Madrid, Messi and Moyes: An Early Season Report On La Liga
We are six games into the season in Spain. Villarreal lead, Messi's out for two months, there's a logjam at the top, Sevilla just climbed off the bottom, and we finally have a day off without a league game. I think it's time to take a quick look at some of the early stats and stories.
The inevitable: Death, Taxes(?), and the Two Title Contenders
It’s still the big two at the top. With 90% certainty we can say that one of Barcelona or Madrid will win the title, but the distribution within that 90% has shifted since the season has begun. The big story is obviously the Messi injury, which has played a big part in Madrid seeing their title odds increase 5% from match week 1. This has come despite Barcelona being a point ahead through a much tougher first six games. The bookies dropped Barcelona's odds in this weeks games around 10% after the injury. If we assume the bookies have it estimated right (and decades of evidence say that's usually a safe assumption), he costs them around .25-.3 points per match which means his injury could be a 2-point swing over just 6 matches. When Madrid and Barcelona have been separated by 3 total points over the past 82 league matches, that looms large.
On the field with Messi, Barca's attack has looked a little different this season. Here are this years completions of 40+ yards that bring Barca into the Red Zone in front of goal:
compared to last years against the same opponents (halved so the sample will be the same amount of minutes)
They have played nearly twice as many 40+ yarders into the Red Zone and yet strangely have seen their completion % on these bombs skyrocket from 24% to 48% this season. With this trend, their average completion distance in this area has risen from 15.9 yards (2.3 standard deviations lower than average) to basically league average distance this season. Rakitić and Mascherano are both 7-for-12 on these long passes, with Sergi Roberto and Luis Suárez on the receiving end of 7 and 6 respectively. What is the reason for this pretty large change in tactics and success rate? I don't know, it's quite baffling, but I think it could be helpful when they take on Leverkusen this week in one of those must-see matches.
For Madrid, Messi’s injury is nice but more importantly they are simply playing better than last season. Last year Barcelona was way ahead of the pack in terms of dominating dangerous territory, this year Madrid have pulled even in that category. Last year Madrid completed a pass in the Red Zone in front of goal about 30 times per game, this year they are up above 35 with those being a bit higher quality this year as well (closer to goal or non-cross passes). They have had a schedule that has allowed them to ease into the season, but it’s still promising and comes in a category that tends to stabilize very quickly. Teams that show they can get the ball deep early in the season generally do so the rest of the season. Other stuff is important as well, but can be more variable which is why I like to focus on the basics so early.
They are well ahead of the pack in SOTR and are hurling an incredible 23 shots per game at goal. There are at least signs that last years soft defense has been slightly toughened. It still shocks to look back and see no team in Spain allowed a higher completion % than Real Madrid in 14-15. No matter your tactics, that should never happen. This year they are in the middle of the pack, which I think is still a bit shameful for a team with that budget.
As Mike Goodman showed in his great piece last week, Ronaldo is now a possession-finisher and not really a chance-creator for others. He has nearly totally eliminated the dribbling and ball-carrying part of his game, yet remains right at the top of the world. His 8.2 shots per game are more than Darmstadt or Bastia take as an entire team and very close to Bologna and Newcastle.
This shot map is simply too awesome not to share:
14 shots against Málaga from Ronaldo alone, from incredible positions as well. I'd love to see a list of players who have ever topped that in 90 minutes in a league game but can't find any way to get those numbers easily. Let me know if you have found a higher total.
A different looking Atlético Madrid
Much was made over their summer renovation up top and things look a bit different on the stat sheet in the early going. The defensive stats are all up pretty significantly from their simply stifling 2014-15 season. Offensively, they are shooting a bit more and popping up in front of goal more often but can’t quite get the big quality chance they have been so good at. The previous two years they have gotten 24% of their shots from inside 10 yards (easily best in the league each season, set pieces?) while this year they have just gotten 11 shots inside 10 yards, 14% of their total which is slightly below league average. It’s been just 6 games and it’s a team that seems to be switching how they play so there was always going to be transition time but we can say the transition hasn’t been successful quite yet.
Moyes and the hot seat
On the excellent Spanish Football Podcast, both Sid Lowe and Phil Kitromilides thought Moyes might be the first manager sacked if Real Sociedad don’t turn it around. This surprised me a little bit because they have been one of the best defensive teams in the early going in terms of raw numbers. No team limits their opposition Red Zone completions more than Real Sociedad have. However, when you look at the schedule you can see why the Sociedad fans could be getting restless. If they had just held each opponent (Sporting Gijón, Real Betis, Espanyol, Deportivo, Athletic, and Granada) to their season average they would still be 3rd-best. Knowing this their defensive accomplishment becomes much less impressive. Their offense is similar to last season in its mediocrity. It's again a little below average in terms of getting the ball deep, though at least they have picked up their league-worst rate of getting sub-10 yard shots. Last year a horrific 9% of their shots came from in close, this year it's in the land of respectability. A soft schedule has given Moyes passable underlying numbers, but a strong European contender would probably have done more. Malaga, Levante, and Las Palmas are coming soon as the easy start continues. Whether Moyes will last these next five games is still up in the air.
They remain one of the most watchable teams in Europe and are playing like one of the best teams in Spain right now. A 4-1 dismantling of Barcelona gave them a chance to go top before a disappointingly poor performance against Eibar kept them from reaching 1st place. They press high (only Barcelona are near their numbers), pass well, pop up in the Red Zone often and have a great shot on target rate (only Barca and Real Madrid are ahead in these last three categories). The reason a top 4 finish is still significantly under 50% in the betting markets is the defense can be cut open and exposed (one of easier teams to get in on goal against and allow one of highest completion % back there). They play in a way that provides great enjoyment to most neutrals so personally I will be cheering for them. Their manager Eduardo Berizzo is a Bielsa disciple who was recently described as "Bielsa without the madness" by Tim Vickery. Hopefully his team can avoid the late-season falloff Bielsa teams tend to experience.
Sevilla have already taken 28 shots inside 10 yards, 5 more than the second place team in that category. They are fine despite a low point total…Levante are truly awful. They went an entire game against Las Palmas without completing a pass within 30 yards of the opposition goal. They get the ball into that Red Zone area only 37% as often as the average team and only Sporting Gijón allow opponents to spend more time in the Red Zone. Levante are very strong candidates for relegation (as probably are Sporting Gijón).
Villarreal have the most worrying signs of any big team early despite topping the table. They and their opponents are spending about equal amounts of time in front of goal and they’ve taken the fewest shots from inside 10 yards of any team in the league: 4. This despite a easy early schedule. A loss in the Europa League has added to the worries. Last year Villarreal and Valencia were the best teams in Europe at keeping dangerous possession from being turned into shots. That's something that will likely be very hard to repeat in as offenses generally control things a defense simply can't. To make a Champions League run, Villarreal can't fall victim to the "World Series rut" right now. In baseball teams that win the World Series often assume they need to just keep doing what they are doing and similar results will follow. Hungrier teams tend to outperform the sated champs, the message being: always be improving.
Postscript: Deep completion and shot on target numbers