Credit to analyst Sahil Dani (follow him on Twitter @cdsahildani) for his valuable insight and comments when writing this piece.
Transfers and Expectations
One does not think about this often, but Levante are already one of the mainstay teams of La Liga: the Valencian side have played in the highest division of Spanish football in 9 out of the last 10 seasons. With such stability come increased demands from a fandom who feel that just avoiding relegation is not enough anymore.
Levante have a squad with talented creative midfielders—Rubén Rochina, Enis Bardhi, José Campaña—and good forwards who are proven to provide goals and aggressive movements—Jose Luis Morales, Roger Martí. This squad is arguably not strong enough to challenge for European spots, but it should comfortably avoid relegation. However, in previous years the more chaotic approach to tactics of coach Paco López (more on that later) has made it a bit hard for Levante to perform at a consistent enough level to calmly settle down in the midtable area.
This season López and his men have improved their pressing tactics, and with this change has come greater stability in performances and results. Given the limitations in transfer spending during corona times, they weren’t able to significantly improve their squad. However, they made a few smart signings from the lower Spanish divisions: right back Son from Ponferradina, box-to-box midfielder Mickaël Malsa from Mirándes, as well as winger Jorge de Frutos and striker Dani Gómez from Real Madrid B. Malsa and De Frutos, in particular, were squad profiles that Levante lacked, so they have had a significant impact on the team this season.
Levante, the Tactical Mavericks of La Liga
At this point, it’s no secret that La Liga has become the most defensive and lowest-scoring of the big five European leagues. The league has lost a lot of goal-scoring talent in the last few years and many teams in the low-mid table area now prefer to organize themselves with defensive 4-4-2 game plans instead of more expansive possession game plans. Paraphrasing Unai Emery, La Liga teams now worry too much about maintaining order in their structure, they fear looking at the opposition goal and taking risks.
Europe's Big-5 Leagues by goal-scored per game.— Football Today (@FT_Podcast_) January 19, 2021
Serie A: 3.11
Ligue 1: 2.75
Premier League: 2.74
La Liga: 2.41
We talk to @emctear about why La Liga is the lowest scoring in our latest episode. https://t.co/wbEdMio0SJ pic.twitter.com/rtO9SkbIBN
In this context, Paco López and his Levante break the mold. They have prioritized disordering and attacking the opponent even if it comes at the expense of disordering themselves. They want to win by outscoring opponents instead of keeping clean sheets, which leads to open-ended games with massive spaces for both Levante and their opponents to attack.
Levante are therefore one of the most fun teams to watch in La Liga, but their tactical risk-taking comes at the cost of bad defense and greater uncertainty in results. At their best, they are capable of beating both Real Madrid and Barcelona in the same season as they did in 2018/19. At their worst, they have had some terrible games against bottom table opposition.
With such an open-ended and risky style of play, expected goal (xG) models despise Levante, with the FBREF xG model rating them as the worst defense in La Liga in the past two seasons. Levante’s 4-4-2 lacked compactness and gave opponents plenty of space to drive the ball forward and create good chances. Fortunately, last year goalkeeper Aitor Fernández had the best season of his career and stopped more than 8 goals above expectation, the second-best record in the 19/20 Liga season after Unai Simón. His amazing shot-stopping performances week in, week out, allowed Levante to avoid the consequences of their tactical gambling.
Levante’s Improved Pressing
It was going to be very hard for Aitor Fernández to reproduce such tremendous shot-stopping form this 2020/21 season, so Paco López knew that he had to fine tune and stabilize his defensive structure. To achieve this, Levante now press more consistently and aggressively than in previous seasons. According to Between The Posts’ data, this increased pressing intensity means that Levante now allow fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA): 9.5 this season compared to 11.5 last season. Real Madrid already faced this improved Levante press in their last encounter in October.
Levante under Paco López continue to be a fun watch.— La Pausa (@lpftbl) October 5, 2020
Practically every outfield player working off the ball in Real Madrid's half - Rubén Vezo (CB) pressing Fede Valverde (CM) almost in the attacking third. pic.twitter.com/Qu1oyEGW00
This pressing improvement has been positive for Levante’s defensive numbers. They now rank 12th in La Liga when it comes to expected goals conceded, a huge improvement compared to their 20th (and last-placed) rank in the previous season. Even more positive is the fact that Levante’s pressing has improved both their defense AND attack. They are the 6th most productive offense in La Liga at the moment with 27 goals, which is backed up by the 8th best xG created per game. Out of the last 13 games, Levante have only lost 2, even though they have accumulated many draws (8).
In possession, Levante are a vertical, direct team, who try to move the ball forward through quick but short passing from their creative midfielders. While other low- and mid-table La Liga teams prefer to have midfielders who are stronger at defensive workrate and interpretation, Levante’s midfield actually features more players who excel with the ball at their feet: Rochina, Campaña, Melero, Bardhi.
With the ball, Levante’s 4-4-2 looks more like a 4-2-2-2 shape. Fullbacks Clerc on the left and Coke / Jorge Miramón on the right move forward super aggressively, effectively becoming the team’s wingers, while the creative wide midfielders often tuck inside and operate from the half-space areas. Creative players usually have a better vision of the pitch from the half-spaces, so that makes it easier for them to play good passes. The passmap below from Between The Posts shows Levante’s 4-2-2-2 structure from their December match vs Barcelona.
Over the last month, however, there have been some changes in the Levante midfield due to the recurring injuries of Enis Bardhi and José Campaña—the creative midfielders who usually play in the wide midfield roles of the 4-2-2-2. To replace them, Paco López has used more traditional winger profiles, with José Luis Morales on the left and Jorge de Frutos on the right. De Frutos has been extremely productive running forward on the right wing and producing good cutbacks into the box, and generating 4 assists in the last 5 games.
Real Madrid Matchup
Levante go into this game suffering the long-term injury of their best midfielder, José Campaña, and the short term injuries of winger Jorge De Frutos and midfielder Nikola Vukčević. Rubén Rochina will be the likely replacement for De Frutos on the right wing. Rochina is a creative playmaker while De Frutos is a more traditional winger, so instead of making runs and crosses from the right wing, Rochina will play more centrally and focus on generating chances with his excellent passing.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid face this game with a huge injury crisis. Nacho (and manager Zidane) are still out due to corona, while Lucas, Carvajal, Ramos, Valverde, and Rodrygo are all absent due to injuries. Expect the same starting XI used against Alavés last weekend, but with Álvaro Odriozola at right back instead of the absent Lucas Vázquez.
As far as key duels, watch out for Morales vs Odriozola. The Levante captain is 33 now and has lost speed and dribbling compared to previous years, but he’s still a very smart and aggressive runner. Odriozola has more than enough pace to match Morales, but his body positioning and defensive technique are not great, which usually makes him a weak player in 1v1 situations. If Morales has a good day dribbling against Odriozola, he will get into good positions for crosses and cutbacks into the box, and Real’s defense will suffer.
Meanwhile, Real’s attack will depend a lot on how Kroos and Modrić deal with the Levante pressing. Expect Nemanja Radoja and Mickaël Malsa to be very aggressive in pressing the legendary central midfield duo. Fortunately for Real, Kroos and Modrić have both been outstanding this season and demolished opposition pressing lines week after week, so the odds in this game are in their favor.
To really dominate this game, Real will need Asensio and Hazard to be active and dynamic without the ball both in defense and attack. Last week against Alavés, they made constant runs and movements that made it easier for Kroos and Modrić to pass to them and break the Alavés defense. It would be ideal if they could do something similar against Levante. In defense, it would be beneficial if they could track back more frequently than usual, because Levante’s fullbacks are very aggressive. If the Real wingers don’t track back, Mendy and Odriozola might find themselves at a numerical disadvantage against Levante’s offense.