In collaboration with Soumyajit Bose.
As Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona looked to continue their perfect Champions League 2020/21 record, they faced Serhiy Rebrov‘s Ferencvaros side whose Europa League hopes were at stake at the Groupama Arena.
Compared to La Liga, Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League campaign has been much stronger. With 12 points in four games, with just two goals conceded and 13 goals scored, the confidence was high. However, for Ferencvaros, the best possible finish is in third place in Group G, which would see them qualify for the Europa League.
As a motivated Ferencvaros side faced Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona, a 0-3 victory in favour of the Blaugrana was far from ideal for the Budapest outfit. In this analysis, we take a look at the patterns seen throughout the match and the tactics used by the Barcelona, as well as the Ferencvaros side.
Serhiy Rebrov’s Ferencvaros side had a clear game-plan from the start. Though this was commendable, there were some immediate issues. The disappointing aspect of this was that Rebrov was either unable to, or was unwilling to make the changes which could have changed the outcome of the match.
The Hungarians looked to play a back-three throughout the match. The two full-backs essentially had little to do in the build-up. Partly because their starting position was too high and also because Barcelona’s forward four were able to cut passing lanes effectively.
Ferencvaros’ number five, Abraham Frimpong, was at the heart of the defence. When building up, he would often drift forward in line with the full-backs. This would have been a good strategy, but the back-three were constantly forced to launch the ball forwards after Barcelona’s pressing.
When defending, the full-backs would tuck in and the wide forwards would drop back to form a 5-4-1. At times, there were too many players in defence. Isael on one occasion played Griezmann onside when there were six players back defending.
As the above heat-maps shows, forward Tokmac Chol Nguen was barely involved, and the full-backs Endre Botka and Marcel Heister were only active in small parts of the field. There was a clear disjoint between the midfield and the forwards and between the defence and the midfield at times as well.
As expected from the current Barcelona side, the 4-2-3-1 was deployed. Right off from the start, something very apparent was the different player profiles in the attack. With Lionel Messi, Pedri, Philippe Coutinho, three players like to have the ball and roam around. Add Antoine Griezmann to that mix and you have four players who do best in a free role and have a moderate attacking work-rate at best.
With Martin Braithwaite, Fransisco Trincao, Ousmane Dembele this Barcelona side were able to press high and very actively as we shall see later.
The double-pivot of Sergio Busquets was at the core of the team in terms of recycling possession as well as playing balls forward. As the above pass-map shows us, these two were very active in passing and formed strong combinations with many players.
With the full-backs, or rather the wing-backs, very high up the field, Ousmane Dembele and Trincao would tuck in. This would make underlaps easier, as we saw with Braithwaite’s penalty-winning run, and it would also give the full-backs freedom to drive forwards.
The different full-back profiles on either side meant that down the left, excellent combinational play was visible and while Dest was more direct in his approach. This offered the Catalans with more choices in the final third.
A new pattern we saw in the build-up was a diamond between the centre-backs and the pivots. With Mingueza moving a bit further up the field, Busquets would drop back and form the second passing options for Clement Lenglet. Miralem Pjanic would look to find passing lanes in midfield and provide the third, and most direct, passing option.
When defending, Busquets and Pjanic would look to close off the channels, and Alba and Dest would have to retreat quickly. With the back-four completely flat and the pivots cutting passing lanes, the forward were given the best chance to show their work-rate and that is apparent from Barcelona’s goal-protecting activities that started from the front.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in the first half, scoring all three goals and putting the game to bed. They dominated possession, pressed much better than their opponents, all while outshooting and consequently outscoring them. Here is the game data at a glance:
Next, we take a look at the quality of chances created in the shotmaps and xG flow:
Barcelona created brilliant chances all game, and all of the goals came from high-quality chances. Understandably, they took their feet off the gear in the second half. This allowed Ferencvaros to create their most threatening moments. Even then, Barcelona had plenty of opportunities to score at least a couple of goals later in the second half. Profligacy in front of goal meant they could not add to their already impressive goal tally.
Barcelona’s territorial superiority is shown in the following figure. Field tilt – a metric to measure final third passing share, and hence territorial dominance –was overwhelmingly in Barcelona’s favor for most of the game. As shown, Ferencvaros only did better for certain stretches of the second half.
A look at the goals
Here we take a look at the goals Barcelona scored. Ousmane Dembele had one of the games of his life. He constantly linked up with Jordi Alba to create threat down the left. This very combination led to the first two goals of the game. For the first one, Dembele and Alba had some nice little one-twos, before Dembele released Alba into space behind the Ferencvaros right back. Alba used his speed to reach the ball ahead of his tracker and lay off a nice low cross to Antoine Greizmann, who made an excellent run into the box. Greizmann finished the move with an exquisite flick. Here are illustrations of the entire buildup and animation of the final moments :
The second goal came from a long buildup. First, a shot by Sergino Dest was blocked in the box. Following a flurry of passes, Griezmann made a cross-field pass to Alba. Alba laid the ball off to Dembele, who beat his marker by speed and played another low cross into the box. This time, it was Martin Braithwaite who made an intelligent poacher’s run into the box to prod it home.
Braithwaite made yet another great run behind Ferencvaros’ defence before getting fouled just when he was getting ready to shoot. Dembele scored from the resulting penalty.
Clement Lenglet could return from an injury scare to start the game, so Barcelona had two senior members at least in the beginning. The defence remained unperturbed for most of the half. Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza did an admirable job of cleaning up loose balls and snuffing out attacks. Ferencvaros rarely managed to get the ball to Barcelona’s final third. Here is a time-evolution chart of PPDA, which measures press intensity:
Evidently, Barcelona pressed much better throughout the game. The only interval where Ferencvaros had any luck pressing was in small intervals in the second half.
Next we take a look at Barcelona’s defensive heatmap.
This is probably the first time Barcelona have pressed this high up the pitch. Their effort paid dividends too, as Ferencvaros really struggled to build up successfully from the back, as shown in the following:
On the other hand, while Ferencvaros tried pressing higher, Barcelona were able to build through the press fairly regularly. The following images show Ferencvaros’ defensive efforts and Barcelona’s unsuccessful passes.
La Masia and youth get chances again
Several youngsters got a runout yet again. Mingueza continued to impress displaying composure on the ball and no-nonsense defending. Dest had yet another stellar show as the right back. He was impressive in tracking back, showing both speed and strength to nullify Tokmac Nguen. Dembele was electric; scoring and assisting one goal each and could have had more to his name. He finished the game wearing the captain’s armband.
Frenkie de Jong came on in the second half to replace Sergio Busquets and ended up playing centre back after Lenglet was withdrawn as well. Francisco Trincao got a start and played for about 80 minutes. While wasteful in front of goal and generally had some ugly touches, he also came up with some great dribbles. He should have really scored after being set up one on one by Dembele.
Carles Alena, Riqui Puig and Konrad de la Fuente all had cameos as well. Puig was particularly impressive, racking up 3 key passes in 28 minutes. He could have had an assist had Dembele elected to shoot from his pass.
Five wins out of five in the Champions League. Three victories in a row in all competitions. Three clean sheets. Eleven goals scored. Ronald Koeman probably could not have asked for a more favorable series of results for his team. Not only did important players like Lionel Messi and Frenkie de Jong get some rest, the fringe players got some decent run-out. Greizmann has scored three goals – he surely is brimming with confidence right now. Braithwaite has scored 4 goals in 3 games. Dembele looks to be in good form. The team seems to be hitting better stride. Injuries notwithstanding, this is a perfect time for Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona to make up for all the points lost in the league.
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.