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August 29, 2019

What's Happened In La Liga So Far?

By Nick Dorrington

We are two weekends into the new season in La Liga and a few trends are already starting to emerge. Here is what has stood out so far.

Cross Heavy Real Madrid

The Real Madrid revolution will not be televised. Not yet at least. I momentarily wondered if I’d stepped into some of kind of time machine when I saw their starting XI at home to Real Valladolid on Saturday. This was prime Carlo Ancelotti-era Madrid: Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco, Rodríguez, Bale and Benzema. With summer recruits Eder Militão and Luka Jovic on the bench, Eden Hazard and Ferland Mendy on the treatment table, and the much-needed starting midfielder yet to be signed, this was a very familiar Madrid in terms of both personnel and play style.

Over the last couple of seasons, Madrid have been the clear outlier amongst the established top three teams in terms of how they’ve sought to get into the penalty area and create chances. In both of those campaigns, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona created around 15% or less of their expected goals (xG) from open-play crosses, and recorded the league’s two lowest percentages of penalty box entries achieved by crosses (between 17% and 25%). In contrast, Madrid created 21.77%, then 25% (both top-six figures in the league) of their xG from open-play crosses in 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively, while 37%, then 33% of their penalty box entries were achieved by crosses.

That has again been evident this season. So far, they’ve created over half of their xG from crosses, while their percentage of penalty box entries achieved that way stands at 41%. They are not otherwise penetrating: they’ve created just one shot combined off of throughballs and dribbles. Things will even out a bit over time — Valladolid were the team who defended deepest of all in La Liga last season — but the early signs are that Madrid, and coach Zinedine Zidane, aren’t yet ready to transition away from a cross-based attack.

Combine that with a midfield that struggles to adequately deal with transitions and you have a recipe for results like the 1-1 draw with Valladolid. Yes, Madrid comfortably outshot their visitors; yes, they generated over double their xG; but if you are just creating a high volume of relatively low-quality chances and then give up a one in three opportunity (as Sergi Guardiola’s equaliser, at 0.36xG, was) to your opponents, it is difficult to complain too much about the final result.

Hazard is clearly a guy who can help change things. He led Chelsea in open-play passes into the box in each of the last two seasons, and he is also a very adept ball carrier inside the final third, as this chart of his dribbles and carries into the penalty area last season attests.

Eden Hazard 2018-19 Into Penalty Area

Current reports suggest Hazard could return to action after the September international break. Until he does, Madrid will have to muddle on as is.

Short Goal Kicks

The updated laws of the game now allow for goal kicks to be received by players positioned inside the penalty area, and this new opportunity is certainly being put to use by La Liga’s teams. So far, there have been 67 goal kicks taken that way, 18.82% of the total. Only five teams are yet to attempt one.

It feels like everyone is still working out the possibilities that these goal kicks provide. Only 11 of them have begun moves that successfully progressed into the attacking half. Just two of them have begun moves that have ended in shots, including this from Mallorca at home to Real Sociedad.

Mallorca progress from a short goal kick to get off a shot

Villarreal have, though, already provided us with a perfect illustration of how not to utilise them. They have been the most prolific takers of goal kicks into the box so far, with 57.89% of their kicks taken that way (Barcelona and Real Sociedad are joint second, on 46.15%). Only they and Real Sociedad have progressed past the halfway line more than once. But all that practice didn’t stop this disaster from occurring.

Villarreal mess up a short goal kick, concede penalty

Goalkeeper Andrés Fernández plays the ball left to central defender Pau Torres, who returns it to him. Upon receiving, Fernández takes a heavy touch that allows the fast-approaching Roger Martí to nip in ahead of him. Fernández clatters into Martí to concede the penalty that provided Levante with their winning goal in a 2-1 defeat for Villarreal. It came just five minutes after Levante had equalised from another clumsily conceded penalty, and meant that Villarreal failed to convert an entirely dominant first half into three points.

Villarreal Levante xG Race Chart

It all seemed to get a bit too much for coach Javi Calleja, who had, after all, watched his side give up a 4-2 lead to draw 4-4 at home to Granada the week previous. One shot showed him slumped in his seat, limp quivering, desperation etched across his face. If his side continue to make such elementary errors, hopes of a return to the top 10 might have to be put on hold.

Goals Are Still Hard To Come By

Last season was the lowest scoring season in La Liga in over a decade, with an average of 2.54 goals per match that was down from 2.69 the previous campaign. That also held in terms of xG. Taking penalties out of the equation, the average non-penalty xG per match in La Liga fell from 2.26 in 2017-18 to 2.14 last time out.

That downward shift has continued into the new season. There have been just 2.2 goals per match so far, and an average non-penalty xG of 1.71 per match. Minus a couple of aberrations like the aforementioned 4-4 draw between Granada and Villarreal and Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Real Betis, chances and goals have both proved hard to come by.

Espanyol’s Attacking Struggles

No team have struggled to create chances as much as Espanyol have. We are only two matches in and it is clearly far too early to draw substantive conclusions, but their attack has been nothing short of putrid so far. They are one of only two teams yet to score (Leganés are the other), and their shot map shows that isn’t simply a quirk of fate.

Espanyol's shots to date

In 180 minutes of action, against Alavés and Sevilla, Espanyol are yet to even create chances that add up to one third of an expected goal. They’ve taken just 10 shots and haven’t managed a single effort on target from inside the penalty area. Even allowing for the departure of last season’s top scorer Borja Iglesias that is a disastrous return.

David Gallego’s side were expected to make a fast start to the campaign after beginning competitive action earlier than everyone else due to their participation in the Europa League qualifying rounds. After two defeats in two, they can at least take solace in a relatively accessible set of fixtures over the next couple of months, starting with Sunday’s match at home to Granada. But their attack will have to function much more effectively if they are to start getting some good points on the board.

Article by Nick Dorrington