On Wednesday night, Barcelona played Espanyol, who set up defensively in a low block. A static Barҫa struggled to create many clear chances as they scrapped a 1–0 win. In a game that was crying out for Riqui Puig, he once again found himself as an unused substitute
Wednesday night’s Barcelona Derby had extra importance to it as anything but a win for Espanyol would see them relegated. Before the match at the Camp Nou even began, it was clear Barҫa’s rivals would use a low block, an effective strategy against the European giants. Barcelona coach Quique Setién put his trust in the same system and players that had excelled against Villarreal in the previous game. The only change was Iván Rakitić replacing Arturo Vidal in midfield.
However, the team was uninspired and slow in its play. After the game against the Yellow Submarine on Sunday night finished around 12 a.m. local time, the blaugranas still had media commitments and a three-hour long bus journey back to the Catalan capital. This showed and rotations were desperately needed to freshen things up.
What was missing?
There was a lot left to be desired after another lacklustre performance from Barcelona on Wednesday. After an impressive display previously, culés were hopeful for similar against their fierce rivals. Instead, fans witnessed another disappointing and boring match, something that has become a regular occurrence this season.
Though Espanyol defended admirably in their low block, there were a number of mistakes made by the Spanish champions. They failed to face the problem head on and instead hid behind their comfortable backwards and sideways passes. A lack of movement and width made life all too easy for the Periquitos to close out the space in the middle. Sergio Busquets, who put in another stellar performance, was forced to take five or six touches at times as there was no forward options to pass to.
After undoubtedly being one of the standout performers against Atlético de Madrid, Riqui Puig was a substitute against Villarreal and didn’t get minutes versus Espanyol | Photo by Marc González / Zuma via Imago
Quique Setién tried to amend proceedings in the second half by introducing young Ansu Fati to provide more width. It was unfortunate that he was shown a red card almost as soon as he came on. This could have influenced the substitutions that Quique used later in the match.
Nevertheless, again, his choice of substitutions left a lot to be questioned. Arturo Vidal was introduced for Antoine Griezmann and was far less effective. When Barcelona needed to stay in control of the match they took off Antoine. He was keeping the ball well and finding space between the lines, but the manager replaced him with a less composed player. Martin Braithwaite was introduced too late and centre-back Ronald Araújo was brought on for midfielder Iván Rakitić with only minutes remaining. The most notable absence was Riqui Puig, who should have played.
Why Riqui Puig?
Whenever he has been called upon, Riqui Puig has delivered outstanding performances for the team. His energy both in attack and defence really boosts the team’s intensity. He understands exactly what FC Barcelona is about and how their style of football should be played.
In the Derbi Barceloní, Puig would have been one of, if not the, best option in midfield. Against a team that plays with a low block, the 4–3–1–2 formation struggles to break down the defence, as the game gets congested in the middle. Instead, a 4–3–3 helps to stretch the opposition and create pockets of space around the pitch.
Riqui Puig, in his favoured interior role, would favour moving the ball at a quicker rate to help create that much-needed limited space. Additionally, his ball progression and ability to pick up threatening areas on the pitch helps to generate more chances for the team. A midfield solely of Iván Rakitić and Sergio Busquets does not do this effectively.
It would have been a major statement if Quique Setién had started Riqui Puig, or at least given him substantial minutes as a substitute. It would have shown that he trusts the youngster, especially in a game such as the Catalan Derby. The coach’s trust is a huge part in a player’s development, along with regular game time to keep match fit.
“Football is about having the best offensive play possible. I always like to play offensive football, and nobody will convince me otherwise”
Also, by not playing the La Masía graduate and opting for more defensive changes, it seems Quique Setién was content with a sluggish 1–0 win against bottom of the league. Puig has earned the right to more minutes than he is currently getting. When he has played, he has arguably been Barcelona’s best midfielder and offers a better balance to the team.
For fans, it was disappointing not to see Riqui Puig, not even as a substitute, on Wednesday night and instead watch a tired Barcelona scrape an uninspired win. Quique Setién seems to be making the same mistakes that Ernesto Valverde did during his time. He is overplaying the same core group of players and they become fatigued. This leads to a drop in standards and intensity which was evident against Espanyol.
Quique must freshen things up and players like Riqui Puig are ideal for this. Young, energetic, eager to impress and with undeniable quality, the 20-year-old should be given more opportunities. The Spaniard offers an attacking threat that most other current Barҫa midfielders cannot. His vision, positional intelligence, sharp turn of pace and ability to move the ball quickly is exactly what the team needed last night. Puig has been undervalued by the Barcelona hierarchy and must be given a more prominent role in the team.
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.