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Has Riqui Puig earned a spot in Barça’s starting XI?

A question with only one possible answer. Riqui Puig has earned a spot in Barça’s starting XI

Hariharan Balaji

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Header Image by Marc González / Zuma via Imago

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 Barcelona Atlético de Madrid starting XI

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 stats over the three games.

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”

Quique Setién
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.

Conclusion

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.


See more

Goals analysis: Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

• Late substitutions: Is Quique Setién crumbling under the pressure?

• 5 takeaways from the Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

• Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid: Players ratings

• Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid: Match Summary

I got into watching football for the emotions of it. A goal followed by a crazy celebration from the player gave me goosebumps. But, watching the beautiful game over the years, I realised it was much more than just goals. The passing, the movements, the positioning and the effort involved behind the scenes opened my eyes to what football was. I keep trying to learn more about this incredible game and pass on what I learnt with a tinge of passion attached to it.

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Analysis

Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season

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Photo via Imago

Johan Cruyff famously said, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” It is indisputable that money is not the only deciding factor behind a football club’s success. Time and time again, we have seen that football is chaotic and absurd. Anything can happen.

That being said, it is evident that statistically, the clubs with more money are usually the more successful ones. While one cannot predict the unpredictability that is engraved within football, an outcome that is statistically probable can be predicted. This article will explore the relationship between the points a club accumulates in a league season and the total value of the club’s squad. Then, Python will be used to build a linear regression model in order to predict the number of points Barcelona will obtain in the 21/22 season based on the club’s hypothetical squad.

Let us begin with visualizing the relationship between the total league points obtained by a club and the club’s total squad value. Since the amount of money spent on transfers has increased tremendously over the course of the last decade, in this article, only seasons 2014/15 – 2019/20 will be considered. Upon plotting the total points against the total squad value, it is evident that there is a positive correlation between the two. Granted, the correlation is not extremely strong, but it exists nonetheless.

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A line of regression has been generated. The line’s gradient is approximately 0.05138986, and its y-intercept is approximately 44.5470726. There is only one dependant variable in question, club value/total value of squad, and so our line of regression can be modelled by the equation:

P = (0.05138986 )V + 44.5470726 where P is the points and V is the total squad value.


club_values = np.array(df['Values']).reshape(89,1)
club_points = np.array(df['Point']).reshape(89,1)

from sklearn.linear_model import LinearRegression
linear_model = LinearRegression()
linear_model.fit(club_values,club_points)

In order to predict the points accumulated based on Barcelona’s squad value next season, the squad value won’t directly be inputted into our equation above. The coefficient and the y-intercept have been rounded up after a certain number of decimal places, and so, to preserve the precision of the prediction, Python’s LinearRegression predict method will be utilized.

Now comes another challenging part of coming up with Barcelona’s hypothetical squad next season. Based on reports, it can be assumed that Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Martin Braithwaite and Phillipe Coutinho will be some of the notable players to leave. To compensate for the outgoing players, it can be assumed that Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia, David Alaba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. Here is a table that contains all the players in Barcelona’s hypothetical 21/22 squad and their corresponding market values:

PLAYER NAME MARKET VALUE (MILLION POUNDS)
MARC ANDRE TER STEGEN79.34
ARNAU TENAS1.59
RONALD ARAUJO26.45
CLEMENT LENGLET26.45
GERARD PIQUE12.70
DAVID ALABA58.19
ERIC GARCIA21.16
OSCAR MINGUENZA10.58
JORDI ALBA26.45
JUNIOR FIRPO10.58
SERGINO DEST26.45
SERGI ROBERTO26.45
SERGIO BUSQUETS10.58
FRENKIE DE JONG84.63
RIQUI PUIG19.04
ILAIX MORIBA10.58
PEDRI GONZALEZ74.06
GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM37.03
ANSU FATI84.63
KONRAD DE LA FUENTE2.64
OUSMANE DEMBELE52.90
TRINCAO26.45
MEMPHIS DEPAY47.61
ANTOINE GRIEZMANN54.00
LIONEL MESSI84.63
Figures via Transfermarkt

The club’s total value comes up to be £786.60 million. It is important to note that a player’s value is volatile. Transfermarkt updates player values every few months, and so it is extremely probable that this squad’s market value will be drastically different next season.

It is also important to understand that Transfermarkt’s market values are not official and so they are not always an accurate representation of a player’s true market value. Moreover, a player’s value is not always an accurate representation of their quality. Age is a key factor in determining market value, and so while a young player might have a high market value indicating that they are a bright prospect for the future, they might not necessarily be an excellent player at the time when the value is assigned.

Now that all of this has been established, the only thing left is making the prediction.

The machine learning model predicts that Barcelona will obtain 85 points in the 21/22 La Liga season. In the 19/20 season, Real Madrid won the league with 87 points, and in the 18/19 season, Barcelona won the league with 87 points as well. The difference between the points accumulated by the last two winning La Liga squads and the predicted points that Barcelona’s 21/22 squad will obtain is a mere 2 points. This shows that it is possible for Barcelona to win the league next season.

Since the correlation between the two variables, as observed from the data from the last 6 seasons, is not even close to being extremely strong, Barcelona’s 21/22 league points tally may be drastically different from what was predicted by the machine learning model. However, at the end of the day, the model can only work with the data it is exposed to.

Erling Haaland can change the course of Barcelona’s season. It would take forever to make predictions based on Barcelona’s hypothetical squads that include all of the club’s potential transfer targets, however, due to Haaland’s influence, an exception can be made for him. Laporta’s interest in signing Haaland has been widely reported.

However, he will cost a fortune this summer, and with Barcelona’s debt situation, it is unlikely that the Catalan club will pursue him in the upcoming transfer window. That being said like mentioned previously in the article, football is chaotic, and anything can happen.

Oh, Haaland. Oh, you. (Photo via Imago)

Assuming that Barcelona does end up signing Haaland in the summer, Antoine Griezmann will most definitely have to leave (due to wages and the money that can be generated from his sale). Haaland’s current value is £99 million, and so Barcelona’s total squad value for next season, after being corrected for Griezmann’s exit and Haaland’s arrival is £831.60 million.

Haaland’s addition can put 21/22 Barcelona on level with the previous two Spanish champions in terms of total points won. The difference in points between a squad containing Haaland and one not containing him is only two. However, an argument about whether signing Haaland is worth it, is not in the scope of this article.

“Transition seasons do not exist at Barcelona.”

Joan Laporta | Presidential campaign

A club of Barcelona’s stature will always compete for titles. The machine learning model shows that Barcelona is in contention for the 2021/22 La Liga title. Ronald Koeman has done a splendid job at the Blaugrana club this season, and there is no logical reason for him to not do an even better job next season after getting fresh players in the summer.

While football at its core is unpredictable, statistically, it would not hurt to trust Barcelona to win the 2021/22 La Liga title.

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