A 98 per cent win record, three faultless triumphs - Rafael Nadal's French Open dominance in numbers

By Sports Desk September 24, 2020

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  • Real Sociedad v Villarreal: The unlikely challengers trying to lay foundations for LaLiga glory Real Sociedad v Villarreal: The unlikely challengers trying to lay foundations for LaLiga glory

    Empty stadiums, Barcelona in the midst of an institutional crisis exacerbated by Lionel Messi's wanderlust, and Real Madrid a world away from the glamour and ruthlessness we often associate with Los Blancos – 2020-21 always looked set to be an intriguing one for LaLiga.

    Sunday will see the season's first meaningful clash between two teams vying at the top of the table, as leaders Real Sociedad go to third-place Villarreal.

    By no means is this a fixture steeped in the tradition of title tussles or anything of the sort – after all, La Real's two LaLiga crowns came in the early 1980s and their most recent top-two finish was 17 years ago, while Villarreal have never won the league.

    But in this peculiar time for football, few have adapted better and they are laying the foundations for potential tilts at glory.

    Building on a foundation

    La Real earned acclaim and attracted many neutral eyes last season as they came close to qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2003.

    Ultimately their form tailed off late in the season, coinciding with losing key man Martin Odegaard to injury, but despite eventual disappointment they showed they were laying the foundations for something potentially special.

    Many felt that seeing Odegaard return to Real Madrid would have a major impact on La Real, that they had no hope of bettering themselves without a player of his calibre – but it's so far, so good in 2020-21.

    This is a club and setup that's already got a strong base. Throughout their ranks they coach a particular brand of football, and there is an onus on progression, both for players and management.

    Imanol Alguacil has been at the club in various capacities since 2011, managing the youth team, the B team and then the senior side, of whom he was appointed coach in 2018. Their strong core of homegrown players only benefits them and aids cohesion in the long run.

    Arguably La Real's biggest strength is their pressing intensity – only two teams in LaLiga have averaged more high turnovers in possession than their 5.3 per game, with 1.3 of those in every match leading to a shot.

    Yet, this relentlessness isn't – as it can be – implemented to account for a shortfall in technical ability. They boast an impressive array of gifted players, as evidenced by the fact they've scored more goals (21) than they would otherwise be expected to (18 xG) and seen eight different individuals claim at least one assist – Atletico Madrid is the sole club to match this.

    Alguacil generally deploys a lone front man and wingers who operate more as inside forwards, which can create central overloads but offers the flexibility of being able to pump crosses into the box, as such they are averaging 13 shots per game and converting 16.3 per cent – both are significant upgrades on Villarreal, for example.

    Mikel Oyarzabal has been their shining light, the club academy product having scored more goals (six) than anyone else in LaLiga this term. On top of that, his combination of chances created and total shots (43) is second to Lionel Messi (50), highlighting just how influential the wide attacker is.

    But they aren't solely dependent on attacking prowess. La Real have been seriously shrewd at the back too despite losing Diego Llorente to Leeds United in pre-season, conceding only four goals – that's second to Atletico (two), who have played two games fewer.

    Additionally, La Real face only seven shots per game on average, suggesting they aren't just relying on miracles from Alex Remiro in goal either.

    Alguacil has presided over their joint-best start in LaLiga history. While the result on Sunday – whatever the outcome – won't decide any titles, it is the first opportunity for La Real to prove they should be taken seriously.

    Restoring a reputation

    Villarreal's situation is rather different to that of La Real – they are at the start of a new cycle having decided to up the ante when hiring a new coach in pre-season.

    Unai Emery arrived and, while his reputation outside of Spain may have taken something of a knock with Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain, at home he remains highly regarded for his early work with Valencia and then the Europa League three-peat at Sevilla.

    It's fair to say Emery has adjusted well and Villarreal have responded in kind to him – his 4-1-4-1 formation, not too dissimilar to that of La Real, provides the right blend of discipline and flexibility, often morphing into a 4-3-3. A trio of technically proficient midfielders support an attack spearheaded by Paco Alcacer, who is flanked – usually – by Samuel Chukwueze and Gerard Moreno.

    Attacking full-backs help complete their outlook, which certainly on the face of it has drawn comparisons with his Sevilla team.

    But while they were strongest on the counter, Emery's Villarreal looks to control possession more rather than explode with quick transitions – after all, the Yellow Submarine average the fourth-most number of passes per game (553.3) in LaLiga and just over half take place in their own half.

    This is a patient team. It's an approach that's arguably necessary when one considers most of their regular midfielders – the likes of Moi Gomez, Manu Trigueros, Dani Parejo and Vicente Iborra – are certainly not blessed with pace but all possess fine technical attributes.

    That's not to say they lack intensity, either. In fact, they are one of the two teams to create more high turnovers per game (5.4) than La Real, while they also craft more shots (1.6) from those scenarios than their next opponents.

    A 1-1 draw against Real Madrid last time out should put Villarreal in a good mindset for another high-profile encounter – they will hope their considered, possession-based approach is the ideal counter to La Real's more direct style in San Sebastian.

  • Del Potro admits to struggles in return bid, eyes Olympics Del Potro admits to struggles in return bid, eyes Olympics

    Juan Martin del Potro admitted he was struggling in his bid to return from knee surgery as he eyes next year's Olympics.

    Del Potro, 32, last played competitively 17 months ago and underwent a third right knee surgery in August.

    The 2009 US Open champion is still hoping to return, but admitted it had been challenging.

    "I am having a hard time coming back. I still stand by the desire that I have to continue playing," Del Potro told ESPN on Friday.

    "The reality is that it is difficult. I'm going to keep fighting as long as I feel like I want to continue."

    He added: "Due to the pandemic, the Olympics Games are next year and I'm excited to be there.

    "If I have to close my career, I think it would be to give myself an award to represent my country."

    A bronze medallist in men's singles at the 2012 Olympics, Del Potro won silver in Rio four years later, and said he hoped to retire on the court.

    The Argentinian also took time to remember the great Diego Maradona, who died on Wednesday.

    Del Potro recalled his meetings with Maradona during the 2016 Davis Cup final, which he helped Argentina win against Croatia in Zagreb.

    "In that Davis Cup final, every night, on my own without anyone knowing, I saw him 10, 15 minutes before going to sleep," he said.

    "He did it in private so that he doesn't disarm the team's structure."

    Del Potro added: "He sent me a very nice message after winning and I gave him my racquet."

  • Talking Point: Along come Burnley as Guardiola's Man City eye goals flurry Talking Point: Along come Burnley as Guardiola's Man City eye goals flurry

    Pep Guardiola is convinced the floodgates are about to open for his Manchester City team and Saturday's opponents Burnley may already be fearing the worst.

    On their last three visits to the Etihad Stadium, Burnley have lost 5-0 on each occasion, with a pair of Premier League thrashings coming either side of an FA Cup trouncing.

    Speaking this week, Guardiola said he would need to "find a solution" to his City team's scoring problem, which has seen them net a modest 10 goals in their opening eight Premier League fixtures this season.

    He mentioned the importance of fixing "little details", adding: "In one or two games, this kind of thing will get better. The season is still so young and I'm fully optimistic we're going to do a good season."

    Given he recently signed a contract extension until the end of the 2022-23 season, City will hope Guardiola's hunch proves correct and the good times return for City.

     

    Shots fired, but little damage done

    Burnley must look back misty-eyed at the 1-1 draw they secured against City at Turf Moor in February 2018, given that is the most change they have got out of a Guardiola team.

    Raheem Sterling missed a sitter in that game before Johann Berg Gudmundsson scored a late equaliser for Burnley, who were one of just six teams to take points off City in their 100-point season.

    Since then, City have won by three or more goals in five of the six meetings between the sides, having to settle for a 1-0 victory in the game that was the odd one out.

    Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez both scored twice and David Silva was also on the mark in the most recent 5-0 trouncing, in June, and City's overall Premier League record against Burnley during the Guardiola era shows they have taken 22 points from a possible 24, scoring 23 goals and conceding just four.

    City have taken 155 shots in those eight games against the Clarets, of which 57 were on target, while Burnley have returned fire with just 47 attempts, with only 13 of those not going astray.

    The Eastlands outfit have taken 125 shots so far this term, which is more than early leaders Tottenham (115) have managed, but their quota of opportunities defined by Opta as 'big chances' is low compared to Jose Mourinho's side.

    City have had just 15 big chances so far, to 29 for Tottenham and 33 for Liverpool, and exacerbating their problem at that end of the pitch has been their wastefulness.

    Their record is chronically bad when it comes to putting away the big chances, with City converting just 26.67 per cent.

    Stand that figure against Tottenham's 62.07 per cent, Liverpool's 48.48 per cent, Chelsea's 60 per cent and Leicester City's 63.64 per cent, and it is easy to see why City are some distance behind the top four.

    Indeed, since the 2012-13 season, only three teams have finished a campaign with a lower big-chance conversion rate than City's current mark (Norwich City in 2013-14, Aston Villa in 2014-15, Brighton in 2019-20).

     

    Banishing the 'big' problem is City's mission

    City's dominance of the rivalry with Burnley does not mean it stands to be repeated in Saturday's game, but Guardiola may have justifiable cause to expect an upturn in the goals return.

    It was a matter of months ago that City were polishing off a season in which they had 141 big chances in 38 games (3.7 per game, compared to 1.9 this season), and in which they put away a healthier 41.13 per cent of those opportunities.

    That league campaign was considered by some a failure given Liverpool won the title by 18 points, but City's haul of 102 goals was 17 higher than the champions achieved, so scoring was not the area where they were falling down.

    City have been without Sergio Aguero for much of the campaign so far due to knee trouble, and with the Argentine striker in their ranks many see them posing a greater goal threat.

    What Opta data shows is that City's expected goals per game rises to 2.38 when Aguero plays, compared to 2.14 without him, based on Premier League matches since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.

    They have 3.6 big chances per game when Aguero plays, and 3.1 when he does not, but the actual goals per game only inflates slightly, from 2.4 goals to 2.5, when the 32-year-old features.

    Others must take responsibility for this malaise. City have missed their last seven big chances - spanning their last four Premier League games - and against Tottenham last time out they had 22 shots at goal.

    Sooner or later, the dam will break and City goals will come all at a rush - or at least that is what Guardiola hopes, and must believe, will happen.

    The trouble is, City cannot afford to be chasing Liverpool again, or Spurs, Chelsea or Leicester for that matter, in the title race.

    If the dam holds against Burnley, and City cannot comfortably beat Sean Dyche's side, who have one win, five points, and a mere four goals this season, then there will be real cause for concern.

    Another 5-0 or similar, however, could be the turning-point result that Guardiola senses is coming City's way.

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