Two glitches in LaLiga’s matrix

If there is a singular statement that you could write highest on the wall, above all of the rest of the analysis and discourse in Spanish football, it would be that of a great Argentine. Not Lionel Messi nor Diego Maradona, but his right-hand man at the 1986 World Cup, Jorge Valdano. “Football is a state of mind,” seems like a relatively facile, even disposable, comment on the sport. Yet it echoes through the game repeatedly with almost unerring accuracy.

This season in La Liga, that idea has collided with one of the game’s universal truths, an idea that most of us hold dearly to our understanding of the game. Namely the concept that the pure goalscorer, a natural striker, has an innate relationship with scoring goals that other players do not. Much like the ability to beat a man with liquid dribbling, that talent a rare stone in football. Their connection with the art as it were, surpasses a talent for merely shooting well (which many surely possess) and becomes an inherent part of them. You either have it or you don’t.

As the Spanish league season approaches its midpoint, the revelation so far is undoubtedly Juan Miguel Jiménez López. Second top scorer with eleven goals, Juanmi’s form for Real Betis has left the entire country dumbfounded. It’s a phenomenon that has led to suggestions of national team recall six years later and recently ‘his song’ was turned into a spoken word point of argument in the Andalusian parliament. Wearing an abashed smile, he cuts the charming figure of an accidental sensation.

The surprise isn’t limited just to the goals; the numbers behind them are incredible. In the league, he has contributed to 41% of Betis’ goals despite only being on the pitch for 60% of the minutes. Juanmi has dwarfed his xG by 5.1 – nearly scoring twice for every occasion he is supposed to. Even without the numbers, the transformation is visible. Despite not playing as a central striker, his patience in positioning is admirable: often hanging wide of the action in wait of the pass. Without an abundance of pace or power, it’s timing that he dominates inside the area.

Truth be told, Juanmi doesn’t even have a proper position. Not quite a winger yet neither a reference point as a striker, perhaps in a different side he would play off of one. Still, rarely have his managers been convinced to deploy him there. Truth is, he wasn’t regarded as a pure goalscorer if we return to that phrase. Yet in his movement at least, Sid Lowe recently compared him to Cristiano Ronaldo – perhaps the most pure-bred goalscorer of all time.

So what has changed? Going back through the years, in each of the last three seasons he has not only held a low xG figure in each season, in part due to injuries, but has also underperformed that number. Manuel Pellegrini’s side are arguably the best functioning he has participated in, his goals part of monumental third position for los verdiblancos this season. A better team, better health and better supply help to explain the explosion. It’s a side where almost every player enjoys the trust of his manager.

Tailing him by one at the top of the goal chart, Vinícius Junior is also enjoying a sensational season. The curious thing is, you could make a similar case about the Brazilian. More than that, if there was one thing that Vinícius was notorious for amongst sneering opposition fans, it was his lack of end product. Clearly he had the ability. An electric current running through his feet, lending him the ball was a calculated risk. He could unpick the tightest lock; yet Vini Jr. would consistently stumble just when the bounty was waiting to be pilfered. The frustration was such, that Karim Benzema was infamously caught on camera telling Ferland Mendy not to pass to Vinícius as “he’s playing against us.”

Coming into this season, he too had underperformed his expected goals ever since arriving in the Spanish capital. Since the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, he leads the lead in goal-creating actions (12) and is 3.3 goals ahead of the pace. There too, it feels different when Vinícius advances on goal. Previously, you could see the possibility of failure balloon in his mind. Now, the ball nestles in the net with the same serenity that accompanies his one-on-one assaults. All over the pitch even, he enjoys himself. He sees only possibilities.

If we come at the problem from the opposite angle, colleague Luka Jovic has been a figure of derision since completing a €63 million move from Eintracht Frankfurt. Since his mid-teens, the continent has whispered about the Serbian, a phenom in the making. He was to scouts then what Erling Braut Haaland is to the layman now: inevitable. Although it never quite transpired that way at Benfica, his move to Franfurt seemed to have returned him to that path.

In Germany, he was the sharpest end of a lethal trident which provided die Adler with 56 goals in his final season. At this point you won’t be surprised to hear that he scored faster than the averages would suggest in both his seasons at the Commerzbank Arena. Curiously enough, he also did so in his far less successful loan spell return in 2021. That was sandwiched between a barren and joyless two years with los blancos. There Jovic was starved of opportunities, Zinedine Zidane showing little faith in him. Those he did have came infrequently and the chances he should have taken were spurned. Symptoms of a striker who was suffocating, unable to do the thing that gives them air: scoring goals.

Although the penalty box striker seems to be facing extinction by natural selection, some still lurk in the modern game. The closest striker Spain has produced to that which exists primarily to produce one touch – the most important one – is arguably Paco Alcácer. Granted, his game has become more rounded with age and experience. Nowadays he takes on far more tasks than the one that made him professional.

Yet perhaps that is a part of the problem. Becoming Villarreal’s record signing at the time, there have been spells of success but currently he wouldn’t form part of Unai Emery’s ‘gala XI’. Injuries are a piece of the problem, but perhaps identity too. Asked to do more than he is comfortable with, required to adapt beyond his natural instincts – there’s an argument that it might have damaged his own coolness in front of goal. Yet to score this season, he is down on his xG numbers by 3.7 in the yellow of the submarine. Playing in the black and yellow of Borussia Dortmund for the two previous seasons, he is in the green by a figure of exactly ten. 

Across the continent, Fernando Torres, Ciro Immobile and Timo Werner have all found situations at various points in their career where they couldn’t exercise the same dominance they once had in front of goal. Mo Salah and Gerard Moreno have reached levels of efficacy that previously would’ve seemed unthinkable during their earlier careers. In 2018, Paulo Dybala scored 22 Serie A goals and finished as top scorer in title winning side. Juventus would retain the title the following season and despite only playing 209 minutes fewer, Dybala only found the net on five occasions.

Each and every one of these situations is open to interpretation. Doubtless reasons can be given for the improvements and declines of these goalscorers in each season. Position, role, health, adaptation – the matrix of moving possibilities around them. 

Perhaps that’s the point though. Maybe there’s a need to reassess how much clinical finishers differ from other footballers on a fundamental level. This is of course a selection of convenient examples for the purpose of the point. Still, the way in which classics of the genre like Torres have veered away from their own footballing personality suggests that the nurture exists on parallel to the nature. Vinícius and Juanmi may come back to the mean, they may be a glitch in the matrix waiting to be corrected. Maybe the pure goalscorer is just a state of mind.

This post was written by Ruairidh Barlow. Ruairidh discusses Spanish football every second Friday on the Road to Nowhere European Football Podcast. You can find Ruairidh on Twitter – @RuriBarlow.

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