Over the course of the 2020/21 season, Ronald Koeman has seen his centre-halves fall quicker than skittles in a bowling game. And that is not just a reference to the numerous injuries the backline has suffered, but the flailing form of Barcelona’s defenders.
Game after game, one of Gerard Piqué or Clément Lenglet is at the helm of a mistake that costs the club three points. This began from the second game of the season, when Lenglet picked up a red card against Celta de Vigo. It hardly caused trouble for Barcelona but it was the start of a turmoil which has seen its defenders accumulate one error at the very least in every game.
It has not led to a goal for Barcelona on every occasion, but it sure has been the reason for several raised eyebrows. And if the errors were an issue, an injury plague in the middle of the season hit the team like a truck, which at one point left them with just one fit central defender in the form of Lenglet. Fans knew, however, that this may be a short-term solution as they had Eric Garcia to look forward to in the winter.
Garcia has been linked with the club since the summer of 2020, with a move looking inevitable during that time. In fact, he is one step one away from receiving the elusive ‘here we go’ from Fabrizio Romano.
After the transfer failed to go through during that time after the two parties kept knocking foreheads over the price tag. Now it seems like Manchester City have let go of their hopes of getting Garcia to sign a new contract, with his current one expiring in June 2021, and they would definitely be interested in letting the Spaniard leave the club, even if it is for a discount price.
That said, with Ronald Araújo coming into his own since his promotion to the first team, and Óscar Mingueza becoming an unlikely hero, a huge question stays afloat — do Barcelona really need Eric Garcia? Barça Universal assess the pros and cons of the transfer.
At only 19-years old, Eric García has already earned the trust of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. He has featured in 25 matches over the past two seasons and has often repaid Guardiola’s faith in him with his promising performances.
On December 1st, for example, he had a solid outing against FC Porto, helping City earn a clean sheet. In the match, García completed 94.6% of his 92 passes, with a progressive distance of 613 yards, he also had 12 successful pressures, one interception, and one tackle.
He has all the traits of a Barcelona centre-back, but that’s not surprising given he spent nine years with the club before moving to Manchester in 2017. García may not impress with his aerial prowess or physical attributes, but he plays beyond his years. This is showcased through his composure and tactical intelligence, as well as his comfortability on the ball.
He can read the game extremely well and is adept at intercepting the ball and breaking up attacking moves. This season he is averaging 1.27 interceptions per game, 0.55 blocks, and 1.27 tackles. Additionally, García has won 3.6 duels per 90 minutes this season, further boasting of his defensive skill and intelligence.
The Spaniard is completing 93.9% of his passes this season and leads City’s squad with the most progressive and total distance passing yards per game this season. His 7.45 passes into the final third per match are also fourth-best in the squad.
His comfortability with the ball at his feet make him a perfect fit for Pep Guardiola and the tactics he implements, choosing to play the ball out from the back. García also leads City this season with most progressive carrying distance per game at 210.5 yards, a stat measuring the total distance a player carries the ball at their feet towards the opposition goal.
“He’s so smart, so intelligent. His physicality is not so, so strong, but he resolves the situation by thinking. I like to work with smart people, intelligent people. He is one of them. I can count on him.”Pep Guardiola on Garcia | Pre-game press conference vs Dinamo Zagreb, 2019
Place in the squad
With Gerard Piqué out for what looks like could be the entire season — and not to mention at the tail end of his career —, Samuel Umtiti’s nagging injuries, and Clement Lenglet’s recent dip in form, Barça need more bodies in their backline. Although youngsters Ronald Araújo and Oscar Mingueza have impressed so far this season, it will barely hurt to have another centre-back, especially one who is so young and has so much potential.
García would provide even more competition for that position which can only bode well for the team. Also, if Koeman continues to implement his new formation incorporating three centre backs, it would help to have another option in García.
With Lenglet, Araújo, Mingueza, and García, Barça’s backline would be set for the next decade or so, barring any injuries or unforeseen circumstances. If Koeman opts for two centre-backs, Araújo and García could make a deadly duo as the Uruguayan’s physical prowess and raw tackling ability complement García’s anticipation and prowess on the ball.
The Spaniard’s composure and passing ability would help Barça continue building up from the back and maintaining dominance with possession. His tactical intelligence and maturity would make him a more than worthy addition to the squad, and his return to Barcelona would be welcomed by most. García wouldn’t join the Blaugrana as just a back-up defender, rather someone who can immediately help the first team.
Finances & Transfer Policy
Simply put, Barça must capitalize on the opportunity to buy a young and talented player with high potential for such a low price. García has turned down contract offers from Manchester City, which means he will become a free-agent in the summer against the wishes of his club. Owing to the same, Barcelona can negotiate his transfer back on a minimal fee, even though the Manchester outfit will not be too gloomy about him leaving for free given their mammoth finances.
Nevertheless, it’s likely that City reject any lowball offers from the Catalans and García can be signed for free in the summer instead. Barça can potentially afford to wait until the summer to sign him, given Araújo and Mingueza’s prominence, but it would still be more ideal to sign him next month.
In recent memory, Barça have struggled with overpaying for players in the transfer market as well as managing their wage bill, thus signing García would be a step in the right direction. At only 19, he’s talented enough to be a consistent starter and would not ask for outrageously high wages either.
Having spent nine years at the club, it seems like García would have no trouble fitting in. He knows the city and the club like the back of his hand, and he would fit in seamlessly with Barça’s crop of youngsters like Pedri, Ansu Fati, Sergiño Dest, Ronald Araújo, Riqui Puig, and Oscar Mingueza. Furthermore, his work ethic and maturity would allow him to learn from some of the best players in the world, like the player he’s been most often compared to – Gerard Piqué.
With the signing of Eric García, Barcelona’s defence would surely be solidified for the next decade and it would be a reassuring move for fans and the team alike. He fits a need and has the right tactical profile too. He’s one for the future as well as the present, and it feels only right for him to come home.
The Devil’s Advocate
By Udhav Arora
Listing a 19-year-old’s weaknesses would almost sound like nitpicking, but given how important a peg he can become in the Barcelona unit, Eric Garcia needs to be a defensive prodigy.
For the most part, centre-backs tend to peak very late in their careers; Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Giorgio Chiellini, among others saw their peaks, not before 27. However, as the tide turns, and playing careers seem to stretch longer, even centre-halves experience their peak early, often stretching longer as well. Case in point being Raphaël Varane.
Additionally, Europe has seen the rise of some defensive prodigies like never before; players who have already started to establish their names into the XIs of teams. Matthijs de Ligt leads this list, with players like Jules Koundé, Wesley Fofana, Pau Torres, Kurt Zouma not too far behind. Unfortunately, Garcia does not fall into the same category.
Standing at 5’11”, Garcia is not particularly tall, or very athletic, and right off the bat, the Spaniard’s inability to contest aerial duels becomes rather clear. Last season, where he stepped on the pitch 13 times in the Premier League, he won no more than 0.8 aerial duels per game at a success rate of 35%.
For further context, the man he is touted to replace — Gerard Piqué — won 3.7 aerial duels per game last season with a rate of 71%. His tally of 2.5/game (65%) this season, too, easily overshadows Garcia’s 0.7 (22%), albeit the latter boasting of a minuscule sample size.
Additionally, Garcia, for all his brilliance, cannot track runners to save his life. His poor marking has often led to trouble in paradise for Manchester City, with the most recent example being the game against Leicester City. Fair, even the best have trouble dealing with Jamie Vardy, but games against Olympique Lyonnais from last season and West Ham from this stand as a testament to the same.
Luckily, Garcia is quick off the ball and makes up the time lost quickly. That, however, is an unsustainable technique in modern football where defenders can barely keep up with the pace of forwards. He escaped the blame against Lyon, but could only do as much as fouling Vardy, resulting in a penalty.
Competition at Barcelona
Eric Garcia is barely the prodigy he is made out to be. At 19, however, he has a lot of time to work on all of these. The unfortunate two-part news is that he has not shown enough promise to warrant a place in the Barcelona squad based on his background as a La Masia graduate.
Furthermore, he is up against two of the strongest candidates in central defence to come through the Barça youth ranks since Gerard Pique himself. Ronald Araújo and Óscar Mingueza’s breakthrough season should not be taken lightly, at all, especially in context with Garcia.
Taking into account the City-starlet’s last season (because of sample size), compared to Mingueza and Araújo’s current season, both the Barcelona players attempt more pressures at 13.1 and 9.86 per 90 respectively when put against Garcia’s 8.41. They win a larger part of their pressures at well with 34.7% and 37.5% respectively, compared to Garcia’s 27%, who played in a much press-dominant system.
While Garcia is superior on the ball, especially in his ability to carry the ball out of the defence, the difference between him and Mingueza is no more than 34 yards (per 90). As for passing, Araújo has the edge over him in both seasons for long passes per game with 2.5 compared to his 2 from last season and 1.3 from this.
As it stands, Barcelona boast of three other centre-backs in the form of Piqué, Clément Lenglet, and Samuel Umtiti. Umtiti will likely be shipped out, leaving the team with one left-footed centre-back and three right-footed ones.
Given Barça’s habit of building from the back, a left-footed centre-back is a priority; the spot Lenglet has made his own. Barcelona should be in the market for a left-footed centre-half, instead because Araújo and Mingueza seem more than ready to take over the mantle from Piqué.
Eric Garcia’s return to Barcelona seems all but official as it stands. All it is missing is a here we go, and the official signature of the president who will take over administration late in January. His fit at the club, though, will be highly debated. Both sides of the coin weigh up quite strong argument, but as it stands, a defender with a high ceiling is returning to Barcelona, for free no less, so the financial stronghold on the deal certainly holds the gravitas over anything else.
Stats from FBRef/Sofascore/Whoscored
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.