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Analysis

Spotlight: Pedri and Busquets put up a midfield masterclass for Spain

Anurag Agate

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Photo by Jose Luis Contreras via Imago

International breaks are often despised by the fans. Though there are many reasons to this, the aptest example at the moment would be the one facing Bayern Munich fans. Their talisman, their top scorer, their best player Robert Lewandowski got injured playing against Andorra, a team ranked 151st in the world by FIFA. The Polish striker will now miss a match against RB Leipzig as well as both legs in the Bavarian’s Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain. International breaks are usually regarded as a nuisance. However, the current one has given Culés every reason to be happy.

Of the 14 players called up, eight had at least one goal contribution. A total of 14 goal contributions. This small hiatus from club football has been fruitful. Out of all these players, few have had an international break as productive as that of Pedri and Sergio Busquets’ have had with Spain.

Against Kosovo, both of them were at the top of their game. Though Jordi Alba got an assist, and it was a good performance from him, it was unfortunately not as much of a masterclass as it was for these two midfielders.

Following Spain’s 1-2 victory over Georgia, a few conclusions could be drawn. One was less of a conclusion. More of a fact that was just solidified yet again; once you put Pedri in the starting XI, you weren’t getting him out.

The prodigy

Luis Enrique yet again started 18-year-old Pedri Gonzalez in Spain’s midfield against Kosovo. In Spain’s 4-3-3, Pedri occupied the left interior position. A performance overflowing with confidence and personality, displaying both maturity and inventiveness.

In the 70 minutes that he played, the Spaniard got an assist. In all honesty, he could have gotten yet another assist if not for Ferran Torres’ shot being saved. However, what makes Pedri special is how he manages to stand out even without necessarily playing a direct part in the goals. It’s his simple style of play, his composure, his positioning, everything combined to make him a player who looks like he has been playing at this level for a decade.

Spain were clearly the dominant side yesterday. Not only statistically, but even on the field from what we could see. 918 passes to Kosovo’s 216, Luis Enrique’s side had 80.9% of the possession according to Whoscored. Out of 58 passes attempted, Pedri completed 49 leading to a completion rate of more than 90%. He was reliable in possession, as usual. Shielding the ball well with his body, even against larger opponents playing physically he has no problems.

This is partly due to his shielding, but also due to the fact that the opposition gets nowhere close to him when he has the ball. Receiving the ball, Pedri doesn’t always need to look up as we have seen. He is aware of his teammates’ positions in order to play quick passes to them. The similar was apparent yesterday, but when he did look up, his decision making would take center-stage.

Dani Olmo celebrates his goal. (Photo by Jose Luis Contreras via Imago)

Just because a player is open does not mean he is necessarily a good passing option. Kosovo are managed by Bernard Challandes, an admirer of total football, so much so that he bought an Ajax pennant to place on his car as a youngster. His team was tactically very smart. They would allow the interiors to receive the balls behind the lines after which multiple players would immediately press him.

Pedri was clearly aware of this. He would drop besides Sergio Busquets to receive the ball at times, and so would Koke. The interiors dropping back would allow the pivot, Sergio Busquets, either a simple pass to them or one to the wings to bypass the pressing trap. Pedri would scan the field well and though he saw Koke or Alvaro Morata open to receive many times, he would gauge the situation before pulling the trigger on the pass.

This decision-making when passing was one of the highlights of Pedri’s performance. The right passes with the right timing and with the right weight applied on them.

The virtuoso

At the bottom of midfield in a 4-3-3 lies the pivot. A position that requires the highest levels of awareness, intelligence, decision-making and timing both in and out of possession. In short, a position tailor-made for Sergio Busquets.

The Octopus of Badia, he’s one of the players we will miss most when gone. To encapsulate Busquets’ performance yesterday, one can take a look at the times when the teams were contesting for the second-ball. Technically inferior to Spain, these were occasions for Challandes’ team to dominate Spain physically and play their forwards through on goal.

Sergio Busquets during the game. (Photo by Jose Luis Contreras via Imago)

The teams would scramble and fight to get the second or third ball, the Kosovan players would come charging like a torrent onto la roja. Spain would know where to get the ball to next. Amidst the chaos, they would somehow get the ball to Busquets. A second later, the ball would be past the Kosovan players, past the torrent restoring tranquillity. Having been caught off-balance and the very laws of physics, along with their momentum, against them, the Kosovans could do nothing.

Sergio Busquets had one of his best games of the season yesterday. Deputizing at the base of midfield, he would be the first player the defenders would look to get the ball to. Possession through build-up at the heart of the team, Busquets at the heart of the build-up, he was indispensable. Through optimal positioning, he was always a passing option for his teammates leading to him having 7.5% of the team’s possession. However, his strongest asset yesterday? Line-breaking passes.

By playing the perfect line-breaking pass to his Spanish teammates, the veteran midfielder would make it look as if Spain had way more space than they actually did. Despite the risky nature of these passes, a 94% success rate with 87 passes attempted is very impressive. Out of the eight long-balls attempted, he completed seven. Busquets also had four key passes, the joint-most with three other Spain players.

Kosovo would often look to launch balls forward and attempt to win aerial duels. Yesterday, Busquets had to step in often in these situations. Though not very dominant with a 43% success rate, he attempted 14 aerials duels. On the ground, however, he was unbeatable. Four tackles attempted; four tackles won. What made these yet more impressive was the timing. Most, if not all tackles and duels were such that they stopped the opposition’s counter-attacks.

To sum it up, Serio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Pedri have essentially cemented their spot for Spain in the Euros. All three Barcelona players have shown to play at a very high level in these past few matches. This form carried over to the club’s matches presents a big reason to be optimistic for the fans.

18, living in India, obsessed with Barcelona and Spanish football. I am into football in any form: watching, playing, reading about, writing about...In particular, I'm very interested in youth football, especially La Masía. I try to learn more about the tactical side of football as well.

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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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