20 Questions for La Liga’s Action-Packed April, Part 3 (Teams 10-6)

La Liga

10. Are Alaves the cup specialists of La Liga?

Deportivo Alaves who made headlines around the millennium with their epic then UEFA Cup final vs Liverpool have been through hell and back and made it back to La Liga after a ten-year absence. I highly recommend this post that depicts the journey, even if it includes a Ukrainian businessman\team owner posing naked in the dugout and leaving Alaves bankrupt and in debt after a wild reign.

This season that joyride has continued as the minnows whom many picked to be relegated are sitting 10th and have even made it to the Copa del Rey final in May against Barcelona! Let’s look at how they have done it.

There’s an air of consistency to them, as Alaves have spent all season between the ninth and fifteenth spot. They average 1.36 point at home and 1.5 away from home, both excellent numbers. Their recent form has been stellar: 13 points from the last six games is the same as Real and Atletico, despite losing to Granada of all teams!

Alaves are a team that’s not afraid to muck a game up and with 91 yellows (leads La Liga) and five red cards they are sometimes paying the price. Interestingly they are middle of the pack when it comes to most defensive metrics such as interceptions, tackles and fouls, but leading the league in clearances shows their tendency to sit back with a low-block. Further evidence of this fact is Alaves being ranked in the top seven in passes, shots and crosses blocked. From that, it follows that they are successful at not letting shots hit the target: a 4.18 per game average is tenth in the league. While that may not sound like much, the quality of the shots they concede is low, as their game plan often yields low expected goals against per shot numbers. In fact, Alaves are tied for the lead with a few other teams at 8%. That number is remarkable because it includes the 6-0 thrashing by Barcelona. That was, of course, the revenge for the 2-1 away in at Camp Nou, coming off the Manu Garcia wonder strike that stunned the Calderon just two weeks before). Other than that beating, Alaves have allowed more than two goals just two more times all season! One of the culprits is their next opponents Real Madrid, who put four past them at the Mendizorroza, despite Mauricio Pellegrino lining up in a 5-3-2 and Cristiano Ronaldo missing a penalty which would’ve given him four goals on the day. The rest of the schedule looks favourable, as a home match versus an out of form Villarreal looks to be the hardest one remaining.

9. Can Espanyol stay on track for their best finish in a decade?

As of late March, former Watford and Valencia manager Quique Sanchez Flores still has RCD Espanyol on track for their best finish since 2010\11 when some guy named Mauricio Pochettino guided them to eighth place. That is all the more impressive given their bad start to the season, as they were 17th until matchday eight. Since then, RCD have been the sixth best team in the league with a solid 33 points from 20 matches. A huge reason is a defensive-minded approach, which in terms of tactics always means lining up in a 4-4- 2 or a 4-2-3-1. A couple other numbers that support this claim: 11.4 shots allowed is ninth and Espanyol conceded 44% of all their shots from outside of the box, the second-highest rank behind Sevilla with whom they are also tied for allowing the second-lowest mark of shots inside the 18 at just 50%. By not allowing opponents to penetrate, Espanyol can put an 8% expected goal per shot value, which is tied with Alaves and Barca for second place behind Atletico’s 7.4% (the league average is 9.8%).So, despite conceding a surprisingly high number of shots on target (4.6 per game is the seventh worst in the league!), Flores’ team is able to hang in a lot of games and lost just eight of 28 overall. Pessimists would point out that they split those 20 games with tens wins and ten draws each, and would probably argue that many of the low-efficiency shots still find their way into the net. That would explain the team being 13 goals over their expected goals totals on both sides of the ball and the many crazy games they have been involved this year: a 6-4 loss to Sevilla in the opener, a recent 4-3 win over Las Palmas, or the 3-3 draw vs Eibar.

Still, 23.1 tackles per game is first in La Liga and Espanyol are anchored by defensive stalwart Diego Reyes. The 24-year-old Mexican moved from Real Sociedad after a superb season with 2.2 tackles and 3.9 INTs and continues to be solid for them. His partner in the back is often David Lopez, the Barcelona-born youth product who kept on being loaned out – Terrassa, Leganes, Huesca – before breaking through with Napoli and signing a four-year deal with RCD in the summer of 2016. At full-back 19-year-old Aaron Martin and 21-year-old Marc Navarro are promising building blocks for the future. Martin was brought up from the reserve team in September, while Navarro was promoted in January, and both have become regular starters over long-term veteran Javi Lopez and fellow youth product Ruben Duarte.

The rest of the squad is a strong mix of veterans: goalkeeper Diego Lopez eats PKs for breakfast, Victor Sanchez is in his sixth season in Barcelona, Javi Fuego was a Valencia regular for years, Hernan Perez came from Villarreal a few season ago and Jose Manuel Jurado has spent time with Schalke 04 and Atletico Madrid.

The attack which is not driven by volume – 8.9 shots per game is the lowest in La Liga is powered by Gerard Moreno’s career year – eleven goals and Pablo Piatti whose nine goals and nine assists would also count as the best ever year for the former Valencia winger. The supporting cast includes Leo Baptistao – the journeyman Brazilian from Atletico Madrid, not to be confused with Julio the Beast Baptista – Ecuador’s finest Felipe Caicedo and of course Jose Antonio Reyes, who is winding down his illustrious career.

While at the beginning of the season it looked as if the new Chinese ownership which reportedly wants UCL in 3 years were overly optimistic in that regard, if Espanyol can turn some of those 10 draws into wins next season, there’s a chance of them competing for the European spots.

8. Eibar – Is the best defence actually offence?

An opening day loss to Depor had SD Eibar at 15th, but since then “the Gunners” have not been below eleventh on the table. The fan-owned club which plays its home games at the seven thousand Ipurua spent much of its history in the lower leagues until a promotion that seemed temporary, as they were relegated in their inaugural 2014/15 season. However, 13th placed Elche were demoted for financial reasons and with a remarkable initiative, the club got over 10,000 fans (and players such as Xabi Alonso and Asier Illaramendi) to buy shares of no more than 100 Euros per person and saved itself! In the summer of 2015, Jose Luis Mendilibar took over from former Depor coach Gaizka Garitano who got them promoted, but sort of also relegated. The change from a somewhat drab Garitano side that neither attacked (failing to break the 50 goal mark) nor defended (55 and 61 goals allowed) really well to a high-intensity 4-2-3-1 pressing side under Mendilibar brought excitement and more importantly results! 14th place was an improvement last season but was also a disappointment after occupying the SIXTH spot halfway through the campaign!LA

Then came the spring hangover, as Eibar grabbed just 13 points and conceded 41 goals in 19 matches, tied with the worst team in the league in Getafe and los Armeros ended the season just five points clear of relegation.

There appears to be more balance this season, as a 7-5-7 record and 26 points from the first 19 games has been followed up by 15 points from the first nine of the second 19. There’s been some defensive improvement, as they have shipped just 39 goals compared to 55 and 61 in the last two respectively, but they are still on pace to let in 52. The big change has been on the attack, but before we get to that, let’s look at their overall style:

It is heavily reliant on long balls and crosses: 25 crosses per game – is the most in La Liga, though only 20% of those crosses are accurate. Pedro Leon has an insurmountable lead with 7.5 inaccurate crosses per game on a host of others that includes Neymar and Benat of Betis at 4.7. With 210 misplaced crosses, the Eibar winger has nearly double that of Pablo Sarabia who is second with 117! How have they not hired David Moyes yet?

The other trademark is the 86 long balls per game – also leads La Liga – ten more than any other team per match. In fact, there are three Eibar players in the top 10 of long balls per game, and while CDM Dani Garcia has eerily similar stats to Gerard Pique (both attempt 10 a game and succeed 6.7 times!) the CBs Alejandro Galvez and Florian Lejeune complete less than 50% of their 11 long passes attempted on a per match basis. It’s not a surprise after all of that that with 72% pass completion, Eibar are ahead of the bottom three in accuracy. Also, only Leganes and Osasuna complete fewer short passes than Eibar and seven dribbles per game is also 18th in the league. So, while it’s not always the most attractive style, the results are clearly there for Eibar. Let’s check out their offence!

In terms of their attack, Eibar produce a solid volume of shots at 12.9 a game and five of them actually hit the target, the fourth and fifth best ranks in the league. That’s actually quite good when you consider their style discussed above. They are surprising on a number of other fronts: 28 goals from open play and 8.9 shots per game from OP are both fourth best in the league! The credit should go to the attacking quartet of Pedro Leon, Sergi Enrich, Adrian Gonzalez and Takashi Inui, all of whom average over 1.5 shots per game. The more impressive nugget is the location: all four of them are in the top 50 with at least 19 shots from inside the penalty area! For comparison, Barca have three players (MSN) and Real Madrid, Sevilla and Atletico also have four! The results are 24 goals (Inui is yet to score) and 13 assists and this weekend’s game against Villarreal could even bring them closer to the top 6! Pretty remarkable for a team with ZERO players on international duty and a squad value of under 50 million!

7. Will their woeful away record keep Bilbao out of Europe?

One of Spain’s most storied clubs, eight-time champion and 24 time Spanish Cup winner Athletic Bilbao are currently sitting in seventh position, eleven points behind Atletico for fourth place with ten games to go. Having finished in the top eight five of the last seven seasons, they have become accustomed to making Europe at the end of the season. This year that is certainly not guaranteed and the answer to their slight drop from their usual lofty standards lies in the following table.

Those 33 points at the mighty San Mames are tied with Barcelona (albeit in one more game) and just three behind Real for the best home record in Spain, but Los Leones have scored the fewest goals in the league away from home with just nine! They’ve gotten 13 points out of those 13 matches despite scoring just THREE goals away from home since late October! This kind of shocking performance is all the more puzzling given that Bilbao were one of the best seven away teams in La Liga in each of the last three years? So what has gone wrong?

Aritz Aduriz who famously scored 20 goals in the league last year (6 away – 14 at home) is on just nine so far and all but one have come at San Mames. The 36-year-old is also averaging just 1.5 shots per match away compared to three at home, while last season it was 2.7 to 2.9. That kind of drop-off has to be massively concerning for Ernesto Valverde. But surely the other attackers are picking up the slack? Well, as it turns out Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain are doing the opposite of that as they have produced six goals and five assists on 3.4 shots per game combined at home versus one goal and one assist on 2.1 shots per game! Basically, if you are hosting Bilbao the only guy you need to worry about is Raul Garcia, who has scored four of his seven goals as a visitor and is averaging 2.8 shots per contest!

While it’s natural for a 36-year-old centre-forward to slow down (unless your name is Zlatan), it’s concerning that Inaki and Muniain are producing so little. 35 goals total for a team fighting for the top 6 is quite weak and that is despite a league-leading six goals from penalties split evenly between Aduriz and Garcia. On attack, there’s very little that Athletic excel at. 23 goals from open play are eleventh in the league and they are in the bottom four with just six set piece goals and have zero scored on counterattacks!

Luckily, they have been very solid on the other side of the ball, conceding just 10.6 shots per game (fifth fewest) as well as 32 goals in 28 matches (also fifth best). One reason is that their defence allows just 3.5 shots on target per game, second best behind Atletico Madrid.

With a shocking exit in the Europe League to APOEL Nicosia, Bilbao can focus on the league and despite having to play six of the remaining ten games away from home the schedule looks decent. A win in Pamplona and beating Espanyol at home should be rudimentary and set up a pivotal clash against Villarreal at la Ceramica on April 7th. That one could turn out to make or break their season…

6. Sociedad – What makes “the other Basque team” so good?

Despite being known as the other Basque team besides Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad seemingly cannot escape Real Madrid’s shadow. A 3-0 opening day loss dropped them to 19th and led mean-spirited pundits (like me) to call them “Royal Society of players not quite good enough for the elite clubs of world football.” Well, in your face, guys!

With 48 points gathered since opening day, Sociedad have been the best team outside of the top four and they’ve done it in a remarkable fashion. Their success has fueled speculation that manager Eusebio Sacristan will return to Barcelona where he spent six years as an assistant coach and four as the manager of Barca B.

While everyone knows about the Basque only policies of their arch rivals Athletic Bilbao, Sociedad also had a similar rule in place until 1989 when the signing of John Aldridge of Liverpool by John Toshack broke it. However, they currently feature only three non-Basque players in goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, and strikers Willian Jose and Carlos Vela. Eusebio’s recipe has been the following: He has used 11 players with over 1275 minutes, and used the 4-3-3 formation 22 times, switching to a 4-2-3-1 the rest of the time.

The remarkable consistency extends to their home\away splits: 24 points each and a spooky 21:19 and 21:20 (away) goal difference.

The defence has three players with over 84% passing (right back Carlos Martinez is at 76%) and 2000 minutes.

Further up the pitch, three central midfielders are Sociedad lifers – Illaremendi (save for a disappointing two-year spell at Real Madrid), Xabi Prieto and Zurutuza. All are savvy in possession with long-time La Liga legend Prieto, averaging 1.5 key passes for his career!, the creator while Illaramendi and Zurutuza average six interceptions per matches combined! The former Real player is probably enjoying an ever better season than the one that got him the move to the capital, and it’s easy to forget that the squad lost Claudio Bravo and Antoine Griezmann just a year later!

The attack relies on the aforementioned Carlos Vela, whose seven goals are tied with former Southampton striker Juanmi and trail former Las Palmas star Willian Jose’s nine. The former Arsenal winger Vela, who seems to be returning to the form that had him score over 12 goals in three consecutive seasons (2011-2014) also chips in with 1.9 key passes per game, while 19-year-old Oyarzabal already has six assists on the season.

In terms of their remaining fixtures, Leganes and Gijón are must wins and represent chances to gather more points, as Sociedad play five matches versus the bottom six (Osasuna are the odd one out), but three away trips to Sevilla, Barca and Atletico are not going to be easy.