Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior and Pedri lead LaLiga awards for 2021-22
Well, LaLiga brought no shortage of drama in 2021-22 both on and off the field, with Real Madrid running away comfortable title winners and Barcelona surviving a historic crisis, rallying to finish second despite turbulence and turnover. But what else caught our eye this season? From the brilliant to the profane, from the magical to the tragic, ESPN’s writers and reporters — Graham Hunter, Sid Lowe, Alex Kirkland, Moises Llorens, Sam Marsden and Rodrigo Faez — pick out their highlights and lowlights.
Jump to: Surprise of the season | Goal of the season | Heartwarming moment | Ugliest moment | Best player | Best young player | Best signing/arrival | Worst signing/arrival | Biggest disappointment | Bold prediction for 2022-23
Surprise of the season
Kirkland: Vinicius Junior. We’d already seen flashes of the player he might become, but nobody expected such a dramatic improvement in his finishing and his ability to decide games. His numbers trailed off a little in the second half of the season — 10 of his 17 league goals came in the first half of the campaign — but that was arguably a result of opponents paying closer attention rather than a drop in form. When Real Madrid needed an out-ball, Vinicius was there every single time.
Hunter: The oddities of Madrid’s title win. That the lowest points total needed to be crowned champions since 2006-07 won the title earlier than any Madrid side has managed since 1990 was only the beginning of the anomalies. They won it before they played Atletico Madrid a second time, they won despite giving Sevilla a goal, or two goals, head start in each of their “showdown” meetings, they won despite losing 4-0 at home in the second Clasico against Barcelona: this was a superb title win, but an odd one.
Lowe: (Real Madrid’s miracles stopped being surprising, so … Rayo Vallecano!) Forget how it finished, because in truth it still finished better than anyone expected when it started. Anything other than relegation, miles adrift, would have been a success having been the last team promoted via the playoffs, and with the club in the midst of a truly horrible institutional crisis. Instead, Rayo Vallecano — RAYO FREAKIN’ VALLECANO! — were safe with weeks to spare and cup semifinalists to boot. Add to that, for the first half of the season, a trip to Vallecas was the best day out in Spanish football. So good, so much fun.
Faez: Gavi had a great season for a young player. It looks like he has been playing for 10 years in LaLiga. Not only with Barca, but for the Spain national team, he has been a key player to keep an eye on.
Marsden: Vinicius’ progress. The potential had always been there, but Vinicius had always flattered to deceive in the final third. Until this season. The Brazilian has flourished as Karim Benzema‘s wingman, contributing 17 goals and 10 assists to Real Madrid’s breeze to the title. He had never netted more than three times in a LaLiga season before. The turnaround is even more impressive for the fact it was only last season that Benzema was caught on camera telling teammates not to pass to him.
Llorens: The best story outside the big clubs. Real Betis have played great football and, after winning the Copa del Rey, just missed out on qualifying for the Champions League. Manuel Pellegrini is a sensational coach.
Goal of the season
Kirkland: Luis Suarez, Atletico Madrid, Feb. 19. Have you ever seen a more ruthlessly efficient counterattack? There were just seven seconds and two touches between an Osasuna cross falling to Joao Felix inside the Atletico Madrid box and Suarez finding the net from 40 yards out. It’s hard to pick the best part of the move — Fleiz’s lightning-quick scanning to spot the run, the accuracy of his first-time pass, Suarez’s shortening of his stride to get his body into position, or his first-touch, left-footed finish. Together, they’re unbeatable.
WHAT A FINISH FROM LUIS SUAREZ 😲🔥 pic.twitter.com/nve9B28IaX
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 19, 2022
Hunter: Karim Benzema, obviously! It could have been the cracker to open the scoring against Atleti in December. It should have been his work of art to bend it round Athletic Club‘s Unai Simon at San Mames from the far left of the penalty area a few days later. But the utter magnificence of his stoppage time winner against Sevilla on matchday 32, started by him deep in midfield and then courtesy of magic from Vinicius and Rodrygo … winner, winner.
Lowe: Vinicius vs. Sevilla. If you look closely on the replay, you can just about see this ESPN reporter running up the stairs and out of there with his back to the play, the bloody idiot. Luckily, he turns around just in time to see the ball tear through the air and into the net. It’s not just about how good the shot was, but about when it happened, where it happened and everything it meant. A league title, for a start. Alright, so that’s pushing it a bit as the game was in November, but it’s still Vinicius Junior‘s vital 87th-minute rocket against Sevilla at the Bernabeu to earn a 2-1 win.
Faez: Pedri against Sevilla. How he treats the ball, how he passes, how he feints and how he scores … outstanding. No words.
Marsden: Lorenzo Moron‘s moment of magic. Vinicius’ stabbed effort against Levante in August, Jordi Alba‘s pair of volleys for Barca, Gabriel Paulista‘s thumping long ranger for Valencia and 40-yard strikes from Atleti’s Angel Correa and Suarez were all in the running, but I will give it to Moron’s remarkable goal for Espanyol from out on the touchline just inside the Celta Vigo half. Unfortunately, it was only a consolation — but what a consolation.
Llorens: Pedri’s goal vs. Sevilla. The execution was phenomenal, feigning twice to take two players out of the game before burying the ball in the bottom corner. It is a major reason Barca finished second.
Heartwarming moment of the season
Kirkland: Joaquin‘s speech before Real Betis’ Copa del Rey semifinal. Betis winning the Copa del Rey — their first trophy in 17 years — is an obvious contender, as is Joaquin lifting the trophy aged 40. But the speech he gave before their semifinal with Rayo Vallecano was Oscar-worthy. “I don’t know if I should talk to you as a teammate, friend or captain,” he told the players in the dressing room, “so I’ll do it as a Betico [Betis fan] because I know what many of them must be feeling. My uncle used to say there’s nothing more beautiful than making people happy. Today we have that chance.” Inspirational stuff.
— Real Betis Balompié (@RealBetis_en) March 7, 2022
Hunter: Abdon Prats the hero. Abdon’s added-time winner for Mallorca vs. Rayo would melt a stone heart. He travelled the 120km round trip across the island and back to watch his heroes at the San Moix stadium as a kid. Debuted for Mallorca 11 years ago, flitted round four other clubs before re-joining the team he loves when they languished in Division Three. After two promotions they were in the bottom three on Week 37 until he scored only his second ever LaLiga goal to lift Los Bermellones off the canvas and keep them alive until the final week. The joy, the tears, the pride. Magical.
Lowe: Superb storylines and super siblings. There are dozens of them — and that’s just on the night that Betis won the Copa del Rey, from Miranda to Joaquin to Hector Bellerin‘s dad and all the rest of them. Earlier in the competition, third-tier side Talavera had all worn Joaquin shirts, which was nice. And Courtois’s amiable chat with the Sevilla fans was enjoyable to watch unfold. But the winner is Inaki and Nico Williams, brothers in arms.
Faez: Fans helping fans. I enjoyed how Deportivo Alaves supporters gave up their ticket-holders’ cards to Cadiz away supporters so they could come in Alaves stadium to see the last game of the season. Alaves was already relegated and their board raised ticket prices in order not to have Cadiz supporters at the stadium.
Marsden: Ansu Fati offers hope. Ansu’s return to action with Barca, capped with a goal against Levante, was a real moment of togetherness and hope at Camp Nou in September. Celebrating his late strike, his teammates lifted him in the air, the heir to Lionel Messi‘s No. 10 shirt after 11 months of injury pain. Unfortunately, more injuries have followed since, but he’s fit again now and could make a huge difference next season.
Llorens: The return of Ansu. His first appearance of the season, when he came on against Levante to score. There was real emotion in the air at Camp Nou, with supporters delighted to see the young star back in action.
Ugliest moment of the season
Kirkland: Betis vs. Sevilla in the Copa del Rey round of 16 gets called off. January’s Copa del Rey meeting was shaping up to be a thriller. Nabil Fekir had just scored direct from a corner to make it 1-1 when a flagpole thrown from the crowd hit Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan, leading the game to be suspended and resumed a day later behind closed doors. The incident itself was ugly, and the messy aftermath in which both camps traded accusations on their behaviour was equally unpleasant.
Hunter: Messi’s exit. Before a ball was kicked. Not just their greatest player — the greatest player. To tell Messi that his new contract was agreed, order him to fly “home” from holiday then tell him, on arrival, that there’d been a change of heart and he was “out” was heartless, callous and, even if financially vital, still unforgivable after telling him, 24 hours earlier, that a new deal was assured. One of the ugliest incidents in Barca’s entire history. Little wonder Messi wept and wept at his farewell press conference.
Lowe: The Santiso saga. Ugly really isn’t a word that gets close to doing justice to how appalling it was: the audio that emerged in which the coach of Rayo Vallecano women’s team, Carlos Santiso, tells his back room staff that the best way to foster a real team spirit between them is to sexually assault a player together. And Rayo did nothing.
Faez: Fan ugliness between rivals. The Sevilla-Betis rivalry and the way players from both sides behaved after the derbies they played in a row (Copa + Liga): how Jordan was hit by a projectile celebrating a goal, the way coach Joan Lopetegui behaved after that to postpone the game and how Betis’ Andres Guardado laughed at Jordan when they won. Horrible image for LaLiga.
Marsden: The Copa del Rey suspension. I echo the above about the scenes that marred the Copa del Rey match between Sevilla and Real Betis in January.
Llorens: The constant protests against club owners.
Best player of the season
Kirkland: Benzema. There is only one candidate, and anyone who tries to make a case for an alternative is being deliberately provocative. Benzema scored more goals (27), had higher expected goals (24.72), scored more non-penalty goals (20), had more goals + assists (39), had more shots (121) and shots on target (58), and played more passes into the penalty area (79) than any other player in LaLiga. You don’t really need any of those numbers, though. Just sit back, watch him play, and enjoy. Nobody else in Spain comes close.
Hunter: King Karim. It’s a complete no-contest. One of only two players (Vinicius the other) to hit double figures of goals + assists, by far his best scoring season domestically, in Europe and in all competitions, Madrid’s most vital player and … playing outright gorgeous football. Not just LaLiga’s but the world’s best footballer this season. Magnifique!
Lowe: Benzema. That is all.
Faez: Benzema. He has become easily one of the top five players worldwide. He scores, but he makes his team play better and his teammates better, too. The best thing for me is how he became a leader after Cristiano Ronaldo‘s departure. He’s top.
Marsden: Benzema has been head and shoulders above anyone else in the league this season, in terms of quality and consistency.
Llorens: Benzema, no question. He has played like never before and taken his teammates to that level with him. A wonderful football, the type you would pay double to watch know that you will enjoy the show.
Best young player (19 or younger)
Kirkland: Pedri. It might seem excessive praise for a player who only featured in 12 league games — a hamstring injury kept him out from August to January — but that’s illustrative of just how keenly Barcelona felt his absence. The team’s upswing in the second half of the season was as much down to Pedri’s return as Xavi’s arrival as coach. If he isn’t Barca’s most important player already, he isn’t far off; and the goals he scored against Galatasaray and Sevilla suggest there’s much more to come. If he stays fit next year, watch out.
Hunter: Just 18 when the season began, Pedri is, literally, astonishing. When he plays, Barca make sense. When he doesn’t, they don’t. Xavi, not prone to hyperbole, alternates between calling him the best in his position and the best in the world. He makes the chaotic calm and the difficult easy. An utterly monumental talent.
Lowe: Eduardo Camavinga. Three times, Real Madrid were in trouble: against the French, English and European champions. All three times, they called on Camavinga and a miracle followed. “What a player,” Rodrygo Goes wrote, alongside a load of in-love emojis. Well, quite.
Faez: Pedri. He’s still the heart of Barca and Spain. In addition to this, when he has been injured, Barca struggled and missed his quality to make the team play Barca style.
Marsden: Gavi. The best thing about Barcelona’s sub-par season has been the kids. Pedri, when fit, is already their most important player and perhaps the second-best player in the league after Benzema. But he hasn’t been fit enough, so I will hand this award to Gavi who, at the age of just 17, has had an incredible debut season among the elite. He has the positional and passing qualities of a Barca midfielder, but also the battling qualities of a bulldog. It’s a good mix.
Llorens: Gavi. The Barca midfielder has been integral under Ronald Koeman and Xavi. He adapted well to various roles and positions within the team, although he prefers to play as the left-sided central midfielder. A total footballer with a big future.
Best new arrival to the league
Kirkland: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It’s hard to look beyond Barcelona’s January trolley dash to construct an entire new front-line, and while Ferran Torres may be the key man in the long-term, Aubameyang made the biggest immediate impact. Eleven goals in 15 league appearances is an impressive return for a player who had looked well past his best at Arsenal, and he’s helped get the best out of Ousmane Dembele, too. Otherwise: David Alaba settled in quickly at Real Madrid (although their most significant signing was returning fitness coach Antonio Pintus) and Reinildo Mandava gave Atletico Madrid their defensive bite back.
Hunter: Alaba. There were moments when it looked like it would be Arnaut Danjuma. Mallorca fans will tell you it is Vedat Muriqi. Camavinga made a late run for the winner’s enclosure, but it’s Alaba, no question. Leadership, heroic blocks and tackles, the odd goal (one to beat Barca) and a superb partner for Eder Militao. All after arriving free from Bayern Munich. A brilliant bargain.
Lowe: Danjuma. From the Championship to the Champions League and all the way to the semifinals. Danjuma scored six times in 10 European starts, 10 times in 17 domestic starts, and it feels like just the beginning. “I have no ceiling,” he said. No shortage of confidence either, and why would there be when he scored at Juventus and Bayern?
Faez: Reinildo. He proved from the very beginning at Atleti that he was born to play for Diego Simeone, and the first player signed by the Argentine manager who did not need an “internship” to adapt. He arrived, he played.
Marsden: Danjuma. Aubameyang had a huge impact on Barca’s rise up the table, scoring a hat trick at Valencia and two at Madrid after joining for free in January. However, over the course of the season, Danjuma deserves this prize. Picked up from Championship side Bournemouth, he scored 10 league goals, but it was his six strikes in his side’s run to the Champions League semifinal which really caught the attention.
Llorens: Alaba. The Austria international hit the ground running at Real Madrid, but beyond that, he took on the role of leader and made those around him better. Militao and Nacho look like top defenders when they play alongside him.
Worst new arrival
Kirkland: Anthony Martial. He arrived on loan from Manchester United in January as the man to add much-needed goals and attacking flair to Sevilla’s title bid — they were second then, with a realistic chance of catching leaders Real Madrid — and he did, well, absolutely nothing. In nine league games Martial has been anonymous, taking seven shots and scoring with none of them. Rarely has such fanfare been followed by such deafening silence.
Hunter: Martial. A complete waste of everyone’s time and money — stank the house out. No competition. Clear winner.
Lowe: Martial. Javier Pastore‘s arrival at Elche was as exciting as it was unexpected, at least in a kind of “crikey, him here? This might be magical” sort of way. And, erm, that was about it: nothing much happened. But more disappointing was probably Martial at Sevilla: signed to help them get across the line, he didn’t even make it there himself. Injured and, ultimately, an irrelevance.
Faez: Martial. He was Sevilla’s major investment of the past few years, and he failed. Due to injuries or whatever, but he has been really far from what the club and director of football Monchi expected from him. It’s a pity he’s leaving again already, returning to Old Trafford, because Sevilla always wait for the players and let them grow to develop their skills. But Martial was a fail in every sense.
Marsden: Martial. Rodrigo de Paul has not lived up to expectations at an Atletico Madrid side that were tipped to compete for the title again, but it’s hard to look past Martial. He didn’t score a single LaLiga goal and then, in a game when he was finally having an impact, got injured against Real Madrid in April.
Llorens: Martial. The French forward was a disaster, staining Monchi’s reputation slightly. The Sevilla sporting director gets a lot right and sells well, but occasionally he makes mistakes. Martial did not deliver what was expected from him.
Kirkland: Atletico Madrid. They never found a way to replicate the relentless consistency that saw them beat the big two to the title in 2021. Instead, this was a team with a manager caught in two minds, as Simeone wrestled with how to take advantage of an unprecedented variety of attacking talent while maintaining defensive solidity. They conceded 43 goals in LaLiga, a remarkable 72% increase on last season’s 25. Only a late end-of-season rally in what Simeone called a “league of 14 games” saw them qualify for the Champions League for the 10th year in a row.
Hunter: Sergio Aguero. So long, Sergio. In bronze — Villarreal (Europa League winners in 2021, Champions League semifinals 2022) qualifying for neither competition next season. Silver? Ansu’s continuing struggles with full, permanent fitness. But the biggest sadness must be the forced, immediate retirement of Aguero due to a cardiac problem just a couple of matches into his LaLiga return.
Lowe: Sevilla. It’s the hope that kills you, and so maybe Atletico’s failed defence of LaLiga doesn’t count because it was over so soon and this does: the answer may well be Sevilla, incredibly harsh though that sounds when they secured a historic third-consecutive Champions League place. In January, it really did look like maybe, just maybe, they could give us a league title race — and like they thought so too, their transfer window underlining that. Hit by endless injuries and fatigue, they slipped away one draw at a time. Won just four of their last 17 LaLiga games.
Faez: Valencia. Valencia were a top club in Europe but since the arrival of owner Peter Lim they have become another selling club in the hands of super agent Jorge Mendes, or whichever agent is around Lim. It’s a disgrace for a historical club.
Marsden: What is a league without competition? Madrid were worthy champions, but the ease with which they won the league hardly made it exciting. The blame for that lies with a Barcelona who are still finding themselves after losing Messi, an Atletico Madrid who seemed to be suffering a hangover after last season’s title win and a Sevilla side that, just when they looked like they could compete with Madrid, fell off a cliff in the second half of the campaign.
Llorens: Atletico Madrid’s title defence, Barcelona’s season. Barca had to change coach mid-season just to make the top four, while Atletico never made it a race with Real Madrid and were a let down in results and performances.
Bold prediction for 2022-23
Kirkland: LaLiga to be a genuine three-horse race next season as Carlo Ancelotti finds his second season back at Real Madrid more challenging than his first, Xavi’s Barcelona rebuild gathers pace and Simeone’s Atletico find the balance that’s proved so elusive this year.
Hunter: That Pedri plays enough games, and at such a high level, that he places within the Ballon d’Or top five for 2022-23.
Lowe: I was going to note Villarreal if they failed to qualify for Europe, but how about Spain to win the World Cup? Is that bold enough?
Faez: Real Madrid win the league again, Barca will improve a little (but not too much) and Atletico will be at their best once again after they solve their defensive issues.
Marsden: It feels like there will be no middle ground for Xavi in his first full season at Barcelona boss after being allowed a transition year this time round — even if president Joan Laporta says there are no such years at Barca. So, what will it be: sink or swim? Let’s say swim. If Pedri and Ansu stay fit and they plan well in the summer, Xavi can lead Barca to a first league title since 2019.
Llorens: Madrid have everything in place to retain the title, but they need to be careful with their ageing midfield. They have a good man manager on the bench in Ancelotti and a committed team. They are massive favourites to win the league again.