A wild season in La Liga concluded over the weekend with Atlético Madrid raising the trophy.
Diego Simeone’s team held onto what was once a massive lead atop the table thanks to a strong finish. After sputtering in February, March and early April, they won four of their last five to clinch the title.
So yes, Atleti is well-represented on our High Press Soccer La Liga Starting XI for ’20-21. The lineup below certainly features a no-brainer or two, but several positions created dilemmas.
Speaking of difficult calls, I’m torn between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3, but given Atleti’s success with a three-man back line, let’s go with the former.
KEEPER: JAN OBLAK, ATLÉTICO MADRID
Like I said, not every choice required a ton of thought. Oblak comfortably earned this spot by recording 18 clean sheets while going the distance in all 38 of his club’s domestic matches. Because a stout defense echoed by the Slovenian was nothing new – Atleti consistently gives up less than 30 goals per season, and they allowed 25 this year – a lot of attention went to this team’s vastly improved offense.
But Oblak was as good as ever, and if the eye test didn’t convince you, consider advanced metrics like the ones below:
Looking at goalkeepers tonight and, specifically, how La Liga GKs have fared this season in terms of their shot stopping.
Post Shot Expected Goals minus Goals Allowed is probably one of the best *indicators* of this.
-Oblak has a legitimate claim to player of season. pic.twitter.com/Ar0oDXEOVu
— Spanish Football Analytics (@SF_Analytics_) May 24, 2021
BACK LINE: STEFAN SAVIC (ATLETI), JULES KOUNDE (SEVILLA), PAU TORRES (VILLARREAL)
It would have been impossible (or at least not very defensible) to come up with a back line that didn’t feature any Atleti players. Right back Kieran Trippier also had a case. But if I have to choose one, I’ll go with Savic, who started 33 games (compared to 28 for the Englishman). Atleti’s back line was not quite as impenetrable down the stretch, but that group dominated for most of the season, especially during the first 19 games.
I’m flanking Savic with a couple of young pieces whose days in Spain might be numbered. Jules Kounde helped anchor a stout Sevilla D (they allowed 33 goals in 38 matches), and there’s a reason the 22-year-old is worth $66M, per Transfermarkt.
Speaking of sought-after, Pau Torres (24) will also generate a ton of transfer buzz all summer. Villarreal has not been known for its defense either of the last two seasons. Torres, however, was a big reason they allowed a more respectable 44 goals in La Liga this year after conceding 49 in ’19-20. He also played an integral role in his team’s run to the Europa League final. Villarreal beat Dinamo Zagreb 3-1 on aggregate in the UEL quarters and defeated Arsenal 2-1 in the semis, with the defense coming through to give Gerard Moreno and Co. a shot at the title — and a place in next year’s Champions League — this Wednesday against Manchester United.
MIDFIELD: YANNICK CARRASCO (ATLETI), IAGO ASPAS (CELTA VIGO), TONI KROOS (REAL MADRID), MARCOS LLORENTE (ATLETI)
Just about every time I mentioned Atleti’s success this season, I highlighted the huge seasons by both Carrasco and Llorente. The stats arguably say it all – Carrasco had six goals and 10 assists, while Llorente contributed 12 goals and 11 assists. But to me, these two were even better than the numbers would indicate. They provided the opportunities when Atleti needed them the most, right up until Luis Suarez and Angel Correa delivered the Matchday 37 and Matchday 38 goals that secured the trophy.
Every time I hand out these prestigious places in the HPS Best XI, I admittedly give entirely too much love to Spain’s big three. This won’t totally change – or rectify – that tendency, but Iago Aspas had to have a place in this year’s XI. The 33-year-old has scored at least 14 goals every year dating back to ’15-16. His output of 14 goals and 13 assists this year made him arguably the best player outside Spain’s marquee clubs, just in case he hadn’t made that clear prior to this season.
Toni Kroos rounds out the midfield after turning back the clock throughout the season. Despite the money spent on the Real Madrid roster in recent years, Kroos and Luka Modric had to carry a massive burden in midfield all season, and both of them excelled. With double-digit assists (10) and three goals, Kroos stood out as his team’s second-best offensive player in ’20-21. On one hand, that’s an indictment of the lack of productivity from any forwards besides Karim Benzema. But it’s also a huge credit to a player who by no means gets to devote all his energy to the final third.
FORWARDS: (GUESS WHO) – LIONEL MESSI (BARCELONA), KARIM BENZEMA (REAL MADRID), LUIS SUÁREZ (ATLETI)
The case for Messi and Benzema is simple. Messi scored 30 goals and added nine assists, while Benzema tallied 23 goals and nine assists. Need we say more?
The final spot here came down to a choice between Suárez and Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno. We’ll do what we can to credit the underrated Moreno here by pointing out the Spaniard’s impressive 23-goal, 7-assist season.
But Suárez gets the nod for leading Atleti to the title. He blew his expectations in the Spanish capital out of the water. That started with two goals and an assist in the season opener against Granada. The Uruguayan finished strong as well, providing the game-winning goals in the final two matches. On the season, he contributed 21 goals and three assists in 30 starts. No, Suárez did not singlehandeldy make the difference for Atleti’s improved attack. But he had a lot to do with the ’20-21 champs suddenly boasting a competent, if not threatening, offense.
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