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Is Real Madrid’s Start to the La Liga Season Underrated?

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Levante UD v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

The spirit of Zidane’s Real Madrid seems inevitable. The French manager took the reigns of the Los Blancos vessel just as it had began to sink to depths that remained foreign to fans and players of the team in the last decade. Recharting course and restoring the team’s competitive edge did not occur overnight, to be sure, but the impact looking back today feels instant.

La Liga Official Website

After winning the heavily cherished league title last season, the manager has guided Real Madrid to a great start that sees them sitting in first place after four games (granted not every team has played the same number of matches). While there is no question the team has done very well to secure a good position early into the domestic campaign, the tightly contested games and low scores have led some to question just how well the team is doing at a deeper level.

The team has scored just six goals in the four games played to date with half of those all coming in one game against Real Betis. Zidane’s men recorded no goals, one goal, and two goals in the other three matches with the second against Levante being scored in injury time. At the same time, Courtois has been forced to come to the team’s rescue a number of times — being one of the most active players during certain games. This paints a picture of a fairly sluggish start to the league.

Understat website
Understat website

However, when looking at expected goals based statistics, the team still ranks first. Taking into account the goals they were expected to score and concede given how the games have gone so far, Real Madrid were estimated to be at the top of the league. They have the best rating in expected goals and measure fourth in expected goals against.

FBRef Website

While one could argue their expected goals is slightly boosted by Ramos’ penalty kick against Real Betis, eight other teams have been awarded penalty kicks so far with several them attempting two. Under another similar expected goals model produced by a different site, Real Madrid still rank first in xG even when penalty kicks are excluded.

Although there are some fair observations to be made from the eye test which does suggest there are rough edges to performances, the major issue appears to be tied to finishing. While Real Madrid are averaging an impressive 0.14 expected goals per shot, they are only converting 0.07 of those shots (compared to an xG vs true goals ratio of 0.13 to 0.15 for Barcelona for example). Hopefully Los Blancos’ productivity will improve as finishing normalizes over the season, which stands to be improved even more as Zidane refines tactics (including rotational policy) and further integrates new pieces.