It wasn’t easy, and the performance left much to be desired, but Barcelona were able to get back to winning ways against Athletic Club with a goal from Iván Rakitić. A crucial match-winner that will now be analysed.
The pressure was truly on Barcelona to get all three points against Athletic Club on Tuesday, and they just barely delivered. After being held scoreless for the first time since the restart against Sevilla, this time the blaugranas were able to break the deadlock through Iván Rakitić. While it was far from a brilliant goal, and far from a brilliant performance, looking deeper into this important score can reveal some positives.
Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club
For the first sixty or so minutes of the match, Barcelona failed time and time again to unlock the Athletic defence. For much of this period, the Catalans lacked the creativity and ability to penetrate in order to create chances. However, after substitute Riqui Puig had some time to settle into the match, Barça’s play improved. In fact, it was a brilliant piece of skill by Puig that started the attack leading up to the goal.
After receiving the ball from Clément Lenglet, Riqui took a few touches while scanning the field. Then, instead of playing a simple back pass, the La Masía graduate played a superb line-breaking ball to Arturo Vidal. The pass directly split four Athletic Club defenders and found the Chilean perfectly in a pocket of space. It was a stroke of genius from Puig to start the attack, and it was very reminiscent of the way Sergio Busquets often opens up his body one way to disguise a pass in another direction.
Unfortunately, what followed this pass wasn’t a silky smooth passage of combination play leading to a goal. Instead, multiple Barcelona passes and shots were blocked by the visiting defence, but they could not get the ball all the way clear. Eventually, the ball found its way to Lionel Messi on the right side of the box. The Argentine cut inside past two defenders before a third arrived and, once again, blocked his shot. This set the ball bouncing just outside of the box.
Quick to react, Iván Rakitić stepped up and surged forward to win the loose ball. The Croatian has faced some criticism for looking lethargic and off the pace in recent years, but that was definitely not the case here. Rakitić was able to beat the much younger Oihan Sancet – 20 years old – to gain possession.
After arriving to the ball, Rakitić used one touch to tap it ahead to Messi. La Pulga let the ball roll across his body, seemingly setting himself up for a signature curled shot on his left foot. By doing so, Messi attracted the attention of the whole Athletic defence, as he often seems to do.
Clearly, there was a massive area of open space which Rakitić knew he could exploit. With all eyes on Leo, the Croatian smartly continued his run into this area. Then, instead of striking the ball towards goal with his left foot, Messi quickly cut it back to the right of him. Timing his run well, Rakitić arrived to the short ball that the Argentine had played. With a left-footed first touch, Iván set himself up and remained composed before firing his shot across the goal and into the back of the net.
With the goal coming after a blocked Lionel Messi shot, there were only two connected passes between two players – Messi and Rakitić – leading up to it. It was far from a long sequence of one-twos and combinations to break the opposition down. As a result, it represents Barcelona’s overall performance pretty well: flawed and not the most entertaining, but with just enough quality to get the job done. Iván Rakitić can be especially proud of this goal, as he was the one who won the ball to start the sequence, played the secondary assist, and provided the finish.
The initial pass by Riqui Puig that started this attack has to make Barça fans optimistic. The creativity, bravery, and technique required to make that ball are the mark of a truly special player. The team’s performance clearly improved after Puig’s introduction, and it is no surprise that he provided the spark for the only goal. He is certainly looking worthy of more minutes.
In addition to the young and vibrant Riqui, the more experienced Iván Rakitić once again performed well. Undoubtedly, he has been one of Barça’s most improved players since the return of La Liga, and his confidence should continue to grow with this match-winner.
In the end, Barcelona gained a crucial three points. The performance still has to improve, but there were some more positives. After failing to make the right adjustments against Sevilla, Quique Setién seemed to bring on the right players with Riqui Puig, Iván Rakitić and Ansu Fati making a difference. Looking ahead, more changes will have to be made to fix the issues in Barcelona’s attack. Because with difficult games coming, there may be a need for more goals.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.