Ousmane Dembélé is closing in on his return, and as the Champions League approaches, Barça manager Quique Setién will be happy to include him in his plans.
As the clock ticks down for the most coveted competition in the world to restart, a sense of thrill and even anxiety starts invading clubs and fans. With the return of a competition that promises to contain both epic and exceptionality, no one wants to be caught unprepared as the tiniest of details could define the fate of teams and players. Only 10 days are remaining until the Champions League kicks off again, and the picture of the squads and contest starts to clarify.
At Barcelona, not everything is rosy. The loss of La Liga to Real Madrid still hurts and menaces the Catalans with a trophyless season. In Europe, they are favourites to beat Napoli in the last 16 at the Camp Nou, despite the first leg having ended in a 1–1 draw at the Stadio San Paolo. But with the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Juventus all being potential rivals before the final, it doesn’t look too encouraging this time. To add insult to injury, Arthur Melo is negotiating an early exit, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal will be suspended against Napoli, a number of players are returning from injury, and all sorts of rumours and talks are taking the centre stage in the Barça camp.
But not all is bad news. Since the first day of his appointment in January, manager Quique Setién declared himself a big admirer of Ousmane Dembélé. Unfortunately, the Cantabrian boss hasn’t been able to enjoy a fit Dembélé yet, since the Frenchman suffered a hamstring injury in early February while he was recovering from previous fitness troubles. Before his latest setback, Setién expressed his satisfaction with the return of what would be a ”new signing”. Six months and a pandemic later, the young winger could now really be the new signing Quique has been longing for ahead of the Champions League.
“Dembélé can give us a lot. We will try to finally show what he has. Let’s hope that his performances will be continuous and see how good of a footballer he really is”
before Ousmane Dembélé got injured in February
Blessed with talent and pace, the quality of Dembélé has been exhibited only in dribs and drabs in his three years at Barcelona. Signed as Neymar’s replacement in 2017, he was said to be a short-term downgrade to the Brazilian, but a long-term improvement to Barça’s weakened options after Ney’s departure. But, while screamers against Tottenham Hotspur or Sevilla filled fans with excitement, Dembélé’s noise has been greater than his impact so far.
“You have to keep in mind that they are still young kids. His dedication, from what I have seen, is total and absolute. I have tears when I see the capacity and intensity in which he works”
on Ousmane Dembélé in February
Albeit some lapses, everyone is conscious of the brutal raw talent of Ousmane. However, his spell at Barcelona so far has been marred by injuries and ceaseless off-pitch controversies, which have led to continuous talks of what the youngsters doesn’t do versus what he could do. Such natural product has not been able to shine on a regular basis through three whole seasons, which should make the former Borussia Dortmund wonderkid certainly accountable for his difficulties.
But with this extraordinary gift, it is also the club who must have a specific program with him in order to take out his best version at Barcelona. Dembélé, now 23, has always needed a guidance and teacher to mark the path for a youngster that has many times behaved like a kid. Now, Quique Setién, a reported enthusiast of his nature and conditions, could be that mentor the French international needs.
There is little doubt about what an in-form Dembélé could provide to Setién’s side. Many times overly horizontal and harmless, this term at Barcelona the passing has had a much greater significance than the dribbling. But the dribbling is quintessential too, and Lionel Messi has been the only master of such art that has displayed it consistently. Barça need to be less academic and more rebellious, and dribblers like Dembélé, who have become endangered species, can provide the verticality, acceleration and unpredictability to leave two, three or four defenders with a simple technical action.
Can Ousmane Dembélé finally shrug off injuries and shine at Barcelona? | Photo by Carlos Sánchez Martínez / Icon Sportswire via Imago
Ousmane’s problems in his positioning and in being precise and fluid in tight spaces are well documented. But as true as this is, it must also be added that this season Barcelona have been in dire need of someone who wouldn’t follow the rules on the pitch. Or, better said, who would follow his own rules, while not breaking the collective structure either. Dembélé struggles to be delicate and disciplined, but such chaos may be useful at times too.
As rivals have spotted and exploited Barça’s weaknesses over and over again, their defects on the flanks have been exposed. When opposing defences use a compact block, the only spaces that they leave will be out wide. With Ansu Fati still not a regular starter when both Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann are fit, and with full-backs not being self-sufficient enough, a true dribbling and destabilising winger is needed for Barcelona. Quique Setién must be exultant with the well-timed recovery of Ousmane ahead of the Champions League.
On Tuesday morning, in the return from the group after their short holidays, Dembélé, Griezmann and Clément Lenglet have been doing light training and specific work. With 11 days until Barça host Napoli at the Camp Nou, starting Ousmane could be a bit too rushed. But the signs are positive and he could at least feature in the clash, and there are reasons to be optimistic. Ousmane Dembélé hasn’t played since November and underwent surgery in Finland in February, but now it finally looks like his return is closer than ever.
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.