Last weekend’s 3-0 defeat by Villarreal had left Mauricio Pellegrino's Leganes bottom of La Liga after four games in which the Cucumber Growers had failed to register a single point following four defeats.
Even though it's early in the season, alarm bells were ringing on the outskirts of Madrid ahead of the showdown with Valencia this weekend.
The malaise Pellegrino’s side found themselves was buttressed by the fact they have been playing badly at both ends of the pitch; they’d conceded seven goals before this weekend, while scoring just once, the least in the division.
In a sense, the pair of Chidozie Awaziem and Kenneth Omeruo have played a part in the side’s poor start to a year that’s threatening to develop into another relegation battle. It wasn’t that long ago that talk focused on the pair playing side-by-side in the Spanish top flight after Awaziem’s loan from Porto was finalised.
However, with Pellegrino yet to settle on one consistent defensive unit, there's been no sign of stability.
He opted for a back four against the Yellow Submarine, with Awaziem making his debut at the heart of the defence alongside Dimitrios Siovas, rather than the usual three-man defence, but the latter approach returned for Valencia--a reponse, perhaps, to shipping three last weekend.
A surprising theme of Pellegrino’s lineups this season had been the inconsistent inclusion of Omeruo in the side, given he was arguably their best defender last season.
After work permit issues prevented him from playing in the opening months of the campaign, the then Chelsea loanee’s presence in the side from October onwards greatly benefited them in their fight to remain in the division – which they eventually accomplished with a 13th-place finish.
Why then hasn’t the consistent centre-back been on the pitch for much longer knowing full well the influence he wields in their backline?
It was an error that Pellegrino amended against Valencia, as Omeruo returned to the heart of the defence, with Awaziem dropping to the bench, and played his part as a valuable point was secured.
For the most optimistic Leganes supporter, this year’s miserable start might not have elicited panic just yet, because they went through a comparable start in the previous campaign. The Cucumber Growers lost four of their opening five matches, before their year came to life in gameweek six after a 2-1 win over Barcelona in late September.
What’s different about this season’s poor start is that three of Lega’s four losses have come on home turf, with Municipal de Butarque not a happy hunting ground for Pellegrino’s troops. 29 of their 45 points last term came in front of their fans, accounting for 64 percent of their total, which shows the role home comforts played in their survival.
Having failed to get the rub of the green in three games in their backyard, it implies Pellegrino’s side have to pick up results on their travels, which will be difficult, if last season is anything to go by, even if Sunday's 1-1 draw with Valencia offers hope that they can frustrate the big boys away.
Luckily for the bottom side, the sides around them aren’t pulling up any trees either, so they're only three points off safety after five matches.
Be that as it may, over time this season, Pellegrino has got to improve their defensive frailties which threaten to derail their campaign.
In the preceding term, they conceded 43 goals which was the best of the teams in the lower half of the standings. For a bit more context, only Atletico Madrid (29), Valencia and Getafe (both 35) and Barcelona (36) let in fewer than a Leganes side that allowed fewer than even Real Madrid (46).
As it stands, they are on pace to concede 66 goals, and while there’s expected to be a reduction in the final figure, the Cucumber Growers need to get their act together quickly if they’re to avoid being sucked into a relegation battle.
Awaziem and Omeruo were expected to strengthen an already impressive defensive unit this term, but the reality has panned out differently as Pellegrino’s team stay stuck at the bottom, with a leaky backline remaining a bugbear.
Lega shouldn’t panic though; they now have their first point on the board, and there's still plenty of time to turn things around.