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La Liga 2011-2012: Real Madrid, Barcelona And Blind Comparisons

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Before we get started on this article--and yes, I think this is important enough to use as a lede--I want to let you know that this probably isn't going to prove what you want it to prove. Yes, I'm going to look at Real Madrid and Barcelona, and analyze some of the players' performances, and even compare them at times. But my intent isn't to make an argument about which side is better, or even which side has better numbers.

Here's another thing I'd like you to do, just to prove how silly football stats--and the people who keep them--can be: go read Graham MacAree's fantastic article on the general clusterf*ck that is football possession. Got it? Here, I'll wait for you to come back.


OK, here we go. Before we get into the real meat of this article, I want to remind you of a couple terms that I'll be using:

  • Goals Created. This is a very simple statistic: GC = Goals + Assists. The theory is also simple: a goal and an assist are equally important offensive components because they essentially mean the same thing. An assist is simply a pass that leads directly to a goal--no goal, no assist. Most goals are preceded by assists; and all assists precede goals. I will probably do a whole post--but maybe not until after the season--about why GC is a better way of understanding offense than simply goals and assists. It's also a very, very limited statistic (assists are completely based on your teammates abilities, while goals are (arguably) less so), and is not advanced at all; in my opinion, however, it is still better than goals or assists by themselves.
  • Tackles + Interceptions. Another very easy to understand statistic: it's simply the number of times a player successfully steals a ball, whether by tackle or by interception. I use (T+I)/Game here, but it's all basically the same.
So, with that in mind, here's our first blind comparison:

Player Apps. Goals Assists Goals Created GC / game (Tackles+Interceptions)/Game
Player A (FW/AM) 16 28 10 38 2.375 1.2
Player B (FW/AM) 17 13 4 17 1.000 1.3

Hmm. Player A is obviously a generational talent, a player capable of creating goals at will. Player B? He's very good, a goal-scoring forward type who brings a significant, if not outstanding, contribution to his team.

As you probably guessed, Player A is Lionel Messi. The catch? Player B is also Lionel Messi. The difference is that little Leo is Player A in the Nou Camp, and Player B away from Barcelona. Hmm. That explains a bit why Barcelona have struggled this season away from home, doesn't it?

Here's our second blind comparison:

Player Apps. Goals Assists GC GC/G (T+I)/G
Player A (FW/AM) 17 21 6 27 1.588 0.9
Player B (FW/AM) 17 21 5 26 1.529 1.2

Player A and Player B are both great players, capable of creating goals at incredible--if not generation-defining--rates. They differ only in a slight increase in defensive work rate. And, as I'm sure you probably guessed, Player A is Cristiano Ronaldo at home; and Player B is Cristiano away.

Now do these two charts show anything particularly enlightening? Yes and no. Messi's chart gives us a little indication of Barcelona's struggles away (though, of course, it doesn't necessarily indicate that Messi's performance caused Barça's drop in form away--there's no clear causal relationship here, just an interesting little correlation).

On the other hand, Cristiano's consistent output has been absolutely fundamental for Real Madrid to maintain such fantastic form all year. Madrid has flourished in every possible realm so far this year, and that's partly because Cristiano Ronaldo has been so dominant everywhere.

Moving on:

Player Apps. G A GC GC/G (T+I)/G
Player A (AM/WM) 20 5 14 19 0.95 2.5
Player B (AM) 32 1 16 17 0.531 1.5

This one probably looks a little different. We see that Player B is a prolific assister, creating goals almost exclusively through other players; he has a good defensive work rate for an attacking player. Player A has created more goals in less time, mainly because he scores more--they have a pretty similar assist rate. A big, glaring difference, however, is that Player A has an incredible defensive work rate.

Again, you've probably guessed that Player A is Angel Di Maria, and Player B is Mesut Özil. They are both integral pieces for Real Madrid, and I will fight tooth and nail if I have to to protect Angel's reputation.

And finally, here's our last little Madrid-related comparison (for now, because I love this kind of article):

Player Apps G A GC GC/G (T+I)/G
Player A (AM) 26 5 7 12 0.461 1.1
Player B (AM) 15 6 6 12 0.800 2.0

Player B has outplayed Player A in every way: not only has he created more goals at a better rate than Player A, he also has fantastic defensive numbers. This is not a fair comparison, and I admit that, because comparing Kaká (Player A) to Xavi Hernández at home (Player B) is a bit facetious--we're taking Xavi's best slice, and comparing it to all of Kaká's oeuvre. Fine. But the reason I chose to do this is that they've created the same number of goals. Just Xavi did it in slightly less than half the games.

For what it's worth, here are Xavi's numbers away from home: 14 Apps, 4 goals, 0 assists, 4 GC, 0.286 GC/G, 1.9 (T+I)/G. Not great. At all. Again, not necessarily a cause of Barça's away record. But a fascinating correlation nonetheless.

For our one Barça-fan reader (and our small contingent of non-madridista fans), here's our last one:

Player Apps G A GC GC/G (T+I)/G
Player A 11 8 2 10 0.909 2.9
Player B 13 3 3 6 0.462 1.7

I bet that you didn't know that Alexis Sánchez was so much better at home (Player A) than he was away (Player B). I mean, maybe you did. But did you expect his defensive stats to decrease so dramatically? I know I didn't. The three Barça players I talked about combined create around three fewer goals per away game than they do per home game. Now, if that isn't an indication of Barça's away form this year, I don't know what is--and it's probably what has cost them the Liga this season.

Think I'm wrong? I probably am. Let me know in the comments, or by following us on Twitter @managingmadrid (and me @GabeLezra) and liking us on Facebook. And you can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes!

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