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Hi, this is lea_terzi, a BFB reader and occasional commenter who hopped on the Barcelona bandwagon to watch Ronaldinho and was never able to leave, mesmerized by a million things that make Barça more than a club.
Something else I’m passionate about is statistics, which I occasionally use to make bets, play Football Manager (and win Graham Hunter’s book in a BFB contest last year). One day, I put together this review of the 2013-14 stats so far. It’s rather long, number-heavy and humor-thin but if you get through it, you might find answers to some fascinating questions (Which direction is Tata taking the team? Is he changing “our style”? Why does the team look more dangerous and less vulnerable than last season? Do we need an elite defender? Or a striker? Or maybe a midfielder? What to look out for? And, of course, why the repeat of Bayern fiasco is very, very, very unlikely?) Or you might come up with more questions, which I’d love to see in the comments.
Half-season stats review – how Tata’s Barcelona is different from Tito’s team.
Let’s not forget that, before illness, injury and Bayern struck last season, Barca was on a tear after a record start, which it converted into a record finish in La Liga. So, it wasn’t a bad year by any means – just a very, very unlucky one. This one is showing all signs of being better.
The end of Messidependencia and new attacking weapons
In fact, Tito’s Barcelona scored more in La Liga – 3 goals to this season’s 2.7. That, however, was mostly due to Messi’s brilliance – La Pulga accounted for 39% of our 155 goals in all competitions, and bagged a staggering total of 60. Only four others got into double digit scoring that season (Cesc, Alexis, Pedro and Villa contributed 33% of team’s goals), while the rest of midfield and defense pitched in 28%.
This season, things couldn’t be more different. With Lionel playing only half the available minutes this season, he “only” scored 21% of our impressive team total of 87 goals in 34 games. Pedro, Alexis, Cesc and Neymar are all in double digits already, shouldering 57% of the scoring load. The rest of the team accounts for 22% of goals. There is visibly less scoring (and assisting) from Xavi, Iniesta and the fullbacks, but then, it isn’t as vital with the forwards flourishing.
More proof of our front line’s success are the fantastic goal+assist/90minutes numbers. Last season, Leo stood head and shoulders above everyone at 1.72, with only Villa (1.0), Cesc (0.81), Alexis (0.82, but we all remember his long slump and scoring for fun after La Liga was officially over) and Iniesta (0.74) contributing steadily. This season, Messi’s influence on games is more subtle, and he contributed “only” 1.47 goals+assists per 90 minutes. But the world hasn’t fallen apart, because Cesc added 1.14, Neymar 1.13, Pedro 1.11, Alexis 0.90. Iniesta was asked to play a more withdrawn role and seemed in a funk to start the season, but we were seeing some great football from him before his knock against Atletico.
Whoscored rates players based on their actions each game, and while the rating has significant weaknesses, this season it is reflecting what we are seeing on the pitch – improved marks for Cesc and Pedro, Alexis and Neymar catapulting into the footballing elite, and an unfortunate decline in both minutes and performance for Tello, who suddenly finds himself an odd man out.
So, what changed? We replaced Villa (my favourite player ever) with Neymar, a much more dynamic, versatile and creative attacker, and it paid off instantly.
Messi and Neymar missing time, and Tata’s seemingly magical effect on players’ confidence, brought the A game from our other strikers.
A trend towards “verticalidad” – slight decline in possession numbers, willingness to attack in transition (we scored 7 transition goals, more than Real and Atletico, in La Liga this season), take on defenders (Messi and Alexis doubled their successful dribbles per game from last year, Neymar and Iniesta have been predictably great), mix it up with diagonal balls and quick ball movement from flank to flank also helped bring out the best in players like Pedro and Alexis, who thrive in space.
The result is more shots, more shots on target, more fouls won around the box. The challenge remains to develop the Messi-Neymar pairing, which we have rarely seen this season, share minutes and keep confidence high when all our attackers are healthy. Who do you leave on the bench? Another challenge is finding a central forward for Martino to experiment with, while Messi takes a more creative role for another tactical wrinkle.
The signs in midfield are, at first sight, not so encouraging. Busquets has been an absolute beast (Whoscored agrees, rating him higher than last season), but Song, while immensely talented, is still hit and miss on the pitch. Xavi and Iniesta have been less influential than we are used to seeing them, their scoring, assisting and passing are down, they are no longer team leaders in player rating, and sometimes look overrun in games.
Part of it is Tata’s effort to fix last season’s issues, as misfiring forwards led to midfielders shouldering a heavier load and getting further upfield in attack, while pressing and transition defense suffered. This season, forwards are doing a smashing job, and midfielders are asked to focus on their primary responsibilities, control midfield, clean up when the forwards lose the ball, then feed it back into the mixer and change the direction of attack with an array of short, long, through and diagonal balls. Due to the addition of Neymar, development of Alexis and Pedro who all require defensive attention, spaces are opening up in attack, so Xavi, Iniesta and even Messi don’t need to be close to goal in order to influence a match.
The other side of this has been referred to as “Martino having a plan but not the players for it”. Our direct competitors and elite teams we could face at later stages of the CL, like Real, Atletico, ManCity, Chelsea, Juventus and Bayern, rely on midfielders who are both physically dominant and technically excellent. They can at times run right through our more slight midfielders on attack, while kicking them out of games on defense. While Xavi and Iniesta, who many thought couldn’t play together, proved naysayers wrong in spectacular fashion, there is a lot of mileage in those legs, and using them for the bulk of minutes in all competitions could unnecessarily speed up the decline.
Just like last season, Xavi has played 68% and Iniesta 65% of available minutes. Thiago left a hole that hasn’t been filled – Sergi Roberto is no replacement yet, and Tata is unfairly criticized whenever Song plays alongside Busquets. Besides, Xavi and Iniesta’s greatest strength lies in controlling midfield through possession and short passing, while Tata asks for more directness in attack (thus, fewer passes are exchanged in midfield, and completion rate is down) – and consecutively, more pressing and defending is required from midfielders. Xavi and Iniesta are living legends who can excel in virtually any system centered on possession and attacking football, but when midfield turns into a field of (physical) battle, they might need help from someone like Keita who could slot in alongside Busquets and shut it down. Song could be that player, or we could try bringing in reinforcements from the B team or from the outside, but that option, a sort of a double pivot to begin or close some games, needs to be on the roster.
It has been visible to the naked eye. While set pieces are still a menace, and will continue to be, we are no longer as vulnerable to counters, with our wingers and mids pressing in concert and taking pressure off defenders. As everyone is more willing to tackle and dish out tactical fouls to stop dangerous breaks, the defenders are more comfortable. ALL EIGHT of our defensive players have better Whoscored rating this season, Pique, Adriano and Bartra looking downright spectacular at times, Alba showing improvement after return from injury, Alves and Mascherano returning to their vintage selves. All that considered, we still concede the exact same number of shots per game in La Liga as last season – 9. However, we only allow Liga teams to score 0.6 goals per game, in contrast to 1.1 last season.
Part of it could be lower quality of shots we give up (46% of shots against us are from outside the box), but Valdes has played a huge role, saving everything at the beginning of the season, when the team was still adjusting to Tata’s requirements. Valdes has been, hands down, THE best keeper in the world by all metrics (although it’s devilishly hard to evaluate keepers independently of the defense in front of them, he leads the way in %of shots saved and Whoscored ranking by a country mile) and to the naked eye. If anyone thinks he can be comfortably replaced, I have a bridge to sell you.
However, replace him we must, and a new center back, while no longer vitally important, is still, well, very important. I love Mascherano to pieces but you cannot teach height, and for some matches we simply need that in our toolkit. Also, wishing Bartra a long career with Barca, but he needs another year or two of comfortable development before he can be an undisputed starter. The question is, do we bring someone in to form a partnership with Pique (in which case Masche would probably leave), or another backup to compete with Bartra?
The glass, at the moment, is more than half full. Before the season began, I said Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern, PSG and Dortmund can boast arguably better individual defenders than us, and only Chelsea and Bayern have better depth. Well, if you trust Whoscored, Pique has been the best defender on these teams, Bartra – the second best (both ranking a few decimals above, you guessed it, Thiago Silva), Mascherano and Puyol are up there with the best, while Barca has the fewest goals conceded in La Liga and is competing with Bayern for the least shots on goal conceded in Europe. How’s that for exceeding expectations?
To sum up, this season we have seen a marked improvement in individual play of our attackers, defenders and goalkeeper, a more even distribution of attacking and defensive workload, integration of young(er) players and (more) recent signings, and this group of players coming together as a team.
The attack is more direct, with a faster route to goal, fewer passes being exchanged, a slightly lower completion rate and possession stat, but more dribbles, long, diagonal, through and chip balls that confound defenses, better movement into the opening space, more shots and better finishing from attackers who are not called Messi. Due to Messi limited or not playing for large part of the season, scoring is more unpredictable and evenly distributed among the strikers, more chances are created but overall finishing rate is lower. Because, well, no one can finish chances like Messi. To get something, you need to give something up.
Transition defense is also not the impending heart-attack it used to be, due to more players staying back to clean up, willingness to press, tackle and foul, better awareness and communication on defense, and having the best goalkeeper in the world. Generally, Barcelona looked competent in both transition and positional defense, but set pieces remain a problem. Not a huge problem, if you look at Atletico match in particular and our stellar defensive numbers in general.
There was also talk of rotation, and, with everyone healthy, it was happening. But due to injuries and a thin squad, Pique, Masche, Alves, Busi, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc are playing a lot of minutes, just like last season. Messi’s injury gave Alexis and Pedro a chance to shine, but the minutes will be tight when Neymar returns. Bartra, Montoya and Sergi Roberto are getting more time, mostly due to injuries, as the latter two have not been entirely convincing. Tello’s minutes and production nearly disappeared altogether.
The challenges remain as to managing minutes, getting the best out of Messi-Neymar and Xavi-Iniesta pairings, as well as finding a center forward, physical+technical midfielder and tall defender (oh, Javi Martinez) for Martino to experiment with without upsetting this great thing we have going.
(All data used is from transfermarkt.co.uk, whoscored.com and Opta, retrieved on December 28.)