It’s superb how orderly the LaLiga desk appears for the time being. The highest 4 are Actual Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, simply as they had been final yr (albeit in a unique order), and FiveThirtyEight provides all of them at the very least a 79% probability of ending there.
Barcelona have possessed the ball greater than anybody, as ordinary. Actual Madrid have tried probably the most pictures. Sevilla have achieved “Artful Sevilla Issues” (they’ve scored probably the most set piece targets, as an illustration) and have gained quite a bit regardless of an usually unexciting assault. Atletico have allowed the fewest shot makes an attempt and xG within the league, as is usually the case below Diego Simeone.
Over the course of 38 matches, the desk has a method of righting itself after early wonkiness, and that’s by no means been extra clear than on this season and this league. Atletico spent a superb portion of the season getting ripped aside in transition in a method we’ve not often seen below Simeone. Actual Betis and Actual Sociedad have spent weeks and weeks within the prime 4. (Their combat isn’t over simply but, however the odds are lengthy.) And naturally, Barcelona started the season an outright mess.
Barcelona misplaced Lionel Messi in August due to their ongoing debt and monetary disaster. They misplaced three of 4 LaLiga matches throughout one October swing and fell to ninth within the desk, all whereas getting unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League. They fired Ronald Koeman and, in membership legend Xavi, changed him with somebody who had solely ever managed within the Qatari Stars League.
Barca seemed on their strategy to a jarring and vital rebuild. Their debt was intimidating and their odds of ending within the prime 4, per FiveThirtyEight, had been lower than 50% for many of November. That’s nearly remarkable on this period, however since Xavi took over, they’ve misplaced simply twice in league play. They’ve averaged 2.3 factors per sport, a tempo that may have gained LaLiga final season.
In fashionable soccer vogue, in addition they tried to spend their method out of debt, including much-needed attacking expertise in Ferran Torres (from Manchester Metropolis), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) and Adama Traore (mortgage from Wolverhampton Wanderers) in the course of the winter switch window; consequently, they’ve scored 29 targets of their 10 league matches because the switch deadline. They outscored Atletico and Actual Madrid by a mixed 8-2.
They only encountered their first actually unhealthy week shortly, shedding at dwelling to each Eintracht Frankfurt within the Europa League quarterfinals and relegation-threatened Cadiz in league play. It took the shine off of what was a very good run of type, and it reminded us that the workforce would possibly nonetheless be a piece in progress.
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It may well really feel moderately unusual to step again and speak about Barcelona within the current tense. Even when the workforce is enjoying properly, the Barcelona Switch Rumor Industrial Complicated retains us distracted with the long run. However as a very unusual, topsy-turvy season begins to wrap up, let’s check out how issues have modified since Xavi (and January’s attackers) got here to city and the place Barca nonetheless have loads of work left to do.
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A correct transition workforce with defensive glitches
Let’s begin with some fundamentals. For the season, right here’s how Barcelona rank inside LaLiga in key statistics:
Assault: Second in targets scored (1.94 per 90) — second in pictures per possession (0.15) and third in xG per shot (0.14)
Protection: Sixth in targets allowed (1.03) — second in pictures allowed per possession (0.10) and eleventh in xG per shot (0.12)
Possession: First in possession fee (64.8%) — second in passes per possession (6.7), second in carries (490.9 per 90), second in touches within the attacking third (214.8 per 90), first in touches allowed within the attacking third (104.7)
Strain: First in passes allowed per defensive motion (8.7), second in possessions began within the attacking third (8.7), first in common possession begin (36.9 meters upfield)
Recreation state: Second in aim differential per 90 possessions when tied (+0.9), fourth when forward (+0.6), second when behind (+1.6)
Set items: Thirteenth in set piece targets (0.2 per 90), 14th in set piece targets allowed (0.3)
Transition: Third in targets scored per 90 transition possessions* (1.1), 14th in transition possessions ending within the attacking third (11.8%), eleventh in targets allowed per 90 transition possessions (0.5), third in opponent transition possessions ending within the attacking third (17.7%)
* I’ve been defining “transition possessions” as possessions that begin outdoors the attacking third and final 20 or fewer seconds.
This paints a reasonably acquainted image of a heavy-possession workforce that sometimes will get caught out in transition. The numbers would possibly change a bit, however you’ll discover comparable strengths and weaknesses for many ball-dominant golf equipment, like Manchester Metropolis, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and so forth.
Since Xavi took over, Barca have turn out to be a bit extra affected person. Their general numbers have improved on common — targets are up, targets allowed are down, and so forth. — they usually’re doing a greater job of tilting the sphere of their favor. They’re much less more likely to fall behind (+1.2 aim differential per 90 possessions whereas tied), they usually’re infinitely extra more likely to catch up when behind (+3.9). And whereas they’re seeing fewer transition possessions general, they’re ending extra of them within the attacking third.
A lineup in fixed flux
Clearly Barca’s run of type in February and March was notably spectacular, and it underscores one other accomplishment within the nascent Xavi period: They’ve managed fairly vital enchancment regardless of fixed lineup churn. Since Xavi took over, solely three gamers have performed greater than 75% of minutes in all competitions. Between accidents, acquisitions and experimentation, the lineup has been in fixed flux.
Share of minutes performed below Xavi:
(Seventeen different gamers have performed lower than 10% of minutes on this span, too.)
That’s a rattling mess proper there! When Pedri and Aubameyang have performed collectively, Barca have taken 25 of 27 factors from 9 league matches — and, admittedly, solely 9 from six Europa League matches — however 9 isn’t quite a bit, and now Pedri’s out for the season with a hamstring harm. Winger and wunderkind Ansu Fati obtained all of 89 minutes of motion below Xavi earlier than struggling his personal hamstring harm. (He’s anticipated to return to at the very least a small position quickly.)
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Nonetheless, the outcomes have been intriguing if you concentrate on what Barca’s base lineup is likely to be for subsequent season. Aubameyang, energized and engaged for seemingly the primary time in two seasons, has scored 10 instances in 16 matches, whereas Torres has seven targets and 5 assists in 19 matches. Oft-injured Dembele, who’s out of contract this summer season however would possibly nonetheless be open to a return, has created 53 possibilities with 11 assists in simply 1,530 minutes below Xavi.
What do Barca want shifting ahead?
With no additional cup play remaining this season, Barca have seven extra league matches (together with tough journeys to Actual Sociedad and Actual Betis and a go to from Champions League semifinalist Villarreal) through which to experiment earlier than the 2021-22 marketing campaign closes. Then it’s time to really determine a lineup hierarchy for subsequent season.
With out addressing particular switch rumors — a push for Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, as an illustration — we will nonetheless get a reasonably clear image of the place the workforce has the largest wants shifting ahead. Barcelona must get some large salaries off the books to suit below LaLiga’s wage cap tips, however the strengths and wishes appear fairly clear.
Goalkeeper: Power. Ter Stegen is one way or the other nonetheless solely 29 years outdated (it seems like he’s been 29 for 4 seasons now) and can stay a mainstay.
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Full-back: Want. The 38-year-old Alves has achieved an honest job as a stopgap and mentor, however he’s on a short-term contract and clearly isn’t a long-term choice. On the left, Alba might nonetheless be relied upon in 2022-23, however he’s 33. Dest (21) and Mingueza (22) have apparent potential however are flawed and years from their peak, which is at all times tough to handle for a win-now membership.
Heart-back: In between? Pique and Araujo have fashioned a strong tandem below Xavi, and whereas Pique is 35, the not too long ago acquired Garcia (21) ought to clearly stay within the plans. Barca might use one other future choice right here, however full-back is the extra rapid want.
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Midfield: Power. Busquets continues to be fairly able to doing Busquets-like issues at 33, Pedri (19) and Gavi (17) are going to be unimaginable very quickly, and whereas De Jong hasn’t been as excellent a match at Barca as he was at Ajax a couple of years in the past, he’s nonetheless wonderful in build-up play and has probably the most carry distance of anybody on the roster outdoors of the carries-heavy center-back place. He stays viable if they will afford to maintain him. Nico (20) might be able to play a bigger position if not.
Wings: Power and want. In Torres and Fati, Barca are blessed with wonderful choices on the left. Torres has expertise at center-forward and right-wing, too, so if or when Fati is wholesome he might fill a task there, however Barca have to succeed in a conclusion about what to do with each Dembele and Traore.
Dembele has been good of late, however the odds are nonetheless strong that he leaves. Traore, in the meantime, has been used largely as a sub however stays among the best dribblers and ball-control guys on the planet. Barca have a £29 million choice to make the 26-year outdated’s mortgage deal everlasting.
Between potential departures and a prolonged harm historical past for Fati and Dembele, it wouldn’t be stunning if the membership seemed for an additional choice right here even with everybody returning; with out Dembele and/or Traore, this turns into a a lot higher want.
Ahead: Quick-term power, long-term want. Aubameyang is 32 and coming off of a lackluster season and a half with Arsenal following his 2020 contract extension, so it’s protected to say he shouldn’t be handled as a long-term reply even when his present type is unimaginable. Torres might log extra minutes right here, and Depay stays an choice although he hasn’t performed a ton since Xavi took over.
These are strong choices, nevertheless it’s comprehensible why Barca are linked to Lewandowski and seemingly each different first rate attacker on the planet. Manchester Metropolis’s Gabriel Jesus is likely to be an choice, and we’ll see what different names are literally practical — and the way a lot cash Barca can truly find yourself spending — however it will not be a shock if the membership makes an attempt a moonshot right here if the cash works. (If current historical past is any indication, Barca will take an enormous swing anyway, then discover out if the cash truly works in a while.)
Barcelona boast a rash of thrilling younger expertise, and fairly a couple of older gamers have discovered new life below Xavi. There’s extra purpose for future optimism than there was a yr in the past, and until wage cap restrictions hit notably exhausting, Barca might be prepared to really play like one in all Europe’s prime groups once more. In fact, debt continues to be debt, and Actual Madrid nonetheless have first rate odds of including Kylian Mbappe to a soon-to-be title-winning workforce. The long run isn’t completely brilliant, however Xavi has made Barcelona seem like Barcelona once more, and that’s sufficient for now.