- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
It’s amazing how orderly the LaLiga table looks at the moment. The top four are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, just as they were last year (albeit in a different order), and FiveThirtyEight gives all of them at least a 79% chance of finishing there.
Barcelona have possessed the ball more than anyone, as usual. Real Madrid have attempted the most shots. Sevilla have done “Crafty Sevilla Things” (they’ve scored the most set piece goals, for instance) and have won a lot despite an often unexciting attack. Atletico have allowed the fewest shot attempts and xG in the league, as is typically the case under Diego Simeone.
Over the course of 38 matches, the table has a way of righting itself after early wonkiness, and that’s never been more clear than in this season and this league. Atletico spent a good portion of the season getting ripped apart in transition in a way we’ve rarely seen under Simeone. Real Betis and Real Sociedad have spent weeks and weeks in the top four. (Their fight isn’t over just yet, but the odds are long.) And of course, Barcelona began the season an outright mess.
Barcelona lost Lionel Messi in August because of their ongoing debt and financial crisis. They lost three of four LaLiga matches during one October swing and fell to ninth in the table, all while getting unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League. They fired Ronald Koeman and, in club legend Xavi, replaced him with someone who had only ever managed in the Qatari Stars League.
Barca looked on their way to a jarring and significant rebuild. Their debt was intimidating and their odds of finishing in the top four, per FiveThirtyEight, were less than 50% for most of November. That’s virtually unheard of in this era, but since Xavi took over, they’ve lost just twice in league play. They’ve averaged 2.3 points per game, a pace that would have won LaLiga last season.
In modern soccer fashion, they also attempted to spend their way out of debt, adding much-needed attacking talent in Ferran Torres (from Manchester City), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) and Adama Traore (loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers) during the winter transfer window; consequently, they’ve scored 29 goals in their 10 league matches since the transfer deadline. They outscored Atletico and Real Madrid by a combined 8-2.
They just encountered their first really bad week in a while, losing at home to both Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals and relegation-threatened Cadiz in league play. It took the shine off of what was a truly brilliant run of form, and it reminded us that the team might still be a work in progress.
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It can feel rather strange to step back and talk about Barcelona in the present tense. Even when the team is playing well, the Barcelona Transfer Rumor Industrial Complex keeps us distracted with the future. But as a particularly strange, topsy-turvy season begins to wrap up, let’s take a look at how things have changed since Xavi (and January’s attackers) came to town and where Barca still have plenty of work left to do.
A proper transition team with defensive glitches
Let’s start with some basics. For the season, here’s how Barcelona rank within LaLiga in key statistics:
Attack: Second in goals scored (1.94 per 90) — second in shots per possession (0.15) and third in xG per shot (0.14)
Defense: Sixth in goals allowed (1.03) — second in shots allowed per possession (0.10) and 11th in xG per shot (0.12)
Possession: First in possession rate (64.8%) — second in passes per possession (6.7), second in carries (490.9 per 90), second in touches in the attacking third (214.8 per 90), first in touches allowed in the attacking third (104.7)
Pressure: First in passes allowed per defensive action (8.7), second in possessions started in the attacking third (8.7), first in average possession start (36.9 meters upfield)
Game state: Second in goal differential per 90 possessions when tied (+0.9), fourth when ahead (+0.6), second when behind (+1.6)
Set pieces: Thirteenth in set piece goals (0.2 per 90), 14th in set piece goals allowed (0.3)
Transition: Third in goals scored per 90 transition possessions* (1.1), 14th in transition possessions ending in the attacking third (11.8%), 11th in goals allowed per 90 transition possessions (0.5), third in opponent transition possessions ending in the attacking third (17.7%)
* I have been defining “transition possessions” as possessions that start outside the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds.
This paints a pretty familiar picture of a heavy-possession team that occasionally gets caught out in transition. The numbers might change a bit, but you’ll find similar strengths and weaknesses for most ball-dominant clubs, like Manchester City, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, etc.
Since Xavi took over, Barca have become a bit more patient. Their overall numbers have improved on average — goals are up, goals allowed are down, etc. — and they’re doing a better job of tilting the field in their favor. They’re less likely to fall behind (+1.2 goal differential per 90 possessions while tied), and they’re infinitely more likely to catch up when behind (+3.9). And while they’re seeing fewer transition possessions overall, they’re ending more of them in the attacking third.
A lineup in constant flux
Obviously Barca’s run of form in February and March was particularly impressive, and it underscores another accomplishment in the nascent Xavi era: They’ve managed pretty significant improvement despite constant lineup churn. Since Xavi took over, only three players have played more than 75% of minutes in all competitions. Between injuries, acquisitions and experimentation, the lineup has been in constant flux.
Percentage of minutes played under Xavi:
Marc-Andre ter Stegen (goalkeeper): 94% of minutes
Sergio Busquets (midfield): 88%
Jordi Alba (left-back): 84%
Ronald Araujo (center-back): 74%
Gerard Pique (center-back): 71%
Frenkie De Jong (midfield): 67%
Gavi (midfield): 59%
Ferran Torres (left-wing): 55%
Ousmane Dembele (right-wing): 54%
Eric Garcia (center-back): 53%
Pedri (midfield): 49%
Nico Gonzalez (midfield): 40%
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (center-forward): 37%
Dani Alves (right-back): 34%
Sergino Dest (right-back): 34%
Memphis Depay (center-forward): 26%
Abde Ezzalzouli (left-wing): 24%
Clement Lenglet (center-back): 23%
Adama Traore (right-wing): 23%
Oscar Mingueza (left-back): 21%
(Seventeen other players have played less than 10% of minutes in this span, too.)
That’s a mess right there! When Pedri and Aubameyang have played together, Barca have taken 25 of 27 points from nine league matches — and, admittedly, only nine from six Europa League matches — but nine isn’t a lot, and now Pedri’s out for the season with a hamstring injury. Winger and wunderkind Ansu Fati got all of 89 minutes of action under Xavi before suffering his own hamstring injury. (He is expected to return to at least a small role soon.)
Still, the results have been intriguing if you think about what Barca’s base lineup might be for next season. Aubameyang, energized and engaged for seemingly the first time in two seasons, has scored 10 times in 16 matches, while Torres has seven goals and five assists in 19 matches. Oft-injured Dembele, who is out of contract this summer but might still be open to a return, has created 53 chances with 11 assists in just 1,530 minutes under Xavi.
What do Barca need moving forward?
With no further cup play remaining this season, Barca have seven more league matches (including tricky trips to Real Sociedad and Real Betis and a visit from Champions League semifinalist Villarreal) in which to experiment before the 2021-22 campaign closes. Then it’s time to actually figure out a lineup hierarchy for next season.
Without addressing specific transfer rumors — a push for Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, for instance — we can still get a pretty clear picture of where the team has the biggest needs moving forward. Barcelona need to get some big salaries off the books to fit under LaLiga’s salary cap guidelines, but the strengths and needs seem pretty clear.
Goalkeeper: Strength. Ter Stegen is somehow still only 29 years old (it feels like he’s been 29 for four seasons now) and will remain a mainstay.
Full-back: Need. The 38-year-old Alves has done a decent job as a stopgap and mentor, but he’s on a short-term contract and obviously isn’t a long-term option. On the left, Alba could still be relied upon in 2022-23, but he’s 33. Dest (21) and Mingueza (22) have obvious potential but are flawed and years from their peak, which is always tricky to manage for a win-now club.
Center-back: In between? Pique and Araujo have formed a solid tandem under Xavi, and while Pique is 35, the recently acquired Garcia (21) should obviously remain in the plans. Barca could use another future option here, but full-back is the more immediate need.
Midfield: Strength. Busquets is still quite capable of doing Busquets-like things at 33, Pedri (19) and Gavi (17) are going to be incredible very soon, and while De Jong hasn’t been as perfect a fit at Barca as he was at Ajax a few years ago, he’s still excellent in build-up play and has the most carry distance of anyone on the roster outside of the carries-heavy center-back position. He remains viable if they can afford to keep him. Nico (20) could be ready to play a larger role if not.
Wings: Strength and need. In Torres and Fati, Barca are blessed with excellent options on the left. Torres has experience at center-forward and right-wing, too, so if or when Fati is healthy he could fill a role there, but Barca have to reach a conclusion about what to do with both Dembele and Traore.
Dembele has been brilliant of late, but the odds are still solid that he leaves. Traore, meanwhile, has been used mostly as a sub but remains one of the best dribblers and ball-control guys on the planet. Barca have a £29 million option to make the 26-year old’s loan deal permanent.
Between potential departures and a lengthy injury history for Fati and Dembele, it wouldn’t be surprising if the club looked for another option here even with everyone returning; without Dembele and/or Traore, this becomes a much greater need.
Forward: Short-term strength, long-term need. Aubameyang is 32 and coming off of a lackluster season and a half with Arsenal following his 2020 contract extension, so it’s safe to say he shouldn’t be treated as a long-term answer even if his current form is incredible. Torres could log more minutes here, and Depay remains an option even though he hasn’t played a ton since Xavi took over.
These are solid options, but it’s understandable why Barca are linked to Lewandowski and seemingly every other decent attacker on the planet. Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus might be an option, and we’ll see what other names are actually realistic — and how much money Barca can actually end up spending — but it would not be a surprise if the club attempts a moonshot here if the money works. (If recent history is any indication, Barca will take a big swing anyway, then find out if the money actually works later on.)
Barcelona boast a rash of thrilling young talent, and quite a few older players have found new life under Xavi. There is more reason for future optimism than there was a year ago, and unless salary cap restrictions hit particularly hard, Barca could be ready to actually play like one of Europe’s top teams again. Of course, debt is still debt, and Real Madrid still have decent odds of adding Kylian Mbappe to a soon-to-be title-winning team. The future isn’t totally bright, but Xavi has made Barcelona look like Barcelona again, and that’s enough for now.
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