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Analysis

Looking at the best Barcelona dribblers in recent years

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by Alex Caparros

Many of football’s most skilled dribblers have showcased their talent for Barcelona. By going beyond basic statistics, we can identify who these players have been in the past few seasons.


One of the most important football skills is retaining possession of the ball. Whether a side actually plays a possession-based style or not, having players who can avoid turning the ball over before looking to shoot or pass is crucial.

So, does this mean players who commit the most turnovers are the worst dribblers? Well, using data from Football Reference, if we define turnovers as miscontrols plus dispossessions, here are some of the “worst” dribblers in the big five leagues in the last three completed seasons:

Note: Sample includes outfield players who played at least 1,000 league minutes in a big five European League in 2017/18, 2018/19, or 2019/20.

• 2018/19 Christian Pulisic – 2nd most turnovers per 90 minutes in sample
• 2019/20 Neymar – 3rd most
• 2018/19 Neymar – 4th most
• 2017/18 Wilfried Zaha – 8th most
• 2019/20 Wilfried Zaha – 9th most
• 2018/19 Wilfried Zaha – 12th most
• 2018/19 Adama Traoré – 14th most
• 2018/19 Franck Ribéry – 25th most

There are over 4,000 player seasons included here, so all those names are in the bottom 1%. Elsewhere in the bottom 100 are names like Kai Havertz, Richarlison, Mohamed Salah, Anthony Martial, Josip Iličić, Ante Rebić, Allan Saint-Maximin, Ángel Correa – plenty of great to world-class players.

From a Barcelona perspective, the two players who averaged the most turnovers per 90 minutes in 2019/20 La Liga were Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi.

So, what are the clear issues here?

• Bias against advanced players. The higher up the pitch you get, the more eager the opposition is to win the ball, and the less space you have to work with.
• Bias against players who carry most of their team’s creative responsibilities. These players get a lot of their team’s advanced touches, have to try and create something with those touches, and they can be keyed in on by a defence who recognizes their importance.

How do we combat this? Those players mentioned are far from poor with the ball, so how do we go beyond the fact that they seem to be doing bad things with it very often?

Methodology

For a solution, we turn to multiple regression. This involves using multiple independent variables to predict the value of the dependent value (turnovers). Those independent variables ended up being:

• Touches in the defensive third per 90
• Touches in the middle third per 90
• Touches in the attacking third per 90
• Touches in the attacking penalty area per 90
• Dribbles attempted per 90
• Passes under pressure per 90

In short, it takes into account where on the pitch a player gets on the ball, how risky they are with it, and how often they are under pressure from the opposition.

The multiple regression takes each player’s tallies in those metrics and uses them to try and predict the number of turnovers they “should be” committing. We will call this prediction expected turnovers (or xTurnovers). When plotting each player’s expected turnovers per 90 (with the minimum set to zero) vs their actual turnovers per 90, this is what it looks like:

best dribblers

The model looks promising and has sound predictive power. Time to get into what it can tell us.

Best and worst dribblers

By comparing that expected turnovers number to the number of actual turnovers committed, we can locate some of the most skilled players on the ball who retain possession more than they would be predicted to. On that basis, here are some of the top overperformers in the data:

dribblers turnovers
Expected Turnover Overperformance per 90

Right off the bat, that displays a lot of progress. While someone like Lionel Messi in the 2019/20 season can average the second-most turnovers on his team, adding this context shows the elite skill on the ball he truly possesses.

In addition to Messi, the top ten features some of the most dynamic players the game has to offer. The rest of the top 50 is then filled with names like David Silva, Serge Gnabry, Raheem Sterling, Cristiano Ronaldo (2017/18), Ousmane Dembélé, Kingsley Coman, Luis Suárez, Neymar, Ángel Di María, Riyad Mahrez, Karim Benzema, Jadon Sancho, and more.

On the flip side, here are the bottom ten individual seasons:

dribblers turnovers

Now, while the added context of this expected turnover over/underperformance is clearly valuable, a player who performs poorly here can still not be declared outright bad.

Near the bottom are talented players like Duván Zapata, Yussuf Poulsen, and Sébastien Haller (at Eintracht Frankfurt), none of whom excel in terms of agility and dribbling.

Furthermore, the poor performers still include players who possess good to excellent technique, but who maybe overdo it at times and need some refining when it comes to their decision making. This includes Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Jonathan Bamba’s last season at Saint-Étienne, Nicolas Pépé’s first season at Lille, 17-year-old Mickaël Cuisance in 2017/18, and Adnan Januzaj.

So, like any metric, this is not an all-encompassing measurement of a player’s overall ability. Rather, it is an examination of how skilled they in a specific area: avoiding turnovers.

It can be used to identify some of football’s most dynamic players with the ball at their feet such as Jeremie Boga, Kylian Mbappé, and Bernardo Silva. Conversely, it helps identify those who struggle in this facet of the game, whether it be for their lack of dynamism or quality decision making.

Application to Barcelona

Lionel Messi has already been showcased for his incredible performance in all three seasons, but now it is time to analyze the whole Barça squad. To start off, here is how the qualified squad members stacked up for the 2017/18 campaign:

The brilliant attacking duo of Messi and Luis Suárez led the way while legendary Andrés Iniesta, despite being in his final season at the club, was still showing off his superb technique and close control. New attackers Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho performed well but needed a bit of time to adapt.

Moving on to the 2018/19 season:

After having some time to settle in, both Dembélé and Coutinho saw significant improvements to this aspect of their performance. Also worth noting is the tally of Samuel Umtiti, which was brilliant for a centre back and reflected his superb play that season.

Unfortunately, some signs of the ageing squad also began to show. Messi’s tally, while still elite, was slightly lower than it was the previous season. Furthermore, the performance of Suárez, Busquets, and Piqué dropped significantly.

Some of these worrying signs continued in the 2019/20 campaign:

There was a further decline from Messi and Piqué, while Suárez and Busquets levelled off. Ivan Rakitić also joined the ageing drop off club. Perhaps the most startling decline, though, was that of Samuel Umtiti, who had gone from outperforming his expected turnovers by 0.25 in 2018/19 to underperforming by 0.67.

In the French World Cup winner’s case, it was not age that caused this, but injury. By all accounts, Umtiti, recently has not been anywhere near the world-class player he was in years prior, and this is a reflection of his struggles.

On a brighter note, based on this analysis, the biggest positive of last season was the emergence of an incredibly dynamic attacker for such a young age, Ansu Fati. The fact that he turned the ball over 1.49 fewer times per 90 than expected is a testament to his maturity beyond his years.

The Best Barcelona Dribblers XI

We combined the best dribblers Barcelona have boasted of in recent season to create the “Ultimate Barça Dribbling 11”. That is, an 11 made up of the best individual seasons of expected turnover performance in that position, in the last three campaigns, not inlcuding 2020/21.

The goalkeeper spot will be given to Marc-André ter Stegen as keepers were not included in the analysis. Nobody outside of him would have a large enough sample size anyways, and he is pretty great with the ball at his feet. Here is how the rest of the side shaped up with a limit of one inclusion per player:

A few of the selections may be a bit surprising at first. While his career at the Camp Nou did not go as planned, there was no denying Thomas Vermaelen’s quality on the ball. That 2017/18 campaign was his only one meeting the playing-time threshold, and even then he barely made it over 1,000 minutes.

Junior Firpo taking the left-back spot is another that may seem odd at a glance. But while Jordi Alba has clearly been the better full back overall, the former Betis man attempted and completed more than double the dribbles per 90 of Alba in 2019/20 and carried the ball forwards more frequently.

The last player here who presumably could cause a bit of a stir is the Brazilian in midfield – Paulinho. A fan of his style and signing or not, he boasts some impressive metrics from his lone season at the club. The former Tottenham man was very active in the attacking third and penalty area while performing quite a bit of carrying and dribbling, and he still kept his turnovers low.

Overall, that is largely the team you would want to field if you needed the whole side to be dynamic with the ball at their feet and beat defenders or weave through tight spaces. Of course, there is so much more to the game, which is why you still need your distributors (Busquets), runners (Alba), defensive and aerial presences (Piqué), and more. It is still an interesting concept to apply, though.

Closing Thoughts

One metric at face value never tells the whole story, especially one as skewed as turnovers. By adjusting the data, working jointly with multiple metrics, and finding correlations, we can extract far more meaningful insights.

In addition to going beyond turnovers by themselves, this analysis does the same for base dribbling statistics. Look at Ansu Fati last season, for instance; he had a solid volume of successful dribbles, but his success rate was shallow.

While that poor efficiency seems to point to a player who is erratic on the ball in tight situations, Fati actually outperformed his expected turnovers by 1.49 per 90 minutes. It all comes down to context.

By adding context and looking at things from a new perspective, we can gain a far better understanding of evaluating a player’s performance and identifying the best of the best.

“Més que un club” is the saying that everyone knows, and for me it’s 100% accurate. Barça have given me so much over the years. Through all the highs, lows, triumphs, and heartbreaks, nothing can take away from the joy and entertainment I’ve received through watching this club play. Now, I hope that I can help spread these emotions with other supporters like me around the world.

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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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