The go-to man on all things Spanish football has long been Guillem Balague and he took time out from his busy schedule to have a chat with World Soccer Talk.
The journalist, author and pundit provided us with some typically fascinating insight, discussing what it’s like to be “in the know” during the transfer window, all the latest goings on from La Liga and the Premier League, and his other major passion besides the beautiful game.
Matt Jones (MJ): Thank you all for taking a look at this interview here at World Soccer Talk. I’m delighted to say i’ve been joined by journalist, author and pundit Guillem Balague. Guillem are you well?
Guillem Balague (GB): I’m all good!
MJ: One of the biggest stories of the transfer window was Angel di Maria’s transfer to Manchester United and it’s a story you broke in the latter stages of the window? Does it give you a great sense of pride as a journalist to be in the loop on such massive transfer stories?
GB: I understand where you’re coming from because everybody wants to know. And if you’re the first one that gets to know, you can see why people must think “wow!”. But for me, it’s just part of my job, and not even the most important part of my job!
There’s no real aim to get breaking news. But when you get it you have to use it and use it well!
For me the focus on the transfer window is so exaggerated and it does portray a little bit of what we are in terms of society. We wake up in the morning and want to know what the latest is on football. Not Gaza, Ukraine, Ebola. But football!
Sometimes, the emphasis people put on judging your career on this kind of news is crazy. If you don’t get a story right or if things change you’re branded as a terrible journalist! It’s all fascinating, but for me it’s not that important.
MJ: Looking at the player, do you think he’s got what it takes to live up to this transfer fee and spearhead a Manchester United renaissance?
GB: No doubt. No doubt about it. He’s a top guy and a top player.
Just look at what he’s done. By changing his way of playing—he had to eat humble pie a little bit—to become a central midfielder, he helped Real Madrid win the Champions League and helped Argentina get to the World Cup final.
Having to handle the pressure of being at Manchester United is just what he does. He’s got the mentality to cope with that but it’s quite clear he’s going to need a lot of help from many other players to make Manchester United challenge again.
It’ll take time, but in a couple of years, but you’ll see the club back at the top. Maybe not winning the league, but challenging to get in the top four, something I’m not sure they can do this year. We will see!
MJ: Another player has followed Di Maria out of Real Madrid, Xabi Alonso. Do you think it’s the right time for him to make such seismic changes in his career?
GB: The fact that he’s decided to do so would certainly suggest it’s the right time for him.
It’s been an interesting situation because earlier in the window clubs came in for him, including Manchester United. But the answer from his representatives was that he’s not for sale, and the club said the same.
Carlo Ancelotti said that the squad was closed in a press conference, then two days later he rang the club and said he wanted to go to Bayern Munich. So it went from “absolutely not for sale” to “please let me go”! The club were thankful for the work he’d done, so they didn’t stand in his way.
Xabi felt that a new era had begun following the club’s tenth European Cup win. And it’s an excellent chance for him to say he’s worked under Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. What a privilege.
MJ: Do you think Real Madrid or the Spanish team will have more trouble replacing his enormous influence?
GB: There’s no doubt that he has enormous quality, but the moment had to arrive for him to go.
At Real Madrid, they have (Toni) Kroos and in the 4-3-3 system Ancelotti uses, he has to be the holding midfielder. It’s not his natural position, but he hasn’t got the dynamism to play as one of the more advanced players in the midfield. They also have (Asier) Illaramendi.
As for Spain, (Sergio) Busquets is still there, you’ve got Bruno from Villarreal; there are 100 hundred midfielders, really! Maybe not with the quality of Xabi Alonso, but with enough quality to evolve the side with new faces.
I have no doubt he’ll be missed, but it’s time to move on.
MJ: Real Madrid drew Liverpool in the Champions League group stages. For the Merseysiders do you think this tie is the perfect “welcome back” to Europe’s top tier competition?
GB: It’s certainly something everybody is looking forward to! It’s going to be an experience, it’s going to be three more nights—at least—of European football at Anfield and it’s a taste of what Liverpool can be part of if they continue doing things well. It’ll be motivation to everybody.
I wouldn’t be too worried if Liverpool didn’t qualify, although I think they will. But in any case, what we’ve got is Liverpool being at the level where they should be and anything less than that would be a real disappointment next season.
The club have to stay in the Champions League and everybody must work really, really hard to ensure that happens.
MJ: Last time we spoke about Liverpool you were a little concerned about the balance of the side. Do you think enough has been done by Brendan Rodgers to address that concern?
GB: I’m not sure, I’m waiting to see what the plan is. But I still see a midfield that will need to evolve and will need to get better; they need to show another level.
I have no doubts that up front Liverpool are more than sorted and I’m looking forward to seeing Lazar Markovic play in particularly. But in midfield, I still feel they need a holding midfielder and someone who can control the game a little bit more.
It’s early days, Rodgers is also there to learn and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the likes of Real Madrid. But there’s no perfect side—well, maybe aside from Manchester City and Chelsea—everyone has their weaknesses.
Liverpool can outscore any side in the world, but I do have concerns about the defensive structure of the team.
MJ: Shifting our focus to La Liga, Lionel Messi has looked superb in the opening stages for Barcelona. Are you expecting a really big season from him under Luis Enrique?
GB: What we’ve seen so far is a Barcelona team that has “good Messi”. A Messi that seems comfortable with the style chosen by the team. It’s not just a case of waiting for Messi to do his best, a very good team can help bring out a very good Messi.
And the team has rediscovered some of the essences that made them so special: they press high, everything goes through Messi and there’s a lot of clever positional movement around him. I think they can do damage this season.
But with Luis Suarez and Neymar coming back it’s going to be interesting to see how it all works out. I have no doubt that those three can understand each other, my doubts come when it comes to moving the ball quickly enough and whether there’s a real challenge from the players who won’t play regularly to keep the level high.
MJ: Do you think it’ll be a three-horse race again in La Liga? Or after losing a few key players this summer, will Atletico Madrid drop off the pace?
GB: Atletico need to improve offensively, because they had circa 16 1-0 wins last season. But the quality is definitely there: (Antoine) Griezmann certainly and Mario Mandzukic. We’ll have to see what happens with Raul Jimenez too, a young player they’ve brought in.
But the structure should remain the same. They won’t concede many goals and they will challenge. They just need to improve the way they attack having lost Diego Costa’s qualities.
They seem to have brought in two players to replace one! Mandzukic can hold the ball up but he might not be as quick as Costa, while Griezmann is not that strong but has a lot of pace. Counter-attacking football will continue to be played and I do feel they have enough to challenge anybody.
Real Madrid will have to see what happens with how the likes of James Rodriguez and Kross adapt, and of course with Barcelona and the three up front, there are question marks and doubts about all the teams.
MJ: I’d also love to have a chat with you about music and the upcoming event you’ve got planned at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Could you tell our readers a little bit more about that?
GB: Well it’s a bit of an experiment really, it’s to see if we can mix music and football and my answer would be “yes”!
I’ve been touring for around three-and-a-half years with the “Pep” book and the Messi books, and the events have evolved from 100 guys at a book store into something else; 700 people at clubs in Liverpool and Glasgow!
So for the last one I thought i’d do something special and it had to be in Liverpool, a city of music and football. And it had to be at the Cavern Club. I’ve actually been writing songs with two bands—”King & Scholes” and “Best Boy Grip”—and we’ll be releasing two EPs on the night.
So that’s the night! Gaizka (Mendieta) will DJ, we’ll talk about football and it’ll also be a great chance to hear some good music played live.
MJ: Have your passions for music been as longstanding as they have been for football, or is this something that you’ve only looked to go into very recently?
GB: Music is something that’s always been part of our lives. Spain is a very noisy country!
But i’ve found that in England music is taken to a different level. Everybody has been part of a band at some point, you all play an instrument and that mixture makes you even more passionate and wanting to know more.
Writing is my other passion, and writing a postcard or a song is much the same as writing a book. You put words together to express yourself and in a way that entertains people. I’m a bit nervous about it, but it should be interesting.
MJ: And for an adopted Liverpudlian like yourself, how special is it to be hosting the event at a place as iconic as The Cavern, the place where The Beatles played a lot of their early gigs?
GB: Well, think of the word “excitement” and take it much, much further!
In a way it’s kind of a full circle for me. I came to Liverpool with nothing, I had to work in the pub, everyone realised I was struggling. And now, I can come back and enjoy the city and enjoy what the city can offer.
Any excuse I can find to come back to Liverpool I use, but if it’s to do something at The Cavern? Well, it’ll be one of the highlights of my life.
MJ: For those who might be interested in coming down, when is the evening? And where can they find some more information about it?