The most interesting bits and pieces from La Liga Matchday 20.
Setién’s Winning Start At Barcelona
As statements of intent go, it was a pretty clear one. Surprisingly, the scoreline was not the main talking point from Barcelona’s 1–0 win over Granada in Quique Setíen’s debut on the Camp Nou bench. As you probably know by now, Barcelona passed and passed and passed, attempting over 1,000 and completing over 900 for the first time since . . . well, since their draw with Valencia last October, but let’s not derail the narrative too quickly. Snark aside, what was most noteworthy was Setién’s attempt to tackle the problem of the overlapping skillsets of Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi. Aided in that sense by the absence through injury of Luis Suárez, he brought Griezmann infield from the slightly awkward left-sided forward position he's occupied for much of the campaign, and placed him alongside Messi in a pairing of roving forwards up front. With Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba providing width on the right and left respectively in a formation probably most accurately described as a 3-3-4, both Griezmann and Messi had the freedom to drop off the front to receive, combine and advance. Messi drifted with his usual impunity, as this map of his pass receipts shows. And while Griezmann was at times tasked with stretching play in behind, he was also able to get involved in deeper central areas more frequently than has often been the case this season. This was not the denatured Griezmann of performances past. It was only one match, and it didn’t really make an appreciable difference in terms of output. Maybe it was just an aesthetic thing. But given Barcelona are the club who have made aesthetics their thing, and that Setién’s appointment was at least partly driven by that, it feels like a step in the right direction.
En-Nesyri Gives A Glimpse Of His Skillset
Last week, Sevilla paid the €20 million release clause for Leganés forward Youssef En-Nesyri. He went straight into the squad for their weekend defeat to Real Madrid, coming off the bench for the final half-hour or so and generating Sevilla's sole opportunity to equalise when he received an errant Madrid pass and drove past a defender into the area, only to fire well wide. That little passage provided a glimpse of the directness that is a key component of En-Nesyri’s game. Throughout the last season and a half at Leganés, he has proved himself adept at picking the ball up inside the final third and driving it on into the penalty area. The 22-year-old is a slightly awkward runner, more angular than he appears at first glance, but he’s also one of the fastest players in La Liga. To that he adds a decent aerial game (he does stand at six feet and two inches tall after all), and a willingness to press from the front that has made him a top-six forward in each of last three seasons in terms of pressing actions. He has a varied enough toolbox to perform as a more mobile alternative to central striker Luuk de Jong or as direct option on the right or left of Sevilla’s attack. En-Nesyri’s numbers reveal a clear uptick between his 2017–18 campaign at Málaga and his 2018–19 at Leganés. That progression has somewhat stalled this season, but it feels as if there is still more to come. He looks a typical Monchi signing: a young player with a diverse skillset that hasn’t quite yet coalesced into an aggregate greater than the sum of its parts. The expectation is that his output will improve in the company of better players, but it remains to be seen whether reality will conform to this hypothesis.
Betis On The Rise
Shortly before their home match against Celta Vigo at the end of October, the players and coaching staff of Real Betis met to air their differences and find a way forward. Down in the bottom three, with just two wins and nine points to their credit, and with underlying numbers that weren’t much better, the future of coach Rubi was on the line. The consensus was that changes had been made too abruptly to their previous approach under Quique Setién. The new Barcelona coach has a very particular style of play, and some of the players were struggling to adapt to a new system after a couple of seasons under his command. Compromise was found. From then on, results and performances have greatly improved. In fact, over the subsequent 10 matches, Betis’ underlying numbers have been the fifth-best in La Liga. Only three teams have taken more points. On Sunday, they produced arguably their best performance of the season in an impressive 3–0 win at home to Real Sociedad. With those above faltering, they are slowly working their way back in European contention. So what has changed? In possession, the side has shifted back to the system of three central defenders and two high-positioned wing-backs that formed the basis of initial ball progression under Setién. Of the pass networks from Betis’ first 10 matches of the season, the large majority feature a clear division between the two central defenders and the midfield zone.
Abelardo’s Latest Survival Mission
Abelardo has a knack for survival missions. In December 2017, he took over an Alavés side then last in the table and led them to safety. Last month, he inherited at Espanyol side likewise positioned at the bottom of the pile. After a draw against Barcelona on his debut, Espanyol recorded their first victory since October in a 2–1 win away to Villarreal on Sunday. The goals arose from two pillars of Espanyol’s survival hopes: the first from a set-piece; the second from new signing Raúl de Tomás. Abelardo’s Alavés side scored 15 times from set pieces last season, the third-best total in the league, and also generated more expected goals (xG) from these situations than any other team. The early evidence at Espanyol suggests they will again be an important resource. David López has twice been the beneficiary to date. He headed home the opener against Barcelona and then arrived to convert Naldo’s near-post flick-on for the first against Villarreal. Espanyol won’t maintain that kind of hit rate—no team is scoring once every two matches from set pieces this season—but a few more set-piece goals will go a long way for the league’s most goal-shy team. At Rayo Vallecano last season, De Tomás showed himself to be a striker capable of generating shots and goals in a relegation-threatened team. Quick, determined and an able dribbler, amongst all players who saw at least 1,200 minutes of action, he ranked fifth in the league on a per-90 basis in shots (3.29), eighth in goals (0.42) and 11th in xG (0.36). His Espanyol debut showed exactly what he provides. Not only did he score the second goal, heading home an excellent right-wing delivery from Jonathan Calleri, but he alone generated over half his team’s expected goals off of his seven shots. Espanyol is strongly backing Abelardo. After laying down €20 million on De Tomás, they spent a further €9 million to bring in Getafe central defender Leandro Cabrera. Other deals seem to be in the works. But whatever additional elements he adds, having both an individual shot-generator and a systemised means of creating shots and goals already puts his side in a much better position to avoid the drop. Header image courtesy of the Press Association