Real Madrid needs an even better defense

The other day, Jose Mourinho made news by claiming that last season was his best ever as a coach. Truth is, he did do very well. Real came in second in La Liga, won the cup, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Now, whether that’s really better than any of the seasons with Porto, Chelsea, or Inter is another question. But there was one statement that got us thinking. Speaking about the La Liga campaign, Mourinho was quoted as follows: “It was the championship in which I won more points, won more games and scored more goals. It was a very, very, very good championship.”

Looked at in this way, it’s hard to disagree. It was a very, very, very good championship for Real – offensively speaking. While Barça is usually praised for their excellent attacking play, last season Real Madrid found the back of the net even more frequently (and lest we forget, Ronaldo won the Pichichi Trophy).

The numbers tell the story. For example, Real Madrid was superior in terms of shot production. On average, they produced 19 shots per match, compared to Barça’s 15.5. Of course, the overall shot count is not entirely conclusive. It’s also about the ability to fire a shot on target (and to score, obviously). For Real Madrid, shooting on target seems to be somewhat harder than for Barça. Although they take more shots, Mourinho’s team managed to place about 42% of their shots between the woodwork. In contrast, Barça did slightly better, with a target/shot percentage of 46%. At the end of the day, Real scored 2.68 times per match, while Barça managed 2.5 goals. Given that Real Madrid needed seven shots on target to score once and Barça only six, the Catalans were slightly more efficient and Real compensated by shooting more frequently.What Mourinho doesn’t mention is that Barça had the superior defense: Iker Casillas let twice as many goals slip trough as Victor Valdés.

So here’s our unsolicited advice, based on a few numbers: If Real wants to win the championship this year, they have to find a way to defend more effectively. We know: it might sound a bit odd to say that Real Madrid – much criticized for Mourinho’s catenaccio style of play – needs to defend better. So let’s take a look at the numbers to see what they tell us.

As it turns out, defending was Real’s biggest problem last season. On average, Barça allowed 7.4 shots against them on average each game in the Liga BBVA, while the Madrid defense allowed more than 30% more shots (10). Perhaps Barça’s success really is based on the simple principle of their main advisor, the Dutch legend Johan Cruijff: “If we have the ball, they can’t score”. Barça’s high levels of possession provides few openings (and less time) for opponents to produce shots. The best defense is to attack, it seems.

Although possession is surely an important factor in Barça’s success, it is not a completely satisfying explanation for why Barça conceded 12 fewer goals than Madrid in their 38 league matches, especially if you consider this. Looking at the shots on target instead of just the overall number of shots, we see that the difference between Barça and Real is not as big as earlier suggested. Both Casillas and Valdés, on average, had to contend with the same amount of shots on goal, roughly three in total per match.

So it’s not entirely clear why Real Madrid (at 0.87 per match) conceded so many more goals than Barcelona (0.55 per match). Is Victor Valdés simply a much better goalkeeper than Iker Casillas? Or are the shots that Barça opponents manage to take on their goal easier to save, as the Barça defense might allow less space and time for attackers? Or might one team see more of certain kinds of shots on their goal – for example more or less shots from set pieces? Right now, this is all speculation, but it does make us wonder. At a minimum, the data show that Barça’s outperformed Real on the defensive side of the ball last year. It is striking to see that a team on average needed almost 14 shots in total – or 5.5 shots on target to score against Barça. To score against Real it was sufficient to shoot 11.5 times or produce 3.5 shots on target.

So here’s a way to summarize the offensive and defensive performance of La Liga teams last season. If you ever had any doubt about how different the two leading teams were from the rest of the league, take a look at this picture. But it shows how Real Madrid outscored Barcelona and how the latter outdid the former defensively.

Two leagues in one?


So the real difference last season was the beautiful art of preventing that the opponent scores. If Real keeps scoring as they have and shore up their defense, we have a hunch that this La Liga season will be closer than ever.

This post was written in collaboration with Chris Anderson from Soccer by the Numbers.

About Thomas Boeschoten

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