This article continues from the previous post in which I shared some comparative scoring analysis between the Top 2 teams from each of Spain’s La Liga, England’s EPL, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.
When I shared this info with the BFB mods, Euler had some staggering numbers and information to share. As Euler is very busy these days and he didn’t have the time to turn his comments into a post, he gave me the go-ahead to publish them on his behalf.
Some interesting analysis from Euler explained the reasons behind the numbers, as well as drawing comparisons between the clubs and their styles of play and tactics.
The Barça – Real Madrid Midfield Comparison
Barcelona has (so far) scored 126 goals this season, with 23 (18.3%) of them coming from our Midfield players. Madrid’s Midfield has scored 15 (13.9%) of their 108 goals.
Euler: In terms of shooting from midfield, the Real Madrid team is similar to Barça, and this is why the proportion of goals scored from Midfield is around the same, although there are very different reasons for why the 2 teams shoot so infrequently from their Midfields.
Even though the RM Midfield doesn’t shoot much, that doesn’t mean that their whole team doesn’t shoot much. On the contrary. It just means that the action is oriented around the forward line.
For Barça though it’s very different. The Midfielders don’t shoot – but it’s not because they are routing the ball to the forward line to shoot. Our Midfielders don’t shoot because their primary focus is to retain possession and probe to create high-probability opportunities. Those high-probability opportunities are created in 2 ways:
1. Either put a player in tremendous goal scoring position, or;
2. Leverage Messi’s absolutely uncanny ability to get the ball on goal.
If neither of those 2 things is feasible, the ball is recirculated. But what can become a problem is if a disproportionate amount of the possession gets caught away from goal as we look for these high probability chances. It becomes a negative feedback loop, of sorts.
The Role of Real Madrid’s Midfield
Here’s where the 2 teams’ Midfields are different. Barça’s Midfield is about possession and Real Madrid’s Midfield is about quick transitions.
Euler: The RM midfield don’t shoot much because their “job” is to route the ball very fast to the forward line. You can see this partly by the distribution of touches on their team. It’s not uncommon that Cristiano and Di Maria will have more touches than Ozil. The RM Midfielders are simply not supposed to be on the ball for very long.
Alonso quickly distributes the ball out to the flanks. Oezil doesn’t orchestrate play as much as provide a final ball. Khedira also rarely has the ball for long. It’s the exact opposite of the Barça Midfield. The RM Midfield just doesn’t hold the ball – their role is to get the ball to their Frontline as quickly as possible.
Alonso only averages 0.5 shots/game – much more than Busquets, but still not very much. Oezil and Khedira average around 1 shot per game each. So, on the whole, RM averages around 2.5 shots per game from their Midfield which is around the same as Barça.
The Real Madrid Frontline
Madrid’s Frontline scored 83 of their 108 goals – 76.9%. Barcelona’s Frontline scored 79 of their total 126 goals – 68.3%.
Euler: Madrid’s Frontline shoots a lot. It’s on the Frontline where there’s a big difference to FCB. Madrid scores by overwhelming the opposition – not particularly through efficiency. By comparison, FCB scores largely through efficiency, especially this season where Villa has been absurdly efficient – to a degree which is highly colored by random probability much like Higuain’s great season last year.
Being able to score via efficiency is, in many ways, critical to the FCB system. It allows the team to retain possession. Because the team shoots very little in comparison to its total goals scored, the team doesn’t concede goal-kicks or create turnovers in the final third of the pitch as much as they could.
Individual Shots Comparison
Euler then went on to comment about some individual players, comparing the number of shots they take to achieve their totals.
Euler: Cristiano takes 50% more shots per game than Man U’s Robin van Persie; around 49% more shots per game than At. Madrid’s Falcao; 39% more shots than Napoli’s Cavani and 28% more shots per game than Messi. I point this out, as this really speaks to how Real Madrid scores.
Cristiano Ronaldo is entirely on his own level when it comes to shooting. It’s really remarkable how much of an outlier he is. He averages 7.2 shots per game and converts around 17-18% of those into goals. 17-18% is basically the exact average goal conversion rate for a striker. So the whole idea that Cristiano Ronaldo is a great “finisher” isn’t entirely accurate.
By comparison, Alexis Sanchez’s goal conversion rate this season is – get this – 18%. He’s converting at around the same rate as Cristiano. However, Alexis hardly shoots (0.8 shots per game IIRC – which is ridiculous and speaks to his lack of confidence), so in a way his goal conversion rate is misleading for the opposite reason.
In a way, Cristiano is an “average-ish” finisher who takes/creates an overwhelming number of shots. It’s one of the oddest statistical anomalies I’ve seen in any team sport in recent times. He’s completely on his own level in this category, although this is a complicated issue as it’s one thing to convert at an average rate (if you’re taking an average to below average number of shots) and another if you’re taking an enormous number of shots.
Di Maria takes 1.9 shots per game, Benzema 2 shots per game, as does Higuain. By comparison, Pedro takes 1.4; Alexis 0.8 (again – he’s a midfielder basically) and Villa 1.4. This is remarkable. Messi takes around 5 shots per game and converts an astonishing 35% into goals.
So while both the RM and FCB Midfields average around 2.5 shots per match, the Real Madrid Frontline takes over 11 shots per game and the Barça Frontline takes around 8 shots per game.
On Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona Midfield Players
As Pep is going to manage Bayern Munich next season, it will be interesting to see what changes he makes.
Recently in the German press, Der Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer took the example of Arjen Robben who relies on playing from the wings into the middle to get his shots away. As an example of what would not work, (and this is just a small part of what was an interesting article), Beckenbauer said that to mold a player like Robben into a Xavi or Iniesta would be a disaster because Robben is not a dribbler.
To quote Beckenbauer, “An attempt to turn Robben into a dribbler of the ball would see Robben turn into an ordinary player rather than the extraordinary player that he is already.”
Perhaps we could apply Beckenbauer’s quote to Alexis and Pedro?!
The Barça Midfield has scored 23 goals out of 126 – 18.3% of the total. Bayern Munich’s Midfield has scored 29 out of their 96 goals – 30.2% of the total. Munich’s Midfield goals have predominantly come from 2 players – Kroos (9 goals) and Schweinsteiger (7 goals), with Shaqiri (4), Gustavo (3), Alaba (3), Martinez (2) and Tymoshchuk (1) chipping in.
Euler: Bayern is interesting as they too (like Barça) dominate possession as a primary tactic. The player who is perhaps most comparable in terms of quality at the holding Midfield role may be Bastian Schweinsteiger. He’s played in a total of 29 matches and taken 44 shots at goal – 1.5 shots per game.
Busquets has appeared in 32 matches and taken just 3 shots all season. Just think about that. Busquets has taken that many fewer shots than Schweinsteiger who himself doesn’t shoot all that much. Javi Martinez has taken nearly twice as many shots, per game this year, compared to Busquets.
So Schweinsteiger has roughly taken 15 times more shots this year than Busquets. That is stunning. 15x more shots.
Busquets is the best player in the world in his position, but it’s striking to see how little he looks to score. In turn, this puts more pressure on the Barça Frontline and confines their roles. On average, the Barça starting Midfield of Iniesta/Busquets/Xavi takes only 2.6 shots per game. 3 Players take only 1 more shot per game than only Schweinsteiger takes per game.
If the Barça Midfield is going to do that, then it puts enormous pressure on the Frontline to score. And the issue isn’t Messi taking some huge number of shots. He really doesn’t shoot very much compared to how often he scores. That’s not the issue. The outliers are the Midfielders just not shooting.
Of the 8 teams included in the statistics in the first post, Juventus was the team with the most even spread of goals over their Frontline shooters 15.3%, 14.1% and 12.9%.
Juve and Dortmund had exactly the same ratio of goals scored between the field positions: Frontline: 51.8%, Midfield: 37.6% and Backs: 10.6%. Both clubs’ Midfields also scored the exact amount of goals – 32 out of 85 – 37.6% which is quite high in comparison to Barcelona’s 18.3% (23 out of 126 goals).
Euler: Juve, like Barça, is very Midfield-oriented but the shooting is completely different. Pirlo takes 1.9 shots per game – just compare that to Busi. Vidal takes 2 shots and Marchisio 2.3 shots per game. The Juve strikers don’t shoot much more – Giovinco 3, Vucinic 2.8, Quagliarella 2.8 and Mari 1.6.
Just think about that: Marchisio takes 44% more shots than Iniesta does. And think about how extreme the difference in their skill is on the ball is. So the Juve Mids take around 6 shots per match compared to the 2.5 of Barça despite 2 of the Mids being Vidal & Marchisio.
The Messi Factor
How does the Midfield not scoring impact on the other Frontline players, and how fortunate are we to have the economical and efficient Messi?
Euler: A significant aspect of the Barça possession game is contingent on being able to score goals with a level of efficiency that simply doesn’t happen very often over extended periods of time. That is overwhelmingly due to Messi, and is also a part of “Messidependencia” that is under-appreciated.
Messi has scored 42 (Liga) goals this season from only about 120 shots (35% conversion). For Cristiano or Cavani to score that many goals, they’d have to take 230 shots. Just think about that. They’d need 110 more shots – roughly 2x more. That is a ton of balls wasted that turn into Goalkicks/Blocks/Loss of possession.
This is also why, when we say we’d prefer Messi to score less and for others to score more, there’s a downside to that. Those other players will need far more shots to produce the same number of goals and that will result in more loss of possession. There are obviously advantages to this as well, but that’s a downside trade off.
The Rest of the FCB Team
With our Midfield not actively looking to score goals, this places more emphasis on the goals coming from elsewhere, in particular the Frontline with help from the Barça Backs during set pieces and, as we’ve seen with Adriano and Alba, their goals have been crucial in giving the team the upper-hand in some of the tougher matches. Barça’s Defence scored 13.5% (17 of 126) of the goals. They were second only to Manchester United whose Backs contributed 16.3% (15 goals of 92 in total) of their goals.
Euler: Unfortunately, the rest of Barça just doesn’t shoot and that’s become a problem. There are many reasons why this is the case, but part of it is just a distribution of time. For FCB, the Midfielders keep the ball for a long time and don’t shoot it. Just think about how many touches Busquets gets every game. And he’s just not going to shoot. Same for Alves (who is basically a Midfielder), Xavi, Iniesta, and even Sanchez.
This is part of why Barça has now become so execution-dependent to such a degree. To score, the team has grown so dependent on efficiency alone that they don’t look to create goals by generating shots in numbers. And because football is so low-scoring, efficiency in and of itself isn’t necessarily hyper-critical (as RM shows). Football is in stark contrast to Basketball in this regard where efficiency really does matter – especially if you aren’t a dominant rebounding side. (An interesting point is that Messi is a much, much more efficient scorer in his sport than Michael Jordan was in Basketball.)
This is another example where the FCB system has become more and more extreme. And this isn’t because the system is too focused on Messi. He just doesn’t take that many shots per game – especially compared to how much total possession Barça has. He’s not crowding out other players.
The Barça players on this team have become so focused on the possession game and the “Midfielder” ethos of the team that they just don’t shoot until they get the “perfect chance.” That, inevitably, makes them very execution dependent.
This raises a few points for discussion:
1. With the emphasis placed on the Barça Midfield retaining possession of the ball, and the team only looking to shoot at goal when there’s a clear opportunity, has this removed some of the element of surprise from the team’s play?
2. Is this why we see the Wingers hestitate and pass back to the Midfield so often, instead of risking possession by cutting in and either attempting to score themselves or crossing into other players?
3. Is the Midfield’s ball retention hindering the team’s opportunities to score, particularly if they are caught deep down the pitch with the opposition pressing them? If so, what can be done in situations like these?
4. What if the Barça Midfield did take a few more chances and take more shots at goal? Would this introduce a surprise-element into the Barça game by introducing more players who threaten to score? Would this alleviate some of the heavy defensive marking on Messi, if the Midfield looked to score as well? What would the downside be – loss of possession/turnovers?
After watching last week’s Spain vs. Finland game, I’d say that these questions are relevant to that game as well, where the ball was simply passed laterally from side-to-side with very little forward motion. It says something when Ramos becomes the most vertical player on the pitch – and we have witnessed that with Barca when Adriano/Alves/Alba become our most dynamic players.