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Analysis

João Félix can help Barcelona fill the Lionel Messi void

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Photo by Angel Martinez

João Félix is on his way to become one of the next big things in the world of football, and is the safest bet for Barcelona to fill the void that Lionel Messi will leave behind, sooner or later.


The term ‘generational’ is overly used today by the footballing world, as we all strive to find that one-in-a-million player who will fill the void that will be left when the greats of our generation retire. Most, or in fact neither of these claimed ‘generational’ players are not the extraterrestrial geniuses we make them out to be.

However, the infamous saying, “The next generation will always surpass the previous generation. It’s one of the never-ending cycles in life”, comes to mind. Of course, there are exceptions to this situation, and we may not find the player to surpass or even compete with the likes of Lionel Messi, but all we can do for now, is try. We can try and place our faith in some of the most promising players of this generation.

Among the bunch of talented youngsters today, João Félix, is the most worthy of being bet on to help Barcelona fill the void that will form following Messi’s departure.

Tactical Analysis

João Félix is an excellent footballer. He is great at dribbling, he’s capable of navigating through tight defences through fabulous close control. Moreover, his eye for a pass suggests that he may have a third eye. All this was on display when Atletico Madrid hosted Bayern Munich, in a game dominated by Félix.

On the pitch, Félix is capable of playing the number 10/SS role, playing out wide on the left-wing or as a centre-forward in a false 9 capacity. However, he is most destructive when deployed alongside or behind a proper no. 9, where he is allowed to play with the ball and dictate the game.

Felix’s Champions League heat map. (Courtesy Sofascore)

Félix’s La Liga heat-map. (Courtesy Sofascore)

For Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, Félix plays on the left side, as a second striker/deep-lying-forward in a 4-4-2 system and is often partnered with Luis Suarez or Angel Correa.

While this is the line-up on paper for when Atletico is out of possession. With the ball, Felix often drops deeper to receive the ball. His fantastic vision helps him provide a killer through ball to the forwards ahead of him. Felix’s ability to efficiently operate in the half-space creates a link between the defence and the offence.

This style of play perfectly suits Barcelona, as it helps maintain possession in the midfield, therefore allowing the team to dominate. Pairing up Felix with a clinical striker who can make runs behind the defence would be lethal.

Félix sometimes drifts wide towards the left-wing, similar to what Messi does with the right-wing. This movement works in Barcelona’s favour due to Ansu Fati’s complementary style of play. While Fati is a left-winger, he possesses great striker instincts, which often drive him to move centrally. Fati moving into the centre while Félix drifts out wide can allow for some brilliant link-up play.

Speaking of link-up play, the Portuguese prodigy’s ability to make quick passes and link with other players is otherwordly. His technical ability allows him to control the ball beautifully and make all sorts of passes. Additionally, his intelligence aids his off-the-ball movements, and Félix often finds himself in dangerous positions. Here is a sequence demonstrating his link-up play and movement.

First, Félix excellently controls a lobbed pass from the right-back. He dribbles slightly into the center, finds Luis Suarez, and passes the ball to him using the outer edge of his leg.

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He then scans the surroundings, and moves in to the centre where he can get a good shot at the goal, and where Suarez can return the ball to him with ease. Suarez, with one touch, sets up the ball perfectly for a shot.

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Félix then shoots the ball towards the goal. Whle in this particular instance, the ball did not find itself at the back of the net, this type of link-up play will surely result in a goal or two during the course of the match.

Félix is a talent of the highest calibre and has everything in his arsenal to become a world-renowned player. Pairing him up with a pure striker like Erling Haaland — linked to Barcelona strongly recently — who is great at making off-the-ball runs and occupying defenders, will bring the best out of both players. A 4-2-3-1 system with, Felix as the Number 10, Haaland as the 9, and Fati and Ousmane Dembele on each wing could result in the deadliest attack in the world.

Statistical Analysis

In a world where everybody is obsessed with numbers someonel like Felix whose contributions extend beyond statistics, are often criticized. Despite that, though, his numbers are spectacular.

Félix is outperforming his xnpG90 (Expected Non-Penalty Goals Per 90) by nearly 0.14. This is a testament to his brilliant finishing. Even in a Diego Simeone side, which relies on counter-attacking football, Félix is scoring a goal every other game. Additionally, the 21-year-old has an outstanding 2.78 successful dribbles per 90. This is proof of his phenomenal dribbling ability. He is able to take on defenders and weave his way through low-blocks.

Moreover, Félix averages 1.74 key passes per 90, which is an excellent feat, and it stands as evidence to his playmaking and passing.

Here is how Félix compares to players in the league, with a similar profile.

Félix vs Griezmann

As the chart shows, Félix is outperforming Antoine Griezmann, who has been deployed in a number of roles at Barcelona, with more successful dribbles per 90, more passes into the box per 90, more non-penalty goals per 90 and has a higher dribble success rate.

Griezmann moved from Atletico Madrid to Barcelona for a fee of 120 million euros, which paved the way for Félix to move to Atletico. While Félix still hasn’t reached the peaks that the World Cup winner reached at Atletico, he is proving to be an excellent investment. Griezmann on the other hand, at 29 years old, has not found his footing at Barcelona. Not yet at least.

Félix vs Griezmann barcelona
Félix vs Odegaard

Martin Ødegaard, Real Madrid’s Norweigian prodigy, has been touted to accomplish great things. After spending the 19/20 season at loan at Real Sociedad, Madrid recalled Ødegaard in hopes of rejuvenating the midfield. At 21, as old as Félix, he’s being heavily outperformed by the Portuguese, with Félix dominating in every category except for Aerial Win%, Dribble Success% and Turnovers Per 90.

Félix vs Odegaard
Félix vs Oyarzabal

Spanish attacking-midfielder Mikel Oyarzabal is one of the best players in the league. The 23-year-old, along with Ødegaard, helped Sociedad finish 6th in La Liga in the 19/20 season. Currently, the Basque side sit first on the La Liga table.

Oyarzabal is a creative player, and one of the best in the league, who dominates the game with his passing, movement and vision. Yet, Felix is outperforming the Spaniard in every category except for Touches in the Box per 90, Succesful Pressures per 90 and Turnovers per 90.

Félix vs Oyarzabal
Félix vs Messi

Now finally, we see how Félix compares against the greatest player of all time, and the one he should be brought in to replace. Messi is enduring the worst season of his otherwise illustrious career. The Argentine was closer than ever to a Camp Nou exit in the summer, after a trophyless season and a war with the management.

While Messi is winning in most categories in spite of it being his poorest season, Félix is still scoring more non-penalty goals per 90 than La Pulga. Even though it’s his worst season ever, Messi is still Messi, and the fact that Félix can compete with him, at least on a statistical level, gives hope that one day, he might be able to carry the Argentine’s mantle at Barcelona.

Félix vs barcelona messi

Conclusion

Félix was purchased by Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019 for €125 million, making him the fourth most expensive player in history. Getting Félix’s signature will not be easy for several reasons. He has a contract with Atletico till 2026, which puts the Madrid club in a position of power when it comes to negotiations.

Félix is a superstar in the making, and Barcelona will regret if they miss out on his signature. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS

Every club in the world will most likely fight for the wonderkid’s signature, so convincing him with a good project will be key. As of now, a project at Barcelona is non-existent, at least till the new board is elected. Additionally, the Catalan club is in financial hot water with monumental debt. Replacing Lionel Messi is going to be the hardest task in the history of football, but talents like Félix, give us, and Barcelona hope that it can be done.

Heat-maps from Sofascore.
Pie charts from Football Slices.

My name is Malhar. I've been watching Barcelona ever since I saw Barca's Spanish players dismantle opponents for fun in the 2010 World Cup. Over the years, my love for Barcelona has evolved into a passion to write about Barcelona. I love writing about the club. I usually have very unpopular opinions, but I'm proud of them and I stand by them. Feel free to discuss about anything related to football, with me!

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

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?

Offensive effort

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:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. 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?

barcelona work rate

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.

Defensive effort

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:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. 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?

barcelona work rate

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.

Overall

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.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. 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:

barcelona work rate

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.

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.

Final thoughts

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.

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