As Barcelona’s two managers for the 2019/20 season, Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién, failed to revert the downward trend of the team, we make use of multiple statistics to analyse whose team performed better.
Coming on the back of a disastrous season all around, in every single competition played, this article will try to take a somewhat in-depth look at the underlying statistical ebbs and flows that defined 2019/20 for FC Barcelona.
One of the biggest defining features of the season was, perhaps, the mid-season sacking of the incumbent manager Ernesto Valverde and appointment of a new coach in Quique Setién. As such, it makes a lot of sense to discuss the intricacies of the season by putting the stats of the team under each manager side-by-side.
The sub-topics chosen to discuss here have been motivated the recent series of interactive league reviews released by Statsperform – previously Opta. You can find their La Liga review here. First up, shots, goals and xG.
Shots attempted and conceded, goals scored and conceded
Let’s begin our tour by looking at the shot heat maps and goal location maps under each manager. The data is taken from Understat, and own goals are not considered.
The first important takeaway: Barcelona massively overperformed under Valverde, with a G–xG of around 15, and then spectacularly turned everything around to underperform in the second half, with a G-xG of around -4. On the other hand, Valverde’s Barça conceded more than expected, while Setién’s conceded less than expected.
The shooting and scoring zones remained roughly the same, and perhaps encouragingly, very central and corresponding to very high xG zones. Somewhat worrying is the fact that a lot of shots are conceded from inside the box. Good defensive teams tend to force their opponents to take pot shots from far away, i.e., low xG zones. Barcelona’s defensive endeavours fell flat this season to put it politely, given the number of goals conceded for a top team, and the really dangerous zones the bulk of the shots came from. Both managers were at fault here.
Now, there has been a nagging question in the minds of many: given the xG underperformance, was Setién unlucky? Well, probably, but not by as much as you might think. There are ways to quantify ‘luck’ – one of the ideas is Expected Points (Understat provides the data again). The idea behind expected points is: given the xG of the individual shots, you can simulate match outcomes many many times, and infer the probability of winning, losing or drawing based on those simulated outcomes. fcpython.com provides a nice and gentle intro to this idea if you want to go ahead and do the calculations. For now, let’s just take the Understat numbers directly.
Under Valverde, Barcelona had 40 pts, and so did Real Madrid. Barça were ahead on a head-to-head basis by virtue of the tie at the Camp Nou. Under Quique Setién, the reality is, well, Barcelona lost, but do the xPts tell a different story? Sadly enough, not really. Filtering out by date to get the xPts for the last 19 matches, and it’s 38.53 to 38.33 in Madrid’s favour.
So, even if Setién had gotten lucky with the finishing, it would have barely taken Barcelona tied for the top position. Now, Quique Setién’s team performed better in terms of expected points as compared to Valverde’s, but not enough to have won the league directly.
Defensive activities: pressure
Moving on to the next topic: defensive activities and pressure. Let’s first take a look at pressure percentages by thirds of the pitch, in all games, under both managers.
It’s pretty evident that Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona focused their pressing in the middle third rather than higher up in the pitch – makes sense since Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez didn’t press a lot.
The story remained the same under Setién. However, one thing that does need to be pointed out here – compared to the rest of La Liga sans Getafe – is that Barça were kings of pressing. Barcelona had the second-best PPDA according to Statsperform. That’s still nowhere near enough the other European elites, but still, not too shabby. Let’s compare the pressing under the two managers now.
The raw pressure numbers were higher under Valverde, but Barça had more success under Setién, with a jump in successful pressing percentage from about 29 to 33. Now, before proceeding, I do want to make the point that across all leagues, a general trend that can be noticed is: the higher the possession percentage a team commands, comparatively fewer are the pressure numbers. Of course, there are fluctuations, especially on a game-by-game basis. But on average, if a team keeps the ball better, they need to press less.
So, one way to make a truer comparison of the pressure numbers is to possession-adjust them, as Statsbomb suggests. Possession-adjustment brings the numbers much closer – roughly around 200 for both:
What this reflects: since Barça had more possession under Setién, they didn’t have to press as much. In my opinion, possession-adjustment makes a comparison of off-the-ball activities a bit fairer. Now, to add to this, successful pressure is good, but not the only way to stop the opponent. Their passing rhythm can be disrupted without necessarily winning the ball back. Here is how the opponents’ passing accuracies looked like: Setién’s Barca disrupted the opposition marginally better.
To get an idea about the intensity of pressing, we can take a look at PPDA. It is a proxy for how frequently Barca disrupted opposition’s passes. Here is the definition from Wyscout:
“PPDA = Number of Passes made by Attacking Team (opponent) / Number of Defensive Actions
The PPDA metric is calculated by dividing the number of passes allowed by the defending team by the total number of defensive actions. Defensive Actions are: possession-winning duels, tackles, interceptions, fouls.
Both values – passes made and defensive actions – will be calculated in opponent’s final 60% of the pitch”
On this occasion, the numbers are taken from Understat. Smaller the number, the better is the pressing / defending intensity, as it signifies the opposition being able to make fewer passes before Barça applies a defensive action.
Once again, pretty comparable numbers here under both coaches. We can also take a look at the time-variation of pressures applied by Barcelona. This data comes from Statsbomb‘ open data set on Lionel Messi. Messi played in a total of 33 league games this season, so this is only a partial set of the full data that is publicly available. Of these 33 matches, 14 were under Valverde while 19 were under Setién. So, to keep comparisons fair, the numbers are converted to per game.
Overall, the intensities seemed to drop as the game wore on, which is natural, but for Barcelona, it was exacerbated by the aging squad and the very disturbing reluctance in taking advantage of substitutions, especially by Setién.
It is fair to say that Barcelona pressed better under Quique Setién. What about the end product of pressing though? How often did turnovers created from pressing translate into something actually constructive?
Presented here are starting locations of “high-turnover sequences” forced by Barcelona under each manager. Once again, there were 14 games under Valverde in the public dataset as compared to 19 under Quique Setién. The takeaway is that the ratio of shots to the total number of such sequences was better under Setién.
Progressive Passing and Touches
First up, a touch zone comparison:
Now, there are some interesting trends here. Despite having more possession and touches, Barcelona didn’t do much in the opposition penalty area under Setién. And while the touches in the final 3rd per 90 increases, as a percentage of total touches it goes down marginally. This has been routinely criticised by several fans: holding on to possession aimlessly. Meandering on and on through the middle 3rd was a massive problem for Barcelona.
Looking at the passes, completed passes per 90 and completion percentage both see an uptick, but the passes to the final 3rd, the penalty area and progressive passes in general only see a minor improvement under Setién.
Quirks of possession sequences and build-up
The final section of this article will have a look at the possession sequences and their characteristics under each coach.
We do see a decrease in directness under Setién. But this is not a criticism. At least not based on these numbers. There is no one way to play football. And there is certainly nothing wrong with being too direct, or otherwise. Next, we take a look at the patterns behind successful and unsuccessful goal kicks from Marc-André ter Stegen.
It is very clear that Barcelona enjoyed most success when using short goal kicks. Long goal kicks to escape pressure failed with spectacular regularity and has umpteen reasons. Luis Suárez, at 34, can no longer provide the same hold-up play as before. Messi cannot be possibly expected to win aerial duels against defenders to try to bring a long ball down.
Short goal kicks during buildup are most often successful, but not without their own issues. With short goal kicks, Barcelona are expected to play out of the press from the back. And this worked fine against most La Liga teams, but got brutally exposed in the Champions League and against better La Liga teams who had organised and structured high press.
The problems were two-fold, in my opinion: a general lack of mobility by the midfield in the build-up phase, and lack of runners out wide who could serve as a target to hit long balls to. Moving forward this season, this is something new coach Ronald Koeman needs to address as soon as possible.
At last, we will look at some typical passes used in build-up. To do this, a clustering analysis was done on all successful passes that originate in different thirds of the pitch. The clustering analysis groups together passes based on their similarity – passes originating and ending roughly from the same zone of the pitch will get clustered together. What is shown below is an average representative of such pass clusters. In fact, five of them for each zone – these are the five most frequently played pass types in each zone.
Something interesting that probably bothers me a bit is the lack of passes coming into the danger zones from wide. The passes in the final third are mostly from the half-spaces to out wide or entering the box, but nothing from out wide enter the box frequently enough.
Anyway, after this really long and arduous journey – if you made it till this far –, I will just simply end with this: Quique Setién did marginally improve Barcelona in certain ways. Fitness-wise, it certainly seemed so. Pressing was much better. However, Barça still didn’t take enough advantage of opposition slip-ups and didn’t create enough progressive actions. And the results sadly enough didn’t justify sticking with Setién.
This is by no means a complete comparison of the two managers. There are probably a million more things one can talk about. If you want to see something else, let it know in the comments below.
Acknowledgements: David Bravo, editor-in-chief of Barça Universal, and Shantanu Das, a friend from pre-historic ages and a fellow football fan
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.