After opening the season with depressing results in back-to-back games, many Atletico fans were worried that our title chances were in peril before the close of the transfer window. Our talismanic striker’s ill-advised post-game comments after the Leganes draw did little to help matters.
To be sure, two points from six against newly promoted opposition isn’t what you want to see. Alaves and Leganes are teams that La Liga title chasers should be beating. And, in fact, the advanced stats would suggest that Atletico did play well enough to beat both of their first two opponents.
In week one, we pretty well thrashed Alaves and were desperately unlucky to draw:
xG map for Atletico - Alaves.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) August 22, 2016
Week two was not as strong, but was still OK. At the very least, you can’t say that the Rojiblancos would have been lucky to win:
xG map for Leganes-Atletico. Not as ridiculous as last week, but Atleti still seem totally fine. pic.twitter.com/51bzb9VCLi— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) August 27, 2016
The early results, in other words, weren’t what we wanted, but there’s also reason to think they weren’t reflective of major, systemic problems in the team. Soccer is an extremely random game. When you play a style that drastically reduces scoring chances for either team, as Atletico tend to do, that increases the effect of the game’s randomness because there simply aren’t that many scoring chances to begin with. But Atletico were more unlucky than objectively bad in the season’s early days.
Of course, the concern after two rounds of play wasn’t just over-stated fears about our quality, but seemingly more legitimate concerns that the quality of Real Madrid and Barcelona is sufficiently high that even a four point deficit may prove insurmountable. While that can sound plausible at first, the reality is, again, that soccer is very, very random. Weird crap happens all the time.
Example: In 2010-11, Barcelona lost five games all season. One was a first-leg Champions League tie against Arsenal. One was a Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid. Another was a meaningless second leg Copa del Rey tie against Real Sociedad after Barça won the first leg 5-0. That left two La Liga defeats. Who beat them? Real Sociedad did and the other, drumroll please... Hercules. The newly promoted side defeated what was arguably Pep Guardiola’s finest Barcelona team 2-0 at the Camp Nou. At season’s end, they’d be relegated.
Like I said, weird crap happens. It’s soccer. That’s the way it works. So when there are still 36 rounds to play, there is plenty of time for that sort of thing to happen to Barcelona or Real Madrid just as it did to us in the season’s first two weeks. And that brings us to Barcelona 1-2 Alaves. The same thing that happened to us happened to them:
xG map for Barcelona - Alaves. This happens sometimes to literally everyone. Even Barca. pic.twitter.com/u1jR4Gbfdk— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) September 11, 2016
Result: The difference between Barcelona and Atletico is now a single point.
But there’s actually even more reason to be optimistic than just “weird crap happens in soccer and if we’re lucky more weird crap will happen to Barcelona and Real Madrid than to us.” That’s part of the reason for optimism, of course. But there’s more: this La Liga season is set to be a particularly tricky one.
Jorge Sampaoli’s presence in Sevilla makes the Andalusian side something of a black box team that is entirely capable of beating any of Spain’s big three any given week. They’re also likely to be volatile enough that they figure to have a few howler results over the season as well, but the point is they’re a wild card.
Moreover, Villarreal, Valencia, Malaga, Athletic Bilbao, and Celta Vigo all have the potential to chase Europa League placement and all can be tricky sides to face, particularly when they are hosting.
Add to that a fun as hell Las Palmas team and you have quite a few tricky fixtures in La Liga to navigate in addition to the classic “weird crap happens” results like the ones described above.
As I thought pre-season, Real Madrid appear to be the title favorites as Zidane’s sturdy 4-3-3 combined with the individual star power makes them a formidable side. But all three of Spain’s giants still have a genuine shot at the title. And that won’t be changed simply because of a couple bad results in August. Stay calm. Trust El Cholo.