La Liga: 5 things we learned from the first half of the 2019-20 season

Lionel Messi of Barcelona controls the ball during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal CF at Camp Nou on September 24, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi of Barcelona controls the ball during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal CF at Camp Nou on September 24, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

The first half of the La Liga season has provided some exceptional moments over with plenty to take away and plenty to look ahead to in 2020.

The winter break has arrived across Europe, which means we are now at the midpoint of the 2019-20 league season.

Unlike in seasons past, Spain’s La Liga has been full of unpredictable moments and surprising teams. Barcelona and Real Madrid currently stand at the top of the table, but neither have been able to string together convincing performances. Atletico Madrid are struggling to keep a firm hold on a top four Champions League spot. Players like Lucas Perez and Santi Cazorla are enjoying rejuvenated seasons. And the relegation battle is beginning to take shape through 18 league games.

There is much to take away and learn from after a captivating first half to the La Liga campaign.

Barcelona still has ‘Messidependencia’

One of the most notable criticisms of Barcelona under manager Ernesto Valverde is their heavy reliance of Lionel Messi.

The Argentine superstar has always been the main focal point of the team’s attack, whether it was under Pep Guardiola or Luis Enrique. But it now seems more than ever, Barcelona are relying on Messi to continue to save the team without establishing any other presence in the middle and final third.

This was exemplified in Barcelona’s 1-0 league win against Atletico Madrid. Barca struggled to break down Atletico’s methodical 4-4-2 defensive setup. They were not able to easily navigate their way to the final third at will. Yet, it was Messi who scored the late game-winner to salvage the win and secure all three points.

From his hat-trick against Celta Vigo to his trio of away assists, Messi continues to be the main difference maker for Barcelona on a game-by-game basis. Over the 13 league game he has played in, Messi contributed to 19 of Barcelona’s 33 goals; he scored 13 and assisted six. This shows how Barcelona have increasingly had Messidependencia over the years – a term coined in Spain because of his profound attacking influence for the team. Not only is he coordinating goal-scoring opportunities, but he is also facilitating the team’s build-up sequences while in the opponent’s own half.

Valverde’s heavy reliance on Messi worked as he had hoped for (at least domestically) in the previous two seasons considering they comfortably won the league. But this season will be different. With a revitalized Real Madrid, Barcelona may not be able to build up a double-digit points lead, which would allow them to rest players and focus on the Champions League knockout stage in the spring. Thus, it will be up to Valverde to orchestrate a sustainable tactical game plan that will not place a heavy workload – including touches and creating goal-scoring chances – on Messi.

For Valverde, the blueprint for the team’s success was illustrated in their wins against Valencia, Real Betis and Real Mallorca. In all of the three victories, Valverde unleashed both of his central midfielders by positioning them higher up the pitch and granting them more freedom to assert their will in the team’s attacking build-up. It took the pressure off of Messi to continually occupy deep positions in the opponent’s own half and be the main anchor in possession.

Valverde has a multitude of tactical issues on his plate, but this prevalent problem is one he must soon find an answer to.

Real Madrid continue to battle through adversity

Real Madrid’s attempt at a resurgent season after last campaign’s disappointment has been come in fits and starts, plagued by on and off-field problems. Injuries are one of their main issues that seems to not go away. More than 10 players have missed time due to injury, including James Rodriguez and Marcelo. To make matters worse, new signings like Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic are struggling to assimilate.

Yet, even with the array of problems, Real Madrid stand at second in the La Liga table, just behind the defending champions Barcelona.

How have they done it?

For one, Real Madrid’s youngsters are making the most of their opportunities. Due to their injury issues, the club have been operating with a next-man-up mentality. Their youth talents have answered the call each time with immense showings.

Federico Valverde is one talent who has shined the brightest, earning the trust of the coaching staff thanks to his performances in the midfield. He has contributed four goals for the club while averaging 1.1 tackles per game and a passing completion percentage of 89 percent, according to WhoScored. Others like Rodrygo, Vinicius Jr. and Ferland Mendy have chipped in with quality performances during Real Madrid’s injury crisis, though they’ve also missed time themselves.

The other key reason for Real Madrid’s early league success is their capability to grind out results. Through 19 games last season, Real Madrid were susceptible to late game collapses, which is why they lost six games over the first half of their league campaign. However, the script has switched this season. The Madrid side have only lost once and as illustrated by their late game-tying goal against Valencia, this team seems more motivated and resilient when compared to last season.

Injuries are inevitable with any club. Nonetheless, the best teams make the most of their situation. Once Real Madrid are able to gradually recuperate from their injury crisis, they may very well present a season-long challenge to Barcelona for the league title

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Martin Odegaard is the real deal

From Real Madrid’s current team to one who will likely be a cornerstone of their future transfer plans. Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard is surpassing expectations with Real Sociedad.

The one-time teenage signing by Madrid had been written off by many as a bust, but is shining in his first extended La Liga action.

Coming into the season, Odegaard was deemed a talent to watch for in La Liga because of his resounding success with Eredivisie club Vitesse last year. He was one of the best playmakers in the Dutch league last season with 10 assists and a 3.6 key passes per game average.

Odegaard has now carried over last season’s decisive success over to this year with Real Sociedad. The Basque club currently stand in a top four spot thanks to Odegaard’s precise play as the team’s central attacking midfielder and base midfielder.

His on-ball play is what has made him stand out amongst the range of playmakers in the league. According to WhoScored, he leads the league in key passes per game (2.9) and is tied for third in big chances created (8). He also does not shy away from being keen on aggressively pushing play upfield. According to Football Reference, he has completed 60 passes to the penalty box, which ranks first in the league, 18 more than second-place Messi.

With an average of 77.4 touches per game, Odegaard has become the focal point of Real Sociedad’s attacking system. He is the main link from the midfield to the lone striker on the pitch, whether it may be William Jose or Alexander Isak. The 21-year-old hones in on progressing the ball upfield from anywhere on the pitch – a key trait of his play style this season.

For a talent not long ago projected to be just another underachieving prospect from Real Madrid’s youth system, Odegaard is proving he was worth the initial hype all along.

Julen Lopetegui is making the most of his return to La Liga

One main theme of the 2019-20 La Liga season has been the multitude of redemption storylines. From players like Odegaard to coaches like Julen Lopetegui, many of them came into this campaign with a chip on their shoulder, looking to rewrite the wrong from their recent past.

Sevilla’ Lopetegui was one of the most notable. The Spaniard, who left his post with Spain on the eve of the World Cup to take the Real Madrid job, was then infamously ridiculed after his 5-1 league defeat against Barcelona last season, which turned out to be his last with the club. Lopetegui did not manage for another club last season.

Nonetheless, Sevilla sporting director Monchi decided to take a chance on Lopetegui. Through five months this season, Monchi is looking like a genius for choosing him to fill the managerial vacancy.

At the halfway mark of the season, Sevilla stand at third in the league table with 34 points, which puts them five points behind league leaders Barcelona. They lead the league in most away points with 20.

Similar to Real Madrid, Sevilla have been able to consistently grind out results. However, they do not operate under a high-octane attacking system nor a lockdown defensive unit. The five-time Europa League winners do not have that one go-to player the team can rely on in critical moments of a game.

Instead, Sevilla’s success this season has stemmed from Lopetegui’s ability to get the best out of the personnel at hand. He orchestrates play in a 4-3-3 setup with an approach of operating under a number of different attacking plans, from being a possession-based side to relying on aerial balls into the box for creating goal-scoring chances. The likes of Munir, Ever Banega, Sergio Regulion and Luca Ocampos have all contributed to Sevilla’s early success. In short, the team has willed their way to 34 points thanks to a complete team effort on both sides of the ball.

Heading into the second half of the league campaign, Lopetegui must aim to keep his side focused and committed to the tactical game plan, especially when taking into account last year’s late collapse.

Getafe are not a one-hit wonder

Last season’s Getafe team were one of the best feel-good stories in all of Europe. For a club more used to fighting to avoid relegation year after year, the Madrid-based side surpassed expectations by a mile with a fifth-place finish, their highest in club history.

Despite the increased competition in La Liga, Getafe are proving they are not the next one-hit wonder in Spain. They are currently sixth in the league table and a mere two points behind fourth place Atletico Madrid for a top four Champions League spot. Despite their defensive reputation, their 26 goals scored ranks sixth in the league.

Manager Jose Bordalas has done his best to keep his side in contention for the club’s first ever top-four finish. Forwards Angel Rodriguez and Jaime Mata have kept the team in games with their clutch goals on a near game-by-game basis. Loanees Marc Cucurella, Jason and Kennedy are showing they each can contribute for a club like Getafe on a consistent basis.

The second half of the season will truly test Getafe considering the team will have away fixtures against both Barcelona and Real Madrid along with their knockout stage fixtures in the Europa League. But if there is one team to battle through adversity, it is Getafe.

La Liga play will resume on the first week of January. Expect a captivating and entertaining second half of the season.

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