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.
– Sportzshala+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (US)
– Stream Sportzshala FC Daily on Sportzshala+ (US only)
– Don’t have Sportzshala? Get instant access
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+ meters 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
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 towards 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.
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 the 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 Atlético 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…