The international break that will feature Spain taking on Israel in World Cup Qualifying on Friday March 24th in a pivotal qualifier in Gijón is also a chance for La Liga fans to take stock of the league. We’re doing just that by asking 20 questions, one for each team, as the mad dash to the finish line starts March 31st. Espanyol – Betis will be followed by a flurry of fixtures, with every team playing in three games until April 10th! Let’s start from the bottom:
20. Do Osasuna have anything other than pride to play for?
With one win and eight draws – ELEVEN points!!! – from 28 matches Los Rojillos are looking at a quick return to Liga123. If, CAO who have the least valuable squad in the league worth just €37m, were a stock, this graph would cause every single investor to SELL, SELL, SELL!
Fun fact: they have used four goalkeepers already, though it has not helped in the saves department, as CAO have shipped 67 goals already! They are on pace to concede 90 times, which would shatter the record of Rayo Vallecano’s 2013\14 season (where they somehow finished 12th!) of 80 goals allowed and would easily be the worst mark in recent memory!
19. Are Granada beyond help because of their away woes?
Having sacked Paco Jemez after a match day six loss to Alaves, Granada have failed to move out of the relegation zone all year. The main cause is their awful away form: 0 wins 3 draws and 12 losses with 11 goals scored and 44 conceded!!! In particular the last two losses to Leganes and Gijón have doomed them, since their immediate competitors were also able to gain separation in the relegation fight. With the upcoming three away trips – La Coruna, Sevilla, Sociedad – it appears that the last visit to Osasuna will be a meaningless affair for El Grana.
The second biggest reason has been the lack of offense, which should not surprise anyone given the departures of Youssef El-Arabi (16 goals), Isaac Success (6 goals) Ruben Rochina (6 goals, 6 assists) and Jhon Cordoba finalizing his loan deal at Mainz. Their 25 goals scored is only ahead of Leganes’ 22, so it seems as though ownership’s investments (18 signings!) have not worked out: their most expensive signing Jose Angulo had to have his contracted terminated for failing a drug test, so he is on, as Transfermarkt put it “career break”! Benfica winger Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez was the second most expensive player brought in and he has chipped in with 5 goals. The rest of the moves have been either young projects from big teams in need of playing time (Ezequiel Ponce from AS Roma, Andreas Pereira from Manchester United, Sergi Samper from Barcelona) or veterans like Adrian Ramos and Artem Kravets (the former brought in during the winter break from Borussia Dortmund) to bolster the attack. The Ukrainian has netted five times, while the Columbian has scored twice in under 700 minutes and Andreas Pereira has contributed four goals. Isaac Cuenca, the former Barcelona player who is turning 26 in April, is yet to make a meaningful impact and Sergi Samper hasn’t been lighting the world on fire either. It speaks volumes of the kind of disarray and confusion that reigns at the club that 17 players have played 800 minutes or more, with Ramos, who is the starting center forward, at 668 after his winter switch. Mexican World Cup hero, Guillermo Ochoa leads the team in minutes at goalie, as well as leading the league with 118 saves in 28 matches. What’s staggering is that 92 of them or 79% have been made from shots inside the box, meaning that Granada are hanging him out to dry. For comparison, other goalies with the most saves like Betis’ Adan, Gijón’s Cuellar and Sevilla’s Rico are at 50-60% respectively! That’s probably a big reason why Ochoa has already had to pick the ball out of the net 58 times this year. That number ranks second worst behind the aforementioned Osasuna and Granada are on pace to concede 79 times – a mark that would also beat Rayo’s 78 from 2013\14. That’s probably because Granada allow 6.43 shots on target out of the 14.5 that fly towards Ochoa. For comparison, Barcelona and Real Madrid both get 6.5 shots on their opponents’ target, so it’s as if Granada were playing them EVERY WEEK! I’d imagine that’s not what you would want to be doing….
18. Sporting sport a decent attack, but will their defense doom them?
Sporting Gijón did manage a win at home vs Granada, but it was only the fifth of the season overall and the second one in 2017. I bet no-one remembers their two game winning streak to open the season, beating Bilbao and Leganes 2:1 both times…
Their attack has actually been OK: their 31 goals have been scored by 13 different players and despite attempting the second fewest shots per game (9.3 to Espanyol’s 8.9) they need on average around 8.67 shots to grab a goal. That mark is right around the league average and on par with Valencia, per data from the Challengers Podcast.
Problems are on the other end, as los Rojiblancos concede the highest number of shots against in La Liga with 15 with 5.54 reaching the target! They’re probably also not ever interested in playing Barca and Atletico again, given that their combined record is four losses with two goals scored and TWENTY conceded in the four matches his season! Obviously those four games are gonna massively skew the numbers, but we can’t exactly remove them from the averages, this is not Introduction to University Writing where you can drop the worst grade. But there is something to the theory that Sporting have done okay versus the other teams: they have played 20 matches where the goal difference was one or smaller (meaning that I’ve included their wins\draws as well), versus the aforementioned Barca\Atleti matches and four others where they lost by two goals.
Their next three games – Sevilla away, Malaga home, Sociedad away – look difficult with Real Madrid coming up after that, but Sevilla and Sociedad have both looked shaky recently and Malaga are yet to win on the road this season. As Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de La Rocha said: “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime, what better place than here, what better time than now!”
17. Will los Pepineros continue to grow?
With eight points from their last six matches, including a 4-0 thrashing of Depor, a win over Granada and a draw vs Sevilla, Leganes are picking up form at a crucial time. You could even say “the Cucumber Growers” are warming up just in time for the season, with planting supposed to start “outside in the ground no earlier than 2 weeks after last spring frost date.” per Farmers Almanac.
The biggest takeaway from the last six games for Leganes has been the offensive boom, their eight goals represent 36% of their season total, with the match vs Depor making up for 25% of their season output at the time! Ironically, that match saw them produce four goals (all assisted by the way!) on seven shots, surpassing their season average of needing 12.88 shots to yield a score!
The team has been a net zero in terms of shot metrics – with around ten shots allowed\conceded and 3.5 on target on both sides of the ball. That’s actually quite the accomplishment for a newly-promoted team and if they could just get a proven goalscorer (think Borja Baston’s successful cameos for Zaragoza, Depor or Eibar) this team could solidify itself as a lower mid-table outfit. 21-year-old former Athletic Bilbao attacking midfielder Unai Lopez has flashed by scoring two goals in substitute appearances vs Barcelona and Depor and Alexander Szymanowski has shown glimpses of what made him such a terror in the Segunda Division last season. With a five point cushion from the drop zone, they could probably afford to drop the next two games vs Real Sociedad and Real Madrid provided they beat Osasuna in Pamplona on April 9th. Staying up and completing a season in which they never once occupied one of the relegation spots would be a massive accomplishment for CDL in their inaugural La Liga campaign.
16. Will Deportivo La Coruna continue to fly high under Pepe Mel?
Ever since Depor appointed former West Brom manager and published author Pepe Mel, the team has been on a hot streak: a win against sporting was sandwiched between two 1:1 draws versus Atletico Madrid and Betis respectively. But of course the highlight of the season was beating Barca 2-1 who were of course coming off the miracle vs PSG. It has been quite the journey both literally and figuratively for Pepe Mel, as Sid Lowe noted in his excellent article in the Guardian, under whom Depor look like a different team than the one that has finished 15th and 16th the last couple of seasons. Although the Galicians have not been above 13th since match day 7, it’s probably only due to the subpar performances from the teams below them. With 27 points and a -12 goal difference Depor have hardly been anything but mediocre, but still worlds better than the -26 of Gijón, -33 of Granada or the -39 of Osasuna.
The advanced stats rate them relatively favorably: their expected goals difference is just minus 4 (22 and 26) as of March 6th and they are slightly positive in shots for\against and just slightly negative on shots on target overall. Those are on par and in some cases better than the teams around and ahead of them such as Betis, Valencia, Malaga or even Las Palmas. That is flattering for a team, which was 16th after the first 15 games before going on a seven game winless streak from December 19th to March 2nd that culminated in a 4-0 loss to Leganes and Gaizka Garitano losing his job.
Enter Pepe Mel under whose tutelage Depor have taken 57 shots in 5 games and conceded 50. Shots on target is also positive at 20 to 16, including a whopping NINE against Barcelona and of course, even with a loss to Celta Vigo, eight points and a 5-4 goal difference is excellent stuff. Perhaps there is something really to the idea of the psychological effect on the league’s oldest team (average age is 28).
Trips to Valencia, who have won three of their last four home matches, but are still only the 16th best hosts in La Liga and Sevilla who have just one loss all year at the Pizjuan look like difficult ones, but the midweek home game vs Granada and the April 15th affair vs struggling Malaga should seal another disappointing campaign. But given where they were just a few weeks ago – tied with Granada for relegation – the Galicians will just have to take what they can get….