FC Barcelona has a new coach this season, his name is Ernesto Valverde, and he seems to be an effective orchestrator for FC Barcelona’s overall defensive strategy. Here’s how I think he’s getting the defense right.
think it boils down to two things: discipline in the final thirty minutes and work rate. Barcelona generally keep 60%+ possession and do better than 85% passing completion and has for several seasons. I’ll touch on them but the emphasis here is on what’s changed.
Despite taking 10% more shots from the opposing team per game (9.4 last season vs 10.3) ter Stegen hasn’t had to work harder. He’s averaging 1 save against shots in the penalty/6 yard box vs 1.7 per game last season. Taking shots from outside the box into the tally and he’s averaging 1.8/game vs 3.2 last season. In other words for a 10% increase in shooting, he’s made 50% less saves while conceding fewer goals. I don’t have the stats for shots on target vs off target in aggregate but Girona managed 10 shots but only two (2) on target. I think this is typical of the season, the quality of the shot opportunities are worse so without an increase in the quality of shooting, Barca are going to concede less goals than last season. Below you can see the shots saved against Girona, I’ll hazard a guess the one outside the box falls in to the <10% scored category but saving the follow up in the 6 yard back was commendable and ter Stegen must be given credit.
This may prove less useful against big teams who have a better chance of beating their xG so tactically Valverde may vary but against the average team, the defensive setup is working fine.
In terms of work rate, Barca last season blocked 56 shots, about 1.5 per game, so far they’ve 18 or thee (3) per game. So I think the blocks are cutting down the quantity of quality chances. Below are where the shots were blocked, one in the box was likely to be a decent shot/chance created.
This season Barcelona is averaging 3%** more possession (62.1% vs 63.6%) and 2% better passing (86.7% vs 88.4%). So somewhat better possession but the main driver of the defensive success, thus far,is working harder is keeping the offside trap working well. Barcelona sprang the offside trap an average of 4.3 per game this season, that is a 39% increase (from 3.1 last season). In the game with Girona, Barcelona got caught offside 14 times, that’s a lot, and served to distract from Barca keeping up their average and catching them offside four (4) times.
In short, this season Barcelona has blocked more shots and trapped more attacks offside.
The expected Goals (xG) of the shots that were still taken is 0.7 on average in the league before the Girona game (stat vs Girona not available at the time of writing). Indicating what isn’t snuffed out generally haven’t been quality chances. Even then, ter Stegen is saving roughly 1.8 shots/game or about 17% of shots this season. There will be exceptions but using the Girona game again the put 20% of their shots on target and ter Stegen about kept his average.
You were maybe thinking I’d spend time talking about interceptions, and I’ll spare the details unless I get the chance to write about the midfield specifically, but both interceptions and tackles are lower this season. I would put that toward the slightly better possession and more blocked (not intercepted) passes. When you combine the increase number of offsides, blocked passes and blocked shots the decrease in tackling especially, to me, makes sense. A quote often attributed to the fantastic Paolo Maldini is “if I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake”.
To illustrate this in the Girona game look at the following graphic showing blocked passes:
This was a good game in terms of interceptions with 17 made but there were also 17 blocked passes/crosses. Furthermore, Barcelona’s Center Back pair made one tackle attempt (which was successful) the entire game. Messi and Suarez made two attempts, both successful, says a lot when two of the most talented forwards of our generation or tackling more than the Center Back pair.
Generally, and in this game, Barcelona pressed, pressured, harassed and even harangued to keep opponents away from the goal when not in possession the team closed down or sprung the offside trap for most of what remained. Against Girona that resulted in two (2) saves and a clean sheet. I should also mention neither of the two goals conceded in the league have come from a set play, we averaged conceding a set piece goal every three games last year.
Now about that discipline after the 60-minute mark. Barcelona conceded the fourth most goals in La Liga in the last thirty minutes last season conceding 40% of goals in the final phase of each game, 15 goals in total. This season? 0. That’s not all in, terms of shots after the 60th minute?
Vs Betis 2, both on target.
Vs Alaves 6, one on target.
Vs Espanyol 5, one on target.
Vs Getafe 4, one on target.
Vs Eibar 6, one on target.
Vs Girona 7, none on target.
I think this is important as one of Enrique’s criticisms was not making the ‘right’ substitutions. That’s subjective but averaging almost a goal every other game in the final thirty last season vs none so far is hard to argue with. Against Girona he subbed on three midfielders late in the game arguably so shore up possession and put fresh legs to stop or pressure passes in midfield. Regardless, the team has kept out a major source of goals for other teams last season so far by being tidy in the final thirty minutes of the game. Furthermore, only allowing six shots on target in 180+ minutes of play is impressive regardless of the context.
So as I said in the beginning, I think the improvement in focus on cutting down the quality of chances created and keeping that going through the final phase of the game has been key. The midfield has also been the focus and maybe I’ll focus on that more in another piece. Spoiler alert, I think Valverde is sacrificing chances for control.
** Note: using the % increase/decrease instead of points for consistent comparisons with other stats.