This year’s La Liga season is going to be different. Since Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Real Madrid in 2009-2010, Spain’s domestic league has largely been the background for a psychodrama about Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the best two players in the world.
However, that’s not to say they were the only thing that mattered. Atletico Madrid spent those years carving out a niche for themselves as the defensive specialist’s alternative to the two high-flying scorers, and bested them both during the 2013-14 season. Still, for almost a decade, regardless of what else has happened, the league has mostly been about Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Messi and Ronaldo.
Now Ronaldo’s gone.
Barcelona’s Title to Lose
Barcelona (-135) lost a grand total of one domestic league game last season. Despite playing a brand of soccer that was somewhat more conservative than they have in the past, Barca dominated the league. They finished the season 14 points ahead of Atletico Madrid and 17 points ahead of rivals Real Madrid. The season, on the whole, was non-competitive, so it’s no wonder they’re odds-on favorites to win the league again this season, especially considering that after selling Ronaldo to Juventus, Madrid haven’t replaced their superstar at all.
And Barcelona are better than they were last season, too, despite Andres Iniesta’s departure to Japan. Iniesta was one of Barcelona’s long time stars, but he turned 34 in May, and over the course of the season, it became clear that while the flashes of brilliance remained, he simply wasn’t physically able to bring his A game twice a week anymore, even if he routinely played only an hour before coming off.
Recognizing that, Barcelona acquired Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool last January. His presence as regular starter will make the team’s attacking more vibrant, especially if he leans into his creative tendencies and away from his long-distance shooting.
After an injury-plagued first year, exciting youngster Ousmane Dembele will also be a regular this season. And Barcelona also upgraded in midfield; after oddly experimenting with Paulinho last season, the team went out and bought Arturo Vidal from Bayern Munich. Vidal is a superstar all-action midfielder who will give Barca the defensive presence and attacking running Paulinho did, without being an utterly uncreative black hole in possession. At 31 years old, Vidal is likely not going to be great for long, but that’s future Barca’s problem. Present Barcelona will clearly be better for his presence.
And then there’s Malcom, a young attacking Brazilian winger Barcelona swooped in for, just before Roma finished buying him from Bordeaux. He adds depth right now, and at least possibly an extremely bright future.
A New Era at the Bernabeu
While Barcelona got better, Madrid so far have become worse. Madrid’s season last year featured a first half during which they were unable to hit the broad side of a barn. They were 20 points behind Barcelona by the midpoint of the season and could never recover. Through 19 games, Madrid ran up only 35 points, mostly because they managed only 39 goals despite an expected goals tally of 47.5 from those games. Madrid were a stronger team last season than their point total indicated (and of course they did win the Champions League for the third time in a row).
Now, they’re going to have to do it without their superstar — not to mention a new manager in Julen Lopetegui — and it’s hard to see this team not taking some steps backward. The only major moves the team has made so far (despite being linked to stars such as Eden Hazard, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar) is adding goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea. Could they win the title if everything goes right? Sure. But a price of +175 isn’t “everything goes right” money, it’s “has a realistic shot” money.
Because Madrid is worse than they were last season — and because Barcelona’s better — it’s hard to see that happening. Madrid’s most likely scenario is being a somewhat worse team while also running up a few more points than last season. All things considered, that’s not terrible, but it surely isn’t how a team makes up a 17-point deficit.
Atletico Madrid, the third of Spain’s big three, had an excellent summer. The biggest question mark of their summer was whether or not they would be able to hang onto their star, Antoine Griezmann. Not only did they accomplish that, but they added a major piece around him by bringing in Monaco’s Thomas Lemar, a creative passing left winger who can pinch into the midfield — a perfect fit for manager Diego Simeone’s system — and Gelson Martins, a winger from Sporting.
They also refreshed their midfield legs, moving on from Gabi — who has been a stalwart for the team — and bringing in Villareal’s Rodri. Across the pitch, the team has also tried to work on its depth at fullback with Santiago Arias coming in and the talented but frustrating Sime Vrsaljko leaving. It’s easier to see this Atleti team taking a step forward from their 79-point performance last season. That probably doesn’t mean seriously contending with Barcelona for the title, but at +900, they are, at the very least, intriguing.
The Race for Top Four
Behind the big three, Valencia (120-1) was clearly the best of the rest last season. They finished in fourth place with 73 points, 12 ahead of fifth-place Villareal (250-1). Despite that gap, there’s not a lot about Valencia’s underlying numbers that suggest they’re significantly better than the teams chasing them. They outperformed expected goals on both sides of the ball; their 65 goals were a little over seven ahead of expectations, and their 38 goals conceded — the third stingiest total in the league — were about 10 better than what xG predicted.
Rodrigo, Simone Zaza and Santi Mina account for a large chunk of Valencia’s scoring. The three of them combined for 41 goals last season on only 34 or so xG. Mina in particular is an interesting player to watch; the 22-year-old appeared in 32 games last season, although he played only 1560 minutes thanks to his frequent use as a super sub, starting only 17 times. His 12 goals is an impressive return. In fact, his almost nine expected goals would be an impressive haul in its own right. It’s possible that he’ll have a less-dominant goal return this season even as he continues to improve.
To their credit, Villareal recognize the need to improve that corps. They acquired Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi on loan and striker Kevin Gameiro from Atletico, as well as winger Denis Cheryshev on loan from Valencia, fresh off his star turn for Russia in the World Cup. The race for the top four will almost certainly be more closely contested than it was last season, and with Champions League soccer to play this season, Valencia will need all its depth.
The chasing pack consists mainly of Villareal, Real Betis (550-1) and Sevilla (200-1), who finished fifth, sixth and seventh last year, within three points of each other. Villareal is the most boring of the group. They scored 57, and conceded 50 last with an xG of just over 56 scored and just over 54 conceded. Some of their season rests on whether they can get last season’s leading scorer, Carlos Bacca, who was on loan from AC Milan, to return. Villareal don’t have a particularly high upside, but if Valencia come back to the pack, they could certainly eke out fourth in a down year.
Real Betis are by far the wildest team of this bunch, at least statistically speaking. They played it wide open last season, conceding stability for goal scoring. They scored 60, and conceded 61 despite expected goal predictions of just under 47 and just under 50. So, they didn’t exactly play better — their goal difference and their expected goal difference was roughly in the same area — but stylistically they differed wildly from what a model would expect. They rotated heavily — only one player played more than 3000 minutes — and only three started 30 games or more. And despite Betis’ high goal total, only Sergio Leon managed double digits with 11. Betis may not ever be great, but they’ll always be interesting.
It’s Sevilla who actually have the potential to be good. They had an incredibly unsettled season last year. They went through three managers, going from Eduardo Berizzo to Vincenzo Montella to Joaquin Caparros to limp to the finish line. Despite that upheaval, Sevilla managed a Champions League quarterfinal finish — after beating Manchester United in the Round of 16 to go along with their disappointing seventh-place finish. Now they start over with Pablo Machin, most recently of a very well-organized and defensively sound Girona side.
Sevilla’s talent level is high, and their underlying numbers — amidst all the changes — were significantly better than their results, especially on the attacking side of the ball. They scored only 49 goals — but xG predicted 61.5 — and defensively they conceded 58 against 54 expected. That’s a negative nine-goal difference instead of a positive seven or eight.
Despite the sale of Clement Lenglet, Sevilla have a creative hub in Ever Banega and a long list of attacking options in Wissam Ben Yedder, Luis Muriel and Pablo Sarabia. A year after Sevilla chased their own tails, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them emerge from their year in the wilderness as the fourth-best team in Spain.