Translating his impressive form from Barcelona B, Uruguayan centre-back Ronald Araújo earned his first senior start on Saturday against Mallorca. Deserving of more?
To be able to make the leap from a second team to the top flight, one of two things is required: personality, or maturity. Obviously, and ideally, both traits should come together. However, if one has certain limitations in one aspect, he can compensate them by standing out in the other. For instance, many argue that La Masía 20-year-old midfielder Riqui Puig does not have a physique matured and developed enough for the First Division. That said, his uniqueness, self-confidence and personality regardless of the opponent is what makes him such an exciting prospect.
There are others who are not as special in terms of talent as him, of course. This could be the case, for example, of Barça B’s Monchu Rodríguez or Ronald Araújo. They may not be the best in terms of raw qualities, but their unmatched competitiveness and maturity for someone of their age is what has made them receive call-ups for the first team in recent times.
While all-round midfielder Monchu is waiting for his debut as he made his first senior squad list on Saturday to face Mallorca, Uruguayan centre-back Ronald Araújo enjoyed his second appearance with the big boys this past weekend. He had already been handed his debut by Ernesto Valverde back in October at the Camp Nou against Sevilla, as he came off the bench in the 73rd minute to replace an injured Jean-Clair Todibo. Nonetheless, that day had a bittersweet taste for Araújo as he was sent off only 14 minutes later for a challenge on Chicharito Hernández.
Even so, back then it already looked like that was not going to be his only minutes with the blaugranas. His progression in the past two years has been stellar, since he was signed for Barça B from his native Uruguay in 2018. A defender with excellent physical and defensive conditions, hardly any Second Division B striker has been able to beat him in a duel. Strong and tall, with 1.93 metres that allow him to be an imposing figure in both areas, Araújo impresses with his ferocious competitiveness in spite of his 21 years of age.
Still, his main weakness since arriving to Barcelona has been his footwork and adapting to the Catalans’ positional play. While no one doubts his defensive expertise, it’s his ability to build up play what needs most improvement. Notwithstanding, Barça B coach García Pimienta has been guiding and teaching him from day one, and Ronald now looks much more settled into Barça’s game. Despite he will never have others’ talent to break lines, his positional sense and intelligence with the ball at his feet have experienced an impressive evolution since 2018.
❛ I worked hard to make this opportunity happen. I am very happy and excited. I tried to enjoy it to the fullest ❜
after his first start against Mallorca
With his physical readiness and combativeness, it is clear that making the leap to the elite will not be a problem for him. Therefore, with Clément Lenglet suspended and Samuel Umtiti just returning from an injury, manager Quique Setién did not hesitate to give Ronald Araújo the full 90 minutes away against RCD Mallorca on Saturday. It was Barça’s first La Liga game after a three-month break, but Araújo didn’t seem out of place at any moment. In fact, he looked as if he had been playing alongside Gerard Piqué for ages.
It is true that Mallorca were not a too challenging opposition this time, and the circumstances were not the appropriate ones to judge someone. But, while the Bermellones‘ Takefusa Kubo was very threatening with his trickery, the Uruguayan managed to remain composed, solid and concentrated. He was very attentive to make a block or interception, recorded the most completed passes with 99 out of 104 attempts (95% accuracy), and had the joint-most clearances alongside Piqué, both with four.
❛ I always work to play. I trained a lot during confinement and also learned tactical aspects that I lacked ❜
The high position of sweeper keeper Marc-André ter Stegen throughout the entire match took off some responsibilities from Araújo in taking the ball out from the back. Still, the youngster did exactly what a coach would demand from his inexperienced centre-back: to not take risks. He did play it safe most of the times, but not earning much attention already shows that he was calm and polite and did nothing wrong. When a defender makes the headlines, that usually is because of a blatant error, but that was not the case for Ronald. Instead, he looked almost as experienced as others.
With Lenglet returning from suspension and Umtiti in need of minutes as he needs to prove his value before a potential transfer in the summer, Ronald Araújo may have a subsidiary role as the fourth centre-back this season. Nevertheless, with five substitutions allowed per match, with him being the only right-footed centre-back other than Gerard Piqué, and with rotation needed with the dense schedule ahead, Araújo could be enjoying many more minutes with the first team than before.
❛ My teammates and the coach gave me a lot of confidence. Years ago I chose them [Barça] on the PlayStation, now I share dressing rooms and matches [with them]
He [Luis Suárez] has helped me a lot, not only in football matters, and before the game he gave me a hug ❜
After his solid performance against Mallorca, the coaching staff may have been reassured of the 21-year-old’s capacities and may place their faith in him more often. If Piqué needs rest, he could be his first back-up rather than having to use a left-footed defender on the right. Moreover, with Jean-Clair Todibo on loan at Schalke 04 but rumoured with a highly questioned move away from Barcelona in the summer, Araújo could be pushing for a permanent promotion ahead of next season. As he continues to collect professional minutes, Ronald Araújo looks to rise in the pecking order at the same time that he earns Setién’s full confidence.
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.