The various qualities of Alexander Isak, Mallorca’s identity crisis, Marc Cucurella’s role at Getafe and the lack of shots this season. Read on for this week’s update on La Liga.
Willian José probably wishes he never agitated for a move away from Real Sociedad. In doing so, he opened the door to Alexander Isak, who strolled in, made himself at home and changed the locks. The 20-year-old has scored in each of his last six matches in all competitions, raking up eight goals in that time.
After a double in La Real’s 4–3 win away to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey quarter-final, Isak again produced a decisive contribution in their victory over Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby on Sunday. He replaced José early in the second half, set up the first goal for Portu and scored the late winner himself.
Isak’s output to date shows that he is capable of matching the shot output of his more experienced colleague. But he also provides a range of other attributes.
He does more work when out of possession, supplies more creative output, and offers individual explosiveness to the attack with his speed and skill. He has the ability to take players on and then advance rapidly into the resulting space, as this map of his successful dribbles and subsequent carries illustrates.
That just isn’t José’s game.
Can Isak continue to reinvigorate a side whose league form has been patchy over the last couple of months? If he can, Borussia Dortmund retain a €30 million buyback option they might just decide to exercise come the end of the campaign.
We are nearly two-thirds of the way into the season and it still doesn’t really feel like we have a proper handle on what exactly Mallorca are. We know that in terms of performance they are one of the worst teams in the league, by both the table and the underlying numbers. But it is excruciatingly difficult to define them stylistically. Most teams have some sort of identifiable profile by this stage; they just don’t.
Mallorca don’t press high, but neither are they particularly effective at sitting deep. They give up an above-average number of above-average shots, and don’t have good numbers goal side when opponents shoot. Their blocked shots rate is one of the lowest in the division. They are passive — easy to play through and relatively easy to create chances against.
In attack, it’s the same kind of thing. Even in the bottom half of the table, there are teams who stand out in terms of their shot volume (Espanyol) or quality (Alavés). But Mallorca simply take a below-average number of below-average shots. They are middle of the road in terms of the pace and directness with which they attack. They are dead on the average line in terms of dribbles. Even in relatively esoteric categories like the proportion of shots taken with each body part (left foot, right foot, head, other), they are right there in the middle of the pack.
Over the last 10 matches, Vicente Moreno’s side have picked up just four points — five less than any other team. Their underlying numbers aren’t quite that bad, but neither do they provide much cause for optimism. Some of the teams around them are improving, and those with worse numbers have a good advantage over them in terms of points.
To some degree, this is simply a case of having less talent. Mallorca are, after all, operating on the lowest budget in La Liga. But both this season and in campaigns past, teams have come up with clearly defined ideas as to how they intend to compete in the top flight. Sides such as Eibar, Getafe and Osasuna have used aggressive pressing to bridge and overcome talent disparities; Leganés have leaned on strong defensive foundations; Mallorca . . . well, they don’t seem to have much to call their own.
Marc Cucurella is one of those guys whose overall output doesn’t really stand out amongst the general population.
But what he does do well is exactly what Getafe’s system requires of him. José Bordalás’ team are the most aggressive high pressers in La Liga, and Cucurella is the most active of all in that regard, leading the team in both pressures.
And pressure regains (pressures that result in a turnover of possession).
Not that this should come as much of a surprise. Cucurella led Eibar, La Liga’s other supreme high-pressers, in both categories last season. He is simply a pressing machine — a bundle of condensed energy.
While his attacking numbers don’t stand out in the league, within the context of his team, he is one of the most regular assist providers, and his directness on the ball helps them swiftly advance. That was evident in their 3–0 win over Valencia on Saturday, in which he regularly carried the ball forward down the left flank.
Eventually, the Valencia right-back Alessandro Florenzi, undoubtedly fed up at watching that wavy mass of hair swish past him time and again, took retribution with an ugly challenge from behind that resulted in a deserved red card.
The victory was Getafe’s fourth in a row, and their seventh in their last ten in the league. During that time, only Real Madrid have accumulated more points. They are third in the table and with other top-four challengers stuttering, Champions League qualification is a real possibility. A key part of their success is that everyone performs exactly the role required of them within the system. Few encapsulate that better than Cucurella.
Last season, shots, goals and expected goals (xG) in La Liga were all down in comparison to 2017–18, and the early running this season hinted at an even more dramatic fall. After 10 matches, all three categories had decreased; the average xG per match was below two (in comparison to 2.14 in 2018–19) and there were 1.8 fewer shots taken per match.
As the campaign has gone on, goals have reached almost the same number slotted at this time last season, but shots and xG both remain down by around 5% — in terms of shots, a 1.25 per match difference.
If shots and chances are what you equate with entertainment value, then La Liga is the least entertaining of the big five European leagues. There are 1.5 fewer shots per match than in Ligue 1, the second-lowest, and a full 6.25 less than in Serie A, the leader in that respect. Matches in La Liga produce two-thirds of a goal less xG than those in the Bundesliga.
The Spanish top flight seems to be going its own way in terms of playing style. On average, its teams defend higher and seek to break up passing chains in opposition territory more often than those in any of the other leagues. That is producing fewer shots, but also a different kind of aesthetic. If that’s your cup of tea, La Liga is the place to be.