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Analysis

Sergi Roberto: Justifying the selection

How did Sergi Roberto perform against Villarreal and why should he play more in this new role in midfield?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Imago

Barcelona got back to winning ways in a 1–4 thumping of in-form Villarreal. There were many positives to take from the game. But the one person who deserved massive praise for standing out in midfield was Sergi Roberto.


On Sunday, in the visit from Barcelona to Villarreal, when the line-ups for the fixture were announced, culés were left in a confused state. The inclusion of Sergi Roberto in midfield made absolutely no sense to them when youngster Riqui Puig was doing impressively well. However, what followed was 90 minutes of absolutely firm and resolute performance from the Spaniard. It was Sergi’s first start since he suffered a fractured rib against Leganés.

For a long time, the 28-year-old has been lauded for his versatility. Be it right-back or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always puts a shift in that position. Nonetheless, in the fans’ opinions, he is a jack of all trades but a master of none. As Puig has been doing fabulously well since Quique Setién has given him an opportunity, starting Sergi Roberto in midfield ahead of him didn’t go well with the supporters. Notably, while playing a team that’s doing very well, one would expect Setién to go with players who are in form.

Notwithstanding, Villarreal proved to be a less challenging task than expected. The Yellow Submarine is chasing a berth in next year’s Champions League. And so, they were tipped to turn up against the Catalans. But Setién’s men were ready for the match. From the very first whistle, they were in complete control. One of the players who received massive praise for pitching in an excellent and professional display was Roberto.

Sergi Roberto’s role in the game

As we all know, Quique Setién was put under the microscope for his handling of Antoine Griezmann against Atlético de Madrid. To incorporate the Frenchman, the manager went with a 4–4–2 diamond. Sergi was responsible for providing an equalling number at the centre of the pitch. Villarreal went with a 4–4–2 that had a double pivot of two sturdy defensive midfielders. Thus, Sergi Roberto was deployed on the sides of Barça’s diamond midfield to provide stability and control and generate numerical superiorities.

Sergi Roberto midfield Barcelona Villarreal

Sergi Roberto excelled both in midfield and at right-back, where he would have recorded an assist to Lionel Messi had it not been for a previous offside position from Arturo Vidal | Photo by José Jordán / AFP via Getty Images

As expected, he didn’t have the most glittering performances. Instead, he did what he was told to do. With a pass accuracy of 97.7% and a total of 95 touches, Roberto had a calm and controlled impact on the pitch. He carried the ball for a total of 311 yards and was one of the most progressive players on the pitch. Furthermore, in the entirety of the match, he was dispossessed only once.

Defensively, he was more involved in pressing down the middle. The Catalans gave no time for the hosts to build with the ball. Sergi Roberto was crucial in ensuring that Villarreal’s midfield wasn’t given enough space to work its way upwards with the ball. Instead of tracking back and making tackles, the attacking threat was halted at the centre of the pitch.

There’s no way that the diamond would have worked without a player doing the tireless legwork. Even Quique Setién was appreciative of the shift the La Masía graduate put in.

“He was spectacular. He came with positive and renewed energy after that injury. I’ve told him that he has to be versatile. He does it well. He always does it to perfection”

Quique Setién
on Sergi Roberto’s performance versus Villarreal

The fans, the coach, and even Roberto were pleased with the role he was given and the subsequent exhibition. The outing against Villarreal was one of the most satisfactory displays that Barcelona have showed collectively since the restart. Since the dominant performance against RCD Mallorca, this was the first away game where there was control from the start till the end.

Conclusion

The likelihood of Quique continuing with this tactical approach is high. The incorporation of Antoine Griezmann was helped with the settling in of Sergi into the role he was given. The 61-year-old tactician seems to finally be finding the correct combination for his starting XI.

“Tactically, it has been a while since I played there. Sometimes I play central midfield but on the right, and today I was on the left side, where I am most comfortable. It’s where I played for Barça B.

I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun, with space and focused on the opposition’s defence. It’s a shame I had to go back to right-back [late on] but I am happy to help the team playing wherever”

Sergi Roberto
on his new role

It will be interesting to see if the same approach is applied for the upcoming games. With the blaugranas hosting rock bottom RCD Espanyol on Wednesday, a dominant performance is mandatory. With Sergi Roberto bringing a more calming presence to the midfield, there is no reason why Setién should alter his role. The versatility of Sergi is something that should be appreciated a lot more than it is.

Be it right-back, or central midfield, Sergi Roberto always gives his 100%, shifting from both positions with ease. He might not be the most technically astute player, but he understands the Barcelona way to the fullest. It will be interesting to see what the formation and tactics are when Frenkie de Jong returns from injury. To incorporate Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann, only a diamond-shaped 4–4–2 seems to be the likely solution. But the midfield at the heart of the pitch is critical, and Sergi Roberto appears to have found his best role under Setién.


See more

Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Villarreal 1–4 Barcelona

• Why Xavi Hernández shouldn’t take up the coaching job at Barça yet

• Antoine Griezmann is smiling again in Barcelona

• Lionel Messi: Fed up with Barcelona or with the board?

I started writing so that I could bridge the gap and pass time on days when there were no matches. But little did I know that writing about the beautiful game would amp up my love for it. I've always wanted to learn more, and share whatever insights I have on the game, to anyone, anywhere. The world stops for 90 minutes when your team plays, and that for me is very much true.

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

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?

Offensive effort

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:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. 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?

barcelona work rate

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.

Defensive effort

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:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. 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?

barcelona work rate

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.

Overall

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.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. 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:

barcelona work rate

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.

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.

Final thoughts

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.

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