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Stranger Things: How Real Sociedad and Villarreal Sit Top of LaLiga


Something strange is happening in Spain this year. Real Sociedad and Villarreal currently sit first and second in the league table. Real Madrid are in fourth and you have to go all the way down to eight to find Barcelona. Are we starting to see cracks in the Barça-Real duopoly?

By: David Perales, Luis Ledesma, Vanessa Marina, Enrique Ballesteros

As we enter the international break, Real Sociedad sit at the top of LaLiga. Imanol Alguacil’s team have made a fantastic start this season and have led the chasing pack since matchday 6. They’ve equalled the club record for the most points by this stage of the season, matching the 20 points (counting three points-per-win) they accrued in 1981/82 – the year they won the title – and in 2002/03, when they finished second.

So, the omens are good for La Real. What do the numbers tell us about their fast start this season?

Going Forward

At the moment, just four sides are averaging more shots per game in LaLiga than Real Sociedad – the usual duo of Real Madrid and Barcelona plus Atlético Madrid,and Real Betis. And only Barcelona have landed more shots on target than the Basque side in the competition.

Imanol Alguacil’s side are evidently finding no problems generating good shoot volumes.

Real Sociedad Shot Map LaLiga 20/21

When you combine that with them running hot on their finishing, you can see how they’ve put themselves in a good position to succeed.

The Basque side have scored a league-high 20 goals and boast the fourth-best shot conversion rate (17.4%) in the league. Incidentally, this rate is their best percentage in LaLiga in the last 15 seasons. Yes, while we’re dealing with a relatively small sample, the data shows that Sociedad are finishing better than ever before.

With these factors combined, Sociedad are averaging over 2.2 goals a game, their best rate in the league for 70 years. You have to go all the way back to 1950/51 (2.57 goals a game) to find them operating at a higher rate.

Real Sociedad LaLiga Shot Conversion

Their hot finishing is further illustrated by expected goals (xG). Excluding penalties, Sociedad have scored 15 league goals from an expected goals total of 12. In other words, based on the quality of chances they’ve created, Imanol Alguacil’s side have scored three more goals than ‘the average’ team would have expected to do. This overperformance is the third-highest in the league.

Expected Goals Overperformance LaLiga 2020/21:

TeamGoalsExpected GoalsDifference
Atlético de Madrid1610.95.1
Valencia CF117.43.6
Real Sociedad1512.03.0

The key for Real Sociedad will be to sustain these attacking outputs as the season wears on. The good news though is that the underlying numbers look good.

Solid At The Back

The classic combination of being strong going forwards and solid at the back correlates nicely with league position, who’d have thought?  But it’s true, Sociedad have been rock solid in defence. Only Athletic Bilbao have conceded fewer shots and shots on target per game in the league this season.

Preventing opponents from getting shots off at goal has helped Real Sociedad concede just 0.44 goals per game so far, the third-lowest figure among all the teams in the top five European leagues.

Real Sociedad Shots Faced LaLiga 2020/21

Sociedad’s best form of defence has been their aggressiveness out of possession. They’ve stifled opponent attacks high up the pitch with an aggressive press, utilising good positioning and coordination to then launch attacks once they’ve recovered the ball. Indeed, Sociedad have won more high turnovers (winning the ball back within 40m of the opposition goal) than any other team and no side has generated more shots as a result of these high turnovers (12).

Highlighting Real Sociedad’s High Press:

TeamHigh TurnoversShot Ending High TurnoversGoal Ending High TurnoversPressed Sequences
Real Sociedad50122141
Valencia CF3980107
Real Madrid3910090

Unai Emery’s Rebirth With Villarreal

Unai Emery is back and so are Villarreal. Under his stewardship, the Yellow Submarine have produced some of their most competitive performances in recent memory. His side are unbeaten in their last nine matches in all competitions (W7 D2) and sit in second place, just two points off Real Sociedad.

The ingredient to Unai Emery’s success has been a return to his beloved 4-4-2. His Villarreal side have lined-up in this formation in all nine of their league games and found real success with it. It seems Emery has left behind the tactical tweaking that so plagued his time at Arsenal.

Under this approach, his two main strikers have flourished. Paco Alcácer (five goals) and Gerard Moreno (four) currently form one of the most prolific partnerships in the league. So far the pair have nine goals between them and have contributed to 69% of their sides total league goals (9/13).

Deadly Duos LaLiga 2020/21

While Villarreal are fairly midtable when it comes to the number of chances they create, the chances they do create are of extremely high quality – their average xG per shot of 0.16 is the highest in LaLiga. They certainly make the most of these high-quality chances too: 10 of the 13 goals they’ve scored so far have come from Big Chances, the highest proportion in LaLiga so far.

% Of Goals That Have Been Scored From Big Chances:

Team  Goals  Big Chances Scored  Big Chance Scored/Goals 
Atlético de Madrid171270.6%
Real Sociedad201470.0%

*NB: A Big Chance is a shot that is subjectively judged by analysts to be an excellent goalscoring opportunity where the player should have scored – a clear cut chance, such as a ‘1 on 1’.

The secret for Villarreal has been to be patient in attack and wait to create clear-cut opportunities for the deadly duo of Alcacer and Morendo to pounce upon.

Unai Emery has also been able to rely on the great form of his key midfielder, Daniel Parejo. The former Valencia man pulling the strings in Emery’s midfield, completing the most passes per game (68.1) of any player with at least five appearances in the league and key to reclying the ball. Once he wins the ball back, Parejo has been the link man between attack and midfield. On average he’s started 1.7 sequences that end in a shot, the fourth-highest rate in LaLiga.

Cádiz: The Promotion Sensation

The headline didn’t mention the newly-promoted Cádiz, but we felt they were owed a shoutout anyway. After the first nine LaLiga matchdays, “Los Gaditanos” are sixth, having picked up 14 points so far. Among the newly-promoted teams across the top five European leagues this season, only Lens have been able to reach this tally, although the French team have played one game fewer.

The key to understand Cádiz’s success so far is to understand their total disinterest in having possession. Their average of 30.8% possession is the lowest number in the top five European Leagues, and it’s not even close. Crystal Palace are next with 36% possession on average.

What is even more remarkable is that their four victories, which have all come away from home, have been secured with even lower percentages than that. In their historic win over Real Madrid at the Alfredo Di Stéfano stadium, they mustered a meagre 25.2%.

So far this season only Leicester, Tottenham, PSG and Marseille have achieved as many away wins in the top five European Leagues as Cádiz (four).

Cádiz Away From Home in LaLiga 2020/21:

DatesOpponentResultScorePossession %
September 20, 2020HuescaW0-229.1
October 1, 2020Athletic ClubW0-127.7
October 17, 2020Real MadridW0-125.2
October 30, 2020ÉibarW0-226.9
November 7, 2020Atlético de MadridL4-032.5

Cádiz know their limits. As mentioned, they really don’t like having the ball and when they do get it, they’re not great at keeping it. Their passing accuracy of 64.6% is the lowest in Europe’s top five leagues.

A major reason for that poor pass % is that they play long. In fact, only Eibar and Getafe hit more long balls per game than Cádiz. Their gameplan is simple: hit long and win the second balls, thus winning the ball back very close to the opposition goal. Only Elche (35.7m) start their sequences closer to the opposition goal than Cadiz (37.2m).

Once they lose possession, instead of trying to immediately win the ball back, Cádiz then retreat into a low block. It’s not surprising then that they have conceded the most passes in their own half. (3,972).

Cadiz Low Block

Cádiz are happy to defend deep before launching attacks on the counter. This is something they’ve had a lot of joy with, having already recorded seven fast breaks (behind only Real Madrid and Celta de Vigo) and scoring from two of these.

Cádiz Counter-Attacking in LaLiga 2020/21:

Team  Total Fast BreaksShots from Fast Break (incl. goals)  Goals from Fast Breaks  
Real Madrid981
Celta de Vigo972
Valencia CF661
Real Betis660

Barcelona and Real Madrid’s stranglehold on LaLiga is well-known. Between them, they have won 14 of the last 15 LaLiga crowns. While there is still a long way to go this season, the rise of Real Sociedad and Villarreal, as well as the success of plucky Cádiz, are all storylines to keep an eye on.

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