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Analysis

What can Miralem Pjanić provide to Barcelona?

Regardless of whether a swap deal with Arthur Melo is positive or not, what could Juve’s Miralem Pjanić offer Barcelona?

Suhas Achanta

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Header Image by Jonathan Moscrop / Sportimage via Imago

While in the eyes of culés there are multiple negatives in swapping Arthur Melo, Juventus’ Miralem Pjanić could still be a very useful addition for Barcelona if the deal goes through.


Arthur Melo‘s spell at Barcelona seems to be coming to an unpopular conclusion. The Brazilian is slowly gaining interest in leaving the Catalans to join Juventus as the board doesn’t value him enough. With the 23-year-old heading to Turin, Juventus’ Miralem Pjanić is tipped to be heading to Barcelona. As much as the fans don’t want this swap deal to happen, it seems more likely as the days progress. So, instead of lamenting over the inevitable, let’s take a look at what Pjanić could offer to Barça if he arrives.

Career overview

Miralem Pjanić started off as a young and promising midfielder in the French top flight. He played for French outfit FC Metz for a season where they got relegated, finishing rock bottom. Despite being only 17, he played 32 league games for Metz, starting 27 times, where he got 4 goals and an assist. He was extremely impressive and deservingly won himself a transfer to Olympique Lyonnais.

At Lyon, he established a foundation for his style of play. Taking set-pieces, willing to shoot from long-range, and the ability to feed pin-point passes were some of the qualities he harnessed. As he slowly began to earn a reputation across Europe, he would finally leave Ligue 1 in the 2011/12 season to join AS Roma for a fee of €11 million.

The Serie A seemed to be the perfect league for Pjanić. Despite being a smart player with the ball, he is relatively slow when compared to other central midfielders. The pace of Italian football seemed to be easy for him to acclimatise to, as he didn’t have to run too much. In Italy, the expectation on a midfielder is to pose the capabilities of unlocking defences through an extraordinary range of passes. Fortunately for the Bosnian, he was an excellent passer.

Miralem Pjanić Juventus Barcelona

Admittedly, the current has been one of Miralem Pjanić’s worst seasons at Juventus | Photo by Jonathan Moscrop / Sportimage via Imago

Roma was the ideal club for him. He started off the bench, but slowly became a crucial player for them. As the games progressed, his involvement in the team’s build-up began to rise massively. Every attack was either started or set-up by Pjanić. Towards his final two seasons, he was making double figures on goal contribution with ease. He scored 15 goals and provided 22 assists across 2014 to 2016 and, when Juventus came calling, he couldn’t refuse.

His five-year stint at Roma would end with a move to Turin for a fee of €32 million. Miralem is into his fourth season as a Bianconeri, where he has earned himself an incredible reputation for his playmaking. At Juve, the philosophy reduces his chances of direct goal-contribution. In spite of that, he manages to get himself bags of goals and assists through set-pieces and long-balls. He is a talented midfielder who is bound to improve any team with his vision. Unfortunately, he is Juventus’ only playmaker, and that makes it very challenging for him without any creative players around.

The role of Miralem Pjanić if he joins Barcelona

There is a never-ending question amidst this transfer saga: why do Barcelona need Miralem Pjanić? A lot of uncertainty looms over whether he is the right profile and if he is the player Barça desperately need. After all, if the blaugranas are willing to offload Arthur, then it must at least be for a player who gives everything that is required, right?

Pjanić is neither pacy, nor agile. He isn’t press-resistant like Arthur and can be dispossessed easily at times. However, despite the several drawbacks, he has an extraordinary vision. Under former manager Massimiliano Allegri, he was deployed more as a central midfielder. His duties pertained to more advanced distribution and had a lesser defensive job. Allegri’s system focussed more on building an overall defensive structure where a player with a wide range of passing is needed for distribution.

Under current boss Maurizio Sarri, he is being used as a regista. And this requires him to carry the ball and move progressively across the pitch. Sadly, Sarri is unable to get the best out of him in that role, which is why they want Arthur.

In the azulgrana colours, Pjanić can revert back to how he was playing under Allegri. He can feed nifty passes between the lines and work in a midfield of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong where he doesn’t have to worry about ball progression. The former will take care of resisting the press, while that latter will deal with the dynamics. As a result of this, all Pjanić has to do is focus on his craft: splitting defences open.

Sami Khedira Miralem Pjanić Juventus Barcelona

At Juventus, Pjanić has been partnered up by more destructive rather than creative midfielders | Photo by Marco Alpozzi / LaPresse via Imago

As we already know, Lionel Messi tends to drop deep for the sake of providing a creative outlet for Barça. He has been doing this quite frequently since the departure of Andrés Iniesta. Even so, he is now 33, and there is a need for the Catalans to preserve his services. He can’t be left to do everything, as it would take a massive toll on his body. There is a need for the midfield to ease his workload by being able to feed passes that bypass the backline.

Messi’s trademark long balls that are received by Jordi Alba on the left flank also need to be provided by another player. Pjanić is capable of feeding such passes, and this would allow the Argentine in conserving the energy he spends by dashing into the opposition box. Messi can play more as a false nine or even as a wide-man cutting inside. At the moment, Barcelona doesn’t have a player who can share Leo’s playmaking responsibilities.

Coach Quique Setién will obviously have to devise a way to cover for Miralem Pjanić’s light frame that reduces his defensive actions. He can be bullied easily by sturdy players, and there is a possibility that Barcelona’s midfield becomes too timid due to the lack of physicality. Pjanić would be excellent alongside Arturo Vidal, for example, whose physical presence could give him more freedom. The future of the Chilean is uncertain, though, and Miralem could form an excellent possession-oriented triangle alongside Sergio Busquets and De Jong.

Conclusion

At the moment, it’s reported that the only thing that’s holding the Arthur–Pjanić swap is the decision of the Brazilian. He wanted to stay, but is now flirting with the idea of joining the Old Lady. Obviously, Arthur would be looking for guarantees under Sarri and a boost in his wages. On the flip side, the Catalans would have to deal with Pjanić’s wage demands as he earns more than Arthur.

Nonetheless, the current transfer market is one of the most unpredictable ones we have ever seen. A market hit by the ravages of the pandemic is bound to discourage reckless spending. Even though the swap deal seems to be inevitable, there’s always a chance that it may breakdown in the final stages. For now, the ball is in Juve’s court to convince Arthur.

But from Barcelona’s perspective, the fans should come to terms with the fact that Pjanić is the player who will be replacing Arthur. He may not be the ideal player who ticks all the boxes. Still, that doesn’t make him any less of a talent. Signing him would increase the midfield’s creative output, and reduce the burden on Messi. The Bosnian may have a few flaws to his playing style, and his age, 30, is also a factor that may discourage many. But he might actually be the player who could flourish under a system of more freedom.

Quique Setién won’t pose restrictions on him like Sarri and Allegri, and this would let him unleash his creative prowess to another level. His service on the ball is something that goes under the radar, and furthermore, he is a player who poses a tough mind frame. He is very vocal and could be someone who can provide an imposing control in the dressing room. He would be able to dictate the play by continually speaking with the players on the pitch.

If Setién can succeed in integrating Miralem Pjanić into the squad and making him understand the Barcelona way, then he might not be a bad signing at all.


See more

A positive for Barcelona: an improved defence

• The silent resurgence of Iván Rakitić

• Editors’ Takes: Debating on the Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club

• Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig must play if Barça wants to stay alive

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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