The immediate future of LaLiga’s clubs in the Champions League over the next 48 hours has more permutations than your hapless lottery numbers face every time they go in the draw and ultimately fail to make you a multi-millionaire. But it’s feasible that by late Wednesday, a country that barged muscularly into this season’s competition with an armada of five clubs is down to one miserly survivor.
It would be an unprecedented calamity.
Simply qualifying five clubs for the greatest-ever club football competition is a rarity. Only the three highest-ranked UEFA nations (of late: Spain, England, Germany) get to send their top four league finishers direct into the massively lucrative Champions League group stage. In order to get a precious fifth in, you need to have a “joker” team — one that’s good enough to win the Europa League and thus gain that precious “extra” slot in Europe’s top club competition, but isn’t quite powerful enough to finish in the top four of their own league.
Only Spain and England have managed to win the Europa League since it gifted automatic qualification to the “big brother” tournament. But generally, the side that does so (Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Sevilla) is also logically, and sufficiently, resourceful to finish in the top four domestically too. The outliers have been Villarreal (this season), Manchester United and, once, Sevilla.
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Yeah, yeah — before any LaLiga fanatics descend into an apoplectic rage, there’s an alternative vista (although unlikely) where, with Madrid already sure to go through, Los Blancos are joined by Sevilla, Atleti, Villarreal and even Barcelona. I’d love to know the odds being quoted for that happening, though one thing’s certain: they should be fiendishly big.
One reason why LaLiga’s performance in the Champions League is drooping — six wins for Madrid and Barcelona in the eight finals between 2011 and 2018, but no wins or even finalists since — is that a group of the other elite clubs in Europe have eagerly recognised, and adopted, a hybrid brand of football that’s beyond the best in Spain right now.
Over the past three or four seasons, most of LaLiga’s finest have tended to play slower, more precise and more strategic football. Equally, they tend to lack either the means to ferociously press and dominate, like Liverpool, Chelsea, Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain or Juventus at their best, or to blitz athletically up and down the pitch in waves of counter-attack, only to then spring back into place like they were on the end of an imaginary bungee cord.
We’re talking in broad-brush descriptions, yes, but the trend has been that the best in Spain over the past handful of seasons don’t possess the same intensely ferocious, repetitive and highly-drilled “automatismos” as their peers in England, Germany, France and even Italy. Nor, crucially, do most of Spain’s top teams have the scintillating ball-players who characterised their previous 15 years of dominance, those talents allowing their teams — including the national side — to counter ultra-athleticism, height and power with total control of possession.
Madrid are exceptions, though this column isn’t really about them. Not only have they qualified, and need only fight for top spot in their group with Inter Milan; they counter-attack with beautiful, lightning, synchronised speed, which might not be unusual in the Bundesliga or England, but is certainly a massive strength for them in Spain and, now, an automatic need in the Champions League. They haven’t fallen as far behind in the trend of how the rest of Europe’s big boys want to play as their LaLiga cohorts. Also: let their midfield have time on the ball, as Liverpool discovered last season, and Messrs Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos can still make you miserable.
With the ball, they can still dominate you the “old” way.
That’s not to slander Sevilla, Atleti or Villarreal, all of whom have recently won the Europa League. The hard fact for them as clubs, and for their fans, is that each of them is managed by a guy with conservative footballing values.
Diego Simeone, Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui are all coaches who are open-minded about their teams playing to entertain, but are certainly not outright committed to the concept. Those three guys see “not losing” at all costs as far more natural, far more important than going all-out for victory. Their teams are hard to beat, but they don’t usually play equivalent sides off the pitch with urgent, high pressing, physically and athletically dominant wave after wave of high-tempo football.
Look at their tactics, their pitch positions, their substitutions and how narrow their scorelines usually are — all of this is across a long enough period to get a firm impression — and the analysis becomes obvious.
Simeone, Emery and Lopetegui are hugely successful, well paid, highly experienced and extremely clever in how they understand, plan and propose football. You wouldn’t bet aggressively against one or other of them lifting the Europa League trophy in Seville next May. But none of them, right now or indeed recently, is proposing the same sort of playing ethos that’s taken for granted at Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG and Atalanta, or that was recently identifiable at Dortmund, Manchester United, Juventus and Inter Milan.
It was inevitable that this breach was coming, too.
During the era when Spain, clubs and country, dominated with a particular brand of technical, possession dominated, press-oriented football, other top nations were bound to take the concepts, process them and add them to existing ideas about height, power, athleticism and stamina. Barcelona, for the purposes of this argument, need to be set aside: they’re in the muck because they’ve been an indescribable mess in their football planning, spending and re-stocking for the last four or five years.
All of which adds to how interesting and impressive Rayo Vallecano have been this season. Under the management of the former Athletic Club and New York City FC full-back Andoni Iraola, the modest (that’s a euphemism) Madrid-based club are perhaps Europe’s shock side this season: unbeaten at home, fifth in the table, victors over Barcelona and only four points off second place.
What stands out, however, is the way they play, as it’s close to unique in LaLiga.
It’s not as if Sevilla, Atleti and Villarreal play risk-free, football, but they are populated by expensive, skilled, individually excellent “star players.” If any of those three teams attacked the “Rayo way,” not only would it be pretty sensational to watch, but they’d be far more in-line with the general trends among the top sides in the Bundesliga, Premier League, Ligue 1 and Serie A.
Have you watched Rayo much this season? It’s rewarding and exhilarating.
Iraola still cares about team shape, about defending well and keeping clean sheets. But Rayo’s two full-backs and their four attacking players — usually Iván Balliu and Fran Garcia as the wide defenders, plus Alvaro Garcia, Isi Palazon and Oscar Trejo behind either Sergi Guardiola, Randy Nteka or Radamel ‘El Tigre’ Falcao — are all told to attack their opposite numbers as often as possible and with as much pace and trickery as they can muster. The thrill of the one-on-one duel.
It probably helps that, growing up, Michael Laudrup was Iraola’s favourite player. You can’t adore the “Great Dane” and not want your team to play daring, attacking, front-foot football as well.
Rayo’s current philosophy is low-concept, but highly effective. It’s buccaneering to watch, and the players are clearly loving the liberty they’re given to attack and try and best the opponent nearest to them. Above the din of Rayo’s radical, noisy, loyal, disbelieving, anarchic and lovable fans, you can hear the “click” of a football philosophy slotting perfectly into place with the capacity and appetite of just about every player in Iraola’s squad.
Rayo’s budget being what it is — they spent less than 5 million euros total last summer — there aren’t many obviously Champions League quality players in their squad (or at least that’s how it looked when they were promoted in the summer), but they keep moving ominously near the qualification positions for that tournament. And it’s far, far easier to recognise the type of philosophy Liverpool, Chelsea and Atalanta have in Rayo’s performances, pound for pound, than in those of Sevilla, Atleti and Villarreal.
Iraola told El Mundo recently: “Football has fundamentally changed in terms of physical preparation. You and your rivals have studied each other so much that there can no longer be weak links. You can no longer afford to have defenders who only defend, because you have to initiate while your opponent attempts to squeeze you and find weaknesses. That’s made the player-prototype change: everyone must be more complete.
“Compared to a few years ago, everything on the pitch happens much faster, and footballers must be better prepared physically. Those who are only good with the ball will have a difficult time surviving because the coaches are demanding more and more of them. At the European level, these types of teams — Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern — already dominate. They stand out from the rest because in addition to being technically very good, they all run and all work.”
Wisdom, realism and clarity from someone whose club is humble but a man from whom, I’m saying, Emery, Simeone, Lopetegui — and perhaps even Xavi — stand to learn important truths that, Spain’s Champions League performances this season suggest, have been forgotten or ignored for far too long.