Deep Dive: Who Will Win LaLiga?
LaLiga is back with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona neck and neck at the top of the table. Football’s suspension has given both teams a chance to restock, but the new format will complicate both team’s approaches and influence the final result.
Written by Siddharth Ramsundar.
It has been many years since LaLiga had a title race this thrilling. The last two seasons saw Barcelona take the title early. During the 2016/17 season, Lionel Messi’s late winner at the Bernabéu only momentarily distracted from the fact Madrid topped the table for all but four matchdays. The roles were reversed the year before, as a late Barcelona collapse saw their twelve- point lead almost evaporate, but they had the lead for most of the season. The 2014/15 season was a tale of two halves, with Madrid and Barcelona’s best spells not coinciding. One would have to go back to 2014 for an unpredictable title race in Spain. There were four major lead changes down the stretch before Atléti won the title, including a title decider on the final day. This season, the lead has changed four times in the last eight matchdays alone.
The state of affairs before suspension
So far, these teams have not been as dominant as they used to be. Here is a comparison of their points after matchday 27 (prior to the hiatus) since 2008:
This was Barcelona’s lowest points total at this stage of the season since Pep Guardiola took over the club. Real Madrid were only slightly better than the past two seasons, when they failed to mount a serious title challenge.
Barcelona’s struggles this season have been an extension of the issues present at the club since 2017. The Catalans have a fairly unathletic and ageing squad with a couple major holes, and are unable to impose themselves defensively. They used to press well under Luis Enrique, but lacked the personnel to keep it up under Ernesto Valverde:
Note: Figures are valid through the end of March.
Lionel Messi continues to give them a very high floor, monopolizing creative duties to make them difficult to beat in any given game. His impact is inelastic and almost outside the bounds of the opposition’s tactics. The best example of this is last season’s Champions League semi-finals, where he almost saw his undermatched side through against Liverpool. Compared to previous years, however, injuries to Messi and Suárez have seen Barcelona’s point total drop. They are also more reliant on Messi’s extraordinary finishing than before. On a team level they are taking ~ one fewer open play shot per game than last season despite scoring at a similar rate.
It does not help that summer signings have not provided the boost many around the Camp Nou would have expected. Antoine Griezmann – who effectively plays the same role as Messi on the pitch – has predictably struggled out wide. New addition Frenkie de Jong has not overseen a transition to a more dominant style of play due to the squad’s lingering weaknesses. Ousmane Dembélé’s continued injuries mean Barcelona lack dynamic wide players, and will probably never reach a more proactive, dominant style of play as currently constructed.
Barcelona’s narrow attack.
Over at Real Madrid, after a rocky start to the season that saw the team get exposed tactically, Zinedine Zidane introduced Federico Valverde into the starting lineup at the end of September. Madrid, powered by the young midfielder’s incredible energy, began both pressing more often and defending in well organized blocks.
Note: figures are valid through the end of March.
The result was a team that, for large swathes of the season, was the best defense in Europe with incredible athleticism in defense and midfield. At their apex, with Eden Hazard healthy in the fall, they also had a pretty devastating attack. Madrid dismantled PSG at the Bernabéu in November with the following lineup:
Real Madrid’s lineup against PSG.
Hazard, however, went off injured after 68 minutes of that game, and Madrid switched off towards the end:
With Hazard and Asensio – Zidane’s first choice wingers – mostly out, Madrid’s offensive ceiling has been seen quite sparingly. Injuries have also plagued other key offensive weapons in Marcelo, Bale and James Rodríguez. Furthermore, Zidane has struggled to integrate Luka Jović, who was used to playing in a much more direct team in the Bundesliga than against the crowded defenses seen at the Bernabéu. The result is an offense that has limped through much of the season.
Madrid have controlled games in spite of these injuries. They have imposed themselves, boxed opponents in, and even taken four points from Barcelona in their head-to-head fixtures with weakened lineups. But their ability to consistently break down deep defensive blocks has taken a hit. In contrast, Barcelona greatly struggle to impose themselves on games, and often look slow and sluggish, but Messi tilts a ridiculous number of games in their favor regardless of who is on the pitch to support him.
Injuries and depth: who is better equipped to handle the schedule?
Football’s suspension has given both teams opportunities to recover most players lost to injury.
From the outset, Real Madrid are likely to be missing Jović for the restart of the campaign after he broke his heel in early May. Nacho Fernández also picked up muscle issues in training that will keep him out of the initial fixtures. On the other hand, Eden Hazard has returned from injury, reportedly with renewed focus and in excellent shape. He picked up an assist in his return to play against Eibar. Marco Asensio has also recovered from his ACL tear and has been participating in full training, though his match sharpness remains to be seen.
Samuel Umtiti will not be immediately available for Barcelona after he injured his calf upon returning to training. Ousmane Dembélé will be out until August, likely missing the rest of the season, after getting surgery on his hamstring as well. However, the side is boosted by Luis Suárez’s return from injury.
The accelerated timeline for return and for fixtures in general means both teams will have no choice but to rely on their extended depth. They will have to play eleven games in five weeks, with only a three or four day gap between each game, all in the boiling Spanish summer.
Madrid are quite deep in most positions outside central and holding midfield. Modrić is the only direct backup available for two central midfield spots. They have no direct replacement for Casemiro, and will need center backs to deputize for Carvajal:
Barcelona primarily have surplus options in central midfield, where right back Sergi Roberto can also fill in. It is worth noting that despite signing de Jong, they have not yet managed to configure a midfield sans Sergio Busquets. Arturo Vidal’s pressing and ability to attack the box are quite unique. They also only have one healthy winger. Any setback to Piqué would also be devastating considering his irreplaceable ability to defend the box:
Barcelona’s squad has been limited by their own difficult financial situation, which forced them to sell Malcolm last summer, and to loan Carles Pérez, Carles Aleñá and Jean-Clair Todibo out in January. They may have to rely on Barca B players to fill out the squad in certain situations as a result. One such talent in Ronald Araújo partnered Gerard Piqué at the back in their first game after the restart.
Real Madrid are slightly better equipped to make sweeping changes to lineups for rotation. They have a host of wingers to call on in the event of injury, and more tactical options in general in the event of injuries to key personnel. The worst case scenario for Zidane is having to play Isco or James as box-to-box midfielders.
Barcelona, however, have consistently leaned on a small core for the past few seasons. Their disadvantage in this area is exacerbated by the allowance of five substitutions. Quique Setién has suggested that this hurts his side’s tendency to wear down opponents before making a late push for the winner. This holds up empirically: Barcelona have scored game winners after the 75th minute on five separate occasions in LaLiga this season.
Theoretically the additional substitutions could aid Real Madrid. Zidane, however has made some poor substitution patterns this season, leaving lineups like this out on the pitch that have completely lost control of the game, and subsequently led to dropped points:
This type of lineup, a 4-4-2 shape, has struggled because of Casemiro’s complete lack of press resistance. Madrid drew a game they completely dominated against Deportivo, among others, after one of these substitution errors.
This was also the case in Los Blancos’ last league game. Zidane took off Toni Kroos for forward Mariano, and saw his team cede control and the winner to Real Betis, as well as the top spot to Barcelona. With five changes and more healthy options available, Zidane may improve his substitution patterns.
Madrid’s biggest wild card for the final stretch is James Rodríguez. Even in limited minutes, he has managed to provide devastating creative output, and has played some of the best final balls seen at the club all season.
While the Colombian is Madrid’s most direct player, he is also the most injury-prone. Rodríguez has missed over two months this season due to calf problems and an MCL injury. Like many other periods of his career, he has struggled to fully regain fitness and the trust of his coaches for a prolonged period since. Still, there are only five weeks left in the season. The time off has allowed James to recover. If he stays healthy, he could reprise his role from the 2016/17 season, when he helped give Madrid’s B team the attacking boost it needed en route to a league title.
Another x-factor, given how much of the season he has missed, could be Eden Hazard. At his best, the Belgian is a devastating dribbling outlet who retains possession and constantly makes good decisions on the ball. Real Madrid have not seen the version of Hazard that led Chelsea to two Premier League titles and Belgium to the World Cup semifinals. He even reported to preseason overweight. The Athletic’s Dermot Corrigan reported that those around the club notice a new level of commitment and quality from Hazard in training ahead of the restart, which bodes well.
A great deal of Madrid’s offensive struggles can be attributed to Hazard’s injuries this season. His replacement, Vinícius Jr., has only managed to replace the Belgian’s dribbling. Despite making strides with his combination play, he is still considerably worse at involving his teammates and finishing in front of goal.
Hazard should transform the capabilities of Real’s attacking lineups. The Belgian himself is no volume shooter, but his dribbling, foul-drawing and combination play are among the best in the world. His talent and decision making allow him to draw in defenders and release the ball, which will help raise the level of the likes of Bale, Benzema, Vázquez and Rodrygo with his skillset. He may even help squeeze a bit more out of Luka Jović.
Even when Hazard was not at his best earlier in the season, he improved and amplified Real’s attack in a number of ways. His ability to combine and clinically finish attacks was apparent in Madrid’s return against Eibar.
For Barcelona, this unique set of circumstances could (temporarily) vindicate the signing of Antoine Griezmann. As versatile as he is, the Frenchman does not readily fit into the Blaugranas starting lineup. Lionel Messi takes up his preferred position, operating through the middle and right halfspace. Up front, Luis Suárez is far better at playing as a traditional number nine.
Griezmann is not a winger, but when Barcelona have been at full strength he has been shoehorned into the left wing. Lacking the explosion or dribbling ability to contribute from out wide, he has found himself awkwardly isolated. His standout contribution has been his defensive work rate. This has held true even on the occasions where Barcelona have battered the opposition, such as against Mallorca in December:
Borrowing £105 million to purchase a player who is a mediocre sporting fit was a poor decision even by Barcelona’s recent standards. But this accelerated schedule has opened up a window of opportunity. The reality is that, with teams playing games every four days with little room for respite, Barcelona will not be able to rely on their starting lineup like they did in before.
In normal circumstances, the need for rotation would only apply to the bulk of Barcelona players, with Messi acting as a superhuman outlier. But now even he requires more careful management. After playing the World Cup and Copa America in back to back summers, Messi was hurt in August, and did not have a proper preseason, which had knock-on effects on his performances throughout the campaign. The soon to be thirty-three year old played through thigh pain for several weeks in January. He also had adductor issues in training ahead of LaLiga’s restart. Messi looked sharp in Barcelona’s return against Mallorca, but also minimized his defensive movements in an attempt to manage his load while staying in the game.
Setién has to pull off a delicate balancing act. He needs to extract as much as he can from Messi without burning him out physically. This is where Griezmann comes in. Since they play the same position, the French forward is more useful as a Messi replacement than complement. Setién may even find it advantageous to drop Griezmann from his starting eleven, instead playing him in his preferred position with a rotated team. Given the small margins at the top, Griezmann being able to win Barcelona some points in a secondary lineup like this, with Messi resting, could sway the title odds decisively in their favor:
This lineup may look better on paper than it will perform on the pitch. Such is Barcelona’s reliance on Messi. He has scored or assisted 15 of their last 18 goals in LaLiga – a ridiculous streak going back to the very start of Setién’s tenure in January. Given the limitations of the squad, this level of dependency has been worth it for the bulk of the past few seasons, but is hard to shed on a whim. When Barcelona last survived a period without Messi successfully, during the fall of 2018, they had a healthy Dembélé and many of their veterans were almost two years younger.
Setién is relishing having Suárez fully available for the first time. The Uruguayan missed his entire stint before the hiatus.
Suárez is excellent at occupying center backs, dragging defenders out of position and generally complementing Messi’s movements. Under Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona maintained some attacking firepower largely due to the chemistry between Alba, Suárez and Messi. The team’s complete lack of width meant that Alba’s runs forward would often catch the opposition off guard. Setién now has a chance to mould the trio into his relatively proactive style of play, which we saw glimpses of against Mallorca.
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Examining all the fixtures in which Madrid and Barcelona dropped points to find trends is revealing. These fixtures have been sorted into three categories in a venn diagram:
i) Games where they fielded a weakened lineup that would be expected to struggle were placed in their own category.
ii) Games in which the team had a greater than 70% chance of victory per Between the Post’s simulations – and still dropped points – were classified as ‘bad/unlucky finishing.’
iii) Games in which the specifical tactical weakness of the coach or players directly led to dropped points were given their own bucket.
The fixtures have been marked home (H) or away (A). Each category displays the total number of fixtures:
Without Messi, Barcelona dropped points in three of their first five games, which were also incidentally their only games away from home during that period. The biggest takeaway from the chart is that they struggled away from home, particularly against good teams.
This worsening of performance on the road is unusual even by their standards. Even after ignoring the games Messi missed at the start of the season, this was on track to be their worst season away from home since Pep Guardiola took over at the club:
Note: Figures only take into account games with crowds (before the hiatus).
The impact of the absence of crowds on Barcelona’s home and away splits will be fascinating to observe. An ongoing analysis of 191 matches played behind closed doors in Europe’s top competitions since 1945 suggests that the absence of crowds does reduce home field advantage, especially in relation to influencing referees. For now, it can be assumed that any weakening in home field advantage will be offset by easier games on the road.
Real Madrid seem to have tactical issues, especially offensively, in lineups when they are not at full strength:
As discussed earlier, the responsibility of preventing this offensive stagnance will fall on Hazard’s shoulders.
Madrid lost two of their last three games in the league in March, with Luka Modrić starting over Federico Valverde. Modrić, 34, struggles to replace his younger teammate’s defensive intensity and bursts forward. With Valverde around, Madrid have only truly underperformed in one game: against Valencia away, and have largely been able to dominate opponents. Down the stretch, the Croatian’s ability to temporarily fill in for Kroos and Valverde could be key. Zidane likely started Modrić in their first game back against Eibar with an eye towards more difficult fixtures down the lane.
The chart also illustrates that Madrid have struggled to finish against opponents on four separate occasions at home. This adds to the mounting evidence that the Bernabéu’s intense pressure and whistling may even be counterproductive in certain situations. This isn’t new: Los Blancos had a better time away from home at points during their Champions League threepeat. Their record in recent El Clásicos has been better at the Camp Nou. In their two league titles this past decade, they performed as well if not better on the road:
Note: Figures only take into account games with crowds (before the hiatus).
This season, their finishing in the Bilbao game was the worst of the bunch. Between the Posts’ simulations gave Real an 88% chance of winning based on the chances created:
All this has led to the idea within club circles that Real Madrid will be quite comfortable playing at Castilla’s Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.
Barcelona still have to host Atletico Madrid, and play Sevilla away. Still down the lane, Setién will have to avoid overplaying key players ahead of these games while still building fitness and momentum.
Real Madrid play upper mid-table sides Valencia, Getafe, Villarreal and Real Sociedad once each.
Overall, Barcelona have the most difficult fixtures remaining, but Real Madrid have a greater number of challenging games. This plays out in Between the Posts’ predictions, which have simulated the remaining using estimated team strength, derived from various metrics, including expected goals, actual goals, shots and different passes. The simulations have Real Madrid and Barcelona picking up 23 and 22 points respectively from their final ten games.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are two different beasts, but have been deadlocked at the top of the table for good reason. Despite all the talk of decline, both sides at full strength are capable of winning out their final ten games. Given the fast-paced schedule, however, neither side will play at full strength throughout. This is really a competition between Messi’s fitness and Madrid’s depth.
Madrid have demonstrated a greater ceiling with their physicality and defense, and have a deeper squad, but their performance worsens with some of the reserves taking part. Barcelona have a lower ceiling and significantly worse depth, but as long as Messi and Piqué are fit, they can weather injuries to any other key players a bit better than Real.
Between the Posts’ projected final table has Barcelona finishing a point above Madrid:
Intuitively the prediction makes sense. Health concerns notwithstanding, Barcelona certainly have the edge considering both teams have equally challenging schedules coming up. Even in the event of rotation, Madrid’s superior backups still present a significant drop-off on their starters, whereas Messi alone has continued to hold Barcelona together with a variety of supporting casts. Even if the teams were to perform equally down the stretch, Barcelona currently hold a two point lead.
But the simulations don’t factor in the accelerated schedule, health of the squads, short training camp and allowance of five substitutions. The new format seems to favor Madrid’s rejuvenated depth over Barcelona’s non-negotiable reliance on Messi. Real also has the better head to head record in the event of both teams finishing tied. Combined, these factors tilt the balance back in the other direction.
Prediction: Real Madrid edge Barcelona to the title in a race that goes down to the wire.