In just a scant few days the La Liga teams will return from their truncated winter rest. Before we dive head first into the home straight of the season, let’s take a look back at what the first chunk of games has taught us, shall we? This isn’t technically the halfway-point as Spain’s domestic break comes after 17 games rather than 19. Don’t worry though, we’re not about to let that get in the way of a good ol’ rummage through the numbers!
From 2013 to 2016 Villarreal had a pretty successful run of seasons under then manager Marcelino, culminating in achieving Champions League qualification and reaching the Europa League semifinals in 2015/16. That summer – before they had even played their CL qualification match – vague tensions between Marcelino and the club’s higher-ups lead to him getting the sack out of nowhere. He took a sabbatical for the 2016/17 season and now is back in La Liga, taking charge of Valencia. At this stage they sit 3rd in the table with the 2nd best goal difference. After chewing through five managers in two seasons, Los Che appear to have found their man.
Marcelino’s Villarreal built their success on a rock-solid defensive 4-4-2 shape, somewhat like a more reserved version of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. In his final season they ranked 3rd in terms of expected goals against and a pretty uninspiring 17th in terms of attacking xG. At Valencia things appear the same on the surface – the 4-4-2 is in use again – but the attack/defence split has been shaken up somewhat unexpectedly.
Functionally the attack is, again, closer to an Atléti than a Barca. Meaning that getting the ball forward with pace is the order of the day. They’re just about middle of the pack in terms of possessions that are 10 or more passes in length. Conversely, they have the fourth highest percentage of their possessions leading to shots that are 15 seconds or shorter. This continues a trend from Mareclino’s last season at Villarreal where they lead the league in this measure. However, in Valencia, the efficacy is greatly improved with them getting far more shots overall from these situations.
While the attack is clearly humming, a word of caution: it’s perhaps running a tad too hot. They’re over-shooting their expected goals numbers right now and come season’s end may fall back behind Real Madrid to about 3rd or 4th in terms of goals scored (unless this bizarre Real Madrid finishing slump just continues in perpetuity). Simone Zaza – who has genuinely been quite good this season after a couple of odd detours in his career – is the one to point to here. Regardless, things are encouraging.
Defensively there a couple of slight causes for concern. The relatively high amount of shots they’re giving up isn’t necessarily a problem as long as the quality of said shots is as low as it has been (45% of their shots conceded are from outside the box, the 2nd highest percentage in the league). However, it is a bit easier to move the ball against them than Marcelino would probably ideally like. Opposition possessions are reaching Valencia’s defensive third at the 5th highest rate in the league. On top of that they’re not doing especially well at keeping opponents out of the most dangerous areas. The xG says don’t stress it but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Marcelino’s boys likely aren’t, as the early results have suggested, on a level with Barca and Real Madrid. However, the signs do point towards them being the league’s third best, even beyond an Atléti (more on them later). That is plenty impressive on its own.
…are the surprise package in La Liga this season. Prior to this campaign most probably knew them as the destination for a lot of Manchester City’s loan army (about a third of Girona’s squad are loanees, five of which are from City). That doesn’t define them though, they’re a hoot in their own right. The newly promoted club sit 9th in the table at this point of the season, and look just as good – if not a bit better – in the underlying indicators.
Manager Pablo Machín has them at a high level of defensive organisation all over the pitch. As you may have seen above, they allow one of the lower proportions of opposition completions in the final 18 yards, pointing towards a sturdy shape near to their own goal. They engage pretty high up the pitch too, forcing the 6th lowest completion percentage on passes originating in the opponent’s defensive third along with the 4th lowest proportion of opposition possessions that are ‘long’ (10 or more passes). Put this all together and you see them keeping opponents out of their third at a super impressive rate.
On the other side of the ball there’s two big defining stylistic points: 1) they’ve gotten the joint most goals from set pieces in the league (9) – a route of value you’ll hear reiterated time and time again on this here website, especially for promoted teams – and 2) they love a headed shot, racking up the 2nd most of those, with the 2nd highest proportion of their completed passes into the opposition box coming via crosses. Other than that, there’s no one regard in which their attack sticks out. They just do a little bit of everything. Long possessions per game? Middle of the pack. Counter-attacking situations? Solid there too. Shots from turnovers in opposition’s third? They do them quite well. You get the gist.
Lots of players deserve praise here but the most eye-catching has been 20-year-old right-back Pablo Maffeo. The City loanee has shown real creativity going forward as a wing-back and generally just a nice all-round game, handling himself very well in marking assignments on bloody Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Opponents complete their passes in his zone (the right side of Girona’s defensive third) at the 3rd lowest rate in the league. He looks ready to slot in back at City, should Guardiola see fit to do so.
Someone might want to talk to him about the shots though. Oy vey.
On the face of it there’s little wrong with Atlético Madrid this season. They currently sit 2nd in the table, only having just suffered their first league loss of the campaign in the final match before the break. Everything hunky dory then? Well, peer below the surface and things start to look a tad iffy.
The defence is still looking about par but the attack has dropped off to a quite alarming extent. It’s like Marcelino has sapped all the offensive capability out of Madrid and directly into his Valencia team.
41% of their shots came from outside the box last season, that’s up to a league-leading 47% this time around. The root of this appears to be in their transition game. Atléti’s deep and compact defensive shape is the yin that require’s a counter-attacking yang. Otherwise you’re just defending all the time. Right now, they’re struggling to get out.
On top of that, the shots they’re getting from turnovers in the opposition’s third is down by about half a shot per game. Possibly most troubling of all is that they’ve only managed 3 goals all season from set pieces, one of the worst tallies in the league. Something that was previously their bread and butter. All in it’s a dual issue of both shot volume and quality. Even Antoine Griezmann, whose individual volume is about the same as last season on a per 90 basis, isn’t producing a great deal.
They’ve certainly improved their passing game over the years, to the point where now they’re about average in how many shots they squeeze out of possessions that last 10 passes or longer. That’d be A-OK if everything else were working normally but it just isn’t. With the points banked already maybe it won’t be such a big deal. Simeone’s obviously a fantastic manager and he might potentially cure what ails them. And of course the impending return of Dastardly Diego Costa will be a boon. If it doesn’t turn around though, and the results don’t keep going their way, it could be an underwhelming first season in the new stadium.
Thanks for reading. You can find me @EuanDewar for any questions or the like. Enjoy the rest of the season!