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Beyond Haaland: The leading men to lead Barcelona’s frontline

Editorial Team

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Photos via Imago

Well into the month of April, football is already done with the last International Break of the season. No more than 60 days remain on the clock for the summer transfer window to swing open, and it is one Barcelona fans have been awaiting more than ever.

Joan Laporta claimed that there are no transition seasons at a club like Barcelona, but when you are under the administration of Josep Bartomeu for half a decade, you need a revolution of a transfer window to avoid a transition season. Luckily, a large part of the same was fulfilled when Ronald Koeman took over the team in the summer of 2020.

The transfer of Pedri, Sergino Dest, Fransisco Trincao, and the promotion of Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza has helped drill in most of the holes in the team. Eric Garcia will be coming in soon to solve more problems, but a spot up-top remains void.

The incompetence of the previous board failed to sign a striker after selling (read giving away) Luis Suarez to Atletico Madrid. And it is this lack of a striker — or a clinical one, at the very least — which has cost them in several games. June brings the prospect of bringing in a number 9, which creators like Lionel Messi, Pedri, Jordi Alba and more crave, but who will that player be?

Unsurprisingly, Erling Haaland has been on the top of the priority list for Laporta. His transfer, though, is far from realistic. Borussia Dortmund will quote a price north of €150 million. Even if Laporta — through some miracle — arranges that sum, he will have to fight off Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and probably more clubs for his services. Eventually, it may not even clock near his financial priorities at the club.

Haaland is already among the best players in the world, and coming up with alternatives for the Norwegian wonderkid will be a far from ideal task. Cúles know about Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero, and Lautaro Martinez all too well, but recently Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane have been added to the list of players Barça are targeting. Each brilliant in their own way, it is hard to choose one of the five. Barça Universal debates what each of the five brings to the table.

Memphis Depay

By Michael Gathige

In Ronald Koeman’s pursuit for a striker tailor-made for his style of play, his eyes were initially set and remain firmly so on Memphis Depay. The Dutch international, currently 27 years of age, was the ex-Oranje manager’s first pick for the 9 role, but such was Barcelona’s financial inadequacy last summer that the club could not afford his meagre €5 million transfer fee.

Likeliest of the group. (Photo via Imago)

This summer, however, he will be out of a contract as a free agent. His free acquisition is one pull factor for the Catalans, but in addition to this, he also might be open to accepting a relatively low salary in comparison to his compatriots in the attack. In Lyon, at this moment, Depay earns roughly €87,000 a week, or €4.5 million annually.

Given the stature of the club, he might demand a salary of around €100 thousand a week or 5.2 million per annum. Taking into consideration Barça’s financial situation, this is a heaven-sent for the club. As far as finances are concerned, not only will he arrive free of charge, but his wages are also something that Barcelona can easily afford both in the short and long term. To put this into context, Antoine Griezmann earns about ten times Depay’s annual salary.

As a footballer, the dream chaser, as some call him, is a man of immense skill as well as versatility. Capable of occupying either spot in the attacking third of the pitch, Depay stands out for his ability to gracefully link up with his teammates, create numerical and positional superiorities through his dribbling and off-the-ball movements, as well as lacerate opposition defences with his final ball. In his false 9 role, he does a stupendous job at drawing out opposition centre backs, such as creating adequate space for his strikers or wingers to attack.

Depay is what one would call a ‘volume shooter’, in that he takes a comparatively large number of shots on goal per match. Over the course of the last seven years, he has averaged 3.63 shots per game, and he stands at 3.31 this current campaign. It may not seem like much, but in comparison to the Blaugranas‘ current options in the centre forward role, he would rank second in Barcelona, only behind Lionel Messi at 5.87.

Depay brings the courage to shoot to this Barcelona team. (Photo via Imago)

In terms of shot quality and consistency, Memphis Depay averages 0.48 Expected Goals (xG) per 90 minutes, which equates to more or less a goal every two games. Excluding penalties, this number drops to 0.3xG90, which given Messi’s indisputable role as a penalty taker, is what will be his actual number on arrival. He currently has 15 goals for his side at 12.7xG, with eight non-penalty goals. This alone puts him above all of Barcelona’s current strikers in La Liga this season.

As per his creative numbers, the Dutchman averages 3 key passes per match at an Expected Assists rate of 0.48. With these statistics combined, one can reasonably expect anywhere from 0.72 to 0.95 goals a game. Owing to Lyon’s quality, which, with all due respect, is a bar or two lower than that of Barça’s, a step up would significantly bolster his numbers, perhaps to around 0.8 to 1 expected goal contributions per game.

Once in the Catalan Capital, Depay could offer himself in a wide array of roles. After all, a jack of all trades and a master of none is oftentimes better than a master of one. In a front three, his magical right foot could be utilised as either a classic or inverted winger on either flank. Down centrally, he is more than capable of partnering Messi either as a striker in the form of an out and out number nine or in a floating role in zone 14 as a ‘ten’. In addition to this, and contrary to some of the other potential summer arrivals, Depay is reportedly more open to taking up a more rotational role in the side, needing not to play as frequently as Messi, for example.

With such a profile, what more could one ask for? The Olympique Lyonnais number 10 is versatile, incredibly dextrous on the ball, strongly desired by the manager, and certainly, with a predetermined role in the team and possibly as the cherry on the top, he is an easily affordable asset to the club. Memphis Depay is the way to go.

Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero

By Shivraj Duggal

Sergio Aguero is an option that Barcelona are considering in case a deal for Erling Haaland does not follow through. The 32-year-old Argentine veteran has enjoyed a hugely successful ten seasons at Manchester City. He displays several qualities and a playing profile that would suit Barça tremendously. Further, his contract ends this summer, meaning that he could come to the club on a free transfer. 

Aguero would have been a dream signing for fans a few years ago. (Photo via Imago)

Signing strikers has always been a tricky business for the Catalan club. Due to their unique playing style, the club requires a particular profile and skill set from their number nine. In the past, world-class strikers have failed to make their mark in the club, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, simply because his profile did not suit the requirements of the club. Any striker at Barça needs to have the skill to be able to drop deep and link up with his teammates in order to maintain the numerical superiorities in possession. 

The positional play style of football requires Barça’s strikers to have several skills, such as the ability to pass and dribble against opponents in one-on-one situations, as well as be able to play in congested situations. Aguero excels in all of these skills while also having displayed an elite level of finishing in the most competitive league in the world. The Argentinian striker has thrived under Guardiola – a manager who makes his teams play the purest form of positional play – for four seasons running. The 32-year-old has managed to score a phenomenal 78 goals in 113 appearances in the last four Premier League seasons under Guardiola. 

Therefore, the player’s profile is well suited for a club like Barça. He has the ability to bring both the linkup play as well as the goal scoring ability required by a striker at the Catalan club. Additionally, he has been Lionel Messi’s best friend at the international level since childhood, and so linking up with Messi would be no difficult task for the striker. With such a synergy on the field, things could really click in the Blaugrana’s attacking third. Most Barcelona fans are on board with this signing as well.

Messi and Aguero know each other all too well. (Photo via Imago)

While financially, bringing Aguero seems like a very logical move, there are certain negatives to his transfer into the club as well. Even though he fits the profile of a number nine that can play in a total football system wonderfully, Aguero has been largely struck by injuries throughout his career.

Struggling to maintain his fitness this season, the 32-year-old has only seen nine games of action in the whole league season, being out for the rest of it with injuries as well as testing positive for COVID-19. Additionally, it doesn’t look likely that his injury problems will get any better with age. 

Regardless, investing in Aguero may be the wisest move for the club. Having displayed a much better profile as an out-and-out nine as compared to alternative options such as Depay, while also not being as financially impossible as bringing in Erling Haaland, Aguero can offer a tremendous amount to the club while costing very little. Concerns over his injury history is the only thing that show a red flag in this transfer. If Aguero could maintain his fitness, he would be a wonderful asset for the club and would surely bring many goals with him to the Catalan capital. 

Romelu Lukaku

By Udhav Arora

Inarguably the most underrated striker in Europe, Romelu Lukaku is among the gold standard for goal-scorers across the top 5 leagues. The Belgian is leading the charge for the Inter Milan’s Scudetto run but could do a whole lot better.

His move to Italy from Manchester United accompanied a lot of criticism about his failure in the Premier League, especially with the Red Devils. However, it casually overlooks his 113 goals in 252 appearances in the league, out of which 28 game for United. He has been thriving since then, though.

Lukaku would start living in the goal if he could. (Photo via Imago)

Lukaku ended up with 23 goals last season in 36 appearances, averaging a goal every 130 minutes. Imagine stepping onto a pitch every other game, knowing full well you were going to score a goal. In fact, he averages an xG of 0.79 per game and an npxG (non-penalty expected goals) of 0.62. Compared to positional peers in the top 5 Leagues and European Competition over the last 365 days, they are both in the 96th percentile.

Over the years, Lukaku has developed his playing profile, rounding it off to add more attributes to his arsenal. His magnum opus, though, remains his strength and speed. Despite standing at 6’3″ with a huge build, Lukaku is barely deprived of speed. During his tenure at United, he clocked a top speed of 36.23 kmph, second only to Diogo Dalot during the 2018/19 season.

His physicality is best put to use through his incredible finishing. At 0.83 goals per 90, he falls into the 96th percentile, higher than any other player in this list. Beyond here, there are a mere five players with more goals than him across the top 5 leagues. And with 0.45 goals per shots on target, Lukaku impresses with a top-notch conversion ratio.

The Belgian thrived on proper service at Everton but was stripped off that under Jose Mourinho, he expanded his pallet and added anchor play and intricate passing to his gameplay. He zeroed down on crossing as his primary playmaking strength and was often seen drifting to the wings, crossing into the box. If United had a crosser of Lukaku’s calibre feeding Lukaku, his tenure would have been a success.

Fortunately, he has gone from strength to strength in this regard under Antonio Conte. Plying his trade in a twin striker system has helped his lineup, often switching with Lautaro Martinez to take responsibility of connecting the attack and midfield. Lukaku’s understanding with Lautaro also seems to have improved his vision; case in point, his two fabulous assists vs Slavia Praha in the UCL last season. Behold that outer boot pass to Lautaro for the third goal.

This season, Lukaku has lodged in 35 key passes but registered only two assists. In fact, he has created ten big chances for Inter – highest in the squad, Additionally, he stands in the 91st percentile among forwards from the same position in the top five leagues for xAp90 (expected assists) at 0.23.

Barcelona lack runners in the final third who can take up threatening scoring positions. Luckily, the former Chelsea striker has a stream of stamina and a brilliant understanding of space in his locker. He would also make an excellent fit because of his aggressive nature on the pitch – another area of lacking. Who can forget his iconic game-winning performance against AC Milan after a brawl with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

In fact, in many ways, he is very similar to Erling Haaland and has the same ability to create chances out of very little owing to his understanding of the attacking front. Not to forget, he adds aerial threat to the Barcelona attack, covering more range than ever.

At 27, Lukaku is at the peak of his powers. So, it is barely surprising that Inter Milan will demand a hefty sum for him, reportedly north of €120 million. However, their financial situation makes it much easier to haggle the price down as compared to last season when Barça targeted Lautaro. Moreover, winning the Serie A this season might motivate him to push for a new challenge. He has an easy half a decade of football left in him, and €120 million for one of the best strikers in the world would turn out to be a flawless investment.

Lukaku might be looking at an exit from Italy this season, and if Barcelona are unable to get his signature, they will end up regretting it, especially if they do not sign Haaland.

Lautaro Martinez

By Jan-Michael Marshall

Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martínez has all the necessary qualities to be Barcelona’s next number nine. In fact, the Argentine was linked with Barcelona all throughout the 2019/20 season. The player and club reportedly came close to an agreement last year, however, Inter’s asking price turned away the Blaugrana. The finances required to sign him remain a roadblock, but that might be the only downside.

Martínez has improved every season thus far in his young career. With Inter, his tally of nine goals in 2018/19 was upped to 21 and six assists last season, and this season, he already has 16 goals and equally as many assists. His goal tallies may not scream prolific, but his constant improvement and ability to create for others are worth keeping an eye on.

An old acquaintance. (Photo via Imago)

Tactically, his positioning and link-up play are excellent. While the former is made easier by playing alongside Romelu Lukaku — who attracts multitudes of defenders — in a two-striker system, Martínez is consistently in the right position at the right time. He has thrived alongside Lukaku and would surely thrive in front of Barcelona’s creative midfield and wide players.

Contrary to the club’s other transfer targets, Martínez is a natural predator in the box and would not crowd Barça’s creative areas. While he can drop deep and create, his game is not predicated on that. His off-ball movement and positioning would serve him perfectly as an outlet for counter-attacks, crosses, or passes into the penalty area.

The 23-year-old operates extremely well in tight spaces, with expert dribbling and ball control, as well as quick pace. He would surely add a much-needed dynamism to Barça’s front line. In terms of finishing, Martínez is comfortable with either foot and scores in an array of ways – whether shots from outside the box, one-on-one with keepers or heading. For his small stature, 4 of his league 14 goals are impressively headers, and he also has one assist from a header.

As a space-dominant player, he is an aggressive and tenacious competitor, earning himself the nickname “El Toro.” Statistically, when compared to top forwards in Europe’s “Big Five” leagues, he is in the 78th percentile with successful pressures per 90 – 4.58, the 88th percentile with pressures in the attacking third – 8.38, and the 99th percentile with interceptions (0.79 per 90). Suffice to say, Martínez delivers a high work rate day in and day out. While his contributions on the defensive end are well-noted, as evidenced by his 4.58 successful pressures per 90 minutes, his pressure can also cause defenders to turn over possession, leading to goal scoring opportunities.

Lautaro keeps his battery at 100%. (Photo via Imago)

Detractors may wonder if he can lead a front line and play as a lone striker for Barcelona, but he has all the skills to succeed in that role. Martínez is exactly what Barcelona need up top, offering stellar link-up play and an ability to create, confident finishing, positional intelligence, and an immense work rate. While finances will be a roadblock, Barcelona should not let Martínez slip through their fingers. At only 23, he can lead the front line for the next decade.

Harry Kane

By Aaryan Parasnis

The Englishman has been among the cream of the crop when it comes to Premier League strikers in recent years. With Barcelona’s hunt for a striker gaining real traction for the first time since Luis Suarez’s departure, there is no doubt that he is one of the most premium candidates for the job.

Harry Kane has been at the heart of plenty of speculation when it comes to parting ways with Tottenham Hotspur, despite having the best part of three years left on his current contract with the North Londoners. Of late, Kane has been rather non-committal about his future with Spurs, with many reports hinting that he will seek an exit should Jose Mourinho’s side fail to clinch any silverware this season.

Kane deserves better. (Photo via Imago)

This means the door could be open for the Blaugrana to pursue him, despite years of being linked to Real Madrid. Naturally, the fact that his contract is valid till 2024 means that he will not come cheap. This is possibly the biggest and perhaps the only major roadblock to his signing, given Barcelona’s precarious financial situation.

Spurs have reportedly slapped a price tag close to €200 million for their star man. Considering Daniel Levy’s reputation for being a stark negotiator, it is tough to believe that tag can be driven much lower. Then again, summer target Erling Haaland will not come cheap either, as he has been valued at north of €150 million. When a club as big as Barcelona sets out for a marquee signing, especially in a position as important as that of a striker, they will have to shell out the big bucks either way.

Not to forget, the price is likely the only con in a sea of pros. At 27 years of age, he is in his physical prime and at the perfect stage of his career to splurge the cash on. The two-time Premier League Golden Boot winner is, of course, already proven, meaning that there is very little left to chance in terms of his output.

When one thinks about it, Kane is as close to the perfect centre-forward in the modern game as it gets. He is deadly inside the box, but more crucially for a team like Barcelona, he is just as incredible outside of it. In fact, he is so much more than just a striker. He holds up the ball phenomenally well and has a brilliant eye for a pass, which has been a staple of his wonderful form for Spurs this season. Over the years, he has evolved into a much more complete technical player aside from being a superb goalscorer.

Kane is already the ninth highest-scoring goalscorer in Premier League history with a 160 goals. This season alone, he has 30 goal contributions in the league alone, sitting second to only Mohamed Salah in the Prem’s scoring charts with 17 goals, but the top of the assists table with 13. Truly staggering numbers for a striker.

Barcelona undoubtedly need a world-class striker in their ranks, and Harry Kane can fill that void and how. His qualities on and off the ball will massively benefit the Catalans’ free-flowing cohesive football, and he will convert his scoring chances more often than not. Not to forget that, despite establishing himself as one of world football’s elite, Kane has not yet managed to get his hands on any silverware. Something he will desperately hope to change while he’s in his peak years.

Missing out on a player like Kane, in his prime, will be foolishness. (Photo via Imago)

And Barcelona, albeit in a state of rebuild, are looking for just the kind of winning desire that Harry Kane possesses in order to cement the foundation of a sporting project that will bring in trophies for years to come. Kane could be just the kind of statement signing that would benefit both club and player massively.

Conclusion

Joan Laporta has one hell of a task at his hands trying to sign a striker this summer; there are plenty of premium assets on the market, but during a summer where the financial capital of nearly every club is stumped to its core. This task gains even more importance when we realise that Erling Haaland could very well sign for Real Madrid, and competition with them will raise hell. Ronald Koeman has shown that the team is capable of sky-breaking things, but their potential can only be reached with a world-class striker in the arsenal.

This author profile consists of more than a single writer. Often, collaborative stories of our writers are shared under this profile.

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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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