Levante in the Champions League? Surely that’s a prospect that would’ve drawn laughs and looks of disdain rather than genuine belief before a ball was kicked this season. However, with one game to go in the La Liga season and 3 points separating them from a life-changing 4th position in the standings, this is a prospect that has every chance of becoming a reality.
In a season when stronger clubs — and regular top four contenders — like Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, and Villarreal experienced hard times (though Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have improved of late), Levante have risen, looking well set to finish much higher than the 13th they mustered last season. How did they do it?
These days, football fans are accustomed to seeing aesthetic, eye-catching, possession football. The likes of Barcelona, Roma, Arsenal, and even Swansea City have all played their part in entertaining the football world with such wonderful play. Levante, however, have not followed their lead.
Although not as easy on the eye, Levante have persisted with a very direct playing style. This style has proven to be a successful one for the club. Arouna Koné, for example, has benefited immensely from this style of play; he has netted a decent tally of 15 goals this season. From a team perspective, Levante are dangerous on the counter attack as a result of this directness, netting 15 goals on the break last season and a league-leading tally of 22 this campaign. Even though effective in its own way, this long ball style of play incurs a risk, however — possession turnover.
Last season, the club averaged a mere 41.3%* of possession per game — the lowest in the league at the time. In addition, they completed just 70.9% of their passes — the second lowest in the league. This had a domino effect — not only did they attempt the least amount of shots in the league (10.4/game) as well as get the least on target (3.3/game), but given the fact that their opponents enjoyed the majority of possession, they conceded the 5th highest amount of shots in the league (14.3/game). This lead to the concession of 52 goals last season.
This season, Levante average only 40.4% possession — second lowest in the league. To put things in perspective, the club that averages the lowest is Racing Santander, who have already been relegated to the Segunda División. In addition, they have only completed 70.6% of their passes this season. These stats have decreased ever so slightly this season in comparison to the last and it indicates that the club has been slightly more direct this season. The fact that they play an average of 5 more long passes per game compared to last season evidences this (67 to 62).
As for shots attempted and conceded, they allow the 5th highest amount of shots (14.5/game), leading to the concession of 50 goals thus far and they average the third lowest amount of shots attempted (10.2/game), averaging just 3.8 of those on target. To put things in perspective here, relegated Racing Santander, one of the teams that attempt fewer shots than Levante, has scored just 26 times. The other team, 11th-placed Getafe, has scored 40 goals — 11 less than Levante.
The fact that Levante have been doing so well despite such alarming statistics is bizarre. What’s more bizarre, however, is the fact that even though the club’s possession, pass completion, shots attempted, shots conceded, and shots on target statistics over the last two seasons are very close, they were not achieved under the same manager. Juan Ignacio Martínez or “JIM”, as he is affectionately known, replaced Getafe-bound Luis García in June 2011. As close as the stats may be, however, JIM has taken Levante a bit further in his debut season in charge. Why?
One reason lies up top. Felipe Caicedo and Christian Stuani did well for the club last season. Caicedo, before following a track to Lokomotiv Moscow, netted 13 league goals. Stuani, before racing to relegated Santander, netted 8 times. Their replacements, Arouna Koné and Barkero, have done better this season. As mentioned, Koné has netted 15 times and even though Barkero has scored one goal less than his predecessor Stuani, he has assisted 7 goals compared to Stuani’s 2.
Basically, in the final third, Levante have been very efficient, hardly wasting chances. In fact, they have a chance conversion rate of 13.5%, third in the league behind only Barcelona (18.2%) and Real Madrid (16.5%). So they may struggle to keep hold of the ball due to their direct style of play, but their efficiency in the final third has seen their gambling tactic pay priceless dividends.
Another reason concerns the defensive aspect of Levante’s game. There is a bit more effort to win the ball back from the opposition this season compared to last. The club averages 23.9 tackles per game this season compared to 19 last season. This is the reason why Levante’s possession and pass completion have been affected, albeit negatively.
By winning the ball back a few more times this season, in keeping with their direct style of play, they were able to play the ball forward a few more times per game, explaining the small increase in long balls played per game in addition to the fact that they complete a fraction less of their passes and as such have less possession on average per game than last season. The positive is that they created more goal scoring opportunities which they scored more often than not, explaining why they’ve scored 10 more goals than last season with one game still to go in the current campaign.
It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to see the star of minnow clubs rise. Though, the fact that Levante’s has risen without the employment of outrageous skill on the part of the players or champagne football on the part of the team as a unit makes this case somewhat peculiar in nature. As a result, Levante and the club’s manager have garnered great attention and rightly so. Their fairytale season isn’t yet over, however.
There remains but one game — a home encounter with Athletic Bilbao. Levante aren’t exactly finishing the season strongly, picking up just 2 wins from their last 9 games. It may very well be that the lack of rotation of players has finally caught up with them, or perhaps it’s reality. Still, they have every right to fancy their chances in this final fixture.
As mentioned, not only is this game on home soil, but given Bilbao have a hugely important Europa League final to play in days before, they can expect Los Leones to be affected by the outcome of that game in one way or another — either tired from celebrating and too happy to care because of victory or hung over, depressed, and distracted because of defeat. For what is a crucial game for Levante, one that would help decide their Champions League fate, they may well have caught Bilbao at the right time.
Call them over-achievers, call them underdogs, call them fortunate even, but Levante are on the cusp of greatness here. They’ve made their mark on La Liga this season and should they enter the lucrative world of the Champions League next season, don’t put it past them to make their mark there either.
*- Stats courtesy of whoscored.com