La Liga Team of the Season: OptaJose’s XI
The first season following Lionel Messi’s departure from Barcelona saw their rivals Real Madrid win the La Liga title by a huge 13-point difference ahead of second-placed Barca – a club record. The Argentine’s departure carved the way for a new star player in La Liga, with Karim Benzema having the season of his life as top scorer and the player with the second-most assists.
The arrival of Xavi Hernández as coach revitalised Barcelona, though, while Sevilla and Real Betis both enjoyed strong seasons under Julen Lopetegui and Manuel Pellegrini respectively. Not all clubs will remember 2021-22 fondly, however, with reigning champions Atlético Madrid suffering their worst-ever campaign in the Spanish top-flight under Diego Simeone.
Following the end of the La Liga campaign, our Spanish football experts at OptaJose give their team of the season from the competition based on the data.
Thibaut Courtois – Real Madrid
Undoubtedly one of the key players in Real Madrid’s league title win was goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Only in his first season within the top five European leagues – at Atlético Madrid in 2011-12 (128) – has the Belgian faced more shots on target than he did in 2021-22 in league competition (120). Despite this, his save ratio of 76% has only been bettered once within a top-flight season in England or Spain (79% in 2019-20).
Based on Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) data, no goalkeeper prevented more goals from being scored in La Liga this season than Courtois (4.9), ahead of Espanyol’s Diego López (4.5) – the Real Madrid star conceding 29 goals compared to his xGOT faced total of 33.9.
His goals prevented rate was 1.18 in La Liga this season, or in more basic terms, for every four goals he conceded from shots this season, the average goalkeeper would have been expected to concede five.
Courtois’ involvement in Real Madrid’s build-up play is also important, with him playing a part in 45 open play sequences that led to a shot in 2021-22 – only Barcelona’s Marc-André ter Stegen (53) was involved in more across the league.
Diego Carlos – Sevilla
For the first time ever, Sevilla have qualified for the UEFA Champions League in three successive seasons. For that alone, 2021-22 can be considered a success for Julen Lopetegui’s side.
A main factor in their success this season has been the performances of central-defensive partnership Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos. Across the 29 league games played alongside one another, Sevilla have kept a clean sheet in 13 of them (45%) and have been a major contribution towards the club record-breaking tally of just 30 goals conceded in a top-flight season.
The Brazilian is one of the top eight performing defenders in the La Liga for duel success, with his 62% ratio also above the league average for defenders (55%), while his success in aerial duels (65%) also well above the La Liga defensive average (55%). He is also the player that completed the most passes on average across 90 minutes within the defensive half (49.6), showing how comfortable he is with the ball at his feet.
Not only has he been one of the best defenders in the competition this season, the Sevilla centre-back has also been a threat in the opposition box – no player has attempted as many shots following set-piece situations than he has in La Liga 2021-22 (11).
Eder Militão – Real Madrid
Following the departure of senior central defenders Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane, 2021-22 was expected to be tough for Real Madrid – especially for their backline. Yes, they did concede more non-penalty goals in La Liga this season (28) than last campaign (21 in 2020-21) but they won the league, unlike in 2020-21.
One of the main reasons behind Real fans being able to forget their departed defensive pairing was the breakthrough of Eder Militão. The Brazilian had shown glimpses of potential across the last two seasons following his transfer from FC Porto, but 2021-22 was the campaign that he really established himself as a potential great defender at the club. Thanks to those departures of Varane and Ramos, the 24-year-old was able to play 3,033 minutes of league football in 2021-22 – 881 more than in his first two seasons at the club combined (2,152).
Of all central defenders in La Liga this season, Militão’s 63% duel success rate was above the league average for defenders (55%), while his importance in building play from the back is illustrated by his 96 build-up involvements leading to shots – higher than any other centre-back.
He is also adept at bringing the ball out from defence and breaking opposition lines on the ball. Only six La Liga centre-backs embarked on more ball carries than Militão in 2021-22 (454), with a quarter of those (112 – 25%) being up-field and at least 10 metres in distance.
David García – Osasuna
David García is probably the inclusion in our team of the season that plays for the least glamourous club, in Osasuna. However, their 10th place finish saw them record 47 points – their best tally in a La Liga season since 2011-12 (54), with the central defender a key reason behind their strong season.
So far uncapped at international level, García proved this season that he could be a viable backup option for Luis Enrique and Spain.
The Osasuna captain was a phenom in aerial battles across 2021-22 – no outfield player to have been involved in at least 100 was able to match his 76% success rate across La Liga. Furthermore, he was always willing to put his body on the line to protect the Osasuna goal, making the third-most clearances (166) and second-highest tally of headed clearances (113) in the competition.
As if we haven’t emphasised how strong he is in the air, García finished the season as the player with the most headed shots (23), with four headed goals from his only four headed shots on target in 2021-22. You wouldn’t want to be marking him from set-pieces, that’s for sure.
Ousmane Dembélé – Barcelona
If we’d have said at the start of 2021-22 that Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembéle would make our team of the season in May, you’d be forgiven for being very surprised. On the verge of leaving the club in the winter transfer window, the Frenchman was subsequently revitalised after the arrival of Xavi as coach, giving Barcelona the extra edge in attack that they were missing in the first part of the season.
From Xavi’s first league game in charge on November 20, Dembéle appeared in 21 of Barcelona’s 26 matches. Across that period, he assisted a league-high 13 goals and had the highest expected assists total in La Liga (9.3). Those 13 assists were also a personal record for Dembéle in a league season, eclipsing the 12 assists he managed in 2016-17 at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.
Of players to have played at least 500 minutes across the top five European leagues in 2021-22, Dembéle’s open play expected assists per 90 average of 0.53 was better than anyone else. In fact, the only player to play at least 1,000 minutes and post a higher open play expected assists per 90 average over the last five seasons in the top five European league was Thomas Müller for Bayern Munich in 2019-20 (0.54).
Luka Modrić – Real Madrid
Luka Modrić is seemingly now in the latter stages of his top-flight career, but there were no signs of him slowing down in 2021-22. The oldest player at Real Madrid this season – aged 36 years and 253 days old in his final appearance against Real Betis in May, the Croatian is still displaying his importance to the La Liga champions.
This was his 14th season as a player within the top five European leagues (eight at Real Madrid and four at Tottenham Hotspur), but 2021-22 was the campaign that he delivered the most assists (eight).
Only one central midfielder was able to average more successful passes in the opposition half per 90 minutes than Modrić (41.4), that being team-mate Toni Kroos (52.0).
Modrić has shown enviable commitment throughout the season, being the team’s driving force in playmaking and the spirit when it comes to defending and organising the high pressing of the Whites – of the eight players to play at least 2,000 La Liga minutes for them in 2021-22, he was the player to win possession back in the attacking third the most often (0.6 per 90).
Sergio Busquets – Barcelona
Indispensable and irreplaceable. In a team that contains many younger players aged 25 and under, the experience of Sergio Busquets has become an integral part of Xavi’s plans at Barcelona.
The 33-year-old, eight-time La Liga champion, began the season with some issues on the field, but rediscovered the best version of himself with the return of his former team-mate as coach.
Across the 2021-22 season, Busquets averaged 68.2 successful passes per 90 minutes – the fourth highest average by any La Liga player with over 1,000 minutes played, and the second highest for a central midfielder behind only Toni Kroos (87.1). He was also involved in a league-high 135 sequences leading to an open play shot this season – 18 of which led to a goal, another league-high, emphasising his importance in Barca’s build-up play. However, arguably Busquets’ most important role in this Barcelona team is winning the ball back from the opponents.
Across all La Liga players, Busquets tallied the most open play possession regains in 2021-22 (196), with 13 of those eventually leading to a Barcelona shot on goal – only Casemiro (16) had more that led to a shot for his side. Being involved in so many of Barcelona’s passing moves, plus the king of destructing the opposition’s momentum makes Busquets the beating heart of our midfield in the team of the season.
Jordi Alba – Barcelona
Jordi Alba is yet another player who has shone since the arrival of Xavi Hernández as coach at Barcelona. He’s just completed one of his best-ever seasons in La Liga, this despite losing his favourite partner in his constant forays down the left flank; Lionel Messi.
The wing-back takes the left midfield slot in our team of the season, as we want him to attack more than defend – and why not? He assisted a career-best 10 goals in La Liga this season – all from open play – making him the first ‘defender’ to reach double figures for assists in the competition across a single campaign since Marcelo Vieira with Real Madrid in 2016-17 (10).
His 56 chances created from open play were a career-high in a Spanish top-flight season, while also the fourth-most in La Liga in 2021-22, just 11 below the league-leader Vinícius Júnior (67).
Across the season, 21 of Barcelona’s shots saw Jordi Alba involved in the build-up as well as the final creator of the chance – that was a league-high tally, while he was also involved in the build-up to 194 shots overall in the competition, which was a tally only bettered by Real Madrid pair Karim Benzema (223) and Vinícius Júnior (229).
Nabil Fekir – Real Betis
On the face of it, 14 goal involvements (six goals and eight assists) are decent but not spectacular for a player in a season. However, these numbers don’t really do Nabil Fekir justice.
The French forward posted his best goal involvement tally in his three seasons as a La Liga player since joining Real Betis in 2019-20, and while they are some way off his best season within the top five European leagues (26 for Lyon in 2017-18), he did post career-best numbers for both chances created (84) and chances created in open play (48) in a single season.
Whether starting from central positions or on either flank, Fekir has emerged as one of the competition’s most exciting players, leading some of the most important attacking statistics.
He was a constant menace to opposing sides in 2021-22, with the eighth-most shots (84) and a league-high 47 of those coming from outside the box. Fekir also attempted the most shots following a ball carry in the competition (46), with his intent when running with the ball at his feet very clear – of the 46 players to attempt the most ball carries in La Liga this season, only Ousmane Dembélé (11.9%) and Iago Aspas (12.0%) ended a higher proportion of their ball carries with shot involvement than the winger (11.4%).
A good sign of a dangerous player is how many time their opponents feel threatened enough by them to foul them in full flow. Fekir won a league-high 92 fouls overall in 2021-22, the second time he’s topped this ranking in the last three La Liga seasons.
Karim Benzema – Real Madrid
Who else could we possibly have up front?
The season of Karim Benzema’s life, and at 34 years old to boot. The French striker led Real Madrid to the title with 39 goals involvements thanks to 27 goals and 12 assists – never in 18 years as a top-flight footballer has Benzema managed as many goals, assists or goal involvements.
In finishing the season at the La Liga top scorer, he was the first Real Madrid player to win the award since Cristiano Ronaldo in 2014-15 (48). Only Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé (13) registered more La Liga assists than Benzema (12), but the Frenchman led the league for total shots (128), shots on target (59), expected goals (24.4) and non-penalty expected goals (16.7) – a constant threat to opposing sides.
Since Ronaldo left Madrid for pastures new in the summer of 2018, Benzema has scored more goals than any other player in La Liga (92) – one ahead of Messi (91). He’s also become the new king of Madrid in front of goal – those 92 goals have come in just 139 league appearances at a rate of a goal every 126 minutes. In nine league seasons with Ronaldo at Real Madrid alongside him, Benzema scored 127 goals in 276 games at a rate of one every 145 minutes.
Benzema is currently joint-eighth in the all-time La Liga scoring charts with 219 goals. He’s only nine goals away from entering the top five and equalling the great Raúl’s tally of 228, while he needs just 33 goals to overtake Telmo Zarra (251) in third, behind Cristiano Ronaldo (311) and Messi (474). It wouldn’t be impossible to imagine him doing this in 2022-23.
Vinícius Júnior – Real Madrid
Vinícius Júnior has emerged as one of the surprises of the 2021-22 season, by dispelling the stigma of a player with very little accuracy in front of goal – his 17 goals in 35 league games this season are more than he scored in the 82 games he played in his previous three La Liga campaigns combined (eight).
Not only this, but he’s formed a lethal partnership with Karim Benzema at Real Madrid – they’ve assisted 11 goals for one another in the league this season, which is the best of any pairing in the competition.
The stats don’t lie – the Brazilian quite clearly enjoys running at opposition defenders with the ball. No attacking midfielder or forward has had more ball carries (694) or progressive ball carries (392) in 2021-22 across the big five European leagues, while only the unmentionable Kylian Mbappé can match his tally of shot involvements following a carry (76) in these competitions. In addition to these metrics, Vinícius Júnior has dribbled the ball into the opposition box on 22 occasions in La Liga 2021-22 – another tally no player across the big five European leagues can match.
One aspect of his game that many people might not be aware of his just how good Vinícius Júnior is at getting in great goalscoring positions. In 2021-22, none of the 22 players with more than 55 non-penalty shots in La Liga had a higher xG/shot average (0.17) or shot conversion rate (21.3%) than the young Brazilian – not only was he the best at finding high-quality scoring positions, but he was able to convert at a higher rate than expected.
Xavi Hernández – Barcelona
Of course, Barcelona failed to win the league this season. They finished 13 points behind rival Real Madrid in second place, but even this seemed impossible before Xavi Hernández took charge of his beloved club.
Before Xavi took charge of his first La Liga game on November 20, Barcelona were dealing with the loss of Lionel Messi and unbelievably ninth in the table and with 17 points from 12 games – an average of 1.42 points-per-game. Xavi’s Barcelona side averaged 2.15 points-per-game and had the season started on November 20, they would have finished just three points off their rivals at the top.
Xavi undoubtedly fulfilled the Catalan giants’ main objective in the first year post-Messi – to qualify for the Champions League, but in finishing second in La Liga they also guaranteed their presence in the next edition of the Spanish Super Cup and an early chance at silverware in 2022-23.
In footballing terms, the Blaugrana legend has brought back to the club some signs of identity that had been lost even since Ernesto Valverde’s time, making the possession play more flexible with more direct play options, giving the team width with a greater presence of play on the wings and squeezing their real options for pressing forward.
2022-23 promises to be more exciting at the top of La Liga with Xavi Hernández back home at Barcelona.
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