If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?
Opposition Analysis: How can Barcelona beat Real Madrid
One of football’s grandest matches is set for this Saturday: El Clásico. Some of the biggest names in the sport and most intriguing storylines of the season will come head to head. Real Madrid sit third in the league table, only two points behind Barcelona and three from cross-town rivals Atlético Madrid. Whatever the result, it will have direct consequences on whoever hoists the trophy in May.
The 2020/21 campaign looked grim for both Barça and Real only a few months ago, but both teams have since improved drastically. In the first El Clásico of the season, Madrid made Barça’s poor start to the season even worse, beating the Catalans 3-1 in the Camp Nou. Suffice to say, a lot has changed since then. Join us as Barça Universal takes a closer look at Barça’s biggest rivals.
Shaping into form
As mentioned, what started as a poor season has slowly emerged into something much better for Los Blancos. They have been devastated by injuries, they were eliminated in the Copa del Rey by a third-division side, and at one point, winning La Liga seemed completely unrealistic. Their situation was like Barcelona’s: serial winners that looked set for trophyless seasons.
However, Real now find themselves three points off of league-leaders Atlético Madrid, and they just defeated Liverpool 3-1 in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals. If there is one thing the defending La Liga champions have shown over the last few years, it’s that they step up when they need to. After a poor December and January, Madrid are undefeated in their last 12, having won ten and drawn twice.
Barça will need to play some of their best football of the season to get a positive result at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano.
Under Zinedine Zidane, Madrid have been versatile and tactically flexible. Regardless of his style, the trophies speak for themselves. Under his watch, they have won two La Liga titles and were the first and only team in history to win three Champions Leagues in a row. Nevertheless, the team Barça will face on Saturday looks a bit different nowadays.
Injuries have decimated Real all season long, and they will enter El clásico without first-choice centre-backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane and right-back Dani Carvajal. Nonetheless, this was not a problem when they saw off Liverpool 3-1. Zidane typically opts for a 4-3-3 formation but has recently toyed with a 3-5-2, like Barcelona. Given the width of Barça’s play, Zidane could choose to play with wing-backs to counteract Jordi Alba and Sergiño Dest. On the other hand, on Tuesday against Liverpool, he used a 4-3-3.
Like Barça, Real are dominant in possession, typically build-up from the back, and aim to control games by dominating the middle of the park. They play well both vertically or by slowing the game down. In all competitions this season, they average 60.4% possession –for reference, Barcelona average 65%. According to whoscored.com, 42% of their attacks come down the left-hand side, heavily utilizing left-winger Vinicius Jr. and left-back Ferland Mendy.
Defensively, they have the third-best defensive record in the league.
Offensively, this squad has been a shell of itself, failing to score goals ever since Cristiano Ronaldo departed in 2018. Madrid have scored 78 goals across all competitions this season, and an average of 1.76 per La Liga match. On the other hand, Barcelona have scored 101. Los Blancos have scored three goals in a match only nine times this season, compared to Barça’s 17. Furthermore, according to understat.com, they are underperforming their expected goals in the league by five, meaning that they should have, in most respects, scored more goals than they did.
Their leading goalscorer and key player is talisman Karim Benzema – March’s La Liga player of the month – who has 24 goals and six assists this season. Alarmingly, tied as their second-leading goalscorer is center-defensive-midfielder Casemiro, with six.
Real tend to build up from the back, but without Varane and Ramos, they are considerably more fragile at the back. Those two are comfortable on the ball, especially the latter, so their absence has shaken things up at the back for Real. As such, midfielder Toni Kroos often drops deep to pick up the ball. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois can also play long balls over the top to Karim Benzema, or left-back Ferland Mendy can carry and progress it forward.
Against Liverpool, Courtois and Kroos often attempted long balls to left-winger Vinicius Jr, looking to capitalize on Liverpool’s high defensive line and pushed-up full-backs. If Barça press with intensity and consistency, they can force Madrid to play it long and win back possession. Nevertheless, if Barça utilize a high line, which they almost always do, they will have to be wary of long balls into the spaces between the wing-backs and centre back.
Midfield and Attacking Play
Other than Benzema up top, the key to Madrid is their midfield. The iconic trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric, and Kroos continue to show why they are one of the best of all time. Although they have dipped in form this season, their recent performance against Liverpool was impressive, as they controlled and dominated the game. Kroos, in particular, tore them apart with his eagle-eyed passing, earning a brilliant assist, causing the second goal with his long ball, making four key passes, and a having 91% completion rate.
Kroos also averages 4.59 shot-creating actions per game and has ten assists, while Modric has ten goal contributions, and as aforementioned, Casemiro is tied for their second-leading goalscorer.
With the ball at their feet, they will have plenty of passing options with Benzema dropping deep, and wingers Asensio and Vinicius Jr. and full-backs Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez making runs. Kroos attempts a staggering 24 long passes (passes more than 30 yards), per game and will surely keep an eye out for any space to exploit.
Against Liverpool, almost all of Real’s goals came from the midfield and forwards capitalizing on individual errors, something Barça have been susceptible to in the past. The Blaugrana will need to be composed and switched on from the get-go. They can not afford a slow or sloppy start, like against Real Valladolid last week.
As a team, Real Madrid are not afraid to play direct and right at their opponents, nor do they hold back when closing opponents down with intensity. They will be particularly lethal on the counter-attack, given the pace of Vinicius Jr. and Marco Asensio. Madrid will also look for crosses into the box to Benzema or Casemiro, who makes devastating runs into the box.
Supporting runs and overlaps will come from full-backs Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez. This attack-minded duo combine for, according to understat.com, almost three key passes a game. Mendy is also the team’s fourth-most targeted player with passes and plays a key role when building up from the back or in the final third. He will often make overlapping runs past Vinicius Jr or wreak havoc more centrally.
Left-winger Vinicius Jr. attempts 6.57 dribbles per game at a clip of 51.5% and often looks to use his speed and flair to get past opponents. The Brazillian had an impressive game against Liverpool, scoring a brace. Dest notably played very well against him in the first el clásico in November, and hopefully, he can do it again. Furthermore, Barça have played against some lethal quick players in recent months, such as Kylian Mbappe, and they should learn from those lessons.
While the wingers are dangerous, Karim Benzema is still the biggest threat. After all, he has more goals than the next four leading-goalscorers combined. The Frenchman has carried Real’s attack for the last few seasons and is in mighty form over the last few games, scoring in each of his last six league appearances and scoring nine goals in his last seven appearances. Below is a visual representation of Benzema’s shots (blue) and goals (green) in La Liga this season. Evidently, he is a threat from all over and must be tightly marked.
How can Barça beat them?
Although Liverpool struggled to create chances against Madrid’s makeshift backline, their defence is noticeably weaker without Ramos and Varane, and Barça should test them with all they have. With their full-backs pushed high, Alba and Dest can maraud down the wings, and Dembele can find space to run onto. Lionel Messi should also be able to pick out passes in and behind their backline, but the key for Barça will ultimately be their midfield. If Frenkie De Jong, Sergio Busquets, and Pedri can dictate the tempo and keep Madrid’s midfield trio on their heels, they can walk away with a meaningful result.
While Vinicius Jr. and Asensio aren’t exactly prolific goalscorers, they can find spaces in between Barcelona’s wing-backs and centre-backs. On the other hand, the three-man backline should help with covering. Furthermore, that should help Barcelona contain Benzema, but with his constant movement, he will be hard to close down.
For inspiration, Barcelona can look to their performance against PSG in the second leg, where they quickly closed down their opponents, dominated the midfield battle and controlled tempo. Whoever wins the battle in the middle of the park could very well win the game.
Both teams are in incredible form over the last few weeks, but as shown in the past, form does not matter coming into a Clásico – all bets are off and anything can happen. Quite often, the results come down to individual brilliance, and Barça have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.
Despite injury struggles, Real have a knack for finding ways to win, but there are holes in their squad that Barcelona can exploit. On the other hand, the Catalans are not invincible either and will need to play one of their best games of the season. Their defence that has been susceptible to careless mistakes and lapses of concentration must sharpen up, just as their attack that has squandered many chances must be lethal.
Real have won the last two matchups; Barça haven’t beaten them since March 2019, and Messi hasn’t scored against them since March 2018. Will that all finally change?