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La Liga Preview 2018/19 - Eyeing the Top-Third

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A closer look at Sevilla, Valencia, Betis, Sociedad and Villarreal

Cardiff City v Real Betis - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Happy La Liga, all! We’re cutting close, huh?

With all of the Supercopas out of the way and Joan Gamper trophy awarded, all that stands between us and La Liga is a matter of hours! Tick tock!

We’ve been taking a look at each team that will take part in the 2018-19 season, and have thus far covered the La Liga’s three newcomers, a foursome who may be in line for a frustrating season, and a group of clubs looking to build on recent success, further raise the floor of expectation, and consolidate their status as La Liga mainstays (and Bilbao).

Today, in the penultimate edition of this preview series, we examine a few clubs whose ambitions this season ought to extend beyond mere mid-table safety, if not quite all the way to the top of the table.

Sevilla FC

Established: 1890

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

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán (44,000)

Coach: Pablo Machín

Sevilla v Ujpest - UEFA Europa League Second Qualifying Round: 1st leg Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: It’s difficult to see the 2017-18 campaign as anything but a disappointment for Sevilla. Sure, cruising through a Champions League group, claiming a high-profile scalp against (an admittedly toothless) Man United, and making Bayern work for a semifinal spot hardly classifies as failure.

However, it’s also tough to look at a late-season swoon (attributable to their European run) that saw los Nervionenses finish an underwhelming seventh, looking up at local rivals Real Betis, to whom they conceded five in the season’s first derby, and having to play multiple qualification rounds just to gain entry into the Europa League. Sevilla has punched their ticket into the group stage via a 6-0 two-leg hammering of Lithuanian side Žalgiris Vilnius, but still, that’s not great.

To compound the frustration, a look at Sevilla’s league stats reveals a team that scored a middle-of-the-pack 49 goals, while conceding a bottom-half-esque 58. In theory (on “expected goals”), however, Sevilla’s performance outstripped their on-field results at both ends of pitch. They conceded four more goals than they “deserved” to, while netting a ridiculous 12.5 fewer than chance creation would have suggested. Certainly responsibility lies with players failing to maximize opportunities in front of goal, but it’s fair to suggest that a similar performance in 2018-19 will yield better results.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Ibrahim Amadou, DM (€15.0 mm, from LOSC Lille, in France); Joris Gnagnon, CB (€15.0, from Stade Rennais, in France); Aleix Vidal, RW (€8.5 mm, from FC Barcelona); Tomas Vaclik, GK (€7.0 mm, from FC Basel, in Switzerland); Roque Mesa, CM (loan from Swansea City made permanent for €6.0 mm); Sergi Gómez, CB (€5.0 mm, from Celta de Vigo); André Silva, CF (loan, from AC Milan)

Departures:

Clément Lenglet, CB (€35.9 mm, to FC Barcelona); Steven N’Zonzi (€32.0 mm, to Roma); Joaquín Correa, LW (€15.0 mm, to Lazio); Guido Pizarro, DM (€8.7 mm, to Tigres UANL, in Mexico); David Soria, GK (€3.0 mm, to Getafe); Sergio Rico, GK (loan to Fulham); Miguel Layún, RB (end of loan – returned to FC Porto)

In 2018-19… If this was any other team, the prescription would be simple: mail in the Europa League and focus efforts on a league in which the top four is not set in stone. But this is Sevilla. Five-time UEFA / Europa champion Sevilla, Winner of three of the last five Sevilla. There will be no punting.

Despite significant losses – namely, Clément Lenglet, Steven N’Zonzi, Guido Pizarro and goalkeeper Sergio Rico – there is a lot of talent on this roster. Not only has the club addressed the losses at the back via a pair of signings from Ligue 1 and goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik from Swiss giants FC Basel, they’ve brought in Aleix Vidal from Barcelona and André Silva from AC Milan to bolster an attack that already boasted Ever Banega, Wissam Ben Yedder, wildly underrated Luis Muriel, Pablo Sarabia, Nolito and Franco Vázquez.

It’s debatable whether Sevilla’s got the quality and depth to really threaten Barça and the big guys from Madrid. Fortunately, however, the bottom two-thirds of La Liga and the majority of early-stage-Europa League opposition will face similar difficulty with Sevilla. There’s enough here for a rebound into the top-five/-six and a respectably deep Europa run.

Real Sociedad

Established: 1909

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

Stadium (Capacity): Anoeta (25,000)

Coach: Asier Garitano

Barcelona v Real Sociedad - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: As was the case with Eibar, Real Sociedad’s 2017-18 campaign was really two seasons in one. Unfortunately, they experienced this phenomenon in reverse. La Real stormed out of the gate, winning their first three games and spending virtually the entire first half of the season in the top half, though even in this period their position was gradually deteriorating. The seventeenth week of the season was the last that they spent in the top-ten, as they bounced between twelfth and fifteenth for the next thirteen weeks, before a minor recovery in the final weeks secured a somewhat respectable twelfth-place finish, on 49 points.

On closer inspection, despite the disappointing nature of the campaign, this is another team whose position in the table undersold their underlying performance. One of La Liga’s most prolific attacks, Sociedad netted 66 goals – admittedly, nearly ten more than they “deserved”; though, in reality, more than anyone outside of Barça and Real Madrid.

Willian José led the way with fifteen goals, followed by Mikel Oyarzabal’s twelve, with Jaunmi and Asier Illaramendi chipping in with eight and seven, respectively. Meanwhile, the setting up of these strikes was a group undertaking, with five assists each for Adnan Januzaj, Illaramendi, Oyarzabal, the since-departed Sergio Canales and retired captain Xabi Prieto, while Willian José contributed four of his own.

On the flip side, while the goal tally was somewhat flattering, the mediocre-at-best 59 goals allowed painted a picture of a rather suspect defensive unit. Again, however, the underlying effort was that of a far less leaky unit, one that ought to have conceded just 51 goals. A quick aside: I do cite these stats and see value in their analysis, but I also see the idea of “deserved” is a bit hollow, as what you did on the field is what history will ultimately remember. Anyway…

Regardless, their top-third-quality goal difference (+7) was “deserved”. Scant consolation, to be sure, but until they unlock the code that translates strong performances into tangible success (spoiler: it’s not far off), at least they’re a fun watch.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Mikel Merino, DM (€12.0 mm, from Newcastle United); Theo Hernández, LB (on loan from Real Madrid); Andoni Gorosabel, RB; Martín Merquelanz, LW; and Luca Sangalli, AM (promoted from Real Sociedad B); Joseba Zaldua, RB (end of loan – returns from Leganés)

Departures: Álvaro Odriozola, RB (€30.0 mm, to Real Madrid); Xabi Prieto, CM (retired); Srdjan Babic, CB (loan to Red Star Belgrade made permanent for €800,000); Sergio Canales, AM (free transfer, to Real Betis); Toño, GK (free transfer, to AEK Larnaca, in Cyprus); Markel Bergara, DM (free transfer, to Getafe, following end of loan); Carlos Martínez, RB (free transfer, to Real Oviedo)

In 2018-19… Looking up and down this roster, it’s striking how many good players one encounters. Not superstars, or even really stars, but just a load of solid, capable pros. From goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli who (like the team as a whole) is better than last year’s numbers suggest, to Diego Llorente and Kévin Rodrigues in the back line, to Asier Illaramendi in the middle of the formation, to the attack force of Willian José, Oyarzabal, Jaunmi and Januzaj, there’s ability all over the pitch. And that’s just the holdovers.

There have been some significant departures, namely Álvaro Odriozola, Sergio Canales and Xabi Prieto, lost to Real Madrid, Real Betis and the green pastures of the post-playing pintxo crawl. The losses will be felt – replacing a budding defensive star, key playmaker is unenviable and an icon is unenviable – though the arrivals of Mikel Merino and Theo Hernández (on loan from Real Madrid), combined with the talent of the remaining core, will ease the transition. Given talent on hand, continuity – 13 of 16 players that played at least 1,500 minutes return – La Real are a decent pick to be this year’s Real Betis.

Valencia CF

Established: 1919

City: Valencia (351 km / 218 miles southwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Mestalla (49,500)

Coach: Marcelino

Last season in La Liga: How’s that for a turnaround?

Valencia v Bayer Leverkusen - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

It’s not been terribly long since Valencia – reeling from years of mismanagement, perennially shedding world-class talents in order to cope with a crippling debt load, turning over management seemingly on a weekly basis, careening toward relegation under the stewardship of Gary Neville – looked absolutely dead in the water. This was poised to become the Leeds United of Spain.

On the heels of back-to-back twelfth-place finishes, Marcelino took the reins at Mestalla in May 2017. Against that grim backdrop, Valencia understandably entered 2017-18 with muted expectations. What’s gone down in the intervening fifteen months is nothing short of staggering. The team spent the first four weeks of the season between seventh and ninth in the table – and the remaining 34 weeks as high as second, and no worse than fourth.

And it was well deserved. Los Che featured one of La Liga’s most prolific attacks, scoring 65 goals, more than anyone outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad (who had 66), while conceding just 38 – fewer than anyone other than Barcelona, Getafe and Atlético Madrid (that “22 goals allowed” thing will never not feel insane). Outside of, you guessed it, Barça and the big guys from Madrid and, maybe you didn’t guess it, Getafe, Valencia’s goal difference was at least 20 better than that of anyone in the league. In all, Valencia deservedly wound up the season comfortably in fourth place, on 73 points, with an outstanding +27 goal difference. This was powered largely by dominant form at home, where they captured 42 of a possible 57 points (13 wins, 3 draws, 3 losses), and scored 36 goals while conceding just sixteen.

The outstanding and underrated Rodrigo Moreno led the team with sixteen goals, Simone Zaza and Santi Mina following closely, with thirteen and twelve, respectively. Meanwhile, a number of guys shared the role of setting up of all the goals, led by the phenomenal Gonçalo Guedes (more on him in a minute), who had nine assists, followed by captain Dani Parejo, who had seven (along with seven goals of his own), and another four with four assists each.

Not even three years removed from that crash course with relegation... Pretty, pretty good.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Geoffrey Kondogbia, CM (loan from Inter Milan made permanent for €25.0 mm); Kévin Gameiro, CF (€16.0 mm, from Atlético Madrid); Mouctar Diakhaby, CB (€15.0 mm, from Lyon); Cristiano Piccini, RB (€8.0 mm, from Sporting Lisbon); Daniel Wass, CM (€6.0 mm, from Celta de Vigo); Michy Batshuayi, CF (loan from Chelsea; €3.0 mm loan fee); Uros Racic, DM (€2.2 mm, from Red Star Belgrade); Denis Cheryshev, LW (loan, from Villarreal)

Departures: João Cancelo, RB (€40.4, to Juventus, following the end of loan to Inter Milan); Martín Montoya, RB (€7.0 mm, to Brighton & Hove Albion); Nemanja Maksimovic, CM (€5.0 mm, to Getafe); Fabián Orellana, RW (loan to Eibar made permanent for €2.0 mm); Zakaria Bakkali, LW (€1.2, to RSC Anderlecht, in Belgium, following the end of loan to Deportivo La Coruña); Nani, LW (free transfer to Sporting Lisbon, following the end of loan to Lazio); Nacho Vidal, RB (free transfer, to Osasuna); Álvaro Medrán, CM (loan to Rayo Vallecano)

In 2018-19… Remember that stuff I said about Real Sociedad’s roster being strikingly packed with good players? That applies here as well, just kicked up a notch. From Neto in goal, to José Gayà, Gabriel Paulista, Ezequiel Garay, Inter loanee Jeison Murillo and newcomers Mouctar Diakhaby and Cristiano Piccini in defense, to Parejo, Jeffrey Kondogbia, Carlos Soler, Francis Coquelin and Daniel Wass in midfield, to Rodrigo, Zaza and Santi Mina, Michy Batshuayi, Kévin Gameiro and –fresh off a breakout World Cup performance on home soil, Denis Cheryshev. This team is positively stacked.

Barcelona v Valencia - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

All that, and not a word about the 21-year-old budding superstar. On loan from Paris Saint-Germain, Gonçalo Guedes paced the team in assists and scored five goals, but his impact on the game extended beyond simple stats. He’s a fantastic dribbler, an incisive passer and possesses a gift for getting into dangerous positions. As his finishing improves, he’s going to be absolutely devastating. At time of writing, Guedes’s loan spell has come to an end, and talks are ongoing between the teams about making his move to Valencia permanent, presumably for a fee of €50-€60 million. Should he stick around, in addition to the other qualities he provides, it would mean the return of the top fourteen players in terms of minutes played.

So, in addition to being loaded with talent, Valencia potentially returns every meaningful contributor from a year ago, with newly-acquired reinforcements on hand. Guedes or no, these guys are a good bet for another top-four finish. With Guedes’s return and some decent injury luck, Los Che could make life even more uncomfortable for a now-Cristiano-less Real Madrid, en route to a spot in the top three.

Villarreal CF

Established: 1923

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

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

Coach: Javier Calleja

Barcelona v Villarreal - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: I’ll level with you: I’ve got virtually no memories of Villarreal from last season. That’s not meant as a slight. It’s just so. If you ask me, almost every Villarreal game plays out, more or less, as such: a 15th-25th minute goal from the Yellow Submarine, a grind until half time, an equalizer around the 55th minute, a 70th minute winner (usually for Villarreal), and a final twenty minutes that exciting enough to keep you sticking around, but not enough to actually remember.

That’s sincerely not meant to be as harsh as it sounds. Year in, year out, Villarreal is an objectively good team, and 2017-18 was no exception. A rock-solid 61 points, +7 goal difference, and fifth place. Scored 57 goals, conceded 50. Stumbled slightly in the opening weeks before spending the final thirty weeks in either fifth or sixth place. Never fourth, never seventh. Fifth. Or sixth. I don’t know what to tell you.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Carlos Bacca, CF (loan from AC Milan made permanent for €7.0 mm); Gerard Moreno, CF (€20.0 mm, from Espanyol); Ramiro Funes Mori, CB (€20.0 mm, from Everton); Karl Toko Ekambi, CF (€18.0 mm, from Angers, in France); Santiago Cáseres, DM (€12.0 mm, from Velez Sarsfield, in Argentina); Miguel Layún (€4.0 mm, from FC Porto, in Portugal); Cristian Espinoza, F (end of loan – returns from Valladolid); Matías Nahuel, LW (end of loan – returns from FC Barcelona B)

Departures: Rodrigo (Rodri) Hernández, DM (€20.0 mm, to Atlético Madrid); Samu Castillejo, RW (to AC Milan as part of deal making Carlos Bacca’s loan permanent); Rúben Semedo, CB (loan to Huesca); Alfred N’Diaye, CB (end of loan – returns from Wolverhampton Wanderers; subsequently loaned to Málaga); Adrián Marín Gómez, LB (signed with Alavés, fee undisclosed); Alfonso Pedraza, LW (loan, to Alavés); Antonio Rukavina, RB (free transfer, to Astana, in Kazakhstan); Roger Martínez, F (loan from Jiangsu Suning, in China, made permanent; subsequently sold to Club América, in Mexico)

In 2018-19… There are reasons to be encouraged by Villarreal’s 2018-19 prospects. All but three players that scored a goal and all but two that provided an assist are back. Eight of the ten players that logged the most minutes are back. Carlos Bacca, their best player (a team-high 15 goals, 6 assists in 35 games), is a permanent member of the squad, after an outstanding season on loan from AC Milan. The club acquired potentially solid replacements/reinforcements in attack and on defense. Gerard Moreno and Karl Toko Ekambi, scorers of a combined 33 La Liga/Ligue 1 goals last season, bolster the attack, while Ramiro Funes Mori and Miguel Layún provide depth at the back.

However, there are considerable costs and risks tied to each move. For starters, doing whatever it took to retain Bacca was a necessity after the January sale of Cédric Bakambu – one of Europe’s best strikers at the time, in his prime and in excellent form – to Beijing Sinobo Guoan in China, for a not-quite-eye-popping €40 million. In order to retain the services of the 31-year-old Bacca, Villarreal had to send, Samu Castillejo, 23 years-old and one of the team’s better playmakers (5 goals and 6 assists in 30 games) to Milan. Meanwhile, (reportedly) €20.0 million would be a relatively steep price for a healthy Ramiro Funes Mori. At present, it looks like an overpay on a massive injury risk. Funes Mori appeared just 55 times for Everton the past three years, and is coming off of a lengthy rehab stint from a knee injury that limited him to just four games last season. This smacks of paying full retail to, ideally, maintain the status quo.

There is still quality here, however, and Villarreal has a well-earned reputation for maximizing talent. That said, this year’s team look as though it may poised for a tumble. Nothing catastrophic, but a finish of between eighth and tenth would not be shocking.

Real Betis Balompié

Established: 1907

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

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

Coach: Quique Setién

Real Betis v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Last season in La Liga: Last season’s Real Betis side made for absolutely spectacular viewing. Eleven times they scored at least three goals in a game. Four of their contests featured at least eight combined goals. They were involved in a 4-4 draw with Real Sociedad and, on enemy ground, scored in the first thirty seconds of an incredible local derby that simply would not stop, ultimately downing Sevilla 5-3. Betis embraced the “you score one, we’ll get two” ideology on the way to 60 points and an unexpected sixth-place finish. Whether it’s a model designed for sustainable success remains to be seen, but there was an irrational beauty in Betis’s 2017-18 season.

They scored 60 goals while conceding 61. According to the ”expected” numbers, however, they ought to have scored thirteen fewer goals than they did – while conceding eleven fewer, on the way to roughly ten fewer points and mid-table finish.

I do love those occasions when “defense wins championships” takes it on the chin. For every Getafe, there really ought to be a Betis.

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: William Carvalho, DM (€20.0 mm, from Sporting Lisbon); Sidnei, CB (€4.5 mm, from Deportivo La Coruña); Joel Robles, GK (free transfer, from Everton); Sergio Canales, AM (free transfer, from Real Sociedad); Takashi Inui, LW (free transfer, from Eibar); Pau López, GK (free transfer, from Espanyol)

Departures: Fabián Ruiz, CM (€30.0 mm, to Napoli); Germán Pezzella, CB (loan to Fiorentina, in Italy, made permanent for €9.0 mm); Riza Durmisi, LB (€6.5 mm, to Lazio); Antonio Adán, GK (€1.0 mm, to Atlético Madrid); Dani Giménez, GK (free transfer, to Deportivo La Coruña); Víctor Camarasa, CM (loan, to Cardiff City); Joel Campbell, RW (end of loan – returned to Arsenal); Jordi Amat, CB (returned from loan at Swansea City; subsequently sold to Rayo Vallecano for €1.0 mm)

In 2018-19… Hopefully more of the same.

Now, Betis have taken steps to solidify the defense: William Carvalho is understated but world-class, and should serve as an anchor deep in the midfield. Meanwhile, with goalkeeper Antonio Adán off to Atlético Madrid, Pau López, one of La Liga’s better goalkeeps while with Espanyol, arrives on a free transfer to mind in net. However, it’s only reasonable to think that the engine of the 2018-19 will lie, once again, in attack.

The attack suffers a significant loss with Fabián Ruiz’s big-money move to Lazio, but the team’s top scorers –Sergio León (11), Antonio Sanabria (8) and Loren Morón (7) – return, as do three of the top four assisters – Andrés Guardado (8), Joaquín with (7), and Antonio Barragán (6). In addition, for less than I’ve currently got in my pocket, playmakers Takashi Inui (from Eibar) and talented (but injury-prone) Sergio Canales (from Real Sociedad) were brought in to reinforce the midfield.

By all accounts, Betis are due for a step back. Some will say that the attack was unsustainable. Others will chime in that the defense is still not particularly great. There’s merit in these assertions. I just simply don’t care.

This is a talented and relentless team that’s an active participant in every game it plays. These guys play like they believe that they deserve to win. Also, Joaquín. Siempre Joaquín. I can’t find the part of myself that roots against that man. Irrational, remember?

There may be a step back, but don’t expect these guys to fall much further than eight, maybe ninth. And expect to enjoy watching them along the way.

Let madness reign.

Stay tuned, as tomorrow, we’ll continue our climb, to the very top of the league, with a look at the Blaugrana, and the big boys from Madrid…