Will Villarreal, Celta Vigo and Athletic Club Survive La Liga's Crowded Relegation Battle?
A few things are pretty much settled in La Liga. Barcelona top the pile with the league’s best underlying numbers, while Huesca are rooted firmly to the bottom, nine points from safety and with just two wins to their credit. Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and Sevilla can be expected to fill the remaining top-four spots.
But for the rest of the teams, there is still much left to play for. At the halfway point of the campaign, just nine points separated the team in seventh from the team in 19th -- comfortably less than in any of other “big five” leagues and nearly double the difference between those positions in the Premier League.
One would expect Real Betis, Real Sociedad and a Valencia side whose underlying numbers have consistently been much better than results to end up comfortably in the top half, with the potential to challenge surprise sides Alavés and Getafe for fifth and sixth. Eibar and Espanyol have had their ups and downs but can also be expected to finish in mid-table.
That still leaves eight teams potentially battling it out to avoid filling the two remaining relegation spots: Athletic Club, Celta Vigo, Girona, Leganés, Levante, Rayo Vallecano, Real Valladolid and Villarreal.
Below is a plot of the non-penalty xG for and against for all Primera Division teams so far this season. As James and Ted noted on last week’s StatsBomb podcast, there are a few anomalies. Atlético Madrid consistently outperform xG, and are again doing this time around, sitting comfortably in second with over-performance at both ends of the pitch; Alavés have remained in the top-four race much longer than expected given underlying numbers that are among the league’s worst.
But the chart does give us an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the main relegation candidates.
The teams in the lower left quarter are those who are below average in both attack and defence: Athletic Club, Girona and Celta Vigo.
Neither Athletic nor Celta Vigo would have expected to be involved in a relegation battle. With Athletic, the assumption had been that last season’s 16th place finish was the result of poor coaching rather than their underlying talent level. As for Celta Vigo, with attackers like Iago Aspas, Maxi Gómez, Pione Sisto and intriguing youngster Brais Méndez, Celta looked to have enough firepower to be closer to the top 10 than the relegation fight. Both are currently in the lower reaches of the table having already sacked the coaches with which they began the campaign.
A solid run of results since Gaizka Garitano replaced Eduardo Berizzo in December has eased some of Athletic’s worries, but they are still far from safe.
It is no surprise to see that three of their four best defensive performances this season in terms of xG Conceded have come under Garitano’s command. This is the coach whose Eibar side conceded just 28 times in 42 matches in gaining promotion to the top flight back in 2013-14. Sorting out the team’s defensive problems was always going to be his priority.
The key question is whether Athletic will be capable of getting enough goals to secure the points they need. With Aritz Aduriz beginning to lose out in his game attempt to fight the ageing process, Iñaki Williams is bearing the brunt of their goalscoring burden.
Iker Muniain is very important in terms of ball progression, but his xG contribution is somewhat inflated from having scored five times from inside the six-yard box. He is not a regular shooter. Raúl García and Iñigo Córdoba are, but they primarily do so from average-to-poor positions. However, January signing Ibai Gómez is a slightly more discerning shooter (and was especially so last season at Alavés) and should add enough to the Athletic attack to eventually help steer them to safety. An injury to Williams would, though, be difficult to overcome.
Goals shouldn’t be a problem for Celta Vigo. Last season, they had the league’s fourth-best attack in terms of xG, at 1.30 per match. But after making a similar start to the current campaign, equalising a poor defensive unit with their attacking potency, subsequent attempts to gain better balance have simply resulted in worsening metrics at both ends of the pitch. Their xG conceded is now the second worst in the division.
Antonio Mohamed was sacked in mid-November, and new coach Miguel Cardoso, who did impressive work at Rio Ave in his native Portugal before bombing at Nantes, is yet to find an adequate solution. Unless he soon does so, Celta’s seven-season stretch in the top flight is in serious danger of ending.
Girona secured a top-10 finish in their debut Primera Division campaign last time out, but they were much less impressive in the second half of the season. They ran a positive xG difference (xGD) of 0.20 per match through their first 19 matches but that dropped into negative territory at -0.26 per match thereafter. New coach Eusebio Sacristán has been unable to arrest that slide, and Girona’s xGD per match this season stands at -0.38.
On their current trajectory, and presuming goalkeeper Yassine Bounou isn’t able to maintain his current stellar performance level of a league-second-best Goals Saved Above Average percentage (GSAA%) of 9.3%, Girona aren’t likely to be far away from the bottom three come the end of the campaign.
Those in the lower right of the chart have above average attacks but below average defences: Villarreal and Levante.
Villarreal have performed well below expectations. In their pre-season predictions, FiveThirtyEight had them down to finish seventh, with as good a chance (12%) of finishing in the top four as they did of being relegated. Yet here they are now are, in the bottom three, with an over 40% chance, again via FiveThirtyEight, of going down.
A cursory glance at Villarreal’s numbers would suggest they should still be able to claw themselves to safety. Their xGD per match of -0.05 is the 11th best in the division, and their attack is the eighth best. But that doesn’t tell the full story. While they were probably just a bit unlucky under previous coach Javi Calleja, their numbers have got worse under his replacement Luis García.
It is, admittedly, a limited sample of just five matches (at time of writing, including Real Madrid at home), but García’s attempts at tightening up their defensive unit have done more to constrict the attack than benefit the defence. Indeed, lowly Huesca posted their best xG total (2.08) of the season against them.
Villarreal failed to address their lack of quality in defence during the summer transfer market, and current reports suggest they might even be minded to allow talented midfielder Pablo Fornals to leave in January in order to fund the purchase of additional defensive options. Given his importance to the team, particularly in terms of ball progression and creativity (Santi Cazorla offers a very similar skillset, but relying on him to stay fit and carry that load for the remainder of the campaign is a big risk), it is move that reeks of a team in panic mode.
Levante are the only other side against whom Huesca have posted up an xG total of over two, and their current position in mid-table clashes with their underlying numbers, which are the worst in La Liga. As their position way down the chart indicates, their defence is La Liga’s worst by some distance in terms of xG conceded, at 1.77 per match -- over half a goal more than the league average.
Maybe Paco López simply has the Midas touch? When he took over in March 2018, Levante were 17th in the table, just one point above the relegation zone. In their final 11 matches of the campaign, they secured a mammoth 25 points, more than any other side in La Liga. Their underlying numbers improved, but not that much. That has again carried into this campaign, with Levante performing much better than would be expected given their underlying numbers, as this plot of actual vs. expected goal difference shows.
This season, their defensive performance is about par. The over-performance is being driven by their attack.
You’d still expect Levante to finish closer to the bottom three than the top 10, but it would nevertheless be a surprise if they were relegated from their current position.
Those in the upper left quarter have above average defences but below average attacks: Leganés and Real Valladolid.
Both teams are amongst the cagiest in the division, with only matches involving Atlético Madrid joining theirs in averaging less than 2xG. Their defensive activity maps show that they are deep-lying teams who do a lot of defending in their own halves.
They are also sides who struggle to create much in open play.
The difference between them, and what makes Leganés the more likely of the two to survive, is how well they both attack and defend set-pieces. While Real Valladolid hold the marginal advantage in terms of Open Play xGD (-0.13 to -0.17), on set-pieces, Legánes are marginally better in attack and much better in defence.
Valladolid are currently over-performing their set-piece xG at both ends (in attack, primarily off the back of three direct strikes from long-range free-kick), but Leganés are generally creating the better looks whilst giving up lower-quality opportunities to their opponents. That can be expected to play to their advantage from hereon out.
Finally, we have Rayo Vallecano, perfectly straddling the average line at both ends of the pitch. After a poor start to the season, improving defensive metrics have at least given them a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. With Giannellli Imbula doing his laconic, Mousa-Dembele-without-the-defensive-numbers thing in midfield, José Ángel Pozo and Óscar Trejo linking into the final third and Raul De Tomás offering a solid goal threat -- ably supported by Adrian Embarba and Alvaro Garcia -- they now look a decent side.
Perhaps most importantly, a simple change between the sticks has yielded swift results. Early season number one Alberto García had a GSAA% of -8.1% in his 11 starts. Since taking over in mid-November, Stole Dimitrievski has proved to be a much more effective shot-stopper, posting a GSAA% of 2.1%. Garcia conceded four more goals than an average goalkeeper could be expected to; Dimitrievski has conceded one less.
Initially in danger of slipping away from the pack like Huesca behind them, Vallecano have now inserted themselves into a multi-team scrap that is only likely to be decided in the final weeks of the campaign.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association