The competitiveness which characterised the 2020/21 LaLiga Santander campaign has continued into this season, with Real Sociedad leading the way and newly promoted Rayo Vallecano sitting in a Conference League spot.
With almost one third of the 2021/22 LaLiga Santander season in the books, Spain’s top tier LaLiga Santander remains tighter than ever at the top. Real Sociedad are the current leaders, with the Basque side having collected 25 points from their first 12 matches as they mount a serious title challenge. Following La Real are Real Madrid and Sevilla on 24 points, Atlético de Madrid on 22, Real Betis on 21 and then newly promoted Rayo Vallecano round out the European qualification positions with 20 points so far.
The gap between the leaders and the team in sixth is just five points, less than in any of the other major European leagues. In the Premier League it’s eight, in the Bundesliga it’s nine, in Ligue 1 it’s 12 and in Serie A there is a 13-point gap between first place and sixth.
The goal difference numbers are testament to just how competitive a division LaLiga Santander is. Real Madrid currently have the largest with +14, but that is a smaller goal difference than the leaders in this category in England, Germany, France and Italy. At the other end of the table, Getafe and Levante have the worst goal difference stats in LaLiga Santander with -12; the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and Serie A all have at least one club with a lower tally than that. There really are few easy games in LaLiga Santander, and it’s clear that there are no teams getting thrashed week in week out.
Unfamiliar faces at the top
Making the start to this LaLiga Santander season so interesting is the fact that there are some new faces at the top of the table. Atlético and Real Madrid were expected to be title challengers and they are up there, but Real Sociedad, Sevilla and Real Betis are more than keeping pace with the capital city sides, kicking on after each qualified for European competition last season.
In the case of Real Sociedad, their success this season is no fluke. Last season they led the standings for many weeks before eventual champions Atleti overtook them at the top, and went on to win the rescheduled 2019 Copa del Rey final against local rivals Athletic Club. Their new-look Reale Arena home has become a fortress, and one of LaLiga’s toughest away days.
Then, there’s the case of Rayo Vallecano, who came up through the LaLiga SmartBank playoffs in spring and who have hit the ground running in the top flight. This is coach Andoni Iraola’s first campaign at this level and he has built a well-oiled machine, with Rayo Vallecano dominating matches and playing some impressive football in their 4-2-3-1 formation. Blockbuster signing Radamel Falcao is leading the line and has already scored four goals in 322 minutes of action, but Álvaro García, Randy Nteka, Óscar Trejo and Isi Palazón have all been outstanding in attack too.
One point behind Rayo Vallecano in seventh – which could become a European qualification spot depending on the Copa del Rey result – are Osasuna, another team who have caught the eye so far this campaign. They have been especially impressive on the road, winning four of their six road trips so far. The only two they didn’t win when on their travels were away at Sevilla and Real Madrid and, even then, they took a point away from the Bernabéu.
The rise of LaLiga Santander’s middle class
There has been a big change in LaLiga Santander over the past decade. Exactly 10 years ago, Real Madrid won the title with 100 points before Barcelona won it back with a 100-point league of their own the following season. But today’s champions have to work so much harder for every point nowadays, with Atlético de Madrid winning last year’s title with 86 points with only a two-point margin, and with the start of this season projecting an 83-point champion.
This is down to the improvement of LaLiga Santander’s middle class. Since Javier Tebas assumed the league’s presidency in 2013, the centralised sale of audiovisual rights was established in Spain growing the size of the TV money pie, while also more evenly distributing income.
The LaLiga economic control framework has then ensured that clubs are spending within their means. These two factors have been key to improving the quality of the division’s smaller sides and making for a more competitive and compelling spectacle. This is how Real Sociedad can convince and afford to keep a player like Euro 2020 revelation Alexander Isak or bring in a savvy veteran like David Silva. It’s how Real Betis can pay for a World Cup winner like Nabil Fekir or how Rayo Vallecano can secure the services of an all-time great finisher like Radamel Falcao.
These players have been key to pushing their current clubs higher and higher up the LaLiga Santander standings, a table where teams are constantly switching positions. The final two thirds of the campaign really should be fascinating.