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5 Things We Learned in La Liga: Week 4

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The league's elite continue to improve, while Valencia continue to sink to historic lows.

CD Leganes v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The MSN are deadly, no matter the formation

Luis Enrique decided to tinker with his formation over the weekend, deploying a 3-4-3 against Leganes. It’s a set-up the Spaniard has used a couple of times before, but it remains somewhat of a novelty to viewers of the Catalan side.

Before Lucho, Pep Guardiola used it in about a third of Barcelona’s matches during his first season, while it was also the personal favorite formation of legend, Johan Cruyff. Although the players may have lined up the same, the philosophy on how the team would attack couldn’t have been more stark. When Guardiola and Cruyff were in charge, it was all about the team as a collective. While the present incarnation still dominates their fare share of possession, Barcelona's tactics are largely centered around getting the ball to Messi, Suarez and Neymar quickly, and as often as possible. Leganes played a fearless game, admirably implementing a high-press that Lucho knew he could take advantage of. It took a while, but if Barca’s midfield could beat the press, their front three would find themselves up against just three defenders a large share of the time.

It was a dream scenario for the Blaugrana and one they would take every day of the week. Since the summer of 2014 when Suarez joined Messi and Neymar at the Camp Nou, the trio have scored 270 goals in 318 appearances, including an astonishing 79 percent of Barcelona's goals last season in La Liga. As long as they continue to decimate the competition with such efficiency, the formation is just window dressing to the monster behind the curtain.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Sporting de Gijon - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Atlético does a little formation changing of their own

Not a single person with functioning eyeballs would ever describe Diego Simeone as an attack-minded manager. After all, his Fort Knox mentality has brought prosperity of the likes his club has never seen. But Saturday against the previously unbeaten Sporting Gijon, Simeone diverted to an offensive playbook, trotting out a line-up with two strikers (Griezmann & Gameiro), two wingers (Gaitan & Carassco), while shifting Koke and Saul to the midfield. It was a welcomed sight for many, including myself, who have been banging the table for Koke to be switched to his more natural center-midfield role for months now.

The move immediately paid dividends, with Atleti going up 2-0 inside just four minutes, and 5-0 eventually through the stellar play of Antoine Griezmann. Match-ups will certainly dictate how Atleti lines up going forward, with a more conservative approach likely to be embraced mid-week against Barcelona. It was certainly refreshing to see Simeone finally recognize the offensive talent at his disposal, unleashing it against lesser sides that would be prime for the taking.

Manchester United v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Celta may miss Nolito more than we (I) thought

Nolito’s tremendous campaign a season ago went down in Celta lore. In guiding his club to a place in the Europa League, the Spaniard scored 12 goals and provided 7 assists, capturing the eye of Vicente Del Bosque and earning a call up for his country in the Euro’s. It was then no surprise to see clubs such as Barcelona and Man City come knocking on his door, with Nolito eventually moving to the Etihad to ply his trade under Pep Guardiola. Replacing your sides most talented player is something that is almost always easier said than done, but Celta fans held out hope with the summer signings of Giuseppe Rossi and Pionte Sisto.

It’s early, but so far things have not gone according to plan. Celta’s attack has been more toothless than a homeless man in Times Square, managing to score just one goal in their opening four matches, collecting just a solitary point in the process. Newly promoted Osasuna became the latest team to keep a clean sheet against them this weekend, highlighting how much less clinical the Galicians are in attack than a season ago. Now sitting in the relegation zone, a side that was fancied for their offensive prowess must get it together fast.

RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

James Rodriguez proves his worth

Going into Barcelona without a fit Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo would normally spell a death sentence. Luckily for Los Blancos, they were facing that other team in the city. It may have not been very impressive, but the play was effective enough to create the requisite chances for the victory. Once all but gone from the Spanish capital, James Rodriguez was afforded a rare start and did not disappoint. His 25 yard effort broke the deadlock, pushing his goals from outside the box to 11 since joining Madrid (Only Messi has more in that time).

Zidane has slowly brought the Colombian back into the rotation, instilling confidence in him at a time that was so desperately needed. The squad have seamed to apply the mantra of their manager, that all players will be treated the same and that hard work is just as important as natural talent. Madrid's last 11 La Liga goals have now been scored by 11 different players, a stat almost inconceivable at a club that relishes in individual glory. James may not have a place in the Starting XI, but this “6th man” role is something he has seemed to embrace and Madrid are better off for it.

Villarreal v Monaco: UEFA Champions League Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Villarreal have steered the ship

Before the season could even begin, their manager was sacked after a falling out with the club president amid circumstances which still remain shrouded in mystery. Then, their starting forward, Roberto Soldado, tore his right knee up in a pre-season match sidelining him for up to 6 months. With a little more then a week to prepare, successor Fran Escriba was thrown straight into the fire with a Champions League playoff against Monaco as his first match. His side predictably struggled, crashing out of the tournament before it essentially ever began.

No, that version of the Yellow Submarine was never going to be confused with the Beetles.

But things started to turn in their draw against Sevilla. If it weren’t for Sergio Rico channeling his inner Gigi Buffon, Villarreal would have easily came out with the 3 points. Since then, they have recorded three wins in eight days across La Liga and the Europa League. Their summer signings have started to gel, with the latest coming in the form of Nicola Sansone. The Ex-Sassuolo man bagged a brace, including one from over 50 yards that would make even David Beckham blush. Still unbeaten, their most challenging task lays ahead with a mid-week trip to the Bernabeu and a date with record seeking Real Madrid. Villarreal’s confidence has now been significantly raised and they would love nothing more than to be the side to prevent Madrid from making La Liga history.

Musings and other random thoughts

  • Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos and Aritz Aduriz are the only players to have scored at least once in the last 12 La Liga seasons.
  • Messi became the first player to ever score in 34 Primera Division stadiums, eclipsing the previous record of 33 by Raul.
  • Aritz Aduriz has scored 38 goals since last season, more than any other Spanish player (all competitions).
  • Valencia has joined Werder Bremen as the only two clubs in Europe’s Top 5 leagues yet to record a point this season.
  • Sevilla became the first La Liga side ever not to have a Spanish player in their starting line-up against Eibar on Saturday.