How the Mighty Have…Remained Mighty: 2011-12 Season Preview

[Note: this preview was written on August 19. Isaiah has since gone on his honeymoon]

Apparently we’re embarking on another season. Can’t say I didn’t see that one coming, but there’s that little feeling of wonder at the new lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, just out of reach from conscious thought, that makes me think I actually didn’t see it coming. That I wasn’t expecting, despite my constant reading of the news and my regular pouring over the schedule as if it might possibly have changed since the last time I read it, suggests a very serious case of Post Cuatro Clásicos Emotional Withdrawal (PCCEW).

I know there are a lot of us that suffered through this clearly debilitating problem, but salvation is upon us in the form of yet more emotional distress and heart-pounding La Liga action.

Quickly, in case you forgot, here are all of the teams in La Liga this year:

Athletic Bilbao
Atletico Madrid
Barcelona
Espanyol
Getafe
Granada
Levante
Malaga
Mallorca
Osasuna
Racing Santander
Rayo Vallecano
Real Betis
Real Madrid
Real Sociedad
Real Zaragoza
Sevilla
Sporting Gijon
Valencia
Villarreal

We have some new teams, relative to last year at least: Segunda champions Real Betis, runners up Rayo Vallecano, and promotion playoff winners Granada. Oh but for the (for once) actually logical rules, Barça B might have earned a place in la Primera and we could have seen the first team travel to the Mini Estadi…such crazy dreams I have.

What these new teams bring to the table is, I think it is clear, not enough. Rayo were a success story last year, but have a significant economic hurdle to overcome that, on first take, looks insurmountable. I wish them the best, of course, but someone has to go down and I think it will be Rayo on the bottom and Granada in 19th. I would hope that this wouldn’t be the case, that the new teams would be able to hack it, but I just don’t see a way for that to be. I mean, seriously, without looking, name a player on Rayo Vallecano. One. For all but the most knowledgeable, that should prove an extremely difficult proposition. Now do that exercise for Granada.

Real Betis we know more about, of course, having encountered them in the league recently and the Copa del Rey just last season where they proved themselves ambitious and attack-minded. It was an enjoyable couple of matches (not least because Barça clobbered them 5-0 in the first leg) and even the 3-1 loss in Sevilla couldn’t dampen the thought that, damn, these Betis characters want to play. I hope they continue to do so despite the pressure to stay out of the relegation zone. At the very least we get the Andalucian derby* back, which is quite fun from the outside looking in—though the violence occasionally involved is, as with all football-related violence, disheartening and disgusting—and despite only paying out for 1 transfer (Javier Matilla, €1.2m, Villarreal) I think they’ll survive well enough. Jefferson Montero’s loan inclusion should pay dividends, especially if they can hold onto Achille Emana.

The middle of the pack, the teams we routinely think of as having shown up for games but not really competed for anything, has shrunk. Getafe is, arguably, making some noise about a European spot while the big story remains Málaga.

The nouveau riche of La Liga have come out with both barrels blazing this year. Last year there was a general consensus that they were “doing things.” This year the newest, shiniest pieces of the puzzle are (deep breath) Martin Demichelis (€3m, Bayern Munich), Ruud van Nistelrooy (free, Hamburg), Nacho Monreal (€6m, Osasuna), Joris Mathisjsen (€1m, Hamburg), Jérémy Toulalan (€10m, Lyon), Sergio Sánchez (€2.8m, Sevilla), Joaquín (€4.2m, Valencia), Diego Buonanotte (loan return, River Plate), Isco (€6m, Valencia), and Santi Cazorla (€19m, Villarreal).

Holy crap. That’s €52m in spending this year. Certainly there are holes in their lineup that could be corrected by massive investment, but this is the next step in the continuous building plan that started slowly and is building momentum now, heading towards higher and higher league finishes. Last year the team ended up in 11th and some felt that was underperforming, but they weren’t Hercules’s slipshod, scattershot approach (Trezeguet, Drenthe, and Valdez, as Exhibit A) and they didn’t end up being relegated, so they did something right.

Eliseu was a pleasant surprise and so was Quincy, but the latter is gone, replaced by veteran and household names. Pellegrini is solidly installed and he’s making moves that should turn Málaga into another Villarreal, but with money behind them. I think they’ll end up 5th, just out of Champions League and then make the leap into the great European unknown in 2012-13 with a 3rd or 4th placed finish.

The other moves that interest me to no end are Manzano’s move to Atleti and the reshuffling there, and Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Athletic Bilbao. The former isn’t a game changer, really, and I don’t see Manzano, my Coach of the Year 2 years ago at Mallorca, being able to overcome the problems at the Calderon. Especially without Sergio Aguero.

Interestingly enough, Bielsa leading Athletic to a place in Europe would be considered a success while Manzano failing to make (or at least compete for) the Champions League must be seen as somewhat of a failure. Different standards at different clubs, you see. But Bielsa makes me happy and I hope that he’s able to turn the Basque side into something not just typically fearsome, but also slapdashingly enjoyable. His Chile side was wonderful to watch in the 2010 World Cup and while he won’t have the ecstatic wing play that characterized that team available to him all the time, he’s got a solid group of players to run out with.

Los Leones haven’t made many moves, calling back a couple players from loan and signing Ander Herrera from Zaragoza for something around €8m (undisclosed, technically, but that’s roughly the rumor, for what it’s worth) and he should provide some much needed width and depth in midfield. Their outgoing list is even shorter: no one. Crazy, right?

Atleti, since we mentioned them, have done such: Silvio (€8m, Sporting Braga), Gabi (€6m, Zaragoza), Miranda (free, São Paulo), Adrian (free, Depor), Arda Turan (€12m, Galatasaray), and Falcao (€40m, Porto)**. Their notable losses were Ujfalusi going the opposite way as Turan for €2m, Tiago returning to Juventus after his long loan spell, and the twin sales of David De Gea (€21m, Manchester United) and Sergio Aguero (~€45m, Manchester City). Youth player Ibrahima was also sent to Osasuna on a free.

That’s simply not enough firepower replacing the departed known quantities. They’ll end up 7th again, though, because they’re in between the wheat and the chaff, but are really neither. They’ll also lose both of their matches against their intercity rivals. Big limb I’m going out on there.

The now perennial third and fourth spot holders, Valencia and Villarreal, have seen their ranks somewhat diminished by incursions from the aforementioned Málaga and foreign outfits—the latest rumor, one that could change the balance of power in La Liga, is that Roma is going to sign Nilmar—but they are still formidable opponents for the “upstarts.” Every year it seems about time to discount Valencia, but despite losing Silva and Villa, they ended up third. They’ve sold Juan Mata but they still have Pablo and have added in Canales and Parejo from Real Madrid and Getafe respectively. Villarreal appears set for a dive down into the table, but the weakness I see in other teams is the ballast that will keep them up at periscope depth.

Certainly there are other teams worth discussing (such as all of the others), but what you’re really interested in is the champion. Sure, it’s a two-horse race, but we’ve known that since before the end of the 2008-09 season. No, it’s not fair, and no, we shouldn’t support a TV rights system that effectively relegates 18 of the teams to second class status, but it is what we have at the moment, unfortunately.

The capitaleño side of this equation has reinforced in bulk, signing Hamit Altintop (free, Bayern Munich), Nuri Sahin (€10m, Borussia Dortmund), Raphael Varane (€10m, Lens), Jose Callejon (€5m, Espanyol) and Fabio Coentrão (€30m, Benfica). This investment has meant that they’re relegating several players to the bench or selling them off at cut rate prices. Unless, of course, their backroom staff proves to be resourceful enough to get the rumored €20m for Lassana Diarra. That would be a coup of epic proportions, in my estimation and worthy of a standing clap for those professionals. And a shake of the head for whoever paid that much.

Coentrão is probably the best signing they made, but once fit, Altintop could prove to be extraordinarily useful in some of the grind-it-out matches that RM ultimately lost late in the season thanks to squad fatigue. Of course, there are rumors of him being shipped off to Turkey instead of being kept around, which would be understandable if there was the slightest inclination on Mourinho’s part to actually play Pedro Leon. But there isn’t.

With Sergio Canales on loan at Valencia, Callejon steps in to fill the role of “guy who will get occasional minutes because he has potential” but no matter that he played a lot in preseason, it seems unlikely that he’ll start often. Maybe he’ll become a super sub. And then what of Kaka? What of Sami Khedira? Mesut Ozil must surely command a regular starting spot and with Benzema firing on all cylinders (finally), there is little room for the new signings, assuming Xabi Alonso retains his regular spot. It’s a formidable squad, but lack of playing time could cause internal rifts that make the second half of the season hard. If all of that can be figured out, if Varane can be trained to replace the departed Garay (sent to Benfica as part of the Coentrão deal), if the team can figure out their forward line in a way that doesn’t leave their midfield completely overwhelmed by teams who start a couple of midgets with footskills there and drop another into the area whenever needed, then they’ll challenge all the way through to the end.

Barça, then, finally. Well, there’s nothing to report, really, since you already know it (or you wouldn’t be here, I imagine). Alexis Sánchez is here. Thiago and Andreu Fontas have been promoted. Kiko Femenía has been signed for the youth team, but could make the occasional Copa appearance. Oh and there’s some guy named Cesc Fabregas. Never heard of him. Luke, of course, has covered all of this, so no need to go too in-depth there. Suffice to say that Barça has a magnificent lineup with some added depth (super subs galore!) and despite what Madrid has done, will be able to figure out a system to beat the world, (low blow alert, madridistas!) or at least Sporting Gijon when it counts.

Simply put, I think Barça’s lineup is better than Madrid’s. Call me crazy, but despite the immense pressure to retain their title for a 4th straight time, I believe they will. Champions: Barça, by a hair.

Copa del Rey champions: Sevilla after they defeat surprise finalist Málaga.

Standings at the end of the season:

Barcelona
Real Madrid
Valencia
Athletic Bilbao
Malaga
Villarreal
Sevilla
Atletico Madrid
Real Betis
Espanyol
Getafe
Real Zaragoza
Sporting Gijon
Real Sociedad
Racing Santander
Mallorca
Osasuna
Levante
Granada
Rayo Vallecano

Champion: Barça (89 points)
Relegated: Levante, Granada, Rayo Vallecano
Top scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (32)
Best keeper: Victor Valdes (24 goals allowed in 36 games)
Best offense: Barça (94 goals scored)
Best defense: Barça (27 goals allowed)
Most awesome thing to happen: Sergio Canales sits in the stands while Valencia play Real Madrid and his replacement scores 2 golazos to beat them.
Most awkward thing to happen: Hleb shows up to a Barça practice and no one remembers him.
Most disturbing thing to happen: PCCEW is listed in the Journal of Psychiatric Illnesses and I’m taken away forever.

———–
*Note: Malaga vs Granada is also considered to be an Andalusian Derby.
**Note: signed after time of writing.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

30 Comments

  1. Gogah
    August 29, 2011

    people may not realize it now.
    but i think our might has been strengthened by a perception of vulnerability. especially in defense.
    teams will look at our defense in paper and look to attack more.
    Hopefully that is by design and not by default.

  2. mom4
    August 29, 2011

    Congrats to Isaiah and his bride!

    I’m betting Pep rolls out his new 0-10-0 formation today. Or have we been playing that for a while? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes with 3 in the back. And for the first time, I’m kinda happy we have an international break coming up during which our ailing defense can heal.

    My fantasy world lineup:
    VV
    Masche, Busi, Abi
    Thiago, Xavi, Cesc, Iniesta, Sanchez
    MV
    Maybe this ends up being more of a 1-8-1?

    Good thing I’m not the coach. In Pep we trust.

    • nzm
      August 29, 2011

      Now that line-up would be interesting!

      I’m not at all that hot on Busi at CB. He’s too slow to defend a player on the fast break, and not committed to making the sliding, game-saving tackles. A giraffe cannot play the hyena’s game. 🙂 He is better at recovering the ball in the midfield before the play rate accelerates.

      Subs would be Bojan for Villa, Milito for Abi and Jeffren for Thiago. No, wait……….. 😛

      Whatever happens, if Pep decides to go with 4 at the back, the RB role will be a very traditional one focussing on defence, rather than the hybrid defence/attack Dani system.

      Villarreal is also without a couple of players for this match too – Cesar and Mario are suspended.

      • mom4
        August 29, 2011

        As I said, it’s a good thing that Pep is the coach not I.

        My fantasy world thinking was that the ball never makes it past our midfield (how can it when we are all midfield?). Busi and Masche fuction as a double pivot out of the back and Abi kills off any attack that gets past them while VV plays cards with some of the fans out of boredome. Sanchez and Thiago function as wingbacks, attacking midfielders, wingers, or withdrawn strikers depending upon the situation. It doesn’t matter because Messi, Xaviniesta, and Cesc are gonna have so much fun tiki-takaing amongst the three four of them that the other team will get dizzy. Then, one of the three four passes to Villa, he scores, and then the Barca players sportingly help the dizzy Vilareal players back on their feet…

        …yeah, I got nothin’!

        In Pep we trust!

        • Jnice
          August 29, 2011

          I really don’t want to see Busi in the back (last time we played against VLR, Rossi had two 1v1s within 15 min) but I’m thinking it’s going to be…

          Bartra-Masch-Busi-Abi

          Xavi-Keita-Iniesta

          Alexis-Messi-Villa

          I’m going to be in class for most of the first half, so I’ll probably be sitting there nervous thinking of all the different scenarios.

          • mom4
            August 29, 2011

            Your lineup is closer to reality, I was just being goofy.

            I would prefer Pedro, Messi, Sanchez as a front line though because they defend better than Villa.

            Pay attention in class today!!!!!!

          • Aeneas
            August 29, 2011

            I agree except Villa shouldn’t start:
            ” – ” – ” – ”
            ” – ” _ ”
            Messi-Cesc-Alexis

        • nzm
          August 29, 2011

          You do realise how close you got the line-up in the end, huh mom4 – are you sure that you’re not Pep? 🙂

          The only difference was Pedro where you picked Xavi – other than that, you were spot-on – even with your 3 man back-line!!

          Increible!!!

  3. August 29, 2011

    Great preview (and happy getting hitched!)

    It’s going to be a really interesting season. What Bielsa does at Athletic Club will be one of the major stories of the season. They are going to have to go through enormous change to play the way he wants them to. Javi Martinez and Iker could benefit a great deal. How will a big man like Llorente fit with a Bielsa system?

    Athletic opening with a draw against Rayo wasn’t a great way to open the bielsa era but it speaks to how much they are going to need to transition.

    Malaga – agree this is going to be a transition year for them. It’s too bad the strike occurred. Not only would Barca been able to play Malaga before they came together – they also could have had Alves serve his suspension prior to Villareal.

    Athleti – admirable that they were trying to reinvest after losing their stars – but I think they concentrated too many resources on Falcao and the front line. Their defense and midfield are still not what you’d want.

    Opening with a 0-0 draw against Osasuna – I guess it’s not a surprise given it’s Athleti

    I don’t think 89 points is going to be enough to win La Liga. It’s going to take 95+ again.

    • blitzen
      August 29, 2011

      Javi Martinez and Iker could benefit a great deal. How will a big man like Llorente fit with a Bielsa system?

      Did you watch the game yesterday? Iker Muniain was fantastic for them. I think he will be a big star for Bilbao this season, and he is only 18. Llorente, on the other hand, looked unimpressive. I’m not going to draw any major conclusions from that as he has had off games in the past, but I think are correct in thinking he will have to make some major adjustments.

    • Jnice
      August 29, 2011

      I don’t think 89 points is going to be enough to win La Liga. It’s going to take 95+ again.

      I agree. It’s going to be an extremely difficult this season.

  4. August 29, 2011

    Given that the team played a tough match only three days before I think there’s a good chance we’re going to see Alexis and Cesc start today to rotate the squad.

    Not sure what the entire squad will look like – but I think they could start. Alexis especially – given the minutes Pedro and Villa had against Porto. Villa in particular this season is going to need to be rested.

    Not having Afellay today hurts some. It would have been nice to be able to rotate both wide players beside Messi. And Afellay’s skill set would have been particularly useful against Villareal.

    I’ll guess Bartra will probably play at RB.

    The key to beating Villareal is to use the flanks. In their formation, it’s space wide that is vulnerable. Their advance midfielders are required to play in two different spaces – advanced middle and out wide. But that’s very hard to do.

    This often means that the only player they have out on the flanks is the full back.

    In other words, Barca will be able to generate 1 vs. 1 situations and even 2 vs. 1 situations down the flanks if they maintain width.

    And so far Zapata has been playing RB for them – and he’s really a CB.

    This is why not having Dani is particularly difficult against Villareal – he’s exactly the kind of player you want to come in and damage villareal wide. Same for Adriano on the left. He would have been very useful to generate width.

    Abidal isn’t likely to get forward that much. And if it’s bartra and JDS – I don’t see them being able to get forward significantly either given their inexperience and defensive responsibilities.

    So that means that width is going to need to come from the flank attackers. (Which is why Afellay would have been very useful today – particularly with his pace.)

    I don’t think today is the best day to use Iniesta on the wing for those reasons. He’ just doesn’t stay wide.

    If Barca winds up clustering into the middle today they are going to make this game much more difficult to win. They will be doing Villareal a huge favor. It completely transforms how effective Villareal can be.

    If you don’t use width against Villareal you allow them to take advantages of all of the strengths of their system without probing the biggest weaknesses.

    This is partly why I thought using Pedro or Sanchez at FB would be something to consider.

    Having viable outlets wide who can play the ball will relieve enormous pressure in the middle when Villareal press. This will decrease the risk of Villareal regaining the ball and countering at speed.

    On another note – the club really seems to have mishandled the whole Alves suspension situation. They seem to have not been aware of it. That seems to be why Montoya would have played 90 minutes for the B team. He would have been the ready choice to play at RB today.

  5. Neel
    August 29, 2011

    This is mostly related to International clubs’ initiatives in India, but it’s kinda worth pointing out the genuine philanthropic initiative started by Barca vis-a-vis a commercial sham by Liverpool. This is also a bit of fodder for EPL haters. Btw some positive news about EE as well.

    http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-08-28/news/29935847_1_football-academy-football-education-liverpool-way/2

    Relevant parts,
    “Spanish giants Barcelona have a programme running for the past couple of years, and not to be left too far behind, arch rivals Real Madrid too started a similar campaign earlier this year. But the different styles adopted by the English club and its continental rivals reflects the EPL’s “greed is good” attitude as opposed to the stronger community development commitment clubs in Spain have.”

    “The Spanish giants on the other hand have taken a harder route to India. Two years ago Barcelona teamed up with the NGO Rural Development Trust started by the Spanish philanthropist Vicente Ferrer that works in rural Ananthapur district in Andhra Pradesh to start sports-centric educational programmes for underprivileged children, who certainly cannot afford a Messi replica shirt. More than 100 children are provided free training”

    BTW I am off to catch up Messi and Smash live on 2nd Sept, I hope the organizers do a good job….Oh yes before that I am catching up Messi and the whole team on TV tonight….

  6. Josep
    August 29, 2011

    BARASA WILL GO UNDEFEATED WITH 101 POINTS THANKS TO UNICEF I MEAN BARCELONACEF YEP

  7. The__K__Man
    August 29, 2011

    I’m off to the Camp Nou..should’ve taken a banner with me that says “Pep, pick me for RB” but whatever. Hopefully JDS or Bartra will do the job.

    • August 29, 2011

      Lucky! This is the best match to go to the Camp Nou for IMO. Enjoy!

      • Eklavya
        August 29, 2011

        Yeah, I hope this match turns out to be as good as last season’s (3-1 at camp nou, one of the slickest and entertaining matches of that season)!

    • culegirl3
      August 29, 2011

      Awesome! Have fun and please tell us all about it 🙂

    • Eklavya
      August 29, 2011

      should’ve taken a banner with me that says “Pep, pick me for RB”

      But that’s an awesome idea ! Can’t you still make one? 🙂

  8. August 29, 2011

    I had a dream last night that Sanchez and Bartra started and Xavi scored a golazo (any goal he scores is a golazo) after a Messi pass. This usually means it’ll either a) happen or b) has no chance of happening.

    I’m banking on the latter.

  9. Eklavya
    August 29, 2011

    “@BarcaTheOffside: Barça starting XI: VV, Fàbregas, Iniesta, Alexis, Messi, Thiago, Mascherano, Keita, Busquets, Pedrito and Abidal.

  10. August 29, 2011

    Barcelona line-up (official): Valdes – Alexis Busquets Mascherano Abidal – Cesc Keita Thiago – Pedro Messi Iniesta #fcblive

    Pep does it again.

    Alexis Sanchez looks to be playing right back.

    • Aeneas
      August 29, 2011

      I still think Cesc will play false nine with Pedro! and Messi exploiting the Villareal’s vulnerable wings as you mentioned.

  11. Jackieboy
    August 29, 2011

    YAY! What a crazy lineup, can’t wait to see it!
    BTW is Xavi alright?

    • Jackieboy
      August 29, 2011

      barcastuff
      Barcelona line-up (official): Valdes – Alexis Busquets Mascherano Abidal – Xavi Keita Thiago – Pedro Messi Iniesta

      Guess he is. Surprising to see Thiago starting ahead of Villa and Cesc.

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