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Spanish Column: The snub of champions, Bale-Isco dilemma and more

A brand new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World.  Adam Gray here documents the latest talking points in Spanish football.

Spanish Column Atletico

Atletico’s changed tactical approach finally proving successful while their stars get snubbed at the La Liga awards

When accepting his “Best Coach” award at the La Liga awards for last season, Diego Simeone would have been astonished that none of his title-winning Atletico Madrid side were able to share an accolade with him. Despite having the league’s best defence, the goalkeeper who kept the most clean-sheets and a striker who hit 27 goals, Thibaut Courtois, Miranda, Diego Godin, Koke and Diego Costa were all overlooked for the player awards.

It adds to the poor treatment of Atletico Madrid by the LFP who failed to deliver the championship trophy to the club until 105 days after they won it, yet it will fan the flames of the siege-mentality that Simeone has built his team on. The Argentine would hint towards that in his acceptance speech, “We do not feel belittled by the situation. “You can’t criticise a colleague for winning an award, but the system is what dictates the names we consume every-day” he said, “I know that we annoy people today — if you have to play against us, it isn’t going to be easy. The demands are greater all the time.”

Marking their 5th win in 6 games with a 4-2 victory over Cordoba, there were signs Atletico’s title defence is beginning to take shape with a new style, caused by the loss of the likes of David Villa, Costa and Juanfran in the summer and also by a new adaptation from the opposition who have changed their own style to avoid being overwhelmed by Atletico’s pressing and sharp counter-attacking. They are yet to score a league goal on the counter this season, being forced instead to take a more patient approach with Simeone instructing Koke and Arda Turan to move wider in midfield to stretch the play while Gabi and Tiago patrol the middle. Full-backs Juanfran and Guillherme Siquera are also charging forwards to add more support in wide areas and Juanfran, who crossed for Antoine Griezmann to score from a header against Cordoba, already has 2 assists from right-back.

Koke is tied with Lionel Messi as the league’s most proficient assist maker with 7 so far, yet most have them have come from set-pieces as Atletico have already scored 13 goals, compared with their total of 18 last season, from dead ball situations. 2 more came on Sunday, with Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic both converting Koke deliveries and Simeone would have been especially pleased with the 2-goal performance of his €30 million signing from Real Sociedad. Pressure was building on the Frenchman who had registered the most attempts in La Liga without scoring going into the game with Cordoba and Simeone was vocal in his request for him to do more for the team in his attacking midfield position. His brace would have been a huge relief as he comes into form in his new surroundings and his performances will be vital as Atletico seek to build momentum in their title defence. He just needs to be warned not to expect any recognition from the LFP.

Malaga shore up to build good form

Boasting the second best defence in La Liga with only 8 goals conceded is Javi Gracia’s Malaga who won four games in a row for the first time in 3 ½ years with a 0-1 win at Real Sociedad. Only Barcelona, Sevilla and Atletico are conceding more shots on goal per game than Malaga’s 9.8 and such discipline is owed a lot to the steely shield provided by defensive midfield duo Ignacio Camacho and Sergi Darder.

Despite handing 56.5% of the possession to Sociedad at the Anoeta, the home side managed just 4 shots on goal to Malaga’s 6 and the vital strike, scored by Juanmi on a rapid counter-attack initiated by the excellent Nordin Amrabat, cost Jagoba Arrasate his job, sacked after winning just one of Sociedad’s opening 10 games. Former Manchester United manager David Moyes is now linked.

Will there be a way back for Gareth Bale?

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has said that £85 million record signing Gareth Bale will start when he returns from injury but Isco’s recent form will make that decision extremely difficult for the Italian. Bale’s absence has seen a shift from a 4-4-3 to a 4-4-2 and the introduction of a more fluid attacking unit, with Isco and James Rodriguez occupying the spaces either side of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Madrid have hit 19 goals since Bale last played for them and they were rampant again on Saturday as Granada were dispatched 0-4 with Rodriguez scoring twice and Ronaldo each getting a goal and 2 assists.

Isco already has 4 assists compared to the 7 he managed in the whole of last season and has a better pass completion rate, at 90%, than he managed last term. The crux of Ancelotti’s decision however will likely to be based around defensive contribution, with the manager saying “The 4-4-2 is a system that is good defensively, and which helps us press better when we don’t have the ball”. The statistics in that sense stack up against Bale, with Isco contributing 5 interceptions compared to Bale’s 1, with 15 tackles largely outweighing Bale’s 4.

The Welshman made his return against Liverpool in the Champions League tie, coming on for Isco. But his return to the starting line-up may not be quite that simple.

La Liga to be the home of another Ballon D’Or?

Meanwhile, another goal for Ronaldo took him up to 23 for the season so far, boosting his already solid argument for the 2014 FIFA Ballon D’Or, the nominations for which were announced last week. The Spanish league has housed the last five winners of the award, shared between Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, and with the Portuguese in irresistible scoring form, he has already notched 17 league goals, it looks to be heading back again.

There have been calls for one of Germany’s World Cup stars, particularly Manuel Neuer and Phillip Lahm, to be recipients of the award with an outside chance for Arjen Robben. But the case for two of La Liga’s biggest stars is far to solid in the race for football’s biggest individual honour.

Talent Radar Player of the Week

Enzo Roco: The centre-half was brilliant as Elche earned a vital win, their first in seven matches, at home to Espanyol, making more tackles than anybody else with 4 and also making an assist, pumping a long ball up from the back which Jonathas converted after poor goalkeeping from Espanyol’s Kiko Casilla. With his team going down to 9 men as Espanyol looked to recover from 2-0 down, Roco organised his team well and proved an immovable force, winning all 4 of his headers as Elche remained firm. Since signing on loan from Universidad de Chile in the summer, Roco has made a total of 9 blocks, 37 clearances and has won all of his 13 attempted tackles in the league so far, that kind of committed and measured defensive play will be important if Elche are to avoid relegation this season.

Written by Adam Gray

Adam Gray

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