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Squad Combinations: A look at Rafael Benítez's Real Madrid

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Introducing squad combinations, we delve into how particular sub-units (combinations or combos) within the team influence performance and results for all games played to date. All charts are interactive -- you can move your cursor over them to display more information or filter for specific details where possible.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid played its 15th match under its new manager at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán where they suffered their first defeat of the season. Rafael Benítez's management and the extended prominence of several players who were not part (or major parts) of the team last season has seen the emergence of a new Los Blancos. Keylor Navas and Casemiro have been instrumental in the early goings of the league campaign while Danilo has been given seeming preference over Dani Carvajal. Mateo Kovačić's significant cameos provided a glimpse into the potential quality he could add to the midfield. Lucas Vázquez has supported attacking and wide midfield options and proven a reliable alternative to the starting forwards. Beyond these major direct changes, the impact integrating the aforementioned players into the setup has on the roles of the squad's core also contributes to the transformation in style witnessed on the field.

One of Benitez's key priorities at this stage of his tenure is determining how to utilize his roster. The manager needs to evaluate the qualities and attributes of each member of the squad to ascertain who his first eleven should be and the rotational order to implement. This goes beyond simply deducing which players are the best in their respective positions but which combinations function most effectively together. This is an on-going process as performance factors from matches and form are critical inputs into decision-making. The below analysis attempts to do this in light of the fast approaching el Clásico on November 21, 2015.

Goalkeepers - Navas and Casilla

The comparison between keepers is heavily skewed by the disparity in minutes played between Navas and Casilla. The Costa Rican has played 86.7% of available minutes this season to date failing to appear against Las Palmas (at home) and Sevilla (away) primarily due to injury. There are clear indications Real Madrid perform better with him in net as the team outscores their opponents by 0.018 more goals per minute translating to an equivalent of a 1.62 goal differential (GD) over 90 minutes. That is a remarkable difference which underscores the premium selecting the ex-Levante goalkeeper affords. The team performs well below par (0.019 weighted average) with Casilla which was evidenced by the sole defeat under Benítez so far occurring with him between the posts. It is difficult to directly fault the backup keeper for the goals he conceded but under the same lens, it would have been difficult to fault Navas if any of the surprisingly frequent number of difficult shots he saved had ended up in the back of the net -- but unlike Casilla, he is indeed making those saves. One can argue, with reason, that the situations were not identical and the shots faced were not entirely similar.

Real Madrid have conceded more goals in 2 games with Casilla than they have in 13 with Navas.

That would be true but statistically, there is a tendency for the team to perform better with Navas which may not be completely due to an increased level of individual performance but highly suggestive of an influential variable. While the specific dynamics may be extremely complicated to decipher, it is certain that the Costa Rican is likely to be a better option for Real Madrid based on La Liga and Champions League games played. It should be noted that with Casilla, the team has more shot on target (SoT) dominance (0.013) despite the Spaniard facing 70% more SoT than Navas per minute. However, 40% of SoTs faced by Casilla have resulted in goals conceded versus only 8% for Navas. This is highlighted by the fact that Real Madrid have conceded more goals in 2 games with Casilla than they have in 13 with Navas.

Defense - Stability and Reliability

There have been 13 distinct defensive combos used this season. The below will focus on the combos that have played 90 or more minutes (approximately 1 full match appearance) - capturing 75.6% of total minutes. These are: Danilo-Marcelo-Ramos-Varane (D01); Carvajal-Marcelo-Ramos-Varane (D02); Carvajal-Marcelo-Pepe-Varane (D04); Carvajal-Marcelo-Nacho-Varane (D06); Arbeloa-Carvajal-Nacho-Varane (D07); and Danilo-Marcelo-Nacho-Varane (D09).

Varane's playing time is the highest of any defender at an estimated 1,169 minutes.

Varane is the only defender to appear in all 6 - which corresponds with his playing time being the highest of any defender at an estimated 1,169 minutes (84% of available playing time). Of the above combos, D06 managed the best shot on target differential per minute (SoTDMA) yet also the worst goal differential per minute (GDMA) courtesy of a goalless home draw against Málaga. Every other combo did not record a negative GDMA and managed at least one win. The effects of a limited sample size are clearly visible here because playing the 19th (at the time) team at the Bernabéu (the lowest strength of opposition (OS) - or weighted average standing in the league table of all teams a combo has faced - of the 6 combos) is conducive to a more controlling and assertive performance.

D09 managed the best GDMA, possibly also for the same reasons due to an OS of 18, with the team scoring six goals and only conceding 1 in 2 games. The most used defense of the season, DO1, featuring the presumed preferred starters had the second best SOTDMA and was just a shade below the team average for GDMA. The fact that none of the main 6 combos had negative SoTDMA or GDMA values suggests there is a desirable level of stability and suitable depth in defensive options. A defensive line,  D07, including both Nacho and Arbeloa with an OS of 5 obtained a GDMA of .022 or the equivalent of 2 more goals scored than conceded against an average 5th placed team over 90 minutes which is fairly reassuring. There are hints of a correlation between SoTDMA and OS as the worst SoTDMA rating had the second toughest OS and the best SoTDMA had the easiest OS. This correlation is less pronounced with GDMA.

Midfield - Depth and Variety

There have been 24 unique midfield combos but only 6 with over 90 minutes in total accumulated playing time (capturing 73.6% of total minutes): Isco-Kroos-Modrić (M01); Isco-Kovačić-Kroos-Modrić (M09); Casemiro-Kroos-Modrić (M14); Casemiro-Isco-Kovačić-Kroos (M15); Casemiro-Isco-Kroos-Modrić (M17); and Casemiro-Isco-Kroos (M20). Due to James' injury layoffs, he does not appear in any of the 6 combos despite being a very important member of the midfield. It is interesting that half of the noted combos contain 4 players while the others just 3.

There is viable coverage and support for injuries, rotational purposes, and form.

This is reflective of the frequent alternations between 3 and 4 man midfields as Benítez's more reactive (in the sense that changes are greater geared towards addressing specific aspects of matches and opponents) game management takes hold. Kroos is the only midfielder to show up in all six combos - Isco with the next most appears in 5. As with the defensive unit, none of the midfield combos have negative SoTDMA or GDMA values which similarly could signify there is viable coverage and support for injuries, rotational purposes, and form.

M14 has the highest GDMA averaging an exceptional 0.027 which roughly means they outscore opponents by 2.4 goals per match. This is made all the more impressive because the combo has the strongest OS of 2.7 playing Athletic Club, Malmö FF, Atlético Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, and Celta Vigo - every one of them on the road. Casemiro is often deployed as a lone central defensive midfielder when played with Modric and Kroos which theoretically provides them more latitude to consistently participate offensively. This filters through to the forwards who are able to be more effective with the added attacking support. However, this trio did not manage the highest SoTDMA. That was the offensively packed M01 and M09 (the only combos that did not have Casemiro). Modrić, Kroos, and Isco were in both combos with Kovačić joining them in M09. This lends some credence to the idea that the ultra proactive framework Ancelotti introduced last season by playing extremely attacking proficient midfielders together can be leveraged to sustain any forsaken defensive solidity. Of course, the balance players such as Kroos and Modric (especially the latter) provide should not be ignored. In fact, the only two combos Modric wasn't a part of (M15 and M20) rated the worst in GDMA and SoTMA respectively.

Offense - BBC and Others

The following five offensive combos, of a total 14, have played 90 or more minutes together in 2015/16 (capturing 71.5% of total minutes): Bale-Ronaldo (O02); Bale-Benzema-Ronaldo (O03); Benzema-Ronaldo (O05); Jesé-Ronaldo (O09); and Jesé-Ronaldo-Vázquez (O10). Ronaldo, unsurprisingly, as the only player in the entire team to have played every single available minute to date, is the only player in all 5 combos.

BBC's numbers are better than any other individual combo for any position to have played at least 90 minutes.

Combo O03 or BBC is noticeably the best attaining incredible GDMA and SoTMA figures of 0.062 and 0.082. That's better than any other individual combo for any position to have played at least 90 minutes achieved. Those numbers, if sustained, would see a BBC led team scoring an astounding 6 goals more and outshooting opponents by 7 shots on target per match. Their OS of 9.97 may be biasing their performances a little - as they played fairly manageable games with the only exception being an 11 minute spell against Atlético Madrid - but it's not relatively at great contrast with others. It seems all three pieces of the BBC are vital as O02 and O05, the BBC less Benzema and Bale respectively, did not perform nearly as well with O05 facing comparatively weaker opposition.

The other combo that had an above average GDMA was O09. Despite Ronaldo and Jesé playing scoreless minutes against Athletic Bilbao (where the latter came off the bench) and Celta Vigo away, positive team GD and SoTD in home fixtures against Las Palmas and Paris-Saint Germain was enough to propel them over the 0.019 GDMA weighted average. On the other hand, every 90+ minutes combo except the BBC performed below par when looking at SoTDMA suggesting the competitiveness of substitutes or alternates line-ups to the starting BBC may not quite be up to scratch yet.

Notes:

1. Base match performance data was retrieved from: http://www.whoscored.com (link)

2. The key statistics used for this analysis were Goal Differential (GD) and Shot on Target Differential (SoTD) as they are good (not perfect certainly but quite useful and palatable indicators of performance). Differential metrics have been shown to be less predictive than ratio metrics but are perhaps more relevant for descriptive purposes.

3. The analysis assumed fixed positions for all players based on their generalized roles from previous seasons. This could lead to potentially inaccurate categorizations as a player can play different roles throughout the season due to coaching tactics or injuries which have both been evident this season.

4. The strength of opposition (OS) statistics were based on weighted average standings on the league table of teams a combo faced. For recently promoted teams, the position of their finish in the previous season's second division was applied as: 1st became 18th, 2nd became 19th, and 3rd became 20th.

5. It is imperative to note that the sample size is too small to consider any of the conclusions or analysis to be absolute or definitive. They may provide guidance and inform some opinions but there simply haven't been enough observable situations to truly reveal meaningful trends.

6. The above statistics only considered official competitive fixtures for the 2015/16 season.