Rewind back to mid-September, a time in Spanish football where the team shining brightest happened to be on an island off the east coast of Spain. The Balearic Islands were home to one of the most startling teams of the season so far, with Real Club Deportivo Mallorca situated around the first and second places in the Primera División. Five games into the season, Mallorca were unbeaten and chilling in the Champions League spots.
Over the next nine league matches, Mallorca would not win a single one, picking up a grand total of two points. Currently, Los Vermillons sit on 16 points, just one point above the relegation zone. The manager masterminding the teams form, ‘King’ Joaquín Caparrós, who was at the initial stages of the season thought to have one of the safest jobs in the country, soon found himself under strain; unless the team starts churning out 3 points, especially with a tough run of fixtures on the horizon, who knows who’ll be in the hot seat come mid-January.
So where do the problems lie? Why has a team so sparkling in early parts of the season frequently faded to a crumpled mess?
Well firstly there’s that age old excuse - injuries. Mallorca aren’t particularly famed for their in depth squad, but the medical state of players has certainly been a hindrance. Javi Márquez, José Nunes, Giovani dos Santos, Antonio López and João Victor have all been lured to the medical room over the last couple of months, some with more serious injuries than others. It’s no secret that the decline in Mallorca’s form started after the win at Valencia, where Márquez, who had started a strong partnership in central midfield with Tomás Pina, broke his ankle and was ruled out for weeks. His replacement in that slot, the much improved João Victor, soon damaged his cruciate ligament. With López and Nunes also having a spell on the sidelines – this ‘crisis’ left Caparrós with no option but to rely on the thin squad ranks, with youngsters Bigas and Ximo being drafted in (the latter admittedly playing a more first team role nonetheless) along with Fontàs on loan from Barcelona. A series of embarrassing results were just around the corner, thrashings courtesy of Real Madrid and Barcelona, a simple inability to win games and losing the lead twice against Sevilla.
Have injuries been the only issue? There’s no denying their impact on the strength of the starting XI, but performances were often poor. A team which had shown great solidity in early games had simply forgotten how to play the ‘Mallorca game’, with lacklustre and quite frankly unforgiveable performances against teams that should have been beaten. Defensively in particular, Mallorca were at times beyond atrocious. This could be a confidence issue, the loss of important players rubbing off on the squad and provoking the sticky situation currently visible for all to see, but some performances have not been of La Liga standard. Anderson Conceição was hugely culpable throughout the 5-0 loss against Real Madrid and proved he’s worthy of little more than a bit-part role. Bigas and Ximo, two promising young players, saw their inexperience screaming out in almost every game they played in this barren run. Even Pedro Geromel, a player drafted in as a first team centre back, has made costly mistakes, but it would be unfair to pinpoint him as an under-performer due to his excellent showings at times. The injuries may certainly be an influencing factor, there’s little denying that four relatively long-term injuries for first team players will affect performances, but it doesn’t excuse the collapse.
Perhaps then there is an obvious answer. Maybe Mallorca’s early form was a run of luck and in truth they were punching significantly above their weight; all the statistics seem to indicate this theory might be closer to the truth. By their fifth unbeaten game on the bounce at Valencia, Mallorca averaged 38% possession in games and conceded roughly 18 shots per game, the former being one of the lowest in the league and the latter being the highest. On paper, Mallorca were one of the worst teams in the league, but the results indicated otherwise. In their opening game of the season, Mallorca impressed with a 2-1 win over Espanyol but generally speaking their games involved being on the back foot. Caparrós allowed counter-attacking football to flourish, but his team were normally on the ropes with their defensive resolve often allowing them to steal a goal close to the end. Mallorca won an arguably ‘lucky’ point against a dominant Osasuna side, and despite being battered for 90 minutes achieved a remarkable 2-0 victory against Valencia (69% possession and 27 shots for Los Che). Talismanic Israeli striker Tomer Hemed was in supreme form at this stage, leading the attacking line, and rocketed his way up the goal scoring charts, securing vital points in the process. As the season progressed though, he seemed worryingly immobile in games and his prolific spree soon stuttered, although it would be stupidly unfair to say he’s lost his goal-scoring ability.
So why have Mallorca gone from such impressive highs to such disappointing lows? A combination of factors. Injuries, while they certainly can’t be blamed entirely for the drop in form, have caused huge problems for Caparrós in terms of the team’s ability both defensively and offensively. Woeful performances have been unbearable, with certain new signings, youngsters and normally consistent first team players losing all confidence and simply not putting in the same shifts as earlier in the season. Stats would suggest Mallorca aren’t as able as the results would suggest, with it being blindingly obvious that despite Caparrós claiming to have the ‘best team’ in La Liga, there’s certainly little to no ‘world class’ talent in the squad. These factors combined certainly won’t have aided Mallorca’s search for the upper parts of the table.
Ultimately, Caparrós is probably the best manager Mallorca could hope for and to let him go for a set of results which he isn’t entirely culpable for would be madness. Come January, if results haven’t perked up, only then can the Balearic team look towards the dugout for a scapegoat, but last week’s excellent win at Betis (2-1) suggests things could be improving. Amongst the difficult period have been signs of promise. Gio Dos Santos has impressed since signing his four year contract, Nsué has been a bright light in the side, Hemed has been an outstanding finisher up front, Geromel has looked every bit the player Chico Flores did last season and Márquez and Pina have been an utter dream in central midfield, especially the latter who has since been linked to Atlético and Valencia.
With first team players gradually coming back, Mallorca can hopefully re-capture the form they possessed earlier in the season and gain the confidence that's vanished into thin air. But if we’re to follow the hypothesis that luck was driving the strong spell of results, it could be a long old season.
Matt is an RCD Mallorca (and Everton) supporter and you can follow him on Twitter @Fo0tballista