As coach Quique Setién continues to search for the right formula, and while the systems should not be definite and rigid, what are the main strengths and weaknesses of the different formations for Barcelona?
In a match that meant more than points gained or dropped, FC Barcelona faced its city rivals Espanyol yesterday at the Camp Nou. As the hosts scraped through a victory on the smallest possible margins, the visitors succumbed to their fate of relegation from first division. At the end of the day though, it is three more points in the kitty for the blaugranas. But what did the performance yesterday tell us, especially in light of the previous match?
Barça’s performance against Villareal over the weekend, which led to a 1–4 triumph, was hailed by many as the turnaround for the team, as well as for certain individuals, especially Antoine Griezmann. While nothing should be taken away from that victory, reading too much into it was always going to be troublesome. Any proper assessment needs valid data, and a one-off match is not really enough data.
The facts speak for themselves. With all the major attacking personnel in the team – Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann – being central in their position, manager Quique Setién had no choice to adopt a 4–3–1–2 formation, thereby allowing those attackers to roam around in their favoured positions. It helps offensively in the sense that it allowed them to find each other easily. But is it without drawbacks? Is it the solution for this stuttering side in the short term at least? If not, what formation would suit them best, and why? This is what we will try and discuss here.
The manager’s thinking behind utilising this style is simple enough. You have three world-class attackers at your disposal. None of them prefer to cruise near the corner flags. Nor do any of them fancy a stint on the bench. So Quique Setién deployed Suárez and Griezmann in the advanced positions, with Messi right behind them. The biggest positive of this formation is that all three of them were happy, and that showed on the pitch. The quick passes between them were there and so were the switching of positions. It worked against Villareal too, only to be exposed against Espanyol. So what happened?
Well, the issue is as systemic as it is dependent on the opponent. When the attackers are all stationed close to each other, the attacking division of the team becomes too narrow, which makes it easier for resilient defensive units to snuff it out. The formation worked against Villareal, because they were attacking by pushing numbers forward, leaving spaces for Barça’s front three.
“I felt truly satisfied with the performance and I’m sure the players did too because they played a great game and enjoyed themselves. I would like to play like this in every game but it’s not an exact science. Every game is different but today we did everything right”
after Barça beat Villarreal on Sunday by 1–4
Against an Espanyol side, with solid banks of defenders though, it was more or less nullified. Owing to the fact that there are no wide-positioned wingers in this system, the opposition’s backline is not stretched. They can comfortably concentrate on the centre, sit back and be happy. In order to break this, then, the wing-backs would have to push forward, leaving their own goal post thinly covered.
This was exposed in the game against Villareal too, when the Yellow Submarine produced a counter-attack, and found Marc André ter Stegen almost isolated in Gerard Moreno’s goal. Espanyol did the same, except Ter Stegen came up with his heroics this time and saved the team literally with his palms.
In light of these observations, there are surely people who would believe that Barcelona should go back to their traditional 4–3–3. Because, as per this formation, there would be two pacy wingers stretching the defence, making overlapping runs and drawing the defenders away from the attacking outlet – something that generations of Barça forwards have successfully emulated. But the fact that it worked then does not mean it would work now.
On paper, this would seem beautiful. This formation actually facilitates the passing game that the culés have enjoyed for long. It allows Sergio Busquets, arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in the game, to work as a focal point. Everything would come and go through him, and with the right people around him, he does that job beautifully. But that is exactly the problem. He does not have the right people around him anymore.
Barça does not have a Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa or Pedro Rodríguez anymore. Their best bets at wing play as of now is a teenager named Ansu Fati. As good as he is, he is not ready for that starting role day in day out. The management has to be careful not to burn him out too soon. But even if he were to start all the games, what about the other wing? There is still no definite date for Ousmane Dembélé’s return from injury. Some would suggest Lionel Messi, as he has been playing off that right wing for some time now. But that is part of the problem right now.
Messi does what he always does, produce his magic and save the team. But in that process, he would usually cut into central areas, trying to help the team create more. The right wing then would be left empty causing an imbalance in the structure. To make sure that the opposing wing-back does not advance through this lane, Barça’s right-back would occupy the space left by Messi. This would cause further imbalance at the back.
“We might think about making changes like switching to a 4–3–3 or 4–4–2, but we need to evaluate things and find out what to do, but the philosophy is not going to change”
during his presentation as a Barça manager in January
At the peak of the 4–3–3 at Barça, one would not see both full-backs pushing forward at the same time. Rather, Dani Alves and Éric Abidal complemented each other. The former marauded up ahead; the latter kept the guard up at the back. In the current scenario, Jordi Alba is the one who helps the attackers by advancing from the left side. Notwithstanding, as explained above, the right-back would also be forced to move ahead and, once again, leave the central defenders stranded. This whole imbalance therefore is bound to hurt the team and it has, over and over again.
This is something that Quique Setién relates more with. He did try to implement this in his initial weeks at Barça. 3–5–2 is an effective system, especially against counter-attacks – which is something the Catalans have been vulnerable to.
In the offensive end, this looks promising. Messi and Griezmann could be fielded together. The tandem between them is looking better now, especially with the last two games. The second line or the midfield would comprise of, for instance, Jordi Alba, Riqui Puig, Sergio Busquets, Iván Rakitić and Sergi Roberto – as of now, when Frenkie de Jong is out injured, Arthur Melo sold and perhaps unfocused, and Miralem Pjanić pending.
Alba and Sergi Roberto would provide the immediate support to the attackers. Being comparatively free of defensive duties they could be more involved in the offence. Behind them, the other three would keep the ball rotating and thereby dictate the game.
One of Barça’s greatest problems in recent times has been the wings, with full-backs not offering what should ideally be demanded, and wingers that are not true wingers | Photo by Cordon Press via Imago
The biggest problem here is that Barça does not have enough central defenders available to field three of them together. Their three options as of now are Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Ronald Araújo. While Araújo is capable, using the only back-up defender along with the other two available ones, every game, is a huge risk.
Nevertheless, Nélson Semedo could potentially be used in the right side, for the time being. With Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto acting as attacking wing backs, Semedo would be free of advancing duties and could focus more on defence. This system could definitely work, if Alba and Sergi could effectively pin down their opposite numbers.
This formation, once again, could bring back the balance to this Barca side. That said, they would have to stick to the right personnel for this to happen. Griezman can lead the line in the central position, supported by Messi right behind him. Both of them are capable of switching within the area and that makes it all the more better.
On either side of Messi, it could be Riqui Puig and Sergi Roberto. While Riqui would provide the dynamism and creativity thereby helping in breaking the defensive lines, Sergi Roberto, with his tireless runs and brilliant crosses, could complement it on the right side. These two are the most important pieces here. They should be creative but, at the same time, should be the kind of people that do not give the ball away cheaply. Behind those two, Sergio Busquets and Iván Rakitić would work in a double pivot, giving the squad more stability. Rakitić’s presence could also ease the job for Busquets.
The advantage that this formation has over the 4–3–1–2 is that, unlike the latter, the former is not too central or constricted. It could therefore be very effective against teams that set up defensive banks with a 4–4–2 or a 4–5–1.
Ultimately, what should be remembered is that no formation is tailormade for any team. There has to be tweaks and customisations according to the personnel available. However, it does seem quite obvious that under the present circumstances, playing a 4–3–3 would be quite detrimental to Barça. Traditional style or not, they cannot play that style without the right kind of people.
Amongst the other styles, the 4–3–1–2 can still be used against sides that tend to be adventurous. Whereas a 3–5–2 or a 4–2–3–1 seems to make more sense against sides that sit back and counter-attack. For this to work, though, someone would have to convince either Luis Suárez or Antoine Griezmann to stay on the bench.
Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season
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.
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 STEGEN||79.34|
|FRENKIE DE JONG||84.63|
|KONRAD DE LA FUENTE||2.64|
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.
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.