Spanish football elite facing up to new realities

There’s an air of vulnerability to the elite end of Spanish football this season.

Not since before the summer of 2008, which saw La Roja end their long wait for major silverware and Pep Guardiola assume the hot-seat at Camp Nou, has such a sensation truly existed.

In the decade that has passed since, Spanish clubs have won 13 of the 20 major European trophies on offer, a strike-rate that goes up to an extraordinary 73% if you’re inclined to include the UEFA Super Cup.

On the surface, little has changed as the 2018-19 football season moves towards the winter months. All three European club trophies are currently in Spanish hands and with Madrid set to host the 2019 Champions League Final, it’d be unwise to write off any of La Liga’s three dominant forces when it comes to claiming more continental silverware this term.

However it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to realise that something has changed and it’s no longer safe to assume that this era of Spanish dominance will continue to run and run.

The increased competitiveness of La Liga so far this season is one indicator that the standard may be creeping down as far as the very top clubs are concerned.

Not since Valencia finished third under Unai Emery in 2011-12 has the current ‘big three’ monopoly been broken up and not since well before then has the rest of the division had more reason to believe they can at least mix it with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

However already this season, we’ve witnessed bottom club Leganes beat the Catalan giants, Real Madrid lose to Alaves and Atletico lose to Celta Vigo without mustering a single shot on target.

In any other season, such shock results would usually be labelled freak occurrences, normally brushed quickly aside by relentless and often record-breaking winning streaks.

However, so far this term at least, the giants of Spanish football have been stooping to rarely-visited lows rather than raising the bar higher.

Barcelona have gone four league games without a win for the first time since a late slump in the 2015-16 campaign.

Real Madrid have gone over 400 minutes without scoring, their worst goal drought in over 30 years; while even hotly-fancied Atletico Madrid have failed to live up to the pre-season hype with just nine goals scored in eight matches despite holding onto Antoine Griezmann and some significant attacking additions over the past twelve months.

One theory as to why just two points currently separates the top six centres around the notion of a World Cup hangover affecting the big clubs.

It’s a theory that doesn’t fully stack up though, certainly when you contrast it to the familiar look to the top end of the Premier League, which contributed a far higher percentage of players who were involved in Russia until the very final weekend.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that the concept of a league season starting following a major international tournament is hardly a new phenomenon and that this was actually a relatively quiet summer for many of La Liga’s star players with the likes of Spain and Argentina failing to make it past the last sixteen.

There is also a genuine sense inside both Camp Nou and the Bernabeu and certainly from the respective fan-bases, that something bigger is going on and, while talk of ‘crisis’ may be premature, there is a growing suspicion that the eternal rivals are no longer quite the invincible forces they have been over the past decade on various different levels.

In the past eighteen months alone, La Liga has lost the immense talents of Andres Iniesta, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, three of the undisputed football icons of this generation.

All three departures were significant beyond the obvious weakening of Barca and Real’s respective on-field capabilities.

Neymar’s transfer to PSG moved the goalposts financially and caught Barcelona and for that matter the whole of La Liga completely off-guard.

In one record-breaking deal, the idea that the Spanish giants could effectively assemble ‘dream teams’ without seriously having to worry about foreign clubs luring their best players away was destroyed.

New financial realities in Paris and Italy, not to mention the collective clout of the Premier League, have again contributed to recent events such as Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus and Real Madrid’s failure to lure the likes of Mauricio Pochettino and Eden Hazard away from London.

On a more symbolic level, Andres Iniesta’s departure from Barcelona and Spain’s subsequent timid World Cup exit to Russia, effectively drew the curtain on the golden era of tiki-taka, admittedly several years after it had passed its peak.

From one angle, it served up a chance for reinvention and for fresh talents to emerge as the new stars of the Spanish game.

However, inevitably such a process will have its teething problems and world class players not to mention world class teams can’t simply be replaced overnight.

The early showings of La Roja under Luis Enrique highlighted the potential that exists in young players such as Saúl, Rodri, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos.

There’s not quite the doom and gloom that hovers over some other European countries where fresh talent has been slow in emerging however a first-half defensive collapse against an inspired English attack served as a pretty good metaphor for this new-found fragility that exists in the Spanish game right now.

La Liga is still home to a large proportion of the world’s best players, many of whom are still Spanish, despite the gradual ageing of the ‘golden generation’.

However, there are problems that run deeper than Real Madrid’s temporary goal drought, Barcelona’s unconvincing start or Spain’s surprise home defeat to Gareth Southgate’s England.

At the Bernabeu, Julen Lopetegui and whoever comes next will find it almost impossible to replicate this era of European dominance or win hearts and minds in quite the same way a club legend like Zinedine Zidane was able to.

Barcelona still haven’t truly found a unifying figure or philosophy to get behind in the post-Guardiola era; while Atletico Madrid are still struggling to complete the evolution from plucky over-achievers into acting like the genuine Spanish and European powerhouse, they now are.

There are challenges to be faced that simply haven’t been present over much of the last decade and as La Liga’s elite tries to deal and adapt to these new realities, a more open era looks likely and Spanish clubs will have to work hard to find new ways to maintain their status at the very pinnacle of the European game.

The Author

Mark Sochon

Freelance football writer based in Madrid. Featured in World Soccer, Guardian Sport, IBWM, Inside Futbol.

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