This season has not yet been about the big three in Spain. It has been a time for upsets, shocks and big early-season strides made by well-established units that can take advantage of the amount of uncertainty at the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid at present. Valencia, Villarreal and Athletic Club are all underachieving, but the four teams profiled below are going from strength to strength at their expense.
Last season was a miracle. Taking Alaves from joint-bottom in the LaLiga table to a comfortable finish at the end of the campaign, Abelardo arrived in December 2017 and turned things around during a very tough period for the club. Negative, defensive football had been perceived to be the right way forward for a limited squad. Fernando Pacheco (here) was trustworthy in goal, while Rodrigo Ely and Victor Laguardia provided a solid screen at centre back.
Beyond that, inspiration was few and far between. Not blessed with any particular playmaking talent in central midfield, Abelardo thought it best to move the ball forward at pace, sometimes bypassing the hub of his team entirely. Armed with Munir, Ruben Sobrino, Alfonso Pedraza and Ibai Gomez (here) last season, Alaves had pace and drive – something that they’ve added to over the summer with the signing of Jony (here) from Malaga.
The Basque club have stuck to their counterattacking style, and are far more organised and well-versed than clubs who have suffered big turnovers of players or a change of coach during the summer. Doing the simple things well is paying off.
The departure of Quique Sanchez Flores was necessary. After steady but unspectacular campaigns, Espanyol needed a breath of fresh air. Appointed after guiding Huesca to LaLiga, Rubi stepped aside from a successful job to make the leap to a club with far greater and more established resources. The sale of star striker Gerard Moreno (here) to Villarreal appeared to be a rather large spanner in the works, but the Catalan club have started the 2018/19 campaign on fire.
Mario Hermoso’s (here) form at centre-back has seen him get into Luis Enrique’s most recent Spain squad, while a midfield three of Marc Roca (here), Sergi Darder (here) and Esteban Granero is among the best in the division. In attack, the 10-million-euro purchase of Celta Vigo striker Borja Iglesias (here) has proven to be inspired, after the bulky forward rattled home plenty of goals in the Spanish second and third tiers in recent years.
Capable of countering at real pace, but also with the quality to play their way through midfield, the fresh ideas and intensity that Rubi has brought to the table has seen Espanyol go unbeaten at home and provide every club they’ve faced this season with a very stern test.
Perhaps one of the biggest revelations of the LaLiga season has been Real Valladolid. After losing their Segunda top scorer Jaime Mata (here) to Getafe on a free, the Pucela were written off somewhat. Rather than focusing on their offensive weapons, which had to be acquired very late in the summer transfer window in a desperate bid to provide a threat, defensive solidity has been where Sergio’s side have impressed. Now armed with further investment from former Real Madrid and Barcelona striker Ronaldo, they are set up well for making progress on and off the pitch over the coming months.
Sergio’s players have their set roles and understand what is required on an individual level to put in a solid team performance. Fernando Calero (here) and Kiko Olivas (here) have been exceptional at centre back, propping up the rest of the side, while Michel (here) and Ruben Alcaraz (here) have provided a very impressive central-midfield two since the former’s return from long-term injury. On the left flank, young winger Toni Villa (here) been able to combine with in-form left back Nacho (here), while the summer additions of Enes Unal and Leo Suarez from Villarreal have settled into their new home quickly.
While Valladolid may not play the most interesting football, they are very tough to break down. If a team is to concede a cheap goal to Sergio’s outfit, that may well have already decided the game. Across 12 LaLiga games, the newly promoted side have conceded just nine times – but they’ve also scored the same number. Organisation is fuelling their top-half push.
In the same vein as Alaves, Levante are carrying on from the considerable momentum that they were able to build up last campaign after the appointment of Paco Lopez in match day 28. In the 2017/18 season, Las Granotas were responsible for ending Barcelona’s hopes of an unbeaten season, and scrambled out of the relegation battle comfortably. With essentially the same group of players that he inherited, the 51-year-old tactician is still working miracles in the present day.
A three-game losing run this season saw Paco Lopez reshuffle his pack to a five-man back line when out of possession, relying on flying wing backs to provide width in attack and Jose Luis Morales (here) to offer the bulk of Levante’s killer instinct and quality. Morales has four goals for the season, while Roger Marti (here) has netted six times, as the Valencia-based club rely on that front two to carry them forward. Enis Bardhi (here) and Jose Campana (here) have been in good form in midfield, while an experienced defensive line keep things tight at the other end.
This group are familiar and have a good bond in the dressing room. Individually, there are only a few notable faces, but as a collective Levante are capable of absorbing plenty of pressure and then countering at real pace. Paco Lopez has done one of the best jobs in the division over the last calendar year.