Boca Juniors completed a sweep of 2022’s Liga Profesional de Fútbol (LPF) competitions in Argentina: the Copa de la LPF during the first half of the year, and the single round-robin Liga Profesional tournament that concluded on October 23rd. It’s a common saying in football that at the conclusion of a season, the table informs you what kind of team you were, and Boca, having faced all competitors in the Primera División, deserve to be called champions. If you look at the advanced metrics, however, the lingering impression of this tournament is that this edition of Boca is an underwhelming championship side.
Typically, one might expect a champion to rank near the top in the actual and/or expected goal statistics. That was not the case with this season’s Boca. El xeneize‘s expected goals generated and allowed per 90 minutes hovered closely to the league average — slightly worse in the case of xG/90 (1.31 vs 1.32 average) and slightly better in the case of xGA/90 (1.27 vs 1.32 average). Only in actual goals scored did Boca finish in the top ten; in this case, a three-way tie for third. Not a single Boca player ranked in the top 50 in non-penalty xG, and the highest-ranked player, Dario Benedetto, ranked 52nd. Just three players ranked in the top 50 in expected assists, of which Óscar Romero had the highest xA. While their #1 goalkeeper, Agustín Rossi, stopped three penalties and registered ten clean sheets, his goals allowed above expected placed him slightly better than the average of all primary goalkeepers.
When I wrote my mid-season (actually two-thirds of the season) review of the Liga Profesional tournament, I mentioned that the traditional Big Five — Boca, River, Racing, Independiente, and San Lorenzo — were experiencing less than stellar seasons. Boca’s season had declined to the point that the club switched managers in July. But Boca, despite having established and experienced players with middling output, became deadly efficient about winning. An indication of the change in mindset is shown in the chart of moving points-per-game average. The moving average is an exponential moving average that heavily weights the most recent match and applies rapidly reduced weights to matches further back in the competition.
One can observe the upward trajectory of Atlético Tucumán during the first half of the season, mirrored by the sharp decline of Boca Juniors and to a lesser extent Racing Club. But by the middle of August — after new Boca manager Hugo Ibarra started to impose his game plan — Boca exhibited an upward trajectory in points-per-game that was sharper than its decline in the first half. Racing’s points-per-game shot up rapidly in the closing month thanks to winning seven of their last eight matches before the title decider at home to River. Meanwhile, Atlético Tucumán was unable to match the winning pace of Boca and Racing and they faded over the last month of the season. Huracán showed improvement in terms of results but started their climb from too far a deficit. Their late fade cost them a Copa Libertadores place.
Another indicator of Boca’s winning spirit is shown in a chart of match outcomes broken out by relative differences in team expected goals. An expected win is one in which a team’s total expected goals exceeds its opponents’ by at least 0.4 goals, and an expected draw is one in which the difference in expected goals is less than 0.4 goals. On average, a team in Argentina’s Primera won 63% of the points in matches that were expected wins, 43% of the points in matches that were expected draws, and 28% of the points in matches that were expected losses. Boca had a 100% record in the matches in which they had a significant xG advantage, but those matches didn’t occur very often: just 8 times for Boca, compared to 14 times for River, 15 for Atlético Tucumán and Racing, and 17 for Huracán. The difference maker was with the matches in which Boca had a significant xG disadvantage. Despite this situation Boca earned 19 points from those 10 matches, a whopping 63.3% of the 30 points available. No other Primera side matched Boca’s point haul, and Boca overhauled their direct competitors for the title by at least nine points.
The takeaway from these numbers is that Hugo Ibarra managed to rebuild the Boca Juniors squad into one that was more than the sum of its parts. It is an older and more experienced team to be sure, and it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that they’ll experience challenges at the next Copa Libertadores. Age could explain the decline in scoring opportunities, but experience explains the ability of the side to score a critical goal or save an important penalty. Put another way, the 2022 Boca Juniors side ended up victorious thanks to a quality that no performance analyst can quantify precisely: heart.