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Barca Blaugranes La Liga Preview, Part 3: Osasuna, Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Real Valladolid, Villarreal

A team-by-team look at 2019/20 season of the Spanish league

Real Betis v Las Palmas - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Just two more days!

As the weekend approaches, we run through our third group of teams that will battle in La Liga in 2019-20. In Part 3 we look at the last of newly promoted teams, a couple of mainstays looking to rebound from frustrating campaigns and a rather fortunate survivor from last season. With three groups down, we are left to ponder the league’s big boys – Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia and the Madrids, Atlético and Real. Stay tuned!

Las Palmas v Osasuna - Liga 123 Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images


Established: 1916

City: Pamplona, Navarra, Basque Country (481 km / 299 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): El Sadar (18,761)

Coach: Jagoba Arraste

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Chimy Ávila, LW (€2.7m, from San Lorenzo, in Argentina); Marc Cardona, CF (€2.5m, from Barcelona); Darko Brasanac, CM (€1m, from Real Betis); Pervis Estupiñán, LB (on loan from Watford U-23)

Departures: Carlos Clerc, LB (free transfer, to Levante)

Where we’ve been…

Once a fixture in La Liga, Osasuna have spent four of the past five seasons in the second tier. For three and a half of those seasons they did not look a threat to rise up the ranks. Even in the 2015-16 season in which they were promoted, they needed a result on the final day of the regular season plus a tie-breaker to secure the final promotion playoff spot.

For much of the season, 2018-19 looked as though it would be more of the same. In their first 12 outings, Osasuna had won three times, accumulated an unremarkable 13 points and had a negative goal difference. And then, as October gave way to November, a home date with Málaga kick-started an incredible run of results, one that would endure for the remainder of the season and see them lay waste to the rest of the division.

Over their last 30 games Osasuna racked up a staggering 71 points, won 22 times, lost just three, had four different three-game winning streaks and two four-game streaks. They allowed just 24 goals over those 30 games — 17 in 28 in we exclude a pair of rough trips to the Canary Islands.

Osasuna needed 19 games to climb above seventh in the league table. Once through that barrier, they took had a seven-week stopover “in the top five” en route to the top spot, which they would hold for the final 16 games. When all was said and done, Osasuna had accumulated 87 points, eight more than second-place Granada, scored a league-high 59 goals, and conceded 35, fourth-fewest in the league. Roberto Torres and Juan Villar paced the team in goals, scoring 12 apiece, while Rubén García (11) and Kike Barja (6) led the way in assists.

Where we’re going…

Which version of this team is for real? If the Osasuna that hits La Liga this season is the airtight defensive unit that ran roughshod over the Segunda for three quarters of a season, safety will not be much of a concern. Any regression to the middling form of the preceding weeks (and seasons) will very quickly have this team in a tooth-and-nail fight for survival.

With the exception of one key departure – left-back Carlos Clerc, who played 89 minutes played per game in 40 of 42 games and anchored the defense, every significant contributor is back. Loanees Rubén García and Brandon are now with the club on a permanent basis, joined by Ezequiel “Chimy” Ávila, a talented winger acquired from Argentine side San Lorenzo, most recently a loanee with Huesca, with whom he scored 17 goals and provided five assists in 69 games over two seasons. Darko Brasanac has also arrived from Betis to bolster the midfield, while Pervis Estupiñán and ex-Barcelona prospect Marc Cardona have been brought in to strengthen the side.

If continuity, combined with minimal losses and targeted additions allow Osasuna to pick up, more or less, where they left off, then this team has a shot at laying at Getafe-esque foundation. If the step up in competition, the loss of a vital defensive contributor and natural regression — teams don’t often win more than 70% of their games for very long — outweigh continuity, this season will be a slog. As is often the case, reality likely resides in the middle, and we are looking at an Osasuna team that will struggle with consistency, but should have enough success against bottom-half opposition ensure survival.

Real Betis v Las Palmas - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Betis Balompié

Established: 1907

City: Sevilla, Andalusia (996 km / 619 miles southwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio Benito Villamarín (60,720)

Coach: Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (“Rubi”)

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Nabil Fekir, CAM (€19.75m, from Lyon); Juanmi, RW (€8m, from Real Sociedad); Emerson, RB (€6m, from Brazilian club Atlético Mineiro – shared signing with Barcelona); Dani Martín, GK (€5m, from Sporting Gijón); Víctor Camarasa, CM (end of loan – returns from Cardiff City)

Departures: Giovani Lo Celso, CM (loan from Paris Saint-Germain made permanent for a fee of €22m – loaned to Tottenham Hotspur); Pau López, GK (€23.5m, to AS Roma); Junior Firpo, LB (€18m, to Barcelona); Sergio León, CF (€4m, to Levante); Darko Brasanac, CM (€1m, to Osasuna); Jesé, RW (end of loan – returned to Paris Saint-Germain)

Where we’ve been…

To watch a Quique Setién team at its best is an uplifting experience. Setién is a man for whom process and philosophy are as important as final results. He is a man focused on playing the game the right way and understanding why things are as they are, rather than one looking to adopt any approach, no matter how cynical or antithetical, in pursuit of a simple result. This is the man who played against Cruyff’s Barcelona, spent the entirety of that time chasing the ball, to little effect, and decided that he’d like to be on the other side. Control the ball, play from the back, and control the match. However, when the entire team is not on the same page, the result tend to be disjointed and frustrating.

The underlying numbers suggest that Betis wound up roughly where they deserved to be in the league table. For anyone that watched this team play, however, 10th place and 44 goals scored feels simultaneously fortunate and underwhelming. In the first four games of the season – against Levante, Alavés, Sevilla and Valencia – Betis controlled possession to the tune of roughly 65%, attempted 57 shots, 22 of which were on target, and came away with a single goal. And yet, despite the frustration, they coaxed five points out of those games and sat 10th in the table.

Despite getting on track as the season wore on, the consistency of the 2018-19 campaign of never came. Big wins (4-3 at Camp Nou, 1-0 over Atlético Madrid) were followed by lackluster showings (defeats to an underwhelming Villarreal and 3-0 to Leganés) and all too often the successes felt labored. No one scored double-digit goals (Giovani Lo Celso led with nine, followed by Sergio Canales with seven), though five different players set up at least four goals, with Cristian Tello leading the way with six.

In the end, despite playing at a level similar to that which earned them a European spot the previous season, Betis fell short of expectations and parted ways with Setién at season’s end.

Where we’re going…

Taking Setién’s seat is Rubi, an itinerant Catalan coach who’s most recent exploits include guiding Huesca into La Liga, before leading Espanyol to the sixth spot that had previously belonged to Betis. The 49-year-old has amassed an impressive and lengthy coaching resume dating back to 2001, one that includes successful spells with Girona and Valladolid, as well as a spot on Tito Vilanova’s staff at Barcelona. It is interesting to note, however, that for much of the past two decades, his coaching tenures tend to last a single season. What to make of that?

What is more certain is that we can expect a stylistic shift at Real Betis, in part because Rubi employs a far more pragmatic approach than Setién, and because the team will be looking to replace a number of vital pieces. Most notably, star playmaker Lo Celso and left-back Junior Firpo are gone, as is goalkeeper Pau López. There are apparent replacements on hand, with Nabil Fekir set to assume midfield playmaking duties, and Brazilian Emerson (an odd “joint signing” with Barcelona), though not a true like-for-like, to fortify the defense. Replacing López could prove a greater challenge, as last season’s backup, Joel Robles (one goal allowed per game in five starts), is the only keeper of note currently on the squad.

Betis remain a top-half team in terms of talent, but the immense turnover of the summer, on the pitch and on the bench, will likely result in a period of adjustment. A slide is to be expected, though there is far too much competence and experience here for it to be too severe. This looks like an upper-mid-table side, though a finish around 12th place would not be shocking.

FC Barcelona v Real Sociedad - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Sociedad

Established: 1909

City: San Sebastián, Gipozkoa, Basque Country (520 km / 323 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Reale Seguros Stadium (formerly Anoeta) (42,300)

Coach: Imanol Alguacil

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Portu, AM (€10m, from Girona); Alexander Isak, ST (€6.5m, from Borussia Dortmund); Modibo Sagnan, CB (€4.5m, from French club Lens); Alex Remiro, GK (free transfer, from Athletic Bilbao); Martin Ødegaard, AM (on loan, from Real Madrid); Promotions from Real Sociedad B: Ander Barrenetxea, LW; Aihen Muñoz, LB; Robin Le Normand, CB; Ander Guevara, CM; Andoni Zubiaurre, GK

Departures: Gerónimo Rulli, GK (move to French club Montpellier seemingly imminent); Juanmi, RW (€8m, to Real Betis); Héctor Moreno, CB (€8m, to Al Gharafa, in Qatar); Jon Bautista, CB (loaned to Belgian club KAS Eupen); Theo Hernández, LB (end of loan – returned to Real Madrid)

Where we’ve been…

This is arguably the most mid-table team that La Liga had to offer in 2018-19. La Real finished 9th in the league, and did so while scoring 45 goals (12th), allowing 46 (tied for eighth-fewest), and spent 31 of 38 weeks (including the final 21) between seventh and 11th in the table. Mikel Oyarzabal led the way with 13 goals, with Willian José scoring 11. Only eight times in 38 games did they and their opponents combine for more than three goals, but their games saw 91 goals hit the net. Totally and completely fine. Sleepy and stress-free, even.

Where we’re going…

The 2019-20 season promises to be more eventful. One could say that this simply by default, but there’s actually a fair bit going on here. For starters, completion of a €47 million project to upgrade Anoeta is imminent. However, before the squad can begin acclimating to its new home, they will play some home games (initial speculation suggests three) in Bilbao while the project is completed.

Meanwhile, the on-field unit is also undergoing alterations. This will be most apparent on defense, where center-backs Héctor Moreno and Jon Bautista and left-back Theo Hernández are all gone. The arrival of Modibo Sagnan (from Lens) and the promotions of Aihen Muñoz (LB) and Robin Le Normand (CB) provide depth and should cushion the blow, but the turnover is significant.

Compounding matters is the seemingly imminent departure of goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli. After six seasons in San Sebastián, Rulli appears destined for French side Montpellier (there’s been Napoli chatter as well). He’ll yield a decent sum on the open market, but this is a blow, and leaves the team with a uncertain goalkeeping corps consisting of 22-year-old B-team prospect Andoni Zubiaurre, 34-year-old Miguel Ángel Moyá, who made 11 appearances last season, allowing one goal per 90, and Álex Remiro, formerly of Bilbao.

On the bright side, the attacking unit returns largely intact. Despite rumors linking him to clubs in England or Athletic Bilbao, Oyarzabal rejected all suitors and signed a new contract to remain with the club through 2024. Willian José is also back, along with the midfield trio of Adnan Januzaj, Mikel Merino and Luca Sangalli. The only loss in attack is Juanmi, who turned in three solid (if declining) seasons with the club. He will be missed, though incoming reinforcements Portu and Martin Ødegaard (yep, that one), plus B-team promotions Ander Barrenetxea and Ander Guevara should fill the void.

This is a season of transition in San Sebastián. From adjusting to a slightly new home, to rebuilding the defense, Real Sociedad are facing some challenges. However, there is enough continuity and talent in midfield and attack to carry them this season. They may slip a spot or two in the table and get pulled into more shootouts, but this team should remain a fixture in the middle third.

Valencia CF v Real Valladolid CF - La Liga Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Real Valladolid

Established: 1928

City: Valladolid, Castilla y León (658 km / 409 miles west of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio José Zorrilla (26,512)

Coach: Sergio Gonzalez

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Sandro Ramírez (on loan from Everton); Javi Sánchez, CB (on loan from Real Madrid); Jorge de Frutos, RW (on loan from Real Madrid); Federico Barba, CB (on loan from Chievo Verona); Álvaro Aguado, AM (end of loan – returns from Córdoba); Fede San Emeterio, CM (end of loan – returns from Granada)

Departures: Borja Fernández, DM (retired); Keko, RW (end of loan – returned to Màlaga); Yoel Rodríguez, GK (end of loan – returned to Eibar); Duje Cop, CF (end of loan – returned to Belgian club Standard Liège); Daniele Verde, RW (end of loan – returned to AS Roma)

Where we’ve been…

Thanks to Iago Aspas’ calf, whatever plague it was that descended on Girona, and success by association with El Fenomeno, Valladolid spent a significant chunk of their inaugural LA Liga season flirting with, if not actively courting, relegation. They ultimately fell into safety at the eleventh hour. Along with Celta, Valladolid had the most losses of any non-relegated team (17), scored the fewest goals in the league by a margin of five – 32, or roughly 0.84 per game. The 51 goals they conceded was respectably mid-table, but their -19 goal difference was by far the worst of any team that survived the drop, and actually three worse than relegated Girona.

As you might imagine, the individual attacking stats paint a rather gruesome picture. The team was led in goals by Enes Ünal, who tallied six, with three other players managing three apiece. Óscar Plano’s four assists paced the team, with Ünal and Nacho setting up three apiece.

Valladolid did have an impressive six-game unbeaten run from late-September through October, in which they sandwiched two draws around four straight wins. Also, they did accumulate 11 points over their final seven games of the season. So, y’know, some credit where it’s due. That said, this really was an unimpressive relegation survivor.

Where we’re going…

It’s tough to profile this team and see much beyond a competent (but not much more) defense shouldering the load for an aggressively toothless attack. A year ago, Valladolid had finished fifth in the Segunda, with a bottom-third defense, and had lost their main weapon in attack. They are now preparing for a second season in the top tier. Life’s weird sometimes.

Valladolid enter their second-ever La Liga season seemingly no better equipped to hang with the demands of a top-flight campaign. The attack, despite returning every meaningful contributor, is unlikely to improve dramatically. The defense, average a year ago, will once again be called upon to grind this team to safety. Fortunately, virtually every player of consequence from last season returns. However, their transfer activity has consisted of neither purchase nor sales, the revolving door of loanees sweeping away a handful of backups and bit-part players, in favor of Sandro Ramírez, a couple of deep cuts from the Real Madrid setup, and a trio from modest sides in Italy (Chievo) and Spain (Córdoba and Granada).

What looked to be a year ago seems no less true today. The attack still has little, if any bite. The defense, a relative strength, might reproduce its effort from last season, but one could be forgiven for expecting some regression from a unit that has been mediocre at best for two seasons running.

We can probably look forward to doing this again with these guys in a year, but right now this does not have a the look of a team that we will be discussing next August.

Villarreal CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Maria Jose Segovia/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Established: 1923

City: Villarreal, Castellón, Valencia (289 km / 180 miles southwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio de la Cerámica (24,890)

Coach: Javier Calleja

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Rubén Peña, RB (€8m, from Eibar); Raúl Albiol, CB (€5m, from Napoli); Moi Gómez, CAM (€1.3m, from Sporting Gijón); Alberto Moreno, LB (free transfer, from Liverpool); André Zambo Anguissa, DM (on loan from Fulham); Cristian Espinoza, RW (end of loan – returns from San Jose Earthquakes of MLS); Xavi Quintillá, LB (promoted from Villarreal B); Leonardo Suárez, RW (end of loan – returns from Màlaga)

Departures: Pablo Fornals, AM (€28m, to West Ham United); Nicola Sansone, LW (loan to Bologna made permanent for a fee of €7.5m); Denis Cheryshev, LW (loan to Valencia made permanent for a fee of €6m); Álvaro González, CB (loaned to Marseille); Javi Fuego, DM (free transfer, to Sporting Gijón); Daniele Bonera, CB (retired)

Where we’ve been…

Prior to 2018-19, 13 of the previous 15 Villarreal seasons had ended with top-eight finishes in La Liga. Even the other two seasons — a strange relegation in 2012-13, followed immediately by promotion back to La Liga — were followed up with a sixth-place finish. Last season, however, El Submarino Amarillo scuffled out of the gate, and then collapsed, spending 32 consecutive weeks between 16th and 18th in the table. A late righting of the ship — thanks in no small part to a cakewalk of a schedule to end the season — secured survival and a respectable 14th-place finish, but this was a monumentally frustrating campaign.

The team’s leading scorer was a newcomer, Cameroonian Karl Toko Ekambi (who’s got a bit of the much-missed Cedric Bakambu about him) who hit the net 10 times, with Gerard Moreno netting 8 — xG suggests that he ought to have been closer to 12; my eyes suggest that even that is a conservative estimate. Santi Cazorla, a feel-good story to start the season, proved by far the team’s best playmaker, assisting on 10 goals, while none of his teammates could manage more than three.

Underlying performance suggests that this was more a top-half team than it was relegation fodder. Villarreal scored a respectable 49 goals, and the expected numbers suggest they “deserved” at least five more. Meanwhile, they allowed a lackluster-but-hardly-disastrous 52 goals. Their performance and goal difference resembled seventh-place Espanyol far more than they did their neighbors in the 2018-19 table. The biggest issue for Villarreal a season ago was translating their efforts into three points, as their 10 victories were tied for the fewest of any non-relegated team, while their 14 draws were tied for second in the league.

Where we’re going…

It’s tough to imagine this team in another season-long relegation scrap, but 2019-20 has the looks of another challenging campaign. Villarreal’s best midfielder, Pablo Fornals, is gone, as is center-back Álvaro González, the team’s leader in minutes played in 2018-19. The holes left by their departures will not be easily filled. Fortunately, every other player that saw 1,200+ minutes on the pitch is back, as are a number of newcomers that will look to fill the gaps. Rubén Peña, Raúl Albiol, Alberto Moreno and André Zambo Anguissa will work to solidify the defense, with Moi Gómez adding to the attack.

The days of Champions League qualification may be gone, but there is enough attacking talent and depth on hand to easily avoid another disaster of a season. There are still big questions in defense and the new arrivals may need a moment to settle in, but Villarreal should expect to find themselves back in mid-table, and could even threaten the top-ten with a few more breaks and fewer squandered chances.

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