Friday, January 29, 2010

Half-Time Report: La Liga Española

The Spanish league has finally reached the halfway point.

Most Impressive

This is pretty obvious, and it's FC Barcelona. They are in my view the best team in the world and it's not close. While the league as whole seems tougher, particularly their rivals in Madrid appear to be, they keep rolling along. The Blaugrana are 5 points clear at the top of the points table, 9 goals better in goal differential. They are top two in pretty much every statistical category. In the less-important stats they are 5th best in foul differential (times fouled - fouls committed) and 2nd in corner differential. While they are second behind Real Madrid in shot differential, more importantly Barça are best at shot-on-target differential averaging nearly four more shots on target than their opponents in each match. To make matters worse for the rest of the league, they have the highest ratio of goals to shots-on-target (shooting percentage) in the league to go along with having the most shots. They have been doing well defensively and in goal as well with the second lowest shooting percentage against.

Last season at this stage they had 50 points and a GD of 46, so they are one point and 7 goals behind last-year's pace. They did slow down a bit in the second half; if they can keep up their current pace they will break last-year's record of 87 points and a goal differential of +70. About the only bad thing you can say about them is that they won't win the treble this year as they were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Sevilla, largely thanks to the heroics of Sevilla goalkeeper Andrés Palop.

Biggest Disappointment

Here it has to be Atlético de Madrid. There has been much turmoil in the boardroom at the Calderón and that seems to have worked its way onto the pitch. Atleti last season managed to pip Villarreal and Valencia for the fourth spot and they qualified for the Champions League at the start of the current campaign. Unfortunately, they were a failure in that competition, having busted out fourth in their group, not even qualifying for the Europa League. In the league they have actually been decent over the last month or so and that has pulled them from the relegation zone up to midtable. They are still well out of the fight for a spot in Europe. Their best hope is in the Copa del Rey as they've made the semifinals.

Real Madrid

They don't fit either of the above, but I believe it's illegal to write an article on the Liga without spending time on Real Madrid. Actually, I think there is a lot of interesting stuff to say about them, so they'll get more space than Barça despite not being as good.

I have to give the Madridistas credit as things appear to have gone much more smoothly than I thought they would. They have pretty much sorted out the Raul situation as his role is as a sub or to cover for injured players as he will likely do this weekend. They also have managed to play a reasonably balanced lineup, often featuring both Lass and Xabi Alonso in the midfield. Comparing this team to last year is like night and day, as it probably should be since they shelled out so much coin. Last season at this point they had 38 points and a goal differential of +14. Right now they are at 44 points and a GD of +30. Last season they averaged 2.18 goals per match, so far they are at 2.32 this season. I mentioned in the preview for the season that I thought their issues were on the defensive side of things and they have greatly improved there, going from 1.37 goals against per match last year to just 0.74 in the first half of this season. They have taken 0.8 more shots-on-target per match than last year and allowed their opponents 0.9 fewer. In rankings terms, they have the 5th fewest shots-on-target allowed, a drastic improvement from last year when they were only 13th best. Any season other than this one and the last they would be clear favorites at the top of the table with this level of play.

Something often brought up in the Spanish media is that Real Madrid are dependent on whoever their biggest star is. A few years ago it was Zidane and that has obviously now shifted to Ronaldo. I personally viewed this as fairly ridiculous given the surplus in attacking talent, but this year at least there seems to actually be evidence of this. The season thus far is a pretty good time to look at this because he has missed several matches due to the ankle injury he suffered playing for Portugal. He has played in 12 matches and missed 7 in the league. 7 is a small number but it at least gives something to work with; normally in the first half a season the top players play nearly every match. Ronaldo missed the matches against Atletico de Madrid, Getafe, Racing, Sevilla, Sporting, Valencia and Valladolid. Those are tougher opponents on average than those he played against. While they got about the same number of points per match, 2.3, whether he played or not, the stats indicate that Real Madrid were far better when he was in the lineup. They average half a goal more per match when he plays and concede about two thirds of a goal per match fewer. When Ronaldo played they averaged 1.8 more shots on target per match, allowed their opponents an impressive 2.6 fewer shots-on-target per match. While he's far from a great defensive player this makes sense due to balance. If he makes them far more dangerous in attack both when they are able to build it and on the counterattack then that forces the opponents to be more defensive and you have fewer shots coming at Casillas.

The stats and results-only models both allow me to take into account the difference in opponent strength. Using them it is striking how much better Real Madrid were in the 12 matches featuring CR9 than the 7 matches without him. Using the stats model, Real Madrid with Ronaldo are just behind Barcelona with 88.6 expected points*. Without him they are 5th best with 65 expected points. Going off the results model, Real Madrid with Ronaldo would still be behind Barcelona but it would be close. They have an expected goal differential of 70 according to the model. Without Ronaldo that number drops to 39. Again I'll caution that the sample sizes here aren't large enough to say for sure, but going by that it seems that Ronaldo is worth about 31 goals in goal differential to the Merengues, which corresponds to about 20 league points. It'll be interesting to see who they fare the next two matches as they he has been suspended for breaking Patrick Mtiliga's nose in their match against Malaga last week.


As I have said in previous articles, luck plays a role in a lot of ways and the two I write a lot about are the relationship between points and goal differential as well as performance in front of goal. The former appears to be essentially all luck, while converting shots into goals, or keeping your opponent from doing the same, are certainly reliant on both skill and luck. I'll write about this more in future.

When it comes to performance in close matches, which is really what getting a lot of points out of goal differential is all about, Deportivo, Tenerife and Athletic de Bilbao seem to be above expectation while Malaga is the lone unlucky standout. Going off the regression formula in my previous article on goal differential and points, the average team with Deportivo's goal differential would have 28 or 29 points, while they have 34. They currently sit fifth, so that is the difference between being in the thick of the race for a European spot and sitting midtable. Tenerife have been bad so far with a goal differential of -20. Going by past years, teams around there at this stage of the season usually have around 13 points so they are about 4 points closer to staying up than they should be. Athletic de Bilbao are similarly about 4 points over expectation. On the other end, Malaga are between 5 and 6 points below where they should be. Historically, teams with a goal differential of -5 at this point have had an average of nearly 23 points, 6 clear of the relegation zone, but they find themselves even on points with Tenerife in 18th. Last season, much as it pains me to say, Betis were very unlucky in this regard and got relegated largely because of it. Their fellow Andalusians could potentially go that same way.

In terms of performance in front of goal, there are a few teams near the top that have struggled at one end or the other. Sevilla, my favorite club, are 4th best according to the stats model but only 6th best in the table. That is largely due to only being 14th best at shooting percentage allowed. Perhaps I'm being optimistic, but I think that's mostly due to luck. Palop has been in good form lately and with him in goal last year Sevilla were 3rd best at shooting percentage against. Villarreal have similarly struggled - they are only 17th best at shooting percentage against compared to 8th last season. I believe largely because of that they are in 9th instead of a few spots up where the stats model puts them. Getafe are currently 7th in the table, just outside of the Europa League. The stats model puts them 5th. It seems their issues have been at the attacking end as they are 15th in shooting percentage. With them I'm far less convinced that it's bad luck though, as they were 19th in the same category last season.

In the relegation battle, the stats model rates Zaragoza 5 spots higher than their current position in 19th. They rate dead last when it comes to shooting percentage against, allowing their opponents to score on a dreadful 44% of their shots-on-target. They were promoted from the second division, so they almost certainly should be near the bottom, but with numbers that bad I'm sure they've been unlucky as well. On the other hand, Racing and Espanyol should be in the relegation zone according to the stats model. This surprised me since they are 7 and 16 goals better in goal differential than the best team in the bottom three. For Espanyol it appears to be a combination of a bit of good luck when it comes to close matches, they are about 2.5 points above expectation there, and they are doing a bit better at stopping shots than one would expect from a team in their position. They are 13th best though so it's not too extreme. Racing is a different story as they are 3rd best in shooting percentage and 9th best in shooting percentage allowed. A big factor there is the play of this year's big revelation Sergio Canales. The talented 18-year-old has scored 5 goals on just 6 shots on target. Otherwise their lineup does not feature guys you would expect to be near the top when it comes to putting away chances, so they'll likely cool down.


Before going into new predictions, I want to just go over a few I made for the season just after the season started.

Firstly, I predicted that the top 6 would be the same as last year. While predicting the top 6 is never easy, it looks like I'm off there as Atleti don't look like climbing back in there. I still think there's a good chance that both Sevilla move up and Villarreal do as well so 5 out of 6 are in there. I predicted that Getafe would do much better than last season and that is clearly the case. Last year they ended even on points with Betis who were relegated. Right now they are 7th, 3 points out of the Europa League. Halfway through the season they are only 12 points short of where they were at the end last year. Osasuna I predicted would be in a safer position as they finished just one point clear of relegation. They are currently 6 clear and looking significantly better than several teams below them. Last season Almeria finished 4 clear of relegation, I picked them for the drop or to at least be even closer this year than that. Right now they are only 1 point clear so it's up in the air. Finally, I picked Sporting Gijon to be relegated. They were incredibly fortunate not to be last year despite finishing 14th; they had the worst goal differential in the league at -32. They were particularly bad in defense having conceded 79 goals. This season they have turned things around and are a legit midtable team. Overall I think I did pretty well with the predictions, but there were definitely a couple misses in there.

Here are the new predictions:

Barcelona will win the league. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Real Madrid still have some chance certainly, but Barcelona are better and have a five-point cushion. I don't expect any surprises here.

Real Madrid and Valencia will get the other two automatic Champions League spots. The way I see the league, and the models agree, there is Barcelona, then a fair drop down to Real Madrid, then a similar drop to Valencia. After that there is another gap to the next group of teams like Sevilla and Mallorca. Right now I think Real Madrid are close to a lock to finish in the top 2 and Valencia are almost there when it comes to the third spot. Right now they have a 6 point lead on Sevilla. If they can get a point in the Sanchez-Pizjuan this weekend they'll be in fantastic shape for that important third spot.

Sevilla will finish fourth. I'm a bit wary to make this prediction given that I'm biased and it goes in the direction of that bias. Right now Sevilla are just a point back of Mallorca and Mallorca are also 4 goals better in goal differential. None the less, I think Sevilla have had well more than their fair share of injury problems and are better than the numbers indicate for the first half.

Mallorca and Villarreal edge out Depor and Getafe for the two Europa League spots. Right now Villarreal are sitting 9th, 7 points out the Europa League. I think they'll claw their way up, jumping over Athletic de Bilbao who will drop down to the middle of the table. That leaves a four-club race for two spots which I think will come right down to the last week of the season. I give the edge to Mallorca and Villarreal, but I could see any of those four playing in Europe next year.

Tenerife will stay up, Almeria will drop. To be honest, I don't really believe this. As with the previous half-time reports, I'm trying to pick a team to stay up that it is currently in the relegation zone and a team that is currently clear to drop. I think these are the most likely two sides to flip, but I think Tenerife are more likely to get relegated than Almeria.

*this is what they would average if they played a large number of seasons at the level shown by the stats and results from this year so far. This model appears to overestimate the chances of a result for bad teams against good teams so differences at the top are probably larger in reality.

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