The mood around the Barça camp or in the minds of the culés is not bright. With everything going around the club, there seems to be only one silver lining to all that’s happening: Riqui Puig earning himself a starting spot in the XI with his impressive performances. Here’s how he did it and how he deserves it.
Barcelona are still unbeaten after the restart, but they have dropped six points with three frustrating draws. Apart from the win at Mallorca in the opening game, the other victories have not been satisfactory per Barça’s standards. In addition to the on-field miseries, there have been off-field ones as well. Arthur Melo announced his departure to Juventus at the end of the season, and Frenkie de Jong injured his calf muscle and got misdiagnosed.
With Arthur out of form and not in the right mind to play, and Frenkie out with injury, the Barça midfield looked pale. Arturo Vidal seemed like he has run out of gas, playing every other game. The midfield lacked creativity or mobility of any kind, which in turn prompted Lionel Messi to drop deep and create. The only problem was there was no capable finisher or runner upfront with both Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann out of form. Enter Riqui Puig.
The cameo versus Athletic Club
Quique Setién started last week’s game against Athletic Club de Bilbao with a midfield of Arthur Melo, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, with the so-called MSG – Messi, Suárez and Griezmann – upfront. Athletic, though, closed down the centre and choked the Barça attack. The blaugranas were static, and the game seemed to go towards yet another frustrating draw. But the home team subbed Riqui Puig in for Arthur a few minutes after half-time, and the prospect of getting the three points increased considerably.
Riqui came on, slotted right into the game and showed his class. He took on players, got in between the lines and drove forward. The Spaniard showed his desire to have an impact on the game by throwing himself to press and tackle every time Barça lost the ball. The midfield got newfound energy and increased fluidity for the rest of the game. Coach Quique Setién was on point with all his subs in this game, and all had an impact once coming on. The strong performance from Riqui, however, put him in the spotlight, and in contention for the starting spot in the following match.
First league start of the season against Celta
Away against Celta de Vigo, Quique Setién started the three substitutes of the previous game, impressed by the contributing cameos of Iván Rakitić, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig himself. Riqui got his first start of the season in the league, and he was keen on retaining the spot. The 20-year-old was once again majestic in the midfield. He took upon responsibilities, was brave and always interested in cutting open the spaces.
Riqui Puig has never looked out of place in Barcelona’s first team | Photo by Paco Largo / Panoramic via Imago
Riqui’s contributions did not stop just with the attacking phase as he tracked back meticulously whenever the team lost the ball high up the pitch. Many fans questioned his physique when it comes to defending, but his small stature allows him to press better, and the low centre of gravity helps in retrieving the ball. Puig got subbed out in the 86th minute, with yet another excellent game under his belt.
The ultimate test against Atlético de Madrid
The preface to the encounter against Atlético de Madrid was alarming for Quique Setién. There were audacious reports that his job was on the line for the game, and he was under intense scrutiny. He had two choices: to choose the most deserving eleven to play his way, or choose the heavyweights and change his methods to adapt. The Cantabrian picked a mixture of the two, but gave Riqui Puig the start in a crucial title-deciding clash. The trust was in place.
Riqui did not disappoint the faith the manager had in him and continued with his brilliant display. Messi did not take the creativity upon himself and trusted the young midfielder to more than make up for the lack of it. Both little geniuses combined brilliantly, a few times, understanding each other’s runs and movements. The ability to play in tight spaces taught in La Masía was showing.
Once again, Riqui dominated the midfield and was arguably the most productive of the four midfielders Setién chose. While the previous matches were against considerably lower-tier opposition, this time he went head to head against some of the best. He was unfazed by the physical presence of Thomas Partey or the talented Saúl Ñíguez. Puig drew fouls, broke lines continuously, and was a menace to the Atleti defence.
Riqui Puig impressed in all three games, with each performance better than the other making a strong case for the starting spot | Stats from Sofascore
So, what does Riqui Puig brings that the current first teamers don’t have or have less?
What does Puig do differently?
The current crop of the Catalan midfield consists of many box-to-box players and a few who can carry the ball up the field. Arturo Vidal and Iván Rakitić are the usual midfielders who do not have high penetrative passing, but they arrive at both penalty areas and cover spaces efficiently. Both Frenkie de Jong and Arthur Melo like to get the ball from deep and progress the play. They are comfortable on the ball and are press resistant. Riqui ticks most of these boxes, in addition to adding a layer of creativity.
Unlike most midfielders at Barça, Riqui often stays on his toes, ready to jump into action. He looks up the field on receiving the ball, scans his surrounding and plays the pass. Always looking to break the lines, he attempts the most improbable passes and executes those to perfection. The way he opens up his body towards the wings but swiftly passes the ball to the interior looks much similar to Sergio Busquets.
“He was extraordinarily good. He understood what we asked of him and Barça and the fans can be satisfied, they have a great player. He showed great desire and was at a great level. He has quality”
on Riqui Puig after the Atlético de Madrid game
Having gone through the ranks of the La Masía, the 20-year-old knows and executes the positional play principles to perfection. He often places himself between the lines by feinting runs and while receiving the ball, often aligns his body to turn and move towards the goal. Yet another facet of his impressive set of skills is his ability to accelerate. Much similar to Messi, Puig uses his low centre of gravity to his advantage. His sudden bursts help him while taking on defenders or drawing fouls in dangerous areas.
Being young and from the B team, the desire to impress and give his 100 per cent never fades. He never shows complacency or drops the level of his performance.
Barça may not be in the appropriate position they wanted to be. A lot of things going around the club are unpleasant, and fans are far from pleased by a lot of choices. The decision to sell Arthur has brought so much criticism from everyone around the globe.
But one glimmer of hope during these testing times is the arrival of Riqui Puig to the first team. Not only has he impressed, but he has also created a strong case for himself to be a regular starter. It is safe to say that Riqui Puig has earned his starting spot now.
Sometimes, things have to fall apart to make way for better things.
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.