, Real Betis

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    Real Betis lost a number of their best-performing players last summer but made the grave mistake of trying to rebuild the squad on the cheap. Then-sporting director Vlada Stosic brought in 14 new players, including two goalkeepers to replace the outgoing Adrian, now of West Ham.

    Adrian had been one of the revelations of Betis’ seventh-place finish the year before, and it soon became apparent that neither Guillermo Sara, signed from Atletico Rafaela in Argentina, nor Stephan Andersen, a free transfer from Evian, were a suitable successor.

    Both new goalkeepers were primarily shot stoppers and failed to command their area in the same manner as the man they were signed to replace. Indecision reigned in the Betis defence, and they conceded an average of 2.24 goals per match (author calculation) across the 21 matches the pair started between the beginning of the season and late January.

    At that point, they were replaced by former Real Madrid goalkeeper Antonio Adan, signed on a free transfer from Cagliari. Bigger, stronger and more proactive in coming for the ball, he conceded an average of 1.82 goals per match (author calculation) in the remaining 17 matches of the campaign.

    Andersen departed for the Netherlands in January, while Sara’s loan deal is unlikely to be extended or turned into a permanent deal.

Cristian Sapunaru: Defender, Elche

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    Signing a player on a free transfer is no guarantee of a bargain. There are still wages to be paid and the old saying often rings true: You get what you pay for. That was certainly the case with Elche’s signing of Cristian Sapunaru from Real Zaragoza.

    In just eight starts, he managed to concede five penalties and receive five standard bookings, plus two others that led to red cards. Elche possess in regular starters Albert Botia and Damian Suarez two of the most aggressive defenders in La Liga, but even they came nowhere near to equalling Sapunaru’s cards-per-match ratio.

    The Romanian may even have been in with a shot of beating his own Primera Division record of 19 bookings in one season, set at Zaragoza in 2012/13, had numerous injuries not limited his participation.

    Having survived the drop, Elche are now looking forward to next season, with Sapunaru one of the players they wish to move on this summer, as per Alicante Actualidad (in Spanish). His three-year, €1 million-a-year contract means that is likely to be easier said than done.

Jordi Figueras: Defender, Real Betis

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    The purchases of La Liga’s bottom-finishing club, Real Betis, feature heavily in this list of the Primera Division’s worst signings, and the second Betis player to be included is Jordi Figueras, signed for €500,000 from Club Brugge.

    It is difficult to imagine what the Betis scouting staff saw in Figueras; slow, clumsy and error-prone, he made Antonio Amaya look quick and Paulao appear slick. Betis went down 5-0 away to Atletico Madrid in his second start for the club, and his performances rarely improved thereafter.

    The nadir came at home against Osasuna in mid-January. Figueras was brought on at half-time, booked two minutes later, and then put through his own net before the hour mark.

    It was that kind of season, both for him and Real Betis.

Didac Vila: Defender, Real Betis

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    If your starting left-back was already a couple of years the wrong side of 30 and had managed his lowest number of appearances in four years the season before, the last thing most sane clubs would do is sign a backup option with a history of injury problems.

    But that is exactly what Real Betis did last summer when they signed former Espanyol full-back Didac Vila, on loan from AC Milan, to compete with the then-32-year-old Nacho.

    Didac had failed to make a single appearance for Milan in the 2012/13 season, and his lack of genuine fitness was apparent in a series of sluggish performances for Betis over the course of the season.

    As per Squawka, he made the fifth-highest number of errors leading to goals per 90 minutes of any player in La Liga, while also failing to provide the required forward thrust.

    When Nacho unsurprisingly suffered fitness problems of his own, it left Betis fielding right-back Chica or left-winger Juan Carlos out of position at left-back. It was signings like Didac that led to Betis sporting director Vlada Stosic losing his job in December of last year.

Benat: Midfielder, Athletic Bilbao

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    Benat was Athletic Bilbao’s most expensive purchase of the summer transfer window, at €8 million from Real Betis, but he failed to establish himself as a key component of Ernesto Valverde’s Champions League qualifying side.

    Instead it was Mikel Rico, signed for just over a third as much, who established himself as a regular in Valverde's starting XI.

    In truth, Benat never looked a great fit for the direct, high-energy football favoured by Valverde. His lack of stamina had already been apparent during his time at Betis but became a real problem under a more demanding regime. He completed just five of the 12 league matches he started.

    Benat may get more opportunities next season, particularly if Ander Herrera moves on, but still remains unsuited to the sort of football Athletic currently play. It is difficult to imagine him improving his fitness and conditioning sufficiently to become a first-team regular.

Xavi Torres: Midfielder, Real Betis

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    The fourth Betico on this list is Xavi Torres, the club’s most expensive pre-season purchase at €2.8 million from Getafe. It was anticipated that the strong and steady defensive midfielder would become a fixture in the side, but injuries soon intervened.

    Niggling hamstring and calf complaints plagued him in the early part of the season before he fractured his Achilles tendon, as per Marca (in Spanish), during a Europa League match against HNK Rijeka in mid-December. The injury ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign.

    His fitness problems may have been difficult to predict, particularly as he had managed 34 or more appearances in each of the previous three Primera Division seasons, but there was still little need for Betis to spend nearly €3 million on him.

    Torres had been solid, yet unspectacular at Getafe–and at Levante before that–and Betis already had players capable of filling his position. It was an unnecessary purchase for a team suffering financial difficulties and an outlay they are unlikely to be able to recoup this summer.

Asier Illarramendi: Midfielder, Real Madrid

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    There was plenty of eyebrows raised when Real Madrid paid €30 million to sign Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad last summer. It always looked like a hugely inflated amount of money to pay for a player with just 53 La Liga appearances to his credit, and his performances throughout the season have justified that point of view.

    Illarramendi has been far from terrible, but he has failed to live up to his price tag. Despite the faith shown in him by coach Carlo Ancelotti, he has appeared overawed on occasion, choosing the simple option for fear of making a mistake.

    Marca recently reported that Illarramendi’s teammates have told him that he has to be quicker and more decisive in possession.

    The next couple of years will be the true litmus test for Illarramendi’s hopes of forging a long-term future for himself at Madrid, but he has done little this season to suggest he will be at the heart of the club’s midfield for years to come.

Joan Verdu: Attacking Midfielder, Real Betis

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    Yet another Betis player and perhaps the most disappointing of all of the club's summer signings. While question marks were raised over a number of their purchases, Joan Verdu appeared an excellent signing on a free transfer from Espanyol.

    Verdu had scored nine goals and provided three assists the previous season and, as per Marca (in Spanish), Betis beat Olympiakos, Southampton, Villarreal and city rivals Sevilla to his signature.

    But things never clicked for the attacking midfielder at the Benito Villamarin. In direct contrast to the slick and energetic Salva Sevilla, he was slow and indecisive in possession and showed little inclination to help out defensively. He failed to take on creative responsibility and ended the season with just a single goal and two assists to his credit.

    Verdu came under increasing fire from frustrated Beticos as the season wore on, and it is difficult to see a way forward for him at the club. He signed a four-year contract on terms it seems unlikely Betis will be able to afford in the Segunda Division, and it would not be surprising to see club and player come to an agreement to see him released this summer.

Kike Sola: Forward, Athletic Bilbao

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    Athletic Bilbao’s self-imposed restriction that only allows them to sign players of Basque origin can make things difficult when they need to fill certain holes in their squad. They had a gap in the striking department following Fernando Llorente’s departure to Juventus last summer and filled it with Kike Sola, signed for €4 million from Osasuna.

    Sola arrived at the club on the back of a solid, nine-goal season, but if Osasuna had not had Athletic’s Basque-only policy in their favour during negotiations, it is highly unlikely they would have fetched any more than a couple of million Euros for a 27-year-old striker with only 21 previous top-flight goals to his credit.    

    Sola had little opportunity to prove the doubters wrong during an injury-plagued season in which he made just five appearances for his new employers. As per Marca (in Spanish), a calf problem saw him miss four months of action between September and January, before a muscle injury ruled him out for the rest of the season in early March.

    Sola will therefore begin the 2014/15 season in much the same position as he began the last, just a year older and with more legacy injury problems to his name. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that he will prove good value for money.

Leo Baptistao: Forward, Atletico Madrid / Real Betis

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    After a breakout season in 2012/13, in which he scored seven goals and provided six assists, as per WhoScored, Atletico Madrid paid Rayo Vallecano €7 million to sign Leo Baptistao last summer.

    Baptistao struggled to make an impact in his sporadic appearances for Atletico during the first half of the season and was loaned to relegation candidates Betis in January. He started brightly but failed to maintain his early promise, eventually producing just one goal and one assist in 13 appearances.

    More worryingly in respect to his long-term future at Atletico, Baptistao’s energy and stamina were often found lacking during his spell at Betis. Atletico coach Diego Simeone requires his strikers to both drop back and help out defensively and break quickly when possession is won, things that may be beyond the skilful but relatively sluggish Baptistao.

    Rayo coach Paco Jemez drew the best from Baptistao’s somewhat peculiar talents, but it still remains to be seen whether the Brazilian forward is capable of performing at a similar level in a side not specifically set up to get the best out of him. He is still only 21 years old, but at this stage it is difficult to imagine a future for him at Atletico.

Helder Postiga: Forward, Valencia

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    Valencia signed Helder Postiga for €3 million from Real Zaragoza following a good 2012/13 campaign in which he scored 14 goals for a side that were relegated from the Primera Division.

    He was one of two forwards (the other being Dorlan Pabon, more on him later) signed with the proceeds of Roberto Soldado's transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, but he never looked likely to match Soldado's prolific scoring rate.

    Postiga never really got going at the Mestalla, scoring just three goals in 15 appearances before being shunted off on loan to Lazio in January. Paco Alcacer stepped into his shoes, scoring six goals in the league and a further seven in Europe to establish himself as Valencia's first-choice striker.

    It seems unlikely that Valencia will have much luck recouping their investment in Postiga, so there remains a possibility that he could return to the club next season. If he is willing to accept a limited role, his intelligent movement and link play could still be invaluable in certain situations. He is, however, highly unlikely to regain a regular starting berth.

Dishonourable Mentions

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    Outside of those already mentioned, here are some more players who were in contention but just survived selection.

    Alexandre Coeff: Defender, Granada

    Signed on loan from parent club Udinese, who in turn paid €1 million to sign him from Lens, Coeff was little short of disastrous in his appearances for Granada. Poor positionally and clumsy in the tackle, two of his eight starts resulted in 4-0 defeats away to Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla.

    Toby Alderweireld: Defender, Atletico Madrid

    The Belgian international was unable to force his way into the Atletico side on a regular basis but was solid enough when called upon and did score a vital goal in the title run-in. The €7 million Atletico paid to sign him from Ajax could still prove to be good value.

    Josuha Guilavogui: Midfielder, Atletico Madrid

    Guilavogui made just one substitute appearance for Atletico before being loaned back to his previous club, Saint-Etienne. He was clearly signed for the future, but €12 million was still a big sum of money for Atletico to spend on a player uninvolved in first-team action.

    Dorlan Pabon: Forward, Valencia

    Pabon failed to make much of an impression following his own €7.5 million move from Monterrey. He had scored three times in 13 appearances before moving on loan to Sao Paulo in January.