Welcome to La Liga Hangover, a weekly column running throughout the season in which we take a look at the key stories and talking points from Spanish football's top flight's most recent weekend of action. With a focus on the biggest teams, such as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, and a worthwhile nod toward the rest, we take a look at how the league is shaping up each week and what to look out for going forward.
Negative Rafa Headlines Are Completely Keylor Navas' Fault
Real Madrid manager Rafa Benitez spent most of the buildup for this weekend's fixtures defending himself over, well, his defence. Accusations the Spaniard is a negative manager have plagued him throughout his career, with his teams showing an annoying consistency in being difficult to score against. The Mirror and ESPN FC were among those to run features on Benitez again rejecting claims of his team being defensive.
Clearly, having such resilient and committed defenders to call upon over recent years, such as Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Miguel Britos and Pepe, makes it unlikely his teams will ever concede too many chances.
Even so, the truth of it this year is different—Benitez wouldn't be having to deal with any of these questions over his integrity as an attacking coach if it wasn't for one man: Keylor Navas.
The Costa Rican goalkeeper is single-handedly responsible for Benitez having to try to point out to journalists that conceding three goals in 12 matches is actually a good thing. Navas has denied a string of opposition forwards with superhuman saves on a weekly basis that make the combined exploits of Spider-Man, Superman and David De Gea look lazy, lethargic and perfectly doable by the average armchair fan in comparison.
Nolito: "Navas saved four goals that I don't know how"— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) October 24, 2015
How many points is Navas worth this season?— Andres Cordero (@DreCordero) October 24, 2015
I've run out of words for this man. https://t.co/ykdNUloavJ— RMadridHome (@RMadridHome) October 24, 2015
VINE | La increíble salvada de Keylor Navas https://t.co/1jdX7Htv0G— Real Network (@lRealMadrid) October 17, 2015
Without those interventions from his first-choice goalkeeper, Benitez would have been basking in the much more healthy position of being the manager to take the team to the top of the table with the best goals-scored column.
Instead, he has had to fend off accusations from Laurent Blanc, Paris Saint-Germain manager, about Real Madrid being defensive. Per Sky Sports, Blanc stated in the week before their Champions League tie against Real, "I think Madrid are quite defensive. ... We are going to see two separate styles."
Clearly, Blanc had a crystal ball to look into the future and see his own team's swashbuckling, all-action, full-on attacking performance in the 0-0 draw, in which his side had one shot on target, according to WhoScored.com. At home. From a midfielder. With six forwards taking part during the 90 minutes.
Saturday's win over Celta Vigo was a classic example of Real's matches this season: They started fast, took the lead, then had to defend a period when the opposition looked the better and created a lot of half-chances. The half-time scoreline could have looked a lot different than 2-0 to Real had it not been, of course, for the interventions from Navas.
Saves from Nolito, Pablo Hernandez, Iago Aspas and Fabian Orellana efforts verged on the ridiculous, and only a pinpoint, top-corner strike—see below—from Nolito beat him in the end. The deserved acclaim for the stopper came from all angles as a result.
Keylor increíble. 👌🏼— James Rodríguez (@jamesdrodriguez) October 24, 2015
Of course, now Real are top and the last unbeaten side in La Liga, and still the top scorers, perhaps Benitez will get his wish. The Spanish media are already trying to find a different angle, and the manager will be delighted the defence can be seen to be creaking and shone under a different light.
"Statistics don't lie, the most shots faced," reported AS, which also ran a headline titled "Madrid more susceptible to shots on goal." Juanma Trueba stated there have been "questions raised" over how well the team are actually performing in defence because the lack of balance was "glaringly obvious" in the win over Celta.
That's a much better angle for Benitez to work with. Now if only that pesky goalkeeper of his would concede one or two more goals.
Jornada 9 Results
Rayo Vallecano 3-0 Espanyol
Celta Vigo 1-3 Real Madrid
Granada 1-1 Real Betis
Sevilla 5-0 Getafe
Malaga 2-0 Deportivo La Coruna
Levante 0-4 Real Sociedad
Las Palmas 0-0 Villarreal
Barcelona 3-1 Eibar
Atletico Madrid 2-1 Valencia
Athletic Club vs. Sporting Gijon, Monday 7:30 p.m. GMT KO.
Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid deserve massive applause for their efforts so far this season. Bedding in new players with the toughest opening run of games out of all the top sides, they have come through strongly and picked up a very impressive 2-1 win over Valencia on Sunday—arguably their best performance of the season so far.
The midfield harried, tackled, closed down and generally fought for every loose ball in a manner not seen since perhaps Real Madrid were overpowered and dismantled at the Vicente Calderon last season.
Los Che were two goals down at half-time and lucky it wasn't double that, with the Atleti forwards looking dangerous, the midfield unstoppable on and off the ball and Valencia's own centre-backs looking utterly woeful for a spell.
As reported by AS, Simeone had demanded more from his forwards in terms of scoring goals, and he certainly got that on Sunday. Jackson Martinez was unplayable in the first half, combining well, harassing the defence and taking one of his two chances to score with aplomb. From the second line, Tiago and Gabi were at their irrepressible best in winning and providing a supply line, with Koke and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco both putting in their first genuinely top-drawer performances of the season.
The latter's goal was an exhibition in what Simeone wants from his players: work rate, skill, pace and end product.
Though the eventual winning margin was a single goal, don't be fooled: Atleti were far, far better than Valencia, and only an unnecessary barge from Diego Godin gave Los Che a way back into the match via the penalty spot. Dropping points never looked on the cards for the home team, and they are just two points off top spot having already faced Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal—the other five teams of last season's top six—after just nine league matches.
Goal of the Weekend
Carrasco announced his real arrival to the Atletico Madrid side with a sumptuous goal and all-round performance against Valencia. Not all of the goal is shown here—he won the ball, cut inside, took on a defender and then let fly.
El golazo de Yannick Ferreira Carrasco para el 2-0 🙌🙌 https://t.co/r4oABoPqds— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti_Goleador) October 25, 2015
Better angle for Nolito's goal https://t.co/dq4t7orKHS— FootySays (@Footysays) October 24, 2015
Points of Authority
- Celta Vigo's attackers are ignoring what made them such a success at the start of the season: team work, one-touch combination plays and running off each other. Nolito, Aspas and Orellana were far too individualistic against Real Madrid and created fewer clear-cut chances as a result.
- Villarreal cannot afford a long slump if they have genuine top-four aspirations this season. A record of three games without a win, having topped the table beforehand, leaves them looking suddenly like falling off a cliff into the mediocrity of Europa League—they face Sevilla and Barcelona in their next two league fixtures.
- There is already a gap developing between sides looking for European football and the rest. Expect Sevilla (and Valencia over a longer period) to continue closing the gap, but a four-point buffer between fifth and sixth is telling of where the quality really lies.
- Speaking of Sevilla, Unai Emery may well have played his ideal first choice-XI on Saturday. The centre-back pairing of Timo Kolodziejczak and Adil Rami, the midfield three from last season and Yevhen Konoplyanka playing well in tandem with Kevin Gameiro all looked the part. Michael Krohn-Dehli for Vitolo should certainly be a consideration, though that would exchange incision, vision and passing ability for raw pace.
- Valencia switched to a 4-4-2 to try to replicate and match up with Atletico Madrid. It worked in terms of bodies in midfield areas, but Atleti's relentless pressing and tackling, along with superior one-touch ability in the final third, exposed Los Che too often in the first half. It's also arguable that their starting forward pairing—Santi Mina and Rodrigo—was too lightweight and similar, working channels, not running behind or drifting centrally, to trouble Atleti's defence.
- Toni Kroos is a changed man at Real Madrid. Now accustomed to the holding role where he dictates play from deep and helps win back possession, he hasn't been anywhere near as penetrative or threatening in a more advanced role as one of two advanced midfielders in a 4-3-3 shape, as he used to be at Bayern. Can Benitez coax this back out of him? Does he want to? Or is Kroos now set to be much more Xabi Alonso than Mesut Ozil with his passes and supply line for the rest of his career?
- Quique Setien, the new Las Palmas manager, has already laid down his plans. A back four was in place at home to Villarreal rather than the back three/five Paco Herrera used. Herrera did switch to four at times in recent games, but it certainly indicates a willingness from the new man to do things his own way, as did the lineup itself; there were first Liga starts for Vicente Gomez, Nabil El Zhar and Tana on Sunday.
Good Week, Bad Week
Luis Suarez has been criticised, fairly ridiculously, in some quarters over recent weeks for not scoring enough. A hat-trick against Eibar was the perfect response from the Uruguayan, taking him to seven for the season in eight appearances—or a goal every 103 minutes.
It was nice of Sevilla to share the penalty-taking love around. Already two goals up against Getafe, the Andalusians wrapped up their big win with three spot-kicks in the second half. Ever Banega took the first but let Gameiro take the second to complete his hat-trick. With both those players subbed by the time the third was awarded, Konoplyanka took over the duties. All three scored.
Only Real and Atletico Madrid have conceded fewer goals than Malaga—but the south coast side were in the relegation zone until Saturday on account of their inability to score. Big props to Adnane Tighadouini and Juankar for doing the business this time out to help move the club up the table a little.
It's too early for such predictions really, but it would be no surprise if two of the current bottom three—Levante, Granada and Las Palmas—were relegated at the end of the season. Those teams, along with Sporting Gijon, must be seen as the most likely contenders based on performances and quality on show in the opening quarter of the campaign.
Barcelona are severely lacking in midfield bodies, with Andres Iniesta, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto all out injured. As such, the last thing they needed was a stupid suspension—which Javier Mascherano duly provided them with by being sent off for less-than-complimentary words toward an official. He could face a four-match ban, missing El Clasico as a result.
Espanyol shipped three goals against Rayo Vallecano to become the first team to concede 20 this season. Few teams' defences are leaky enough to keep pace with the goalscoring exploits of the Barcelona and Real Madrid attacks, but Espanyol are managing it so far.