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Spain's La Liga: Can Barcelona Hold-Off Jose Mourinho And Real Madrid In The Primera Division?

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If you keep running through scenarios, eventually you'll get some weird results. At least, that's what my life experience has taught me. Play poker enough, you'll see somebody dealt a royal flush. Buy enough lottery tickets, you'll eventually be a millionaire (and able to pay off the debt accumulated buying lottery tickets). Talk to enough people in a bar, you'll find the one that doesn't laugh no sight. Iteration often leads to discovery.

While running these preview simulations for the English, Italian and Spanish leagues, I've seen some lottery tickets hit. In the 10,000 runs done for the Serie A preview, Bari came up a league champion once. A truly unbelievable result that gives context to this following factoid:

Nobody other than Real Madrid or Barcelona ever won La Liga during my simulations. Not once, and I'm not even limiting this observation to the final run, published below. Even during the testing and tweaking (which always involved fewer than 10,000 runs), Barcelona or Real Madrid always came out on top. Spain has become so top-heavy that a script designed to find the most fantastic of hypothetical scenarios can't see one of the league's other 18 clubs winning the title.

And so we find the state of the world in the Spanish Primera Division, where two teams keep improving while their nearest competition fights to tread water.  Barcelona's added David Villa and Javier Mascherano.  Real Madrid's added Mesut Özil. Sami Khedira, and Ricardo Carvalho. Meanwhile, Valencia sold Villa, David Silva and Carlos Marchena and Sevilla looks likely to sell now that they've missed Champions League.

Which gives you a league that looks something like this:

Rk Club Avg W D L GF GA 1st Top 4 Top 7 Relegated Best Worst Range*
1 Real Madrid 1.4 28.2 5.9 3.9 98.1 21.8 56.5% 100.0% 100.0% 0.0% 1 4 1-2
2 Barcelona 1.6 27.7 5.9 4.4 96.4 23.5 43.4% 100.0% 100.0% 0.0% 1 4 1-2
3 Valencia 4.3 19.2 8.7 10.2 58.9 36.4 0.0% 68.0% 93.1% 0.0% 2 14 3-8
4 Atletico Madrid 4.8 18.9 7.6 11.6 66.9 46.8 0.1% 55.5% 89.4% 0.0% 3 16 3-9
5 Sevilla 6.9 16.9 7.5 13.6 63.0 54.9 0.0% 21.4% 64.4% 0.2% 3 20 3-12
6 Getafe 7.0 16.6 8.3 13.1 56.0 47.6 0.0% 21.5% 62.1% 0.0% 3 17 3-13
7 Osasuna 8.3 15.3 9.3 13.5 46.8 43.0 0.0% 11.3% 45.2% 0.6% 3 20 3-15
8 Malaga 9.3 14.8 8.6 14.5 49.4 50.0 0.0% 6.4% 35.2% 1.0% 4 19 4-15
9 Athletic Bilbao 9.4 15.0 7.9 15.1 54.6 56.4 0.0% 6.1% 33.0% 0.9% 4 19 4-15
10 Mallorca 11.0 13.8 8.3 16.0 48.3 55.6 0.0% 3.2% 17.1% 2.9% 5 20 5-17
11 Espanyol 11.2 13.0 10.1 14.9 37.4 43.2 0.0% 2.0% 15.4% 4.1% 5 20 5-18
12 Deportivo La Coruna 11.7 13.0 9.2 15.8 42.0 50.4 0.0% 1.6% 13.9% 4.9% 5 20 5-18
13 Sporting Gijon 11.9 13.0 9.0 16.0 42.9 51.7 0.0% 1.4% 14.3% 6.2% 5 20 5-19
14 Villareal 12.6 13.3 6.8 17.9 57.0 74.3 0.0% 0.9% 9.7% 9.2% 6 20 6-19
15 Hercules 13.4 11.8 9.4 16.8 36.9 50.4 0.0% 0.6% 5.1% 11.4% 8 20 8-20
16 Racing Santander 16.0 10.6 7.8 19.5 41.9 69.2 0.0% 0.1% 0.7% 34.8% 10 20 10-20
17 Real Sociedad 17.1 9.2 9.0 19.7 31.2 58.8 0.0% 0.0% 0.4% 52.0% 12 20 12-20
18 Real Zaragoza 17.1 9.4 8.3 20.3 34.3 65.1 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 54.1% 13 20 13-20
19 Levante 17.3 9.1 8.7 20.1 32.4 62.1 0.0% 0.0% 0.4% 56.2% 12 20 12-20
20 Almeria 17.7 8.9 8.4 20.7 32.9 65.9 0.0% 0.0% 0.4% 61.5% 13 20 13-20

This Is How We Do It

From our English Premier League preview, a brief explanation of the process:

"The basic process goes something like this: Look at each player's performance from the preceding season and try to determine his contributions to the team's goals for and goals allowed. Regress that performance as needed, and if a player is no longer with the same club, try to make the evaluation as team-neutral as possible. Add in considerations for improvement or decline. Then take the player and plug him into his team's depth chart for the 2010-11 season and make an assessment regarding the playing time. With that, you can estimate how much a player will effect his team's goals for and allowed for this season."

"Those are the projections you get when you take the player evaluations, aggregate them into team performance, and then write software to simulate 10,000 seasons. Every match is played adjusting for home-and-road conditions, the goal-scoring level of the league, and quality of opposition. And just as each match in real life has an inherent variability to it, so do the simulated matches, which is why we've run 10,000 seasons - to tease out anomalous results."

The sad part? The nature of this way of exercise always underestimates results at the extremes, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly extreme. Like last year, they are likely to push each other such that scenarios pulling these predictions down become less likely. Though the simulations have each of Real Madrid and Barcelona finishing around 90 points, I would be surprised if either finish below 100, provided one team doesn't pull away from the other before April.

Look at the goals for and goal against for Real Madrid and Barcelona and you see the big difference between this year and last. Real Madrid finished 11 worse than Barcelona last season in goals allowed.  his year, they're likely to be much improved thanks to Carvalho, Khedira, improved health of Pepe, a return to form for Casillas, and (most importantly) the addition of José Mourinho, whose teams are always amongst the best in their league at preventing goals.  Where each team projects to score nearly the same number of goals as last season (quite a feat, considering the rates at which they scored in 2009-10), the defensive improvements from Real Madrid could prove decisive.

In the seven seasons Mourinho has been allowed to finished since 2002-03, the Special One has won six of seven league titles (only losing to Manchester United in 2006-07). Given the thin distance that separated Real Madrid from Barcelona last season, it makes sense that adding one of the best coaches in the world might push Los Blancos over-the-top, even if Mourinho is replacing another of the world's best coaches (the forgotten Manuel Pellegrini).

We will have more on Spain's upcoming season as the day goes on, giving you an idea of what's changed since Barcelona won the title last May. But first, a quick rundown of the league's eighteen other clubs, with some insight as to why they're predicted to finish in the spots outlined above:

Valencia:  Credit  Los Che for the talk around the club bein as much about how they've rebuilt as who they've sold.  With the funds they got for Villa and Silva, Valencia was able to bring-in Roberto Soldado and Arita Aduriz to replace much of the attacking prowess lost. They have lost Carlos Marchena and Alexis at the back, but with better goalkeeping, the settling-in of Alejandro Dominguez, and the continued emergence of Ever Banega, Valencia can stay ahead of the rest of the league.

Atlético Madrid:  A full season under Quique Sanchez Flores and better prioritization of league results help the Atleti take advantage of some fall-off from within the top seven. Sergio Agüero will improve on last season's goal output, while the acquisitions of Diego Godín and Filipe Luis will help what had become a predictably weak defense.

Sevilla:  They've lost Sebastien Squillaci, Adriano, and Mariusz Stankevicius while Ivica Dragutinovic is not yet healthy. They're going to allow more goals, and with Frederic Kanouté possibly set to regress from his 12 goals in 21 starts output of last season, Sevilla will likely regress, also.

Getafe:  The big losses of Soldado and Pedro Leon are partially offset by improvement from Dani Parejo and the acquisitions of Javier Arizmendi and Pedro Mosquera. Getafe ends up being only a shade off last year's product, but in the context of this year's league, that could be enough to see them climb the table.

Osasuna:  Adding Fernando Soriano and Serbian Dejan Lekic to score goals could give Osasuna the little boost they need to push into the table's upper half, provided their defending can stay solid. If it does, Osasuna could nip a Europa League spot.

Malaga:  Barely avoided relegation last year, yet we have them jumping to the edge of Europe. They were never as bad as their results hinted and have made a couple of interesting additions in Sebastian Fernández and Quincy Owusu-Abeyie. They were just barely south of an even goal difference last year.  This year, being barely north could push them into Europa League.

Athletic Bilbao: Javi Martínez is one of the best midfielders in a midfielder-rich league, and with more production for wonder kid Muniaín, Bilbao will again compete for a spot in Europe.

Mallorca:  Financial problems got them kicked-out of Europa and prevented them from retaining Aduriz, Felipe, Borja Valero, Mario Suarez, or Julio Alvarez. There are scenarios worse than tenth, which is about Mallorca's true level.

Espanyol:  The other Catalan club has to improve on last year's horrible goal rate, right?  Twenty-nine goals in 38 matches is a relegation-worthy output.  Espanyol's hoping Jesus Datalo and Sergio Garcia can improve the attack.

Deportivo La Coruna:  Paraguayan Claudio Morel has been brought-in to help in defense, though goal scoring as Depor's major problem in 2009-10.  It's unclear if they'll be able to improve in that area.

Sporting Gijon:  Gijon's made small tweaks - adding Nacho Novo and Sebastian Eguren - with the hopes that a second season in the Primera will see improvement, not slump.  The team looks solid.

Villareal:  I can't see the Yellow Submarine diving this far, but I can tell you what the simulation's seeing:  An step-backward with the Godin-for-Carlos Marchena swap coupled with a lack of depth in defense means a sharp spike in goals allowed.

Hercules:  Getting Paraguayan Nelson Valdez from Borussia Dortmund was quite a catch for the newly-promoted side. That addition may allow Hercules, who finished second in last year's Segunda, to eek their way above the other relegation battlers.

Racing Santander:  Sergio Canales is gone to Real Madrid with Greek international Alexandros Tziolis brought into bring more bite to midfield. Racing should again battle relegation.

Real Sociedad:  It's nice to see Sociedad back in the Primera, having won the Segunda last season. They'll be hoping  veteran Joseba Llorente has enough left to keep the white and blue at the top level.

Real Zaragoza:  The defense did not get the help it needed while the attack lost Humberto Suazo and Arizmendi.  While they have brought-in new goalkeepers, Leo Franco and Toni Doblas are unlikely to keep Zaragoza from the Primera's depths.

Levante:  After finishing third in the Segunda, Levante's added Javi Venta, Nacho Gonzalez and Xisco. They're still one of the favorites to head back to the second division.

Almeria:  Depth issues in defense and the loss of Fernando Soriano take a team that was already iffy and makes them relegation fodder.