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Which early La Liga surprise has staying power?

Monday 24th September 2018

La Liga is only five rounds in, but there have been plenty of surprises. Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two teams from last season's top six to have started strongest, although both have already dropped points in draws.    

The table's top half has an unfamiliar look outside the top two. Alaves and Celta Vigo occupy third and fourth place respectively, while Girona sit sixth, Espanyol eighth and Getafe two positions below.

These five sides' form isn't necessarily sustainable. Which has the best chance of maintaining their consistency based on early season performance? 

Espanyol

La Liga's biggest surprise so far is Espanyol. After a disastrous transfer window, losing key players Gerard Moreno and Aaron Martin, Los Periquitos were tipped by many to suffer relegation. Aside from bringing in Borja Iglesias, their summer business was uninspiring. The key deal was appointing Rubi to replace Quique Sanchez Flores, a manager who had presided over a boring tenure where the aim was to grind out results.    

Rubi has maintained the strong defensive structure already in place. There is a noticeable improvement in Espanyol's transition, too, with a clear idea to break down the opposition. Valencia felt the full force during a 2-0 loss four weeks ago. That victory served as a statement of intent for the Barcelona-based outfit.     

Home form has been key to Espanyol's success. They have won both games at the RCDE Stadium, keeping two clean sheets, while picking up just one away point. This is in stark contrast to last campaign when only 30 points were collected in 19 matches on their own soil. It is a strong platform to work from. Building an impregnable fortress will ensure they remain competitive. 

Under Rubi, Espanyol have not only become well organised, but they are also able to counter-attack quickly to take advantage of an opponent's disorganised defence. This tactic is simple yet effective. It also has the potential to be consistent in the long run as Magico are tough to break down, boasting the division's joint-second best defensive record at present. They can equally alter approach to the in-game situation, a skill which will serve them well throughout the season. 

Celta Vigo

Leading the chasing pack, Celta Vigo has eight points from five games under new manager Antonio Mohamed. Los Celestes defeated both Atletico Madrid and Levante, drew against Espanyol, lost to Girona in a 3-2 thriller before sharing the spoils with Real Valladolid most recently.   

Even though Atleti have started the season slowly, with neither their attack nor defence at usual best, Celta's win was impressive. They harassed continuously, broke up play and were clinical in front of goal. The performance bore similarities to Diego Simeone's men from previous years. Interestingly, that was the only match in which the Celticos have kept a clean sheet.

Mohamed has implemented a high-pressing system, one better suited to the squad than predecessor Juan Unzue's possession-based approach. Midfielder Stanislav Lobotka is thriving in this set-up due to the amount of responsibility placed on him in central areas. The Argentine coach's style is ambitious has it commits players forward to squeeze the opposition, as well as demands a high defensive line. Any individual error can have huge consequences. Teams such as Barca and Real can cause havoc against these tactics if their build-up isn't disrupted.   

Celta possess dangerous attacking weapons in Iago Aspas, Pione Sisto and Mazi Gomez. All can hurt even the best sides. However, as witnessed in the Girona defeat and the weekend's 3-3 draw against Valladolid, openness at the back could prove their undoing. Valencia and Sevilla will be stern tests over the coming weeks. Navigate those successfully, then Mohamed's charges can claim to be a real force.

Getafe

During a tough start to the campaign, Getafe put in a credible performance against Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. Even though Los Azulones lost 2-0, they restricted the European champions to only three shots on target.  

Getafe's following three games were much easier. They picked up seven points from Eibar, Valladolid and Sevilla. The 2-0 victory over Los Hispalenses, a talented team, was no doubt the highlight. Despite since suffering defeat at home to Atletico, spirits remain high around the Coliseum Alfonso Perez. 

Getafe aren't the most entertaining to watch, but Jose Bordalas has moulded them into a well-disciplined unit. Three clean sheets in five matches is proof. They have clear structure, allowing for a sum greater than their individual parts. El Geta's style, though, is dependent on tactical fouls in order to break up opposition rhythm and stop counter-attacks. One red card along with 19 yellows suggests suspension will be a major issue.     

Getafe's summer business was efficient. Not only did the majority of their team stay, they added capable talent, such as Nikola Maksimovic, David Soria and Sebastian Cristoforo, without spending vast sums. These new acquisitions have fitted in seamlessly. Bordalas can call on attacking flair, too. With Angel Rodriguez a key performer, scoring three times already, and the experienced Jorge Molina providing a goal as well as an assist, they are potentially a formidable duo.    

Girona

With eight points from five games, Girona's second season in Spain's top flight has begun brightly. Having held reigning champions Barcelona to a 2-2 draw on Sunday night, this lesser-known Catalan side deserve recognition.  

Girona could maintain current form. However, that would be ignoring some major issues. Both of their wins were against teams which have dominated possession yet lacked the required quality to repeatedly break down a tight defence. Real Madrid, meanwhile, exposed Los Blanquivermell's flaws during a 4-1 victory.      

Eusebio Sacristan's men struggled to create chances at home to Los Blancos, producing only five shots in the opposition box compared to Real's 13. Teams which are comfortable on the ball shouldn't find it difficult to carve out opportunities. The draw against Valladolid also exposed Girona's deficiencies against a low block defensive shape. They had just two shots on target while recording 67.9% possession.  

Alaves

Despite trouncing Rayo Vallecano 5-1 in their most recent encounter, Alaves lack creativity. Limited offensively, Abelardo's side aim to grind out results by being hard to breach. There is little they can do when up against top teams.   

Alaves will find it difficult to create opportunities from open play as the campaign progresses. A reliance on opposition mistakes rather than own skill means their season is likely to fade.   

Both Celta Vigo and Getafe have playing styles which suit their respective squads. However, each lack Espanyol's balance. Los Periquitos can absorb pressure and then counter-attack, while also being capable of forcing mistakes through intelligent pressing. This tactical flexibility suggests they can adapt to any given task.

Espanyol have significant staying power. Whether that is enough for them to finish in the European places remains to be seen.

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Ben Barkworth
Ben is a freelance football journalist writing for various sites. He follows La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League closely as well as having an interest in other leagues.

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