As Barcelona routed Deportivo Alavés for five goals at the Mendizorroza stadium, let’s take a look at how these goals were created and executed in what was a face lifter for the blaugranas.
After the midweek debacle against Osasuna that spelled the end to their hopes of retaining the La Liga title, FC Barcelona needed a game like the one they had against Deportivo Alavés before they shifted their focus towards the much coveted European Champions League. While the game was quite meaningless for all practical purposes, a step in the right direction was important for this Barça side. As they approached the game, though, things were not looking good, as their matchday squad had been cut down to 16, with only three outfield options available on the substitute’s bench.
However, the fears and anxieties seemed to have been shed right from the first whistle as the blaugranes started the match on the front foot and rattled the opposition’s post three times within the first fifteen minutes. In the end, it was a highly convincing 0–5 victory, so let’s look further into the goals to see what led to the win from Barcelona over Alavés.
Alavés 0–1 Barcelona
The breakthrough finally came in the 23rd minute following an exquisite series of ball movement across the pitch. It began on the left side near the middle of the park, where Riqui Puig exchanged the ball back and forth with Jordi Alba. The latter then made a forward run and was beautifully found with a pin point ball by the former.
Bringing the ball down calmly, Alba squared it off to Luis Suárez, who appeared to have taken one step too many. However, he did well to recover quickly, protect the ball and evade the two defenders who were closing down on him before finding Arturo Vidal in the center. Finding space ahead of him, Vidal lined up a shot at the goal before taking note of Sergi Roberto’s run on the right. As Vidal laid the ball over to Roberto, the Alavés backline was already getting stretched. No less than seven Barca players were surrounding the Alavés goal.
“We had a bad experience in the last game, but today we were good and effective in front of the goal”
after Barcelona’s 0–5 win over Alavés
Roberto carried the ball into the box and found Lionel Messi on the edge of the box. Approaching the box from the right side, in what was reminiscent of his early years as a winger, Messi took two touches before finding Ansu Fati, who had quite cleverly evaded his marker and was making a run towards the penalty spot. Messi’s flicked cross fell neatly for Fati even as it took a deflection off the defender and the youngster calmly guided it inside the near post, with his first touch.
That was the seventh goal for the seventeen-year-old in his debut season for the first team. Whereas for Messi, that was a record 21st assist for the season.
Alavés 0–2 Barcelona
Barcelona’s inability to capitalise on the lead and close out the game has been exposed several times this season. A single goal lead therefore was far from calming. This time, though, they refused to sit back after taking the lead. The constant search continued after the cooling break and immediately came to fruition.
The move that underlined Barça’s quick transitions last night began in the Catalans’ own half following an astute piece of pressing and intervention when Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal teamed up to recover the ball. Neatly recovered, the ball was handed to Messi near the halfway line, while Roberto anticipated Leo’s move and made an overlapping run on the right flank.
“We have taken a step forward in terms of commitment and our attitude. Today, we could see it. Like the coach said, we have to be more consistent throughout the 90 minutes”
Messi acknowledged this run and passed it to Roberto, who launched a beautiful diagonal ball towards the 18-yard box in search of Riqui Puig. Puig left his defender trailing in his sprint to reach the ball first. But that was only half the job done; he then deftly brought the ball down with a beautiful first touch and squared it off to Messi, who arrived inside the box just in time to connect with the pass.
Messi then took the ball and sent the keeper sprawling on the pitch, before scoring neatly with his left foot to double the team’s lead as well as increase his own at the top of the Pichichi table for the most number of goals in La Liga. The assist was appreciated by Messi, who went straight to the youngster to celebrate.
Alavés 0–3 Barcelona
Barcelona now had two of its three starting forwards on the scoreboard. Needless to say, Luis Suárez was eager to get on it as well; especially after having had two great chances saved by the Alavés goal keeper Roberto. His wait did not last long as just before the half time, Messi picked the ball and approached the Alavés box.
He had three options in front of him: Ansu Fati on the left, Suárez in the middle and Arturo Vidal on the right. Each of them marked tightly. Messi himself was being tracked by a defender, whom he evaded with a typical drop of the shoulder and a pull back. This gave Jordi Alba enough time to cruise forward on the left flank unnoticed, behind the enemy lines.
All five goals from Barcelona against Alavés came from open play | Photo by Ander Gillenea / AFP via Getty Images
Messi could not have asked for a better outlet as he launched his cross to Alba. Alba took it in his stride and squared it off his first touch to find Suárez in front of the keeper. The latter did not miss it this time as he headed the ball down past the keeper with full intent.
Alavés 0–4 Barcelona
Barça manager Quique Setién was forced to make changes in the line-up early on in the second half as defender Clément Lenglet was injured. With no centre-backs left on the bench, Setién took a gamble by sending in Nélson Semedo. Semedo was to take up the right-back position from Sergi Roberto, who would move into the midfield and thereby free Arturo Vidal. Vidal was assigned by the coach to fall back as a makeshift defender.
This move made its effect felt immediately elsewhere, as Nélson Semedo pushed forward down the right flank in the 56th minute. Collecting the ball with ease, he passed it back to Sergi Roberto, who gave it to Messi in one touch. Messi controlled the ball, found Riqui Puig and continued his run inside the box.
“These players are the future of the club. They show quality and responsibility. One day, they will be great players”
on Ansu Fati, Ronald Araújo and Riqui Puig
With both Messi and Puig being tracked by defenders, Semedo found himself in some free space on the right side of the box. This was spotted quickly by Puig, who passed it on for Semedo. The latter then took a smart first touch before burying it in the goal. Another goal that underlined the craft and guile of young Riqui Puig, who, as the commentators duly noted, is all but kicking at the doors of the senior side now.
Alavés 0–5 Barcelona
The game was all but over now. Even as Alavés were trying to pull a goal back, even as their coach was urging them to do exactly that, Barça were well and truly in control now. Circulating the ball around patiently, they were however looking to increase their tally. It was in the 74th minute that young defender Ronald Araújo came up to the half line and passed the ball over to Sergi Roberto.
After exchanging a one-two pass with Frenkie de Jong, who came in to replace Sergio Busquets, Roberto took out two defenders by a perfect pass to Messi. Mesi passed it over to De Jong with a single touch, as he turned to face the Alavés box. Driving the ball forward, Frenkie found a neat lane to connect with yet another overlapping run from Jordi Alba.
And as is usual with Alba, he took it in his stride and sent a cross into the danger area, with a brilliant first touch once again. There were two targets in the line of Alba’s cross. Suárez stood first, but was tightly marked by a defender. Yet Luis was aware of his best pal waiting behind him. Therefore, without disturbing the cross he stepped ahead and dragged the defender with him, making a clear lane for the cross to find Messi. The cross did find Messi and he sent it straight to the bottom corner of the goal with that precious left foot of his: five-nil. Messi’s lead at the top of Pichichi table was now four goals strong.
This was by no means a crunch fixture or a high pressure game. And the performance in this one game is not going to do much to define a season that has been pretty frustrating for the culés. Nonetheless, the effect that it will have on the squad, as they prepare for the Champions League, is immense.
Had this been another struggling and stagnant performance, the team would have had to face Napoli with that result in the back of their heads. As meaningless as this game and its results were for the league, for Barça this will be a confidence booster that they badly needed. If nothing else, it will help them believe that they still have a chance of redeeming this season.
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.