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Analysis

Analysing Barcelona’s Passing Value in the 2020/21 La Liga season

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

A statistical analysis of who provides the squad’s passing danger and progression, who is on the receiving end, and what it says about the team.


Whether that be crosses from out wide or a precise through ball, incisive passing is crucial for winning matches. Throughout Barcelona’s history, the Camp Nou has been home to many footballers who excel in this facet of the game. But, who is currently carrying on that torch?

To answer this question, the side’s passes will be analyzed using the possession value metric (PV). Essentially, possession value measures the probability of a possession ending in a goal for the attacking team.

In this case, that probability is based solely on ball location. This means the model is far from perfect, as it does not take into account factors such as game state or the positioning of defenders. However, PV highlights those who continuously work the ball into traditionally threatening areas.

Specifically, we will assign the value of pass as its net PV – the PV at its end location minus the PV at its start location. Therefore, passes that move the ball into more dangerous areas are rewarded, and regressive passes are punished. With that in mind, this is what the metric says about Barcelona’s passing so far in the 2020/21 La Liga season.

Who creates the most danger?

The first category to be examined is simply the net PV created from each player’s passes. The values will be averaged per 90 minutes on the pitch to account for differences in playing time.

These tallies are derived with the PV of an area ranging from zero to one. So, if a zone of the pitch has a PV of 0.01, that equates to a one per cent chance of a possession ending in a goal. This means that if a player averages a net PV of +0.3, their passing value is equivalent to six passes, increasing the probability of scoring by five per cent. With that being said, here is how the squad stacks up:

Only players with at least 270 minutes played were included to cut out those with an extremely small sample size.

Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi comes out on top, and by a good distance. Behind the Argentine is Ousmane Dembélé, who, while he has not been a consistent starter, has proved a threat whenever he has been on the pitch.

The same could be said for Miralem Pjanić, who has consistently put up excellent ball progression numbers and been able to work the ball into the penalty area in limited game time.

The attacking presence of Jordi Alba is reflected with his rank and the ball-playing ability of Clément Lenglet. Despite the Frenchman’s inconsistent play this season and defensive shortcomings, he has provided a sizeable amount of danger for a centre-back. This is crucial as he might soon be competing with yet another CB — Eric Garcia — for the centre-half role.

Further down the list, the lack of threat from Barça’s other forwards is noticeable. Antoine Griezmann, Martin Braithwaite, Francisco Trincão, and Philippe Coutinho sit well behind Messi, the full-backs, and the deep-lying midfielders.

To a certain extent, this is not too much of an issue. Players who operate higher up the pitch have less room to progress the ball further, and they are often more responsible for being on the receiving end of dangerous passes instead, which will be covered later. However, when there is so much burden on Messi, and several other attackers provide far less in terms of unlocking defences, it is concerning.

Also, the low rank of Pedri might be surprising. The teenager has been a true revelation and one of the club’s best performers so far in his debut season. This does not seem to be reflected by his net PV, though, and there a few reasons why.

First off, while the Spaniard has proven to be capable of providing a killer pass, it is not something he pulls off at a very high volume. Messi, Pjanić, Coutinho, Alba, Dembélé, and Griezmann all average more passes into the attacking penalty area than him. Furthermore, out of the 20 qualifying players in the Barça squad, Pedri comes in at 16th for progressive distance passed per 90 minutes.

He is more than a capable passer; this is no argument against that, it is just that creating danger directly is not exactly Pedri’s style. Where he provides more value is in his combination play and opening up the game for others, which segues into the next category.

Who facilitates the most danger?

Now, in addition to looking at the net PV of a player’s pass, more insight can be found from analyzing the value of the passes they assist. This is one way to help account for some of the missing context in the model.

Say a player has the ball centrally around the edge of the box, and they draw the opposition defense in. Three defenders now surround that player, leaving an open teammate out wide. If he passes to that teammate from a central position to the wing, net PV could see it as largely unimpactful or even regressive, given that it moves the ball into a traditionally less threatening area.

But, what if instead of just moving the ball further from goal, that pass opened up space for the open teammate to then play a killer ball himself into the six-yard box? That is where PV facilitated can reward the initial passer.

In short, PV facilitated once again looks at each completed pass. Then, if the recipient of that pass completes a pass of their own within the next five seconds, the initial passer has facilitated the PV of that second pass. Think of it similar to a second assist, except it considers net PV instead of an assist.

So, who are the top facilitators?

Some similar names make up the top of the list, particularly the impressive Pjanić and Messi. There is a bit of shakeup throughout the rest of the side, though. Coutinho looks much better in this regard, and so does Pedri, whose unique skill set is better captured here.

Some players like Dembélé are more active in supplying a dangerous pass themselves than setting it up, and on the other side are those like Pedri, who tend to facilitate things.

Someone who does not quite stand out in either of these first two categories, though, is Sergiño Dest. The American youngster has taken a big step in joining the club and slotting into the troubled right-back role. For the most part, however, Dest seems to be performing very well when he can. The problem is how isolated and forgotten he often gets down that right flank.

Take the most recent match against Huesca. Messi, Pedri, Dembélé, and Alba were all focused on the left-wing, as reflected by their median passing positions. That, plus the overall isolation of Braithwaite up top left the American right-back on an island, with very little chance to make an impact.

This lack of balance becomes an issue in the long run against higher quality, smarter opposition. More of an equilibrium has to be found between the two flanks to keep players involved and keep the defence guessing.

Who receives the most value?

As previously mentioned, different players take up different roles within aside. Some create, some facilitate, some do both, and, for our last category here, some receive.

The ability to carve out space, make effective runs, and get on the end of dangerous passes is extremely valuable. That is the job of a poacher. Of course, it is great when a player can go beyond being just a target for passes and a goal scorer, but it is a critical skill nonetheless. Here is who performs best in that regard based on the net PV of the passes they receive:

Therein lies the value of a smart, willing runner – Martin Braithwaite. The Dane, while limited with his own passing repertoire, has a knack for bursting in behind to get on the end of a through ball or getting into the penalty area for a cutback. Having him as an outlet has proven to be very valuable for creators like Messi, and this backs it up.

Coutinho, Fati, and Trincão show to be far more active receivers than suppliers. It is certainly a positive sign that they have gotten into promising positions. Still, unlike Fati, who was incredibly clinical before his injury, the other two have not done well enough recently to make the most of those situations.

The ability of Pedri to drift into open areas puts him in a solid position here. Given that he has even had minutes in the double pivot and usually drops deeper than those ranking above him, that is quite impressive.

The same applies to Frenkie de Jong. The Dutchman is more impactful with his dribbling and carrying, so he does not stand out as much for passing danger. As seen in his goal against Huesca, though, he can to move forward and get on the end of progressive passes.

What does this look like in game?

In addition to the numbers and rankings, it is also helpful to see what this means in line up form and how it looks in-game. Basically, if one were creating their game plan to come up against Barça, what would they see?

A simple way would be to look at the most common players used in each spot, and examine how the squad distributes its value. This is what that looks like, give or take a few rotating roles in the front four:

Note: Here, the PV values are expressed in percentage form, zero to one-hundred, as opposed to decimal form.

Obviously, Messi is easily identifiable as the danger man. He has the highest net PV and the highest total involvement – net PV of completed passes plus passes received – on average.

Braithwaite stands out too and is clearly a dangerous target. He is the most regressive with his own passing but has to be marked closely given his ability to receive the ball in threatening areas.

Then, de Jong is far more likely to push on in the double pivot and get higher up the pitch while Busquets stays deep. The Dutchman’s receiving value is more than triple that of the Spaniard’s.

Likewise, Alba at left-back is much more involved going forward than his counterpart on the right, Dest. It definitely seems like Alba will be more active in terms of overlapping and getting around the penalty area.

Trends like those are easily identifiable, even in that simple way, but help lead to a greater understanding of the team’s characteristics.

Final thoughts

What should be taken away from all of this? The key word would have to be balance.

Messi is still Messi. Despite the frustrations of recent times and the low number of assists on the surface, he is still creating at an incredible rate. But, given the plethora of other attackers at the club, more need to step up and consistently produce to ease the Argentine’s shoulders’ burden.

With Ousmane Dembélé’s output in limited minutes, it seems like he could be a great option. Even in the deeper positions, given Miralem Pjanić’s brilliant production in his time on the pitch, allowing him to play more could be valuable. However, there are still others who far too often lack the vision or bravery when it comes to their creative abilities.

Balance, albeit not a perfect balance, also needs to be found in the use of the full-backs. Of course, Alba should be providing more than twenty-year-old newcomer, Dest, just as Messi should be the focal point of the attack. It is the extent to which the imbalance is occurring which creates issues.

More balance means more space, more time, more unpredictability, and more dynamism in possession. If that can be attained, it would do the squad a world of good.

“Més que un club” is the saying that everyone knows, and for me it’s 100% accurate. Barça have given me so much over the years. Through all the highs, lows, triumphs, and heartbreaks, nothing can take away from the joy and entertainment I’ve received through watching this club play. Now, I hope that I can help spread these emotions with other supporters like me around the world.

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?


While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.

The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.

While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?

Offensive effort

First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.

Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.

Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”

These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4

Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.

How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?

barcelona work rate

As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.

A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.

Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.

Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.

However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.

Defensive effort

On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.

StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”

Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2

Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.

Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?

barcelona work rate

Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.

With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.

The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.

With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.

Overall

Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2

Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.

Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:

barcelona work rate

The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.

Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.

While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.

The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.

Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.

Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.

Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.

Final thoughts

There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.

While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.

Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.

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