Two products from La Masía that, at such a young age, are the solution to the tactical and intensity problems Barça are facing. For the Catalans to win La Liga, many things are needed, but Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig are one of them.
Barcelona has been filled with problems this season. The accumulation of all of them has led to, in the league, being behind leaders Real Madrid. Nevertheless, with both sides tied in points and with Los Blancos holding the head-to-head advantage, there is still hope for culés. In particular, some hope that is brought by the countless stars in such a gifted squad, but also by the promise of several gems that get fans excited. Among others, it is two La Masía youngsters who could turn the title race upside down during these upcoming weeks.
On the one hand, there is 17-year-old Ansu Fati, operating in the winger role. A position that is currently in decline in Barcelona, with Ousmane Dembélé injured. And, although many can play there, few can interpret the spaces properly and stay in such a wide area other than the sensation Ansu himself.
“Ansu and Riqui are increasing the chances of having more minutes in the future”
On the other hand, Riqui Puig adds verticality and energy to the team from midfield. The one similarity between him and Fati is that both offer something that the club is currently lacking: a spark of imagination, personality and intensity. Ansu Fati already showed it against Leganés, where he scored the opener, and as a substitute against Athletic Club. Puig shone in both games as well, but only coming off the bench. If Barça wants to have a better chance of winning the rest of the clashes, though, both Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati must be essential.
Ansu Fati: the only natural winger available
Winger, a position that seems simple but which requires a lot of tactical work and patience. With Ousmane Dembélé’s injury, Barcelona have been left depleted of options in that zone. Players like Martin Braithwaite, Antoine Griezmann or even Arturo Vidal have been utilised in that area, but for more individual quality that they have, it takes something else to be functional in that position. Maybe Braithwaite is more productive there than his other two teammates, but the one winger that is ideal there has name and surname: Anssumane Fati.
The role of the winger is too important for Quique Setién’s tactics. A creative winger, with vision, good with the ball at his feet, with the ability to read and generate spaces, with energetic movements with and without a ball, measuring distances well, and constantly making runs in behind to destabilise the opposing defence and open up gaps. All this while staying close to the touchline. Ansu Fati is the only player in the squad suitable to acting as a winger, given his characteristics as he is capable of fulfilling all these tasks.
Young but ready | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
Against Leganés, he did not participate much in the build-ups because he was always covered by many defenders. Even so, when he had the ball he participated in a positive way and, when he did not have the ball, he positioned himself very well to provide width and stretch the compact defence of Lega. In a complicated duel and without enjoying many opportunities, Fati had his first chance, in which he made a magnificent control surrounded by several defenders and, in a matter of seconds, found the net to open the scoring.
Against Athletic Club, he was subbed on in the second half and gave life to Barça’s attack, as he almost always does. He had a big opportunity in the final minutes, unfortunately hitting the post.
Riqui Puig, the artist that Barça needs to make poetry on the pitch
The blaugranas have several issues in midfield. Frenkie de Jong is injured, Arthur Melo is out of form and focus with the rumours linking him to Juventus, and Arturo Vidal is not at the level that is expected from him. By contrast, Riqui Puig is ready to shine. Intentional, he is always looking for key passes to his partners. Off the ball, he moves very quickly from one side to the other to offer a passing lane and continue circulating the ball. In defence, he presses with great intensity and intelligence, despite not seeming much physical. And, unlike the other midfielders, Puig offers the verticality that no one else is giving at the moment.
A week ago Riqui Puig played 20 minutes against Leganés and was very involved. In spite of the few minutes he enjoyed, he had two dangerous chances in which he almost scored, as well as generating a couple more for his teammates. Against Sevilla, he played roughly eight minutes and logically had no time to demonstrate anything. However, in the last fixture against Athletic Club, Riqui was handed most of the minutes in the second half, being the player who made a difference during the game.
“Im very happy that I’ve gained the confidence of the coach. It was a match in strange conditions; you could hear the firecrackers…It was a good result and I can’t complain”
after the win against Athletic Club
The meeting with Los Leones separated into two. Before Puig and After Puig. Before Puig, the play was slow and conservative, without creativity or much threat. After Puig, it was the opposite. The Catalan has a privileged mind and physique, having an admirable agility and pressing as if it were the 90th minute of the most important final of any player’s career.
Riqui sent lethal passes to his teammates, solving the problems in attack that the team was having. A 20-year-old changed Barcelona’s game in a side with great names such as Arturo Vidal, Antoine Griezmann, Jordi Alba and Luis Suárez, among others. And, although Puig is not better than most of these individuals, he is the one who impacted the match the most.
What do Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig need from Barça?
Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig already offer many things to Barça. But now, what should the blaugranas offer both La Masía products? Simple: minutes and confidence.
We are all aware of what they are capable of. We meaning fans, teammates, the board, Quique Setién and even the two players themselves. There is no doubt that the air breathed when both are playing is full of purity and life. That said, there is always hesitation when it comes to giving them minutes. Why?
The two prospects are already doing their job, and now it is Barcelona that must do its. The problems are multiple: injuries, poor performances at the centre of the pitch, absence of width, problems to deliver the final ball, lack of imagination and vitality…Numerous troubles for the Catalans, yet the two academy graduates can be the key to unlocking the lock that has the club stuck and is preventing it from moving forward.
Quique Setién has to start both Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati in most of the remaining seven games in La Liga. Or, at least, one of them. Not to necessarily win La Liga, as for that to happen Real Madrid has to drop points. Notwithstanding, Barça will definitely have a better chance of lifting the trophy with both gems on the pitch.
Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?
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?
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:
- Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
- Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
- Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
- Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
- 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?
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.
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:
- Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
- Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
- Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
- Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
- 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?
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.
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.
The top five is comprised of:
- Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
- Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
- Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
- Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
- 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:
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.
Rivaldo (on De Jong): "It is being shown that near the area it seems that he is capable of playing better as an offensive midfielder and that he can even play a role similar to what Messi does when the Argentine is away. This is great news for Koeman." pic.twitter.com/r8aIrdMWSg— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 15, 2021
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.
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.