Is the clock ticking towards midnight on Eibar's long lasting Cinderella story?
Eibar are a club it is hard not to love. A small team from a small city, with a small stadium and a small budget, just the fact that they even reached La Liga was a book-worthy story in of itself. That they’ve stayed there into a sixth season is an incredible achievement.
Neither have they merely scraped by in the top flight. After escaping relegation in their first campaign thanks to Elche’s exclusion due to financial issues, Eibar have finished 14th, 10th, 9th and 12th. Last season, they actually had the sixth-best expected goal (xG) difference in La Liga.
This underdog narrative has undoubtedly been enriched by the presence of José Luis Mendilibar, a straight-talking maverick of a head coach with an endearingly bold style of play that has made Eibar somewhat of a litmus test for pressing models within the analytics community. If they come out near the top, you know you’re probably on the right track.
This tale of overachievement, however, is in danger of coming to an end. Ten matches into the new season, Eibar are not only down in 16th, level on points with Real Betis in 18th, but they also have the second worst xG difference in the division. Only Levante, those serial xG out-performers, currently have a worse differential. Eibar’s xG and xG conceded trendlines have both veered off in the wrong direction.
The effect is particularly pronounced in attack, where Eibar’s radar looks downright sad.
What xG exists is being propped up by above-league-average performance from set-pieces, but, even then, only barely. Eibar have taken a middling volume of shots of bad average quality. That they’ve even scored 10 goals, twice as many as the league’s three lowest scorers, is due to some mild over-performance of their xG and a pair of penalties. No team in the league is creating less from open play.
Their defensive radar doesn’t look quite so bad in an outright sense, but the drop-off in comparison to last season is no less dramatic or concerning.
Eibar are famous for their aggressive high press, but there are signs that its mechanics are unraveling. They are still defending as high as ever, but they are less often and less aggressively seeking to directly break up opposition passing chains. That is not a good combination. If your defensive line stays as high but you begin to defend more passively, it is almost inevitable your opponents will find it easier to pick a way through and create good quality chances.
That is exactly what is happening with Eibar. While they are still giving up a very low 8.60 shots per match, the average quality of those shots has increased massively, from 0.12 xG/shot last season to 0.17 xG/shot this time around. They are giving up almost a half a goal worth of xG per match directly from throughballs, nearly double what they did last season.
So what’s up with Eibar?
There are personnel issues. Joan Jordán stood out last season as a player capable of performing a variety of midfield tasks. He did his fair share of ball progression, chance creation and defensive work and in doing so earned himself a move to Sevilla. His replacement Edu Expósito produced a delicate lobbed finish to open the scoring in the 2-0 win over Celta Vigo last month but is yet to match Jordán’s overall output on either side of the ball (in fairness, Jordán didn’t start playing his best football until his second season at the club).
Marc Cucurella also moved on (to Getafe via Barcelona). While he didn’t provide a whole lot of attacking output from the left of midfield, he was a relentless presser, leading the team in pressures and pressure regains last season.
Eibar have also had some problems at full-back during the early part of the campaign. The players in those two positions have a key role in Mendilibar’s system in terms of both ball progression and chance creation. Last season, right-back Ruben Peña and left-back Cote led the team in deep progressions and ranked in the top four in terms of key passes (with Peña also at the top of the xG assisted rankings).
For the second consecutive season, Eibar saw their starting right-back depart this summer. The year before, Ander Capa had left for Athletic Club; this time, it was Peña who moved on to Villarreal. New signing Álvaro Tejero hasn’t slotted in quite as seamlessly as hoped after a good season in the Segunda División at Albacate, with converted winger Pablo de Blasis preferred on occasion. Add to that the absence through injury of left-back Cote, a decent front-foot defender and varied passer, in four of their 10 matches to date, and it is clear that these two important cogs in Eibar’s system haven’t been functioning as required.
More broadly, on a minutes-weighted basis, Eibar had the oldest squad in La Liga last season. Could it simply be that a few of their players are increasingly unable to carry the load of their high-paced approach? Their average age so far this season has increased from 28.8 last time out to 30.0. Their three most-used outfield players (Anaitz Arbilla, Fabián Orellana and Pape Diop) will all be 33 or older by the end of the campaign.
Could a combination of that and the intensity of Mendilibar’s style of play finally have worn down on the squad? He himself spoke earlier this season of the need for the team to rediscover their essence. “We are not putting together the sort of football that characterised us in recent years,” he said. “I am not a friend of statistics but it is true that in the last few seasons we have been the team who have won the ball most often in the opposition half, who have put in the most crosses, and many other things. In the start to this season, without looking at the data, we haven’t felt like ourselves in terms of those parameters.”
Mendilibar has experimented with a switch to a 4-3-3 formation a couple of times in recent matches in an attempt to reverse the downward trend, but to limited effect. “We have to think about what can be done, and what it is that we aren’t doing well right now,” he said after their 2-0 defeat away to Real Valladolid at the weekend. Solutions will have to be found fast if Eibar are to avoid a season-long relegation scrap.
Stats of Interest
To illustrate what I mentioned earlier about Levante’s perennial outperformance of xG, just take a look at this chart from the start of the 2017-18 season to now. All the green area is outperformance. Paco López and his team are clearly doing something a bit different.
Getafe seem to have taken on Eibar’s mantle as La Liga’s most extreme high-pressing team. They have defended further from their own goal than any other team so far this season, and have also allowed fewer passes per defensive action than anyone else.
Barcelona weren’t in action at the weekend, but it’s worth noting a little quirk about goalkeeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. Last season, he took 6% of his goal kicks with his weaker left foot; this time around that has more than doubled to 13.70%. We are still working with a limited sample size, and part of that can be attributed to the new goal kick law, as five of his 10 left-footed deliveries have been played within the confines of the penalty area. But he has also produced a couple of accurate longer deliveries.