La Liga 2020/21 Mid-Season Review
We continue our tour through the major European leagues with a look at the season to date in La Liga, the most goal and shot shy of the big five leagues but one that nevertheless features some intriguing storylines, including a runaway leader, tactical adjustments and some standout individuals.
Atlético Madrid, Runaway Leaders
In the last 16 seasons, Atlético Madrid are the only side other than Barcelona and Real Madrid to have won La Liga, and they may just be on course to do so again. Diego Simeone’s side are 10 points clear at the top, and also have a game in hand over those two sides. Fifty points from 19 matches has them on course to equal the league’s highest-ever points total of 100 if they are able to maintain that rhythm.
The likelihood is that they won’t. No side have overperformed their metrics to a greater extent than Atlético so far this season. They are running ahead of expectation at both ends of the pitch, but particularly so in attack, where they are around 13 goals ahead of their xG.
It is almost the exact opposite to what happened to them last season, when all their forwards were underperforming their xG at this stage of the campaign. This time around, everyone is overperforming: Luis Suárez, Marcos Llorente, João Félix, Ángel Correa, even Yannick Carrasco.
That is likely to even out a bit from hereon out, but Atlético can still count upon a goalkeeper who has consistently shown his value by overperforming his metrics. On both an outright and shot-volume-adjusted basis, Jan Oblak has been the league’s best shot stopper this season.
Even if Atlético’s points accumulation rate does slow somewhat during the second half of the campaign, they probably have enough of a cushion to absorb that and still end up lifting the trophy. Barcelona seem to be finding their feet after a shaky start, at least in terms of results, under Ronald Koeman, and do have the best underlying numbers in the league...
...but they would have to maintain an extremely strong pace to chase Atlético down from here. Real Madrid likewise have better metrics than the current leaders, but have struggled for consistency. The league looks to be Atlético’s to lose.
One of the most obvious changes upon Koeman’s arrival to the Barcelona bench was that they immediately began to contest possession less frequently, particularly high up the pitch. Whether by PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) or Aggression (the percentage of opposition ball receipts that are contested within two seconds), they were one of most passive teams in the league through the first few months of the season.
In fact, by the former measure, Barcelona were more passive than they’d been at any previous stage in our dataset, which extends back to 2004, in those first 10 or 11 matches under Koeman.
But since then, there does seem to have been a shift towards a slightly more proactive setup, more in line with what we saw at times under Ernesto Valverde.
Some of that could simply be due to the natural ebb and flow of the season. Barcelona had midweek Champions League engagements through much of the opening three months of the campaign, perhaps necessitating a less energy intensive approach. We’ll have to wait for a larger sample to see if this apparent shift holds through the remainder of the campaign.
At the opposite end of the scale sit a Celta Vigo side who have become notably more proactive without the ball this season, and particularly so since Eduardo Coudet replaced Óscar García as head coach in November. They have pushed their defensive line up and are logging a higher Aggression percentage than any other side in the league.
Relentlessly Positive Ontiveros
Huesca have been in the bottom three since the seventh matchday, but things are so tight down there, with just four points spanning the bottom six, that they still have a decent chance of scrambling clear of the relegation zone.
If they are to do so than Javi Ontiveros is likely to have a big role to play. Whether from the start or the bench, he is an intensely positive player who seems not to understand the idea of a backwards step. Whether on the pass or the carry, he is a relentless ball progressor...
...and while his shooting locations bring to mind Spurs-era Andros Townsend...
...he is such an entertaining watch that you can almost forgive him. Not only does he produce far more shots per 90 after carries of 10 metres or more (1.47) than any other player in the league, but he also leads it in nutmegs per 90 (ahead of Alberto Perea and Bryan Gil) and ranks in the top three for successful dribbles.
Ontiveros is the guy to inject a bit of fun into your viewing of La Liga.
- Nabil Fekir of Real Betis has taken more shots than any other player in the big five leagues this season without scoring: 53. He’s also only converted one of his three penalties.
- One of the many advantages of the StatsBomb dataset is that we record the foot with which each pass is played. That allows us to see that for the second season in a row, Tomás Pina of Alavés is the most two-footed player in La Liga. Last season, he played an exact 50-50 split of passes with each foot. This time he’s slightly favoured the left in a 51-49 split. Pedro Bigas has consistently been one of the league's most two-footed players through his time with Las Palmas and now Eibar, and he is again there at Pina’s side.
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