Alaves, Celta Vigo, Sevilla are well-run, must-see TV below La Liga's big three
Unless Alaves pull off the biggest Copa del Rey final shock in 13 years, since Real Zaragoza beat Madrid 3-2 after extra time in Montjuic's Olympic Stadium, all of Spain's top prizes will be divided between the two Clasico clubs. Again.
The cynical, "glass half-empty" brigade will moan and groan about that, I've no doubt. But brand me as a dewy-eyed optimist and let my football evangelism earn me the nickname Billy "Bumper" Graham, as I see sparkles of gold dust among the "also-ran" clubs that gave me terrific enjoyment this season and, in some cases, renewed hope for the 2017-18 campaign.
Alaves, only promoted last summer, are a shimmering example. What they point to is a tendency in Spanish football. The tendency to invest faith in a strategy, to hire a strategist and put him in charge of recruitment, to have a blueprint for the kind of coach who can apply the club's ideology and to have a back-up plan for the next, similarly talented and similarly profiled coach/manager if the first one either doesn't work out or is lured away.
Atletico, Villarreal, Sevilla, Espanyol, Malaga, Las Palmas, Celta, Eibar and, some would argue, Real Sociedad also fall into this category of next-tier teams. Not a bad group: add in Madrid and Barcelona and you have over half of Spain's top division.
Now, every strategy, every club and every strategist will have better and worse seasons. Success isn't a rock-solid guarantee simply because good, planned, thorough and consistent work is being done. But under those conditions, success will definitely blossom if the strategy, strategist and club are based on original quality.
Back to Alaves. It's traditionally a grim, draining struggle to come up from the long arduous Segunda Division. (Alaves played 42 matches to become champion and finished last season in early June.) The players and coach who got you up usually won't be the ones to keep you up; sifting through and separating the squad's wheat from chaff on that basis is a very precarious, emotionally draining process. As for recruiting quality footballers who are willing to come to a "lesser" club for a distinctly lesser wage? That can be sheer hell.
But look at Alaves. A couple of draws with the 2016 Champions League finalist (Atletico), a win over last season's Spanish champions (Barcelona), a draw with the reigning Europa League holder (Sevilla), a thumping win over this season's Europa League semifinalist (Celta Vigo) plus two -- count 'em: two! -- defeats of Villarreal. All that plus a league finish far closer to the European slots than the relegation zone and a spot in the cup final.
This has been a marvellous season. Moreover, they are a pleasure to watch, whether strategically, athletically, technically or in their sheer chutzpah.
Because of the way the football industry is constructed, you just know that Mauricio Pellegrino will get the vast lion's share of praise for these achievements. I'm not saying that's totally unfair; his work may even yield him a new job, perhaps at Sevilla but far more likely at Celta Vigo. But it wasn't Pellegrino who took the decision to sack the coach who brought Alaves up, nor was it his decision about which 16 new players to bring in: the same 16 players who have gifted Alaves one of the best seasons in the club's entire history.
No: it was sporting director Sergio Fernández, who took over from Javier Zubillaga, who has, in turn, taken over Alaves' academy. Whether or not Sergio Fernández is a guru isn't the main question: he stands for the planning, strategy, vision, contacts and nous that, I think, still makes the boondocks interesting in Spanish football. Interesting and fun.
His work to secure loans and purchases like Theo Fernandez, Marcos Llorente, Zou Feddal, Ibai and Deyverson has been fantastic. The proof -- if league position, wins, points and a chance to win La Copa aren't sufficient in themselves -- comes from Fernandez, Llorente and Feddal.
The former is going to be a whopping big (think €30 million-plus) transfer to Real Madrid, with Barcelona having been thwarted in their pursuit of the French defender. His parent club, Atleti, are morose. Llorente? Well, honestly, I cannot overplay the enthusiasm among various Madridistas I know about Llorente returning from his loan.
There is a widespread belief that he's immediately going to take Casemiro's place (I'd be careful of that supposition) and that this kid will be, for a long time, the cultured, clever, elegant and athletic heartbeat of Real Madrid's midfield -- a kind of Spanish Fernando Redondo.
As for Feddal, his story is simply incredible (more on him next week), but suffice to say, if a Premier League club doesn't come and snap him up, then there must be some sort of football blindness affecting clubs over there. The point is this: Alaves strategize. They want someone in place who can build a style, who can replace Pellegrino adequately, but similarly, if he goes, they are planning for a bigger picture than simply "clinging on by the fingernails to La Liga survival."
Let's broaden the point out.
Atletico get a lot of coverage in the media. So, suffice to say, the hidden pillar of their success, obscured by Diego Simeone, regular cup final appearances and the high-profile nature of some of their players, is the recruitment department. Whether all of that is due to Sporting Director José Luis Pérez Caminero (a patrician and elegant wide midfielder in Atletico's double-winning year of 1996) the fact remains that since 2011, his record of signing and selling has been immense.
Caminero has provided what Diego Simeone asked for: consistency, stability and an identifiable plan for the mid- and long-term. These plans, these sporting directors and these strategies are not ironclad guarantees against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to which football seems addicted. Things will falter, sell-by dates will come, projects will need renewing, and mistakes happen.
But -- and this is vital -- the better Spanish clubs have a "bible." They know what they want to do, and they know why they want to do it. They figure out how to make a fit between what the "bible" says and what football their stakeholders (fans, media, sponsors) expect to see. And they aim to have the "next-but-one" striker, goalkeeper or coach well in mind and well-scouted for down the line.
Sevilla, of course, have been the Blue Riband club for all this not only because of Monchi, their now departed director of football who's among the wolves (and some jackals) in the Roman hills. I fear for him a little because Rome is a city that put the extra volts into volatility. But I'm more interested in whether, as he suggested, Sevilla can carry on applying his buying bible or using the same old "system" ideology on selling and coach recruitment even though the system's designer is no longer there.
Sevilla have been fun this year -- imperfect, but fun. It's a shame that the Jorge Sampaoli project looks certain to be curtailed, though he continues to claim that there's no agreement with the Argentina national team, and it continues to be clear that AFA don't want to pay Sampaoli's buyout clause either.
Sticking with both subjects -- strategic development and a project curtailed -- Celta fit into my eulogy. Their recruitment of Luis Enrique in 2013 worked. He wasn't a reject, but nor was he laundry-fresh having been sacked by Roma. Not only did the Luis Enrique concept function, but Celta were ready with Toto Berizzo once they had to replace Lucho, and the two coaches share ideologies. It has felt like planned, steady and consistent progress. How often do you hear that phrase in football?
Felipe Miñambres is the technical director at Celta, and, frankly, I think he merits some sort of national recognition. They've consistently recruited not only as good players as they've sold, but have provided Berizzo with quality with which he's repeatedly thrashed Barcelona, beaten Atletico Madrid and, this season, eliminated Madrid from the cup. (Otherwise, I think we'd be talking about their first ever Treble.) And all on a meagre budget.
Not for nothing did the Barça manager call Celta "just about the most attractive team to watch anywhere in Europe." Are you a Man United fan? Granted, you'd rather be in this season's Europa League final than beaten semifinalists. But if you could have that and play like Celta did at Old Trafford, would I need to show you where to sign?
There was a time not so long ago when Valencia were in this group of clubs, among whom I hope and think that Jordi Lardin, Espanyol's football director, will show us he is one of the coming men. For the moment, it's too much to hope that under the current Valencia ownership, there's a clear-cut and intelligent playing and recruitment strategy -- not when the "sell, sell, sell!" strategy is starkly laid out in their financial plan.
But handing the reigns to Voro and then recruiting Marcelino (boy oh boy, that Valencia-Villarreal derby is going to be feisty next season) smacks of the ship being steadied and the right hands being on the tiller. I hope. In fact, in Marcelino's case, I'm tempted to say that "I believe."
So, please don't be dazzled by Barcelona and Madrid alone, even though the next three weeks are going to be almost exclusively about them. Unless ... whisper it to the wind ... "Oh Alaves ... any chance of a nice big shock to finish the season?"
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.