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A Data-Driven Analysis of Real Madrid’s 2021/2022 Campaign

How the team has changed from the Zidane era to the current side

Elche CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

After Real Madrid beat Elche over the past weekend, Los Blancos had played eleven matches in La Liga during the 2021/2022 campaign, which is around the point in the season when you can accurately analyze the data that the team has accumulated. As the sample size of matches to pull data from is now large enough to yield reflective results, I thought it was time to do a data-driven analysis of Real Madrid’s season so far, and to look at how the current team compares to squads from previous seasons.

For reference, the following will contain data from both FBref and Wyscout, and will only cover data from La Liga campaigns. Also for comparison purposes, I used data from the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 seasons, as they are the two most recent seasons to have been fully managed by a single manager.

To begin, I wanted to look at by far the most successful part of Carlo Ancelotti’s current Real Madrid managerial tenure, the team’s attack. Real Madrid has scored 26 goals in their eleven matches this season, an average of 2.36 goals per match. This is a massive improvement over what Zinedine Zidane’s attack produced in his final two seasons at the helm of the team, as Real Madrid averaged 1.84 and 1.68 goals per match during the 19/20 and 20/21 campaigns respectively.

Much of this is due to Vinícius Júnior’s meteoric rise, as the young Brazilian has scored 7 goals this season, 26.92% of the team’s goals. Real Madrid have had trouble in previous years finding goals from players in the squad that aren’t named Karim Benzema, and Vinícius Júnior’s contributions alongside the Frenchman have been key to Real Madrid’s success this season. For reference, the highest goal contribution a non-Benzema player has made to the squad in the past three seasons was Sergio Ramos during the 19/20 campaign, with the captain scoring 15.71% of the team’s goals that campaign (and more than half of those goals came from penalties).

Looking a bit deeper into Real Madrid’s offense, we can see that the squad has not only gotten more clinical with their finishing, but they’ve created more chances as well. This season Real Madrid have averaged 0.14 goals per shot, compared to 0.11 goals per shot in both of the previous seasons. In terms of the pure volume of shooting, the team has taken an average of 16.3 shots each match, a substantial increase from the 14.6 and 14.5 from 20/21 and 19/20.

Again, the boost in the number of goals per shot is largely due to Vinícius Júnior. This season, Vinícius has averaged 0.27 goals per shot (a top-five rate for players in La Liga who’ve played more than eight matches this season), compared to the 0.07 (2020/2021), 0.08 (2019/2020), and 0.05 (2018/2019) goals per shot that he averaged in his first three seasons with Real Madrid.

I also wanted to look at how Real Madrid’s expected goals values have changed over the past few seasons. This season, Real Madrid have had a non-penalty expected goals per ninety minutes of 1.49, which is only behind Barcelona’s rate of 1.53. The difference between the two clubs this season has been how they’ve finished their chances, not how they’ve created them. Real Madrid are overperforming their npxG/90 by 0.78 (meaning that they’re scoring 0.78 more goals per match than they statistically should), while Barcelona are underperforming their npxG/90 by 0.25. While it remains to be seen if Real Madrid can sustain overperforming their xG by almost an entire goal each match (we usually see each team regress to their mean xG over the course of the season), it’s phenomenal in itself that they’ve made it this far into the season doing as well as they have. In comparison to how this team compares to the past two seasons, the 20/21 team averaged 1.56 npxG/90 and the 19/20 side averaged 1.45 npxG/90. Neither of the teams came close to outperforming their npxG like the current squad has, with the 20/21 team overperforming their npxG by 0.04 and and the 19/20 squad overperforming by 0.11 goals per match.

Next, I wanted to look at how Real Madrid have created their goals this season. In the past, Real Madrid have been reliant on set pieces to score goals, and that reliance has fluctuated over the years. In the 21/22 campaign, Real Madrid have scored 0.27 goals per match (3 goals in total) from corner kicks, which is up from both the 20/21 and 19/20 seasons, where the team put in 0.21 goals per match from corners (a total of 8 goals from corner kicks over each season). Despite Real Madrid doing much better than in previous seasons from corner kicks, their utilization of free kicks and penalties has fallen. They’re yet to score from a free kick this season, which is down from 0.03 goals from free kicks during the 20/21 season, and 0.05 from the 19/20 season. This isn’t unexpected though, as the team had a low conversion rate from free kicks beforehand, and there isn’t much of a difference between their conversion rate this season and the previous seasons. In terms of Real Madrid’s goal scoring from penalty kicks, it hasn’t changed much from last season, but it’s taken a major dip from the 19/20 campaign (everyone remembers the post-lockdown period where Los Blancos scored five penalties in the final eleven matches of the season). Real Madrid have only drawn one penalty this season (against Alavés), which was scored by Benzema. That gives the 21/22 team a rate of 0.09 penalty goals per match, compared to the 0.08 penalty goals per match from the 20/21 season and the 0.29 goals from the 19/20 campaign.

Despite Real Madrid not being overly-reliant on crosses this season as their primary offensive scheme, crosses are still a large part of the team’s attack. In fact, Real Madrid’s crossing numbers have increased from the past two seasons, as the team has attempted 16.5 crosses per match this season, up from 15.2 last season and 16.0 during the 19/20 season. The completion rate of the crosses has dropped marginally each season though, with the 19/20 team crossing with a 32.9% completion rate, a 31.4% rate in 20/21, and a rate of 29.6% this season.

Curiously enough, Real Madrid’s utilization of through passes has dropped this season. I had figured that with Vinícius Júnior’s increasing role in the side, and with his incredible pace, that the team would’ve been finding him quite often in behind the opposition defense with through balls. This is not the case though, most likely due to much of Vinícius’s impact coming from him picking up the ball outside of the opponent’s final third and carrying it there himself. Real Madrid have completed 1.18 penetrative through passes this season, down from the 1.24 they completed last season and 1.53 of the 19.20 campaign.

Also unexpected, the amount of dribbles that Real Madrid have attempted this season has dropped from previous years. This season, Real Madrid have attempted 18.7 dribbles per match, down from 18.9 during the 20/21 season and 20.4 in the 19/20 season. This drop is mostly due to a decrease in the dribbles attempted from all Real Madrid players bar Vinícius Júnior, most notably Eden Hazard, Isco, and Rodrygo.

In general, little has changed for Real Madrid whilst in possession. Their average match possession this season is 58.5%, down from 59.7% and 59.1% in the two previous seasons. With the small possession dip, there’s also been a small drop in the touches from Real Madrid players. In the current campaign, the team has been taking an average of 708.6 touches per match, compared to 738.6 in 20/21 and 733.6 during the 19/20 season.

Little has also changed with the team’s general passing. The team has attempted an average of 604.5 passes each match (with a completion rate of 86.5%), which is a small decrease from the 633.0 (86.6%) in 20/21, and 626.7 (85.4%) in 19/20. The percentage of the team’s passes that are long passes (more than 30 yards) has also dropped. This season, 16.9% of Real Madrid’s passes have been long balls, compared to 17.9% from the 20/21 season and 18.4% during 19/20. Though it’s been barely noticeable, the team has been utilizing more short passes in the buildup phase.

Next, I wanted to switch over and look at the team’s data from the other side of the ball, on the defensive side. Anyone who has watched the side can tell you that this has been the phase of the game that has troubled the team the most this season. Losing both of the team’s starting centre backs was never going to create an easy transition into this season, and the data has reflected that.

Real Madrid have conceded an average of 1.09 goals per match this season, a major increase from the 0.71 and 0.66 goals per match conceded during the last two seasons of Zidane’s tenure. As expected, the team allowed more shots as well, with the current side conceding 10.7 shots per match, compared to the 9.16 of the 20/21 campaign and 8.61 from 19/20.

The team’s expected goals conceded has also risen substantially. This season, Real Madrid have averaged 1.21 xGA (expected goals against) per match, up from 0.80 in 20/21 and 0.71 during the 19/20 season.

Though the quality of Real Madrid’s defense has dropped, their set piece defense has remained impeccable. The squad is yet to concede a goal this season from a corner kick or a free kick, and they have only allowed one penalty in their first eleven matches. Real Madrid have conceded 0.09 goals from penalties per match this season, a heavy drop from the 0.18 that they allowed last season (however, they only gave up an astounding 0.05 penalty goals per match during the 19/20 season). The side only allowed 0.08 goals from corner kicks during the 20/21 season, and 0.13 before that, so to not concede from a corner kick thus far is a great accomplishment. Finally, Real Madrid hasn’t conceded from a direct free kick in any of the past three seasons, a testament to both the goalkeeping capabilities in the squad as well as the defensive solidity as to not concede fouls in dangerous areas.

While some of the responsibility for the increase of goals (and shots) conceded has to be forgiven since this is a major transition season for Real Madrid’s defensive unit, some of the blame must also be put on the tactics of Carlo Ancelotti. The potency of the team’s attack comes at the cost of a bit of defensive solidity, something that I assume most Madridistas will be willing to forgive. The team’s transition defense hasn’t been of the same quality as it was under Zidane, but the Frenchman obviously prioritized defensive solidity above attacking efficiency during his tenure.

When it comes to the team’s pressing scheme, little has changed since Zidane left according to the data. The current team averages 30.6 pressures in the final third of the pitch each match, a marginal increase from the 30.1 and 29.8 from the final two seasons under Zidane. The team’s pressures per defensive action (PPDA - a metric that measures how many passes a defending team allows their opponents to make before challenging them) has also dropped a small amount, indicating that the team is pressing just a bit higher than they did under Zidane. This season Real Madrid have averaged a PPDA of 9.57 (an average rate for La Liga), compared to 11.14 in 20/21 and 9.64 during the 19/20 season.

The team’s challenge intensity (a metric from Wyscout that measures how many challenges a team makes during a minute of opponent possession), has decreased from previous seasons, indicating that while the team may be pressing a bit higher in the final third, they are doing less defending overall in their matches. Real Madrid have averaged 5.5 defensive challenges per minute of opponent possession, a small decrease from the 5.6 of the 20/21 season and 6.0 in 19/20.

Though Ancelotti’s tactics have changed the quality of Real Madrid both in and out of possession this season, much of the underlying data has changed very little from previous years, a testament to the skill and consistency of the squad over time. It will be interesting to see the fluctuations in the data as the season goes on, and you can be sure I’ll be here to continue documenting the changes.

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