Football Features

“Ageing like a fine wine” – La Liga’s most underrated players so far this season

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 18:40, 28 October 2021

Over the years, La Liga has become known for its superstars.

From Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo, passing through Radamel Falcao, Luis Suárez, Andrés Iniesta, Neymar and others, the big names have dominated.

But behind stars are a range of hidden gems, underrated players who keep La Liga’s underdogs ticking and competing. So we’ve put together an XI made up of current underrated La Liga players.

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Goalkeeper: Sergio Herrera (Osasuna)

When Herrera ruptured his cruciate ligament while first choice at mid-table Osasuna in Segunda, he may have feared for the worst. When he returned to action and was a mere benchwarmer as his side won promotion, he could have been worried about his role. But injury to first-choice Rubén Martínez in November 2019 opened a door, and he hasn’t looked back.

First-choice ever since, he has been the foundation upon which Osasuna have built a stable defence. He’ll never be La Liga’s best goalkeeper, and he’s capable of the odd fumble from time to time, but Herrera is consistent and reliable for a side pushing for Europe.

Right-back: Juan Foyth (Villarreal)

Tottenham fans reading this may be surprised to see an average central defender listed here as an underrated right-back, but Unai Emery’s transformation of Foyth has been remarkable. Initially somewhat of a utility man, playing in central defence and holding midfield, his switch to right-back was what convinced Villarreal to make the move permanent.

With his experience in more defensive roles, he’s been able to pocket even the most lively of La Liga wingers (just ask Vinícius Júnior). His lung-busting movement up and down the right has also given a different option, while he’s been just as capable of tucking into a more central role and giving freedom to one of Villarreal’s more offensive left-backs in Pervis Estupiñán.

Centre-back: Dani Vivian (Athletic Club)

Twenty-two-year-old Vivian didn’t have a single La Liga appearance to his name before the start of this season but has since made himself almost ever-present. Coming in for the equally underrated Yeray Álvarez who has been out with an injury, Vivian has forged a formidable partnership at the back with Spain international Iñigo Martínez.

Adding to an impressive record of four clean sheets in his first five La Liga appearances, Athletic are yet to lose with Vivian on the field, with their 2-1 defeat to Rayo Vallecano coming in the only game he was rested for this season.

Centre-back: Robin Le Normand (Real Sociedad)

When Le Normand was first introduced to the Real Sociedad first team in early 2019/20, he was far from convincing and first impressions last. Those who haven’t watched him since will be surprised to see the commanding central defender that he has become.

Composed in position and with an excellent ability to read the game, he has become La Real’s first choice under Imanol Alguacil as they continue their assault on the top of the La Liga table. Having secured his future with a four-year contract in 2020, Le Normand will be one to watch for years to come.

Left-back: Adrià Pedrosa (Espanyol)

Our only Catalan representative in this XI, he is one of those youngsters who benefitted on a personal level from Espanyol’s first relegation since 1994 when Los Pericos went down in 2020. Having competed for the left-back role with veteran Dídac Vilà, he became first choice in Segunda and excelled.

Now back in Primera, he’s become one of Espanyol’s most prolific offensive outlets with his rapid bursts down the left flank, while becoming increasingly sturdy in defence. He hasn’t missed a minute since September and is becoming a staple for Vicente Moreno.

Right-winger: Isi Palazón (Rayo Vallecano)

His bald head may make him look older, but he’s still only 26 years of age. Isi has been underrated from the start. Released by Real Madrid and then Villarreal before his 18th birthday, he has worked his way up from Tercera División (the fourth tier in Spain) to Primera to make his top-flight debut with Rayo Vallecano this season.

His dribbling and technique on the right flank is bedazzling, while his rocket of a strike into the roof of the net against Cádiz showed the power that he is capable of producing through his left foot.

Central midfielder: Koke (Atlético Madrid)

Potentially a controversial pick, but nevertheless, Koke is underrated. Captain of Atlético Madrid, the reigning La Liga champions, he has rarely been put into an elite bracket of La Liga midfielders. He should be.

Perhaps what adds to his value, and which is rarely appreciated, is the flexibility of Koke. Capable of playing in a deeper role, in a more advanced role, even out wide, he’s a man who can adapt throughout a game. He certainly isn’t under-appreciated by Diego Simeone, but many in La Liga are yet to open their eyes to Koke’s talents and influence.

Central midfielder: Mauro Arambarri (Getafe)

When you think of your typical Uruguayan holding midfielder and you imagine the crunching tackles, non-stop running and tenacity of what that could be, you imagine Mauro Arambarri. But Getafe fans know that he has a lot more than that in his locker.

Los Azulones have struggled this season, and it’s no surprise that the team’s first two points came in the first two fixtures after Arambarri returned from an injury lay-off. With impressive vision and passing, and not afraid to take the ball forward when in possession, Arambarri won’t be at the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez for long if Getafe do lose their top-flight status this season.

Left-winger: José Luis Morales (Levante)

The veteran in this side, ‘El Comandante’ (the commander) may be 34 but he is ageing like a fine wine. The Levante captain is a man for the big moments and certainly knows when to turn up, having scored against Real Madrid in all three wins over them in the past three seasons.

His minutes are increasingly managed as he ages, but he is still producing the goods and was involved in 35% of Levante’s goals in 2020/21, and even more at 44% in 2021/22. Pacy and electric even as his legs grow older, he’s the kind of player who gets you on the edge of your seat.

Striker: Santi Mina (Celta Vigo)

In this case, the pick is one who was overrated as a youngster and underrated now. Flying through Celta Vigo’s youth ranks, Valencia poached him aged 20 and he never quite lived up to expectations at Mestalla. Returning to Galicia in 2019, he finally seems to have settled in back home. With 16 goals in 32 games in the 2021 calendar year at the time of writing, he’s thriving.

With off-the-pitch distractions and a questionable disciplinary record, he’s not the full package, but as he matures and works on that area of his game, he is also becoming an increasingly prolific forward.

Striker: Lucas Boyé (Elche)

When Elche signed the Argentinian striker from Torino on loan, he was somewhat of an unknown substance to La Liga fans. A year later, when he made that loan spell permanent for just 1.8 million euros, he went under the radar.

Yet after scoring eight goals in 2020/21, he has already notched two in 2021/22 and is staking his claim as the next generation of La Liga target men. A physical and dominant presence, the 25-year-old is a battering ram and has been nicknamed ‘El Tanque’ (the tank) and ‘El Toro’ (the bull) by fans.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge 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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