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.
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.