La Liga is back in action and while Leo Messi and Antoine Griezmann are still kicking about, here are five new faces to watch
Thomas Lemar (Atlético de Madrid, $80 million)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Thomas Lemar is a beast and one of the biggest additions to an already impressive roster of players at the Wanda Metropolitano. Coming off his first big tournament (the World Cup) with a gold medal hanging from his neck, Lemar has already impressed with Atlético in the pre-season and was a key factor against Real Madrid in a European Super Cup final which was absolutely nuts.
The Frenchman might have been one of the most expensive transfers of the summer (over $80 million for Atleti), but Simeone has some serious ballistic firepower on the wing with his arrival: quick, crafty, talented, a busy bee working for the team and generating chaos behind enemy lines. A top-class signing for a top-class squad.
Arthur Melo (FC Barcelona, $35 million)
I have to admit, I wouldn’t be so excited with Arthur if I hadn’t seen him perform in the pre-season. Barça signed the midfielder for quite a hefty sum from Gremio in Brazil, and both his age (22) and inexperience in Europe should make the transition a tough time for him.
However…he’s talented. Very talented. He’s extremely talented at the one single job Barça have been needing desperately since Xavi left and even more after Iniesta’s departure this summer: handling the steering wheel of the team on the pitch. Arthur is quick on his feet, but he thinks even quicker. He has shown glimpses of genius in the friendlies that Barça played this summer. If he manages to fit in right next to Rakitic, Busquets and Sergio Roberto, Ernesto Valverde ought to be a happy guy by the end of the season.
Youssef En-Nesyri (Leganés, $7 million)
Málaga’s unfortunate fate last season meant that their board had to tidy up their squad and adjust it to the requirements of the Segunda Division. And that meant, unluckily, that they had to let go of one of their most promising talents in their academy: Moroccan striker En-Nesyri, transferred this summer to Leganés for a small fee ($7 million) with is huge for both the buyer and the seller.
Why is this prospect so exciting? Snatched by Málaga from the Mohammed VI Football Academy, he spent three years developing his skills in the white-and-blue U18 and B-team until proving he was ready to make it to the big leagues. He had a few chances here and there in the 2016-2017 season, and finally played regularly last season with over 25 games under his belt and four goals scored. Now in Leganés, this big and strong striker will have plenty of opportunities to show that pure number 9’s never disappeared really: they only adapted and evolved.
Fran Beltrán (Celta de Vigo, $9 million)
Celta isn’t the cash-splurging type. Their policy of nurturing and handing out opportunities to youth players while, at the same time, seeking out uncharted markets and finding the hidden gem in them (Guidetti, Pione Sisto, etc) is well-known. That’s why Fran Beltrán’s signing surprised everyone so much: Celta paid his buyout clause straight away as Rayo Vallecano wasn’t willing to negotiate.
Last season in la Segunda, Beltrán played absolutely everything (40 games) and showed that his age (19) wasn’t going to be a handicap when facing more experienced midfielders. He’s been regularly capped with Spain’s U17 and U19 teams, so adding more experience in Vigo will surely be a exciting next step in his development.
Jaime Mata (Getafe, free)
And thus we end our quick analysis with the weirdest of the lot. Mata isn’t bizarre due to his playing style (tank-like striker) or skills (he has plenty of those). He’s odd due to the fact that his break-through season in Segunda División came when he was already 28. A ‘late bloomer’ in the same way Joseba Llorente or Aritz Aduriz were back in the day, his spectacular year in Valladolid (35 goals!) granted him the chance of becoming a high-profile free agent this summer.
Getafe didn’t think it twice and snagged him up to reinforce their attacking front. Will he perform as well in LaLiga? Quique Bordalás surely hopes he will.