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Analysis

Congratulations to Real Madrid: how did they edge Barça to win La Liga?

Did Real Madrid deserve the La Liga trophy? What did they get right to beat Barça in the title race?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

After 37 matchdays, the fate of the 2019/20 La Liga goes in favour of Real Madrid after two years of dominance from Barça. Zinedine Zidane’s men are deservedly champions of Spain as they capitalised on the azulgranas’ inconsistency. Yesterday, Madrid’s scrappy 2–1 win over Villarreal and Barcelona’s 1–2 loss to CA Osasuna summed up the story of this season.


A 100% win record since the restart saw Real Madrid take away Barcelona’s hopes of retaining the La Liga title. When compared to their rivals, the Catalans have had a disappointing run of form since football’s return. Three draws and one defeat in ten games saw them fall off from the summit of the table. Zinedine Zidane’s side, on the other hand, made the most of every slip-up from Barça, and have now won the league by seven points.

Los Blancos‘ highly motivated board

Let’s rewind the clock back to the conclusion of last season. Real Madrid ironically lost to Quique Setién’s Real Betis, while Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was held to a 2–2 draw by Eibar. The blaugranas had won the league weeks before the final matchday and finished nineteen points above Madrid. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo had hurt them massively. Despite appointing three managers in one season, there were absolutely no signs of revival.

In response to the horrific 2018/19 season, president Florentino Pérez invested massively in the squad. Despite Eden Hazard being the highlighted signing, the best one turned out to be left-back Ferland Mendy. There was a need to address the fact that Marcelo was declining, and their board spent no time in finding a successor. Furthermore, Los Blancos also signed Luka Jović and Eder Militão for hefty fees.

The intent was clear from day one, to eventually replace an ageing squad with youngblood. Even if Jović has had a season to forget, there is little denying that the 22-year-old is one for the future. He has all the time in the world to develop his attacking expertise and take over the mantle from Karim Benzema. On the other hand, Mendy has already made the left-back berth his own. Marcelo is deservedly second-choice, and no one can argue about that.

Sergio Ramos Real Madrid Barça La Liga

Despite some bumps in the road, Real Madrid have managed to overcome them by keeping their focus on the pitch | Photo by Daniel González Acuña / Zuma via Imago

While it must be said that Eden Hazard hasn’t had the dream start to his career at Madrid, there’s nothing to worry in particular. Not every high-profile signing becomes an instant hit. Additionally, injuries didn’t help his cause. However, he will be highly motivated to prove his critics wrong next season.

Massive credit should go to Florentino Pérez and the rest of the board members. They were reactive to the failures of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Florentino analysed the negativity looming around the dressing room and chose to bring back Zidane as he is someone the players respect a lot. The Frenchman left along with Ronaldo as he was aware of the board’s plans at the start of the 2018/19 season. They were unambitious and chose to rely on the existing squad quality, which backfired.

But Pérez understood the errors he made and backed Zidane in the 2019 summer transfer window. They spent on the areas where they were massively weak, and have even found long-term replacements to a few players. A combination of fantastic on and off-pitch decisions saw Real Madrid win their 34th league title. 

A contrasting situation at Barça

After praising Real Madrid’s administration for its proactive and brave decisions, discussing Barcelona’s board is a mood kill. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has been making destructive decisions from the start of the season. It began with the signing of Antoine Griezmann, that was never going to be a direct match in profile. The sacking of Ernesto Valverde mid-season when they were at the top of the table proves to be the wrong call. Indeed, the Spanish tactician deserved to be shown the door, but it was at the wrong time.

Lionel Messi Barça Real Madrid La Liga

At Barcelona there is a strong division between all parties | Photo by Alberto Estevez via Imago

Bringing in Quique Setién, who knew the Barcelona way, was a decision that initially seemed excellent. The 61-year-old immediately improved the football, but the form has been inconsistent since his arrival. Under Valverde, the style of play wasn’t pretty, but they always managed to grind out results. Overreliance on Lionel Messi is something that was exposed this season. The Argentine’s scoring record against teams in the top half hasn’t been the best this season.

The azulgranas dropped points every time Messi couldn’t give his 100%. Be it Valverde or Setién, Leo’s form was the deciding factor of almost every game. The board’s horrific sporting decisions peaked when they decided to let go of Arthur Melo for Miralem Pjanić. As much as one may try to deny it, the administration just didn’t have its head in the game. Bartomeu was focussed on making selfish calls that suited certain minimalistic administrative agendas. 

Comparing the manager’s powers

At any football club, the major talking point will always be: How much of a say does the manager have on the major decisions? At Real Madrid, Zidane’s word is omniscient. Zizou has been given all the freedom to execute whatever tactics he felt was right for the team. About the handling of players, Zinedine was in complete control. The treatment of Gareth Bale is enough to explain how authoritative the 48-year-old was in the dressing room. Even if there was a degree of player power in the dressing room, no individual was greater than the manager.

“We believe in him and in his work. He’s the one who has to make the difference, he’s a person who trusts players, and few do. We hope he stays here for a very long time, he is unique”

Sergio Ramos
on Zinedine Zidane

These words from Sergio Ramos tell you how much the players rate their manager. Notwithstanding, Madrid didn’t have the ideal starts to this season. They were dropping points to mid-table sides, and at one point, there were rumours of Zidane even losing his job. Nonetheless, the players stuck with him throughout the inconsistent period. They put everything into making sure that the situation was overturned.

At Barcelona, the scenario seems to be massively contrasting. There is clear evidence of the fact that neither Valverde nor Setién were given control of the dressing room. The player power is unhealthy, and the board’s toxicity reaks all the way to the pitch. At times, one can even see that Quique Setién isn’t able to pick his starting XI. The decisions seem too questionable for the coach to receive the entirety of the blame. While the lion’s share of the fault goes to the manager, there’s nothing he can do if the players don’t respect him.

Real Madrid Barça La Liga

Players, coaching staff and board, Real Madrid is a union | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

There is not one case where we were able to see Setién display control. His press conferences are too passive, and his opinions make him look like a victim of a mismatch in the dressing room powers. Quique might be an excellent tactician, but the truth is that he can’t handle the huge egos in Barcelona’s squad. When players show their backs to the coach, the manager should respond like how Zidane did with Bale. At the Camp Nou, the stance is different, where Setién is easily scapegoated for each and every decision.

Conclusion

From the start of the season, Real Madrid’s focus was entirely on the pitch. At times, the tactics didn’t go as per plan, but Zidane was always in control of every situation. Be it sporting or non-sporting decisions, there was always an amount of clarity displayed by the board. A combination of clever calls and excellent player-management saw the merengues win the Spanish Super Cup and La Liga. The new champions of Spain took advantage of Barça’s off-pitch problems, and are now reaping the benefits of a strong campaign.

“I did not expect Madrid to maintain their high level for this long”

Quique Setién

Barcelona are currently in free-fall, partly because of the manager and majorly due to the players. The board should either appoint a coach who can control the dressing room and manage the egos, or instruct the players to respect the current one. With uncertainties looming over Quique Setién’s future, it doesn’t look like the club is mentally ready for the Champions League. When asked about his future, the coach said, “I hope so, but I don’t know”. These shocking quotes from him sum up how uncertain and unfortunate he has been since taking over as coach.

Madrid will be looking to make a comeback against Manchester City in the Champions League. Barcelona, on the other hand, host Napoli in a critical second leg, where they lead on away goals. Judging by their recent performances, one can conclude that they are neither tactically, nor mentally prepared to face the Italian outfit. The azulgranas continue to suffer against teams that opt for the low block, and Gennaro Gattuso seems to be a master in it. The mood around Setién’s camp is massively negative when compared to that of Zidane’s. Real Madrid has deservedly won their 34th La Liga, while Barcelona is a messy work in progress.


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I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season

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Photo via Imago

Johan Cruyff famously said, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” It is indisputable that money is not the only deciding factor behind a football club’s success. Time and time again, we have seen that football is chaotic and absurd. Anything can happen.

That being said, it is evident that statistically, the clubs with more money are usually the more successful ones. While one cannot predict the unpredictability that is engraved within football, an outcome that is statistically probable can be predicted. This article will explore the relationship between the points a club accumulates in a league season and the total value of the club’s squad. Then, Python will be used to build a linear regression model in order to predict the number of points Barcelona will obtain in the 21/22 season based on the club’s hypothetical squad.

Let us begin with visualizing the relationship between the total league points obtained by a club and the club’s total squad value. Since the amount of money spent on transfers has increased tremendously over the course of the last decade, in this article, only seasons 2014/15 – 2019/20 will be considered. Upon plotting the total points against the total squad value, it is evident that there is a positive correlation between the two. Granted, the correlation is not extremely strong, but it exists nonetheless.

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A line of regression has been generated. The line’s gradient is approximately 0.05138986, and its y-intercept is approximately 44.5470726. There is only one dependant variable in question, club value/total value of squad, and so our line of regression can be modelled by the equation:

P = (0.05138986 )V + 44.5470726 where P is the points and V is the total squad value.


club_values = np.array(df['Values']).reshape(89,1)
club_points = np.array(df['Point']).reshape(89,1)

from sklearn.linear_model import LinearRegression
linear_model = LinearRegression()
linear_model.fit(club_values,club_points)

In order to predict the points accumulated based on Barcelona’s squad value next season, the squad value won’t directly be inputted into our equation above. The coefficient and the y-intercept have been rounded up after a certain number of decimal places, and so, to preserve the precision of the prediction, Python’s LinearRegression predict method will be utilized.

Now comes another challenging part of coming up with Barcelona’s hypothetical squad next season. Based on reports, it can be assumed that Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Martin Braithwaite and Phillipe Coutinho will be some of the notable players to leave. To compensate for the outgoing players, it can be assumed that Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia, David Alaba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. Here is a table that contains all the players in Barcelona’s hypothetical 21/22 squad and their corresponding market values:

PLAYER NAME MARKET VALUE (MILLION POUNDS)
MARC ANDRE TER STEGEN79.34
ARNAU TENAS1.59
RONALD ARAUJO26.45
CLEMENT LENGLET26.45
GERARD PIQUE12.70
DAVID ALABA58.19
ERIC GARCIA21.16
OSCAR MINGUENZA10.58
JORDI ALBA26.45
JUNIOR FIRPO10.58
SERGINO DEST26.45
SERGI ROBERTO26.45
SERGIO BUSQUETS10.58
FRENKIE DE JONG84.63
RIQUI PUIG19.04
ILAIX MORIBA10.58
PEDRI GONZALEZ74.06
GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM37.03
ANSU FATI84.63
KONRAD DE LA FUENTE2.64
OUSMANE DEMBELE52.90
TRINCAO26.45
MEMPHIS DEPAY47.61
ANTOINE GRIEZMANN54.00
LIONEL MESSI84.63
Figures via Transfermarkt

The club’s total value comes up to be £786.60 million. It is important to note that a player’s value is volatile. Transfermarkt updates player values every few months, and so it is extremely probable that this squad’s market value will be drastically different next season.

It is also important to understand that Transfermarkt’s market values are not official and so they are not always an accurate representation of a player’s true market value. Moreover, a player’s value is not always an accurate representation of their quality. Age is a key factor in determining market value, and so while a young player might have a high market value indicating that they are a bright prospect for the future, they might not necessarily be an excellent player at the time when the value is assigned.

Now that all of this has been established, the only thing left is making the prediction.

The machine learning model predicts that Barcelona will obtain 85 points in the 21/22 La Liga season. In the 19/20 season, Real Madrid won the league with 87 points, and in the 18/19 season, Barcelona won the league with 87 points as well. The difference between the points accumulated by the last two winning La Liga squads and the predicted points that Barcelona’s 21/22 squad will obtain is a mere 2 points. This shows that it is possible for Barcelona to win the league next season.

Since the correlation between the two variables, as observed from the data from the last 6 seasons, is not even close to being extremely strong, Barcelona’s 21/22 league points tally may be drastically different from what was predicted by the machine learning model. However, at the end of the day, the model can only work with the data it is exposed to.

Erling Haaland can change the course of Barcelona’s season. It would take forever to make predictions based on Barcelona’s hypothetical squads that include all of the club’s potential transfer targets, however, due to Haaland’s influence, an exception can be made for him. Laporta’s interest in signing Haaland has been widely reported.

However, he will cost a fortune this summer, and with Barcelona’s debt situation, it is unlikely that the Catalan club will pursue him in the upcoming transfer window. That being said like mentioned previously in the article, football is chaotic, and anything can happen.

Oh, Haaland. Oh, you. (Photo via Imago)

Assuming that Barcelona does end up signing Haaland in the summer, Antoine Griezmann will most definitely have to leave (due to wages and the money that can be generated from his sale). Haaland’s current value is £99 million, and so Barcelona’s total squad value for next season, after being corrected for Griezmann’s exit and Haaland’s arrival is £831.60 million.

Haaland’s addition can put 21/22 Barcelona on level with the previous two Spanish champions in terms of total points won. The difference in points between a squad containing Haaland and one not containing him is only two. However, an argument about whether signing Haaland is worth it, is not in the scope of this article.

“Transition seasons do not exist at Barcelona.”

Joan Laporta | Presidential campaign

A club of Barcelona’s stature will always compete for titles. The machine learning model shows that Barcelona is in contention for the 2021/22 La Liga title. Ronald Koeman has done a splendid job at the Blaugrana club this season, and there is no logical reason for him to not do an even better job next season after getting fresh players in the summer.

While football at its core is unpredictable, statistically, it would not hurt to trust Barcelona to win the 2021/22 La Liga title.

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