Football Features

La Liga’s “underperformers” who are no longer underperforming

By Andrew Miller, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 17:26, 23 January 2021 | Updated: 10:14, 3 May 2023

It can often be hard to quantify the reasoning behind a footballer’s fluctuation in form.

Tactical adjustments, new settings, a different role in the team, the pressures of life both on and off the pitch are just some of the many important aspects.

For these four La Liga players, plenty of different factors have played and will continue to play their part. But one thing is abundantly clear: individually, they’re having quite the comeback season amid the chaos of a global pandemic.

Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid)

Yannick Carrasco has always been somewhat of an enigma.

An established international with one of the top national sides in world football and yet, his performances at club level have never failed to raise question marks over his true ability to perform on the biggest of stages.

One goal and two assists in 15 games last season, following his return to the Wanda Metropolitano, did not exactly inspire the Atleti fans to swoon over his re-emergence. The Belgian didn’t look as sharp or engaged as he needed to be, his work-rate off the ball continually left something to be desired and his decision-making in the final third spoiled plenty of opportunities for players around him to make something happen.

His insistence on trying to force the same kind of shots he got away with in the Chinese Super League evidently didn’t have the same effectiveness against La Liga opposition, posting a career-low 35% shots-on-target with an average distance of almost 20 yards out.

Thankfully this season, Carrasco looks like a completely new man.

Diego Simeone’s tactical masterstroke of transforming him into a left wing-back to match his duties with the Belgian national team has worked wonders for rebuilding the 27-year-old’s reputation.

His new, deeper-lying position has given Carrasco the opportunity to progress the ball a lot further, better utilising his pace and technical ability. His successful dribbles per 90 have gone up since last season, as have his open play shot-creating actions per 90 which is indicative of a more patient and calculated approach from the Belgian, meaning the old, often frustrating Yannick Carrasco is now one of the key creative forces in this new rampant Atlético Madrid side.

Nolito (Celta Vigo)

Former Manchester City and Sevilla winger Nolito joined Celta Vigo as part of an emergency transfer process which allows La Liga clubs to sign a player outside the usual window to replace an injured member of the squad – which naturally raised a few eyebrows.

It had been a tough start to life back in Spain for Nolito. In his first season with Sevilla since returning to La Liga, the Spain international only played 73 total minutes in the league, spending most of that either on the bench or out of the squad completely until suffering a fracture in his leg which saw him miss five months of action.

After scoring and assisting on his debut following a mid-season move to Balaídos, Celta fans were naturally optimistic that the 33-year-old still had something left in the tank, but a slow start to the 2020/21 season changed that in a hurry.

Since taking the reins, Eduardo Coudet has seemingly found the key to unlocking Nolito once again. Three goals in his first four games under the new manager and a revitalised spring in his step, he followed up with an opening goal and the winning assist against Huesca just a few weeks later.

Nolito has the versatility to play anywhere across the front line and playing off a superstar like Iago Aspas has given him the space in this new attacking system to not only utilise the space in front of goal, but to bring in other attacking forces Brais Méndez, Santi Mina and Denis Suárez.

Thomas Lemar (Atletico Madrid)

Thomas Lemar’s time under Diego Simeone hasn’t exactly shocked the world, at least not in a good way.

The French winger joined from Monaco for a colossal €70million fee in 2018 and didn’t exactly hit the ground running, recording just two goals and three assists in his first season in Spain.
Lemar followed that up last year, appearing in 29 games across all competitions and failing to record a single goal or assist in over 1,100 minutes of action. Thankfully though, like Carrasco, Lemar is also reaping the benefits of a revised attacking system this season.

Atleti are playing more passes than last season, they’re moving the ball forward with more patience and precision and, more importantly, the re-emergence of players like Carrasco and Lemar is working wonders for getting the ball into the final third, up almost 10 more per 90 on last season.

His expected goals and assists have doubled from last season, shots on target have increased by almost 15% and he’s attempting and completing more passes than he has throughout his career in Spain. It’s easy to spot when a player is looking more confident, and that’s glaringly obvious with Thomas Lemar this season.

His fit in an often-stagnant Cholo Simeone line-up amplified the Frenchman’s lack of impact. Lemar, for all his pace and technical ability, was often isolated out on the wing in previous seasons, but has finally found some balance in his role. Being deployed on both the left and right wings to provide depth started his revitalisation, but it was a new-found central position that seemed to solidify the beginning of his comeback season.

Lemar still has some work to do in directly contributing to the goals Atleti score, but his contribution in the build-up and his defensive efforts haven’t gone unnoticed as Simeone chases another La Liga title this year.

Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla)

En-Nesyri’s arrival at Sevilla was met with mixed emotions. The Moroccan had shown flashes of real talent during his previous year-and-a-half with fellow Spanish side Leganés, but Sevilla needed a first-choice centre-forward who could lead the line with a real dominance and purpose.

A hefty €25million price tag meant that En-Nesyri needed to make an instant impact with the Champions League hopefuls, but his first half-season return of only four goals in 18 appearances wasn’t quite the inspired hit of adrenaline Julen Lopetegui was hoping for.

Fast forward to this season, and things are a little different for the 23-year-old: 12 goals in his opening 19 La Liga games (12 starts), including two hat-tricks against Real Sociedad and Cadiz. En-Nesyri has also chipped in with four goals in the Champions League, bagging a three-minute brace against Russian side Krasnodar and firing Sevilla into the knockout stages with a double against Rennes at Roazhon Park.

He’s now averaging 0.94 goals per 90, which is second in the league and but leads the hotly-contested Pichichi race, jumping ahead of Luis Suarez and Leo Messi, so it’s no wonder West Ham are reportedly trying to pry the striker away from the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán with a big-money offer.

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


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