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From Valverde to Quique Setién: An upgrade or a lateral move?

Soumyajit Bose



Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

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. 

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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. 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.

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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. 

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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.

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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:

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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.

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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.

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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. 

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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?

Barcelona Ernesto Valverde Quique Setién

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

Physics PhD student with borderline obsession for the beautiful game. Followed Ronaldinho's footsteps to support the club, and am blessed to have witnessed some of the most glorious football a team can ever play.



Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal

Jan-Michael Marshall



Photo via Imago

With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?

Player Profile

Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.

Isak is Sweden’s next star. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.

Tactical and Statistical Analysis

Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.

Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.

Isak has the speed and strength to bully players anywhere on the pitch. (Photo via Imago)

Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).

In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.

Isak’s goal scoring locations for the 20/21 season, retrieved from

His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.

Where would he fit at Barça?

Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.

Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.

Isak is built for the modern game with immaculate pace and power. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.

Should Barcelona pursue him?

There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.

There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.

Isak is incredible, but he has a long way to go. (Photo via Getty)

He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.

While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.

Closing Thoughts

On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.

Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.

Maybe in a few years. (Photo via Imago)

Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.

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