Football Features

Almeria’s ambitious return to LaLiga: What Rubi must do to replicate Unai Emery’s success

By Román de Arquer

Published: 12:01, 6 June 2022

Union Deportiva Almeria sealed promotion to LaLiga on the final matchday of the season.

The Andalusians sealed their fate after Eibar’s 91st-minute defeat to Alcorcon, the worst team in the Spanish Second Division, a stroke of luck for Rojiblancos, who were held to a 2-2 draw by Leganes, but it proved enough to clinch the title.

This means Almeria will play their seventh season in Spain’s top tier, becoming the youngest club in LaLiga given they were founded in 1989, six years after Getafe’s rebirth.

But don’t be fooled by their age because Almeria now have a strong financial backup which should allow them to integrate seamlessly into LaLiga next season. This is thanks to the involvement of Turki Al-Sheikh who became owner of the club in August 2019, with short-term promotion in mind.

He immediately strengthened the squad and Almeria finished fourth in 2019/2020 but were knocked out by Girona in the play-off semi-finals. The following season, history repeated itself as Almería were once again fourth in the standings, only to then lose to the very same opponents over two legs.

But as the saying goes, third time lucky for Almeria, who will now have the chance to show us how ambitious their project really is.

Rubi, key to success

There’s no doubt the Sheikh’s financial injection has been a big help to the club after spending circa 62 million euros on signings in these last three years to achieve promotion. But to get there he had to go through five different coaches in just two seasons before getting it right with Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia, better known as Rubi, who came in at the end of the 2020/21 campaign.

Rubi’s experience in the Spanish second tier is unquestionable, having reached the play-offs or promotion with Girona and Real Valladolid, before finally sealing automatic promotion with Huesca in 2018. This must’ve been something Al-Sheikh valued very much because despite a poor run of form in January, in which Almeria earned just a single point in six games, he went against his habit of firing managers and trusted Rubi to redirect the situation.

It was ultimately the right decision as Almeria would go on to lose only two of the following 17 matches. In fact, that poor streak came after a win against Union Deportiva Ibiza in which Rubi decided to coach the team despite being informed, just four hours before the match, that his mother had passed away. He only revealed this information to his staff, not wanting to influence the players and even got sent off before the second half in what must’ve been an extremely emotional battle for the Catalan coach.

Rubi’s commitment to Almeria has been indisputable and his management helped shape a very strong team both offensive and defensively. His club conceded the fewest goals with just 35 in 42 games and scored a total of 68 goals, only bettered by Valladolid’s 71.

Almeria’s backbone

If there’s an indispensable player for Almeria, that has to be Umar Sadiq, who, for a second consecutive season, led the team in attack. For many, the best player in Segunda Division in 2021/22 was Sadiq, who netted 18 goals and provided nine assists in 36 league games. Not only did he display his ability to score with both feet (nine with his right foot and six with his left) but he also combined fluently with his teammates. Truth be told, Almeria’s worst streak actually came while Sadiq was away with Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations, proving just how important he’s been for them.

It will be a challenge for Almeria to keep him next season as they are bound to receive very attractive offers for Sadiq in the months to come, but he’s definitely a player they’ll want to build around for their return to LaLiga.

Another name who deserves mention is definitely Alejandro Pozo, a Sevilla loanee who will stay in Almeria as his contract stipulated the club would have to buy him if they got promoted. Which is actually a blessing for Los Indalicos given Pozo has not only been outstanding in his defensive duties, but has also provided a massive input in offensive positions as the team’s starting right-back. Goalkeeper aside, with his 3,176 minutes on the pitch, no other player from Almeria has been given more playing time in LaLiga Smartbank.

The final honourable mention could be for captain Cesar de la Hoz, but an in-form goalkeeper such as Fernando Martinez is essential for a successful run in Spain’s second division. He transmitted a much-needed sense of composure and security to his teammates with his saves. He kept 16 clean sheets and only let in more than two goals on one occasion, a 3-3 draw against Lugo.

Aiming for a repeat

If we look into their short-lived experience competing at the highest level, it’s worth pointing out that in their debut season in LaLiga they finished eighth in a very impressive campaign under Unai Emery, who had previously achieved the club’s first promotion. This earned them a spot to play in the now-defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup, even though Almeria never actually showed up to play after deciding not to enter officially.

Unfortunately for them, Emery left the following season and the club went downhill, struggling to stay afloat until they dropped back down to Segunda in 2011 despite making it to the Copa del Rey semi-finals that same year.

Now with Rubi they hope they can accomplish a similarly positive result as in 2007/08, given his experience in LaLiga with Levante, Real Betis and particularly Espanyol, the team with whom he defied all expectations by clinching European qualification.

Famous faces who you didn’t know played for Almeria

If we look back at Almeria’s squad over the years, you might be surprised to know that Leicester City’s Premier League winner Leonardo Ulloa played for the Andalusian side for two-and-a-half seasons, scoring 48 goals in 102 games among Spain’s first and second division.

Another well-known striker who played at Almeria before setting foot in England’s top division is Alvaro Negredo, a near-ever-present for their first two campaigns in LaLiga. His impressive 32 goals during that time caught the eye of Sevilla, where he would keep growing as a player before landing at Manchester City.

Darwin Nunez could follow a similar path as he’s currently targeted by many clubs such as Liverpool. The Uruguayan scored 16 goals and made three assists in his only season at Almeria before moving on to Benfica, where he’s exploded into a world-class striker, with an average of 1.07 goals per 90 minutes in their domestic league and a total of 34 goals in 41 games across all competitions.

Other notable players are Felipe Melo, who was a key figure in their first season in Primera Division before moving on to play for Fiorentina and Juventus, Thomas Partey who was loaned for one season to Almeria in which they got relegated, and Liverpool’s goalkeeper between 1999 and 2002, Sander Westerveld, who helped secure Los Rojiblancos’ first promotion to LaLiga.

Article produced by Román de Arquer in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown