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Messi, Pjanic, Griezmann, Coutinho — Barcelona’s free-kick dilemma

Samuel Gustafson

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Photos via Imago and Getty

Lionel Messi has established himself as one of the most dangerous free-kick takers of his generation. However, the numbers show that his set-piece prowess is in decline.


Time and time again over the last few seasons, it feels as though a freekick goal from Lionel Messi has arrived to save Barça. Particularly during Ernesto Valverde’s reign, Messi seemingly always pulled off something magical to gloss over a shaky performance or lift the team out of a rough situation.

Whether this was a match-winner against Atlético Madrid, a freekick brace in the derby at Espanyol, a 90th-minute strike at Villarreal, which opened the door for a 93rd minute Luis Suárez equalizer, or an astonishing effort in the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool, Leo always seemed to deliver from these situations.

In the more recent past, though, freekicks have contributed to growing frustration among Barça fans, and the six-time Ballon d’Or winner himself. Whether they carom right off the wall, fly wide of the post, or fall slowly into the hands of the keeper, Messi’s set-piece shots as of late have been largely unsuccessful.

Should Messi still be taking every free-kick in every position? (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Given that the Barcelona squad includes some additional well-renowned freekick takers, the question arises: Should Messi be responsible for taking all of them?

While these alternatives do not come close to matching Messi’s career pedigree and output, they are still worthy candidates. One of them is Miralem Pjanić, who grew his reputation as one of the world’s best dead-ball specialists in his time in the Serie A.

Next is Antoine Griezmann, who was developing an impressive record before leaving Atlético Madrid. Finally, Philippe Coutinho has some memorable freekick goals in his locker, albeit his inconsistencies otherwise. The Brazilian is also a prestigious shooter from long range in open play.

With those four options in mind, what do the numbers say about who should be taking the side’s dead-ball shots?

Background

On this topic, it is important to remember just how heavily Messi has been relied upon when it comes to dead-ball shooting. This can be quantified using Understat’s shot data for matches in the big five European leagues since the 2014/15 season.

Compared to these other world-class strikers of the ball, Messi’s shot volume stands head and shoulders above the rest. In total, the Argentine has attempted 262 shots from direct freekicks in the timeframe to Pjanić’s 87, Griezmann’s 39, and Coutinho’s 29.

Furthermore, it is clear how Messi’s presence has caused the volume of others to level off and stop growing altogether since joining the club.

Of course, as Messi has taken the most shots by far, one would expect him to score the most goals. This is reflected by the group’s expected goals tallies – how many goals they would be expected to score from those shots based on factors like the distance to the goal and the angle.

Messi has accumulated an xG of 18.19, far more than Pjanić (5.38), Griezmann (4.28), and Coutinho (3.29).

Given that all four players are considered at least excellent freekick takers, they would be expected to score more than an average taker. That is where we can bring in each player’s actual goals scored and compare that tally to their xG.

For total freekick goals, the same trend continues. Coming out on top is Messi with 25, followed by Pjanić with 11, then Griezmann with seven, and Coutinho with five.

Examining their expected goals over/under performance (actual goals scored – expected goals) makes things far more interesting, though.

Well, if one were to glance at all of these graphs, they would still probably wonder why Messi’s duties are even being questioned. He has the most experience, the highest level of production, and has outperformed expectations the most out of the group.

But, that over/underperformance graph, particularly the end, shows that there is at least some reason for debate. For one, the players are much tighter here, and Messi is no longer the standout by a country mile. Instead, all four players have outperformed their xG, with Pjanić coming especially close to La Pulga.

Even more significant is the trend of Messi’s performance. One can see the ridiculous freekick clinic he was putting on from 2017 to 2019. At his peak, the Argentine had a cumulative xG overperformance of 9.35. Now, that is down to 6.81.

There has been continuous decline here from Messi since November of 2019, and it has gotten more dramatic in recent months. Now Pjanić’s total overperformance of 5.62 seems to say that he should be getting some chances, especially given the consistency at which the Bosnian has stayed relatively close to that level since all the way back in 2017.

Basically, that is where the concern over Messi presents itself. The number ten’s conversion of freekicks has been dropping at a fast rate. If this continues for a few months or so, he would find himself below Pjanić for cumulative xG overperformance, with Griezmann and Coutinho not far behind.

With the validity of the concern established, it is time for further investigation of the data. Total shots, goals, and performance relative to xG reflect a player’s experience and pedigree in dead ball situations, but they do not fully answer our question. We have to go beyond just a total volume of actions and look more into efficiency as well as form in a more specific timeframe.

Going deeper

To add to the analysis, a few new metrics will be incorporated into the comparison. The first two are freekick shots on target and shots on target rate. With a dead ball specialist, the benefits can go beyond just scoring goals. The ability to consistently get the ball over or around the wall and on frame opens the door for rebounds and corners.

Next is goal conversion rate. This simply measures the percentage of a player’s freekick shots which result in a goal. Once again, this helps take into account efficiency as opposed to simply volume.

The final new metric is xG over/underperformance per 100 shots. The purpose of this metric is to normalize each player’s total xG over/underperformance by dividing it by the number of shots they have attempted, then multiplying by 100. A tally of 11 here means that, at the player’s current pace, they would outperform their xG by 11 goals over the course of 100 shots attempted.

While these metrics will be used to examine more recent freekick form, it is still interesting to see how the group stacks up over the whole period.

messi free-kick
Messi, Pjanic, Griezmann, Coutinho free-kick stats: since 20.

Dark green signifies the best performance in the group, light green signifies the second best, yellow signifies the third best, and red signifies the worst.

In addition to reigning supreme in the volume metrics, Messi also boasts the second-highest shots on target rate in the group. However, his goal conversion rate and xG over/underperformance per 100 shots are actually the worst.

Meanwhile, in their lower volumes, Griezmann and Coutinho start to show more promise. The Frenchman has the third-highest rate for shots on target (not too far behind Messi), the best conversion rate, and the second-best +/- per 100 shots. Coutinho then impresses with the highest shots on target rate, second-highest goal conversion rate, and highest +/- per 100 shots.

Now, if their sample sizes were to grow bigger, some of those efficiency tallies would be expected to decline. Although they still go to show how dangerous Griezmann and Coutinho were from those freekicks, and that they should be considered serious options as well.

What if we narrowed down the timeframe to get a look at these metrics in the most recent seasons? Here is the group’s freekick performance since the start of the 2018/19 campaign.

messi free-kick
Messi, Pjanic, Griezmann, Coutinho free-kick stats: since 2018/19.

Messi’s peak in those Valverde years is evident, as he looks even better here. Like the Argentine, Griezmann ranked either first or second in the group for each metric during this time, showing how deadly the Frenchman was deadly in these dead ball situations.

On the other hand, Pjanić starts to look a bit less hot after his shooting volume dropped upon joining Juventus. Meanwhile, Coutinho had only attempted a handful of freekick shots during this time.

In an attempt to account for these fluctuations in volume – whether that be Messi’s extremely high number of attempts or Coutinho’s lack of recent efforts – the final comparison will level that playing field and focus on each player’s most recent form. Here is how the group has performed in each of their 20 latest freekick shot attempts.

messi free-kick
Messi, Pjanic, Griezmann, Coutinho free-kick stats: last 20 games.

It is very revealing stuff. Messi has had the best chances to score based on xG, but he has actually been underperforming by a good amount. Inefficient and underperforming – this is the Messi that has been lining up to take free kicks recently.

On the contrary, while Griezmann and Coutinho have not taken many freekicks in the last couple of seasons when they have been on duty most recently, they have been on fire.

Final thoughts

Taking all of this into account, should Messi still be taking every free-kick in shooting positions?

Yes and no.

At the end of the day, he is one of the best freekick takers of this era, and arguably of all time. The fact that the Argentine is going through a slump does not mean he suddenly lost the ability to score. Eventually, Messi is most likely going to bounce back and start converting every other free-kick he takes. It may not be at his peak rate, but it will be better what it is currently.

Then, there is the Messi effect. That is, the fact that La Liga opponents know him, respect him, and fear him more than any other player. Not only can this make opposition players timider with their defending, scared committing a foul, but after one has been committed, Messi’s gravity opens up new opportunities.

Gravity, in this case, means the way in which Messi impacts the positioning of defenders, and how much of the attention he draws. That is what leads to situations like these:

messi free-kick
Messi free-kick vs Real Sociedad.
messi free-kick
Messi free-kick vs Cadiz.
messi free-kick
Messi free-kick vs Deportivo Alaves.

That last example – from Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo in the 2019/20 season – is a perfect example of the benefits this can have for the team. Because of Messi, the defenders line up in a way that they would for nobody else, which can cause chaos. Then, as he sucks in all of their attention, a simple lofted pass to Luis Suárez leads to a Barça goal.

This fear that Messi instills in the opposition and the way he manipulates them can not be replicated, even when he is in poor scoring form. Keeping him on the ball can lead to more situations like these. Thus, sticking with Messi on freekicks would not only likely see him bounce back from his slump, but it would also open the door for more creative, dangerous set play design.

With all of that being said, though, the right decision certainly seems to be to decrease Messi’s dead ball responsibility. One prominent reason actually has nothing to do with his poor freekick taking form, it is the fact that the club need to start their transition to life without him.

As sad as it is, Messi is aging, and he came close to departing already. It would benefit the side to start phasing him out of some duties at least partially.

Additionally, lowering Messi’s workload would be for the good of the squad right now. If a player is struggling to score freekicks, why have him continue to take all of the opportunities? Splitting up the responsibility would allow for someone else in more clinical form to come in, while decreasing the pressure on Messi and still giving him enough opportunities to make an impact and get out of his slump.

Who should that second taker be? Based off of career production, the choice would have to be Miralem Pjanić. Based off of most recent form, it would probably be Antoine Griezmann and then Philippe Coutinho.

So, there is not a clear choice as to which player should see an increase in their freekick taking volume, but it certainly seems like it would benefit the club to try out the different options.

Stats from FBRef/Understat

“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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Player Analysis

The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo via Imago

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Frenkie is flying, and Barcelona are better for it. (Photo via Imago)

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.

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