Lionel Messi has been at the top of his game for quite some time, but now the surrounding players need to ease his workload.
After many years of association, silverware, individual, and collective glory, there is no need for elaborating Leo’s importance to Barça. He has been pivotal to the club’s continued success across all fronts amidst all the questionable actions by the board. Throughout the days of pain, pleasure, ghastly, and glory, Messi has had a heavy importance and has remained a consistent performer. Indeed, although small in number, there are days when he has had bad games. However, on the grand scheme of things, one can only speak of the many moments where he single-handedly carried Barça to glory. Unfortunately, there is a pressing need to be realistic.
Coming June, Messi will be 33. And even though he still has a few more years at the top, he can’t be left to do everything. It isn’t a question of checking if he has declined statistically. Because if you look at the numbers, he remains the club’s most productive player. Currently, he is at 19 goals and 12 assists, averaging 4.8 shots, 2.5 key passes, and 5.4 dribbles per game in La Liga.
There is a growing need for specific individuals around Messi to step up and free him off an obligatory workload. It’s not in fear of his decline, rather a need to preserve his presence. The club is far from being ready for the inevitable post-Messi era. Even though Bartomeu claims that the board have been preparing for that, there’s no sign of any truth in his words.
In relation to the club’s overall performance, these are the players who should increase their output:
I. Frenkie de Jong
The Dutchman has had a fairly disordered start to life at the Camp Nou. Although it is natural for a player to take some time to settle after a transfer to another club, he had to undergo this period amidst a challenging phase for the Catalans. A change in manager meant a change in philosophy, demands, and role.
Frenkie de Jong needs to up his game | Photo by Photo Agency via Imago
At Ajax, he averaged 1.5 key passes and 2.0 dribbles per game last season. His stats have gone down at Barça, although not drastically. Averaging 0.9 key passes, and 1.6 dribbles per game, it is clear that his involvement up top has reduced. The fact that he’s averaging 0.2 shots in comparison to 0.9 shots per game in the Eredivisie also adds to this case.
Undoubtedly talented, De Jong has the potential to involve a lot more in the build-up. The first season at such a demanding club is never easy. But at some point when he gets going, he must increase his creative output, especially because he can. He is capable of finding spaces, making intelligent runs, while catering to his defensive duties as well. By doing so, Messi will not need to drop as deep as he usually does.
II. Arthur Melo
Hampered by injuries and unforeseen off-pitch issues, Arthur’s second season in blaugrana colours isn’t going as expected. With several outlets reporting news of him leaving this summer, fans fear that he might be sold. After making only 12 appearances in La Liga this season, the cause of frustration is understandable. However, letting go of a player of his calibre would be a horrendous decision. He is only 23 and has already shown glimpses of what he can do across the two seasons.
In contrast to Frenkie, Arthur’s role is specific to his ball retention capabilities. He has shown immense composure on the ball. With nifty turns and well-timed body feints, he makes it almost impossible for the opposition to dispossess him. He is rarely dribbled past, and the average of just 0.3 per game, highlights his defensive solidity too.
Arthur needs to be given time to sort his issues | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
Giving the Brazilian time to regain his fitness and confidence is a no-brainer. Despite all the noise around his future, he has stated his desire to stay at the club for a lengthy period. Not only would it strengthen the midfield by giving an exciting partnership between Frenkie and Arthur, but would lead to a faster progression up the pitch.
As stated before, Messi has the habit of dropping deep and carrying the ball forward, which raises his workload. He is at the heart of every build-up and has a hand in almost every goal. The need for Barça’s enticing midfield prospects to up their game is imperative.
III. Antoine Griezmann
Griezmann’s move to Catalonia not only brought problems on the pitch but off-pitch as well. After the controversial move from Atlético de Madrid went through, the Frenchman’s role at the club became the primary question. Fans and pundits were left clueless as to whether he’ll take Suárez’s position, or would he be deployed at the flanks. With Ernesto Valverde choosing the latter, that too in the left-wing, it made it challenging for Griezmann to display his proficiency on goal.
However, he needs to be given credit for keeping his head up and working hard to settle into the azulgrana side. He has 8 goals and 4 assists, in the league, which is surely not his best numbers. The majority of his problems would be solved if he was allowed to play in his comfortable position.
Griezmann has to show his experience alongside Messi and share the workload | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Griezmann thrives at making intelligent runs into the box. His clever movement off the ball, and ability to find pockets of space made him a prolific striker for the colchoneros. In a team like Atleti, where the primary focus is on maintaining the defensive shape, he managed to produce impeccable goal-scoring stats. There’s no point in discussing whether the board made the right call in signing Antoine. From hereon, the priority should be to make things work on the pitch.
Since Messi remains at the right flank, the Frenchman won’t be finding many opportunities to cut inside and shoot. Instead, he can drift inwards from the left wing, and allow the left-back to make an overlapping run. On several occasions, Jordi Alba has made these runs which lead to pin-point cutbacks. The same strategy can be employed, thereby giving Alba more options while feeding a pass into the box. Earlier, the lion’s share of the cutbacks went to Messi, but now, Griezmann’s presence in the box presents more opportunities to score.
All these tactical options are at Quique Setién’s disposal. The Spanish tactician knows that his predecessor had depended heavily on Messi to change the game when things went wrong. He is also aware of the fact that the more dependant the team is on him, the more challenging it becomes to handle the post-Messi era. Instead of relying on the board for making big-named signings, Setién needs to devise a system where the output of the entire team increases.
Reducing the workload of Leo will not only expand his playing time but also improve the players around him, making them rise for the occasion. If not now, the focal point should shift from the Argentine at some stage. There is a growing need to make Barça a more well-rounded team that has an equally efficient contribution from all departments. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done, with a huge task laying ahead for Setién and his backroom staff.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
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?