This piece is part of a preview series where we speak to journalists covering Europe’s top leagues. In this edition, we spoke to Talking LaLiga’s Simon Harrison, taking down his thoughts on the upcoming LaLiga season as Barcelona look to retain their crown while there are seismic changes over in the capital with Real Madrid losing coach and talisman and Atlético Madrid have greatly reinforced themselves.
Title winners and Champions League qualifiers:
Barcelona are nice and settled heading into the new season, while Real Madrid are without Cristiano Ronaldo and now managed by a coach with plenty to prove: Julen Lopetegui. Although Ernesto Valverde has admitted that he was sad to lose Paulinho, generally the reigning champions have only lost a few players from the fringes. The bulk of their squad has remained the same, with the addition of Malcom adding a little more unpredictability going forward. That solid base should stand them in good stead, and they have to be favourites to retain the title. Atletico Madrid have recruited very well indeed, adding Thomas Lemar, Rodri and Gelson Martins to an already solid squad, and they will fancy themselves to be breathing right down Barca’s neck. Valencia have added some extra meat to a squad that struggling to cope with a congested fixture list at times and will be looking to replicate their fourth-placed finish.
Best player and Golden Boot winner:
Best Player will likely go to Lionel Messi, along with the Golden Boot. Antoine Griezmann will be on a high after winning the World Cup, with the likes of Rodrigo, Maxi Gómez and Gerard Moreno some players to watch from other clubs, with Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale vying to try and prove that losing Ronaldo won’t hurt Real Madrid too badly.
Best players under the age of 23 to watch out for and those who could have a breakout campaign:
Stanislav Lobotka: The 23-year-old Celta midfielder was terrific last campaign and will be incredibly important this season too, with the playmaker vital for an engine room which has lost a couple of faces this summer. In terms of technical ability and intelligence, Lobotka knits things together brilliantly in central midfield and will be the difference between Celta having an average or impressive 2018/19.
Rodri: After returning to Atlético Madrid this summer, the Spain international is tasked with anchoring the midfield and taking over from the departing Gabi. In his first full LaLiga season, which came at Villarreal last term, he highlighted that he has the blend of technical ability, footballing brain and physicality required to be a dominating deep-lying midfielder, with Diego Simeone doing brilliantly to snap him up as quickly as possible.
Pablo Fornals: Still just 22 years of age, Fornals showed that he could take the step up from Malaga to Villarreal seamlessly last season. The Spain U21 international chipped in with 12 assists and three goals in LaLiga action, with his vision and weight of pass helping El Submarino Amarillo to cut apart their opponents with ease at times. The creativity and flexibility that he offers should make him a vital asset for Javi Calleja over the coming months.
Rodri: Atletico Madrid moved quickly to resign Rodri, securing his services for a fee in the region of 20-25 million euros, an absolute steal in the current market. Rodri has all of the tools to be one of the best deep-lying midfielders in the world, he is incredibly complete and should provide the perfect balance for Atleti’s midfield. He can work hard as Simeone wants, but he also offers a presence that can drop deep and help build through midfield, a profile of player that the club have lacked for a while.
All of the clubs who have come up from Segunda will have their work cut out, with Rayo Vallecano, Huesca and Real Valladolid not having the funds to make a dent in the transfer market. Valladolid lost top goalscorer Jaime Mata to Getafe and will be relying on loan deals to try and plump their squad up. From the clubs that survived last season, Leganes could be in trouble if Diego Rolán and Guido Carrillo don’t get firing under Mauricio Pellegrino, while Levante will be hoping that Paco López’s first few months in charge weren’t a flash in the pan, given that they are reliant on Morales to both create and score the bulk of their goals. Girona were a revelation under Pablo Machín during their first Primera season, but Eusebio’s appointment is not too inspiring after a poor final season with Real Sociedad: if he looks to change their style of play, they could struggle to hit the highs of the Machín era.
Possible over and under achievers:
Eibar could be in for a more difficult campaign, after losing the likes of Ander Capa, Dani Garcia and Takashi Inui without much in the way of financial recompense. José Mendilibar and all of his coaching staff have renewed their contracts for another year, but it does feel as though their squad has taken a bit of a step down in comparison to past season. Athletic Club and Real Sociedad should both kick on massively compared to 2017/18, however. They’ve got Eduardo Berizzo and Asier Garitano in charge respectively, with some constructive transfer business done for both clubs. After wallowing in obscurity for a while, the Basque regions big two should be back in the fight for Europe.
Possible managerial revelation:
Mauricio Pellegrino’s Alavés side were terrific in the not-so-distant past, with their counter-attacking style and stout defending meaning that they could trade blows with the division’s big boys without needing a prolific goalscorer. Leganes are in the same situation this time around, with no proven goalscorer at this level and a squad that is designed to defend deep before looking to get forward at pace and cause opposition teams problems. Given that his new squad should match the Alavés blueprint, things could be set up nicely for Pellegrino to prove his managerial credentials again after a poor spell at Southampton, but the situation teetering on a knife edge to begin with. They could lack the cutting edge to win enough games but shouldn’t be ruled out to cause an upset or two.