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Analysis

Barcelona’s La Liga title hopes rest on their own shoulders

Aaryan Parasnis

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Photo by Gerard Franco via Imago

As the business end of the season has finally arrived, given the ebbs and flows of this campaign so far, Barcelona find themselves in uncharted territory. For the first time this season, they are in a position where their hopes for domestic success all rest on their own shoulders. Barcelona’s La Liga season has seen its fair share of ups and downs, with the club even sitting in 14th place at one point.

But since then, the gradual improvements have all piled up and finally created a cohesive outfit of players who understand each other and have the desire to win as a collective. Before the turn of the new year, the Catalans and their fans would not have dared dream of any silverware. In football though, things can change in the blink of an eye.

Come April 2021 however, Barcelona have won 13 out of their last 14 league games. They now sit just one point behind league leaders Atletico Madrid with nine crucial fixtures to go and also have a Copa del Rey final to look forward to. If their trajectory before December was anything to go by, it would have seemed as though finishing top four would have been a relative success. But now they are in contention for two titles.

And the task at hand, by the sound of it, is seemingly simple. All the Blaugrana outfit have to do now, is win all their remaining matches in order to get their hands on their 27th league title. But it is seldom that straightforward.

Photo via Imago

Having barely scraped past Real Valladolid on Monday, Barcelona must now pack their bags and travel to the Spanish capital for what will be a season-defining El Clasico against their eternal rivals Real Madrid. The Galacticos are sitting in third, just two points adrift of Barcelona. However, they still do not have the luxury of controlling their own destiny.

If Barcelona were to win the Clasico on Saturday, they would be five points ahead of Real, and the momentum would be a massive psychological boost after having lost the first encounter at the Camp Nou. If the Blancos take the match, they will be just a point ahead of Barcelona, but it would alleviate some of the pressure off Atletico Madrid, which would be bad news for them as well.

As Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane would say, every game from here on out is a final. And even for Barcelona, it rings eerily true this season. The Azulgranas after the Clasico, will play in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club, followed by the home stretch of eight fixtures in La Liga. Should they win the game against Real Madrid and the cup final, the morale boost will be priceless.

They will then face Getafe, Villarreal, Granada, and Valencia, before taking on the current front-runners Atletico Madrid on the 9th of May, in what will certainly be a title-decider. After that matchup, there will just be three games remaining in the season. Whether it will be decided for the right or wrong reasons, of course, remains to be seen. After having lost the return encounter against Los Colchoneros back in November, there is no more margin for error in the Catalan camp.

First and foremost, however, they must face their eternal foes this weekend to attain revenge for their loss in the first Clasico. Barcelona’s La Liga title now lies at the end of the path to retribution, at the mouth of which Ronald Koeman’s men currently stand. And they must show that the battered and bruised side from a few months ago has now turned over a new leaf to reclaim their throne as the champions of Spain.

It was the great César Luis Menotti who once said that "to be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of many, many people". This quote has stuck with me since my childhood when football first caught my attention. My interest in football developed from a hobby to an emotion embedded into every fibre of my being. Football and Barça became my life. I spend every waking moment thinking about football and my sentimentality towards FC Barcelona is a catalyst. The world's most popular sport is a universal language that unites everyone who loves it and, to me, writing about football is being able to transmit that language in my own way.

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Analysis

Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season

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Photo via Imago

Johan Cruyff famously said, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” It is indisputable that money is not the only deciding factor behind a football club’s success. Time and time again, we have seen that football is chaotic and absurd. Anything can happen.

That being said, it is evident that statistically, the clubs with more money are usually the more successful ones. While one cannot predict the unpredictability that is engraved within football, an outcome that is statistically probable can be predicted. This article will explore the relationship between the points a club accumulates in a league season and the total value of the club’s squad. Then, Python will be used to build a linear regression model in order to predict the number of points Barcelona will obtain in the 21/22 season based on the club’s hypothetical squad.

Let us begin with visualizing the relationship between the total league points obtained by a club and the club’s total squad value. Since the amount of money spent on transfers has increased tremendously over the course of the last decade, in this article, only seasons 2014/15 – 2019/20 will be considered. Upon plotting the total points against the total squad value, it is evident that there is a positive correlation between the two. Granted, the correlation is not extremely strong, but it exists nonetheless.

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A line of regression has been generated. The line’s gradient is approximately 0.05138986, and its y-intercept is approximately 44.5470726. There is only one dependant variable in question, club value/total value of squad, and so our line of regression can be modelled by the equation:

P = (0.05138986 )V + 44.5470726 where P is the points and V is the total squad value.


club_values = np.array(df['Values']).reshape(89,1)
club_points = np.array(df['Point']).reshape(89,1)

from sklearn.linear_model import LinearRegression
linear_model = LinearRegression()
linear_model.fit(club_values,club_points)

In order to predict the points accumulated based on Barcelona’s squad value next season, the squad value won’t directly be inputted into our equation above. The coefficient and the y-intercept have been rounded up after a certain number of decimal places, and so, to preserve the precision of the prediction, Python’s LinearRegression predict method will be utilized.

Now comes another challenging part of coming up with Barcelona’s hypothetical squad next season. Based on reports, it can be assumed that Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Martin Braithwaite and Phillipe Coutinho will be some of the notable players to leave. To compensate for the outgoing players, it can be assumed that Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia, David Alaba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. Here is a table that contains all the players in Barcelona’s hypothetical 21/22 squad and their corresponding market values:

PLAYER NAME MARKET VALUE (MILLION POUNDS)
MARC ANDRE TER STEGEN79.34
ARNAU TENAS1.59
RONALD ARAUJO26.45
CLEMENT LENGLET26.45
GERARD PIQUE12.70
DAVID ALABA58.19
ERIC GARCIA21.16
OSCAR MINGUENZA10.58
JORDI ALBA26.45
JUNIOR FIRPO10.58
SERGINO DEST26.45
SERGI ROBERTO26.45
SERGIO BUSQUETS10.58
FRENKIE DE JONG84.63
RIQUI PUIG19.04
ILAIX MORIBA10.58
PEDRI GONZALEZ74.06
GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM37.03
ANSU FATI84.63
KONRAD DE LA FUENTE2.64
OUSMANE DEMBELE52.90
TRINCAO26.45
MEMPHIS DEPAY47.61
ANTOINE GRIEZMANN54.00
LIONEL MESSI84.63
Figures via Transfermarkt

The club’s total value comes up to be £786.60 million. It is important to note that a player’s value is volatile. Transfermarkt updates player values every few months, and so it is extremely probable that this squad’s market value will be drastically different next season.

It is also important to understand that Transfermarkt’s market values are not official and so they are not always an accurate representation of a player’s true market value. Moreover, a player’s value is not always an accurate representation of their quality. Age is a key factor in determining market value, and so while a young player might have a high market value indicating that they are a bright prospect for the future, they might not necessarily be an excellent player at the time when the value is assigned.

Now that all of this has been established, the only thing left is making the prediction.

The machine learning model predicts that Barcelona will obtain 85 points in the 21/22 La Liga season. In the 19/20 season, Real Madrid won the league with 87 points, and in the 18/19 season, Barcelona won the league with 87 points as well. The difference between the points accumulated by the last two winning La Liga squads and the predicted points that Barcelona’s 21/22 squad will obtain is a mere 2 points. This shows that it is possible for Barcelona to win the league next season.

Since the correlation between the two variables, as observed from the data from the last 6 seasons, is not even close to being extremely strong, Barcelona’s 21/22 league points tally may be drastically different from what was predicted by the machine learning model. However, at the end of the day, the model can only work with the data it is exposed to.

Erling Haaland can change the course of Barcelona’s season. It would take forever to make predictions based on Barcelona’s hypothetical squads that include all of the club’s potential transfer targets, however, due to Haaland’s influence, an exception can be made for him. Laporta’s interest in signing Haaland has been widely reported.

However, he will cost a fortune this summer, and with Barcelona’s debt situation, it is unlikely that the Catalan club will pursue him in the upcoming transfer window. That being said like mentioned previously in the article, football is chaotic, and anything can happen.

Oh, Haaland. Oh, you. (Photo via Imago)

Assuming that Barcelona does end up signing Haaland in the summer, Antoine Griezmann will most definitely have to leave (due to wages and the money that can be generated from his sale). Haaland’s current value is £99 million, and so Barcelona’s total squad value for next season, after being corrected for Griezmann’s exit and Haaland’s arrival is £831.60 million.

Haaland’s addition can put 21/22 Barcelona on level with the previous two Spanish champions in terms of total points won. The difference in points between a squad containing Haaland and one not containing him is only two. However, an argument about whether signing Haaland is worth it, is not in the scope of this article.

“Transition seasons do not exist at Barcelona.”

Joan Laporta | Presidential campaign

A club of Barcelona’s stature will always compete for titles. The machine learning model shows that Barcelona is in contention for the 2021/22 La Liga title. Ronald Koeman has done a splendid job at the Blaugrana club this season, and there is no logical reason for him to not do an even better job next season after getting fresh players in the summer.

While football at its core is unpredictable, statistically, it would not hurt to trust Barcelona to win the 2021/22 La Liga title.

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