The reasons why LaLiga Santander is the tightest league in Europe

Andrés Iniesta and the sporting directors of this year’s breakout teams have analysed the competitiveness of Spain’s top flight, where Real Sociedad lead the way, newly promoted Rayo Vallecano are sixth and CA Osasuna are pushing for European qualification too.

One third of the 2021/22 LaLiga Santander season is in the books and it’s already clear that this campaign is following the pattern of the past few years, with maximum competitiveness and excitement from the first to last minute of every game, as well as a bunched-together table with teams able to set ambitious objectives. The 2020/21 campaign was already the most fascinating competition in Europe, producing one of the closest title races of the century as four clubs were separated by just three points with five rounds to go, and now the current season promises to be just as tight.

After 13 rounds of action, the top three sides are separated by just one point, as Real Sociedad have 28 points and Real Madrid and Sevilla FC have 27 each. The distance between the sixth-placed team in the league, Rayo Vallecano, and the league leaders is just eight points. These stats once again place LaLiga Santander as the most competitive and thrilling of the five major European leagues, with none of those other competitions as close as Spain’s top tier. In Serie A, there are 13 points between first and sixth. In Ligue 1, there is even a 10-point gap between the leaders and second place. It’s a polar opposite situation.

The goal difference stats of LaLiga Santander also show how competitive the competition has been. Real Madrid have the largest goal difference at this stage, with +15, but that’s not as high as the goal difference leaders in England, Germany, France or Italy. Looking at the other end, Getafe CF and Levante CF have the worst goal difference stats in LaLiga Santander right now with -13, but each of the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A has at least one club with an even lower number than that. This shows that there are few easy games in LaLiga Santander, as no teams are being thrashed week after week. 

Anything can happen in LaLiga Santander. RC Celta Vigo can come back from a 3-0 half-time deficit to draw 3-3 with FC Barcelona, or Valencia CF can pull off a comeback of their own against Atlético Madrid, scoring two stoppage time goals to turn a 3-1 disadvantage into a 3-3 draw. Newly promoted sides like RCD Espanyol or Rayo Vallecano can defeat Real Madrid 2-1 or FC Barcelona 1-0 respectively. Second-bottom Levante UD can play out a thrilling 3-3 draw with Real Madrid and even bottom-placed Deportivo Alavés can earn a 1-0 victory over the reigning champions, beating Atlético Madrid 1-0. Anything goes. If you blink, you might miss it.

In the current campaign, this has certainly been the case as comebacks are the order of the day, with stoppage time proving decisive game after game. Around 10 percent of the goals scored so far have come in stoppage time, with as many as 36 points changing hands in those additional minutes across the first 13 matchdays of this LaLiga Santander season. There is drama from minute 1 to 90… and then beyond as well!

REAL SOCIEDAD: FIRST AMONG EQUALS

In this league of equality, the first among equals are Real Sociedad, the impressive leaders of the table at this stage. The Txuri-Urdin are one of the clubs to have made the most of the more equal sharing of income that has existed in LaLiga since 2013, thanks to the centralised sale of audiovisual rights and the league’s Economic Control framework. With a solid academy structure and with efficient signings in the transfer market, acquiring talents such as Alexander Isak or David Silva, La Real have become the perfect example of how savvy management can build a squad capable of taking on the best teams of Spain. The CIES Football Observatory even ranked Real Sociedad as having the second most sustainable squad in Europe’s top leagues in terms of player age, average stay in the first-team squad and contract duration. Right now, there are 12 academy graduates in the first team and that squad has an average age of 25.6.

The result of all this is that Real Sociedad have been in the top positions in LaLiga Santander at various points over the past couple of seasons, with six matchdays at the very top in the current season. According to Beyond Stats – a big data project from LaLiga and Microsoft, using Mediacoach stats – Imanol Alguacil’s team rank third-best for goals conceded (10) and third-best in terms of making the most of each goal (earning 0.47 points per goal). Looking at other stats, Álex Remiro is the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets (seven) and Mikel Merino is the best player for ball recoveries in the opposition half in LaLiga Santander and the second-best overall. Centre-back Robin Le Normand has stood out too, winning the October Player of the Month award. Making all of this even more impressive is the fact that Real Sociedad are one of the youngest teams in LaLiga Santander and they have also been playing in the Europa League and have overcome a plague of injuries. This all proves that La Real are worthy leaders and, even if they weren’t among the main title favourites, they have earned respect across Spain and Europe.

Discussing the bright start to the season, Real Sociedad’s sporting director Roberto Olabe explained: “We operate in a difficult world, as LaLiga Santander is one of the best competitions. Leading the league is a way for us to grow and it helps our young players, in a mental and an ambition sense, to ask ‘why not?’ and we’ll then see where that takes us. We aren’t dismissing any possibility, as we know that this is yet another very competitive and even LaLiga Santander season, with points being shared. We want to be part of the action at the top this season.”

RDT: THE TOP SPANISH SCORER PLAYS FOR A NEWLY PROMOTED TEAM

After Real Sociedad (28 points) are Real Madrid and Sevilla FC (27 points) and then, just a little behind, Atlético Madrid (23 points). These are three of the four clubs from the 2020/21 LaLiga Santander title race, which went down to the wire. The fourth was FC Barcelona, who have slipped to ninth with 17 points. An 11-point gap to the leaders would be enough for seventh in the Bundesliga, fifth in Serie A or even third in Ligue 1! But, there is little margin for error in LaLiga Santander, where 17 points is currently 11 points away from both the leaders and the bottom-placed side.  

That’s because there are many other clubs who keep collecting points week after week, making the mid-table very strong. For example, last season’s LaLiga SmartBank winners RCD Espanyol have come up and kept performing well, meaning they’re currently on the same number of points as their city rivals Barça, ahead of the Derbi de Barcelona next Saturday, November 20. The Pericos have achieved several eye-catching results, such as beating Real Madrid 2-1 in front of their home crowd, drawing 2-2 away at Real Betis and holding Europa League champions Villarreal to a 0-0 draw when they came to town. Making RCD Espanyol so tough is the fact that they have Raúl De Tomás, nicknamed RDT, leading their line. With seven goals so far, the same as Vini Jr and Luis Suárez, he is the leader in the race for the Zarra Trophy, the award given out each season to the highest scoring Spaniard. It has certainly been an impressive start for this side that played in LaLiga SmartBank last term.

CA OSASUNA: KINGS OF STOPPAGE TIME, THE THIRD-BEST AWAY SIDE AND SEVENTH OVERALL

Also in the middle of the pack are Athletic Club, a historic Spanish club who are currently eighth. Then, one point and one position above them are CA Osasuna, another of the standout teams so far. Depending on who the Copa del Rey winner is, seventh could grant qualification for the Conference League, which would be a mighty achievement for this modest club that only returned to Spain’s top tier in 2019. Under Jagoba Arrasate, they’ve been doing so well and finished 10th in their first year back up and then 11th. This year, they’ve taken another step forward and were unbeaten on the road up until Matchday 12, having won 2-1 away at Villarreal CF, having drawn 0-0 at the Bernabéu against Real Madrid, having produced two awesome 3-2 comebacks against Cádiz CF and RCD Mallorca. At this stage, the Rojillos have actually won the most points from stoppage time so far, with five.

Analysing the start to the campaign, CA Osasuna sporting director Braulio Vázquez said: “Dreams are important in football and it’s nice for us to see people thinking big. That’s the magic of the sport. But we know at this club how difficult it is just to stay in LaLiga Santander, so there’s no doubt that this remains the main objective. Michael Robinson did always say that CA Osasuna is a big club with unhealthy conformism, so we don’t want to fall into that trap either and we need to stay ambitious. At the same time, I like to remember a phrase from our former coach Pedro Mari Zabalza, who said ‘If we become overconfident then we’ll be bad’. We need to find the balance between the two attitudes to keep growing. We know we can compete against anyone and that’s what we have been demonstrating.”

FALCAO: THE STRIKER WITH THE BEST MINUTES-PER-GOAL RATIO PLAYS FOR NEWLY PROMOTED RAYO VALLECANO

Another team to have competed against all opponents is Rayo Vallecano, who have surely been the biggest shock of the Spanish football season so far. With Andoni Iraola, the team from the capital have the youngest coach in the division and they have impressed. After finishing sixth in LaLiga SmartBank last year and coming up through the playoffs, they’re now sixth in the top tier and would qualify for Europe if the season finished right now. They’re only one point behind the Real Betis of Nabil Fekir and then there are just two more points to reigning champions Atlético Madrid.

David Cobeño, the Rayo Vallecano sporting director, reflected on the great start, saying: “There are some very good squads at LaLiga SmartBank level. We then kept the core group we had last year, building on the momentum of the promotion, and we have added an extra touch of quality with the signing of certain players, such as Radamel Falcao.” The Colombian superstar has certainly been a key part of the early season success story, joining La Franja at the very end of the transfer window. Already he has five LaLiga Santander goals, scoring at a rate of one every 67 minutes, which is the best minutes-per-goal ratio in the division.

One of those goals earned the team a last-gasp 2-1 victory away at Athletic Club. Another of those strikes secured the 1-0 win over FC Barcelona, a match where nine of Rayo Vallecano’s starters were also at the club in LaLiga SmartBank last year. Cobeño continued: “We have to remain humble and achieve our goal of survival first of all, but from there it is free to dream. We have the recent example of Granada CF to look to, as they won promotion into LaLiga Santander and went straight into the European qualification spots. That could be an example for us to look towards.” The Granada CF success story was another demonstration of how anything is possible in Spanish football, as they went from playing in the 2018/19 LaLiga SmartBank season to facing Manchester United in the 2020/21 Europa League quarter-finals. This year, though, the Andalusian outfit have had an inconsistent start and are down in 17th. Anything can happen, for good or for bad, in the very competitive world of LaLiga Santander.

Andrés Iniesta, the former FC Barcelona player who is now a LaLiga Icon, reflected on this, stating: “The nice thing about LaLiga Santander is that it is all very even, with lots of parity. Every matchday is intense because every fixture is very complicated. I obviously hope that Barça win LaLiga Santander, but I’m sure it’ll be a difficult and hard-fought title race. We’ll need to see if Real Sociedad, Sevilla FC or Atlético Madrid can keep up their current pace and consistency until the end, but we have seen in recent years that other teams have managed to stay up there and that is nice for those watching.” A decade ago, when Iniesta was wearing the FC Barcelona shirt, both Real Madrid and the Blaugrana managed to win the league title with 100 points in back-to-back seasons, which was a LaLiga Santander record. Now there isn’t such an imbalance. It’s the opposite, as we’re witnessing the tightest and most exciting league in Europe.

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