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Dec 24, 2018
Dec 24, 2018

La Liga mid-season review

Is La Liga more competitive or just weaker?

Assessing Barcelona’s title chances

Who is the best of the rest?

Which teams should be concerned about relegation?

La Liga mid-season review

As La Liga enters its annual winter break, bettors now have a good opportunity to assess their pre-season predictions and make any necessary adjustments based on nearly half-a-season’s worth of data. Tightly poised at the top of the table, Barcelona began the season as title favourites – but will their excellent form continue? Read on for some expert analysis of the La Lig season so far.

La Liga: More competitive or just weaker?

The immediate thought that comes to mind about La Liga this season is just how much more competitive it seems in comparison to some of Europe’s other top leagues and even the Spanish league itself in seasons gone by.

However, is this increased competition borne from an injection of quality over the summer, or actually, because teams have become generally weaker so more closely resemble one another? Analysing data from the past 21 Spanish seasons, @PenaltyKickStat’s Points Pacings suggests the latter.

Top by just three points heading into 2019, Barcelona have 37 points from their first 17 games and are being closely followed by Atletico Madrid (34), Sevilla 32 and Real Madrid (29 from 16 games). 

However, in most recent seasons, Barca’s points total would have put them only second or even third at this stage of the season – suggesting a very slow start to the season by La Liga’s top teams.

Assessing Barcelona’s title chances

Winning last year’s league by 14 points, champions Barcelona were top by six points after game week 16 in 2017, but they find themselves in a less comfortable position this time around.

Having scored 48 goals already this season (for reference, the second-highest scorers in the league are Sevilla with 30), Barca’s expected goals (xG) currently stands at 40.56 – which suggests their rapid firing forward line may begin to cool down over the coming months (potentially giving those close behind the chance to overtake them).

However, bettors should also remember that genuine world-class strikers like Lionel Messi will generally outperform their expected goals totals in ways other players won’t.

Despite their incredible offensive options however, Barcelona’s defensive performances have been average. The eighth best defence in La Liga, having conceded 19 times, the champions have an expected goals against (xGA) figure of 20.56 – suggesting they’ll concede a similar amount of goals, at the same rate, in the second half of the season. 

Worryingly for Barca, their defensive process is allowing in a much higher rate of expected goals per game compared to the previous campaign. Their xGA per game was 0.80 after 17 games last season, compared to 1.21 this season.

As relegation battles are generally more unpredictable (and it’s generally a less researched market), bettors may still be able to find better value betting on who survives or gets relegated.

In terms of individual performances, much of Barca’s early season success has been spearheaded by Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. First and third on the La Liga goal scoring charts respectively, Messi has 15 goals and 10 assists in just 14 games – with Suarez scoring 11 goals in 15 games and providing a further four assists.

Looking at their underlying stats, Messi has expected assists and goals per 90 figures of 0.74 and 0.61 respectively. Suarez has 0.90 and 0.13. 

Barcelona are currently priced at 1.263* to win La Liga in Pinnacle’s “Will Barcelona win the league?” Yes/No market which represents a probability of around 79% that they’ll retain the title. This is compared to a probability of under 60% at the start of the La Liga season. 

This change implies that despite it still being close at the top of the table (and Barcelona’s relatively poor underlying performance stats) that bettors still have confidence in Ernesto Valverde’s side still being top come the end of the season.

Are Sevilla genuine contenders? 

Third placed Sevilla are currently on 32 points from their opening 17 games and recently lost ground on the top two after drawing away to Legannes (a 91st minute equaliser saved them a point). Despite that recent setback, Sevilla have still been somewhat of a surprise package in La Liga this season.

Having only won La Liga once in their history, in 1945/46, Los Hispalenses haven’t finished in the top three in Spain’s top tier for over 11 seasons – yet they approach the New Year as Barca’s closest challengers.

Looking at recent data however, Sevilla have a tendency to underperform in the second half of each season. In fact, not once in the past four La Liga campaigns have Sevilla achieved a better PPG average in the second half of the season – and should this trend continue, it’s unlikely they’ll be lifting the La Liga title come May. 

Sevilla PPG comparison

 -

Gameweek 1-16

Gameweek 16-38

Season

Position

PPG

Position

PPG

2017/18

5th

1.81

14th

1.40

2016/17

3rd

2.06

5th

1.77

2015/16

8th

1.43

9th

1.31

2014/15

6th*

2.0

4th

2.0

 *Sevilla had played just 15 games, due to a postponed fixture vs. Real Madrid who were competing in the FIFA World Club Cup. 

Using Sevilla as an example, bettors should be wary of teams who have other commitments as the season progresses when predicting how they’ll perform in their domestic league.

In both 2014/15 and 2015/16, Sevilla reached and won the Europa League final, while in 2016/17 and 2017/18 they reached the Quarter Finals and Round of 16 of the Champions League. They also reached the Copa Del Rey final in both 2017/18 and 2015/16. 

While the statistics show Sevilla have a recent habit of underperforming domestically in the second half of the season, this period is normally accompanied by success in cup competitions – which can often prompt managers to place greater emphasis on crucial knockout fixtures as opposed to league games, which can mean rotations in the squad and resting of better players.

Will Atletico Madrid keep up with Barcelona?

Atletico Madrid are now Barcelona's closest challengers on 34 points (three behind the league leaders). Diego Simeone side’s style of play contrasts greatly with that of the other three title challengers as they have a much greater emphasis on the defensive side of the game.

Unlike Barcelona, who have a tendency to blitz teams away yet still concede a relatively significant amount of goals at the same time, Atletico rely heavily on their excellent counter attacking options and keep things very tight at the back, particularly at home.

The best defensive record in the division, having conceded just 12 goals in their opening 17 games, Diego Simeone’s men have yet to be beaten at home, winning seven and drawing two.

Atletico’s games will often be a stalement for the large majority of play, meaning they often leave it late in games to snatch victory – they have taken most of their shots and scored most of their goals after the 76th minute in matches. 

Winning nine league games thus far, more than half of their victories have come by just a one-goal margin. This style may not lend itself to a full campaign given the continued pressure counter attacking soccer can have on a team’s defence and the high level of fitness required by the more attack-minded players.

While as the season further progresses, bettors should rely less on underlying performance and more on actual recent form if they want to make the most accurate predictions possible.

An important consideration for bettors is that Atletico appear heavily reliant on star striker Antoine Griezmann. With seven goals and five assists from 17 appearances, the World Cup winner’s expected stats dwarf those of any of his team mates.

With an xG90 of 0.39 and an xA90 of 0.28, the continued absent of fellow frontman Diego Costa means that Griezmann’s closest challenger in terms of goals scored is Crotian striker Nikola Kalinic – who has two goals in nine and an xG90 of 0.26, while in terms of assists, midfielder Angel Correa has an xA90 of 0.16.

With a personal expected goals tally so far of 6.44 and expected assist tally of 4.52, Griezmann is taking chances at a rate you’d expect, so should continue his impressive form in the second half of the season.

For bettors however, Atletico’s reliance on one player for much of their attacking output should viewed as a sign of caution when assessing their chances of winning La Liga – as any long-term injury or dip in form could prove detrimental to their chances of title success.

Can Real Madrid recover from a poor start?

Despite finishing third last season, Real Madrid were arguably the best team in the division – finishing top for both expected goals (xG) and expected points (xPTS).

Losing star player Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer to Juventus has left a gap in their attacking options however, with Real’s current crop failing to replicate his impact in terms of goal scoring and general play. 

Scoring 26 goals and producing five assists in the league last season, 24 of these goals came in the second half of the season – a tally any of Real’s other strikers will find hard to replicate based on current form. Karim Benzema’s return of six goals in 16 matches, just the 13th best return in the division.

As a result Real have endured a difficult first half to the season, so much so, that they sacked their manager Julen Lopetegui just three months into the new season. 

Under new coach Santiago Solari, however, Real have experienced a significant improvement in La Liga – with a points per game ratio of 2.5 under Solari, compared to just 1.4 for his predecessor – and have the best record in the division since his appointment. 

Real Madrid manager comparison

Manager

Played

Won

Drawn

Lost

Goals

Goals against

Points

xG

xGA

xPTS

Position

PPG

Lopetegui

10

4

2

4

14

14

14

19.25

12.40

18.09

9

1.4

Solari

6

5

0

1

10

5

15

8.13

7.5

8.61

1

2.5

With such an obvious contrast between Madrid’s performances under the two managers, bettors would be advised to pay more close attention to recent form – rather than early season statistics when deciding on whether Real Madrid may offer value both in the 1X2 market or in La Liga as a whole.

Who is the best of the rest?

Given it appears most bettors believe Barcelona will retain the Spanish title, odds on them doing so may not represent good value to certain bettors.

Looking at teams, neither challenging for the title or involved in the fight for La Liga survival, bettors can potentially find value in identifying which mid table teams will experience an uplift or downturn in fortunes in the second half of the season – and bet on them accordingly in the 1X2 market or in more specialist markets. 

While as the season further progresses, bettors should rely less on underlying performance and more on actual recent form if they want to make the most accurate predictions possible – at this stage of the season, any big discrepancies between underlying performances and results should still be worth considering.

Valencia appears to be one such time that should undergo a significant improvement soon. Finishing fourth last year, and competing in this year’s Champions League before entering the Europa League, they were drawn into the “Group of Death” alongside Juventus and Manchester United – which saw them compete in a very tough round of fixtures.

Drawing Celtic in the Round of 32 in the Europa League, Valencia should have a less congested, and potentially easier set of fixtures, post–Christmas which could aide their performances in La Liga.

Currently languishing in 8th, Los Che Els Taronges have scored just 15 times all season. However, an expected goals total of 27.77 – a difference of 12.77 - could be a sign that their poor fortunes in front of goal will improve soon.

In terms of expected points, Valencia are actually third in La Liga with an xPTS of 29.77 – behind Sevilla (30.00) and Barcelona (33.55) in second and first respectively.

Analysing the relegation battle

Given the slow start to the season by arguably the leagues two best teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga finds itself in the unusual position where there are more than two or three teams in the title race. When it comes to the relegation battle, however, there are any number of teams that could get relegated.

The fact that plenty of teams in La Liga are in danger of being relegated is highlighted by the fact that just six points separates Athletic Club in 18th and Celta Vigo in 9th.

As relegation battles are generally more unpredictable (and it’s generally a less researched market), bettors may still be able to find better value betting on who survives or gets relegated rather than the eventual champions.

While historical data isn’t always the most reliably when used to predict future results, given the superstition surrounding where a team is positioned on Christmas Day, and where they’ll eventually finish, it can be useful to work out how often a team finds themselves bottom during the festive period only to eventually survive.

Just three times in the four past seasons has a team been in the relegation zone at this stage of the season and managed to retain La Liga soccer for another season – with Elche in 2014/15 the only team in the past four seasons to be bottom at this stage of the season yet not be relegated. 

Another option for bettors is to calculate expected points, or see which teams will achieve the results necessary to stay up and compare it against their schedule strength or split of home and away games – though this too can fluctuate on a season-by-season basis. 

In 2014/15, Deportivo La Coruna avoided relegation by goal difference – after drawing level on 35 points with Granada – while last season 30 points would have been enough to stay up. In 2015/16, 39 points were required to stay in Spain’s top division.  

Currently, Huesca sit bottom on eight points, Rayo Vallecano are 19th on 13 points with Villerreal in 18th (15 points) and Athletic Club just ahead of them on 16 points.

The fact that plenty of teams in La Liga are in danger of being relegated is highlighted by the fact that  just six points separates Athletic Club in 17th and Valencia in 8th – a testament to how tight and unpredictable the bottom half of a soccer table can be.

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