Why I think Barcelona are keeping the goals out

This is a guest post by Marlon, who you can find on Twitter as @majatt. His other guest post can be found here.

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.


Goals scored in the last 30 mins Last Season – statbunker.com

xG information – Caley Graphics

Stats for games this season – Squawka.com

Stat comparison between this and last season generally – whoscored.com

By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


    1. Not sure how much of a consolation this is for us since they looked unbelievably good tonight.. and agains Bayern too. They have to be the favorites for CL now

  1. Great article! Thanks for posting this for us!

    Watching the game tonight though, it looks like stronger defense comes at a cost and we look a little bit week in the attack. Of course this all make sense since Neymar left but still.

  2. Good game, i liked the way we moved.
    What matters in the end is the result.
    A team performance, but i have to single out Busi for positives, and Rakitic for negatives (by me probably the worst game he had for us).
    Something that Marlon already explained here, i’m glad that teams are not having it easy to score against us
    As for PSG, yes, they look promising but were playing against a Bayern side that haven’t started the season so badly in ages, and no, they are not CL favorites, not yet.

  3. How much should we read into this game? Hard to say. It was largely a poor display, but poorer after the lead, which indicates the team tried to conserve energy, playing on the result. Still a few things were obvious. First positives: Semedo keeps looking great -good focus defensively, and the ability to remedy mistakes with a burst of pace. Attackers must beat him twice to get by him. Still finding his way in attack, but will be very useful. Umtiti, too, is – together with ter Stegen – really coming into his own. Looks the perfect CB general for Barca, now that Piqué is shaky. Overall defence is looking rather good. I also liked SR’s movement and he had a good few runs; perhaps his role was a little unclear. Busi remains alert.

    The negatives. Iniesta had a decent game, but looks tired. Messi, too, took some time off, failing dribbles and didn’t have his usual sharpness. With Suarez completely off form, he has to carry the entire attack, which is way too much to ask – 9, false 9, playmaker, midfielder etcetc. There is a limit even to him – and you can see walking Messi appearing more often, where he can’t be bothered to screen off passing lanes (which is really important). Suarez lack of form impacts the entire team immensely, since he moves less, looks sluggish and unsure, is easily dispossessed or misplaces his passes. Tellingly, his best moves were without the ball… I’m not saying he can’t find his way, but he must reinvent himself. EV has an important and delicate task to deal with.

    Rakitic received a world of criticism on twitter, and did not have a good game. Losing possession and consistently taking too long to make a decision (lack of confidence?), with the exception of him setting up Paulinho (who was decent) with a pretty straight-forward pass. Controller this and controller that – my issue is that he does not circulate the ball quickly enough, and offers much too little in attack. Very few one touches that are not played back to the CBs – everything is slow where is should be quick. He looks a bit scared, to be honest. Messi looks not too pleased with the Croat and the smiles of earlier games are gone.

    EV has a few challenges here – wake Piqué up, manage Suarez who looks lost in the system and in himself, consider Ivan’s position and status (Sergi? Denis? Even Gomes? And of course Paulinho), help improve the role of Delu and Vidal (since wings are of the essence). I for one think EV looks the real deal, though he is of course no miracle worker… let’s be patient. So far, we are winning – but we cannot rely on Owngoal and Messi being a GOAT in every game…

  4. When thinking about our form away in the CL I’m always reminded that that was one of my main gripes against Pep. He played just as open away against top teams and it caused a few poor results. Valverde seems a little more down to earth in that respect and we definitely defended our position at times. Having said that, again the ball circulation was poor. Iniesta looked knackered from early on although he still very rarely loses the ball. I don’t want to pile in again on Rakitic when the whole team looked off but I would say that he is so slow he doesn’t even do the stuff think he’s in the team for, namely winning the ball and closing down quickly. If we need that type of player we can surely find a quicker one ?

    Putting on my hat as chair of the Suarez defence Committee, I would suggest the following. No, he didn’t have a great game and hasn’t been on top form this season yet. However, his contribution to our results has still been top notch. Own goals generally don’t happen without pressure being applied and its Suarez who puts that on. Two games now he’s been the one who has caused them, he scored last game and last night it was he who won the ball back by hounding the defender which allowed Rakitic to put Paulinho away and he who put the ball right on Messi’s head in front of goal for possibly our best chance of the night. We played with one striker and a team that couldn’t move the ball quickly enough to disturb a packed defence. Your lone striker isn’t going to be able to do much in those circumstances. He was also up against one of the better and certainly fastest CBs in the CL. Yes, you know who I mean . . . His challenge to stop Messi was one of the best I’ve seen in ages. I’m gonna say though that I don’t know why he was upset at coming off. Good decision to stiffen things up in the last few minutes by Valverde.

    I don’t know where the Pique criticism is coming from either. A quick look at our defensive efforts and who has been largely responsible for them would suggest no problem there, although he did have a couple of sticky moments last night that he’ll not be proud of. On at least two occasions though that was because our mids stood and watched their man go past them and create an overload.

    Good result and we’re on our way.

    1. I tweeted roughly the same after the game, given our UCL away from and the amount of minutes people have played over the last 4 weeks. I’ll happily take the result, don’t know if I agree Pique looks shakey… Just slow. Mostly agreed otherwise.

  5. In other news it seems Benedito’s motion has failed. Can’t say I’m bothered by that as far as Barto is concerned, it’s good news in that things should settle down, Iniesta says good news on the way regarding his renewal but if I were Barto I’d still be casting an eye over the sporting management team, Valverde apart.

    I’m just wondering if our game at the weekend will go ahead given the referendum. Not sure the police will be happy having to deal with two big events, one of them pretty problematic.

  6. Talking to myself a little here but just came across this site and wondered who runs it and how accurate it is likely to be. Still looking for my one stop shop for all news Barca


    Btw, have a look down the right sidebar at the video of Deulofeu, or at least what it claims is Deulofeu. Am I just getting old(er) or is that how the youth of today behave ? 🙂

    Not sure it was wise of him to allow ( if indeed he did) that to be posted.

  7. The censure motion effort has come up short, as Benedito got something like 12.7k socis to sign on the bottom line, a sum significantly short of the roughly 17k he would have needed.

    It is also worth noting that before the club changed its parameters to comply with Spanish law, the total as it stands would have been more than enough to force a vote, though whether the necessary percentage of socis voting for censure (65%) is in doubt.

  8. What worries me now is how is the club going to be affected by the Catalan independence vote on October 1st. Are we going to get kicked out of La Liga? Today Pique tweeted that he’s going to vote to leave Spain. We could be headed for another Spanish Civil War and that would honestly suck. They say Benedito ended the vote because there was no way he was going to be able to gather all the votes and that by ending it himself he wouldn’t have to wait a year from now to start another vote. These are some crazy times we live in.

  9. Dembele injury created so much problems for the coach and the team.
    When you dont have a LW and you have to play RW Deulofeu or Vidal things looks difficult for our offense.
    With Suarez form the teams we play dont fear that our wingers can beat the defenders in 1 vs 1 so it s more easy to defend vs us.
    So i understand that Valverde want the team to defend better,have the control but he also needs a MF that can score goals.
    Thats why he uses Paulinho or Denis but that will create problems to control games.
    Well after international break we will see how he will solve our problems.
    Not easy because he doesnt have the players he needs.

  10. I think I see Rakitic playing a more defensive midfielder role, a 4-2-4 type of system. Suarez has moved out left and is often playing deep (which looks very different on the left than in the center). Semedo is a good right-back, but looks unsure of himself and mistimes his attacks—doesn’t really have good chemistry with other players yet.

    Valverde seemed to sense the lack of attack at the last 10 minutes of the game and brought in two more attack-minded players: Paulinho & Vidal. It seemed to actually help, even though a bit risky SINCE BARCA WAS AHEAD, and just hanging on could win it—still, the ball was in front of our goal too much. Scary.

    The funny thing was there were chances. Three or four good ones. If the final score had been 3-0, how would everyone feel?

    There was also a few moments when the ball whizzed around in triangles in the midfield, that I thought “We haven’t been able to do that in a long time.”

    Mathieu sure had something to prove. Amusing.

  11. What an utter shambles today ! Still don’t know if it’s gonna go ahead. Police and La Liga happy for it to go ahead but It’s disappeared from my Sky planner , other reports from unnamed board member says it’ll go ahead behind closed doors as a fans group is threatening to get onto the pitch and if Barcelona don’t play because the league has said it should go ahead they will lose 3-0 to Las Palmas !

    And so it begins . . .

    1. There’s an official statement on twitter saying it will be played “behind closed doors”.

  12. Well, bizarre doesn’t even begin to cover it, does it ?

    Quite liked Pique’s account. He seems to have been quite upset by the goings on :

    “The board tried everything to suspend the game. They talked to us. Playing was very difficult. It’s been the worst experience of my professional life. In the dressing room there were discussions, we decided to play. Personally my opinion doesn’t matter much. There were arguments in favor and against. Las Palmas wanted to play, the club made the call, there were the points. We all had our opinion and in the end the game was played, but I get that there are fans who don’t understand this decision.”

    No winners, really. And I fear there will be many losers if calm heads don’t prevail.

    Just one personal note. I had been planning with my wife to travel to Barcelona in the spring, stay a week or two in an apartment, live the life and take in a couple of matches ( see Ini one more time before he goes ) However, sitting with me watching the images on TV today I think we’ve decided that it might not be wise at the moment. Shame.

    Also, sad to see Ini injured again. I don’t think it was the sprint for the ball with the keeper. I’m pretty sure it was stretching his leg high before to reach an over hit pass near the touchline. Exactly the way I tore mine about forty years ago . I winced then and again today when I saw him stretch for it. Hope he’s back soon.

Comments are closed.