Today (June 30) marks the end of an era for 133 players across all 20 of La Liga’s clubs as their current contracts end and they officially become free agents who can sign for whoever they want — or whoever will take them.
Not very many at all of those 133 have manoeuvred themselves into Kylian Mbappe-type situations where they can play different suitors off against each other, and maybe even decide to stay at their current club on much better terms.
A few have already sorted out a new club. Gareth Bale has joined Los Angeles FC after his nine years at Real Madrid came to a quite bitter end. Costa Rica defender Oscar Duarte has signed for Saudi side Al-Wehda after his Levante contract ended. Jese has moved to Turkish team Ankaragucu as a free agent after the end of his time with Segunda Division side Las Palmas.
Most are still considering their options. Some of these are veterans who have been released on good terms, more or less, and who feel they can still contribute — albeit maybe at a lower level than when they were at their peak.
There are also quite a number of mid-career players who find that, for whatever reason, they are no longer as sought-after as they were a few years back. Many in this category are creative souls not quite in sync with the current tactical restraints and physical requirements at the top level, which explains why this XI is quite attack-minded, and might struggle if it came up against a well-organised and hard-running opposition.
Financial constraints throughout La Liga have seen lots of clubs including Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia looking to sell before June 30 so they can maybe add to their squads later this transfer window.
So where these players end up at the end of the transfer window will tell quite a lot about the current state of La Liga — both on and off the pitch.
Goalkeeper — Sergio Asenjo
There are quite a few keepers coming onto the market, including Sergio Asenjo, who is leaving Villarreal having been back-up to Geronimo Rulli in recent seasons.
Asenjo has recovered from three serious knee injuries to prove himself an excellent shot-stopper at La Liga level and leaves Villarreal having played more games (258) than any other keeper in the club’s history. Although recently, he has been mostly on the bench as Unai Emery preferred Rulli’s greater comfort coming away from his line and starting moves from the back.
At 33, Asenjo should have a good few more years at this level ahead of him and Mallorca, Valladolid and Espanyol are all showing an interest.
Great save from Sergio Asenjo! 🧤
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) August 11, 2021
Right-back — Dani Alves
After his surprise return to Barcelona last autumn, Dani Alves played 17 games over the second half of the season, 16 as starter. Xavi liked his former team-mates’ influence around the training ground and understanding of how to build moves when in possession. Alves even scored and assisted in February’s 4-2 win over Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou.
More tricky was how the 39-year-old looked his age when younger, pacier attackers targeted his defensive zone. So although he wanted to stay another season, Barca have instead lined up Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta to take over at right-back (finances permitting).
Alves is now looking for another European club, thinking he can go to November’s World Cup in Qatar. Reports out of Brazil claim that Real Valladolid owner Ronaldo is considering bringing him to help a team who have just been promoted back to Spain’s Primera Division.
It might also be worth waiting until later in the window to see how many of Barca’s “economic levers” are pulled and whether they might need another stop-gap option willing to play for La Liga’s minimum wage of €155,000 per season.
Centre-back — Ander Capa
It seems significant that there are not many out-and-out defenders among the 133 players whose La Liga contracts are ending, so we have opted to put Ander Capa at centre-back, where his physicality and aggression should be useful.
Capa seemed an ideal signing for Athletic Bilbao in 2018, when he joined having impressed up through the divisions with Basque neighbours Eibar with his raids forward and attacking contributions catching the eye. Yet the move never really worked out at San Mames. Last season’s Athletic coach Marcelino clearly preferred other players, giving Capa just three minutes in all competitions.
Ernesto Valverde’s return following last week’s presidential elections has opened up the possibility of Capa, now 30, staying on at Athletic, but for the moment he is also out of work.
Centre-back — Victor Laguardia
Alaves were a shambles last season and, after struggling under three different coaches, they sunk to a deserved relegation.
Yet centre-back Victor Laguardia was generally excellent — a strong, competitive, old-school defender, who had plenty of opportunity to shine as most around him fell apart.
For a while, the 32-year-old has seemed set to move across the Basque Country from Alaves, in Vitoria, to Osasuna, in Pamplona. That is if David Garcia leaves Osasuna, perhaps to join Sevilla, which may or may not happen before the window closes.
Either way, Laguardia should be playing in La Liga, or at a similar level, next year.
Left-back — Marcelo
Brazilian left-back Marcelo finished his 16th and final season at Real Madrid by winning his 24th and 25th trophies, leading the celebrations as club captain of a La Liga and Champions League double, then leaving the Bernabeu as the most decorated player in the club’s history.
Marcelo spent last weekend in Florida at a La Liga Promises youth tournament, watching his son Enzo Alves Viera play for Real Madrid’s under-12s, score a solo goal reminiscent of the Brazilian Ronaldo, and then celebrate it like Cristiano Ronaldo.
The 34-year-old had wanted to stay at Real Madrid and does not accept his own career at the top level is close to over. He is still clearly a superbly talented and creative footballer, although after forays forward he has struggled to get back into position for a few years now.
Fenerbahce, Trabzonspor, Milan and Marseille are among those reported to have made offers. As well as Ronaldo’s Valladolid, where Marcelo could still keep a close eye on Enzo’s progress across the Castilian plain.
Midfield — Isco
Unlike his long-term Real Madrid team-mates Bale and Marcelo, Isco, in theory, should still have plenty of gas in his tank, having just turned 30 recently and also having not exactly overexerted himself through the last four seasons.
Isco’s long spell of bench-warming began under Santiago Solari in 2018-19 and continued with Zinedine Zidane, and then Carlo Ancelotti. Ancelotti giving the Andalusian just one La Liga start since September, and zero minutes at all in last season’s Champions League, made the Italian’s view on his competitive level clear.
The last Real Madrid coach to really count on Isco was Julen Lopetegui, who had previously put him at the centre of the Spain national team before the 2018 World Cup. Lopetegui has spoken to Sevilla sporting director Monchi about bringing his former player to the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan, without much progress.
Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes has been advising Isco and his family, and there have been possible links to Gestifute coaches Jose Mourinho at Roma and Gennaro Gattuso at Valencia. How Isco would respond to the rigours required by both coaches would be worth watching.
Midfield — Javier Pastore
Former Argentina international Javier Pastore is another who some readers might have assumed had already retired.
Although he recently turned 33, Pastore has not reached 1,000 minutes of playing time in any season since 2017-18 before he left Paris Saint-Germain for Roma. He joined Elche last September after no other club picked him following three disappointing campaigns in Serie A.
It helped that Pastore actually owns some shares in Elche, through his agent and fellow Argentine Christian Bragarnik, who is the Spanish club’s president. This did not sway coach Francisco’s decision-making — Pastore made just 13 La Liga appearances, clocking up 524 minutes, with zero goals and assists.
Pastore put that down to taking too long to get physically and mentally ready to compete again, but says he is now ready to make a proper impression at the top level again. Where that will be remains to be seen.
Attacking midfield — Ousmane Dembele
No player sums up how Barcelona got into their current financial mess more than Ousmane Dembele, who arrived for a potential €135 million in late August 2017, then spent most of his first four years at the club either injured or on the bench.
Dembele is also symbolic of the current muddled thinking at the Camp Nou. After his camp turned down Barca’s offer to renew on lower terms late last year, Barca’s hierarchy tried to force him to leave in January but Xavi then recalled him to the team as they needed his creative nous.
That sparked easily the best spell of the France international’s time in Catalonia. None of Barca’s other attackers created chances at his rate over the second half of the season. An xA (expected assists) of 0.5 per 90 minutes throughout 2021-22 was the best of any La Liga player to have regular minutes, ahead of Gerard Moreno (0.36), Karim Benzema (0.33), Iker Muniain (0.31), Joao Felix and Vinicius Jr (0.26 both). Of Barca’s regulars, Jordi Alba was top with 0.2, Memphis Depay and Ferran Torres next with 0.19 each.
Hence, Xavi wants to keep him and The Athletic has been told that Dembele, now 25, could still agree to stay if Barca up their offer.
The club hierarchy do not want to make an embarrassing about-turn, even if they could find the money required. Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain are also watching how things develop but neither have yet made a firm proposal.
Right wing — Adnan Januzaj
Also closer to the peak of his career — in theory, anyway — is Belgium international Adnan Januzaj. The former Manchester United wonderkid, now 27, enjoyed his five years at Real Sociedad, scoring three 23 goals and 21 assists in 168 games, winning a Copa del Rey medal and playing in UEFA competitions.
Real Sociedad made him a contract offer to continue but Januzaj himself has decided to look for a new challenge, and maybe more regular starts elsewhere. The situation is also complicated by his career having been guided by superagent Mino Raiola, who passed away in April.
Back in March, it seemed Januzaj was going to join Napoli but that has gone quieter now. More recently, the talk has been of a reunion with David Moyes, who managed him at both Manchester United and Sunderland, and first recommended him to La Real.
Centre-forward — Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez’s first season with Atletico Madrid was amazing — 21 goals in 32 games driving the team to the 2020-21 La Liga title. Last term was less fun as head coach Diego Simeone could not fit him into the team anymore and The Athletic reported back in March that there would be no third year.
Suarez nevertheless claimed to be disappointed at how his exit from Atletico has been handled, saying he only knew for sure he was leaving when a staff member told him his “farewell” had been arranged for the final home game of the season.
The former Liverpool and Barcelona forward still believes he can still do a job at a pretty high level and wants to keep himself in competitive shape to represent Uruguay at November’s World Cup in Qatar, whose hosting of the World Cup is controversial for the reasons described in this article.
Suarez appears in no rush to sort his future out. He was at his old Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi’s birthday party in Barcelona last weekend. An offer on the table from Argentine club River Plate could get more attractive as the summer moves towards autumn.
Left-wing — Cristian Tello
When La Masia-developed winger Cristian Tello scored twice when given his Barcelona senior debut by Pep Guardiola in 2011, he seemed set for a long and productive career at the Camp Nou.
Tello, now 30, has certainly won trophies— most recently the Copa del Rey won with Real Betis last April, a replica he stored with memorabilia from his other achievements in a special space at his house.
He did quite well in four seasons at the Benito Villamarin, but often as first man replaced or first subbed on. He has now fallen victim to cost-cutting this summer at Betis and many other La Liga teams.
Mundo Deportivo claim that Turkish clubs Trabzonspor and Besiktas, along with Mexican side Chivas, are those who have made offers so far.
Lastly, an honourable mention to 10 further players that would sit on the bench of The Athletic’s La Liga free agent XI: Diego Lopez, Luca Zidane, Joel Robles, German Sanchez, Jorge Miramon, Nemanja Radoja, Denis Cheryshev, Oscar Melendo, Carlos Bacca and Nolito.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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The out-of-contract La Liga XI
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