A quick glance at the La Liga table suggests chaos. Real Sociedad and Villarreal in the top two! Barcelona are 11th! But a lot of that comes from the fact that some teams have played two more than others; adjust for that, and things look at least a little bit more orderly. You’ve still got Barcelona laboring in sixth, and Real Sociedad is still ahead of both Barca and Real Madrid, but the league’s three biggest clubs are all at or pretty close to the top.
That’s not to say things haven’t been a little different
Since 2003, Real Sociedad have only once finished higher than sixth in the league, and not only are they first in points and second in points per game, they’re also second in goal differential and first in expected goal differential (xGD). Those are pretty sturdy, predictive measures, and the club from San Sebastian isn’t where it is because of a run of fluky finishing.
They have succeeded due to the fact that they might have the best and most creative midfield in the league. The insertion of Manchester City’s David Silva alongside veteran Portu and youngsters Mikel Merino and Mikel Oyarzabal has created magic — the quartet has combined for 12 goals and 43 chances created in nine matches.
One glance at the table above, however, tells you who the biggest regression candidate is. Elche are back in the top flight for the first time since 2015, and they won three of their first five matches before managing just one point in their last two. While they’re averaging the same points per game as Barca at the moment, they not only have the worst xGD in the league, but it’s also the worst by a significant margin. That doesn’t bode well.
Lowe: Suarez missing Atleti’s game vs. Barca a pity
Sid Lowe is saddened by the news that Luis Suarez will miss Atletico Madrid’s game vs. Barcelona because of COVID-19.
While goals have risen throughout Europe’s other major leagues, Spain has followed a different trend. Scoring is down in La Liga for the fourth straight year, even though shot quality is actually up. As the possession game grows increasingly familiar throughout the sport, the league that all but patented it knows how to defend it, too. Possessions are a bit more languid and methodical.
That has helped to produce an odd twist: Diego Simeone’s notoriously defense-centric Atletico Madrid, which nearly won the league in 2015-16 while allowing just 18 goals, is on pace to score over 90. Mind you, they’re also allowing fewer than ever — they haven’t exactly gone full Atalanta or anything. But the combination of a slower scoring pace for everyone else and a torrid stretch for 21-year old Joao Felix (five goals, 12 chances created) means that Atleti are strangely, almost disturbingly, as prolific and entertaining a team as La Liga have to offer this season.
Cadiz hates the ball
Teams may be better equipped to defend against the possession game in Spain, but most of the top teams still possess quite a bit of the ball. In their first season back in La Liga since 2006, however, Cadiz has combined sturdy, organized defense with some of the most direct, and typically fruitless, possessions you’ll see. They have possessed the ball more than 34% of the time in only two of nine league matches, and they’ve been under 30% in all four of their wins. In their stunning 1-0 upset of Real Madrid, their possession rate was just 26%, and they attempted 199 passes to Los Blancos’ 631.
Anti-football at its finest.
Strange starts are not strange finished.
The period from mid-August to mid-October was among the worst two-month stretches in the modern history of FC Barcelona. They got humiliated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, then Lionel Messi both publicly declared he wanted to leave and threw a fit after a technicality prevented him from it. They let veterans like Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal go amid major financial problems. And after a successful initial surge under Ronald Koeman — wins over Villarreal and Celta Vigo by a combined 7-0 — they began October by nabbing just two points from four matches. Young star Ansu Fati got hurt, while Messi has seen his assist rates go down and is primarily only scoring on penalties.
Despite the drama, though, 538’s club ratings, which focus primarily on the long term, I think Barca’s basically fine. It ranks them third in the world, ahead of Liverpool and PSG, and it continues to give them a 37% chance of winning the league, down only from 45% at the start of the season. (The Madrid clubs are both at 24%.) This is backed up at least a bit by the fact that their Champions League form has been fine, albeit in a particularly easy group.
The progression and regression factors above, however, note that they haven’t been unlucky so far in league play — they’ve been, like Manchester City in the Premier League, pretty mediocre.
When you see blue shades in the above table, it means the team is likely to regress a bit in the given category. Orange shades suggest improvement. No team is showing blue shades in four or more categories, while two show orange shades and are therefore solid progression candidates:
Athletic Bilbao and Eibar.