It’s always about Lionel Messi. His team, Barcelona, have won eight of the previous 11 La Liga titles and that’s despite competing in the same league as the team, Real Madrid, that has won four of the past six European championships. Since 2008, this is where he’s ranked on the La Liga goal-scoring charts, fourth, first, second, first, first, second, second, third, first, first, first. Assists might be even better, second, second, first, second, fifth, seventh, first, first, fourth, first, first.
This year He has missed five games, and he’s still first in both. In fact, take a look at this,
Right now, La Liga’s about as tight as it can get. Barca are first on 58 points, with Madrid just two points back in second. Barca have a plus 32 goal differential, Madrid plus 30. Barca have a plus 2 expected goal differential, Madrid plus 24.9. They’re fourth and fifth, respectively, in the FiveThirtyEight rankings and their team ratings are less than a single index point apart. In fact, FiveThirtyEight projects both teams to take the same exact amount of points (24) and produce the same exact goal differential (plus 20) over the final 11 matches. While Messi’s top line performance has obscured his overall decline in effectiveness, he’s still better than anyone on either of these teams. The difference between Madrid and Barca and the most likely deciding factor between who finishes first and second is that one team has Lionel Messi and the other team does not.
So, given that neither teams plays each other again, let’s take a look at the two players other than Messi who could have an outsize impact on the title race. The season re-starts on Thursday.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Keeper, Barcelona
Outside of the black magic still being practiced by Lucien Favre in Dortmund, Barcelona have been more efficient, lucky or both around goal than any other team in Europe’s Big Five leagues. They’ve scored, 15.8 more goals than expected. (Dortmund, for reference, are 27 goals ahead of the pace. They might as well be playing a different sport.) So, given all of that added value and the relatively similar shot creation and suppression to Madrid, then why the hell aren’t Barcelona more than two points ahead of their rivals? Their keeper forgot how to save shots.
Compares the keepers from Atletico Madrid, Real, and Barcelona over the past three seasons. It’s the cumulative per-game average of goals prevented, take an xG calculation modified for where the ball was put on the goal frame, subtract the number of actual goals allowed, and there you go.
First, the obvious: Atletico keeper Jan Oblak is an alien. Second, 2019-20 Thibault Courtois has given Real some of the best shot-stopping they’ve had over the past three seasons. Third; Ter Stegen has been struggling all year long despite a great shot-saving track record. It’s not age; he’s only 28, and keepers tend to peak later than outfield players. Plus, Barcelona are allowing fewer shots and fewer shots on target this season than they have in either of the previous two, which theoretically should make it harder for him to allow so many goals above expected. The shots themselves are also of a below-average quality: 0.11 xG/shot, fewer than last season. In other words, he’s facing easier shots and fewer shots, but he’s still letting in more goals.
Barca are having Ter Stegen be less aggressive off his line than they have in the past his average defensive action is occurring two meters closer to his goal than it did last season but I don’t know how that would affect his ability to save the shots he does end up facing. So, who knows! Might just be a blip in performance, might not, which creates a saving rating based on every shot a keeper faces by also adjusting for the quality of the shooter, still has him in the 95th-percentile of open-play, non-header, shot-stoppers. And across his Barcelona career, he’s still averaging about a tenth of a goal saved per match. If Ter Stegen returns to somewhere close to that level the one which inspired a terrible, borderline misogynistic in its branding Los Angeles bar near my neighborhood to print out a picture of him on floppy computer paper, frame it, and slap it up above a urinal -- then that could be enough to push Barca out of reach from Real Madrid.
Eden Hazard: Winger, Real Madrid
Look, the social distancing sucks. We’re not meant to not physically interact with each other. Personally, I’ve found that rather than adapting to, uh, not seeing anyone or not leaving my apartment for extended periods of time, I’m getting less used to it. Each week, it sucks a little bit more. I know it’s necessary and that I’m privileged to be able to work from home safely, but it’s unnatural and it chips away at all of the things that keep us sane each day.
Back in April, Hazard was asked how he was coping with the lockdown. It’s complicated for me, he said. I’m trying not to eat a lot. I’m trying not to go into the pantry to eat a lot of buns, but it’s not easy. This is the same Hazard who showed up to his new club with a little extra weight last summer. Due to an ankle injury, he’s played in just two games since November when play was paused, but now he’s supposedly fully healed and ready to go. Courtois gave his teammate and fellow countryman a resounding endorsement, saying, I think he’s in shape.
It’s been a rough first season for Hazard, and the lack of production, playing time, fitness, and health show all the risks with spending €100 million on a player at the end of his prime. In 700 plus minutes, he has one goal and one assist, along with a, frankly, terrible non-penalty.
However, Madrid have played better with Hazard on the field this season. Their xG differential is 0.55 goals better when he’s in, compared to when he’s not the biggest gap for any Madrid player with at least 700 minutes. Among that same cohort among all the Big Five leagues, he’s moved the ball farther up the field with his feet than anyone but PSG’s Neymar and Atalanta’s Papu Gomez. On top of that, only five La Liga players, including his teammate Luka Modric, have completed more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. The two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shot taker can also receive cred. Hazard, then, has done a lot of the things that get lost when just goals, assists, or their underlying cousins get calculated. He’s also defended well from the front and more aggressively than he has in years past.
If Hazard is able to come back, stay healthy, and just replicate his performance from the previous 700 or so minutes, then that should improve Madrid’s baseline. If he’s able to retain his pre-shot influence and also get close to the level of assisting and scoring that made Madrid pay so much money? Then, well, it might emphasis on, state-of-Rhode-Island-size quotes around might not matter what Messi does.
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