La Liga season review: the triumph of Atlético Madrid, the sadness of Eibar
The late great Andrew Weatherall had a saying tattooed on both arms: “fail we can, sail we must.” And while a reference to one of underground music’s most beloved DJs might seem like an odd place to start a La Liga review, I have often thought of those words this season, especially when it comes to it. was from Atlético Madrid. Leader of the league by 11 points at the end of January, Atléti allowed Real Madrid, Barcelona and even Sevilla to close the gap at the end of the season. At times, it was unclear whether Atléti or anyone else wanted to win the league.
i don’t think anyone really wants to win la liga
– Ryan Hunn (@ryanhunn) May 3, 2021
After covering the first half of the season and almost failing in the stormy seas of the second, Atléti finally won the title – his first since 2014 – on the last day of the season, thus ending one of the closest races in league history. “We are Atlético,” said midfielder Koke after the 2-1 league win in Valladolid, “if we don’t suffer, we aren’t ourselves.” Winning they can, they must suffer – it was all part of a wonderful season in the Spanish top flight.
Player of the Year: Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Much like Robert Lewandowski in the Bundesliga, it’s hard to look past Lionel Messi for this price. If you looked past him, there were plenty of players for a shout out: Luis Suárez’s 21 goals earned crucial points in Atleti’s title triumph, while Villareal’s Gerard Moreno and Real’s Karim Benzema Madrid finished behind Messi for the Pichichi with 23 goals apiece. Ten of Moreno’s goals came from the penalty spot, but his overall play and importance for a Villarreal side that had already qualified for next season’s Europa Conference League before winning the Europa League this season – the first Major trophy in club history and one that meant they will be participating in the Champions League – putting him into consideration to be the best Spanish player in La Liga. Marcos Llorente and Kieran Trippier were integral to Atleti’s title win, and Iago Aspas once again performed wonders for his beloved Celta Vigo, but there is no real choice apart from Messi.
The departure of Suárez, the injuries of Ansu Fati and Philippe Coutinho and Barcelona’s continued failures in the transfer market have left even more offensive and creative burdens on Messi. However, the Argentine put his public row with the club behind him and coached a Barcelona side who have lost four of their first 10 games under new boss Ronald Koeman in the title race at the end of the season. He’s fallen into deeper roles to tie the game together even more than in previous years. And while it’s hardly a secret, Messi has proven that he is not only one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, but also one of the greatest passer.
Manager of the year: Diego Simeone
It might seem like an obvious choice, but La Liga have had so many good coaching results this season. Julen Lopetegui guided Sevilla to a record-breaking point total for the club, Imanol Alguacil led Real Sociedad – without Martin Odegaard, whose loan ended early – to fifth place and their first Copa del Rey trophy since 1987. Manuel Pellegrini won Real Betis 15th last season in sixth place and a place in the Europa League, while Marcelino and Eduardo Coudet did wonders after taking over from Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo, respectively, in mid-season. Unai Emery, meanwhile, is already a Villarreal legend for overseeing the club’s Europa League victory and seventh place in the league.
But it must be El Cholo, because, my boy, did he suffer. It must be exhausting dealing with Atléti and it must be exhausting being Diego Simeone, prowling the sideline with the chaotically balanced energy of a nuclear reactor, breathlessly unleashing the Hulk’s rage (a bit as his assistant Nelson Vivas did in a game against Boca Juniors as head coach of the Estudiantes).
Even though this season’s Atléti team is less built in Simeone’s image than its previous teams, it is still a team with its personality imprinted on it. Atléti suffered because Simeone suffered. I’m sure if you asked any of the players that they would say it was worth it.
Game of the Year: Real Madrid 2, Seville 2
There are a few games that could have won this award: the six-goal thriller from Levante and Barcelona, and the best edition of El Clásico in quite some time, to name just two. It may be a recency bias, but the 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Sevilla on Matchday 35 was hard to beat.
After Atléti and Barca played a goalless draw the day before, a Real Madrid win would have taken them into the lead. A win for Sevilla, on the other hand, would have seen them shoot within one point of Barcelona and Real Madrid and three points of Atleti. Despite most of the odds, it took a 67th-minute equalizer from substitute Marco Asensio to pull Real Madrid down to 1-1.
Then came the drama. The referee didn’t notice Éder Militão’s handball in Real Madrid’s box, and Real charged at the opposite end of the pitch where Benzema was knocked down by Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou in the box. . A penalty call for each team in a sequence of play, so it went to VAR. The referee stood in front of the replay monitor, surrounded by the two groups of players and staff. It was a memorable call that could have decided the title. Finally, he awarded Sevilla the first penalty, the result of Militão’s handball, and Ivan Rakitic scored coldly from the penalty spot. Sevilla were moments away from a gigantic 2-1 victory, but Toni Kroos’ shot deflected Eden Hazard’s ankle to save a point for Real Madrid, while maintaining the intrigue around who would win the race in title.
Biggest surprise: the title race itself
The fact that Atléti ran towards a staggering 50 points in the first half of the season, and with the aforementioned struggles of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s a surprise that the title race has been as close as it has been. In recent years, tight title races have typically consisted of Barcelona and Real Madrid, with just one point lost enough to decide the title. Hopefully future title races will make this year less abnormal.
Biggest disappointment: Eibar’s relegation
Eibar, a native of Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country and one of the smallest clubs to have played in Spain’s top flight, was relegated after finishing low in the table, ending an unlikely seven-season run in the Premier League. In 2014, they basically had to do crowdfunding to ensure their survival, selling club shares to raise funds to facilitate their promotion from the second tier. They finished 18th in their first season but avoided relegation because Elche was sacked instead for financial irregularities. Eibar finished at least 14th, including a frankly unthinkable ninth place in 2017-18. Last weekend they posted a thread of personalized messages on Twitter thanking each club in the league and president of the club Amaia Gorostiza said at a press conference that the foundations of the club are stronger than they were eight years ago. “What we all want is to get back to the Premier League as quickly as possible and we are working on it,” she said. Many would echo his wish to see Eibar return soon.
Biggest question this summer: Can Atléti become a real force?
This is an obvious but valid question. Atléti has a chance to solidify as a team to beat. They continue to evolve – stylistically and in terms of mentality – with emerging leaders like Mario Hermoso, Trippier and Llorente, and João Félix is yet to reach his final form. What has been so impressive about Atléti this season is that so many players have shared leadership responsibilities. Barcelona and Real Madrid’s financial constraints prevent them from responding as aggressively in the transfer market as in 2014, when Atléti last won the title, which means everything is in place for the team. de Simeone become the dominant team of Spain.