Written by Ruairidh Barlow
There’s an ebb and a flow to the Blaugrana shirts. Players arrive at the right moment, the passing is crisp, the technique is good. The goals they score lead you to believe that maybe football does belong in the same category as the other arts. For a period, the blue and red team playing the best football in LaLiga has not been Barcelona, but Levante. A small and unassuming club, they have naturally become a favourite of the LaLiga hipster. Right up to the high shorts, low socks and moustache of striker Roger Martí, who looks more Peaky Blinders than football hitman.
His manager Paco López has been chiefly responsible for the aesthetics on the pitch, playing attacking, fun, joyful football since his appointment in March 2018. It’s hard not to love a team that believes in its ability to outplay every opponent. A daring character which has secured them five wins in 12 meetings with titans Barcelona and Real Madrid. No wonder the football cognoscenti has been confused by their recent plight.
Drawing five matches in a row 1-1, Levante reached December in nineteenth position with just one win to their name.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Levante were playing some of the best football in the division. And doing so with a flair that didn’t merely exceed the expectations of their budget; it was production value worthy of the greatest amphitheatres in Spain. Fitting then, that José Campaña should become the first Levante player since Ernesto Domínguez in 1963 to play for La Roja and only the second ever. It appeared they had picked up where they left off when they travelled the short half-hour walk to play city rivals Valencia in their season curtain-raiser.
Levante lost 4-2 but there were plenty of chances, entertainment and two sublime goals from El Comandante; Levante icon José Luis Morales.
The following week, more or less the same thing occurred. A constant stream of players going up and down the pitch, the ball flying and more luxurious goals. Gonzalo Melero’s effort won the beauty pageant that time.
Levante won, as an aside.
The prospect that it would be a further 69 days and nine matchdays before their next victory seemed inconceivable, even in this weirdest of years. Eyebrows were raised to Carlo Ancelotti heights when they entered December just a point above bottom-dwellers Huesca. The idea that they were in a relegation scrap materialised into reality and such is the capricious constitution of football, that Paco López’s position has inevitably come under pressure.
There have been mitigating factors. A series of injuries and Covid-19 protocols deprived Los Granotas of several key players during the opening weeks of the season. Including the aforementioned Roger, Morales, Enis Bardhi, Nikola Vukčević and goalkeeper Aitor Fernández, Levante have at various points been missing almost every part of their skeletal structure. That’s without mentioning Campaña, described by La Liga Lowdown’s Paco Polit as Levante’s “compass”, now ruled out until early 2021.
Even when they have been present, the flow has often been lacking – an essential for creatives. In particular, Morales and Campaña have failed to connect when Levante needed them to harmonise most. “Levante decided to take a bet”, explains Carlos Ayats, who covers the club for À Punt Esports. “By hanging on to their best players for a season or two longer, they intended to sell them at much higher value. But that was the very point at which the pandemic happened. Now these players are older, they have picked up injuries and they are less valuable.” Exacerbated by the pandemic, the expected income did not materialise – leaving Levante with a hole in their finances. “At the end of the day, Levante's budget is the third smallest, only those of Huesca and Elche are more modest.” Paco points out. “Even Cádiz have a bigger spending ability and that's why they signed, for example, Álvaro Negredo. The summer transfer market wasn't exactly successful: Mickaël Malsa is playing a lot but can't really cover the whole midfield by himself. Both [Jorge] de Frutos and Dani Gómez are exciting Real Madrid prospects, but obviously Paco López is yet to trust them enough to line them up in every game.”
Financial frailties contributed to Levante’s disposal of Bruno González, Raphael Dwamena and Antonio Luna for free, while hurriedly securing loan deals for Pepelu and Hernâni. Mario Lupión, who has covered football in Valencia for over eight years, alluded to the issues this exodus caused. “From my point of view, the squad is marginally worse than the previous year. There are too many names, such as de Frutos and Gómez, that are now starting to leave a good impression but still need to demonstrate that over the course of a whole season in the first division.”
During the very season in which squad depth has become such a sacred commodity, Levante were forced to trim the fat and some of the muscle too – a competitive disadvantage when those around you can bring in a craftsman like Negredo. He’s just the latest experienced striker to show his value in LaLiga, following on from Roberto Soldado, Jorge Molina and Rubén Castro. All have been indispensable to their sides; the veteran ‘killer’ in the box has almost become a defined role in all good, mid-table LaLiga squads. Instead, Levante brought in Gómez, who had never scored in LaLiga before this campaign.
Even so, there were eminently winnable matches during their run of draws, especially when playing with a man advantage against Alavés and Granada for much of the piece. Rightly or wrongly, where the perception of underperformance exists, it rarely takes long for the pointing fingers to swivel in the direction of the manager.
Remarkably, it’s the first time he’s been in real danger of the sack. “I feel supported, but this is football and I’m not stupid”, López warned Valencian sports daily Superdeporte at the beginning of December. “We cannot allow the table to affect us”, he had told national radio station Cadena SER a month earlier. “To achieve victory, there are two paths; the less reliable and shorter one, the one of urgency, frustration and disappointment. And for me, the more reliable one, which is the path of improving yourself, with hope and ambition.”
It was good copy and a cogent rhetoric at least. But it’s also true that organisation is your friend when form is not. For all the things Levante have been described as, hard to play against is not one of them. During the key junctures, when Levante were required to be stingy in defence or close a game out, they have failed. In contrast with Cádiz, Elche and Real Valladolid, all of whom are gaining plaudits and points for their defensive prowess.
“A portion of the fanbase is fed up with 'crazy games', back and forth and without consistency at the back. They regard Paco [López] as too offensive and would like a clean sheet here and there,” admits correspondent Paco.
Certainly, López himself would appreciate a little more consistency at the back, but perhaps it’s too facile to put the poor results down to style. Is defensive football actually more effective, or does attacking football just look worse when it’s done badly?
It’s a philosophical debate and one that has caused division, including a heated argument on Cadena SER between Fran Guaita and José Manuel Alemán. It’s not one that holds much water as far as Ayats is concerned: “Paco López has very clear ideas and that style does not have to change for Levante to be successful. It’s important to remember that the defence is not the strong point of this Levante team. López has implemented an offensive and attractive style which allows them to go head-to-head with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the squad has been assembled with that in mind.”
“Paco López is very clear on his philosophy, he wants the ball and he isn’t going to give up on that. That too has hurt them in certain matches,” concurs Lupión. “For me, Levante’s problems have been in the boxes: ineffective in attack and disconnected in defence.”
Regardless of the chances they’ve given up, Levante are still creating them. “We just lack the killer touch, but the team has demonstrated that it is alive,” said Paco López after the fifth of those draws. “Many people will surely disagree, but I think most of the problems come from the lack of finishing ability by the squad. The games displayed have been those of a mid-table side, but the results have been severely discouraging,” added Polit, along similar lines.
When they did return to winning ways against Getafe, they did just that: they killed the game. After five minutes, they were a goal and a man up, Roger striking at first opportunity. Ten minutes later they were 2-0 up. Getafe would fail to get a shot on target. Ruthless, Levante romped to a three-goal victory. “There were various important factors in the improved level [against Getafe],” according to Eric Martín Gasulla, founder of MundoLevante. One of them was the return of Vukčević, who as a central midfielder gives the team more balance and composure. In previous rounds and during the worst moments in recent years, Vukčević was not there. Playing with two centre forwards and not with Morales, the captain and soul of the team, as a false nine, was to the benefit of both Roger and Dani Gómez, something emphasised massively [during the game].”
Attitude and intensity were also factors highlighted by Martín Gasulla, but the truth is there was no rudimentary shift to explain Levante’s victory. As happens throughout the season, there were tweaks and alterations, players returning and cycling through moments of good and bad form but nothing intrinsic. Maybe that’s the lesson.
“There are 15 teams who could go down this year with a bit of bad luck. LaLiga is very equal this season but Levante have a good manager, a good squad and players to play in the style they want to,” Ayats concludes, resolute in his stance.
Asked whether López had made errors to compound the array of issues plaguing Levante, Lupión remained similarly steadfast. “Yes, but he has always remained true to his established ideas. Paco has tinkered with almost everything in terms of starting elevens and changing formations within matches. In any case, I wouldn’t solely blame Paco López for the ills of the team during the bad run of results.”
“There is uncertainty at Levante but there is confidence in the manager and that he will turn the situation around. Obviously, confidence can only be sustained with points and these current circumstances are shrouded in uncertainty.”
The curious thing about Levante, in an era defined by its craving for hysteria, is the general acceptance of the situation. Incidentally, journalists of Onda Cero, Cadena SER and Superdeporte all wrote articles essentially proclaiming their support for the manager before the Getafe game. López has been accorded understanding, which most managers are not. Unusually, it has been accepted that the injuries, the pandemic, poor finishing and bad defensive errors have all coalesced to weigh Levante down. The appetite for change is minimal.
Football teaches you that when things aren’t going well, the best solution is to sack the manager. Paco López isn’t stupid and results will adjudicate his fate eventually. But the refusal of the media and fans alike to crucify him is testament to his work. It goes against instinct to investigate a severe problem without concluding in a sweeping manner, still more so to advocate for no change at all. However, as López told Cadena SER, “we have to grit our teeth.” Levante are taking the longer path, the more reliable one. They are following Paco.
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