It’s time for this week’s roundup of the action in La Liga: Celta Vigo’s improvement under Óscar García, Levante’s contrary approach, and Ángel Correa’s impressive season.
Improved Celta Vigo
There were valid concerns about off-pitch issues when Celta Vigo brought in Óscar García to replace head coach Fran Escribá in November, but it was always clear that García’s approach would be better suited to the squad than the reactive football of his predecessor. So it has proved. Celta have improved significantly in attack. And marginally in defence. The end result is that a team that posted the league’s fifth-worst expected goal difference during their 12 matches under Escribá have since moved up to the eleventh-worst team in the league by that measure — six places higher from a run of 13 fixtures that included trips to both Barcelona and Real Madrid. It took a little while for the results to catch up, but a win over Sevilla, a draw away at Madrid and Saturday’s 1–0 victory at home to direct rivals Leganés have lifted Celta out of the drop zone. Things down there could still go almost anywhere. Espanyol, Leganés, Mallorca, Celta and now Eibar are all scrapping it out to avoid filling the three relegation places. But Celta’s change in style, along with their January reinforcements, has given them a good foundation to help them avoid the drop.
Levante, the Model Beaters
Levante produced the shock of the weekend with a 1–0 home win over Real Madrid, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been quite so unexpected given they’d already defeated Barcelona at the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia earlier this season. Paco López’s side are 10th in the league, closer on points to the top six than the bottom three, and comfortably on course for a fourth consecutive campaign of top-flight football. Which is all well and good, but their underlying numbers are horrible — the worst in La Liga. And last season, when they finished 15th, but a full seven points clear of the bottom three? Yep, same thing. This has been a thing ever since López took charge in March 2018. The chart compares xG difference to actual goal difference (both excluding penalties) over time, using a 15-match rolling average. The green zone represents over-performance of the underlying numbers. The vertical blue line is when López replaced Juan Ramón Muñiz as head coach. López’s Levante have consistently and fairly significantly out-performed their xG difference. They did so by 9 goals across his 11 matches in charge at the back end of 2017–18, by 12.5 goals in 2018–19, and they’re doing it by over 10 goals this season. Only Barcelona, with Lionel Messi, are further ahead of their underlying numbers. The team is unusual because López’s approach is contrary to the prevailing style in Spain. In general, matches in La Liga feature low shot counts, while high defensive lines and strong pressure on the ball are becoming defining traits of the league. Levante, meanwhile, defend deep and passively, and involve themselves in back-and-forth shot-fests. Levante’s matches feature a league-high average of 27.24 shots. Only Villarreal, at 26.76, are anywhere near them. After those two, the next highest average is under 24 shots per match. Unsurprisingly, Levante’s matches also feature more xG than those of any other side. Could it be that by going so obviously against the grain, they’ve slipped into some hole in the model? Interestingly, how Levante are beating their xG difference had changed this season. In both 2017–18 and 2018–19, the attack contributed around 70% of the over-performance; this season, the defensive side accounts for 88% of it. Much of that appears to be to the credit of goalkeeper Aitor Fernández, who has prevented over 12 more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to given the quality of the shots faced. (Attentive readers will note that this is higher than the team’s total over-performance, a disparity accounted for by the fact that the placement of the shots Fernández has faced, the additional element that goes into the post-shot xG model, have produced a higher xG total than the sum of all shots faced by Levante on the standard xG model). When the quantity of shots faced by each goalkeeper is accounted for, his shot-stopping performance this season is only bettered by that of Athletic Club’s Unai Simón. What does all this mean for the future? Levante are secure this season, but can they keep over-performing to the same degree next time around? Can they possibly continue to concede such a high volume of shots (16.08 this season; 17.32 last) and not eventually get themselves into trouble? Is López simply some kind of bald wizard? We’ll have to wait and see.
Correa’s Career Year
Ángel Correa seemed to be on his way out of Atlético Madrid last summer. By the back end of last season, he had pretty firmly settled into a role as an impact substitute, and the club were willing to negotiate his departure. But after talks with Milan broke down, he stayed. Correa didn’t see many minutes in the early part of the campaign, and it wasn’t until late October that he first started consecutive matches, but he has since established himself as a vital attacking contributor. In fact, this is the most productive season of his career to date. He’s provided 0.71 goals and assists per 90 minutes, a team-high and the eighth-best in La Liga. His combined xG and xG assisted is 0.52, the tenth-best in the division. This increase in output is explained by a clear change in his style of play. Correa is operating further up the pitch, dribbling and carrying the ball forward less often, and receiving the ball inside the penalty area almost twice as much as he did last season. He’s particularly adept at finding space to receive toward the right side of the area. This move has contributed to an increase in both his shot output and the quality of the chances he creates for teammates. For comparison, here’s a map of the shots he assisted last season. And those he’s assisted this season. Statistically, the average xG value of his shots assisted has gone from 0.13 to 0.17 — a fairly significant increase. All of these changes were evident on Sunday, when Correa produced a decisive performance in Atlético’s 3–1 win at home to Villarreal. He sneaked across the front of a defender to equalise with a low finish late into the first half, and then received a pass into the area from Kieran Trippier (who has found him there more than twice as often as any other Atlético player this season) and crossed for Koke to head them into the lead. Injuries to the front line gave Correa his opportunity, and he took full advantage of it, making himself a key component of the Atlético attack. There is unlikely to be much talk of a departure once the summer rolls around.