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La Liga Roundup: Arthur Departs and Results Catch Up With Celades

By Nick Dorrington | July 2, 2020 | La Liga

In this week’s La Liga roundup we look at Valencia’s dismissal of Albert Celades and Arthur’s departure from Barcelona.

Results Finally Catch Up With Celades

Here’s an idea for wannabe football club owners: don’t impose unworkable conditions on a coach who leads your team to consecutive top-four finishes and its first silverware in over a decade. If you really must persist, definitely don’t replace them with a coach of questionable merit and experience.

If you do, this might happen:

Until recently, Valencia’s results since Albert Celades replaced Marcelino back in mid-September were pretty good. When the league was paused in March, they were seventh in the table, just four points shy of the top four. But the underlying numbers always told a different story, one that results since the restart more accurately reflect. Three defeats in four left Valencia eight points off the top four and Celades without a job.

We don’t even really need to dig as deep as expected goals to understand how bad Valencia were under Celades. They took just 8.28 shots per match, the second-lowest tally in the league, and matched that to a league-worst 15.52 conceded. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that giving up seven more shots than you take each week isn’t exactly a formula for sustained success.

Back in the days when Total Shots Ratio ruled the analytics roost, we’d probably have considered any team with a shot share of 40% or less to be pretty bad; Valencia under Celades had just a 35% share.

If we bring xG into the equation, their average shot quality was better than the quality of those they conceded, but the difference was nowhere near big enough to balance such a large disparity in shot volume. They combined the fourth-lowest xG per match (0.89) with the second-highest xG conceded (1.35) for the third-worst xG difference (-0.46) in the division. Those are the numbers of relegation candidates rather than European aspirants.

Results hid those issues. Valencia consistently over-performed their underlying numbers. Even with their slowdown post-restart, they were still running almost nine goals ahead of expectation when Celades was relieved of his duties.

As is almost always the case, there have been attempts to create a narrative arc, to say that things were okay until injuries took hold or to identify a tipping point when control of the dressing room was lost. But the truth is that Valencia were never very good under Celades. It just took a little while for results to reflect that reality.

Arthur Leaves, Barcelona Get Older Still

Consecutive draws against Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid have probably ended Barcelona’s challenge for La Liga. Even if they win all five of their remaining matches, Real Madrid can afford to drop four points in their remaining six and still claim the title thanks to their superior head-to-head record.

Off the pitch, Barcelona have this week confirmed what essentially amounts to a swap deal with Juventus that will see the Italian club pay an initial €72 million for Arthur at the same time as Barcelona put down €60 million for Miralem Pjanic.

It is not a move that makes much sporting sense. The two players have performed different roles this season, which complicates a direct comparison. But even if we accept that stylistic differences aside they are probably about par in terms of present ability, it remains difficult to form a cogent argument for swapping a soon-to-be 24-year-old for a 30-year-old. Particularly when Barcelona already have a large contingent of post-peak players gobbling up minutes.

The truth is that this deal isn’t about what happens on the pitch; it’s about moving around figures on a spreadsheet to balance budgets. Both teams had deficits to make up and constructed a mutual means of doing so. Alternative scenarios that revolve around Barcelona selling Arthur but reinvesting the money in a young midfielder or banking it and promoting from within simply aren’t realistic; Juventus would never have paid that much for him if they didn’t have €60 million coming right back the other way.

Performance may not have been the primary driver behind Arthur’s departure, but it is also fair to say that he hasn’t quite taken the step forward some at the club had hoped for. Prior to the season start, then-coach Ernesto Valverde set him the target of increasing his attacking output, and he did seem to deliver in the early part of the campaign. The problem is that not much of that held over a larger sample size.

Arthur’s shot and expected goal (xG) numbers remain up, but that is balanced by lower key pass and xG assisted figures, resulting in an insignificant change in his combined shot and assist output season on season. His number of throughballs has likewise levelled out to last season’s figure.

What he clearly is is a very able dribbler and ball-carrier. He has unsurprisingly been unable to maintain his early-season pace of three successful dribbles per 90, but a smidgin over two per 90 still makes him the third most regular dribbler among the central midfielders of La Liga. His success rate of 88% is higher than that of anyone with an average of at least one completed dribble per 90, and a solid number of his dribbles have been genuinely progressive.

He’s also carried the ball further per 90 than any of the league’s other central midfielders.

Add that to a very solid overall passing game and you have a player who probably deserved the benefit of at least another season to try and up his final-third output and offer a bit more defensively. Particularly so given how difficult it is to untangle some of his stagnant final-third output from the general attacking (and overall) decline at Barcelona.

As it was, he represented the most sellable asset of a club who needed to balance their books. The fitness problems that have seen him miss a number of matches with knocks and niggling injuries arguably created enough doubts around him to justify Barcelona cashing in on him in a favourable deal. It’s just very hard to say that this was it.

Article by Nick Dorrington