After 37 matchdays, the fate of the 2019/20 La Liga goes in favour of Real Madrid after two years of dominance from Barça. Zinedine Zidane’s men are deservedly champions of Spain as they capitalised on the azulgranas’ inconsistency. Yesterday, Madrid’s scrappy 2–1 win over Villarreal and Barcelona’s 1–2 loss to CA Osasuna summed up the story of this season.
A 100% win record since the restart saw Real Madrid take away Barcelona’s hopes of retaining the La Liga title. When compared to their rivals, the Catalans have had a disappointing run of form since football’s return. Three draws and one defeat in ten games saw them fall off from the summit of the table. Zinedine Zidane’s side, on the other hand, made the most of every slip-up from Barça, and have now won the league by seven points.
Los Blancos‘ highly motivated board
Let’s rewind the clock back to the conclusion of last season. Real Madrid ironically lost to Quique Setién’s Real Betis, while Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona was held to a 2–2 draw by Eibar. The blaugranas had won the league weeks before the final matchday and finished nineteen points above Madrid. The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo had hurt them massively. Despite appointing three managers in one season, there were absolutely no signs of revival.
In response to the horrific 2018/19 season, president Florentino Pérez invested massively in the squad. Despite Eden Hazard being the highlighted signing, the best one turned out to be left-back Ferland Mendy. There was a need to address the fact that Marcelo was declining, and their board spent no time in finding a successor. Furthermore, Los Blancos also signed Luka Jović and Eder Militão for hefty fees.
The intent was clear from day one, to eventually replace an ageing squad with youngblood. Even if Jović has had a season to forget, there is little denying that the 22-year-old is one for the future. He has all the time in the world to develop his attacking expertise and take over the mantle from Karim Benzema. On the other hand, Mendy has already made the left-back berth his own. Marcelo is deservedly second-choice, and no one can argue about that.
Despite some bumps in the road, Real Madrid have managed to overcome them by keeping their focus on the pitch | Photo by Daniel González Acuña / Zuma via Imago
While it must be said that Eden Hazard hasn’t had the dream start to his career at Madrid, there’s nothing to worry in particular. Not every high-profile signing becomes an instant hit. Additionally, injuries didn’t help his cause. However, he will be highly motivated to prove his critics wrong next season.
Massive credit should go to Florentino Pérez and the rest of the board members. They were reactive to the failures of Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. Florentino analysed the negativity looming around the dressing room and chose to bring back Zidane as he is someone the players respect a lot. The Frenchman left along with Ronaldo as he was aware of the board’s plans at the start of the 2018/19 season. They were unambitious and chose to rely on the existing squad quality, which backfired.
But Pérez understood the errors he made and backed Zidane in the 2019 summer transfer window. They spent on the areas where they were massively weak, and have even found long-term replacements to a few players. A combination of fantastic on and off-pitch decisions saw Real Madrid win their 34th league title.
A contrasting situation at Barça
After praising Real Madrid’s administration for its proactive and brave decisions, discussing Barcelona’s board is a mood kill. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has been making destructive decisions from the start of the season. It began with the signing of Antoine Griezmann, that was never going to be a direct match in profile. The sacking of Ernesto Valverde mid-season when they were at the top of the table proves to be the wrong call. Indeed, the Spanish tactician deserved to be shown the door, but it was at the wrong time.
At Barcelona there is a strong division between all parties | Photo by Alberto Estevez via Imago
Bringing in Quique Setién, who knew the Barcelona way, was a decision that initially seemed excellent. The 61-year-old immediately improved the football, but the form has been inconsistent since his arrival. Under Valverde, the style of play wasn’t pretty, but they always managed to grind out results. Overreliance on Lionel Messi is something that was exposed this season. The Argentine’s scoring record against teams in the top half hasn’t been the best this season.
The azulgranas dropped points every time Messi couldn’t give his 100%. Be it Valverde or Setién, Leo’s form was the deciding factor of almost every game. The board’s horrific sporting decisions peaked when they decided to let go of Arthur Melo for Miralem Pjanić. As much as one may try to deny it, the administration just didn’t have its head in the game. Bartomeu was focussed on making selfish calls that suited certain minimalistic administrative agendas.
Comparing the manager’s powers
At any football club, the major talking point will always be: How much of a say does the manager have on the major decisions? At Real Madrid, Zidane’s word is omniscient. Zizou has been given all the freedom to execute whatever tactics he felt was right for the team. About the handling of players, Zinedine was in complete control. The treatment of Gareth Bale is enough to explain how authoritative the 48-year-old was in the dressing room. Even if there was a degree of player power in the dressing room, no individual was greater than the manager.
“We believe in him and in his work. He’s the one who has to make the difference, he’s a person who trusts players, and few do. We hope he stays here for a very long time, he is unique”
on Zinedine Zidane
These words from Sergio Ramos tell you how much the players rate their manager. Notwithstanding, Madrid didn’t have the ideal starts to this season. They were dropping points to mid-table sides, and at one point, there were rumours of Zidane even losing his job. Nonetheless, the players stuck with him throughout the inconsistent period. They put everything into making sure that the situation was overturned.
At Barcelona, the scenario seems to be massively contrasting. There is clear evidence of the fact that neither Valverde nor Setién were given control of the dressing room. The player power is unhealthy, and the board’s toxicity reaks all the way to the pitch. At times, one can even see that Quique Setién isn’t able to pick his starting XI. The decisions seem too questionable for the coach to receive the entirety of the blame. While the lion’s share of the fault goes to the manager, there’s nothing he can do if the players don’t respect him.
Players, coaching staff and board, Real Madrid is a union | Photo by Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images
There is not one case where we were able to see Setién display control. His press conferences are too passive, and his opinions make him look like a victim of a mismatch in the dressing room powers. Quique might be an excellent tactician, but the truth is that he can’t handle the huge egos in Barcelona’s squad. When players show their backs to the coach, the manager should respond like how Zidane did with Bale. At the Camp Nou, the stance is different, where Setién is easily scapegoated for each and every decision.
From the start of the season, Real Madrid’s focus was entirely on the pitch. At times, the tactics didn’t go as per plan, but Zidane was always in control of every situation. Be it sporting or non-sporting decisions, there was always an amount of clarity displayed by the board. A combination of clever calls and excellent player-management saw the merengues win the Spanish Super Cup and La Liga. The new champions of Spain took advantage of Barça’s off-pitch problems, and are now reaping the benefits of a strong campaign.
“I did not expect Madrid to maintain their high level for this long”
Barcelona are currently in free-fall, partly because of the manager and majorly due to the players. The board should either appoint a coach who can control the dressing room and manage the egos, or instruct the players to respect the current one. With uncertainties looming over Quique Setién’s future, it doesn’t look like the club is mentally ready for the Champions League. When asked about his future, the coach said, “I hope so, but I don’t know”. These shocking quotes from him sum up how uncertain and unfortunate he has been since taking over as coach.
Madrid will be looking to make a comeback against Manchester City in the Champions League. Barcelona, on the other hand, host Napoli in a critical second leg, where they lead on away goals. Judging by their recent performances, one can conclude that they are neither tactically, nor mentally prepared to face the Italian outfit. The azulgranas continue to suffer against teams that opt for the low block, and Gennaro Gattuso seems to be a master in it. The mood around Setién’s camp is massively negative when compared to that of Zidane’s. Real Madrid has deservedly won their 34th La Liga, while Barcelona is a messy work in progress.
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.