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Evolution Or Revolution – Barcelona


Evolution or Revolution is a new series from Stats Perform looking at which teams need only a few tweaks ahead of the 2020/21 season and which require a fundamental reboot. We turn our attention to Europe, where Spanish giants Barcelona have come off one of their worst seasons in recent memory. Where did it go wrong for them last season, and what can they do to arrest the decline? 

By: Albert Valor

A Lack Of Firepower Going Forward

While Ernesto Valverde’s first two seasons in charge of Barcelona yielded two LaLiga titles, his side really struggled this season. So much so that Valverde was sacked halfway through it and replaced by Quique Setién. Neither of them could improve Barca’s performances on the pitch, with the Catalan’s much-fabled attacking power one of their biggest areas of decline.

Barcelona's Last Ten Seasons - LaLiga

SeasonGoals ForGoals AgainstGoal Difference

Barca had reached or surpassed the 90 goal mark in their previous nine seasons up until 2019/20. Six of those campaigns saw them score over 100 league goals, and these all came in back-to-back seasons from 2011/12 to 2016/17.  This season, Barcelona scored just 86 goals in LaLiga, their lowest record in the last decade, and their first total under 90 since 2007/2008 (76).

Expected goals (xG) data backs this up. Barcelona registered just over 68 xG this season, comfortably their lowest total of the decade, and they also suffered decade-lows for shots and shots on target.

Stats Perform’s sequence data shows that Barcelona once again dominated possession this season, but struggled to do anything meaningful with it. On average they made 5.3 passes per sequence and held onto the ball for 13.8 seconds on average, both decade-highs. Their direct speed (simply how quickly a team progresses the ball directly upfield) was at 1.2m/s, the slowest it has been in the past 10 years. So, the Catalans had possession of the ball for longer periods of time than ever before but struggled to use it effectively to break down teams. They generated decade-low numbers for chances created, key passes and through balls, suggesting that they are desperately missing the incisive, penetrating passes from the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta and the pace of forwards running onto the ball in behind defenses.

Stats Perform Verdict: Evolution Required

Defensive Frailties

At the same time, the Blaugranas conceded 38 goals in the league, their highest since 2012/2013 (40). Indeed Barcelona’s goal difference (48) is their worst record in the last ten seasons.

While Barcelona ended in second position in the league, their defensive record was only fifth-best in the competition, behind Real Madrid (25), Atlético (27), Sevilla (34) and Getafe (37), and tied with Athletic (38).

Expected Goals Against - LaLiga 2019/20

TeamxG AgainstGoals ConcededxGA Differential
Atlético de Madrid33.0276.0
Real Madrid33.6258.6

Barcelona’s expected goals against (38.7) is their third-highest this decade. Their three worst seasons in terms of expected goals against have all come in the last three seasons which points to defensive frailties within the current squad.

This season hasn’t been the fondest for Marc-André ter Stegen. The Barca stopper had a save percentage of just 69% this season, the 10th best percentage in LaLiga 2019/2020 of those ‘keepers who played over 500 minutes. More recently we have been able to isolate an individual goalkeeper’s performance using our expected goals on target (xGOT) model. Using this model, we can predict how many goals a goalkeeper would be expected to concede, given the quality of the chance (xG) and the end goalmouth location of the shot.

Ter Stegen was expected to concede 29 goals this season, according to our xGOT model. He actually conceded 30 goals, so one goal more than the average goalkeeper would have bee expected to concede. In short, he was below league average this season.

To make matters worse, Real Madrid’s number one had arguably his most accomplished season at the Bernabéu. Thibaut Courtois registered a league-best save percentage of 79%, and his efforts prevented almost seven goals this season according to our xGOT model, just behind Unai Simon of Athletic Bilbao who led the league.

But it’s not just Marc-André ter Stegen who was culpable, as the team conceded seven league penalties, their second-worst performance since in 2003/2004 when Opta started to collect data on the competition.

Discipline was also a major problem for the Catalans. They suffered 86 bookings, 11 more than any other season in the last decade. Gerard Piqué saw 15 bookings, the joint-highest tally in the season (tied with Damián Suárez of Getafe) and Barca also committed their most fouls since 2016/17 (416).

All this information points to the fact that Barcelona struggled to control matches and had to resort to more of the dark arts when trying to neutralise opponents.

Stats Perform Verdict: REvolution Required

An Overreliance On Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi scored 25 goals in LaLiga this season, his lowest record in LaLiga since 2008/2009, when he scored 23. That said he did provide 21 assists to his teammates, the all-time record for LaLiga in a single campaign (his teammate Xavi clocked up 20 assists in 2008/2009).

Messi was involved in 46 goals this season (25 goals, 21 assists) out of the 86 Barcelona netted – a 53.5% share. The Argentinian magician has surpassed the 50% mark six times in the last decade, reaching his highest percentage in 2011/2012 (57.9%).

Lionel Messi provided 21 assists in LaLiga 2019/2020, the best tally for a player in a single LaLiga campaign in this 21st century.

Barcelona's Second Highest Scorers - LaLiga

2010/2011David Villa18
2011/2012Alexis Sánchez12
2012/2013Cesc Fàbregas11
2013/2014Alexis Sánchez19
2015/2016Lionel Messi26
2016/2017Luis Suárez29
2017/2018Luis Suárez25
2018/2019Luis Suárez21
2019/2020Luis Suárez16

In recent years, however, while Messi is the chief creator and scorer of goals, he has usually had a good supporting cast. Lionel Messi has been Barcelona’s top scorer in LaLiga in ten of the eleven campaigns dating to 2009/2010. The only exception came in 2015/2016 when Luis Suárez won the Pichichi with 40 goals. The above table shows the goal tallies of those who scored the second-most goals behind Leo.

Lui Suarez scored just 16 goals this season, the lowest figure for the second-highest goalscorer since 2012/13. Messi missed a partner in the Barcelona attack, and although Suárez has been Barcelona’s second top scorer in the league in the last four seasons, the club have already told him that he’s not in the plans for the next season.

It is clear that now more than ever, Barcelona are too heavily reliant on the Argentine for a source of goals. It’s a good sign that Barcelona have held onto Messi, but the Catalans need more out of their star-studded squad to support him.

Stats Perform Verdict: REvolution Required

Review other pieces in this series:
Manchester United
Manchester City
Tottenham Hotspur
Leicester City
Leeds United
West Brom

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