Let’s be honest: It hasn’t been the most exciting season in LaLiga. The drama Real Madrid and Villarreal have packed into their Champions League runs evidently didn’t leave much for domestic play. Real Madrid wrapped up their 35th title with four games to spare, and their odds of winning said title hadn’t been below 80%, per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI, since the start of 2022.
The top-four race could have been an absolute thriller because the teams in second, third and fourth place — Barcelona, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, respectively — haven’t put up particularly exorbitant point totals. But neither fifth-placed Real Betis, nor sixth-placed Real Sociedad, have been able to avoid a spring funk, and while neither have been mathematically eliminated from a top-four spot, the odds are quite long for them to secure a Champions League place for next season.
The relegation fight could still pack some drama — both Levante and Alaves are almost certainly going down, but the final spot could go to any of a number of teams (most likely Mallorca, Granada or Cadiz). Barring massive drama, as I wrote in last week’s Bundesliga recap, seasons are long and memorable and take on their own personality.
So let’s talk about some of the more interesting storylines of the LaLiga campaign.
How Real Madrid took charge
Carries are, more often than not, a defender’s stat. They’re the players most likely to be pushing the ball forward over longer patches of grass, in part because that area of the pitch is generally less cluttered with players during build-up.
According to Sports Info Solutions, seven players have carried the ball a distance of more than 7,700 meters in LaLiga this year: Four defenders (including Real Madrid newcomer David Alaba), two midfielders … and Vinicius Junior. Not only is the Real Madrid attacker first in the category, but his 10,165 meters are also 1,600 more than third-placed Javier Galan of Celta Vigo.
If Real manager Carlo Ancelotti has had a particular impact on any single player with his general “deploy basic tactics and give awesome players space to the things they’re awesome at” approach, it has brought more good out of the 21-year-old Vinicius than anyone else.
Karim Benzema has been devastating and downright Ballon d’Or-worthy this season. His 43 goals and 13 assists in all competitions, and the fact that he has scored 15 goals during a Champions League finals run (in which he has scored 10 of his team’s 14 goals in the knockout rounds), is worthy of all possible praise. But you could make a solid case that Vinicius’ emergence (18 goals, 15 assists in all competitions) has been of nearly equal importance.
The only major difference between the Real Madrid of last season and this season is the frequency with which they have maneuvered the ball into dangerous areas, and he has been a key to that. They are attempting about 2.7 more shots per match and finishing 2.4% more possessions in the attacking third, and carries — 426.3 in 2020-21 (a distant second to Barcelona), 504.5 in 2021-22 (first) — have been a major reason for that.
24 – Vinícius Júnior has generated 24 shots after a carry (moving 5+ metres with the ball) in the UEFA Champions League this season; the most of any player in the competition, as well as recording the most carries with a take-on (37). Uncontainable. pic.twitter.com/nvBv8MitmR
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 4, 2022
With Ancelotti backing off his intended levels of pressure to aid an aging midfield, the Real Madrid defense has been more passive and allowed more shots this season, but it hasn’t mattered because Los Blancos are progressing the ball better and attempting more shots (and of the same quality as before). And for all of their late-game, come-from-behind heroics in the Champions League, their superpower in LaLiga this season has been their ability to add to leads.
Real Madrid goal differential (per 90 possessions) by game state:
When tied: +1.1 in 2020-21 (first in LaLiga), +1.0 in 2021-22 (first)
When behind: +1.1 in 2020-21 (fourth), +1.1 in 2021-22 (second)
When ahead: +1.0 in 2020-21 (third), +1.9 in 2021-22 (first)
Benzema, Vinicius and Marco Asensio have combined for 23 goals and seven assists when Real Madrid has the lead. Put another way, they slam the door when they get the opportunity. (Also, though Asensio has been quite solid, it’s mind-blowing to think of what the Benzema-Vinicius duo might be capable if Kylian Mbappe indeed ends up leaving Paris Saint-Germain for Real Madrid in the coming offseason.)
Atleti vs. a nasty case of regression-to-the-mean
Antoine Griezmann reflects on his season with Atletico Madrid ahead of the Madrid derby.
This is the 18th straight season in which either Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid won the league, so basically any year-in-review piece like this can begin with “Why One Team Won” followed by “Why The Other Two Didn’t.”
We discussed Barcelona, the debt-addled (but increasingly intriguing) work in process, recently. For much of the early season, it looked like they could be in danger of missing next year’s Champions League after losing Lionel Messi, but they rounded into form under club legend Xavi Hernandez. They are too reliant on 19-year-old Pedri for creativity (which has been an issue considering he has been injured a lot this season), they need to figure out what they want from the full-back position, and they probably need one more attacker for next season. But they appear to have done what they needed to avoid any long-term repercussions from Messi’s departure.
Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, have spent all season proving the concept of regression to the mean.
It was easy enough to see that Atletico were a bit fortunate last season. They won LaLiga in 2020-21 despite an expected goal differential (xGD) of just plus-0.44 (fifth best in the league) and with a save percentage that was more than 20 percentage points better than opponents’. As amazing as goalkeeper Jan Oblak has been through the years, that was probably a little too good. It was fair to assume that while Diego Simeone’s team might be as good on paper this season — or perhaps even better with the additions of Rodrigo De Paul and Matheus Cunha, plus the re-addition of Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann via loan — replicating last year’s points total of 86 would be difficult.
But instead of regression toward the mean, we’ve seen regression zip right on past the mean to the other side. Atleti’s xG differential has actually improved to +0.57 this season, and they’re allowing shots worth just 1.0 xG per match, down slightly from 1.1 last year. Their attacking and possession numbers are almost exactly the same. But they’re on pace for just 69 points and a narrow fourth-place finish because Oblak has gone from stopping a few too many shots to not stopping nearly enough.
After producing a save percentage around 80% for the previous four seasons, Oblak has stopped just 58% of shots on goal this season, second worst in the league and ahead of only Mallorca’s Sergio Rico. He went from averaging about 11.2 goals prevented per season — StatsPerform’s measure comparing the xG of shots on target to actual goals allowed — to minus-6.8.
In Champions League play, Oblak recorded 3.8 goals prevented, his best total since 2016-17, so it’s not like he suddenly forgot everything he has ever known about goalkeeping. He will probably have a pretty normal-for-Oblak season in 2022-23. But randomness can be a big jerk sometimes, and it wrecked Atleti’s season.
How much it has wrecked the season is yet to be determined: Atleti hold a six-point advantage over Real Betis for fourth place and a spot in next year’s Champions League. Assuming they hold on to that lead — and FiveThirtyEight’s SPI gives them a 99% chance of doing so following their weekend win over Real Madrid — then the harm will end up minimal. But with matches against Sevilla and Real Sociedad remaining, the work isn’t quite over.
Alejandro Moreno ponders if Barcelona will be able to keep up their quality of play into next season.
Will the top four change at some point?
Odds favor this becoming the third straight season in which Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atleti and Sevilla land in the top four and secure Champions League positions. (Villarreal also scored a spot this season with last year’s Europa League title.)
We’re used to knowing where three of those spots are going, obviously, but fourth spot has typically been up for grabs. Since 2013, when Atletico officially emerged as a powerhouse under Simeone, Sevilla and Valencia will have each snared the No. 4 spot three times, with Villarreal, Athletic Club and Real Sociedad each doing so once and Getafe (in 2019) and Celta Vigo (2016) also coming close. Sevilla’s three-year advantage is a rarity, and the advantage might already be gone if you look at how the second half of the LaLiga campaign has played out.
In the 88th minute against Atletico Madrid on Dec. 18, Lucas Ocampos scored on a rebound off a corner kick to give Sevilla a 2-1 win. It was the team’s third straight one-goal victory. They would draw with Barcelona in their next match, then win a pair of 1-0 affairs over Cadiz and Getafe, putting them 12 points up on Barca and still within five of Real Madrid with a game in hand on Jan. 9. It was an incredible run for Julen Lopetegui’s squad, but winning with this much drama is typically unsustainable. Sevilla were averaging 2.2 points per game in league play at this point — a title pace, or very close to it — but their baseline stats were quite a bit worse than those they had generated in recent seasons.
Turns out it was definitely unsustainable.
Since Jan. 10, they’ve played in 13 matches decided by zero or one goals, and they’ve pulled just 15 points from them. After generating a plus-0.55 xG differential per match in 2020-21, Sevilla have seen that fall to just plus-0.11 this season, eighth in the league. Tight wins propped them up for a while, but regression struck. Barring a shocking late collapse, it probably won’t cost them a top-four spot — they’re seven points clear of Real Betis with three to play — but they have drifted back to the pack of other top-four contenders, and they could be in for a dogfight to keep their Champions League spot past next season.
Obviously offseason player movement will play a large — and for now, unpredictable — role in deciding next season’s hierarchy, but it’s worth noting that, on paper, five clubs are fielding pretty similar teams at the moment, and that could make next year’s race for No. 4 awfully interesting.
Here are the five that currently rank in the league’s top half in terms of both current xG differential and player value, per Transfermarkt:
Villarreal: third in xGD, sixth in value
Real Sociedad: seventh in xGD, fifth in value
Sevilla: eighth in xGD, fourth in value
Real Betis: sixth in xGD, eighth in value
Athletic Club: fifth in xGD, ninth in value
Valencia are seventh in player value but 13th in xGD, while Levante and Rayo Vallecano are ninth and 10th in the former, respectively, but 15th and 20th in the latter.
One name on that list should stand out for anyone who watched the Champions League semifinals. Villarreal beat Juventus and Bayern Munich in the knockout rounds and had Liverpool even on aggregate, and extremely uncomfortable, after 150 semifinal minutes before running out of energy and succumbing. The club regularly punches above its weight and has very much earned the round of triumphant “How did they do it??” pieces it has seen for its continental efforts.
Of course, they’re also currently seventh in LaLiga and looking at needing a playoff win just to qualify for the Conference League. They’re just one point from missing European qualification altogether. The Yellow Submarine were the anti-Sevilla at the start of the season, incapable of closing out tight wins. They suffered draws in five of their first six league matches — including 0-0 affairs against three bottom-half-of-the-table foes — and then lost games 2-1 to both Osasuna and Athletic Club. Even while they were positioning themselves well to advance in the Champions League, they found themselves 14th in LaLiga, 10 points back of the top four, heading into Matchday 12.
Since then, only Real Madrid and Barcelona have generated more points than Unai Emery’s squad. But the early hole cost them, and while they’ve focused all of their energy on their Champions League run, they suffered rather unforgivable league losses to Cadiz (1-0), Levante (2-0) and Alaves (2-1). Win those three matches against relegation-threatened foes, and you’re two points out of fourth right now. Alas.
My 10 (+4) favorite players (non-Big 3 edition)
Even if the plot of a given season ends up rather predictable, a season’s journey takes on plenty of secondary plotlines and breakout characters. Let’s talk about some of this year’s scene-stealers, breakouts and redemption arcs. (And let’s leave Spain’s Big 3 out of the conversation. You probably already know plenty about them.)
Oscar Trejo, Rayo Vallecano
LaLiga isn’t awash in teenage star turns, but it has plenty of late-career redemption stories. The 34-year old Trejo helped to lead Rayo to LaLiga, and he’s a major reason why they’ve got a shot at only their second top-10 finish in 22 years. He’s a chaos engine, combining 151 ball recoveries with three goals and nine assists among 60 chances created.
Iker Muniain, Athletic Club
The midfielder has been one of Athletic’s best players for more than a decade, but he found a new level of creativity this season.
– His average stat line from 2010-11 to 2020-21: 4.2 goals, 2.1 assists, 31.0 chances created
– His stat line in 2021-22: four goals, nine assists, 95 chances created.
He might have found a new gear as he approaches age 30.
Nabil Fekir, Real Betis
Betis have reached the Champions League just once (2005-06), and odds suggest they’ll fall just short of a second bid this season. But both their charge and their style of play — lots of shots, plenty of defensive pressure, lots of pretty interplay in the attacking third — have made them the most enjoyable Spanish team to follow this season, and Fekir has been the prime creator of prettiness, combining six goals and eight assists among 74 chances created.
Jules Kounde, Sevilla
There’s a reason why Chelsea, among others, have sought the 23-year old centre-back for a while now. He’s sure in the air and solid in build-up play, and he’s the only centre-back in the league to combine at least 180 ball recoveries with at least 15 chances created.
The 33-year old Parejo doesn’t do as much work in defense these days, but he has played 3,514 minutes in all competitions and leads his team in both assists and expected assists (xA). Pino, meanwhile, is one of the few LaLiga teenagers to play starring roles; the rambunctious 19-year old scored four times in a 5-1 win over Espanyol in February, and while that’s not really his game — he’s more of a “randomly show up unmarked in the box” scorer than a volume shooter — it was proof of his obvious potential.
Unai Simon, Athletic Club
Athletic continue to make the good, old-fashioned “give the opponent no space and no good looks at goal, and maybe occasionally score yourself (and save all your best work for cups)” recipe an effective one, and Simon’s sturdy goalkeeping is a major reason for that. He’s always in the right place, and after an Oblak-esque shot-stopping slump last season, he’s back among the league’s best this year.
Mikel Merino, Real Sociedad
A miserable finishing slump will likely keep Real Sociedad from the Champions League — they are five points behind Atletico Madrid, having turned 50.6 xG into just 34 actual goals, less than one per match — but the midfield of Merino, Rafinha, David Silva, et cetera, has produced plenty of pretty moments. Despite frequently playing in a pivot role in front of the defense (with the 263 ball recoveries to show for it), Merino has created the fourth-most xG (3.9) and third-most xA (3.4) on the team. He does a little of everything.
Hugo Duro, Valencia
Most of Valencia’s core is aged 25 and under, and while they probably haven’t shown as much progress this year as they hoped, Duro’s emergence up front has been exciting. He’s a willing presser, and he has tossed in seven league goals to boot. (Sadly, his loan ends in June and he’ll return to Getafe, pending a permanent summer transfer back to Valencia or on to somewhere else.)
Jose Luis Morales, Levante
Levante are almost certainly going down, but credit to them for going down swinging. They’re fourth in the league in xG and eighth in goals scored, and while opponents have ripped their transition defense to shreds all season, they’ve entertained. More specifically, Morales has. The 34-year old has scored 12 times and created five assists; since turning 30, he has scored double-digit goals in four of the past five seasons.
And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge the four Americans who took to the pitch for LaLiga clubs this fall.
Sergino Dest, Barcelona
The 21-year old remains a very polarizing presence at right-back for Barca; he is very good in some ways (speed, attacking) but has proved lacking in others (turnovers, getting lost in defense), and it’s not clear that the club is going to remain patient enough to allow him to further grow into his role. Still, he has played 1,514 league minutes this season, has recorded three assists among 18 chances created and remains one of the top 21-and-under players in Europe.
Yunus Musah, Valencia
Musah, 19, has almost proved himself even more important to the United States national team than Dest, but he’s still searching for a breakthrough in club play. He is creating 0.66 chances per 90 minutes, up from 0.47 last season, but he also saw his minutes sink from 1,534 to 1,221.
Matt Miazga, Alaves
The 26-year-old centre-back and longtime member of the Chelsea loan army followed a season at Anderlecht with his first LaLiga foray, and it hasn’t worked out as well as he probably hoped. He played a lot in the fall but missed time in December because of COVID-19 and has played only once since a bad January blunder against Real Betis.
Matthew Hoppe, Mallorca
Hoppe’s career has played out in reverse thus far. He came out of nowhere to record a hat trick for Schalke in January 2021, helping the club to end a 30-match winless streak in the process. But he scored just three more times in 23 other Schalke appearances, before moving to Mallorca in August. Mallorca needs all the help it can get but hasn’t asked him for much: He has played just 129 minutes in five league matches, attempting two shots with no goals.