Eye on La Liga's Next Crop: Can Villarreal, Athletic or Sevilla Shake Things Up?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2016

Villarreal players celebrate their second goal during the Spanish league football match Villarreal CF vs RC Celta de Vigo at El Madrigal stadium in Vila-real on October 16, 2016. / AFP / JOSE JORDAN        (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSE JORDAN/Getty Images

On a weekend when the big guns of La Liga let off enough fireworks to permanently change the composition of the atmosphere, it was quite the achievement that the league's "next crop" still managed to distinguish themselves amid the smoke.

Just before Atletico Madrid's exhaust fumes dominated the Spanish capital, Sevilla broke a hex just down the road, temporarily grabbing top spot with a late winner at Leganes.

Twenty-four hours later, after Barcelona and Real Madrid had done their thing, Athletic Club Bilbao then announced themselves in the Basque derby, continuing a hot run with a 3-2 win that was more dominant than the final margin suggested.

Not to be outdone, Villarreal then showed they have some explosive contraband of their own, demolishing Celta Vigo to the tune of 5-0 at El Madrigal.

It means the division's top six are separated by three points. Collectively, they've prompted the question: Has La Liga got itself a team or two capable of shaking things up?

If the neutral's heart says yes, history says no. Staying within reach of La Liga's behemoths has been like staying within reach of London house prices. You might briefly think you have a sniff, but quickly the reality becomes sharing a two-bedroom flat with a guy whose internet search history is dubious. 

Recent seasons have demonstrated it. Celta were flyers this time last year and Sevilla were hot early on the year before. It was Malaga before them and if you go back to 2011-12, Levante topped the table after eight rounds, the point we've reached now. Look where that got them. 

Still, the temptation is always to believe this time might be different. We're not talking about a member of the "next crop" marching to the title here. It's more a question of whether they can hang around; whether they can disturb the top three; whether they can give the league's summit a different complexion for long enough to make a few of us believe, even just for an instant. 

Can one of them shake things up?


Villarreal (5th place, 16 points)

Eight rounds into the season, Villarreal look very much like Villarreal, and that's rather surprising in itself.

Parting ways with your successful manager a week before the season starts isn't normally recommended. Hiring a replacement who was last seen getting sacked by a team on their way to relegation isn't the advised response, either. But hey, what do we know?

Taking over after the tumultuous departure of Marcelino, Fran Escriba is doing just fine. Before the league kicked off, we said his swapping of Getafe for the European ambitions of Villarreal was like swapping the aisle seat next to the rear toilet in economy for the champagne of business class. As it turns out, Escriba looks good with the Moet.  

Despite the early blow in the Champions League play-offs, Villarreal have gone unbeaten in the league and have steadily picked up momentum with each passing week, and that's no small feat.  

Villarreal Results in La Liga
Opponent (H/A)ResultScore
Granada (A)D1-1
Sevilla (H)D0-0
Malaga (A)W2-0
Real Sociedad (H)W2-1
Real Madrid (A)D1-1
Osasuna (H)W3-1
Espanyol (A)D0-0
Celta Vigo (H)W5-0

The early part of the summer left an ominous look for the club's season. Eric Bailly went to Manchester United, Denis Suarez went back to Barcelona and Tomas Pina moved on. Strikers Roberto Soldado and Cedric Bakambu then got injured, leaving a new boss and new-look squad with little time to get it right. But get it right they have, for the most part. 

Escriba has avoided the temptation to rip it up and put his own distinct stamp on the club. Trusting the 4-4-2 of Marcelino, he's found a solid foundation thanks to the continuity offered in midfield by Bruno and Manu Trigueros.

It also helps when you've got a settled, stingy defence. Victor Ruiz, Mateo Musacchio, Mario Gaspar and Jaume Costa might not be names that jump off the page, but for familiarity and defensive excellence, they're going stride-for-stride with Atletico. 

So can Villarreal push on? That will depend on their ability to evolve in attack, and the early signs are encouraging.

In the absence of Soldado and Bakambu, Nicola Sansone has made an early case for signing of the season. Fellow new arrival Roberto Soriano has taken a little longer to get going, but his smooth brace against Celta might be his take-off point. And who knows what we might get from Alexandre Pato?

It's not just about personnel, though. The slight knock on Marcelino's Villarreal was that they were a little too cautious and predictable. They were a slick counter-attacking side but often struck as formulaic and lacking in variation. Among the top seven sides last season, they were the lowest scorers by a distance and quite incredibly finished fourth despite recording the fewest shots on goal in the league. 

It's early days, but Escriba looks to be addressing that subtly. At times away from home, we've seen the new boss move away from the two men up top and go for an extra playmaker in midfield in a 4-2-3-1. He's also spoken about unshackling his side to a degree.

"This squad has more than enough reasons to play different styles," he said after the win over Celta, per the official club website. "If there was something to improve it was positional play. Having players like Trigueros, Jonathan [Dos Santos] and Bruno and limiting them to staying tight and defending is using less them for less than what they're capable of doing."

Those who populate El Madrigal will have liked what they heard on top of what they saw. It spoke of a team ready to take a step stylistically, and when you've got the foundation Villarreal have, there's something quite alluring in that idea. 


Sevilla (3rd place, 17 points)

"Anyone who lives within their means," Oscar Wilde once said, "suffers from a lack of imagination." You suspect Jorge Sampaoli might have that tattooed on his arm. Actually no, he has this: "I don't listen and follow, because a lot of what's forbidden fills me with life."

The line is a lyric from an Argentinian song, Prohibido, and so neatly sums up Sampaoli in a way Wilde would approve of. 

The Sevilla manager is a man of rebellion. It's his constant message and what he's striving for at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, where perhaps the boldest project in La Liga is taking place. 

Sampaoli has taken over from Unai Emery, looking to create something totally unique. He wants his Sevilla to be daring and to attack. He wants them to challenge both themselves and perceived boundaries. They're giving it a good crack, too. 

Sevilla Results in La Liga
Opponent (H/A)ResultScore
Espanyol (H)W6-4
Villarreal (A)D0-0
Las Palmas (H)W2-1
Eibar (A)D1-1
Real Betis (H)W1-0
Athletic Club Bilbao (A)L1-3
Alves (H)W2-1
Legates (A)W3-2

The Andalucians have five wins from eight and 17 points from 24, putting them ahead of Barcelona for now. On the opening weekend of the season, their 6-4 win over Espanyol was a bonkers extreme of what they're attempting to be.

Since then, their football has been a little less kamikaze, but the idea behind it has remained as audacious as Otto the bulldog on his skateboard. 

From day one, Sampaoli's system has predominantly been a 4-1-3-2. It's an aggressive template, and becomes even more so when full-backs Mariano and Sergio Escudero push so high that it almost functions as a 2-1-5-2. Steven N'Zonzi in the anchor role has been given more space to cover than the Starship Enterprise. 

This, though, has made Sevilla the hardest team here to get a read on. Sampaoli's men rank second in the league for average possession and third for total passes, insistent on dictating terms. But this is a revamped team still coming to grips with what's being asked of them. "Our style of football is still wearing nappies," the manager said in pre-season, and that's still largely true. 

Both structurally and stylistically, there's a messiness to Sevilla. From defence, N'Zonzi and a centre-back ensemble in Adil Rami, Gabriel Mercado, Timothee Kolodziejczak and Nico Pareja aren't adept enough at orchestrating moves from deep in the way the system demands. In attack, there's a coherence or clarity missing. So how are they where they are?

Through a relatively gentle fixture list, flashes of talent and little moments have been enough. See the late, fortunate comeback against Las Palmas; the scrap past Alaves; the almost-throw-it-away job at Leganes; the chaotic but narrow defeat of Real Betis.  

The encouragement, though, is that the scope for improvement is huge. Franco Vazquez looks like an excellent signing. Pablo Sarabia does too. Elsewhere, Luciano Vietto and Wissam Ben Yedder have the potential to make a potent strike duo, and Samir Nasri has quickly established himself as a leading figure in midfield. 

What if it clicks? Well, we might get more of that stuff from the second half against Espanyol, when Sevilla were a white stampede. There are no guarantees it will and they're very raw, but good things often start that way. 


Athletic Club Bilbao (6th place, 15 points)

If there's still a sense of Sevilla not quite knowing who they are yet, Athletic Club Bilbao have no such concerns. Few clubs in Europe have an identity as established as theirs, and the current crop is what we've come to expect: feisty and intense, foot flat to the floor. 

On Sunday at San Mames, Ernesto Valverde's men served up plenty of that against Real Sociedad in the derby. Sevilla and Valencia saw some of it, too, and even Barcelona found life uncomfortable beside the Nervion, where tackles crunch, elbows fly and the "Athleeeeetic" chants can be deafening.  

There's a certain look about Athletic right now. They're more settled than others and have started at a decent clip. Five wins in six point to a team on the rise, so why do they feel like the glossed-over one of the bunch?

Athletic Club Bilbao Results in La Liga
Opponent (H/A)ResultScore
Sporting Gijon (A)L1-2
Barcelona (H)L0-1
Deportivo La Coruna (A)W1-0
Valencia (H)W2-1
Granada (A)W2-1
Sevilla (H)W3-1
Malaga (A)L1-2
Real Sociedad (H)W3-2

As the current season approached, intrigue centred elsewhere. The shake-ups at Villarreal and Sevilla grabbed attention; a newly ambitious Espanyol were a major focus; the plight of Valencia gripped many; when the football did kick off, Las Palmas announced themselves. But Athletic? 

Stability doesn't fill column inches or radio blocks. As is often their way, Athletic's summer was a quiet one. The only deals done were on the periphery of the squad, and all six new faces weren't really new at all—they were promoted from within. 

The club's strict transfer policy was a factor, as ever. As such, Athletic felt, well, the same. But that's not strictly true. 

This season, both Ander Iturraspe and Iker Muniain are fully fit again, adding crucial depth that was often missing last term. The former gives Valverde options in midfield alongside Mikel San Jose and Benat, while the latter is a precocious attacking talent. Try this on for size

It doesn't end there. Holding on to Aymeric Laporte in the summer was big, given his yearly progression. Inaki Williams is also better now than he was 12 months ago, and it's worth remembering Athletic have a fully integrated Raul Garcia right from the start this time, not one who arrived on the final day of the window as he did last season. 

Valverde has a nice blend as a result. The midfield has enough polish to capably serve an attack that's pacey out wide and brutal up front, led by the timeless Aritz Aduriz. A flying full-back in Oscar de Marcos is there to offer support, and though the centre of the defence is young, the talent there is promising.

So what's possible? 

When Athletic are playing with the swagger dial on full, they're a team that stirs something a little primal. The energy, physicality and pressing can be intoxicating, but at times that's problematic, whipping them into a frenzy in which recklessness reigns. It's part of the joy of Athletic and there's a balance they must strike. 

The thing is, they've got the team to do it. 


All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.


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