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La Liga: What’s Changed in the Title Race this Season?

March 19, 2012 31 comments

As we draw towards the tail end of the Spanish Primera División, Real Madrid continue to set the pace with what could be a record-breaking season. Leading their bitter rivals, Barcelona, by 8 points, they are on course to win their first title since 2007/8, and go on to record the most points ever made in a single La Liga season, as well as most away wins and overall goals. Looking at those stats, it is all the most impressive considering that Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues are trailblazing at a time when experts are debating whether the current Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, is worthy of being considered the greatest club side ever on the back of their recent achievements.

If anyone claims to have the definitive answer as to why Barcelona trail Real Madrid by such a significant gap, they’re lying. With the smallest of margins deciding who wins what, it would be useful to look at a number of the “small marginal changes” that have occurred this season, in order to draw certain factual conclusions, without leaving room to speculation.

Possession and Tiki-Taka

That’s the name of the game for Barcelona. Its been a cornerstone of their success under Guardiola. They averaged just over 72% of the ball last season, but are currently averaging “only” 70% this time around. Yes, you read that right, only 70%! Whilst it may not seem like much, at the summit of the game the difference between great and perfect is slim, especially if it’s a backwards step. They’re currently averaging 68% possession away from home, which is 3.5% less than last season. In terms of pass success ratio, they’ve slightly dropped off to 89% from an incredible 90% success ratio.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have increased their possession of the ball by 5% to 61%. Their pass accuracy has also increased to 85% from 83%. Whilst Barcelona’s slight drop-off may not seem significant, as they are having a “relatively” successful season in the league by most standards other than their own, in a league where “draws are the new defeats” the margins are tight. Real Madrid’s improvement is a sure sign towards becoming more dominant and ruthless.

Score Goals When They Matter

Last season, La Liga ended with Real Madrid losing the race by 4 points. They scored more goals than Barcelona to no avail. They even drew one less match than Barcelona had. However, the key statistic that cost Mourinho’s side was their failure to score goals in key moments. Simply put, Real Madrid failed to score in 6 out of their 38 matches. They drew 3 of those games and lost the other 3. In the tightest of leagues, the slightest margin counts big and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking 40 goals as well as the side scoring an amazing 102 goals, it proved costly. Barcelona only failed to score twice.

This season has seen Real Madrid become more ruthless in front of goal. After 26 rounds of games, they have only failed to score twice. In theory, they may fail to score in a number of games till the end of the season and that could very well cost them a title. Barcelona have failed to score in 3 matches, effectively 1 more time in 11 less matches. So it may not be as much about Barcelona’s failings as much as it is about Real Madrid rectifying one of their few “failings”.

A Game of Two Halves, or at least the Second Half

Barcelona are notoriously strong starters to matches. Turn on the TV 15 minutes late and its likely you have missed a goal or two. Last season, they were 8-0 (goals scored-goals conceded) during the first 15 minutes of matches, and they are just as dominant again this season with a 14-4 record in the early stages of games. In fact, Barcelona usually have matches sewn up by the end of the first half. They had a 42-8 record last season. This season, they have an identical first half record even though there are still 11 matches to go. That’s quite significantly different to Real Madrid who have been poor starters to matches, especially this season. They have an 8-6 record in the opening 15 minutes of games, even though, strikingly, they get stronger as the half goes on. Away from home, they’ve only conceded two goals in the first half of games all season long.

It’s in the second half of games where Barcelona have found trouble and Real Madrid have found extra gears. Barcelona have a relatively poor first 15 minutes of the second half with a 12-5 record, already conceding more goals during that period compared to the whole of last season. However, it’s the final 15 minutes of the game, away from home, when Barcelona are at their most vulnerable. They have an 11-8 record during that period. It may still be a “winning” record, but as stated numerous times before, in a league of fine margins the smallest elements can sway a title race. Last season, for instance, the champions had a 21-5 record away from home during the last 15 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, perform even better in second halves of games. They have scored an amazing 53 goals in the second half, conceding only 13. Last season, they “only” scored 56 goals, whilst conceding 26. Even more impressive is the way Mourinho’s side close out matches. They have a 17-3 record in the last 15 minutes of matches, as opposed to the 21-9 accumulated through the whole of the previous campaign. Conceding so late against Malaga at home cost Real Madrid 2 valuable points, and the side will rue giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage time.

Much credit must go to the mental strength that Mourinho has instilled into his players to keep on pushing until the final whistle. The levels of concentration they’ve kept has minimized individual errors late in games too. The hunger is also there to want more goals even when the game is won, a criticism which is sometimes, possibly unjustly, aimed at Barcelona.

Resilience

Speaking about mental strength and concentration, Mourinho has instilled a “never say die” attitude in his players giving them the belief that they can come back from any deficit. Guardiola’s side have been relatively lax at times this season. They have twice lost half-time leads to end up drawing. Real Madrid almost always win when leading at half time, with Malaga being the only side in 2 years to avoid defeat at full time, after trailing at half time. Going back to last season, Barcelona, drew once and lost once after leading at half time, winning the other 21 occasions. Real Madrid, once again in resilience in the image of their manager, converted all 21 half-time leads to victories.

Mourinho has instilled a never-say-die attitude in his players

Even more surprisingly is how a team reacts to going a goal down. In Barcelona’s case, not too well. They have only won twice after conceding the first goal, drawing two and losing a further two. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost only once after conceding the first goal as they recovered to win 7 times. They have also won by a one-goal margin on 6 occasions this season. Winning by one-goal is their most common type of victory. This is not say that they Real Madrid do not go on to romp opponents too. They have won by a margin of 3 goals or more in 13 matches, virtually half of their current La Liga games.

The Players

Every Barcelona and Real Madrid comparison has a Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at some point. Its pointless. There is nothing to add to what has already been said. Both players post incredible numbers and performances match after match. When everything is so tight between the two clubs, it may come down to one or two other players standing out more or less than they have before. But when we’re talking about almost 30 international players, consistency is usually a key constant. But not always.

Last season, Karim Benzema was on the verge of being let go of. He was even compared to a cat by his manager. Mourinho said he was overweight. He said he didn’t work hard enough. Nevertheless, he did end up scoring 15 goals, but at a key point of the season, Mourinho preferred to not play with Benzema even in an injury crisis. Gonzalo Higuain had an injury hit season too. It was largely hit and miss, but he ended up scoring 10 league goals. Between them, they started 36 matches in La Liga, and scored “only” 25 goals. Its a goal scoring record good enough at almost every club but not at Real Madrid and not when the margins are so close.

This season, Benzema, having shed a few pounds, and Higuain have had a healthy competition. What is more striking is that Mourinho has gotten both of them motivated and willing to rotate, largely irrespective of performance, as they’ve both been in fine form. They have started 29 league games between each other and have scored more than a goal a game, with a total of 31, a record, had it been owned by only one of them, on par with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Whenever one has tailed off the other has been ready to come on and make an impact.

Why have one when you can have both? Benzema and Higuain key actors in Real Madrid's improvement this season

Similarly, Angel Di Maria, has had an excellent season, even though he has virtually missed half of it. Despite starting only 12 matches, he’s already matched his goal/assist record from last year. He’d scored 5 and laid off another 13 before his injury, compared to 6 goals and 11 assists in 29 starts last year. Once again, Mourinho has managed to get an extra something from a player who had been criticized for his diving, play-acting and inability to perform consistently. His injury has meant that Kaka has gotten an unexpected opportunity and even though he isn’t the same player he was at his peak, he’s looked very useful for Real Madrid. In fact, Mourinho has said he’s never seen Kaka work harder for any team. He’s pitched in with 5 goals and 6 assists in only 14 starts this season.

On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona have suffered with numerous injuries this season. Long-term victims include David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now, most worryingly, Eric Abidal requires a liver transplant. Carles Puyol has not been fully fit either and that has pressured Guardiola into selectively picking him for games, a fact which has not helped the captain gain consistency or hit top form. Alexis Sanchez, one of the club’s big summer signings, has only started 13 times, pitching in with 8 goals and 3 assists. Had he been fit throughout the season, he would’ve made Villa’s injury feel less influential. Going back to Puyol’s injury problems, even though they are nothing new, the main difference compared to last season was that Gerard Pique had been largely playing at the top of his game.

Guardiola has faced an injury crisis this season

This season, though, Pique, has found himself at the center of huge criticism, due to his dip in form. A pre-season which was hampered by injury as well as questions about his concentration on the pitch have meant that Pique, more than anyone, has missed Puyol. Pique has started only 13 times this season (29 starts last season), less than half of all of Barcelona’s matches. Most of the time he has been out injured but on a few occasions, mostly recently, he has been kept out of the side, even when Puyol has not been available. His tackle, interception and clearance figures have all dropped compared to last season by 0.3, 0.7 and 1.2 per game respectively to stand at 1.4, 1.2 and 2.4 per game (WhoScored). Most strikingly he has made 24 less passes per game this season than last. Guardiola has been lucky to have Javier Mascherano step into central defence and perform so admirably. On performance, Mascherano is, arguably, in the La Liga Team of the Season. His figures, in contrast to Piques, stand at a 3.7 tackles (a league high for center backs), 3.7 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. Nevertheless, “losing” both Pique and Puyol this season has hurt Barcelona, and they have conceded more goals as a result. A further dip in form for Pedro has only been compensated by recent emergences of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, both ahead of schedule, as well as the goals which Cesc Fabregas has been scoring.

All in all, while Real Madrid have had players like Kaka and Callejon ready to step in for the likes of Di Maria without hampering the team’s performance, Barcelona have not been lucky through a series of injuries, as well as, what must be said, an over-rotation of some players by Guardiola for the first time. Burn-out after playing over 60 matches for 3 consecutive seasons may have finally caught up with them.

Concluding Remarks

It is difficult to pin-point exactly what has been the catalyst for the relative shift in the fortunes of both clubs domestically and one must be wary when drawing conclusions. Despite the so-called “crisis” for Guardiola’s side, they convincingly beat Real Madrid in La Liga, after going behind with an early goal, picked up the Supercopa de España over Real Madrid in August 2011, won the European Supercup, the World Club Cup and knocked Mourinho’s side out of the Copa del Rey, with what included another away win in Madrid. Whilst Real Madrid have looked “better” against Barcelona this season than previously, the end result has largely been the same. Other than a nervous final 15 minutes at Camp Nou in the return leg of the Copa del Rey, where Real Madrid looked the more likelier side to net a winner, Barcelona have enjoyed another season with the upper hand in head-to-head meetings. Nevertheless, the capital club have been the more consistent side in the league due to some of the reasons highlighted above.

We’ve looked at what has changed more than why it’s changed because that would require deeper analysis over a longer period of time, possibly in the post-Mourinho and post-Guardiola periods. Nevertheless, two of the key themes of this article have been words like “relative” and “margin”. In what is an historic period for La Liga, the smallest of margins can be the difference between success and failure as Real Madrid found out last season, whilst Barcelona are finding out, to their dismay, now.

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What do the Americans Know About Sports?

December 20, 2011 6 comments

A lot, in fact, for us to learn from. The Americans and their sporting culture have been a constant target of ridicule from the European shores for years, never more so than when they actually began to take giant strides in the world of football, or soccer, as they like to call it. You can’t blame the Europeans for feeling protective over a sport which they feel that they’ve earned the right to lead the way in, when it comes to the laws and norms of the game. However, it would be foolish not to look over those shores and learn a thing or two from the Americans. They know what they’re doing and it works too. Now, no one is advising cheerleaders at half-time, even though girls in tight shorts may not be something Sepp Blatter would be against, nor are we suggesting breaking a game of football into quarters, or giving time-outs to teams. Although it would be worth considering that all of the above-mentioned elements of their sports are largely geared towards raising advertising revenue, and hence create money for the networks and teams, something which is a driving motivation for FIFA and UEFA when it comes to making changes to the beautiful game. It is questionable if our football would be better off if any of those revolutionary changes, when a little bit of goal-line technology talk has been the object of resistance by FIFA, over the years, even though it is safe to agree that not only will it not slow down the match in progress, but it would be beneficial in helping to ensure Fair Play, one of the guiding principles that FIFA stands for. Today, we aren’t here to discuss changing our soccer to their football. That’s a debate for another time and place. Today the question is why don’t we analyze our beautiful game as comprehensively as they do their sports?

Sports data and statistics have been a cornerstone of American sporting culture since the very first games of Basketball and Baseball. In fact, supporters test each others knowledge of their sports by reciting seasonal batting averages in baseball, triple-double stats in Basketball (that’s when a player gets double figures in 3 facets of a basketball game, usually points, rebounds and assists), or rushing yards in the NFL. That’s just one set of statistics from each of their three big sports, with no disrespect to Ice Hockey. Their trading cards, similar to Panini sticker albums on these shores, highlight full player statistics on the back-side of the cards, and fans as young as 9 or 10 years old trade and exchange cards simply based upon the players performances in certain statistics. Its embedded into their sporting system from such a young age. How many football supporters would know how much a player ran in the previous match, or how many times a player intercepts the ball in the season or who gives the ball away the most in their side? It’s highly unlikely that many would. But that’s largely through no fault of the supporters. The information has never been available on these shores. That begs a question of why? Sportsmen and women on the North American shores are heavily scrutinized by facts born out of their statistics week in, week out. These stats are available on a multitude of places including the respective leagues official websites among others. But in Europe, this scrutiny is largely based upon “match ratings” given by newspapers or reporters, without really going into much depth of what went into devising those ratings other than the opinion of one person. Pundits on TV also give their opinions but quite a lot of the time, it’s based on a few minutes worth of highlights that has been watched and one or two key incidents during the game.

The range of stats regularly present on the back of a baseball trading card

Today, things are beginning to change, Pro Zone and other similar programs that compile in-depth stats are used by many clubs as a modern tool in analyzing performances. The info is not readily available to the public. Opta joined the public fore and it has helped supporters get closer to the game with the in-depth statistics that it releases, although full access to all its data is not available to the public at any one given time. Most recently, WhoScored joined the fore and they must be commended for providing access to the most in-depth data to the public ever. Anyone, at any time, can access their database and find out random, but integral information, such as who wins the most aerial duels, who has the worst shots on target percentage, and who gives the ball away the most in their side. This has been a giant stride in the right direction for the public, in terms of proper analysis of football. Commentators, pundits and so-called experts would do themselves and their audiences justice by actually referring to this sort of data when they’re undertaking their critiques or commendations, just as their American counterparts do.

Whilst we look forward to more strides being taken in this regard by those who will facilitate the availability of such information, in order to provide better in-depth coverage of fact and opinion in any media of football, we can also confidently state that huge steps have been taken in the last five years in this regard, due to some of the groups mentioned above.

Now, just to make things interesting, with the help of our friends at WhoScored who provide the sort of data needed to compile the below statistics and conclusions, we’ve decided to present to you some lesser known facts, about which players have stood out within in-depth categories and which ones have not in the European season so far, with an American twist. So as they say on those shores, let’s get ready to rumble.

Players playing in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France (UEFA Rankings) are only considered (All figures are per game):

The Denilson Award for Most Dribbles
Gokhan Tore (Hamburg) 6.1
Leo Messi (Barcelona) 5.4
Ribery (FC Bayern) 4.4

Seven of the top ten dribblers in Europe play in the Bundesliga, who on the back of breaking league attendance records recently and winning an extra Champions League spot from Italy this season, is definitely a league on the up. The Premier League only has one representative in the top 10 and that is Blackburn Rovers Junior Hoilett who averages 3.1 dribbles a game.

Guilty as Inzaghi when it comes to Offsides Award
Di Natale (Udinese) 2.7
Papiss Cisse(Freiburg) 2.6
Calaio (Siena) 2.4

The Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga each have three men in the top ten of Europe’s most caught offside players. La Liga only has one representative in the top twenty and that is Real Zaragoza’s Portuguese international Helder Postiga (5th overall). Ligue 1’s most impressive striker, Oliver Giroud is also its most caught offside one and he is the only representative of his league in the top twenty.

Most Turnovers (Passing the ball to the opposition)
Adebayor (Tottenham) 3.8
Wright-Phillips(QPR) 3.8
Mouloungui (Nice) 3.4

The tempo of the French and English leagues plays a role in this as 16 of the top twenty players come from these two leagues with Ligue 1 edging it with 9 players. Only one Serie A player makes the top twenty, and that is Mirko Vucinic of Juventus who commits 2.6 turnovers.

Key Passes
Ibrahimovic (Milan) 3.3
Nene (PSG) 3.3
Valbuena (Marseille) 3.1

Some of Europe’s top passers rarely give the ball away, but sometimes they are criticized for playing the ball side-ways or backwards. Whilst it retains possession, it does not penetrate the opposition unlike the top 3 key passers in Europe. However, there will be persistent passers who eventually break down the opposition as they pick and choose when to send across what can be deemed a key pass more carefully. Leo Messi comes in 22nd, Andrea Pirlo comes in 23rd whilst Xavi comes in 27th in the category. Usually, players like these, especially the latter two pull off the key passes when they decide to go for them and the success ratio is higher even though stats are not available as of now to corroborate this. The more direct nature of the Premier League is exhibited by the fact that eight of the top twenty players represent it. Leighton Baines is the only defender in the top 20 with 2.7 key passes per game. It would be worth looking at the number of assists some of those key passes have been converted to. Ibrahimovic has 2 assists all season long, Nene 2, Valbuena 8, Messi 8, Pirlo 4, Xavi 5 and Baines 1.

The Hog the Ball Award for Most Passes
Xavi (Barcelona) 106.7
Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid) 85.9
Schweinsteiger (FC Bayern) 80.6

This was probably the most expected result of any category out there. Barcelona have 4 representatives in the top 20 but it might be news to you that there is a club that has more players in the top twenty, and that club is FC Bayern, with 5. Lahm, Rafinha (FC Bayern)and Dani Alves exhibit the fact that full backs are integral to the modern game with each of them being comfortably placed in the top 20, with the first two averaging just under 80 passes a game. Only four players from the Premier League are found in the top twenty. Not surprisingly, two of them play at Arsenal. Arteta averages 78.7 passes a game is 5th overall, whilst Ramsey and Ashley Williams (Swansea), two Welshmen each average 68.6 passes per game. Yaya Toure is 11th overall and is the 4th Premier League player, averaging just over 70 passes a game.

Most Accurate Passer
Britton (Swansea) 94.2%
Thiago (Barcelona) 93.9%
Xavi (Barcelona) 93.1%

This category coupled with the previous one probably illustrate a better picture when combined. In it, we only considered players who succeed with at least 50 passes a game. Britton leads in the category but he only makes 57.8 passes a game, whilst Thiago achieves 15 more passes a game. Xavi has already been discussed in the previous category. Busquets, Mascherano and Abidal all have pass ratios over 90% and are in the top twenty, whilst succeeding with at least 62 passes per game. The top twenty is dominated by the Premier League and La Liga and interestingly Swansea City have 3 players in it, confirming them as a side that likes to retain possession and pass the ball.

Best Crosser Award
Larsson (Sunderland) 2.8
Cossu (Cagliari) 2.8
Tiffert (Kaiserslautern) 2.6

Seven Premier League players make the top twenty in a league which has traditionally been known to target crosses towards a traditional number 9 playing as center forward. Six Ligue 1 players also find themselves in the top twenty. Interestingly, no La Liga player is in it, as not a single player there makes 2 crosses per game.

Quarterback Award for Most Successful Long Balls
Ter Stegen (Gladbach) 14.1
Hennessy (Wolves) 12.8
Begovic (Stoke) 11.8

As evidenced by the top 3 in this category, goalkeepers largely play the role of the quarterback if you’re looking at long balls completed per game. The highest placed outfield player is Mark van Bommel, in 4th place, with 11.2 long balls per game. Thiago Silva and Pirlo are the next two highest placed outfield players. All in all, six goalkeepers find themselves in the top twenty. Only two La Liga players and 1 Ligue player find themselves there.

Nigel De Jong Award for Best Tackler
Lucas Leiva (Liverpool) 5.7
Hetemaj (Chievo) 5.3
Behrami (Fiorentin) 5.2

Tackling is an art as old as goal-scoring even though it is somewhat not given the exposure or coverage that it deserves. Surprisingly, eight of the top twenty placed tacklers in Europe play in La Liga. 5 play in the Serie A although only one of those players is Italian, Udinese’s Pinzi who is in 10th place with 4.8 tackles per game. Nigel De Jong, the man whose name lies on the award does not even make the top 100 although he hasn’t had enough minutes this season.

Most Interceptions Per Game
Javi Fuego(Rayo) 7.3
Chico (Mallorca) 6.6
Bruno (Villareal)6

This is a category dominated by La Liga who take the top 16 spots and 31 of the top 40. The highest Premier League based player is Stilian Petrov of Aston Villa with 3.5 interceptions, who finds himself in 74th place.

The Hoof the Ball Clear Old-School English Style Award for Most Clearances
Shawcross (Stoke) 12.8
Peybernes (Sochaux) 11.6
Gabbidon (Swansea) 11.3

As tradition would have it, the Premier League is home to the most no nonsense defenders in Europe. The fans love them as much as they love their goalscorers. Four of the top five and seven of the top ten players play in the Premier League. Be it weaker defending or the fact that La Liga is considered to be the most technical league out there at the moment, the league has no player in the top 100 of the category.

The Terry Butcher Award for Bravery AKA Throw your Body in the Way and Block Shots
S. Taylor (Newcaslte 2
Cahill (Bolton) 1.5
A. Williams (Swansea) 1.5

Unsurprisingly, the Premier League provides 10 out of the top twenty in this category, and all of the representatives are British players.

Hang-time 50-50 Award for Most Aerial Duels Won
Crouch (Stoke) 4.7
Pelle (Parma) 4.5
Kabouo (Spurs) 4.5

Unsurprisingly, one of the tallest players in Europe wins the most aerial duels. Even though Peter Crouch has been criticized for being soft in some quarters, he almost always comes out on top when it comes to a 50-50 in the air. Credit must go to Heidar Helguson of QPR who is the only player under 1’85 in the top 10. In fact he is only 1’78 but wins 4.2 aerial duels per game and finishes in 4th spot.

Now onto the most interesting category of the season so far, an All-Defensive Team, a cornerstone of the end of season awards when it comes to the NBA. Usually, an all-star team of the season, gives precedence to the players who shone when it comes to the biggest games, and sometimes reputations win over performances. Attacking stats would definitely be favored in the selection of teams of the season, whichever league they are picked from. This team, however, includes players from every position who guarantee the undertaking of their defensive duties and back it up with the performance stats to prove it (Tackles, Interceptions, Clearanaces, Blocked Shots, Offsides Won, among other criteria). The members of the Defensive Team of the Season, selected from Europe’s top 5 leagues at the half-way mark of the season are as follows:

Line-up: Hart (Man City), Javi Venta (Levante), Lucio (Inter), Mascherano (Barcelona), Campagnaro (Napoli), Fernando Navarro (Sevilla) - Stindl (Hannover), Toulalan (Malaga), Mudingayi (Bologna), Arda Turan (Atletico) - Menez (PSG)

The above players have excelled when it comes to performing their defensive duties, in some cases right from the top of the team. In goal, Joe Hart’s save percentage, as well as shots to goals ratio, goals conceded and clean sheets make him one of the best keepers in Europe. Javi Venta has been instrumental to Levante’s meteoric, if shocking, rise to the top echelon of Spanish football, whilst Mascherano has had an excellent season as a center back. Hugo Campagnaro forms an integral part of Napoli’s back-3, whilst Lars Stindl and Arda Turan have better defensive numbers than many defenders. Jeremy Menez may be criticized for not having the final pass or finish mastered in his repertoire yet, but he puts in a shift and a half when it comes to working hard for his side. Honorable mentions must be made for Lucas Leiva who would have surely made the team had his season not been cut short by injury. Didac and Efrain Juarez of Espanyol and Real Zaragoza respectively also came close to breaking in at full back positions, while Santi Cazorla pushed himself close on either wing. Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny was also close to breaking into the starting line-up at center back and must surely be considered as one of Europe’s most improved player if such an award existed.