La Liga Lowdown
The 7 Ingredients Required For Survival In LaLiga
Written by Sam Leveridge
Avoiding relegation is one of the toughest tasks for any club in the world, particularly in LaLiga. Many teams have tried it, the majority of them failing. For every success, like Granada or Osasuna in 2019/20, there’s a failure like Real Mallorca. And in some cases, finding the right mix of ingredients can be fiendishly difficult.
By looking back at those who have bounced back, fighting their way up the table, making themselves mainstays, we’ve been able to identify seven factors that must be included in the cookbook for survival. From those who have gone from promotion one season to European football the next like Diego Martínez’s Granada, to those who take a slower route, like Eibar, we can learn from each and every approach.
Here are our seven mystical ingredients for the perfect recipe for survival:
1. Big budget
In the world of modern football, we just can’t look beyond the money factor. Sides like Celta Vigo, Deportivo La Coruña, Villarreal, Real Betis, Real Sociedad and more have all gone down and come back to LaLiga again, even Atlético Madrid as recently as 2002. These sides benefit from the size of their budgets to bring in the quality their fanbases demand.
Real Betis are a good example. In 2015 they returned to LaLiga after a one-year hiatus and spent some big money on some well-known names. Rafael van der Vaart was the marquee arrival, earning over €40,000 a week, while Joaquín also returned from Fiorentina and respected names like Didier Digard, Leandro Damião and Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Even before then, Atleti spent 12 million euros on signing Javi Moreno from AC Milan in 2002 and Villarreal brought in their own superstar in the making in 2013 with six-million-euro ace Giovani Dos Santos. As these clubs know, spending money isn’t a guarantee of success, far from it…but it certainly helps.
2. Strong defence
Stable and reliable foundations lay a base for coaches to build a stronger team ahead of them. Picking up low-scoring victories and draws allows them to scrape by and get enough points for survival, then investing further in midfield and attacking players.
Getafe built their reputation around this idea entirely. José Bordálas’ side conceded just 33 goals in their first season back in Primera, a figure only surpassed by champions Barcelona and runners-up Atlético Madrid. It was 11 goals fewer than the number conceded by Real Madrid.
Other sides have had a similar focus, without being quite so impressive, such as Real Valladolid and Las Palmas. Even Leganés, in their first season of Primera, won all but one of their victories to nil, with a mixture of 0-0 and 1-1 draws doing enough to keep them up.
Of the most spectacular of immediate relegations, see the 70 goals conceded by Rayo Vallecano in 2018/19 or, even better, the 94 goals conceded by Osasuna in their one season stint in Primera in 2016-17. No other side had conceded more since Lleida let in 134 goals in 1950/51. Avoiding such a situation has to be a top priority for every newly-promoted team.
3. Home comforts
It may sound like one of football’s clichés to say that supporters have a big role to play, but for newly-promoted sides, the fans are more important than anyone. Roaring the team on, intimidating opponents, they can provide a unique experience for home players and visitors alike.
For no-one has this been truer than Osasuna. As they won promotion and then at the start of their return, they went an incredible 31 home games without defeat. Only six teams lost fewer than their five home defeats in their debut season back in the top flight, having stayed unbeaten in their promotion year.
“At El Sadar, Osasuna go into every game thinking that we can win. In the past, it was like English stadiums in that the stands were right on top of the pitch, a bit like Ipurúa, but even with the work on the stadium, our support has always been impressive,” explains Osasuna fan Dani Gosálvez.
“You can tell that when the team go behind, we can cheer them on and they will come back fighting. I think it was important for our promotion and even more for staying up.”
In our mid-pandemic world, the passionate fans of Cádiz will be more disappointed than any to be missing out. Just what kind of difference playing behind closed doors will have on teams remains to be seen, but teams like Osasuna and the Andalusian side who led Segunda División for most of last season will note the difference more than most.
Keeping the spine of the team the same is crucial. Particularly with many sides coming up with consecutive promotions, like Real Mallorca, or two promotions in just a few years, like Eibar, Granada or Elche, the core of a team forms the heart of its identity. What’s more, it brings confidence, belief and stability to the team. Maintaining that, rather than tearing apart and starting again, is not only financially sensible but also essential to maintaining momentum going into the top flight.
One such example is at Leganés. When promoted in 2016, coach Asier Garitano continued and despite bringing a team who included players who were in Segunda B just two years previously, he stuck to the same core of his squad. Víctor Díaz, Martín Mantovani and Pablo Insua in defence, Gabriel in midfield and Alexander Syzmanowski leading the way as an attacking winger.
“Our squad was a bit of a strange one, we had a lot of players who a Primera team wouldn’t usually sign, but because they were in our squad, they ended up staying. Looking back now, players like that, like Mantovani, were at the heart of why we stayed up,” explains Leganés fan Adrián Gutiérrez.
Indeed, Mantovani is the ideal example. Signed from Real Oviedo as they deemed him not good enough to help their push for promotion to Segunda in 2013, he moved to Leganés. He became a mainstay, winning two promotions and eventually making his LaLiga debut as captain at the age of 32 after being promoted with Leganés. At that age, with his experience, nobody else would have considered signing him, but the confidence, experience and consistency that he brought with him made him one of Leganés’ strongest players in that first campaign.
That said, this ingredient to our recipe for survival is more of a garnish than an essential. Alavés are the perfect example. When they came up to Primera in 2016, they controversially sacked coach José Bordálas. But new boss Mauricio Pellegrino led Alavés to a top-half finish and a Copa del Rey final.
This season, only Huesca have paid any attention to this factor. Elche dismissed back-to-back promotion-winning boss Pacheta, not renewing his contract, while Cádiz have brought in an incredible 12 signings, plus an additional 10 players returning from loan.
5. Top-flight experience
For sides lacking in age and experience, adding this element can be crucial. While consistency must be respected, bringing in figures who know first-hand what to expect, either on or off the pitch, is an important step. It’s something that is evident even this summer, where Huesca boss Míchel has learned from his past mistakes with Rayo Vallecano and opted to bring in more experienced men like Andrés Fernández, Dimitrios Siovas and Borja García.
The on-trend addition in the past two years has been signing experienced and proven strikers. Granada, for example, looked to former Valencia man Roberto Soldado. Signing a 34-year-old forward to prepare for a future in Primera may not seem the wisest of moves, but with Soldado it’s worked a treat. 11 goals and 7 assists in 39 appearances make him one of LaLiga’s most valuable strikers.
Indeed, of the top-scoring frontmen at newly-promoted teams in the past three seasons, the majority of those who have scored more than 10 goals have been over the age of 30 with four (Ángel Rodríguez, Cristhian Stuani, Jaime Mata and Soldado), compared to just three others who were younger (Portu, Raúl de Tomás and Ante Budimir). Perhaps we shouldn’t ask too much of Cádiz’s 35-year-old Álvaro Negredo, but the odds seem to be stacked in his favour.
Others from beyond LaLiga can benefit too. Michael Krohn-Dehli was one of those that Celta Vigo opted to bring in when they were promoted in 2012, going on to become one of the first names on the teamsheet for three seasons before being solid for a profit.
6. The right investments
The clubs who really last, the minnows who make a success of it and defy the odds year after year, are those who make the right investments. Intelligent financial decisions are a necessity for any side looking to compete on a smaller budget, yet many of those in LaLiga have made it look simple.
If you combine the budgets of LaLiga’s three promoted teams in 2019/20 (Real Mallorca - 33.5 million euros, Granada - 37.9 million euros, Osasuna - 38.8 million euros), it still wouldn’t match any of the top six teams in Primera. Each side has almost 20 times less than Barcelona’s annual budget of over 650 million euros. That means that teams have work to do to balance the books and compete.
In recent years, there’s no better example of a team punching above its weight than Real Valladolid. Traditionally a major club in Spain, as our podcast on their past successes explains, survival in 2020/21 would make next season the first in which they have played in Primera in four consecutive seasons for the first time since 2004. All of that on what remains LaLiga’s second-smallest budget at just 34.9 million euros. Much of that is down to smart off-the-field management from Ronaldo Nazário. Yes, the former Real Madrid striker.
It only took 12 months as the club’s biggest shareholder for Ronaldo to invest two million euros in works on the Estadio José Zorrilla to create new VIP areas within the ground and replace scoreboards. He also began negotiations with local authorities to buy the sporting arena and paid off over 22 million euros of the club’s debt to the tax authorities while also investing in new gyms at the club’s training ground. His plans include targeting the Champions League with gradual growth in investment, supported by raising TV money coming in and smart commercial agreements.
This is crucial not only for survival in LaLiga, but also for making the club sustainable long-term. Remodelling work on stadiums by the likes of Osasuna, Eibar and Levante has not only helped to boost attendances (and with them, ticket sales), but also increased commercial opportunities to grow revenues. Elsewhere, sides like Leganés have instead invested in training facilities, often gaining support from local councils to do so.
7. A little bit of luck
As much as we analyse the pros and cons of each side, one factor that just cannot be ignored is luck. From a controversial VAR call to something far more serious, any newly-promoted side needs luck on their side when they are mixing it with the elite.
There’s no better example than Eibar. They got off to an incredible start in their first season in LaLiga, positioned in eighth place as late as matchday 22 and being real candidates for Europe. Just nine points from a possible 57 in the second half of the season cost them dearly and they plummeted towards the bottom of the table. Eventually, they were relegated as Deportivo La Coruña secured a draw at Camp Nou with two late goals.
Manager Gaizka Garitano resigned in his post-match press conference, almost in tears, and the fairytale was over…only it wasn’t. 13 days later, LaLiga relegated Elche to Segunda over debts to the tax authorities, and Eibar were given a reprieve. For minnows like Eibar, in their first-ever top-flight season, such a slice of luck was crucial not only to surviving that campaign but leading to a revolution of the club which has prepared it for years to come.
So, it’s that easy?
Of course, any newly-promoted side must mix and match these ingredients to find the perfect recipe. While some, like Alavés, go against the grain in many respects, others follow this list more rigidly. But as these minnows know, one bad decision, one questionable managerial appointment or one disappointing major signing can cost these clubs dearly. Survival is not easy, particularly in LaLiga, and 2020/21 presents Huesca, Cádiz and Elche with less time and smaller budgets than any of their counterparts before them. They’ve got their work cut out, but these ingredients, mixed with the perfect chef in the dugout, will help them to bake the perfect cake to celebrate survival come May.
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