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Analytics and Atletico: Talking numbers before La Liga Matchday 3

Emery’s men have a tall task ahead of them against Diego Simeone and company.

Elche CF v Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

vThis week, I am really excited to bring you a discussion we had for Michael over at @SF_Analytics_. We talk goalkeeper numbers, Atleti’s general xG overperformance last year, and the role of Rodrigo de Paul. Michael is a big Atleti fan but his Twitter page does good work on all Spanish football so give him a follow!

What makes Atletico Madrid a special club?

This is a loaded question. For me, there are so many things that make Atleti special.

(Warning this answer will include half-true cliches and stereotypes that may not be completely true, but hey, this question is identity based and very subjective so mentioning them seems relevant).

On a basic level, Atletico is the second club in a huge European city (Madrid). Look, by no means is Atletico a small club in a trophy or fan base way, but Real Madrid is huge in their global reach, financial and political influence, they are almost synonymous with the city of Madrid and Spain. Let’s not forget, Atleti went 14 years without beating Real Madrid in the 2000s until beating them in the 2012 Copa Del Rey final and Atleti spent two seasons in Segunda in the early 2000s. This makes Atleti natural underdogs, and who doesn’t love a good underdog.

Moreover, Atletico’s identity is special too and especially given how the club seems the antonym of Real Madrid. It’s nunca dejes de creer (never stop believing) and it’s sentimiento de rebeldia (a sense of rebellion). Contrastingly, Real Madrid are the club of the establishment and the upper class. The historic and, perhaps, cliched class divide between Atletico and Real Madrid is probably best illustrated in the geographical location of each clubs’ historic home. The Santiago Bernabeu is located in Northern Madrid, which is far wealthier than the working-class barrio of Arganzuela- which is where the Calderon used to stand, Atletico’s historic home. Furthermore, Real Madrid were the galaticos, epitomised by a group of talented individual players, yet Atletico are the collective machine. Real Madrid’s midfield had Kroos, Modric and Casemiro and Atletico’s had Saul, Gabi, Thiago and Koke, who were fueled by grit and determination rather than astronomic transfer fees. I know which one I’m choosing.

Atletico’s fans are also special. Sometimes Spanish fans are (wrongly) accused of not being passionate enough as stadiums aren’t as loud as British stadiums. This really doesn’t seem the case with Atletico wo have some of the best fans in Spain. The Calderon was still full even when Atletico were relegated in the early 2000s. Furthermore, remember those European nights at the Calderon, the fans were front and centre. Lastly, remember the scenes between players and fans after Atleti won the league in Valladolid in May 2021, pure passion.

Atleti are defending champions, obviously, but they also more than doubled their expected goal differential. They’re off to a similar start in this campaign. As someone who likes analytics, what do you make of this overperformance and do you think it can be maintained for a second straight year?

This is a good question and a relevant one too.

For me, the answer is a lot more nuanced than just ‘well Atletico overperformed last season so they will return to the mean and finish 3rd ‘.

To answer the question directly, I think their overperformance can be maintained, to an extent. To borrow an argument by Tom Worville of the Athletic, Atletico’s overperformance has been massively helped by elite talent at both ends of the pitch.

On the one hand, Atletico probably have the world’s best pure shotstopper, who has never conceded more goals than expected while at Atletico. Sure, he may not do as well as he did last season as there may be a bit of variance, but there is good chance that Atletico continue to overperform defensively while Oblak is in goal.

On the other hand, Atletico, in 2020/21, were helped by the presence of Luis Suarez, probably the best pure 9 of the 2010s, with a ridiculous goal scoring record and an excellent finisher. This attacking overperformance probably won’t be maintained. First, I can’t see Suarez getting as many minutes as he did last season. Second, Atletico’s overperformance wasn’t all down to Suarez, a lot of it was fuelled by Marcos Llorente’s overperformance too. Now, it’s hard to say if Llorente’s overperformance will continue, it probably won’t as he has no previous record of outstanding finishing like Suarez.

However, one reason to be hopeful could be the addition of Rodrigo De Paul who will allow Atletico to increase their open play creativity. This may potentially offset Atletico no longer overperforming in an attacking sense.

In this sense, I think Atletico may partly maintain their overperformance from last season, but it’s really hard to say.

Cholo put out a downright bizarre (to me) lineup against Elche. By my reckoning, about five guys were out of their ideal position. Do you think he’ll try something similar against Villarreal?

The Elche XI was bizarre, but I could see the logic: Hermoso was suspended and Elche had no intention of dominating the ball, so it made sense to load the midfield with creative players who could unlock a deep block.

I don’t see Cholo going with a similar XI against Villarreal because Hermoso will be back and Villarreal aren’t Elche.

I’d expect Trippier and Hermoso to return and Carrasco to return to his LWB/LM hybrid role rather than up top. It’s really hard to say who Cholo drops for Hermoso and Trippier, but I reckon that Saul and Lemar will be dropped; with them being the first subs to come on for Kondogbia and De Paul.

When you think of Marcos Llorente, what position comes to mind? Seems like he can play everywhere. Do you expect another 10 and 10 season from him in goals and assists?

Macros Llorente is an all-action midfielder, who excels in transition and at both ends of the pitch. He can also play in defence and as a supporting forward. Kind of mental when you put it like that. He is the definition of malleable and reminds me a lot of Simeone as a player.

As I said above, I don’t think Llorente’s 10 goals and assists will be maintained this season. This is because there was a lot of variance/luck in his goals (deflected shots etc), with him massively overperforming his xG + xA. This isn’t a bad thing though as, for me, even if Llorente scores 0 goals gets 0 assists, I still think he should start for Atleti and Spain as his value goes way beyond his goal involvement. He is an incredibly versatile player who can play in an array of different systems and positions, all to a very good standard. He is very good both on and off the ball. His intensity, aggression and tackling makes’ him very very useful in any press or defensive situation. Moreover, his speed and stamina make him almost perfect for defending counters. Finally, his direct running and off the ball movement makes him incredibly useful for any team that wants to create chances too. Top player.

Rodrigo de Paul’s long ball ability seems to have already given Atleti a new dimension. Can you explain to our readers how Cholo is using him and what that does to make Atleti better?

It’s hard to say really how Cholo is using De Paul as we have only seen him in limited minutes. Nevertheless, those minutes have been incredibly impressive. I suspect De Paul will be used in the midfield 3, to the right/ of Koke/Kondogbia. He will operate in the half spaces, linking up with the wingbacks/forwards, creating chances and attacking the box like Lemar and Llorente did last season. Alternatively, De Paul could be used in a midfield 4 in Simeone’s 442, but I’m really not sure how this would work.

De Paul almost definitely makes Atleti better. Everyone knows that De Paul is well above average in most creative and ball progression metrics. This is significant as it will allow Atleti to dominate games more, to create more chances and to breakdown low blocks. These are things that Atleti, at times under Simeone, have struggled with. Moreover, De Paul’s impressive ball progression can be used to create counter attacks for Atleti as he will be able to quickly get the ball to the forwards.

I feel like you can’t talk about Atleti without mentioning Jan Oblak. As an analytics guy myself, I am of the belief that keeper is such a specialized position that there isn’t that much of a difference between the very best guys, and that system and back lines being equal you’d get similar performance out of all the best shot stoppers. Do you agree with that idea or are you of the camp that holds Oblak as head and shoulders above everyone else?

I am in the Oblak is head and shoulders above the rest camp.

Ultimately, keepers have different skill sets and strengths and just because Oblak is an elite shotstopper doesn’t mean he is the best keeper in the world. For example, Oblak is poor with his feet and doesn’t collect crosses or high balls particularly well.

So, maybe in this sense, Oblak isn’t head and shoulders above other keepers in an overall skillset, but if we isolate shotstopping as a skill, I think he is the best.

Oblak has never conceded more goals than expected in the 4 full La Liga seasons that we have data for on Fbref. This is significant in itself. It’s crazy really.

Now look, maybe Oblak declines massively, but as of right now, he is head and shoulders above the rest at shotstopping.

*Mic drop*

I’m sure you’ve seen the matchday odds predictor that Charlie and Mitchel have been working on and that has been published here at VUSA. What are your thoughts on this kind of system and what ways do you think it could be improved?

Charlie and Mitch are both doing really great work, and everyone needs to have some patience as the predictions will improve (they are already pretty good) once we get more data from this season.

I wouldn’t suggest anyway to improve it as they know what they are doing and it’s already excellent. I’d just ask for more patience from those who have problems with it as we don’t have enough data from the current season yet!

(Editor’s note: See the odds for matchday three HERE.)

Score prediction for Sunday?

1-0 Atletico. Llorente goal after a quick counter.

Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to talk numbers and Atleti with us!