It is no secret that Barcelona have struggled to destabilize opposition defences with off-ball movement this season. This is not really a new issue, in fact.
Years of poor recruitment have led to an abundance of similar profiles who seemingly get in each other’s way. These players all tend to drop away from the back line and need the ball at their feet to be effective.
Meanwhile, Barça lack profiles with the knowledge and ability to make runs off the last defender or stretch the defence. Looking at Europe’s elite sides, this certainly does not seem like a weakness you can afford to have in the modern game.
With that in mind, it can be hard to truly put this issue in perspective. Off-ball movement is a difficult concept to measure, but it certainly seems worthwhile given the situation Barcelona find themselves in.
Just how bad is it?
To start, why not compare Barça to one of those elite teams? Given the reputation of their attack, Liverpool seems like a great place to start. The movement of Jurgen Klopp’s forwards has been subject to significant praise over the years. Let us see how the two sides compare.
To do so, a bit of subjective data collection will be used in the form of “penetrative runs.” For each goal, if the goal scorer was deemed to have made a clear off-ball move through or beyond defenders, it was counted as a penetrative run (set pieces were not included).
So far this season, the Blaugranas have only three La Liga goals in which the goal scorer made a penetrative run.
First, you have Luuk de Jong’s goal against Levante. The Dutchman starts making a run down the left channel, before cutting back towards the centre and splitting the two defenders.
Then, there was Memphis’ header against Celta Vigo, in which he followed up his run into the box with some subtler movements to lose his marker at the near post.
Finally, there was Nico’s run into the penalty area at Osasuna.
That is really it – three league goals scored by penetrative off-ball running. As of Christmas, Liverpool had ten. Taking into account only goals here is not a perfect methodology. Goals depend on luck and variance in regards to the finish, not just good movement itself. However, this far into the season, it seems to provide a solid reflection.
There is more data to help us round out this picture. For instance, you can look at penalty area touches with carries into the penalty area removed (to try and exclude instances where the player just takes the ball into the box as opposed to finding space). Barça’s leaders in this metric with at least six 90’s played are:
- Memphis: 5.40 per 90 minutes
- Jordi Alba: 3.05 per 90 minutes
- Nico González: 2.77 per 90 minutes
Then, this is Liverpool’s top three:
- Mohamed Salah: 7.85 per 90 minutes
- Sadio Mane: 7.05 per 90 minutes
- Diogo Jota: 6.35 per 90 minutes
Klopp’s side get elite production in this regard across their attack. Meanwhile, Barcelona are forced to rely on the likes of Nico or Gavi for box presence, and Memphis does his best in a role that does not really suit him.
Even if you plan on the return of Ousmane Dembele, the Frenchman has averaged just 4.63 “non-carry” penalty area touches per 90 in his La Liga career.
On a team level, Barça attempt the 33rd most non-penalty shots per 90 minutes in the big five European Leagues with the 31st closest average distance. Liverpool attempt the 2nd most at the 4th closest average distance.
Note: All statistics that were not clarified as manually collected are from StatsBomb via Football Reference as of December 30.
So, what does this all go to show you? Barça’s current predicament is bad. There is no way around it. Instances of effective off-ball movement have been sparse and they have been forced to come from unideal players, which has significantly limited the side’s ability to get the ball into dangerous positions.
Compared to Europe’s elite, there is a lot of work to do. The clubs that the Catalan giants want to be competing with put them to shame in this area.
What does elite movement actually look like?
No, this is not just a joke about how long Barça fans have gone without it, but an important question. Obviously, it is impossible to simply look at what a successful club is doing and match them, but what are the attributes that they should be looking for?Let us quickly run through a few examples from Liverpool this season that display those key characteristics.
First off, we have the use of a relatively simple run to break down a deep defensive block. As you can see below, with possession being recycled back to Liverpool’s midfield pivot, Fabinho, there are ten Brentford defenders behind the ball. Think about how often Barça encounter situations like these.
Liverpool have numbers high up the pitch, occupying the back line and leaving Salah one-on-one. Not that Barça do not do this, but it is how this sets up the lightning-quick execution from Salah that makes it so effective.
You can see Fabinho open his body towards the right side of the field, causing defenders to shift in that direction as they anticipate a simple switch of Liverpool’s point of attack.
However, in the blink of an eye, Salah is gone. The Egyptian makes his run against the shifting of play, back to the left. The one Brentford defender responsible for him is flat footed and has no chance.
Fabinho picks out Salah’s run with a ball over the top, which the winger volleys past the Brentford goalkeeper.
Again, think about how often Barça struggle to break down men behind the ball like this. Also, Sergio Busquets, for any of his flaws, is still arguably the world’s best pivot on the ball. The Spaniard can absolutely provide passes like the one Fabinho provided here, but how often is he given the chance?
Now for an example against an elite opponent in Manchester City. In the play below, Salah dribbles past a defender to break out of pressure. You could certainly see someone like Dembele doing this in the Barcelona squad.
The two off-ball attackers, Jota and Mane, are aware of each other from early on as they scan their surroundings. This means that their movements are not independent from one another, rather they work together.
Jota has the attention of centre back Ruben Dias, and he drifts away from the ball to the left. As this is happening, Mane darts towards the ball side, making his run right across the face of Dias.
The Manchester City centre back had no idea Mane was coming until it was too late. Salah just had to slide in a simple through ball, and the Senegalese winger put it away with another first-time finish.
This type of play is very telling of the differences between the two sides. When the game opens up like this for Barça, things are far too stagnant.
You may get one player attempting a straight run in behind, but even then, there is no sense of collective. With Liverpool, you can see an understanding of movements and relationship between players, and they are dynamic and interchangeable.
To drive these points home, let us look at one last play. This one comes in a true quick transition situation. Liverpool’s midfield swarms the ball just inside their defensive half.
Almost precisely as they come out with possession, Salah has already taken off between the Manchester United left-back and centre-back.
The Premier League top scorer does not drop wide to pick up the ball. He does not drift into a pocket between the lines. There is only one thing on his mind – getting in behind.
Watching the likes of Liverpool play, the intensity of their attacks seems almost impossible compared to what has been on display at the Camp Nou recently. Yes, part of being a dangerous runner is being fast, but Barça have speed too.
It is also about the combination of ruthlessness to spot a gap and attack it without allowing the opponent to settle and come to you, and the intelligence to do so with your teammates in mind.
Is there hope?
Taking all of this into account, is there any reason to be believe that Barca’s exploits will improve this season? Well, in the form of two young Spaniards, there just might be.
To start, let us dive into the contents of this article from David Sumpter – a mathematics professor and football analyst. The piece describes valuing off-ball movement in the 2020/21 Premier League season using advanced tracking data.
In the article, you can see how someone like Salah had elite “Target Run Value” (runs followed by that player receiving a pass). Likewise, he had elite “Disruptive Run Value” (runs followed by one of that player’s teammates receiving a pass). Clearly, the Egyptian’s data matches the eye test.
In fact, Liverpool’s attacking trio last season of Roberto Firmino, Mané, and Salah were all top ten in the league for Disruptive Run Value per 90 minutes. You might be asking: How does any of this directly connect to Barça? Well, also in that top ten was new Barcelona signing Ferran Torres.
That is right, young Ferran Torres was up there among the Premier League’s elite off-ball movers – from Salah, to Raheem Sterling, to Timo Werner, to Edinson Cavani. Watching the Spaniard’s goal scoring over the last 18 months makes it clear that he is capable of penetrating a defence.
Both for Manchester City and for the Spanish national team, the 21-year-old has shown a strong repertoire of movements. For instance, Torres can make longer, more intense sprints from wider areas like the example below against Porto.
The former Valencia youngster was able to recognize the space being vacated by Phil Foden’s outward run, and then quickly attacked it. This interchange into a central area allowed Torres to receive the ball in a dangerous position, cut onto his right foot, and finish a dangerous chance.
When the Spanish international starts off closer to goal, he also possesses more subtle movements to create separation. His second goal against Italy in the UEFA Nations League is a great example of this.
Torres’ initial run is through the gap to the inside of the Italy left back. After the ball gets knocked down for Mikel Oyarzabal, though, Torres cuts back to the left-back’s blind side and frees himself at the back post.
These are just a couple examples of the 21-year-old showing off what seems to be a well-developed off-ball skill set. At least in this area, it certainly looks like Torres could inject some much-needed dynamism into the side.
But, he is not the only hope. The second piece of the aforementioned duo of young Spaniards is none other than Ansu Fati. It is a bit crazy to think about, but Barça fans have seen just over seven full matches worth of Fati in La Liga since the start of the 2020/21 season.
One of the things that is clear whenever the teenager is on the pitch is just how dangerous he can be off the ball. Given that there is hope for Fati to return in January, he could be another source of optimism.
Take this example against Ferencvaros’ deep block in the Champions League last season.
After showing for the ball and laying it off in a seemingly nonthreatening manner, Fati springs away in behind. The quick change of direction gives his marker no chance, leading to a difficult, but close-range finish.
We have seen Fati get on the end of Messi through balls and dart into the box for an El Clasico goal. The teenager has some of those qualities in him that make the likes of Mohamed Salah so effective. There must be caution with his health, but if he can stay on the pitch, he can also provide a big boost to Barça in this department.
It will be intriguing to see how Xavi manages his lineups and squad rotation, but there is certainly potential for Torres and Fati to open things up and in turn help get the best out of Barça’s more ball-dominant attackers like Memphis and Dembele.
It is now impossible to deny that Barcelona have off-ball movement issues – big ones. The level these issues have reached this season is the culmination of years of poor attacking recruitment and vision. You can look at any elite side – Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barça of ten years ago – and see how much the side is lacking.
In turn, this has had negative effects throughout the squad. Creators lack the proper outlets for their style of play, more and more numbers are needed to break down a defence, the side is left open for counter attacks, etc.
As we head into 2022, though, there is reasonable evidence to be optimistic. While there should be questions about how much he can replicate his play in a new setting, Ferran Torres has the potential to be a real asset for the club in solving this issue. If his arrival can coincide with a healthy Ansu Fati, that could make things even better.