Where have the team’s chances been coming from? Which players have been shooting from where? Who’s had the most clinical start to the campaign? Let’s dive into the data and metrics behind Barcelona’s shooting trends so far this season.
We’re still in the early days of Ronald Koeman’s official reign as Barcelona manager, but certain characteristics of the team’s attack are starting to emerge. To identify some of these trends, as well as some potential strengths and weaknesses of the side’s attacking play, we’ll be looking at the season so far through the lens of shots.
In addition to heavily looking into shot locations, we’ll be using the expected goals (xG) statistic often. This metric measures the probability of a shot resulting in a goal based on a variety of factors. These include things like distance from goal ( for example, a shot from 40 yards out will have a low xG), the shooter’s angle to the goal (a more acute angle will have a lower xG), and the part of the body the shot was taken with. Using xG, one can gain insight into the quality of chances a team is creating, how well a player is finishing, and more. (All xG stats provided by Understat.)
Where are Barça’s shots coming from?
On a basic level, looking into a team’s shooting positions can point to which areas they like to attack and which players they like to utilize. Taking this season’s La Liga matches into consideration, here are all of Barça’s shots:
There are promising signs with a plethora of attempts from around the penalty spot and six-yard box. All of the team’s goals have come from this area as well.
However, efforts from long-range are frustrating to see. There have been quite a few cracks from a distance in these early matches, and none of them has paid off so far. With players like Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho in the side, long shots can definitely be an asset, but there needs to be an improvement here.
Another interesting observation is that the team’s shooting seems to be more geared towards the left side of the pitch, especially from outside of the box. This mainly reflects the presence of Coutinho and Fati on that left side, as well as Messi’s tendency to drift across.
Barça’s dominance in the opener against Villarreal is apparent, with an abundance of good chances coming from inside the penalty area. It also showcased the aforementioned tilt to the left-wing.
Going down to ten men away at Celta made chances very hard to come by. The shots were more evenly-split down the middle in this match, and two pretty tough finishes – along with the own goal – got the three points.
Against Sevilla as well, Barca’s shots were very evenly-spaced, but the team struggled to create much danger. Sevilla’s well-drilled backline and strict defensive setup clearly made them tough to break down, and there wasn’t really a weak point Barça could exploit, unlike in the other games.
There is clear favour to the left side in the game against Getafe as well. However, Barça failed to really test David Soria. In fact, by xG, it was the side’s least-threatening attacking performance of the season, racking up a measly 0.63 in the match.
Luckily, the squad went all guns blazing for the Champions League opener. While we don’t have xG values for the shots, things were looking strong with a number of close-range shots and goals.
While there were numerous and mostly unsuccessful attempts from further out, it was not a major hindrance to the team’s success.
Then came El Clásico. There were a few excellent chances, including Ansu Fati’s goal and Messi’s close-range effort which forced a diving Thibaut Courtois save, but it was not enough. There was once again a heavy dosage of efforts from the half-spaces on the left outside the box.
The most recent match gave the side another opportunity to bounce back in the Champions League, and it was taken with an empathetic victory against the Italian champions Juventus.
The focus was once again down the left, but here there was far more success in actually working the ball into the box. Messi and Antoine Griezmann, in particular, had a few efforts from that hot zone which were hit slightly wide and onto the woodwork respectively.
While the goals ended up coming from a penalty and a massive deflection, this was an exceptional display of chance creation against a traditionally stout defence.
Who are the team’s main shooters?
As was alluded to earlier, much of the team’s shooting runs through a few key players: Lionel Messi, Ansu Fati, and Philippe Coutinho. These three have accounted for much of the team’s shooting volume, and most of the team’s actual goals so far in the campaign. Let’s look at the positions they’re taking up to do so.
Starting with the Barcelona captain, and while we’re all used to seeing him operate down the right, he certainly hasn’t been shooting much from that side of the pitch. In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 system, Messi has been lining up more centrally, and he has been coming across the pitch constantly to get into shooting positions.
It’s also worth noting that Messi’s only goals this season have come from the penalty spot. Not only is three goals in seven matches (one in five in La Liga), not quite the return we’ve grown accustomed to from Messi, but the fact that he hasn’t put away any of these open play chances is a bit concerning.
When he’s in form, it seems like he can pull off a finish from anywhere, which makes the attack so much more dangerous. Hopefully, he can find his shooting boots soon, but in his slump, one person has stepped up massively.
Fati’s shot map looks exactly how you would expect, with him cutting inside from that left-wing. His four league goals have all come within a few yards of each other, and they are a testament to his movement and craftiness in the box.
These attributes are incredibly rare for a winger of his age, and his finishes have given the team valuable elevations in crucial moments.
Coutinho also has a very refined shooting area thus far. In the mediapunta role, after drifting out wide to then cut in, or finding room in the left half-space, the Brazilian is never afraid to have a go. He hasn’t been too reckless, though, and has been able to sniff out good opportunities inside the box as well.
To sum it up, these three have averaged a combined 8.77 shots per 90 minutes of league play, while the team as a whole has averaged 10.71. They’ve also provided six out of the 7 total league goals scored by a Barça player.
The best finishers and best finishes
Now, let’s take a look at the “best” finishers and finishes this season based on how much they overperformed their xG. To start, which of Barça’s goals have come from the most improbable situations?
Note: Only including La Liga matches, for which the xG data is provided by Understat.
5. Philippe Coutinho vs. Sevilla | xG: 0.41
4. Ansu Fati vs. Villarreal (2nd goal) | xG: 0.35
3. Sergi Roberto vs. Celta Vigo | xG: 0.11
2. Ansu Fati vs. Villarreal (1st goal) | xG: 0.10
1. Ansu Fati vs. Celta Vigo | xG: 0.10
Fati has clearly been on fire lately. This is also reflected when looking at how each player’s cumulative xG for the season compares to their actual goals scored.
Ansu Fati has been on song this season. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
According to Understat, the two Barça players outperforming their xG so far are Fati and Sergi Roberto. Roberto has just the 1 goal from an xG of 0.30, but the 17-year-old has a remarkable 4 goals from an xG of just 1.26.
The worst finishers and worst misses
On the flip side, what have been some of the easiest chances (according to their respective xGs) that Barcelona have failed to convert, and which players haven’t been taking the chances, they should be?
These are the top 5 non-goals with the highest xG:
Note: Only including La Liga matches, for which the xG data is provided by Understat.
5. Lionel Messi vs. Real Madrid (23rd minute) | xG: 0.36 | Saved by keeper
4. Lionel Messi vs. Villarreal (71st minute) | xG: 0.41 | Missed the target
3. Lionel Messi vs. Celta Vigo (94th minute) | xG: 0.45 | Saved by keeper
2. Philippe Coutinho vs. Villarreal (39th minute) | xG: 0.45 | Saved by keeper
1. Lionel Messi vs. Villarreal (25th minute) | xG: 0.60 | Blocked by defender
Messi, almost the opposite of Fati this season, hasn’t quite been himself in front of goal. From his 3.34 xG, he has tallied just one goal, which was a penalty.
Messi and Griezmann need to step up their goalscoring game. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Another concerning underperformer is Antoine Griezmann, who has tallied zero goals from his xG of 0.58 – which is very low, to begin with. It’s been a very disappointing start to the La Liga season for the World Cup winner, and he’ll have to start getting himself some more opportunities and converting them at a higher rate before it’s too late.
Before jumping to any conclusions, we must remember that this is just the start to a very chaotic season. With the small sample size of matches and the players still getting settled under the new manager, it’s too early to come to any concrete judgments. But, there are certain trends within the team that have become apparent:
- The preference of shooting from the left side of the pitch.
- The heavy reliance on Messi, Fati, and Coutinho.
- Fati being on fire, Messi not so much.
- Griezmann being mostly invisible.
It will be interesting to see how coming opponents deal with some of these things – Do they try to force us deep down the right wing? – and how Koeman tweaks the side because of them – Do we see someone like Pedri or Trincão replace Griezmann in the starting eleven for good?
Finally, on the topic of Ansu and Messi, it should be noted that their roles will likely reverse sooner or later. That is, Messi will go on an incredible hot streak while Ansu goes through a dry patch. This is because, eventually, everyone’s ratio of goals scored to expected goals balances out to incredibly close to 1.
So, be ready for Messi to bounce back, especially as he is one of the extremely rare cases of a player who consistently, year after year, outperforms his xG. He’s had a rough start, but he’ll be fine.
Then for Ansu, while he is an incredible finisher, it would be unwise of Barça to count on him keeping up this ridiculous form. When he starts to regress a bit, it will be important for other players to step up.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.