COLUMN: Are goals coming back to La Liga to shrug off the dour demeanour of defences past?

While much of the world still views La Liga as a league of expansive passing football, the last five years have painted a very different picture. Since 2019, La Liga has been the lowest-scoring of the Big 5 European leagues.

Europe’s Big-5 Leagues by goal-scored per game. 🇮🇹 Serie A: 3.11🇩🇪 Bundesliga: 3.09🇫🇷 Ligue 1: 2.75🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 Premier League: 2.74🇪🇸 La Liga: 2.41

We talk to @emctear about why La Liga is the lowest scoring in our latest episode.

— Football Today (@FT_Podcast_) January 19, 2021

La Liga’s ability to attract offensive talent dwindled in the face of the richer Premier League and teams founded by petrostates, and that has forced La Liga managers to build teams with a more conservative message. Coach Unai Emery explains it clearly and succinctly in an excellent 2020 interview with El Pais:  

The football of order that we see [in La Liga] has to do with the message of keeping a clean sheet. You look at the opponent’s goal with caution. That message has sunk in. The other extreme, that of beautiful, attractive matches, with both teams looking at each other’s goal, transmitting energy and uncertainty for 90 minutes, goes against organisation. In Spain, we, the coaches, are very organised, very tactical, and competitive. And that is like the short blanket dilemma. It gives us an advantage but keeps us away from spectacular football. 

Throughout this era, the Liga survival blueprint focused on directness in possession, a passive but compact structure out of possession, time-wasting, and interrupting play via small fouls.  

Low and mid-table La Liga teams usually lacked the playmaking talent required for a shorter passing approach. Thus, they went direct with long balls to bypass the opposition press and force opponents into physical duels. 

Out of possession, they preferred zonal systems focused on maintaining a compact structure. They would press opportunistically, but these systems were naturally more passive. To avoid this passivity from letting opponents play for too long, La Liga teams would commit fouls and interrupt play more often. 

 CIES and InStat data show that between 2018 and 2022, La Liga was the big five league where the ball was in play for the least amount of time. In the 2020/21 season, I used some of this data to rank teams by how often they interrupted play with fouls, and unsurprisingly, six Spanish teams featured in the top ten. 

More #Atalanta stats!

Tactical fouling became a talking point about Pep’s City a couple years ago, but other possess-and-press teams do it too.

Here’s a ranking of the top 20 teams in the big 5 leagues who interrupt opp. play most frequently via fouls, with Atalanta ranking 5th

— José C. Pérez (@jcperez_) February 24, 2021

However, the last two Liga seasons have shown some reversals to these trends. 

There’s been a small surge in offensive talent in La Liga lately. For example, there is a new generation of Spanish offensive midfielders, which includes players such as Gabri Veiga (now in Saudi Arabia), Brais Mendez, Alex Baena, Oihan Sancet and Javi Guerra. If we go further up the pitch, we are seeing the rise of a new generation of Spanish dribbling wingers, including Nico Williams, Bryan Zaragoza, and Lamine Yamal. 

These new talents are giving La Liga coaches outside the big three more offensive options than before. However, coaches are also rethinking how they use the more mature creative talents in their squads.  Playmakers such as Aleix García and Kirian Rodriguez had less impact earlier in their careers but are now the beating hearts of Girona and Las Palmas. Even a veteran legend like Isco is undergoing a renaissance at Betis. 

This surge in new creative talent and re-evaluation of older talents is making La Liga teams richer in possession once again. As Las Palmas has shown this year, this focus on possession doesn’t have to come at the expense of defensive structure. Las Palmas’ possession approach reinforces their defensive approach in many ways.  

La Liga teams also take more risks in their approach out of possession. Previously, most teams in La Liga prioritized more passive zonal systems to remain compact. But in the last two years, we have seen a rise in hybrid pressing approaches combining zonal and man-oriented pressing elements. 

The first thing that stands out when watching Rayo’s games and especially last night’s game is their intensity and their offensive approach in the pressing phase that @Jon_Mackenzie would define as hybrid pressing.

— Marco Lai (@MarcoLai_23) November 8, 2022

Andoni Iraola and his 2021-23 Rayo Vallecano is perhaps the poster child of this approach in Spain. However, we have seen coaches like Imanol Alguacil and Ernesto Valverde incorporate it into their pressing toolkits. Meanwhile, teams like Girona and Las Palmas use their ability to keep possession to improve their pressing right after losing the ball (a.k.a. counter-pressing). 

Regarding time-wasting, the Spanish Technical Committee of Referees (CTA in Spanish) has tried to address the issue by increasing stoppage time and pushing effective match time closer to 60 minutes. As I discussed in a previous column, this solution has several issues, but the added time has certainly boosted goal-scoring in the league.  

WhoScored data shows that in the 2022/23 season, La Liga averaged 1.12 goals in each game’s last fifteen minutes (+ stoppage time). This season, that number has been boosted by 21% to 1.36 goals per game, partly thanks to the increase in stoppage time. We can see a smaller but similar boost (15%) if we look at the scoring numbers at the end of the first halves, too. 

The trends we have discussed in this article (more offensive talent in possession, more aggressive pressing, and added stoppage time) seemingly lead to increased goal-scoring numbers in La Liga. While in the past four years, La Liga averaged between 2.40 and 2.45 goals per game, this season, we are seeing a surprising 2.76 goals per game. This number now puts La Liga in third place among the big five leagues, ahead of Ligue 1 and Serie A. 

We are only a third of the way through the football season, so it’s too soon to draw solid and definitive conclusions. There’s still a chance that goal-scoring could go down in the later stages of the season, as it happened during the 2022-23 season. However, the evidence that La Liga has started to find ways out of its goalscoring rut keeps accumulating, which is steadily but surely reflected in the numbers. If this trend continues, two years from now, we might be able to say that La Liga’s defensive era is finally over.