bladE: "There's an obvious difference in level with our opponents, but there's also a certain parity"
Movistar Riders will debut their two new signings on LAN, JUST and adamS, but bladE is relying on the veterans to find their best offline form.
A cloud of doubt surrounds Movistar Riders as they head into their fourth ESL Pro League. Looking back, it has gone both ways for the jinetes at this event. They once reached the quarter-finals not long before reaching their maximum apogee with Alvaro "SunPayus" Garcia, but also went out last with no wins when their shining star left the team the following season.
Once again, Galder "bladE" Barcena's side is a hard one to gauge. Known to struggle online, Riders have proven that their LAN performances can be much stronger when firing on all cylinders. The proof is no further back than March when, at a time when the team was struggling, they still managed to take home silverware at ESL Challengers Melbourne against all odds. For starters, they weren't even supposed to participate at the event Down Under.
Ranked 71st in the world, Riders are far from the Cinderella they once were. Their dive in the charts comes after sporting a losing record for months, which culminated in two off-season changes. The first change was to remove Pere "sausol" Solsona Saumell, who was replaced by Portuguese veteran Tiago "JUST" Moura. The second was to bench long-time support player David "dav1g" Granado Bermudo, the last member of the Iberian Family trio that helped put Riders on the map internationally, in favor of the up-and-coming Adam "adamS" Marian, who was also a former Iberian Family player himself.
The roster moves were a direct reaction to the team's bad results, which generally came online, and were also in part fueled by the dynamics of the near-barren talent pool in Spain. In fact, neither of the two players is Spanish. In adamS's case, he grew up in the country, where he developed his career before moving to Nexus, whereas JUST joined Riders from a scene that has a much-shared history with its Iberian neighbor.
"Personally, JUST is a player I liked very much, as did alex and mopoz," coach bladE tells HLTV in an online interview during the EPL media day. So, they jumped on the opportunity to sign him after he was benched in his country's top side, SAW, a team he had plied his trade for since its founding. JUST's eagerness to play for Riders and the good relationship between the two Iberian organizations, which made finding common ground to settle the transfer, sealed the move.
The decision to bring on adamS was one that was partly devised in Riders' back office. "His contract was expiring in August and he would come on a free transfer, this made it easy," bladE says. "It wasn't just a coaching decision, it also came from the organization." The Romanian national had posted a 1.09 rating with Nexus in the first half of the year and had long been a fan favorite. The timing, however, wasn't the best. Riders planned and executed a pre-season bootcamp before the transfer was finalized.
"We would have liked it to be different," bladE admits. "Not regarding the bootcamp at the end of the summer, which we would have done anyway, but maybe moving the dates." In the end, the signing was bound to happen and the skipper is happy that it didn't stall.
"What time has taught me about roster changes is that you should make them as soon as possible because if you keep putting it off it will just get worse," he adds. "Changes are a risk, adaptation is a risk, but we believed that it was necessary because the options were there and we just had to do it."
Riders only have 11 maps on record so far this season and growing pains are apparent. "We knew that if adamS came into the team, with the players we already have, he was going to have to play some new roles and positions," bladE comments when asked about adaptation.
"The roles he would have to play are something I wanted to talk to him about and I asked him if he thought he would be capable of doing it. He's replacing dav1g, who was a player who opened up the map and gave us a lot of possibilities in rounds. He was very active and a hard worker, so I wanted to make sure that the person who occupied that position would not only have a better skillset but could also adapt and evolve that position.
"It took dav1g some time to learn that role and we know that it will take adamS some time as well, but the meetings I had with him were all very positive. I tried to be as clear as possible about what I would ask of him and he just had a huge grin the whole time we discussed his roles, positions, and so on.
"He's still a player who needs time to develop from the little I've seen so far, but he has a lot more potential than what he was doing up until now and I think that he's in an environment in which he can grow. We've shown that in the past with other players and this opportunity is really good for him now."
Movistar Riders is at a known crossroads. Off-seasons have often been turbulent, be it because the results didn't follow and changes were needed or, in the case of SunPayus, because a player was bought by a better team. bladE considers this iteration of the squad still in beta.
"The team hasn't been tested, I can't tell you more than that," the 36-year-old says. "The new guys are still learning to work with the group, to live within the group. In adamS's case, he's traveling to a Big Event for the first time, so let's hope that will give him even more strength and excitement."
Despite the bleak prospects on paper, the veteran coach does trust his team's chances on LAN. The faith is understandable, Riders' 2023 map record online, which is currently 21-44, goes up to 18-13 at offline events. Still, there are no expectations for the Spaniards at Pro League. "It's something we've said at a lot for tournaments, although it's not something we like to say, that we're coming with no expectations," bladE says. "But we understand the point we're at, who we are, what our realistic objectives are, what our more ambitious objectives are, and what the road we need to follow is."
In Malta, the duty of carrying the load will lie on the shoulders of the more experienced players. "Once you try caviar, you want caviar every day," bladE says. "This is what the players want, where they want to play, especially alex and mopoz. JUST, too, he almost made a Major, he played at the last few RMRs, and at the last Pro League. He hasn't reached the same heights as us, but he also has experience playing at this level.
"This is where we want to be all of the time. It's where I find the best version of my players, where I can see their ambition. I can see alex become an incredible leader, mopoz is happier and more of a morale boost for his teammates when he plays here. You can see that spark, which is what helps us manage certain situations when we're on LAN and I think that's the key. It's important that those of us with more experience become the key elements."
ESL Pro League, which is often one of the early events in the season, has been somewhat of a bellwether for Movistar Riders in the past. They won their group with a 5-0 record when they were on the rise in 2022 and went out last, 0-5, while dealing with the fallout of losing their star AWPer, SunPayus, to ENCE.
"This is our fourth Pro League and I've had the same feeling each time, this is no different," bladE says. "There's an obvious difference in level with our opponents, but there's also a certain parity. I'm not sure why, but I really see it that way. I believe we have a chance.
"The format also helps," he continues. "It doesn't matter so much what part of the bracket you're in, you have three lives. Nobody can afford to mess up, but at the same time, you still have some chances to make it through. It's one intense week until we pack our bags up and go back home, so we have to just play hard. That was our mindset both when we went 5-0 in groups and when we went out 0-5."
Up first for the Spanish side will be FURIA, a team going through their own transformation ever since bringing on Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Marcelo "chelo" Cespedes in the off-season. It's also a team that Riders have lost to at the last two Pro Leagues and one they have never beaten.
"I see them playing in different ways now," bladE says of his recent scouting. "Almost as if there are differing visions in the team." This uncertainty is pushing the Spanish side to look inward, but even up against a certain unknown, there are some things they will not be surprised by.
"We know what could be up against, be it arT playing for space or KSCERATO putting up big numbers," bladE concludes. "We're already counting on it, so it's time to put our cards on the table and go out with everything we've got."