With La Liga ’19-20 in the books for a week now and the High Press Soccer Best XI published earlier this week, it’s time to hand out our end-of-season awards to the league’s MVP, Most Improved, Best Newcomer and Best Coach.
Now for the hardware.
La Liga MVP: Lionel Messi (One-third: Messi; Halfway: Guess who)
We could justifiably just write, “enough said” here and move on. But Lionel Messi deserves more than that after setting the La Liga record with 21 assists. With 25 goals and that record-setting assist haul, the Argentine was responsible for an absurd percentage of his team’s offensive output (46 of 86 goals – 53%!). And that’s despite missing five games. At 32, he appears to be a long way from slowing down.
For the other awards on this list, I’ll brag — or wonder what the hell I was thinking — about who I chose at the one-third point and at the halfway mark. In this case, though, I was smart enough to stick with Messi all year long.
La Liga Most Improved: Fede Valverde (One-third: Real Sociedad MF Martin Odegaard; Halfway: Real Madrid MF Fede Valverde)
His teammates (keeper Thibaut Courtois, captain Sergio Ramos and striker Karim Benzema, among others) got a lot more publicity, but few players were bigger contributors to RM’s title run. And the *21-year-old (*he just turned 22 on July 22) held it down for the 20-somethings on a team of seasoned veterans.
In a deep midfield, Fede Valverde only started 21 games, but seems to have a secure place in the line-up when it matters most (he started both Clásicos vs. Barcelona, plus the Champions League clash with Man City). Look for Valverde to start 30 games or more next season and push for inclusion alongside Casemiro as a popular selection on a lot of outlet’s end-of-season Best XIs.
La Liga Best Newcomer: Lucas Ocampos (One-third: Atleti F Joao Felix; Halfway: MF Lucas Ocampos)
Across the board (almost) in La Liga, the biggest signings of last summer either flopped and/or fell way short of expectations. Luka Jovic and Eden Hazard both played small roles for Los Blancos – at least in Hazard’s case, he could blame injuries. Joao Felix did not make the splash Atleti hoped for. The same can be said of Antoine Griezmann for Barcelona.
So we’re going with a player none of us were talking about this time last year: Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos. The midfielder finished among the highest scorers in the league (tied-sixth, with 14 goals) and added three assists. And as we said when explaining his spot in our best XI, he was a must-see player on a starless (at least compared to the rest of La Liga’s top teams) roster that finished with as many points as third-place Atleti.
La Liga Best Coach: Plot twist, it’s a tie! Diego Martínez, Granada + Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid (One-third: Martínez; Halfway: Zidane)
I completely understand why Zinedine Zidane would get this award from most people. And I’ll admit to second-guessing my selection here, but I’m going with Diego Martínez of Granada … screw it, this trophy’s getting cut in half. I’ll get to touting Martinez and Granada shortly, but here’s why Zidane gets a piece of the trophy.
The Frenchman did an excellent job guiding his team to a title in a bounce-back effort after last season’s disaster. A year after this squad (he took over mid-season) looked hapless en route to a third-place finish and just 68 points, they were dramatically improved thanks to arguably the best defense in Europe (25 goals allowed in 38 games). Players like Luka Modric, Marcelo, Ramos and a few others all went from looking washed in ’18-19 to dominant (or in Marcelo’s case, on the bench) for most of ’19-20 . Zidane deserves all the credit in the world for those players’ year-to-year improvements.
But when a team gets promoted to La Liga from Spain’s second tier and not only stays mid-table all year, but qualifies for Europe (!), that coach gets a share of coach of the year in my book. It was Martínez and Granada who snagged Spain’s final Europa League (qualifier spot) with one of the lowest budgets in Spain. And we can’t forget that they were in first place (!), with a win over Barcelona, five games into the season. They also finished strong, capturing 18 of 33 available points after play resumed in June. Tremendous work by Granada, and by next season, we’ll have a lot more to say about them, and you know, their players and what they do well.