Who are the emerging stars of La Liga? We take a look at five young players who are set for big seasons in enhanced roles.
On Friday we ran the rule over some of the more obscure Premier League players who could make a splash, and here we've plumped for the better-known equivalents on the peninsula.
If you're a Liga aficionado, you'll likely already be acquainted with our selections, but the wider world is yet to wake up to the reality of their talents. All of these choices stand to play either more football or football at a higher level than last season and make the first step toward exploding into our consciousness.
Saul Niguez, DM/anywhere, Atletico Madrid
Saul Niguez is a man without a position, but he and Diego Simeone seem happy to take it slow before he settles into a certain role. The 20-year-old, who has been with Atletico Madrid since 2008, has been used all over the pitch for the last two years, broadening his understanding of how to play in different thirds of the pitch.
Nominally, he's a holding midfielder—we think—but he spent an entire season on loan at Rayo Vallecano playing centre-back under Paco Jemez and now plays wide right (or wide left) in Simeone's compact 4-4-2 when he does get a game.
A certain level of upheaval is expected at Atleti ahead of this Liga season due to the number of transfer ins and outs, and it's possible Saul bags himself a permanent role on the flank as the team's tactical stabiliser. Koke is expected to switch inside and finally take his berth as the commander and leader in the middle, while Tiago and Gabi share the secondary role.
Saul is 5'11"; he's too short to play as a centre-back in Simeone's system. The system Atletico use surrenders space out wide and invites crosses, meaning to play there in this team you need to be a Diego Godin, a Jose Maria Gimenez or a Miranda.
That leaves the stabilising role ahead of this season, and with Arda Turan gone, it's feasible to suggest Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco provides the punch on one flank, while Saul balances on the other. His aggression, positional awareness and high footballing IQ comes into play, ensuring Juanfran is either protected or covered when he roams forward.
Saul's aggression is brilliant, his passing and longer-range deliveries are good, though he does tend to get bottled up in tight spaces sometimes, unable to free himself to receive a pass. Given he's not a natural wide man, that's not a surprise, but he can render himself irrelevant in the buildup and almost force himself to make the longer pass. His use of space in this respect can definitely improve.
Atletico's system is rather specific and strange, meaning Saul can still thrive in wide midfield despite being a snappy, tenacious defensive-minded player at heart. Inside three years, he'll need to move central, though, and take his rightful place in the middle.
Marco Asensio, AM, Real Madrid
Marco Asensio is almost certain to leave Real Madrid on loan this summer, per Marca; while Rafa Benitez wants to take a closer look at him in pre-season simply to gauge his level, he should spent 2015-16 elsewhere in La Liga.
Said pre-season has been disrupted by his presence in the European U-19 Championship-winning Spain side, in which he played a central role with the No. 10 splayed across his back. It's delayed the decisions, but Asensio's burgeoning ability is hardly a secret on the Iberian peninsula.
What's startling is, in watching his tape from the Under-19 tournament, he looks eerily similar to Isco, stylistically, as a player. Ridiculously agile/mobile, a weaving dribbler and a master passer, Asensio plays as if he has the ball tied to the end of his boot with string, constantly luring defenders into challenges then skipping around them.
His ability to pick a through ball or longer pass is eye-opening, and he sets himself superbly before each ball, boasting superb balance to complement his quickness. In tight spaces out wide, he's deft enough to survive, able to draw in two markers, knock the ball past them and surge beyond.
Economical with the ball, though not a creatively destructive fault, Asensio is trustworthy in possession, rarely loses the ball and can be a side's main chance creator. There are numerous Liga sides who could incorporate his technical talents and stand better off for it, though switching to another league such as England may not suit due to his slight frame at the present time.
He lacks the slight stockiness of Isco and will therefore take a little longer to get to the stage where he can bat away any approach.
Samu Castillejo, Wing, Villarreal
Some choose to undersell Samu Castillejo as an extremely rapid winger who gets by on pace alone, but the truth is he's far more than that. Playing for Malaga, he tore Villarreal to shreds in May 2015 with a combination of speed and technical brilliance most wingers would be proud of, leading the Yellow Submarine to sign him the following month.
From where we're standing, that looks like £5 million well spent.
Castillejo is indeed more than just acceleration, agility, quickness and speed; he plays a traditional winger's role to the full, skipping outside with ease in order to swing crosses in from the touchline, but he also cuts in off the flank and heads toward goal, too.
He's left-footed and can play a No. 11's role from the left or start on the right and drift inside. His deep crosses are strong—that allowed Malaga to create dangerous chances without committing too many players forward, and the deliveries from these areas are at times reminiscent of those Nacho Monreal once provided for Los Boquerones.
The pace with which Castillejo can move while in possession is astounding, reminiscent of a very primitive form of Arjen Robben when tucking in off the flank and committing toward goal. But his end product is nowhere near good enough just yet—last season yielded only one goal and five assists from 28 Liga starts, per WhoScored.com—and he really can only play in the wide areas; he's yet to impact centrally at all as yet.
That could well be a by-product of playing for Malaga in a traditional role, and perhaps that part of his game is unlocked playing for a less rigid Villarreal as a probable replacement for Denis Cheryshev in the side. At 20, there's plenty of room to grow, and Castillejo has all the raw tools to succeed at the highest level, provided he takes that pivotal step forward in terms of production and influence on the scoresheet.
Santi Mina, AM/Wing, Valencia
Santi Mina is, as it stands, Valencia's only notable signing this summer. Fellow arrival Zakaria Bakkali balances incredible potential with an extremely questionable attitude, while Danilo has arrived on loan from Braga as a squad player.
Celta Vigo weren't at the top of everyone's wishlists when it came to settling in for La Liga football last season, so it's arguable Mina is still a relative unknown even among Spanish football aficionados. There's also the Iago Aspas precedent, set in 2013, that scares people away from believing in those who impress consistently for Os Celticos.
But Mina is a lovely little player who will move from strength to strength this season and prove a bargain at €10 million; he'll make up for the failure of Aspas in the same way the likes of Ron Vlaar, Daley Blind and Memphis Depay are steadily repairing the Eredivisie's reputation following the Afonso Alves fiasco.
At his best venturing inside from the right flank, Mina jinks in and out of challenges, dribbles with the ball at his feet well and presents a serious threat on goal. Unlike the aforementioned Samu Castillejo, who is yet to convert brilliance from 30 yards out into match-defining impact, Mina managed seven goals from 14 assists in La Liga last season, per WhoScored.com, and added one assist.
The most impressive part of his game is his ability to make runs and, more specifically, his knack of timing them to perfection. He's Pedro-esque (circa 2011) in the way he darts behind the full-back and latches on to good, cutting passes.
At Valencia, he must accept a lesser role but should still receive a good amount of minutes as Sofiane Feghouli's backup. He needs to add a little bulk to hold his own better and improve his finishing skills despite stumping up a decent return in 2014-15.
Ruben Duarte, LB, Espanyol
Ruben Duarte, a man of just 11 La Liga appearances for Espanyol, represents an intriguing prospect at left-back and has seriously impressed in his short stay at senior level so far.
In a way he's sort of the anti-Jordi Alba: Although fully capable of moving forward on and off the ball down the left flank, he's been utilised as a steadier, stabilising full-back by Los Periquitos. He broke into the XI in early February off the back of some strong Copa del Rey performances and stayed there; he has earned manager Sergio Gonzalez's trust.
Gonzalez has deployed him as a support left-back, pushing forward up to a certain point, playing positive passes forward but tending to stick tight to the centre-back and lock up the flank against counter-attacks. There aren't too many full-backs who do this, but Cesar Azpilicueta's protection of John Terry springs to mind.
He's a strong challenger and likes to put his foot in to fish out the ball, standing up against wingers well and often dispossessing them in one vs. one duels. He's reasonably quick, too, with good balance; he has enough about him physically to recover in space if he misses his challenge.
Espanyol used his ability to challenge, dispossess and break quickly to their advantage, sparking a number of counter-attacks from his flank late in the season. He plays simple, positive passes without over-complicating matters—a luxury, perhaps, among modern full-back tendencies.
Gearing up for a first full season as a starter, Duarte should continue to hone his craft and become a more consistently solid outlet. He sometimes gets caught up the field as he trusts himself to step up and engage the winger, even if it's too high. That positional aspect, and the knowledge of when to drop and when to challenge, develops with time and experience.