Why Barcelona and Real Madrid are chasing solid Athletic Bilbao in La Liga

Sooraj Kamath - Writer 00:06 24/09/2019
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Ander Capa

A team that has never been relegated in the history of La Liga sits atop the table five games into the 2019/20 season and it’s not Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Basque giants Athletic Bilbao currently lead the table for the first time since 2005/06.

That they have never been relegated is an impressive feat, given Bilbao take pride in their identity to the extent that they only sign players with a Basque connection. This can be familial or a result of spending enough time in the academies of any Basque club.

Bilbao are table-toppers thanks to a superior goal-difference as compared to Real Madrid who also have 11 points after five games.

Garitano

However, it’s not just about the last five games. Bilbao are unbeaten at the San Mames in 17 league games, having last faced a home defeat in the Basque Derby against Real Sociedad on October 62018.

The appointment of Gaizka Garitano has had a lot to do with their rise to power. The Basque side was struggling in the relegation zone having collected 11 points in 14 games when the former Bilbao midfielder took over from Eduardo Berizzo as manager last December.

The 44-year-old ensured they finished seventh – just outside the European spots – after an incredible turnaround. His work on Bilbao’s defence has been immense, as testified by the fact that they have conceded just one goal in five games.

We look at the numbers behind this incredible record, aided by a graph that provides a better perspective.

Athletic Bilbao defence

Athletic Bilbao defence

The x-axis scales the xGA/shot (expected goals against per shot) of each of the top-eight teams in La Liga. This attribute measures the quality of chances conceded to the opposition.

A high xGA/shot signifies that the team concedes shots which have a higher likelihood of going in and vice versa. The scale has been reversed to accommodate the fact that a lower xGA/shot is preferred.

The y-axis scales the difference between xGA and GA (Goals against). A high difference means that the goalkeeper has done very well to block out shots that were likely to go in.

A negative sign implies the custodian has underperformed, given the quality of shots directed towards him.

Bilbao not only have the best xGA-GA but also an appreciably low xGA/shot. Bilbao’s defence has been excellent so far and has prevented the opposition from taking shots from promising positions in the box.

Goalkeeper Unai Simon deserves a huge chunk of credit for conceding just one goal, whereas the xGA suggests Bilbao should have conceded around four (4.25) in the same period. The difference of 3.25 is a testament to his incredible show between the sticks.

Unai Simon

Unai Simon

Surprisingly, the big three of Barca, Madrid and Atletico Madrid have been, to varying degrees, poor at the back. The defence has leaked chances at a comparatively higher xGA/shots (1.2, 1.3 and 1.3 respectively) and the goalkeepers have not been at their usual levels either.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen was Barca’s hero against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, but the numbers suggest that he pales in comparison to his counterparts in the league. The Catalan side has conceded nine goals at an xGA of 5.48.

The deficit of 3.52 shows that the German keeper could have done better on certain occasions.

However, Bilbao are not just about their goalkeeper. Full-backs Ander Capa and Yuri have played their part in narrowing down all threats to the centre of the pitch.

The former is slowly establishing himself as one of the best right-backs in the league.

Garitano is a pragmatic manager who employs the ‘safety-first’ rule. As seen against Barca, the idea is to nullify any play on the wings, draw the play to the centre and then crowd out the opposition.

Centre-backs Yeray Alvarez and Inigo Martinez have been solid. Youngster Unai Nunez too did well in the two games that Martinez missed because of injury.

The midfield and attack have got the job done so far. But there is still a lot of scope for improvement in these departments.

Bilbao have scored just six times in five games, which is surprising given the attack has enough quality to add more.

The defence is primarily responsible for their rise to the top and will play a key role should they maintain a top-four spot towards the business end of the season.

La Liga promises to be a roller coaster this season and as things stand, a club that spent 0 million in the summer transfer window is at the top.

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