Spain’s first division has traditionally been a two-horse race, a duopoly largely shared between giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. Real Madrid has won the competition 35 times whilst Barcelona has 27 titles, with their nearest competitor and traditional rival Atlético Madrid has only 11 titles.
However, this season appears refreshing, with not only renewed competition, but also a series of circumstances which are derailing the seasons of the aforementioned Spanish giants. The result? An exciting season and potentially the most open title race Spain has seen in years.
The biggest surprise and talking point of La Liga this season has been Girona FC. The small Catalonian side has impressed many onlookers this season, with their suave tactical approach to games as well as their shrewd transfer acquisitions. Girona play a style of football not dissimilar to that of a free-flowing Pep Guardiola side, and this is thanks to the tactical acumen of their young coach Michel. Girona currently occupy the first position in Spain, with their only defeat coming to Real Madrid early on in the season. However, Girona are not the only refreshing side in Spain this season.
Both Real Sociedad (6th) and Las Palmas (8th) have raised eyebrows this season for their free-flowing football and their impressive results. For example, Real Sociedad have only lost to the three big sides in Spain so far, and this strong league form has come alongside impressive form in the UEFA Champions League as well. Las Palmas, though not as consistent or as strong as Sociedad, are similar to Girona in that they are small fish in a big pond playing expansive football.
According to Opta Analyst, Las Palmas rank in the top five for their pressing intensity, their average possession and their adherence to long strings of passing sequences. All telltale signs of a side playing fluid high-level football. Some praise should also be given to Atlético Madrid. Atlético are one of the three elite sides in Spain and Diego Simeone’s side are quietly playing some attractive football and are currently sitting fourth on the table. With the season rapidly derailing for Barcelona and Real Madrid, Atlético could easily topple the giants once more.
One of the biggest thorns to both Real Madrid and Barcelona this season has been injuries. The injury list goes beyond both the number of injuries and the list of star players who are missing, as both sides suffer badly across each department. For example, before the season kicked into gear, Real Madrid lost star center back Éder Militão to an ACL injury. Shortly afterwards, their starting keeper Thibaut Courtois to the same injury.
On top of this, Madrid have since lost their backup keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, and most recently, star players Eduardo Camavinga and Vinícius Júnior picked up injuries on international duty. This has left Real Madrid both under-powered and understaffed, as the club in their current state has a relatively small squad beyond their starting 11.
Barcelona finds themselves in a similar situation. At different points already this season, Blaugrana has found themselves without numerous starters, such as Frenkie De Jong, Robert Lewandowski, Pedri and Raphinha to name a few. Similar to Madrid, Barcelona was dealt more injury news over the international break, with Gavi now set to be out for the remainder of the season with, an ACL tear.
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently working with relatively small squads as a result. Although both sides have scraped by relatively unscathed so far, injuries are seriously hampering their chances of pulling away from the chasing pack.
Injuries aside, one of the biggest issues currently facing both Spanish giants is a crisis of identity. Real Madrid faces multiple conundrums. For example, the Madrid hierarchy is torn between their talented youth and their trusted, ageing veteran stars. Players such as Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos are still figureheads of the dressing room. However, they are not quite the force they once were. Injuries to young midfielders Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni have also complicated this issue.
Furthermore, Real Madrid still faces the issue of signing a new striker. Jude Bellingham has temporarily become a solution to the lack of goals. Yet, a serious injury to Bellingham, let alone the current injury to Vinícius, will quickly re-open this can of worms. Madrid needs to sign a striker, and Kylian Mbappé was the dream. However, the Frenchman has now spurned Madrid twice and this has both complicated the relationship and delayed a true solution.
Erling Haaland may be the answer, but even this is not an immediate solution, given it is unlikely City would sell until at least next season. Madrid have a serious crisis of identity and lack direction, and this is harming their chances of capturing another title.
Similarly, Barcelona hs an internal crisis of their own, which is not only harmful to their season, but also beneficial for other sides chasing down the elusive top spot. Barcelona’s dire financial situation has been well documented, although the current crisis is more focused on their tactical approach and squad state. Head coach Xavi has been praised for his tactical style previously, with a possession-based approach which has seen the return of the familiar Barcelona tika-taka style.
Yet, given the recent injury crisis – as well as a lack of playing experience in a largely academy-based squad – Barcelona has struggled to find themself this season. There is ability, albeit raw, and beyond the starting 11. Barcelona is not as effective at recreating the style that won them the league this season.
Historically, and particularly in recent seasons, La Liga has scarcely been competitive beyond the top three. In fact, even this small bracket has at times lacked real competitive rivalry on the field. Nevertheless, the 2023/2024 season is writing a new script. This season has seen a wave of new competitors, from the plucky Girona and steady Real Sociedad to the free-flowing minnows of Las Palmas, let alone the ever-present quiet giant that is Atlético Madrid.
The usual suspects for the top spot, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are suffering both from injuries as well as internal personal crises. As a result this has opened the door to far more competition and excitement in La Liga this season. While it may be early doors, fans of La Liga as well as fans of football in general should keep a close eye on the title race there. It could very well be the best one of the ‘Big 5’ leagues this campaign.