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Real Madrid, La Liga 2015/2016: Mid-season report

Analysis of the performance of the team in the first half of the league.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane's victorious debut against Deportivo de La Coruña at the Santiago Bernabéu marked the halfway point of La Liga. Real Madrid sit in third place following an eventful start to the season after the appointment of Rafael Benítez. The ex-Napoli manager tried to instill his tactical principles in the blueprint of the team's playing system. Although seven months are arguably not sufficient to allow for the full implementation of a new style, there were clear signs of his influence on the team's play from the visible positional adjustments to offensive and defensive schemes. It is curious to analyze how well the team's league performances under the Spaniard (managed 18 of the 19 matches considered) compares to previous seasons.


The above graph (base data retrieved here)  shows how much better or worse - than an average top four team - Real Madrid competed against teams in the top four spots. The baseline is the average performance of a top four team vs. another - this is then compared to Real Madrid's numbers against those same sides. Currently, they are in order: Atlético Madrid, Barcelona (played one less game), Real Madrid, and Villarreal. As expected, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the only clubs to appear in the top four in all ten seasons with next best Atletico Madrid and Valencia showing up 6 and 5 times respectively (including this season). Clearly, Los Merengues regressed significantly recording the lowest goals difference and points differentials of the last 10 years.

There has, unfortunately, been a steady decline in these two metrics over the last three seasons as Ancelotti's era began a reversal of a fairly standard level of dominance experienced under José Mourinho versus teams at the top of the table. There was a swing of 9 points from an average of 6 more points picked up against top four rivals in 2012/13 to an average of 3 less points gained in 2013/14 (Atletico Madrid's triumphant campaign). This year, based on simple extrapolation, that number could drop to as low as 6 less points. The underlying statistics don't paint a brighter picture - Benitez's half season also ranks the worst in goals (as previously mentioned) and shots on target. He ranks as 6th best when looking at shots but still has the lowest value of the last five years.


This time, the graph looks at the average performance of a top four side against any team in the league. 2015/16 immediately looks much better. Real Madrid have posted their highest points and goal differentials since the spectacular title winning season in 2011/12. The team has scored the most goals (52) due in part to several high scoring affairs. Benítez did better than Ancelotti managed in either of his two seasons relative to other top four teams performances against the rest of the league. The shots on target and shots differentials were the second and third highest respectively of the least 10 seasons. This highlights how poor performances in the mini-league heavily impacted the team. Ronaldo and co. earned a solitary point of a possible 9 - a record that will necessarily have to be bettered in the second half of the season if the team is to stand a realistic chance of winning the league.


The above illustrates Real Madrid's ability to shoot on target and convert chances relative to teams faced. Compared to last season, the team is fairing worse in both regards. Their shooting on target with 8% more precision than match opponents compared to 11% in 2014-15. Similarly, their chance conversion premium is down 3 percentage points. The fact that the team has a considerably larger shots differential possibly explains the dropoff as the larger volume results, to an extent, from a higher frequency of speculative efforts. How this changes over the remainder of the season will be interesting as Zidane's tactics take hold. The Frenchman's preference for controlled progressive play and flexible offensive systems should theoretically enable the players to flourish and lead to the creation of higher quality chances.


Finally, the performance of the team is analyzed from the lens of individual players (base data retrieved from WhoScored and Soccerway). The above shows Real Madrid's weighted average goals difference, shots on target difference, and shots difference for all players that have played in La Liga so far. It also shows the average point-in-time standing of teams faced by the player (OS). In goal difference rankings, Important players such as Ronaldo, BenzemaRamos, Bale, Modric, and Marcelo appear in the top half while other core players including Kroos, Rodríguez, Isco, and Varane do not. The problem with individual statistics is that they don't exhaustively control for situational factors (i.e. quality/form/performance of teammates, opposition players, refereeing performance, and tactics). It's still nonetheless fascinating to see where players rank on this basis.

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