Today is the birthday of Arturo Vidal, powerhouse and warrior wherever he has gone. Playing for some of the best teams in Europe before joining Barcelona, he has come a long way in his career. His birthday gives us the perfect opportunity to take a look at his role at Barça, and how different his impact is from others’.
Throughout his career, Arturo Vidal has been known for his eccentricity. He may not be the most technically aesthetic midfielder, but he is rather a powerful player. Making lung-bursting runs, tracking back tirelessly, making stringent tackles, this is what people see in Vidal. In every team, there must be a player who does the dirty work. Meaning the heavily draining defensive duties that require one or two malicious tackles. These players tend to do anything and everything to make sure that the opposition doesn’t progress forward.
When the azulgranas announced his signing in the summer of 2018, many fans were sceptical. There was a clear mismatch in the player profile and the club. As Barça usually preferred to sign technically profound midfielders, Vidal’s role became a question mark. However, after seeing his performances, the fans and pundits began to mellow down.
It is a known fact that Vidal wasn’t bought for making line-breaking passes, or splitting open defences through crafty play. Rather, he was purchased to provide an extra grit and aggression, especially in the closing moments of matches. It is easy for the intensity to drop off as the game progresses. With fatigue getting the better of players, the room for mistakes due to lapses of concentration gets better. It’s during these moments that the team needs a player to throw his body onto the ball to lift the spirits.
The Catalan outfit lack such aggression in the centre. Despite Sergio Busquets being the default defensive midfielder, he can’t display such levels of drive. Former manager Ernesto Valverde used to bring Arturo on as a substitute towards the last 20 minutes of the game to increase the movement. With Vidal’s activeness combating the problems of defensive rigidity becomes easier.
While seeing Arturo Vidal in Barcelona’s red and blue colours was an odd sight at first, he has managed to win the hearts of many culés thanks to his hard work and commitment | Photo by Imago
The former Juventus man was signed only with a role off the bench in mind. Nevertheless, injuries in the midfield department increased his game time. Not only did he get a chance to start several crucial fixtures, but also provide a hand in goal contribution. Vidal scored 3 goals and made 7 assists in La Liga last season. He currently is at 6 goals and 2 assists in the league this campaign and is proving to be a handy player.
Indeed, this high-level aggression does come with a cost of being booked often, and Vidal is no different. Throughout his career, he has picked up several bookings for making tactical fouls, or through dissent. But as long as he keeps his temper at bay, he provides a fantastic shift in midfield. In the Catalans’ disappointing elimination against Liverpool last year, he was one of the only positives.
The problem with Vidal is that he can’t be relied on for creativity. Modern football enthusiasts and pundits tend to overlook the potency of vigorous players. In times of on-pitch crisis, it is this type of footballers that excel. Direct football is not Barça’s approach. While trailing, or in need of immediate goals, they don’t have many players to go direct. Continual feeding of crosses into the box was never the blaugrana way. But when in dire need, they have Vidal. His heading ability makes him an excellent option in both defensive and attacking set pieces.
Now 33, he knows that there is no guarantee of him being a regular starter for Barcelona. In spite of the rumours of the club looking to sell him to get funds for their high-fee transfers, the Chilean intends to stay.
❛ I am very happy and comfortable in Barcelona and of course I want to stay here. I am also feeling in better shape than ever. This is a good group and I have got great friends in the dressing room ❜
on his future
No matter how long he stays at the club, it is clear that he will continue to give his 100% irrespective of the game time. Quique Setién should look to make the most of Vidal’s physicality and energy whenever the opportunity arises. He is certainly a versatile option and a player capable of giving an element of surprise.
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.