Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Who’s in Better Shape Right Now?
The first Clásico of 2022-23 could hardly be more perfectly poised: Real Madrid and Barcelona head into Sunday’s clash in the Spanish capital separated only by goal difference at the top of La Liga, having both taken 22 points from a possible 24. For Barça, a trip to the Bernabéu presents the best possible opportunity to temporarily alleviate the embarrassment of facing a second successive Champions League group stage exit; Real won’t have needed any extra motivation to avenge March’s stunning 4-0 defeat in this fixture, but the chance to compound their arch-rivals’ misery has provided it anyway. The title won’t be won or lost this Sunday afternoon, but we should get a clearer idea of how close a race we’re going to get. Here’s the state of play heading into the biggest domestic game in world football.
Nice For What
As has been the case – regardless of finishing position – in each of the past 18 seasons, Real Madrid (80 goals) and Barcelona (68 goals) ended 2021-22 as La Liga’s two highest-scoring teams. That was despite Barça posting their lowest goals total since 2003-04, although that was hardly a turn-up for the books as they adjusted to life without Lionel Messi.
So, it comes as no surprise to see table-topping Barça and second-placed Real ranking first and second respectively for goals scored (Barça 20, Real 19). Barça are averaging 2.5 goals per game — thanks in no small part to the arrival of one Robert Lewandowski — with Real ticking along at a fractionally lower but still extremely decent 2.37 goals per game.
Barça also enter the Clásico as statistically the most creative team in La Liga, having accumulated 20.95 non-penalty expected goals across their first eight games of 2022-23 at an average of 2.61/game. Having inserted Lewandowski (who’s notched nine La Liga goals from 7.56 xG) and Raphinha (who averages a league-high 0.5 expected assists/90) into an attack already featuring last season’s leading La Liga provider, Ousmane Dembele (whose average of 3.02 open-play chances created/90 is the best in the division this term), Barca’s offensive output has shot up.
Just how much of an increase are we talking? Well, from the beginning of Xavi’s tenure just under a year ago to the end of 2021-22, Barça averaged 1.65 NPxG/game (and still only 1.73 NPxG/game during Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s short but prolific spell at the club) – so they’re currently running at 0.96 xG/game (almost 60%) higher. Is 2.61 NpxG/game sustainable? Almost categorically not – and Barça have probably benefitted from a relatively kind early-season schedule* – but their main new-look front three (Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati are also in the rotation) seems to be clicking.
*Barcelona have played the teams currently sitting 20th, 19th, 18th, 13th, 12th, 11th, 10th and 6th in La Liga thus far
Is There More
Real didn’t add to their attack this summer – and they didn’t really need to. At 34, like Lewandowski, Karim Benzema is approaching the twilight of his career – but the Frenchman has aged like one of his homeland’s globally exported grape-based beverages. He’s had an injury-disrupted early campaign, missing three out of eight league matches – which possibly at least partly explains his drop-off in finishing from -0.17 shooting goals added last season to -2.14 so far this term – but he’s still got himself on the scoresheet three times. Will he equal his career-best 2021-22 haul of 44 goals in all competitions? Perhaps not, but the Ballon d’Or favourite has not fallen off a cliff; he’s just, understandably, not yet fully up and running in 2022-23.
It’s not like Carlo Ancelotti’s side are overly reliant on Benzema, though: Brazilian duo Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo have regularly taken centre stage from the wings, with at least one of the two involved in 11 of Real’s league goals this season. The former has scored five and assisted one, while the latter has provided three and two respectively.
For Vini Jr, who turned 22 in July, 2021-22 was a breakout campaign; he bagged 22 goals in all competitions and was named Young Player of the Season in the Champions League, where he scored the winner in the final against Liverpool. This time around, it looks like it’s Rodrygo’s time to truly shine: only Raphinha and Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann average more xA/90 than the 21-year-old’s 0.33, while only four players (Raphinha, Griezmann, Benzema, Lewandowski and Osasuna’s Chimy Ávila) average more xG and xA combined per 90 than his 0.74.
Again, it’s early days, but Barça have kept seven clean sheets in their first eight league games. Heading into the Clásico, their back-line has been breached just once (by Alexander Isak’s final goal for Real Sociedad, who Barça thrashed 4-1 on the road on the second weekend of the season). Only one other La Liga side have conceded fewer than five goals (Villarreal, 3). And it should be noted that Xavi has already named six different defensive combinations in the league (a back four of Ronald Araújo, Jules Koundé, Eric García and Alex Balde has been the most common, although even they’ve only started together three times). What’s the story here, then?
Barça have faced the fewest shots in the division (65 at an average of 8.1/game) and given up the third-lowest xG (6.3). However, three of the sides they’ve played (and beaten) rank 20th, 19th and 18th respectively for shots taken: Elche, Cádiz and Mallorca (Elche and Cádiz rank 19th and 20th respectively on xG). Against those three opponents, Barça faced only four shots on target (and only one shot at all versus Elche, who played most of the game with 10 men). Also worth picking up on is the fact that eight of the nine big chances created against them have been missed. It’s fair to say that Barça have ridden their luck a bit.
That assertion is supported by Barça’s calamitous Champions League campaign. Wednesday’s 3-3 draw with Inter Milan at Spotify Camp Nou has left them needing a miracle to progress to the round of 16. It followed a 1-0 defeat to Inter in the reverse fixture and a 2-0 loss at Bayern Munich; Barça also conceded at home to rank outsiders Viktoria Plzeň. Disorganisation has been a theme of Barça’s defending in Europe: Gerard Piqué – the most experienced player in the squad – showed all the spatial awareness of a fly in a room with the windows wide open for Inter’s first goal on Wednesday, while García was astonishingly slow to react for the second. Their marking for Bayern’s first goal in the aforementioned defeat – a header from a corner – also left much to be desired.
In-form goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen has regularly come to Barça’s rescue– his La Liga goals prevented rate of 3.7 is considerably higher than any other ‘keeper in the division – but he has historically been prone to errors. Maybe the German will maintain such levels for the duration of the season, but Xavi – who acknowledged that his defence made “too many mistakes” against Inter the other night – won’t want to rely him to continue bailing his defenders out.
Feel No Ways
As for Real, they only kept their first league clean sheet of the season last Saturday, winning 1-0 at Getafe. There’s no cause for alarm, though: Real have conceded the second-lowest xG in La Liga (6.28) and, despite facing 17 more shots than Barça, have restricted their opponents to chances worth an average of 0.07 xG, which also ranks second-lowest in the league/division (by comparison, Barça’s average shot faced has been worth 0.09 xG). The data might suggest that they’ve also come up against more clinical finishers: five of the seven big chances they’ve faced have been converted.
Real have had more difficult fixtures than their sworn enemies so far, too: the reigning La Liga champions have begun their title defence by playing three of the current top eight, including capital adversaries Atlético away from home. Mind you, they have been slightly more settled in defence personnel-wise, with Ancelotti favouring a back four of Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão or Antonio Rüdiger, David Alaba and Ferland Mendy.
So, while games between Real Madrid and Barcelona are perhaps not at quite the sporting level they were a decade ago, the fixture itself remains one of global sport’s massive events — see Barcelona featuring Drake’s OVO logo on their shirts in this game — and with the two sides already five points clear of the rest of the division, this match will surely have a psychological bearing on where the title ends up in 2023.
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