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Stat-Pack: How Do La Liga Teams Defend & Who Are The Best Offensive Fullbacks In The League?

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Real Madrid have the best pressing numbers & Marcelo is on a whole ‘nother planet.

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

How Do La Liga Teams Defend?

We’re eleven match days into what looks like will be a fascinating 2018/19 La Liga season. There is still no clear delineation between those at the top of the table and the Europa League spots, and those in mid-table look like they could make a run at Europe themselves (points-wise at least). So, how do we start separating and categorizing this bunch when they look so similar based on results?

One way, is to look at team style.

Note: “possession regains” refers to successful tackles + interceptions.
Thanks to @AshwinRaman_ for the inspiration for this viz.

In this case, I chose to investigate defensive style by looking at whether teams press or not. As you can see, most teams fall into two categories: those who don’t press a lot (or don’t press effectively) and win the ball back in deeper areas, and those who press high effectively and win the ball back in advanced areas.

It isn’t much of a surprise to see Atlético Madrid in the former group, though their position closer to the middle signifies Diego Simeone’s willingness to change up defensive strategies when it suits the occasion (i.e. he often chooses to press Real Madrid). Leganés is another one that isn’t a shock, as they have been one of the teams most dedicated to “parking the bus” over the past couple of years.

In the latter group, we have the likes of Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Again, not much of a surprise, though it will be interesting to see how Real’s numbers are affected with the change in management. Lopetegui was a coach who liked to press a lot and it’s doubtful that Solari is of the same mold.

The other two categories contain five teams: Espanyol, Getafe, Real Sociedad, Sevilla, and Valencia. Espanyol and Getafe allow few passes per defensive action in the opposition half but fall under the league average when it comes to possession regains in the final third. This could be because their style of pressing forces a lot of clearances upfield that lead to possession regains in their middle and defensive thirds.

Sevilla, Real Sociedad, and Valencia, in contrast, do not press high but nevertheless force turnovers upfield. It is possible that they manage this trick by playing in a medium/medium-high defensive block (a la Liverpool, who are in the same quadrant this season). Teams can use this stance to entice passes into certain areas of the pitch in order to lead to possession regains in the final third.

Who Are the Best Offensive Fullbacks in La Liga?

Staying in the general thematic area code, I also thought it would be fun to look at the offensive numbers of La Liga’s fullbacks this season.

Check out the interactive viz version to see number of appearances, minutes, and players who aren’t labelled.

Marcelo is, quite obviously, on another level when compared to everyone else, despite the (understandable) claims that Jordi Alba is the best left back in the world. Júnior Firpo, the young Betis fullback, looks to be one to keep an eye on and Ruben Peña must be really fun to watch this season.

Below these players are the above average dribblers who don’t really create much. It’s a bit concerning to see Real Madrid loanee Theo Hernández there, especially when considering his key pass numbers are in line with his subpar figures over the last two seasons. Nacho hasn’t faired that much better either, something that many Madridistas would’ve known just by watching him struggle at left back late in the Lopetegui era.

To the left, you have the worst of the worst. Juanfran should probably retire, and if he doesn’t, Atlético Madrid definitely need to get rid of him. José Gayá looks only slightly less worse (another blow to all those who believed in his potential in what feels like ages ago).

Above, and in the yellow, are those who are productive but not particularly talented at taking opponents on. Sergi Roberto is probably the best of that bunch and it came as a bit of a shock to me to see him higher than Alba for key passes per 90 minutes. His early career as a good passing central midfielder undoubtedly influences his creative ability from right back and perhaps also explains why he’s not consistently an above average dribbler.

Other, brief takeaways:

  • Carvajal remains one of the elite offensive fullbacks in the league despite his shaky start to the season.
  • Nélson Semedo provides the dribbling Sergio Roberto doesn’t while lacking the creativity that Roberto possesses. Barcelona haven’t had a right back who can provide both qualities since Dani Alves.
  • Rubén Duarte, mate.
  • Jesús Navas looks fairly decent as a wing-back in Pablo Machín’s back three system.
  • Filipe Luís is still solid despite having been post-prime for a while now.