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Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, European Drama & Relegation Uncertainty: LaLiga’s Conclusion Will Be Worth the Wait


After a three-month hiatus, LaLiga’s return is upon us. The competition will recommence in exciting fashion, pitting together Sevilla and Real Betis in one of Spain’s fiercest derbies. Let’s take a data-driven look at the season so far, as well as some projections for how it may conclude.

By: Jamie Kemp, Kevin Chroust

Familiar Foes Locked in Close Title Race

Barcelona might not seem quite like Barcelona. Real Madrid aren’t quite at the Real Madrid levels we’ve come to know. But as has become customary in the 21st century, the title race in Spain’s top-flight is once again between two giants.

Such is the pair’s dominance in recent times, only once in the previous 15 seasons has LaLiga been won by a team other than these two, with 2013/14 seeing Atlético Madrid temporarily break the duopoly.

Since then, however, the natural order has been restored, with Barcelona and Real Madrid re-establishing their annual battle for the title. The season resumes with just two points between leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid in second, while the 11-point gap between first and third all but assures the league will be decided by its two superpowers.

Although ‘superpowers’ in stature, the race for the title will be made interesting by the fact that both sides are still in pursuit of their best performance levels.

Barcelona have conceded 31 goals in LaLiga this season, their most at this stage of a top-flight campaign since 2003/04 (32) when Lionel Messi was 16 and a season away from his debut. They’re on pace to concede between 43 and 44 goals, and no team has won the league while conceding at that rate since Deportivo La Coruña in 1999/2000 (44). They also have five defeats, which is their most after 27 games since the 2007/08 campaign. No team has won the league with more than five losses since Real Madrid had seven in 2007/08.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, have won just 16 of their 27 LaLiga games. Although appreciable numbers for most teams, 11 of the previous 12 title winners had picked up at least 20 victories at this stage of the season.

Interestingly, the two rivals have contrasted each other in terms of strengths and weaknesses this season. Where the Catalans have sustained their accumulation of points through effective attacking – they lead the league in goals scored (63) and Lionel Messi has been directly involved in more goals than any other player (31) – their title charge hasn’t accelerated due to their deficiencies at the back.

On the other hand, Real Madrid have the best defence in LaLiga – keeping a league-high 13 clean sheets and conceding the fewest goals of any side (19) – but have not been able to convert their chances as efficiently. They have scored with just 11% of their shots in LaLiga this season, compared to Barcelona who have netted with a league-high 18% of their attempts.

It’s interesting to break this down further in terms of style. Given Barcelona have scored 14 more goals, one might expect them to look like a more dynamic team given the attacking success, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Click to enlarge

Real do more crossing, pressing and countering, while Barça unsurprisingly rely on build up and fast tempo football. The difference lies in their efficacy within those styles. For example, Real Madrid’s 5.3 possessions per match involving counter attacks result in 1.7 shots and 0.3 goals. Barça’s 3.3 result in about as much productivity: 1.2 shots per match and 0.3 goals.

Conversely, the 13.9 crosses Los Blancos allow per match result in 2.2 shots and 0.1 goals, while Barça’s 12.7 result in 3.4 shots and 0.4 goals.

So how’s it going to play out? Read on for the league table predictor. But first, Getafe.

Outsiders Getafe Primed to Complicate Battle for European Qualification

The next stop in our LaLiga refresher is with Getafe, and their continued incredible rise under José Bordalás. Following their fifth-place finish in the competition last season, the team from the capital have managed to sustain their form despite adding the Europa League to their calendar, and now have an even bigger goal within reach at the time of the league’s restart.

Sitting in fifth position, Getafe are locked on points with fourth-place Real Sociedad, and even more importantly, trail third-place Sevilla by just a single point. With the two places above them within immediate striking range, Bordalás’ side are well-positioned to challenge for the top four and seal an unlikely Champions League qualification.

Sticking to the principles that delivered them European football last season, Getafe have again coupled their ferocious intensity and direct attacking play to great effect.

Indeed, Getafe rank first in LaLiga this season in terms of PPDA (passes per defensive action). This metric is based on the number of opposition passes allowed outside of a team’s defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team in this area of the pitch. In summary, this allows us to see which teams are the most effective out of possession in disrupting their opponents, and how aggressive they are in doing so.

Getafe PPDA LaLiga

This combination of organisation and aggression without the ball has allowed Getafe to be one of LaLiga’s best defensive outfits again in 2019/20. They have allowed fewer shots than any other side (199), while their total of 12 clean sheets has only been bettered by Real Madrid (13).

At the other end of the pitch, Getafe’s approach in attack continues to serve them well. Mirroring their intensity without the ball, Bordalás’ side are equally quick to attack and can function effectively on small amounts of ball possession. In terms of passes completed, Getafe have averaged just 185 per game in La Liga this season, the fewest of any team by a considerable margin.

In place of elaborate build-up play, the capital outfit move the ball towards goal quicker than any other team in LaLiga. Getafe rank first in the competition in terms of directness per sequence (0.39), which is the percentage of a team’s total distance covered per sequence that is upfield. This style has yielded 37 LaLiga goals, their most at this stage of a campaign since 2012/13 (also 37).

Relegation Picture

Heading into the final 11 rounds of LaLiga fixtures, nine points currently separate the bottom six teams, while most of the sides occupying the bottom half will be remaining vigilant of the relegation zone.

For example, Levante – who currently sit 13th with an eight-point cushion to the relegation zone – have picked up the fewest points of any team in 2020 (seven), and have the league’s worst total in terms of expected goals against (50.7).

In terms of the teams facing the most imminent threat to relegation, the bottom five – Eibar, Celta Vigo, Mallorca, Leganés and Espanyol – will all be subject to swapping positions between now and the end of the season, with their point totals all at the mercy of only a few results elsewhere.

Even the bottom side Espanyol could exit the relegation zone with as little as two victories in coming weeks, depending on results elsewhere.

Predicted Finish

The statistical model the Stats Perform AI team uses to predict a final table for LaLiga estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team’s attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years’ worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for changes in form and personnel over time.

Based on this data, here are the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table:

Click to enlarge. The outcome of the season is simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Withstanding their defeat against Real Madrid shortly before the league’s suspension, the model gives Barcelona a 70% chance of going on to win the title. The race is likely to go down to the wire, however, with the simulation predicting just a four-point gap between the eventual winners and runners-up.

In the hunt for Champions League qualification, Atlético Madrid (67%) and Sevilla (55%) remain favourites to round up the rest of the top four. With a 37% chance of finishing above fourth, outsiders Getafe are likely to ensure these two sides – particularly Sevilla – remain on top of their form in order to confirm a top-four finish.

Meanwhile, Valencia and Villarreal would remain seventh and eighth and out of the European picture.

At the bottom of the table, a group of three sides – Mallorca, Leganés and Espanyol – are all tipped by more than 60% to occupy the relegation zone. In the case of the latter, Abelardo Fernández’s Espanyol side are projected at almost 50% to finish in 20th position, and suffer their first relegation from the top-flight since the 1992/93 season.

Lionel Messi Continues to Conquer Spanish Football

While his style has morphed over the years, the end result remains the same. Lionel Messi again leads all scorers in LaLiga, netting 19 goals in 22 appearances this season. Not content with just racking up the goals, however, Messi leads the scoring charts in several different areas.

Messi stands above the rest in terms of efficiency. The 32-year-old has scored 19 goals from an xG total of 14.5 in LaLiga this season, while his margin of overperformance (4.5) is the largest positive figure of any player in the competition.

As well as being the league’s most effective finisher, Messi also continues to create his own opportunities in front of goal as frequently as ever. A league-high five of his goals this season have been scored following ‘carries,’ which are allocated when a player moves at least five metres while in possession of the ball.

Affirming his status as the standout performer in LaLiga this season, Lionel Messi’s importance to Barcelona continues to be rooted in much more than his scoring ability. The Argentine has also provided more assists than any other player in La Liga this season, with his haul of 12 being the only such total in double figures so far.

Remarkably, Messi’s 12 assists have been achieved in just 22 appearances and 1,890 minutes. This total means the Barcelona man is averaging an assist every 158 minutes in the competition, which would currently mark his best such ratio in a league campaign for the club.

Without relying on a higher class of finishing from his Barcelona teammates, we can use expected assists to confirm the quality and frequency of chances that Messi has produced. The 32-year-old ranks first in the competition in this category (8.8), while he also tops the charts for xA from open play (7.4).

The player closest to Messi in LaLiga’s assist rankings is Real Sociedad’s Portu, who has affirmed himself as a candidate for 2019/20’s best signing. The wide player has eight assists, though his eight from open play match Messi for the league lead.

Since joining from Girona at the start of the season, Portu has shown himself to be one of LaLiga’s most effective contributors in attack. His eight assists have been accompanied by seven goals, with his 15 direct involvements being the most of any Real Sociedad player in the league this term.

Using sequence data to assess his impact beyond individual goals and assists, Portu also figures as one of LaLiga’s key catalysts in his team’s effectiveness from open play. The 28-year-old has been directly involved in 16 goal-ending open play sequences in the competition this season, the joint-most of any player outside of the current top two of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

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