Vinicius & Memphis cracking La Liga's 'disgraceful' code

Vinicius & Memphis cracking La Liga's 'disgraceful' code

In a weekend of La Liga gridlock, it took two players and two clubs who go against the grain to break through and provide true entertainment.

Vinicius Junior burst off the bench and struck two goals to revive Real Madrid in their 3-3 draw with Levante - a genuinely exciting, attacking team, who had turned the game on its head at the start of the second half. Paco Lopez’s side, unlike many of the others in the division, attack with abandon and have no fear socking it to the division’s elite.

After Gareth Bale’s tap-in gave Madrid a first-half lead, Levante came out swinging. Roger Marti and Jose Campana netted, helping the east coast side become the first Liga team to score two goals in this round of fixtures. The results in every other game read like binary code; 1-0, 0-0 or 1-1 - a paltry 10 goals in nine matches.

“Levante are a counter-cultural team in La Liga because they accept and even encourage an absence of control,” tweeted Miguel Quintana, a Spanish football analyst.

That lack of control is evident in Vinicius’ game too. He loses the ball, he finishes erratically, but he makes things happen. Most of all, he is exciting to watch.

Vinicius’s first goal saw him race into the box, seemingly taking a touch too many before rolling the ball past Aitor Fernandez. The second was even better, a sensational flicked finish, hit early to take the goalkeeper by surprise.

Arguably it was the game of the weekend, not just in La Liga but across Europe’s top leagues. It was thrilling, and far better than what had come before.

Barcelona’s 1-1 draw at Athletic Club on Saturday night was the other gripping encounter from the slate, with the Basques roared on at a lively San Mames, a stadium infinitely improved with supporters back in the stands.

Athletic, with their famous policy of only recruiting Basque players, are not always an entertaining watch, but like Levante, raise their game against the top sides.

They ran relentlessly, pressing high and creating chances, with Neto’s net living a charmed life in the first half. Marcelino’s side took the lead through Inigo Martinez’s 50th-minute header, but Memphis Depay struck his first goal for Barcelona to level, a thunderbolt into the top left corner.

The Dutchman is another player who goes against the general trend in Spain. He is capable of individual brilliance, is a risk-taker and has the arrogance to try things other players do not. On his debut, against Real Sociedad, he attempted a 40-yard lob, and a clever spin and dink over the head of a defender brought to mind Neymar.

The Brazilian’s flair has been missed since he departed for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, and now Lionel Messi has gone to join him, while Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Juventus in 2018 from Real Madrid. Along with Sergio Ramos going to PSG and Raphael Varane joining Manchester United, there has been an exodus of top talent from La Liga.

Some remaining star names have fallen far from their best, in Eden Hazard, Gareth Bale, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann. Just as worrying is some of the younger prospects leaving; Ferran Torres to Manchester City last summer, Bryan Gil to Tottenham this year, among others.

Increasingly defensive and cynical playing styles are a problem too, making a mockery of the cliche that it is easier to score in La Liga than the Premier League or Serie A, but also limiting excitement.

“We have to make an effort between referees, coaches and players so La Liga isn’t this disgraceful, because in the referees meeting they told us that it’s the slowest league in Europe," said Real Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini on Friday.

“The most time is wasted at free-kicks, there’s constant diving. There is a spectacle that we have to take care of. The fans buy a ticket for a reason, we have to take care (of the game) or it hurts the spectacle.”

Pellegrini’s words have to be taken with a pinch of salt, given he said them in the heat of the moment after a particularly frustrating 1-1 draw with minnows Cadiz. The Andalusians have one of the most vibrant fan bases in Spanish football; the city, in the southwest corner of Spain is surrounded by water and utterly beautiful, but the football is anything but.

La Liga no longer has the best two players in the world, as it did for a decade, but in Vinicius and Memphis it has two players with the capacity to thrill, to shatter the carefully structured defences. They are not the best two players in Spain, but they are the most exciting.

A lot of the top talents remaining are reaching their final years of playing. Luka Modric and Karim Benzema are 35 and 33 respectively. The man who fired Atletico Madrid to the title last season, Luis Suarez, is 34.

Barcelona have younger diamonds in midfielders Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, but neither are individual match-winners, instead part of a greater whole. Their quality is in their consistency.

Atletico Madrid being champions is at once good and bad. Important, because it breaks up the Barcelona-Real Madrid hegemony, but bad because it turns an often dour playing style into a reference point. One Atletico is a breath of fresh air, 10 of them in a division is a problem.

La Liga has averaged 1.9 goals per game this season, below Italy’s 3.6 and the Premier League’s 2.95. There have been 11 draws in the first 20 games, and outside the usual top four, only Mallorca, Valencia and Real Sociedad have been able to record a victory.

Parties with vested interests claim this demonstrates increased competition; others just call it boring.

The summer climate does not help. Baking temperatures have contributed to the slow football, and it is no surprise that the two late games at the weekend, kicking off at 10pm local time, have been the most interesting, especially given they featured the two biggest clubs.

La Liga being at war with Real Madrid and Barcelona, after their attempted Super League departure and insistence on the scheme, adds a further element of morbid curiosity.

Although fans are generally against such a project, the matches at the start of this season have not been a particularly good defence of the status quo. The giants themselves are struggling, with Barcelona losing Messi and having to reduce the salaries of captains Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto.

Madrid are in a far better economic state but have only managed to bring in free agent David Alaba. The managers of both clubs were previously in charge of Everton, which speaks for itself.

That is another area La Liga is suffering in. Top coaches are plying their trades in the Premier League or elsewhere, while only Diego Simeone in Spain could be considered to be at their level.

To keep the Argentine, Atletico made him the best-paid manager in the world, roughly on €42 million (£36m/$49m) a season until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“It’s going to be tough until the end of the season,” said Barcelona forward Griezmann, conscious that the level of the top teams has dipped, and that of the rest has solidified, becoming hard nuts to crack.

It might be hard to watch, too, unless the disruptive dynamism of Vinicius and Memphis sets a new example, and their kinetic energy becomes the norm, rather than something to be wary of.
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