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Actually, Real Madrid shouldn’t fire Julen Lopetegui

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Real Madrid CF v Levante UD - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Here’s a classic advanced stat-head article structure: start with a premise that seems absurd on its face based on the eye test. Explain why it’s not absurd. Then argue forcefully for the conclusion that you’ve developed.

Those articles were extremely the thing in, like, 2001. In baseball.

Well, we’re about to start getting a new batch of those in soccer because, for better or for worse, soccer’s analytics revolution (that some brilliant geniuses predicted in 2012) is finally here.

And here’s a taste of the genre, just for you here at Managing Madrid.

Absurd premise: Real Madrid are actually not that bad this season.

Wait what?

They’re literally losing matches that they haven’t lost in decades. They nearly set the record for ineptitude in front of goal. They’re about to sack their coach in October.

But here’s the thing: the peripheral stats actually don’t back up this narrative.

Check it out:

You’re looking at a chart displaying a number of characteristics of how the La Liga season has gone so far. Normally, the chart would include a bunch of regular stats like, you know, wins. Draws.

Here’s the hook—why the premise (that Real Madrid are actually not that bad this season) isn’t absurd: in every category that measures the caliber of play (that is, how much Real Madrid passes the ball, where they pass the ball, where their opponents pass the ball, how many goal-scoring opportunities they create), Real Madrid are actually one of the best in the league.

In fact, Real Madrid, all else being equal, should have the most points in the league (xPTS).

Look at these numbers:

Real Madrid’s defense has actually been one of the best in the league. They’ve allowed the third-fewest non-penalty non-own expected goals. They’ve allowed fewer passes per defensive action in the opposition half than Barcelona or Atletico Madrid. And, most notably, they’ve allowed the third fewest non-penalty non-own expected goals (7.76 in 13 games) in the league. That’s better than Barcelona. It’s better than Atletico. It’s better than Sevilla. The only reason Madrid’s defensive xGA is higher than Atletico’s is because of penalties and own goals.

On offense, they’ve created the second-most passes per action in their opponent’s half. They’ve completed the second-most passes within 20 yards of their opponent’s goal in the league. They’ve created the third-most non-penalty non-own expected goals (behind Barcelona and Sevilla). And their season-long xG is very close to Sevilla and Barcelona at the top.

The combination of Madrid’s statistically strong defense and their statistically strong offense should all else being equal leave them with the highest point total in the league.

It is, of course, that all else being equal bit where leagues are won and lost. We commonly think of that phrase as referring to, for example, how lucky or unlucky the team has been. And in baseball that might be basically it—the ball falls where it falls. But that’s not the case in this sport, and the “all else” in this case is what makes all the difference.

Madrid is finishing far below their xG. They’re defending below their xGA. The advanced stats suggest that the team that creates and allows this combination of opportunities should be doing better—but this Real Madrid is not.

And that is due to a combination of factors, including, but of course not limited to, their seeming inability to finish their chances, and their penchant for allowing incredibly stupid goals.

Now here’s the turn, the classic element of an advanced stats article: actually, none of this (ok, well, some, but definitely not all) is Julen Lopetegui’s fault. He has, for the most part, gotten it right: his team has, again, all else being equal, defended well and created the opportunities to score. He has put them, tactically, in the position to succeed—it’s just that the player’s aren’t doing that.

So what does this all really mean? Well, for one, it has changed my mind on whether Florentino Perez should fire Lopetegui. The peripheral statistics simply don’t call for it—if anything, bringing in a defensive motivator like Conte would only marginally improve a side that, to be frank, actually hasn’t been that bad on defense!

So maybe this is where I depart from those old-school advanced statistics articles. Actually, this does call for a change. Madrid desperately need to find players that can finish their chances without diminishing the team’s ability to create them. I’m not sure who exactly fits the bill (a certain young Frenchman probably would, but, well, that signing is...complex). But it does seem to me that new blood is required up front—but that the team needs to be extremely careful not to sacrifice any of the chance-creation that they currently have in spades.

Ultimately, this Real Madrid team has the tools—and the peripheral statistics back this up—to be a title competitor. But they’re not playing like one. So blame luck, blame the forwards, curse the gods and the cruel, uncaring universe. But when you’re done throwing your hands up and cursing, remember that, all things being equal, this team is actually not that bad.