While there are several valid criticisms of the performance of the Barcelona manager, there has been one major factor he can’t control. The stats show that Lionel Messi has been in a bit of a goal scoring slump since Quique Setién took over, which has certainly made his job harder.
It would be incorrect to pin the failures of Quique Setién and his Barcelona all on the recent drop off in the finishing of Lionel Messi. However, since taking over at Barça, he clearly hasn’t had the luxury of a Messi in his best scoring form. While previous managers, mainly Ernesto Valverde, were constantly bailed out of poor results by incredible Leo goals, the numbers show Setién has been very unlucky in this department. Therefore, we will be taking a look at what those numbers are, what they mean for the manager’s performance so far, and what they mean for the future.
Better chances coming under Quique Setién
One might try to argue that the arrival of Quique Setién has caused Lionel Messi to take up fewer goalscoring positions. While he certainly has been providing frequently in recent matches, Leo’s expected goals actually show the opposite of that claim.
Expected goals is a stat which represents the probability of each shot resulting in a goal, taking into account factors such as the location of the shot and the type of pass it came off of | All stats from Football Reference
This chart compares the Argentine’s non-penalty expected goals per ninety minutes from the previous two La Liga campaigns, as well as the current one split between the two managers. Clearly there was a remarkable drop off for Messi at the beginning of this season with Valverde as manager. With his expected goals being cut in half, the number ten was not getting into anywhere near as many good shooting positions as before.
Although, since the appointment of Quique Setién in January, the expected output of Lionel Messi was back on par with the previous two La Liga seasons. This rejuvenation which occurred after the new manager’s arrival was a sizeable one. In order to fully grasp the difference for Messi under Valverde versus under Setién, let’s take a look at the distribution of his total non-penalty expected goals this season.
An astonishing 70% of Leo’s tally have come in matches with Setién as manager, as opposed to just 30% in matches under Valverde. Making this even more impressive is the fact that the Argentine has played the exact same amount for both managers so far this season: 1,170 minutes. Getting one of the world’s best finishers better chances certainly seems to bode well for Setién. Nevertheless, far fewer of these chances have been actually finished off.
Failing to capitalise
It’s a weird thing to say about a player leading the race for another Pichichi trophy as La Liga’s top goalscorer, but Messi has been in a scoring slump in recent months. Especially for his ultra-high standards, the Argentine has under performed for Quique Setién in terms of his actual goal numbers.
While Messi’s expected goal chart saw a massive decrease this season under Valverde followed by a return to normal under Setién, that is not the case here. There has been another decrease from last season to the start of this one, but this has been followed up by a further decrease since Quique’s arrival.
In fact, looking at this campaigns, Messi’s actual goal numbers are almost the opposite of his expected goal numbers. While his expected tally per 90 was more than twice as high under Setién, his actual goals per 90 is almost twice as high under Valverde. This reversal is shown further when comparing the distribution of Messi’s goals by manager this season.
Quite astonishingly, 70% of Leo’s non-penalty expected goals came with Setién as manager, but only 35% of his actual goals. This shows quite remarkable over-performance by the number 10 in terms of making goals out of nothing under Valverde. But it also shows the amount of chances Lionel Messi has failed to convert under Quique Setién.
What this means for Setién
Whether you’re a fan of him or not, it’s undeniable that Quique Setién has been massively unlucky in not having the huge advantage of peak Lionel Messi finishing. How many times in the last few years has Messi pulled off an incredible long-range effort or curling free kick that completely rescued Barça? On the contrary: how many times in recent months have we seen Leo just miss the target on a chance you would have bet all your money on him scoring? For instance, this shot against Celta de Vigo, which was put wide of the goal:
While the manager has undoubtedly made errors, he hasn’t had the luxury of his predecessor in which Messi seems to make up for them. This can be seen especially in Setién’s two draws and two losses with Barcelona in La Liga. In these four matches, Messi had a combined expected goals of 1.9, but he didn’t score at all. Two goals in these matches – or maybe even three considering Messi averaged one goal for every 0.66 expected goals ( excluding penalties ) in his two full seasons under Valverde – could have seen Barça gain multiple crucial points in the title race.
There was certainly no way Quique Setién could have accounted for this drop in finishing from the Argentine. For a player who consistently performs well over his expected goals to suddenly drop and actually perform below them is something truly unpredictable. With Messi firing in goals at the rate he was under Ernesto Valverde, Barça could very well have been top of the league right now. With this in mind, it’s clear that Setién is undeserving of some of the criticism he has been getting.
This is in no way blaming Barcelona’s struggles in the title race on Messi. Obviously, he has still been the blaugranas‘ most important player, even with his goal rate dropping. Rather, this is just using the data to give Quique Setién credit for having to deal with an issue that other Barcelona managers have not had to.
The positive of all this for Barça fans is that this is just a temporary slump for Messi. It happens with all great athletes, and Leo will soon bounce back and return to his usual self in front of goal. When this happens, it will be a scary site for opposition defenders. As mentioned previously, Lionel Messi has gotten far more chances under Quique Setién this season than he did under Valverde. So, when he regains his clinical form and starts putting them away at a higher rate, the goals should come flying in.
With that in mind, this serves as a major reason to give Quique Setién more time and patience. He has made some inexcusable errors that shouldn’t just be swept under the rug, but he has also been quite unlucky. If he can learn from his mistakes and set up the squad in the best way possible, those improvements could coincide with the resurgence of Messi’s finishing. It is hypothetical, but that would return Barça to a level at which teams are scared to play against.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.