Football Features

La Liga Lowdown’s 2021 wrap: Best players, rising star, surprise package and more

By Matt Clark, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 12:48, 31 December 2021

You’ve eaten too much turkey, drunk more mulled wine than you thought was possible, and you’ve polished off the mince pies.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, where we look back at the 12 months that was. And that’s not just restricted to the personal highs and lows, a lot went on in football too.

In La Liga, 2021 saw Atletico Madrid win their first league title in seven seasons, ending the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly, Lionel Messi left the competition and some big performances across the year.

So what better way to wrap up the year by looking back on the best moments, and best players, of La Liga in 2021.

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Best La Liga XI of 2021

Goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois: Back to the levels he showed at Chelsea, the best goalkeeper in La Liga.

Right-back – Kieran Trippier: No overwhelming standout here, but Bury’s finest was crucial for Atleti.

Centre-back – Jules Koundé: Young, versatile, composed, already one of the world’s best at 23.

Centre-back – Stefan Savić: Man City fans might not believe it, but he has been Diego Simeone’s leading defender this year.

Left-back – Javi Galán: The leading light in a relegated Huesca side, Celta were the fortunate ones to sign him in the summer.

Central midfielder – Toni Kroos: Still as metronomic as ever, his reliability and quality continue to stand out above the rest.

Central midfielder – Mikel Merino: Imanol Alguacil called him the “best player in the league” and at times this year he certainly has been.

Central midfielder – Sergio Canales: A magician with the ball at his feet, he has found a home at Betis.

Right-forward – Gerard Moreno: The top-scoring Spaniard of the year, fundamental to Villarreal’s play.

Striker – Karim Benzema: Without Lionel Messi, he is the best player in La Liga. The top scorer in 2021 too.

Left-forward – Yannick Carrasco: Simeone’s ace in the pack, crucial in the title run-in and impressive throughout.

2021 La Liga MVP

This won’t be a surprise to anyone, it is Big Benz, King Karim, Karim Benzema. He continues to prove all of his doubters wrong year on year and is the leader of Real Madrid’s attack post-Cristiano Ronaldo.

In 2021, Benzema scored 30 league goals and provided 11 assists as Los Blancos ran Atleti all the way to the finish line in 2020/21, and are now sitting on top of the table in 2021/22. These goal contributions include crucial strikes against all of Real Madrid’s main challengers during the year, from Barcelona to Sevilla to Atleti themselves. He always turns up in the crunch matches.

The quality of the goals he scores have to be admired too, as well as his superb ability to link up and stitch together attacking moves. He has become the complete modern forward, capable of scoring in prolific quantities, generating chances and assisting his team-mates.

Benzema is a No.9 and a No.10 all in one. Irreplaceable, imperious and indisputable.

2021 La Liga Rising Star

There are a number of possible contenders for this category. Many of them have come through at Barça, often due to financial constraints but also on merit. Pedri, Gavi and Nico are the standout trio at Camp Nou, though injury after a colossal workload has hampered Pedri. At other clubs too, there is talent bursting through: Yeremy Pino at Villarreal, Oihan Sancet at Athletic Bilbao, Martin Zubimendi at Real Sociedad and Hugo Guillamón at Valencia. Most of these are regulars with their respective clubs and have shown consistent levels of performance throughout the year.

But there can only be one winner, and it has to be Vinícius Jr. Already well-known since his debut season in 18/19, this year has been significant for the Brazilian. In the first half of the 20/21 season, people were beginning to write him off. A player who could excite, but with a paucity of quality in terms of end product. There was the infamous moment where Karim Benzema told Ferland Mendy not to pass to him, such was his counter-productivity. But Vini has always been determined to prove he belongs, and there is little doubt of that now.

The transformation has been astounding. In the first half of the year, he registered one goal and two assists in 21 league matches. Since the start of the current campaign, he has ten goals and four assists in 19 matches, an increase of more than 460%. 2022 really could be the year he elevates himself into the upper echelons of the elite players in Europe.

2021 La Liga surprise package

After 40 rounds of the Segunda season, Rayo Vallecano weren’t even in the play-off spots for promotion. There were 26 Spanish teams ahead of them. Now (at the time of writing), there are only three better-placed clubs. Rayo have come from squeaking into the play-offs to being a genuine European contender in the space of six months. No club in Europe’s top five leagues has a better record at home than Rayo at Vallecas this season, with a 88.89% win record. The fortress with a raucous atmosphere is staking a claim as one of the toughest places to go on the continent.

The job done by Andoni Iraola is nothing short of remarkable. Rayo had been a bit of a yo-yo club, promoted in 2018, relegated in 2019. This young Basque coach got them up at the first attempt, and despite the consensus predicting them to finish bottom of the table, they have surpassed all expectations. They are a joy to watch too, playing an exciting brand of dynamic flowing football. In Óscar Trejo, they have the player with the most assists in La Liga this season. They have barely missed Radamel Falcao in the last couple of months, which in itself is almost unbelievable.

La Liga manager of the year

‘The Engineer’ has a plan. Manuel Pellegrini transformed Real Betis from a shambolic collection of talented individuals into one of the strongest collective units in Spain. Since the Chilean took over in summer 2020, Betis have not spent a single euro in the transfer market, which demonstrates the positive impact high-quality coaching can have on a squad.

In 2021, Betis surged from mid-table to fifth and qualification for the Europa League. This campaign, they have shown that their continental commitments haven’t hampered them, as they sit third in LaLiga with knockout football to look forward to in 2022. For one of the most passionate fanbases in Spain, they can be proud of their team again and dream of the possibility of even greater feats. Pellegrini is understated but adaptable and flexible, and his successful record of longevity speaks for itself.

2021 standout moment

Two stand out from this sensational year. The first was Granada’s 2-1 win at Camp Nou back in April. To put it into context, Granada had never won a game at Camp Nou, in-form Barça were flying, had the destiny of the title in their own hands at this stage (they would have gone top with a win) and they were ahead at half time. For Granada to not only equalise but get a winner (you will have heard more about Jorge Molina in recent weeks too) was astonishing.

But the moment of the year was Atleti’s crowning glory. After coming from behind to win 2-1 in both of their last two games, they kept finding something deep within to crawl over the line. They showed that 2013/14 was no freak event. They crashed the party again, becoming multiple champions in the era of the duopoly.

Luis Suárez crying on the phone, players celebrating with fans in the car park in Valladolid, Diego Simeone getting us all in the feels… unforgettable scenes.

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