Whether it’s much of an accomplishment or not, that’s hard to figure out. La Liga has questionably turned to trash, when compared to what it used to be. Thanks to Barcelona’s torching their own establishment for the insurance money and forgetting the insurance money, and no other club being able to step into the breach, there’s just a whole lot of not much between Galicia to Andalucia.
But in the times when La Liga is the best in the world, or it’s that thing you can’t seem to scrape off the floor, Real Madrid are generally on top of it. And without the greatest player of all-time in Barcelona anymore to keep things in balance, Madrid are moseying to the La Liga crown, cigarette in one hand and a fashionable drink in the other.
On Sunday, Madrid barely sweated while beating city rivals Atlético 2-0. The score doesn’t really tell the story, though it does tell the story of the two teams right now. Overall, Atlético was probably the better team. While having way less of the ball, as is their way, they created far better chances. They had more shots, more shots on target, and put Thibaut Courtois to the test in the Real net more than once. But right now for Atlético, everything is a goddamn struggle. The bunker defending that they used to relish and did with a rebellious sneer now is easily shredded apart. It’s just chaotic, the sneer directed at each other. And Atlético doesn’t have Vinicius Jr. or Karim Benzema, which is all Madrid need right now:
There are six Atlético players in the frame when Vinicius makes that pass to Benzema. They’re the only two guys in white shirts. And yet Benzema has more than enough room to slam home what admittedly is a glorious volley.
Vinicius was at it again in the second half to ice the game, this time setting up Marco Asensio:
Turn up the volume
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Again, the space both have used to be a farfetched myth against Diego Simeone’s Atlético sides of the past. Now it’s common for their opponents.
To put Madrid’s win simply on the Benny Hill soundtracked ways of Atlético or the rest of La Liga these days isn’t fair, especially to Vinicius Jr, who has balled out all season. He has 10 goals already, which is more than he had in his first three seasons combined in Madrid. He’s added four assists, which has aided Benzema’s death-from-above act. Benzema has 13 goals and seven assists himself, which puts him just behind Erling Haaland and Mo Salah across Europe’s top five leagues in goal contributions this season.
Benzema’s galactic production isn’t anything new, though. It is for Vinicius. He was billed as a future star when he came to Madrid at just 18, and he looked everything like a teenage sensation upon arrival. There were flashes of brilliance, shrouded in a mess of bad decisions or over elaboration or tactical naivety. Watching him dribbble himself to the line for the urinal was quite common. It seems he has cleared all of that out of the way. He leads all of Europe in progressive carries, according to FBref.com. He also leads in carries into the opposing penalty area, which makes him just about the most dangerous player around. Sure, the less-testing environs of La Liga aid this, as well as some of the most passive defending around. But he’s definitely coming to life.
But are Madrid actually good? Who the fuck knows?
They won a Champions League group with Inter in it, but not much else, so that’s not much evidence. They have two players at the top of their game in those two forwards, but what else? It would seem that Madrid have benefited greatly from opponents forgetting how to kick a ball into a goal when they face Los Merengues.
In La Liga, Madrid are only middle of the pack when it comes to expected goals against, ranking 9th with a 19.4 mark. They’ve only given up 15 actual goals. Which would make you think that Courtois is just performing satanic rituals between the posts to keep out all the shots that “should” have gone in. But that’s not the case either. Courtois’s post-shot expected goals-against, which takes into account where the shot was placed as well as where it was taken from, is actually lower than the amount of goals he’s given up. He hasn’t really “saved” anything for Madrid. Madrid’s post-shot xGA is fourth-best in the league, and some six less than their overall expected goals-against. No team comes close to a bigger difference. They’re decidedly mediocre in terms of shots and shots on target per game they give up. Madrid are third in the amount of shots on target that they block, so maybe that makes them a good defensive team? Or maybe they’re just lucky? Probably some combination, but one feels like as the season goes on more of those shots they give up will worm between bodies and on net. And some of them might not actually be right at Courtois’s chest, which they are now. Then what?
Madrid are Spain’s best offensive team, with both the highest goal-total (39, which leads by 12 goals!) and in expected goals. The bump there is almost certainly due, mostly, to Vinicius and Benzema setting career highs in shooting-percentage, both for shots on target and shots overall. Is that sustainable?
None of it matters, really, when it comes to La Liga. Madrid are eight points clear of a chasing pack that all have their cleats untied. Will they get found out in Europe? We might find out quickly, as they just drew PSG in the Round of 16 in February. There’s still a feeling that their midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro — whose average age is Sgt. Pepper — should get hounded out by a more dynamic and energetic opponent. That opponent does not exist in Spain, however.
So by default, almost, with the added sprinkling of Benzema-Vinicius Jr. brilliance, Madrid will waltz to their 186th Spanish title. And that might actually be a mark of how far the league has fallen, that this team, with its actual quality indistinguishable from the morass, will have such an easy time to the parade.