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.
How Joan Laporta swayed the Barcelona presidential elections his way
When the race for the presidency of the United States of America was a source of hot debate earlier in 2020, the New York times referred to Joe Biden as a “lurker”. Michelle Cottle wrote that one should never get in the way of an opponent digging his own grave. The lead-up to Joan Laporta winning the Barcelona presidential elections can be considered astonishingly similar in this regard.
The roots of political campaigns seldom change, be it leading a country or running a football club. To win, a candidate must know when to stay silent, when to object, what to promise, what to say and most importantly, what not to say. Appropriately navigating around all of these nuts and bolts is what constitutes the fundamentals of a successful campaign.
Such has been the case for Joan Laporta, who has run the cleverest campaign on his way to the president’s box of Football Club Barcelona. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to a stealthy predator, Laporta was patient and efficient in lethal measure. He chose his moments just right to get the better of his fellow candidates, playing to all his strengths to win over the socis and their votes.
When Laporta announced his candidacy for the upcoming elections in November, it came as a surprise to no one. Up until then, however, there was only one name on everyone’s lips — Victor Font. With his ‘Si Al Futur’ campaign, Font seemed like the ideal president to free the club from its shackles of mismanagement, financial crises as well as failures on and off the football pitch.
But as the race for club presidency unfolded, Laporta came from behind and navigated through the crests and troughs to slowly get the better of his contemporary. It was almost as if he willingly gave him a head start.
And Toni Freixa? In all honesty, he never stood a chance. After barely crossing the threshold of 2,278 signatures for his candidacy to be valid, he was always just the third party making up the numbers. His sympathies towards Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell were going to be major strikes against his name. Considering the downward trajectory the club has followed the past few years, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out Freixa is the most unsuitable candidate by quite some distance.
Amid Friexa’s rigging of online polls using automated bots, Laporta and Font locked horns in a contest for the presidency. A task that would entail reversing the club’s biggest financial crisis in its 122-year-history, getting their greatest ever player to stay after a near-disastrous end to his time at Barcelona and restore the club’s name to glory after over half a decade of tarnation.
The waning of Victor Font’s promising campaign
Seven years in the plotting, Victor Font had laid out a detailed project, seemingly covering every base from finances, to sporting project, to general management. He had even thought up a few great changes to make to enhance the efficacy of the club’s public ownership model.
Font believed starkly in returning La Masia to its pedestal of prime importance- The youth shaping the future. He advocated for a content-driven business model, an electronic voting system for future elections, and an advisory board of specialists to govern the club so that more members could be involved in the club’s decision-making process.
Then comes the headline of his project — bringing Xavi Hernandez back as manager of the club. The legendary Barcelona midfielder, returning to the dugout, this time as a coach. And back when Xavi just started out his managerial career with Qatari outfit Al-Sadd, he even backed Victor Font, saying that Font was “well prepared and a good candidate.”
Sounds ideal so far. But what went wrong? Amid all of Font’s preparedness, he did not account for possibly his biggest challenge — Joan Laporta. One cannot contest an election without expecting opposition. And when the opposition is as fierce and competent as Laporta, complications are more than obvious.
However, Laporta doesn’t fully come into the picture until much later. Font’s campaign began unravelling slowly but surely due to his own doing. All Laporta had to do was strike when the iron had been heated up for him.
First came his comments on current coach Ronald Koeman. Speaking of the Dutchman, Font said that if he were elected, Koeman would not continue as a coach regardless of his achievements. He faced a fair amount of backlash for these comments, which he later rescinded.
That was the first blemish. It is never a good sign in a campaign when you have to take your word back publicly. What followed was a seemingly flustered attempt to bring his perfect run so far back on track. A string of taunts aimed at Laporta, the over-insistence of Xavi’s involvement in the project, the agreement to postpone the elections and finally the debates drove the final nails into the coffin of what was a very potent campaign.
Font went on the offensive, so far as to say that Joan Laporta has no sporting project. He accused his campaign of being driven by nostalgia. Font stressed that we must look towards the future and the past only serves to teach from the mistakes it holds.
In fact, Font even tweeted his comments on Gerard Pique’s views about members voting for the future, reiterating that the past only serves to learn from mistakes. Pique, however, bluntly asked Font to remove the tweet, wanting nothing to do with the campaign. Font duly obliged, but in hindsight the tweet could be construed as a dig at both Bartomeu and perhaps Laporta.
Pique’s response was another tough pill to swallow. Then came the meeting to postpone the elections in January. At this point, Laporta had well and truly begun implementing his plans, and Font knew that he had stiff competition.
The pandemic has obviously created massive complications, and Font seemed eager to postpone the voting. While his reason that all socis cannot be guaranteed to vote was valid, it was clear that he also needed more time. Laporta had emerged as the favourite and an immediate vote would not have favoured Font. And despite initially pushing for having elections as early as possible, Font had found a way to stall, which once again did not go down well with the fans.
This was then followed by the eventual distancing of Jordi Cruyff and even Xavi himself from Font’s campaign. Jordi Cruyff even said that his father Johan would have himself voted for Laporta. The ultimate dagger that may have tilted the scales for good.
Amid all this chaos, Laporta carefully picked his battles and managed to overpower his opponent. Font has been very unfortunate in many ways, but his lack of experience in a political scenario like this has overshadowed his genuineness and ideologies.
Joan Laporta’s charge to presidency
There was already a lot going on for Joan Laporta as he entered the race for the presidency. After all, being at the helm of Barcelona during its most glorious spell in history has a fair amount of prestige to it. No matter the amount of time that passed, those times will always be looked upon with incredible fondness.
With the unfurling of his banner a mere 100 yards from the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Laporta made his presence officially felt. “Looking forward to seeing you again”, read the massive banner sending a message to both Barcelona as well as Real Madrid fans.
The first power move of many that helped him leapfrog Victor Font. From competitor to overwhelming favourite, Laporta has provided the perfect example of an ideal campaign. He stayed quiet while Font was the architect of his downfall. But when the time came, he struck just the right chords.
The manner in which Laporta spoke throughout his running was noteworthy. He had the confidence and just the right amount of arrogance in his statements. Laporta knew full well that he is backed by his immensely successful past. His pre-existing relationship with the players, club legends, and superagents in world football were all great weapons to support his candidacy.
He chose to retaliate against Font in very carefully selected moments. He chose to respond to Font’s comments about Koeman separately. He never addressed them directly, but he said he would honour Koeman’s contract and commitment to the club, which was the best answer. That provided the first distinction between the candidates.
During the presidential debates though, is when Laporta took the strongest stance.
“You must have worked a lot with Xavi, Jordi Cruyff and Benaiges, but they have all denied you. You have made a lot of corrections, you have had a lot of denials. Xavi, Xavi, Xavi, Xavi. You keep repeating that. Either you don’t know the reality of Barça or you don’t know these people. You will have worked with them, but they have denied you.”Laporta to Font during the first debate
Laporta reproached Font’s approach to the elections, which seemed to fully hinge on Xavi’s approval and arrival. He then pointed out that Font spent the final months of the campaign just rectifying the mistakes he made.
He was also quick to point out that when he was in charge of the club, eternal rivals Real Madrid did not win a single Champions League title. And in addition, he did not understate his influence among the players.
“One thing is clear: Messi wants to stay and we must make him stay. It is clear that if any of my rivals wins, it will be very difficult for him to stay. He knows me, and that I do what I say. What he wants is someone who appreciates him and he knows I work like this.”Laporta in the final presidential debate
He was also subtle but assertive in his comments about future signings for the club. Laporta said that he is in close contact with many superagents and that with him, Barcelona are capable of attracting any of the biggest superstars in the world.
Every time he spoke, it was as if he knew he had the votes in the bag. A sense of assurance always surrounds him. Even before it was official, he inspired confidence and trust. And somehow, it always felt like there was no better person to convince Lionel Messi to stay at Barcelona. Even though the Argentine’s departure seemed and perhaps still is set in stone. But with Laporta, there is optimism, even though it may be blind.
Laporta has played all his pieces to perfection, drawing out errors and capitalizing on them, much like Barcelona used to do to their adversaries when he was formerly in charge from 2003-2011. He capped off the final debate by saying:
“I showed up because I love Barça. We have to return joy to the Catalans. I know how to do it. Being President was an honour, and being President again will be the biggest challenge of my life.”
Times have drastically changed since then, however. He is now at the helm of a very different club than the one he left behind a decade ago. He has a whole host of challenges to overcome, with severely limited resources to do so. But again, when he took over back in March of 2003, the club were on the brink of relegation after years of mismanagement by Joan Gaspart.
A situation similar in many ways to the one Barcelona are in right now. A fresh-faced Joan Laporta, with the endorsement of Johan Cruyff back then, took charge with over 52% of the votes. The rest is history.