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.
Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season
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.
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 STEGEN||79.34|
|FRENKIE DE JONG||84.63|
|KONRAD DE LA FUENTE||2.64|
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.
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.