Saturday 20th August 2016. As they kicked off the new Segunda División campaign with a disappointing 1-0 defeat against Reus Deportiu, having experienced just one promotion or relegation in the previous two decades, nobody connected with Real Mallorca could have anticipated the rollercoaster ride they were about to embark on.
Six years on, Mallorca haven’t started a new season in the same division as the one where they finished the previous since. That defeat to Reus was the sign of things to come as the 2016/17 campaign ended in relegation to the third tier, a desperate blow for a club that had only been bought by Americans Robert Sarver and Steve Nash at the start of 2016.
Mallorca would though avoid the miserable plight that some big clubs suffer when they drop out of the Segunda. They set about building a team capable of not just bouncing straight back but going all the way to the top flight and that dream was achieved in rapid fashion with a relatively settled side that delivered successive promotions.
Their top flight return in 2019/20 was always going to be a struggle having come so far in such a short space of time. Relegation was the somewhat predictable result, a blow compounded by the departure of coach Vicente Moreno who had steered them all the way from the Segunda B to the Primera.
However Mallorca bounced back at the first attempt under Luis García and embarked on some ambitious summer recruitment which once again looked beyond the immediate and sizable task of beating the drop in what was shaping up to be one of the most competitive seasons in LaLiga in many years.
Bold recruitment – Was Mallorca’s long-term vision the right approach?
Their approach to the summer transfer market was some of the boldest and most interesting we’ve seen from a newly promoted club in LaLiga. There was much more than the usual plethora of loan signings and players with plenty of “top flight experience” as Sporting Director Pablo Ortells attempted to reinvest the €8m fee received for striker Ante Budimir, one of the few bright lights of their 2019/20 relegation season.
Transfer fees were spent on only three players, none of which were over the age of 24 at the time as Senegalese winger Amath Ndiaye converted his loan into a permanent transfer while keeper Dominik Greif joined from Slovan Bratislava and 20 year old US international striker Matthew Hoppe arrived from Schalke 04. The trio all signed on four or five year contracts.
23 year old full-back Pablo Maffeo also arrived on a season-long loan with an obligation to buy should Mallorca beat the drop. There were also three more 20 year old arrivals in the shape of Take Kubo, who returned for a second season on loan from Real Madrid, striker Fer Niño on loan from Villarreal and perhaps most intriguingly Kang-in Lee, once regarded as a massive prospect at Valencia, who joined Mallorca on a free transfer and also signed a four year contract.
Despite the long-term thinking, the early signs were positive. Mallorca took seven points from their opening three league games with Niño’s winner on matchday two at Alavés giving them a significant road victory given it had taken them until December just to pick up an away point in their previous top flight campaign. The Balearic Islanders continued to be competitive throughout the autumn and would have put real distance between themselves and the relegation scrap were it not for a number of late goals conceded, most notably at Valencia where they led 2-0 with 90 minutes on the clock, but only came away with a draw.
However as the harsh realities of life at this level have started to kick in, Mallorca have hit the kind of bad patch that most bottom half sides go through at some point in the season. Four straight league defeats with ten conceded and only one goal scored have set the alarm bells ringing to some extent at the Visit Mallorca Estadi. They’ve slipped down from mid-table into 17th, just two points above the drop zone and into the thick of the relegation scrap.
Questions can certainly be asked about some of their summer recruitment and whether they should have focused a bit more on the immediate demands of the season ahead. That’s certainly true of their decision to spend a combined €9m on Hoppe, Greif and Ndiaye.
Between them, they’ve made a total of just nine league starts. Hoppe, Mallorca’s most expensive summer signing, has been a peripheral figure clocking up just 106 minutes on the pitch in LaLiga. Greif was handed a first start on matchday 7, but struggled badly in an error-strewn display in a late defeat against Osasuna and hasn’t featured since in LaLiga. Indeed the January loan addition of Sergio Rico, arguably relegates him to fourth choice in the current goalkeeping pecking order with 21 year old Leo Román and veteran Manolo Reina also seemingly ahead of him.
The decision to largely shun new signings who have arrived on long-term contracts makes you question whether Mallorca boss Luis García is truly on the same page as those above him. Of the summer arrivals, there’s arguably only Pablo Maffeo who has unquestionably been a success. The others have shown their quality in flashes and at best in individual games rather than across the course of the campaign on a consistent basis.
Luis García still struggling to settle on his best XI
Seven of the eight Mallorca players with the most minutes in LaLiga this season were at the club last term. While the goalkeeper position has been a problem area, Luis García has largely stuck with the same solid defensive foundations which were so key in their promotion-winning campaign with Maffeo also slotting in nicely at right-back and starting 19 of the 21 games.
However it’s in the final third of the pitch where the Mallorca boss has struggled to find any sort of consistency, either in terms of selection or output. There’s perhaps a case to say García needs to make his mind up on exactly what the best combination is and stick with it, but the problem is few players have done enough to suggest they warrant a regular starting role in the attacking midfield and forward areas.
33 year old Dani Rodriguez is the only player who looks a guaranteed pick in that area of the pitch but the fact he is Mallorca’s top league scorer with just 3 goals and joint top of the assists charts with 2, is testament to their problems. Even he hasn’t exactly had a settled position in the team having been used on both flanks, as well as the central attacking midfield and even striker role on occasions this season.
Part of the problem is that Take Kubo simply hasn’t hit the heights of the 2019/20 season when he was very impressive, particularly during the latter stages of the campaign for what was on paper a weaker Mallorca side. A couple of ill-advised loan moves last term and a recent knee injury appear to have knocked his confidence and slowed his development. The Japanese international has made just 8 starts in LaLiga this term and has largely been outshone by fellow 20-year-old Lee Kang-In, although the Korean attacking midfielder hasn’t really kicked on either following an impressive performance and fine goal in the defeat at Real Madrid back in September.
Mallorca’s usual 4-2-3-1 system means there is only really one place up top for Fer Niño, Ángel Rodríguez and in theory Matthew Hoppe to compete for. Again Luis García hasn’t really been presented with evidence as to why one should start over the others and has struggled to make his mind up as to what his best option is.
Big decisions & a huge fortnight ahead
It’s a massive cliché that could probably be applied to half a dozen teams in LaLiga right now, but the ability to do smart business and make the right decisions in the final days of January may prove key in determining whether or not Mallorca ultimately beat the drop.
Their current defensive woes ought to ease with the arrival of Sergio Rico likely to prove an upgrade between the sticks while the return of Iddrisu Baba from AFCON duty will help give the defence a bit more protection than has been evident in recent games. They will also have what will feel like a new signing in the return to fitness after five months out injured of centre-back Antonio Raíllo, a player who made his Mallorca debut in that game against the now defunct Reus six years ago and has lived through all the highs and lows since.
We should see a much more solid Mallorca before too long but there are still some major recruitment decisions which need to be made in the attacking areas with just a week to go until the transfer window shuts.
Behind the scenes, they will surely be looking for at least one player who could be a difference-maker over the remaining 17 league games. Given their shortage of goals (only Alavés have scored fewer in LaLiga 2021/22) and considerably more respectable xG tally, they clearly need a player with an eye for a goal and with rumours even swirling about a potential move for Marseille striker Arkadiusz Milik, it seems the Mallorca board may be willing to sanction a deal for a proven goalscorer, although the Milik move may be very hard to pull off for a number of reasons.
You sense though that it is perhaps just the one smart addition up front rather than another raft of new signings that Mallorca need and they are highly unlikely to be dominating the LaLiga news agenda over the coming week as the window draws to a close. Any more may new arrivals risks unsettling things even further with so many of their promising summer arrivals still struggling to find consistency and with Luis Garcia already looking like a man with more options than he perhaps needs in some positions.
As is inevitably the case when any team goes on a lengthy losing streak, Garcia’s position itself is also likely to come into question and certainly will do were Mallorca to record a fifth straight league defeat in their next match, a vital six-pointer at home to Cádiz, the side directly below them in the table. They’ve a Copa del Rey Quarter-Final in Vallecas to come first and a bright cup run has perhaps helped to deflect a bit of criticism away from the coach’s door until this point.
There’s nothing about the way Mallorca has been run in recent years that suggests they are going to press the panic button and abandon their philosophy of building for the future. However that doesn’t mean there isn’t a real desire to finally end the yo-yo years by beating the drop this season, and if they can get these looming big decisions right, they still stand an excellent chance of doing just that.