I wonder if the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus might have broken European football.
We’ve got Bayern Munich over in Germany and they seem, as ever, pretty good. Though their midtable expected goals conceded numbers suggest that all might not quite be right, even for them. Otherwise, we’re basically bereft of club sides we know are definitely good. It’s a whole big mess out there.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Spain. This has been coming for a while, as Barcelona and Real Madrid slowly decline while the rest of the league. But it’s really been supercharged this season, with Real in fourth place and Barca seventh. Yeah, it’s weird. Is anyone actually good? Is anyone actually bad? Let’s take a look.
Atletico Madrid (2nd, 23 points)
As the writer, poet, podcaster and, most importantly, friend of the newsletter Musa Okwonga likes to say, Atletico are the ultimate catfish team. “The second you observe that Atletico are playing joyful football,” Okwonga says, “they start playing boring football; and the second you say Atletico are boring, they become joyful”. The fact is it doesn’t matter how long Diego Simeone has been there and who the players are. They’re gonna do what they do. Just don’t talk yourself into anything else.
The stats story for most of last season was that Atletico were putting up very strong xG numbers but not getting the results. The story this year is that they’re again putting up very strong numbers and really getting the results. 19 goals scored and just two(!) conceded over nine games really makes them the Rangers de España. They’re running hot at both ends, which isn’t likely to last. Around seven 14 goals scored and seven conceded over nine games is where the xG has them, which feels pretty business as usual for Simeone’s side.
The headline story is, of course, Joao Felix. He just turned 21, so it would be more than acceptable if he had another hot and cold season at his age, but you can see the beginnings of this becoming “his” team. His xG hasn’t changed too much year on year, but he’s doing more ball progression, more chance creation, more dribbling, and more of pretty much everything that matters.
Are Atletico the favourites? I think they might be. I don’t think they’re really a different team to previous years, but with the decline of others, just being Atletico this year might well be enough to win it.
Real Sociedad (2nd, 25 points)
“I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about Real Sociedad?”
“What Real Sociedad?”
“That Real Sociedad”.
“I said don’t worry about it. What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is: they’re the best team in La Liga by xG”.
Sociedad have created the most xG in Spain and conceded the fourth least (which makes them, crucially, a better defence than the Big Two). And it’s looking pretty good if you scratch the surface beyond shots. Sociedad lead La Liga in passes into the penalty area. They have the third most passes completed within 20 yards of goal (aka deep completions) and have conceded the fewest. Sociedad are doing it by pressing high, ranking behind only Eibar (always big in the pressing numbers) in terms of the percentage of pressures that take place in the final third. In possession, they’re one of the more patient sides in the division, with only 20% of their passes considered “long” (the sixth lowest in the division). Sociedad have been pretty good for a little while now but, not unlike Zlatan Ibrahimovic at AC Milan, the arrival of David Silva seems to have had a galvanising effect on and off the pitch. I suspect the league title is probably beyond them this year, but something interesting is definitely happening in San Sebastian.
Villarreal (3rd, 20 points)
Another really solid La Liga outfit having a strong start to the season. Stylistically, they’re not an especially distinctive side in the numbers. Their 23% of pressures in the final third is pretty normal for Spain, as is their 20% of passes hit long. Unai Emery is, as I’m sure you’re aware, tactically fairly nondescript. They’ve got a pretty exciting front two of Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer banging in the goals, and Samuel Chukwueze looks like he could become a real talent, but they’re kind of boring. I’m bored already writing about Villarreal. Let’s move on.
Real Madrid (4th, 20 points)
As soon as I had nice things about Zinedine Zidane, he goes and does whatever this season has been. Zidane has done a really good job of bringing in a level of discipline to the club, but the attacking play is still far too focused on individuals.
What are Real Madrid? They’re a pretty normal pressing side, putting up an eighth best 24% of their pressures in the final third. They play a relatively short passing game, but still punt it long (19%) more than Atleti (17%) or Barca (12%). Zidane seems to want solidity, but it’s clearly not working with some fairly obvious defensive errors. Their 1.3 xG conceded per game is midtable for La Liga. To state the obvious, Real Madrid should not be midtable for any quantitative metric. The attack is third best which, come on, it’s just not enough. Other than some innate “being Real Madrid” quality we can’t define, there isn’t much reason to expect them to suddenly kick into gear any time soon.
Cadiz (5th, 18 points)
Fifth place with a negative goal difference, that’s the Cadiz story. This is the one where I can pretty confidently say it’s unlikely to last. They’re pretty distinctive, though, as the most long ball side in La Liga while being among the lowest pressers. Bringing the Premier League to Spain. This is all great for a newly promoted side, just don’t expect to hear the Champions League theme tune at the Estadio Ramón de Carranza any time soon.
Sevilla (6th, 16 points)
Decent-ish metrics with decent-ish results. Sevilla are Sevilla. Next.
Granada (7th, 15 points)
I’m sorry, I’m not doing a paragraph on Granada. You and I both know I’m just keeping going until we get to a certain team.
Real Betis (8th, 15 points)
Barcelona (9th, 14 points)
Barca aren’t that bad. Their xG difference per game of +0.75 is third best, and not far off last year’s +0.80. Though if I told you in the summer they’d be relieved to only be a little worse than last season, that would not have sounded good. On a numbers level it’s pretty similar to Real Madrid, with an attack close to the best in the league and a midtable defence. The table might look stark, but I’m not convinced there’s much between the sides right now.
The case for optimism at Barcelona is, weirdly, that Messi hasn’t got going yet. There are some who will tell you that this is his decline, but I still feel as though Koeman just hasn’t used him well tactically at all. He’s not drifting into the same areas as freely as in the past. Fix that, get something close to full tilt Messi, and this is clearly a better side than Madrid.
So the league title rests on what Messi does. Same as it ever was.
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