LaLiga's unsung stars of 2023-24: Blind, Alaves, Arrasate, Pepelu and more

Published on: 27 May 2024

Daley Blind is far from a household name, but at 34 years old he has been a driving force in Girona's first Champions League qualification. Alex Caparros/Getty Images

On the penultimate weekend of the season, Deportivo Alaves played Getafe on Saturday night while everyone else played on Sunday. Why? Because they could.

In the final two rounds, LaLiga schedules all the games that have anything riding on them at the same time on the same day, an act of competitive integrity designed to ensure that no one with objectives to fulfil or their life on the line has an unfair advantage or disadvantage. Only those with nothing to play for are put on different days. In week 37, that meant Alaves, and that meant a lot. In fact, them playing there, Mendizorroza packed but unnoticed by the rest, was almost the perfect portrait of the perfect season.

Perfect?! Yep, pretty much. Irrelevance might not sound very exciting, but this is massive. Midtable mediocrity? That's not mediocre at all, not here. And the fact that few have talked about Alaves? Well, that's a good thing: a reflection of a lack of drama, just a job very well done. That they could get here safe with weeks to spare is a success. The lack of the epic kind of storylines that occupy everyone -- from managerial changes to desperate fights for survival, from wild swings in form to last-minute flukes, jeopardy or glory in every game -- gave Alaves a kind of anonymity. Justice, though, says that it is time to say their name. El Glorioso, their fans call them.

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They're not alone, either, so here's ESPN's guide to the unsung stars of the season -- some of whom you might not have heard much of, and no one could really blame you for that. It's time to give something back to those getting on with just being very good, a little love to LaLiga's best, pound for pound.

THE CLUB: Alaves

Alaves have Hagi, but not that one (Gheorghe). They have Simeone, but not that one (Diego) either. Instead, these are Ianis and Giuliano, the sons of illustrious footballers. And in Simeone's case, he spent much of the season injured, coming back just in time to help Alaves beat Atletico Madrid, which prompted their coach and his dad, Diego, to admiringly say: "On the pitch, he has no mother or father."

Alaves have the lowest budget in the whole league, their salary limit set at €31.28m, which is 10 times smaller than Atletico's. And 24 times smaller than Real Madrid's. More to the point, it is less than half the size of Granada's and Almeria's, both of whom went down. Alaves didn't, and it was clear pretty early that they weren't going to.

The late loan signing of Samu Omorodion helped, but this was all of them, the work done by Luis García and his players hugely impressive. Alaves are top in only one stat this season: penalties conceded. They're third in own goals and handballs committed. Not exactly beneficiaries of luck, then. But they do get a lot of crosses in -- only two teams have more -- and they have competed weekend after weekend. Except that they, more than anyone else, have repeatedly been dumped in the Monday and Friday slots no one wants. Until, as the end was close, they played on Saturday. Because they could, which was a lot more than many others could say.

At the start of the season, Luis Garcia warned his players that unlike last year, when they came up from the second division, they were going to lose a lot of games, a new reality they would have to get used to and know how to manage. They did so superbly. And they won a lot of games too.

Alaves have been fun, entertaining and free-wheeling all season long. Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty ImagesTHE COACH: Jagoba Arrasate, Osasuna

There's also Luis Garcia, obviously, but, well ... that's covered by Alaves' team award. There's Ruben Baraja, the Valencia manager, who has surprised everyone and who put it neatly: "Don't forget where we came from last year, how hard it was. This time we have achieved our objectives [survival] ahead of time. We would all like Valencia to be in a privileged position; I could want a Ferrari, but if I have to drive a Skoda."

Javier Aguirre, the coach if not the character, possibly deserves a little more attention too ... and then there's Jagoba Arrasate.

When he announced that he was stepping down as Osasuna manager, Arrasate said that he wanted to go at the right moment: he didn't want things to "end badly" -- "I couldn't forgive myself," he insisted. As it turned out, this is a pretty flat end to the season, but that's at least in part because of how he has altered expectations in Pamplona. "We haven't been able to continue what we did last year," he confessed, which said much. Yet Osasuna, who he took over in the second division, took to a Copa del Rey final and a European place, have secured their primera status very early for a fifth season in a row, despite having the fifth-smallest budget in Spain, and he departs with them in a good place, a job well done.

Arrasate also departs having dignified football, one of the most genuine, least presumptuous men in the game. As a coach sometimes you suffer, but sometimes it's worthwhile. "That beer just after a game [you win], when you say 'wow, how good was that?' is the best moment of the week," Arrasate says. Maybe at the end of week 38, the last game of the season and his final match after six superb years at Osasuna, he can have another. After all, Jagoba, you've earned it.

Arrasate leaves Osasuna on great terms, having taken the minnows far on a shoestring budget. Irina R. Hipolito/Europa Press via Getty ImagesTHE SIGNING: Daley Blind, Girona

OK, so Daley Blind isn't unknown, exactly. In fact, one of the measures of just how extraordinary this season has been for Girona is that for much of it they chased a league title when, if you go through their squad, their players had 37 relegations between them and only 14 league titles. And it's a bit of a push to truly include a lot of those titles: three for Eric García, two at Manchester City when he played zero and six games, and one at Barcelona after which they decided they didn't want him anymore; one for Pablo Torre at Barcelona; one for Cristhian Stuani at Danubio some 20 years ago; one for Artem Dovbyk at Midtjylland; one for Savinho at Atletico Mineiro when he played only four games.

As for Blind, he alone was responsible for more than half of them: seven at Ajax and one at Bayern. He had also played at Manchester United of course, and got over a hundred caps for the Netherlands.

So, unknown? Nah, but largely overlooked this year? Yep.

Blind came aged 34, having departed United five years earlier, seemingly coming toward the end, and wasn't wanted by Bayern anymore. As Girona flew, few really talked about him. There is a parallel here, by the way, to Girona midfielder Iván Martín, who is a candidate for inclusion in this season's best unsung players. Instead, the focus fell on Aleix and Savinho and Dovbyk. Portu had his moment. Stuani has his status, a true superstar. Yan Couto flew. Eric Garcia had that redemptive narrative arc. But without Blind, it doesn't happen. Only four players in the entire league had more touches. And all that for free.

THE PLAYERS

There are plenty who deserve their moment. Diego Rico (on loan at Getafe from Real Sociedad), say. And Mika Mármol at Las Palmas. Or Nemanja Maksimovic, playing all over the place at Getafe. Ante Budimir (Osasuna), certainly -- although it's hard to make a case for top scorers, quite honestly, even quiet ones like him. Or Gorka Guruzeta, and not so much for the goals as his role as the Basque Benzema, making better players of the other forwards at Athletic Club. But here are our three suggestions.

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SUNDAY, MAY 26 (all times ET)
• Getafe vs. Mallorca (7:50 a.m.)
• Leeds vs. Southampton (9:55 a.m.)
• Las Palmas vs. Alaves (10:05 a.m.)
• Celta Vigo vs. Valencia (10:05 a.m.)
• Sevilla vs. Barcelona (2:30 p.m.)

MONDAY, MAY 27 (all times ET)
• Fortuna Dusseldorf vs. Bochum (2 p.m.)

Ferland Mendy, Real Madrid

No one has heard Ferland Mendy talk, and almost no one has heard anyone talk about him either. Even on the day of his unveiling, he spoke for barely 15 seconds. It takes some doing to be a Real Madrid player and be this anonymous, to go so unnoticed. Here, the gaze is so intense, the coverage so voluminous, that everyone gets talked about. Everyone gets their moment in the sun. Or, alternatively, kicked when they are down (which is a key point).

Not Mendy. An example: one major newspaper in Spain has a search engine where you can look up articles by player names. When it comes to the French full-back, there is one piece about him in the past two years. He, it sometimes seems, is the meh in a megateam, the guy who's just not that good.

But no one who is not that good plays for Real Madrid. Still less for this long, let alone constantly winning things. Not long ago, talking to Goal, Antonio Rüdiger was asked to build his perfect player: this guy's speed, this guy's skill, this guy's technique, this guy's intelligence. When it came to strength, he said Mendy. If the answer was telling, the response to it was even more telling. "Really?!" his interviewer said, as if it was madness that anyone should even mention Mendy, let alone praise him. "That guy is strong like ox, man," Rudiger insisted.

Strong, silent and successful, too. And if that was a rare mention, if no one's talking about him, that's because he's not giving them reason to, which is also a good thing -- because as a defender that means errors as well. At Madrid, sure, being a left back tends to mean more and people tend to want more too: this is the place that had Roberto Carlos and Marcelo, that brought back flying Fran García and is after Alphonso Davies. But there's Mendy still, appreciated by those who matter. "Ferland is the best defensive defender in the world," Carlo Ancelotti said.

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Ayoze Pérez, Real Betis

Isco has been man of the match so many times this season it sometimes seems like he's the only one playing. Real Betis teammate Héctor Bellerín joked that he wins the awards even when he doesn't play, and, while he has been truly brilliant, a joy to watch, while he deserves the attention he has had, while he was worthy of many of the 18 MVPs he has taken and his redemption is one of the great stories of the season, there was something in that remark. Isco's dominance has served to obscure what others have done.

Beyond the brilliant glow of the man they call "Magic," there is talent, too. Just ask Isco himself, in fact: he's loving playing these days, and he's particularly loving playing with Ayoze Perez.

The feeling is mutual. Watching these two in recent weeks, football is just better and so much fun. Watch Ayoze up close: keep an eye on the touch, the little darting runs, the positioning, and there's a technical quality and intelligence that sets him apart. There's also an ambition and a seriousness about his career: a commitment that is striking even in this hyper-professionalised world, a refusal to settle for what others accept, an analytical mind and that flash of anger when things don't come off. Which is less often now because above all, there's a decisiveness too -- and just when it mattered most. "Fundamental," Manuel Pellegrini calls him.

Ayoze has had to deal with a groin injury, but Betis' resurgence, heading toward a European place again, has had Ayoze as a central player. He has 11 goals and two assists this season and has scored five in his past five games. One of his celebrations has him drinking a nice cup of tea too, which will do for us.

Pepelu, ValenciaPepelu is a playful, creative talent who has been one of Valencia's rare bright spots this season. Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

"I don't feel like a traitor," Pepelu said in the summer. He had just joined Valencia from city rivals Levante, the club where he had spent his entire career, where he said he always dreamed of playing and where he had said he would continue even after they were relegated. Where, in fairness, he had continued, playing a season in segunda.

He had come for €5.1m too, which is a lot of money for Valencia, the club that just doesn't spend money anymore. And there was attention and anger, all right -- even if Pepelu said he felt better because the transfer had been "done the right way" in a deal that was "good for all three parties." So under the radar might not be the obvious description. Only, he has been.

Jose Luis Garcia Vaya -- "Pepelu" to his pals -- came from the second division after all. And although he crossed the city, this is not a rivalry that dominates the media. The noise soon died down, and then came the actual season, which has been fantastic. But it has been quietly, undemonstratively so. It has come at a team that has not fought for survival this time, attention drawn to it, and that has never been much more than an outside bet for Europe either. That is underwhelming for a club like Valencia (in historic terms) but a success for a club like Valencia (as they are now), a lot of it down to him. Yet there has been no flash, just football.

Ask them at Mestalla, and they know his level. Ask in Madrid or Barcelona or Seville or Bilbao, and it might be a push for many to know him at all.

Sometimes the stats say it, so here are some stats: no outfield player in LaLiga has started more games (all bar one) or played more minutes (3,215) than Pepelu. He has played just short of 1,854 passes and had 2,432 interventions, which is more than Koke, Jude Bellingham, Frenkie de Jong, Martín Zubimendi, Mikel Merino or Dani Parejo. No one has made more recoveries than him. Only two have won more tackles. Only five have made more interceptions, and only six have created more chances. He has scored six goals, Valencia's second-top scorer.

In a team built on academy kids -- whose extraordinary success story in saving them last season and their identification with the club now has brought deserved attention -- Pepelu has been the veteran, at 25 for goodness' sake, the man making sense of it all. "A silent leader," Ruben Baraja said, when too few others have said anything at all.

Source: espn.co.uk

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