La Liga roundup: Clásico edition
Apparently there was a big game in Spain last weekend. Time for a Clásico-themed round up.
Advantage Real Madrid
Real Madrid's 2–0 win on Sunday wasn’t a classic. In our data set — stretching back to 2005–06 then on to 2017–18, but only for matches involving Lionel Messi — it featured the fourth-lowest shot count and seventh-lowest expected goals (xG) total of all Clásicos. It is abundantly clear that both sides are some way short of their best. But there have been worse meetings over the years.
In fact, there was one just before Christmas, a 0–0 draw that featured just four shots on target and only 1.92 xG. That is not only the sole goalless Clásico in our data set, but it is the only one with an xG total of less than two.
Madrid’s win moved them a point ahead of Barcelona at the top of the table. Regardless of their current standing at a European level, the two teams remain the class of the field in Spain. Barcelona are nine points clear of Sevilla in third, and the underlying numbers of both sides are clearly the best in the division.
They are the only two sides in the title race, and it is Madrid who have the slightly easier run-in. However, Barcelona can take a bit of heart from their general level of performance since Quique Setién replaced Ernesto Valverde as head coach in January.
If those numbers are maintained, Barcelona will have a decent chance of claiming the title, but Madrid have the slight edge.
The perseverance of Vinícius Júnior
It was difficult to begrudge Vinícius Júnior the opening goal on Sunday. He earned it. Charged with adding direct pace to an otherwise fairly pedestrian lineup, he persisted, and persisted and persisted, and eventually got his reward.
In the first half, a pair of failed cutbacks and one tame effort on goal drew some groans. Over the course of the 90 minutes, he only completed two of the 10 dribbles he attempted. But he advanced Madrid into the penalty area twice as often as any of his teammates, provided one decent look for Toni Kroos in the first half and then scored the goal that set them on their way to victory, receiving a Kroos pass into the area and firing in a deflected shot at the near post.
It was an almost perfect microcosm of his season. Vinícius attempts more dribbles per 90 (7.56) than any other player in La Liga yet maintains the second-worst completion rate (46%) of players who complete two or more. Yet only Lionel Messi completes more dribbles inside the final third, and no one comes close to Vinícius in terms of carries into the penalty area.
The 19-year-old just picks up the ball and runs with it. He is one of the quickest ball carriers in the league, and ranks in the top 10 among players who have attempted a reasonable number of attacking actions in terms of his proportion of carries to passes in the attacking half. Only Messi and Luis Suárez generate more shots directly off dribbles.
There is output there, too, not far shy of 0.50 xG and xG assisted per 90.
It is intriguing to see how differently Vinícius and the currently injured Eden Hazard interpret (or are instructed to perform) that left wing role.
Despite being right-footed, Vinícius plays more like a lefty. The majority (59%) of his carries that begin on the flank stay there.
And he is more likely to attack the box...
...than he is to cut infield in deeper areas and seek to connect with teammates — something he does only 6% of the time.
Hazard, in contrast, stays out wide less (45%) and attacks the box almost half as much. What he does do is move inside nearly three times as often as his younger colleague. From there he can spread play wide or advance the ball centrally.
That fits with Hazard’s profile. He is an attacking midfielder who starts from wide positions. Vinícius has so far displayed more of the attributes of a winger or wide forward. Zinedine Zidane has leaned on the most obvious of those qualities to get useful production from a teenager during a campaign that Hazard has primarily watched from the treatment table.
Will Vinícius develop more playmaking skills over time? From what we’ve seen so far, he seems to lack that ability to form a panorama of play at pace that makes the best in his position such a threat cutting infield. But that’s probably unfair. He is doing what he needs to do within the context of his team and their season. Anything else will have to wait.
What’s up with Frenkie de Jong?
Barcelona’s signing of Frenkie de Jong was almost universally considered shrewd. A young, talented and physically able midfielder from the Ajax school, he seemed to be a perfect fit. Things started off promisingly enough, but after an anonymous display in the Clásico, where he was deployed slightly awkwardly as one of two advanced and narrowly positioned midfielders, the consensus appears to be that he is underperforming expectations.
Perhaps those expectations were just set too high.
Is his output with Ajax in the Eredivisie, a more dominant team in a much less competitive league, really a fair comparison point?
How about his production in the Champions League, where Ajax were, on paper at least, often evenly or out-matched?
A more realistic benchmark would probably be somewhere in between. Averaging his production in both competitions shows he performs at a similar level at Barcelona. The majority of relevant outputs fall within a 10% range; however, a few differences stand out.
De Jong is clearly doing much less direct defensive work. His pressure stats are pretty much the same, but on a possession-adjusted basis he makes almost 40% fewer tackles and interceptions. That can perhaps be attributed to differing styles of play. Last year’s Ajax were a particularly aggressive team out of possession, and de Jong was one of the key destructive forces.
At Barcelona, he falls well down that list.
At the other end, de Jong shoots much less than he did at Ajax. Across the two competitions, he got off about two shots for every three matches last season; at Barcelona, it's fewer than one every five.
Given the locations of the shots, this isn’t too much of a problem. His xG per 90 is within the same realm. All he has done is cut out some of the more speculative locations from his Ajax output...
...and narrowed things down to prime shots from the centre of the penalty area.
More importantly, de Jong’s passing has become less vertical, particularly so inside the final third. At Ajax, depending on the competition, 20–22% of his passes in all areas were aimed forward, as were 28–29% of those inside the final third. At Barcelona, those percentages have dropped to 14% and 17%, respectively.
It is always difficult to parse out individual performance from the collective context. Particularly in the Champions League, where Ajax moved forward very swiftly when opportunities presented themselves, while Barcelona more often use possession as a means of control. Is he not moving the ball forward because options aren’t presenting themselves? Are the system and consequently his choices less well-defined?
De Jong has often given the impression of playing within himself this season. But given the step up in league quality, some of the dysfunction around him and the mid-campaign coaching change, he's mostly doing fine. If it’s the same story this time next season, there will be more reason for concern.