9 Stories to Watch in La Liga in 2021/22

2020/21 proved one of La Liga’s most fascinating seasons in many a year. It was a year which saw the last performances from historic names in the division such as Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and most notably Lionel Messi. It also saw Atletico de Madrid steal in under the radar of FC Barcelona & Real Madrid to win their 11th title in their history and their second in 7 seasons.


Despite the aforementioned long-serving playing departures above, 2021/22 could prove to be a campaign that sees new stars emerge in a La Liga which is arguably undergoing a transitional phase when it comes to its clubs’ performances in the UEFA Champions League. Here are nine stories to follow in La Liga in 2021/22.


How Will FC Barcelona Begin Life after Lionel Messi?


There truly is only one place we can start when it comes to the first story to keep an eye on in La Liga in 2021/22, FC Barcelona. 2020/21 in La Liga for Barca can in terms of seasons be filed in the “missed opportunities” bracket. Going into their Matchday 33 encounter against Granada CF, Blaugrana actually had the destiny of the La Liga title in their own hands. Win all their remaining matches and Barca would have won their 27th Spanish top-flight title.


However, Barcelona fluffed their lines, a damaging 2-1 home loss at Camp Nou, after being 1-0 up at half time, dealt a fatal blow to their title chances. It was a loss which they would never recover from, as demonstrated by a 3-3 draw against Levante UD on Matchday 36 followed by a 2-1 home loss against Celta de Vigo on Matchday 37. Barca limped to an eventual third-placed finish behind arch-rivals Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid, finishing seven points off the pace.


However, whilst the end of the previous campaign was painful, to describe this off-season as being one of the most challenging in the Catalan giants’ 122-year history would be putting it lightly. Less than two weeks before the start of the 2021/22 campaign, the bombshell of the footballing summer dropped.


Lionel Messi, Blaugrana’s talisman and arguably football’s finest player of the last 15 years opted to leave Barca to join Paris St Germain. Barca simply were unable to keep the Argentine genius due to the deep financial crisis currently engulfing Camp Nou.


Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi: Two Legends at a Crossroads


If losing Messi was bad enough, worse news could be around the corner. Barca are still reportedly spending 95% of their income on player wages. This figure needs to be reduced to 70% if the club wishes to register its new summer transfers Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay, Eric Garcia and Emerson Royal. This requirement is needed to pass La Liga’s strict spending limits imposed on each club at the start of a new season.


Genuinely anything could happen with Barca in 2021/22. On the one hand, their talisman has gone and highly paid or unwanted stars who the club were looking to sell on to keep Messi remain. In addition, much criticised manager Ronald Koeman remains at Camp Nou for a second campaign. Barca, owing to their precarious financial situation simply having no choice but to give the former Blaugrana playing legend a second season in charge.


On the other hand, there are some signs of an eventual bright future for Barca. 18 year-old starlet Pedri impressed in his debut La Liga season in 2020/21 after arriving from second-tier Las Palmas last summer. Other promising young players, especially in defence such as Ronald Araujo and young USMNT defender Sergino Dest, a summer signing from AFC Ajax also impressed throughout the campaign.


With Messi gone, others must now step up and fill the Argentine’s legendary boots. Just how you replace the irreplaceable though is anyone’s guess.


Eder Militao & David Alaba Have Some Big Shoes to Fill In Real Madrid’s Defence


The next story to keep an eye on comes courtesy of Barca’s fierce rivals Real Madrid. Champions of Spain in 2019/20, only their third title in a 12 season stretch dominated by the Catalan giants. For two of these triumphs, the central defensive partnership of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane proved a vital cog. In addition, the Ramos and Varane partnership helped Los Blancos to three consecutive Champions League triumphs between 2016 and 2018.


However, in a flash, this legendary defensive partnership has now been consigned to the history books. With his contract at Real expiring this summer, Ramos and Los Blancos’ hierarchy failed to agree a new contract, the Camas-born defender opted to leave, ironically, joining the Galactico-esque project at Paris St Germain this summer. 


Likewise, with just one season left on his partner Varane’s contract, Real have opted to cash in on the French World Cup winner by selling him to Manchester United. Failure between all parties on agreeing an extension beyond the end of the 2021-22 campaign in addition to reports the player himself fancied a new challenge quoted as the reasons for Varane’s departure.


Player Analysis: Raphaël Varane


Despite two summers of austerity having taken place when it comes to ins and outs at Real, likely in preparation for a summer of spending in 2022, there has been one key arrival through the doors at the Santiago Bernabeu, David Alaba. The Austrian 28 year-old defender arrives in the Spanish capital on a free transfer from Bayern Munich. 


In addition, Brazilian Eder Militao, a EUR 50 million arrival in the summer of 2019, who has in two completed seasons at Real just started 23 matches in La Liga now finds himself thrust firmly into the spotlight and will now be in the starting line-up on a week-by-week basis. A large chunk of those aforementioned 23 starts in La Liga for Real came at the back end of 2020/21 when Ramos was out injured.


Alaba and Militao, two arrivals two summers apart, one arriving as one of the elite level central defenders of his generation, the other arriving as a strong defensive prospect from Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Now, both must come together to replace arguably the greatest central defensive pairing in Los Blancos’ history. Real’s hopes both domestically & in Europe will depend on how quickly this new defensive partnership settles.


A Great Chance for Atletico de Madrid to Retain the La Liga Title?


Amidst all the chaos at Barcelona and second-straight season of cost-cutting this summer at Real, one very easy forgets that it was Atletico de Madrid who triumphed in the 2020/21 La Liga season. Barca as explained above have suffered many a blow of late, however, the first of these blows came last May.


Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, a player Barca had to sacrifice due to their financial problems scored Atleti’s winner in Matchday 38 of the 2020/21 La Liga season, a 2-1 win away against Real Valladolid. This result sealed an 11th Spanish title for Los Colchoneros.


Atletico’s title in 2020/21 was their second under the management of Diego Pablo Simeone, a triumph which further confirmed El Cholo’s status as Atleti’s greatest ever manager. In addition to Suarez, other key personnel for Los Colchoneros in their eventual victory included Marcos Llorente and one of the finest goalkeepers on the planet in Jan Oblak.


Tactical Analysis: Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid In Possession


When it came to comparing final league standings to pre-season favourites for 2020/21, the tables were turned on their heads as Atleti triumphed over the big two favourites of Barca & Real. Intriguingly, a similar picture is also playing out when it comes to Spain’s summer transfer market. Normally dominated by both Barca & Real with Los Colchoneros often being the ones forced to sell key players, this time around the boot is on the other foot. 


Whilst both Los Blancos & Blaugrana have spent just EUR 9 million on new transfer arrivals between them with both currently having a positive net spend of EUR 3 million and EUR 19.5 million respectively, Atletico are currently the highest spenders in La Liga so far this summer. EUR 35 million has so far been spent by Los Colchoneros on two new additions, 20 year-old Portuguese winger Marcos Paulo on a free transfer and Argentine midfielder Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese Calcio.


Some issues still remain with Atletico’s squad, there are question marks over the future of Kieran Trippier who continues to be linked with a move back to the English Premier League. In addition, with Suarez turning 35 in January, many argue Atletico lack a competent back-up striker to manage the Uruguayan’s workload. However, Atleti go into the new campaign in a much better state than both Real and Barca, with a great chance to win back-to-back La Liga titles for the first time since 1950-51.


After Painting Seville Red, Can Sevilla Now Win a First La Liga since 1945/46?


Best of the rest in 2020/21 behind Spanish football’s so-called “Big Three” was once again Sevilla FC. Finishing 4th for a second consecutive season in 2020/21 may not on first glance be viewed as something to particularly shout out about. However, compare and contrast the two 4th placed finishes and real progress was made at Sevilla during 2020/21.


In 2019/20, Sevilla finished 4th with 70 points, the same total as 3rd placed Atletico, however, 17 and 12 points behind champions Real Madrid and runners-up Barcelona respectively. In 2020/21, Sevilla finished 4th, but this time with 77 points, finishing only 9 points off eventual champions Atletico, who accumulated 86 points. 


In addition, alongside reducing the gap between themselves and the “Big Three”, Sevilla were genuinely still in the La Liga title race during 2020/21 until conceding a late equaliser against Real Madrid on Matchday 35, a late goal which eventually killed their title chances. At no point during the 2019/20 campaign were Rojiblancos ever in the title race.


Julen Lopetegui’s Revival at Sevilla


Sevilla being in the title race during 2020/21 also admittedly comes with the caveat of mentioning whether or not 2020/21 was overall a poorer quality of La Liga compared to seasons past. An argument which based on Real, Barca & Atletico’s performances in the Champions League and points tallies in past La Liga seasons carries weight. However, Sevilla have undoubtedly made progress since Julen Lopetegui took over in the summer of 2019.


In only two of the last ten La Liga seasons have Sevilla finished below their fierce Seville city rivals Real Betis Balompie. Clearly Sevilla have painted their own city red, the big debate now is whether or not Sevilla can now take that next step and actually win La Liga, only their second ever triumph and first since 1945/46. 


One could say that the current climate will enhance Sevilla’s title chances. Key to any potential Sevilla title challenge could be keeping hold of two of their star players. The first is Moroccan central forward Youssef En-Nesyri, who really came of age in 2020/21 in La Liga, with 18 goals in 38 matches.


En-Nesyri had attracted admiring glances last season, however, interest has recently cooled. However, the second key man, French central defender Jules Kounde is reportedly attracting strong glances from European champions Chelsea FC.


Will Villarreal’s Impressive Signings Help Them Close the Gap to the “Big Four”?


One noteworthy consequence of Sevilla’s improvement in 2020/21 in La Liga which enabled them to close up the gap to the “Big Three” was just how much daylight Rojiblancos put between themselves and the remaining teams in La Liga. With their 77 points accumulated in 2020/21, Sevilla finished 15 points ahead of 5th placed Real Sociedad and sealed Champions League football for 2021/22 with over a month of the season remaining.


Despite their 7th placed finish in 2020/21, eventually finishing behind Real Sociedad and Real Betis, many are predicting that if anyone is going to displace any of the current top four in La Liga, Villarreal will be the team to do so. Comparative to 2019/20 when El Submarino Amarillo finished 5th in La Liga under the management of Javi Calleja, a 7th place under the new management of Unai Emery a season later would normally have been viewed as a disappointment.


How Unai Emery’s Villarreal Maneuvered Getafe’s 4-4-2 High Press


However, Emery replaced Calleja with the objective of putting Villarreal in a position to win the first-ever trophy in their history. Not only did the former Valencia, Paris St Germain and Arsenal FC manager lay the foundations for a Villarreal trophy, he only went and did it. After an 11-10 penalty shoot-out victory over Manchester United in the 2020/21 Europa League final following a 1-1 draw after extra-time, Villarreal celebrated their first-ever competition triumph. 


Not only did El Submarino Amarillo’s Europa League triumph break their trophy duck, it secured a place in the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League group stages as a top-seeded team. Had Villarreal lost this final, they would have dropped into the new UEFA Europa Conference League, UEFA’s new third-tier club competition. This triumph therefore, in addition to providing Villarreal the historic memory of a first-ever trophy also netted the club a substantial cash windfall increase.


The summer has seen El Submarino Amarillo put this cash windfall alongside the carrot of offering Champions League football to good use with some strong business in the transfer market. The headline signing for Emery’s troops appears to be Boulaye Dia, a EUR 12 million signing from Stade de Reims in France’s Ligue 1. 24-year-old Senegalese striker Dia netted 14 goals in 36 Ligue 1 matches last season and will be one of La Liga’s summer transfers to watch. 


Equally smart additions include Algerian central defender Aissa Mandi on a free transfer from Real Betis and making Juan Foyth’s initial loan transfer from Tottenham Hotspur a permanent deal for a transfer fee of EUR 15 million. Juggling Champions League commitments with the league will prove a challenge, however, Villarreal have so far increased their squad depth to cope with the extra strain. Can they gate-crash the top four?


Can Eduardo Coudet Put Himself in the Shop Window at Celta?


One of the most interesting stories to keep track of throughout 2021/22 in La Liga will be Celta de Vigo. Os Celestes started 2020/21 with a struggle. Ten matches into the campaign, Celta sat bottom of La Liga, having picked up only one win and four draws. Things looked bleak and it was to no-one’s surprise that head coach Oscar Garcia lost his job, the final straw for the Celta board coming after a 1-1 away draw with newly-promoted Elche on Matchday 9.


Player Analysis: Renato Tapia


Celta thought outside of the box when looking for a replacement for Garcia and eventually settled on Argentine Eduardo Coudet. 46 year-old Coudet’s first real breakthrough in management came in the 2018/19 Argentine Primera Division season, when he lead Racing Club de Avellaneda to their 18th Argentine title.


Immediately after this triumph, Coudet left to coach Brazil’s Sport Club Internacional, where he presided over a win percentage of 52.17%. Coudet’s Internacional were leading the 2020 Brasilerao Serie A when the Argentine coach accepted the call from Galicia to manage Celta.


Coudet had an immediate impact. In his first seven matches in charge, Celta won five, drawing and losing one each of the other two games. After an inconsistent middle part of the campaign, Celta once again caught fire after a 2-1 home victory against Osasuna on Matchday 33. It was the first of five straight victories for Os Celestes, which propelled them up from 12th to 8th in the table. The run of five straight victories included an impressive 2-1 away victory at Camp Nou.


So what can Coudet and Celta achieve in 2021/22 given his immediate impact upon taking charge part way through last season? Celta like many La Liga clubs have been affected by the pandemic, however, they have been active in the market. Two signings have been brought in for EUR 8 million, Argentine wide-player Franco Cervi from Benfica and fullback Javi Galan, who impressed for relegated Huesca in 2020/21 and was reportedly linked with Leeds United prior to joining Celta.


Celta have no European football unlike Villarreal, Real Betis and Real Sociedad, three sides that finished directly above them last season. Can they take advantage of this, potentially qualifying for either the Europa League or Europa Conference League for 2022/23 with a top seven finish?


Will the Bats’ Wings Be Clipped? – Could Valencia Be Facing Up to Relegation?


One story that no-one in La Liga can ignore going into 2021/22 is that of Valencia CF. Los Murcielagos have since finishing 4th in La Liga in 2018/19 in addition to winning that season’s Copa del Rey under manager Marcelino Garcia Toral fallen on very hard times. Since those lofty heights were reached, Marcelino is no longer at the helm, two permanent managers in Albert Celades and Javi Gracia have come and gone and a mass cost-cutting of the playing squad has taken place.


Valencia’s Familiar Turmoil Might Be One Too Many This Time


Following on from that 4th place finish in 2018/19, Valencia have slipped to 9th place in 2019/20 and more concerningly a 13th place finish in 2020/21. The effects of the austerity programme imposed on Valencia by owner Peter Lim are clearly having an impact on results and going into 2021/22, a question is slowly being banded about which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Could Valencia actually be relegated?


It may not be an hypothesis as unimaginable as it appears on first glance. Valencia have for 2021/22 yet another new manager, 57 year-old Jose Bordalas, who arrives after spending nearly five full seasons at fellow La Liga club Getafe CF.


Bordalas’ reign at Geta started well, in his first full season in charge in 2017/18, Getafe finished an impressive 8th in La Liga after winning promotion from the second tier. This was followed up by an even more impressive 5th place finish in 2018/19, Getafe only just missing out on Champions League football for 2019/20.


However, despite this impressive start to life at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez, gradually, things got worse at Getafe under Bordalas. 2019/20 saw a drop down to a final 8th place finish, which admittedly coincided with a run to the Round of Sixteen in the UEFA Europa League. 2020/21 was where things really began to unwind for Bordalas at Geta as the Madrid region outfit dropped down to 15th in La Liga, only securing their survival from relegation on the penultimate game of the season.


Finally, it is worth mentioning that Valencia’s summer business has left the squad thinner in terms of depth. The only new arrival at the club is 24 year-old Paraguayan defender Omar Alderete, a loan signing from Hertha BSC Berlin in Germany. Striker Kevin Gameiro and central defender Eliaquim Mangala have both left on free transfers to add to the mass departures of last campaign, with last January’s transfer window loanees not having seen their loan deals extended.


How José Bordalás Delivered Getafe to the Promised Land


Bordalas will have to call on all his nous to keep Valencia in the top flight. Whilst they are not on paper the favourites to be relegated, this is the most challenging times the club has had to endure for many a season. What direction will events at Valencia take in 2021/22 under yet another new manager and working amidst a backdrop of further cost-cuts?


Blanquiazules Are Back, but Are They Back for Good? – Will Espanyol Survive?


If ever a side and their supporters saw both sides of footballing delight and despair in back-to-back La Liga seasons, it would be RCD Espanyol. Blanquiazules enjoyed a fine 2018/19 campaign under the management of Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia (Rubi), qualifying for the 2019/20 UEFA Europa League. Just two defeats from their last 17 matches of the league season propelled the Barcelona outfit from 15th to an eventual 7th placed finish.


Hugh Grant shot to fame in the 1994 film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, Espanyol shot to fame for all the wrong reasons in 2019/20. If a motion picture had been made about Periquitos’ disastrous campaign, “Four Firings and a Demotion” would have proved an apt title as the managerial hot seat at RCDE Stadium was occupied by Rubi, Pablo Machin, Abelardo and Rufete throughout. Espanyol’s relegation to Segunda Division was confirmed after a 1-0 away loss at Camp Nou to local rivals FC Barcelona. 


From despair, however, came redemption as Espanyol bounced back to La Liga at the first attempt in 2020/21. Under the management of Vicente Moreno, Blanquiazules finished top of Segunda having never been outside of the top three positions all season. Key to Espanyol’s return to Spain’s top flight was the performances of Raul de Tomas, the striker noting 23 goals in 37 games.


So how will Espanyol fare on their return to La Liga? Curiously, Periquitos are based on a number of criteria which includes number of seasons spent in Spain’s top flight and best-ever final La Liga positions rank 7th in the overall all-time La Liga rankings. Espanyol’s relegation in 2019/20 was a huge shock, many expressing the opinion it was a one-off poor season of underperformance.


2021/22 will be a key campaign for 46-year-old manager Moreno. He previously had one season’s experience with RCD Mallorca in 2019/20, after achieving back-to-back promotions the past two campaigns with the Balearic Islands-outfit. Moreno was unable to keep Mallorca in La Liga and will now get a second chance at keeping a team in the top flight with Espanyol, will he finally prove himself a La Liga calibre manager?


Andoni Iraola – Can La Liga’s Youngest Manager Keep Rayo Afloat?


Another promoted side that are worth keeping an eye on in 2021/22 are Rayo Vallecano. Historically considered the third largest club based in either the city or region of Madrid, Los Franjirrojos have since the early 2000’s been usurped in stature by Getafe CF. After a two-season absence from La Liga, Rayo returned to La Liga for 2021/22 after winning the Segunda promotion play-offs 3-2 on aggregate against Girona FC. 


Embed from Getty Images


The victory was a shock, especially considering Rayo had finished only 6th in Segunda in 2020/21 compared to the 3rd place finish of Girona. In addition, the Madrid-based outfit went into the second leg trailing 2-1 and had to come from behind away from home at Girona’s Estadi Montilivi.


The most fascinating part of Rayo to keep an eye on in 2021/22 is their manager, La Liga’s youngest aged just 39 in Andoni Iraola. An Athletic Club legend, Iraola made over 400 appearances at right fullback for Los Leones over a 12 year La Liga career between 2003 and 2015, which included winning 7 caps for the Spanish national team.


After leaving Athletic Club in 2015, Iraola enjoyed an 18 month spell playing in Major League Soccer with New York City FC before retiring in November 2016 and turning his sights towards management. Iraola’s management career really took off in the 2019/20 campaign with Segunda Division’s CD Mirandes. Iraola led the newly-promoted second tier outfit to a comfortably secure 11th place finish.


However, even more impressively, Mirandes, under Iraola’s guidance reached the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey before narrowly losing to eventual winners Real Sociedad 3-1 on aggregate. It was this performance at Mirandes that led to Iraola getting the Rayo job for 2020/21 and his upward trajectory has continued after helping them back to La Liga.


Seeing new up-and-coming managers is always a story worth following at the start of every new campaign. Just how much further can Iraola’s stock continue to rise throughout 2021/22 as he bravely attempts to keep Rayo in La Liga against all odds.


By: Richard David Pike / @RichDPike89

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images – Getty Images / Fran Santiago – Getty Images / Bruna Prado – Getty Images