FC Barcelona are arguably the most famous club in the world, or at least in the conversation. They have built a tradition of winning on an incredibly exciting brand of football and showcasing some of the best players the beautiful game have ever seen, including this man:
Recently though, despite winning LaLiga four out of the past 5 years, Barcelona seem to be slowing down, and have plateaued as far as being able to win domestically and internationally. They have been knocked out of the Champions League two years in a row in embarrassing fashion, squandering 3-0 leads against both Roma and Liverpool, and registered a dreadful performance against Valencia in this year’s Copa del Rey. Before moving forward, let’s take a look at these performances.
2018 Champions League against Roma
Barcelona routed Roma in the first leg at the Camp Nou, 4-1. But, two of those goals were own goals, one was scored by now 32 year-old Gerard Pique, and the other by Luiz Suarez at the ripe old age of 32. Barcelona had 19 shots on goal, with 9 of them on target. And for all you stats nerds out there, try this on for size: in the first leg of the Quarterfinals, Barcelona had an xG of 1.9, compared to Roma’s 1.7. This means that Barcelona FAR outperformed, primarily thanks to Roma’s two own goals. What’s more, Barcelona’s adjusted goals (which is basically just taking into account that not all goals are created equally) was 3.8, again because of the own goals, to Roma’s 1.1. And finally, Barcelona’s non shot xG, which is a measure of a team’s non-shot actions in and around an opponent’s penalty area, was 2.1 to Roma’s 1.1. So not only did Barcelona over-perform their xG, but they underperformed when you compare their non shot and shot xG. This ain’t it, chief.
Now onto the second leg. Down 4-1, I don’t think many people expected Roma to be able to dig themselves out of such a hole, but dig they did. While Barcelona controlled the majority of possession, Roma had more shots on target, more set pieces from corner kicks, and just edged out Barcelona in shots on target percentage, 35% to 33%. In a deeper dive, you’ll find that Roma had 2.7 xG to Barca’s .9, 1.5 non-shot xG to Barca’s .7, and 2.8 adjusted goals to a big ole fat zilch for Barcelona. Roma go on to win 3-0, with all three goals coming from their own team, and they advance to face Liverpool in the semifinals. This still ain’t it.
2019 Champions League against Liverpool
Fast forward a year, and we have almost the exact same story. Barcelona made it past the quarters this year, and faced Liverpool in the semifinals. In the first leg, these two teams were pretty evenly matched, both on paper and on the field. Both had a similar shots/shots on target distribution, their passing and passing accuracy was about equal, and both had chances off of set pieces. Probably the most surprising stat is that Liverpool actually controlled a majority of possession in the game. So what made the difference?
Barcelona had an xG of 2.6 to Liverpool’s 1.9. So right off the bat, we see that Liverpool, despite playing well, could not finish. That becomes more apparent when we look at their non-shot xG, 2.7. Barcelona on the other hand, had a 2.6 xG and 2.7 non-shot xG, so they’re about where we would expect. Call it home field advantage, call it luck. Whatever it was, Barca were able to seal the deal and take a 3-0 lead to Anfield. And then it all fell apart. Again.
Looking at the big bucket stats, you’d again think this was a pretty even match. And in a lot of ways it was. While Barcelona had a majority of the possession and a better pass accuracy, Liverpool had more shots and shots on target. But watching the game, Liverpool looked in control pretty much the entire time. Conversely, the xG tell a slightly different story. We’ll start with non-shot xG: 2.3 for Barca, 1.4 for Liverpool. Based on performance, Barcelona should have won by about a goal. But just as Liverpool couldn’t close it out in the first leg, the same for Barcelona in the second leg. Barcelona had an xG of only 1.3 (with 5 shots on target) compared to 2.8 for Liverpool (7 shots on target). But what this also tells us is that Liverpool overperformed on the whole. At the end of the day, Liverpool advance to the final against Tottenham. If you know the stats for that game, let me know. I fell asleep.
2019 Copa del Rey Final against Valencia
Yikes. Not a great way to finish the season. Despite winning the league, again, Barcelona couldn’t make it 5 in a row in the Copa del Rey, and 6 in the past 8 years. That’s pretty damn dominant. Now to the more depressing part. Barcelona dominated Valencia on paper. 26 shots to 8, 78% possession to 22%, 91% pass accuracy to 70%. If I listed these stats to you in a vacuum, you would say that Barca must have won 5-0. Alas. Out of those 26 shots, only 6 were on target. That’s a dismal 23%. Valencia, on the other hand, had a 50% shot on target rate. Valencia scored two early goals, and Messi was only able to score the consolation goal in the 73rd minute. I couldn’t find any reliable xG stats for this match (granted, I didn’t look THAT hard), but these stats tell you pretty much all you need to know. Despite controlling the game, Barcelona couldn’t close it out. But why is that?
Barcelona are OLD
The average age of the Barcelona first team in the 2018/19 season was 27.2 years old. At one point in the season, Valverde fielded a starting XI with an average age of 29.6 (!!). Now, dear reader, you may say, “Oh, 27 isn’t THAT old, most players in their prime are around that age”. And to that I say:
BUT. If you look at the rest of LaLiga, the average age of the other three teams in the top four of LaLiga are as follows: Athletico Madrid at 26.3, Real Madrid at 27, and Valencia also at 26.3. And this was only during the regular season. In the first leg of the semis of this year’s Champions League, the average age of Barcelona’s starting XI was 29.1. That’s old.
To be fair, these stats don’t exactly sound like Barcelona have a huge problem, but the issue is that this team is built around these old players. It’s not like they skew old because they have some grey hairs in the line up to teach the La Masia youngsters. Messi. Suarez. Rakitic. Busquets. Alba. Pique. These players are the absolute heart and soul of this Barcelona squad. Barcelona may not really be feeling the pressure now, but if they don’t start incorporating the likes of Alena, Puig, and other La Masia stand outs into the first team more often, they’re gonna be feeling it in a few years.
This age issue is compounded by the fact that Barcelona have relied more and more on Messi to carry them, almost single-handedly. This was incredibly evident in the second leg at Anfield, a game which is indicative of a larger trend. Since the 2010 season, while Messi’s share of the teams expected goals and assists has remained more or less the same, ranging from 26% in the 2015/16 season to 34% just this past season, his share of progressive passes and runs has jumped a whopping 14% since 2010. And again, it’s not like he’s become any less responsible for scoring goals. This has an effect on the defense, as well, which has cratered since the 2010 season. Because players like Rakitic and Busquets are no longer spring chickens, they do not have the ability to control the midfield like they used to. At the beginning of this most recent season, Barca were using the high press about as often as any team in Europe. But this left them vulnerable, leading Valverde to park the bus. And even still, Barcelona had an expected goals allowed of 42, compared to 25 in 2010. All of this also has an impact on Messi’s scoring opportunities as well. He’s receiving the ball much deeper than he used to, and is taking a lot more shots from outside the penalty box. (For the graphs and stats used in this paragraph, see this article by Michael Caley).
Valverde: Not a Fan of Tiki-Taka
Barcelona revolutionized soccer by employing an exciting, possession-based style of play, credited largely to Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff. Tiki-taka had become Barcelona’s M.O., and has allowed them to win trophy after trophy. Enter Ernesto Valverde. A much more conservative manager, Valverde is a fan of a more balanced game, and has even admitted to refraining from making changes during a game because he liked how his starting XI defended set pieces.
Now, for those of you who know my stance on Maurizio Sarri (and if you don’t, here you go), you know that this drives me INSANE. Any competent manager has to be able to adapt his game plan depending on what the other side is giving them. But even above and beyond that, not making subs because you like how your starting XI defends set pieces??? That feels extremely narrow-minded, and unreasonably discounts pretty much every other facet of the game. This conservative style of play also doesn’t help their age problem, and forces Messi to do even more up front.
Hope for the Future
Given all this, there is still hope going forward. Valverde is out, and hopefully the board will replace him with someone more exciting. Carles Alena, Riqui Puig, and other academy players look incredibly promising, and Alena has already gotten some playing time with the first team.
On top of that, Barca signed Dutch wunderkind Frenkie deJong, and some think that Matthijas DeLigt might follow. Additionally, players like Dembele, Todibo, Malcom, and Lenglet will be able to infuse some much needed youth into the squad as they begin to integrate more into the first team. But this integration has to happen soon, so that when these players hit their prime, they will already have a good amount of first team experience, and won’t look like deer in headlights. Sure, Barcelona might not win the league as often, but they’re not going to drop from the top four, and once this squad becomes revitalized with young players now in their prime, Barcelona will be a force to be reckoned with. Even more so than they are now.
Stats and figures from FiveThirtyEight and transfermark
Author: Brian Angelino, “Originally from The Great State of North Carolina, I’ve just started following the premier league again after a traumatic experience as a child where I wore a Chelsea jacket in the wrong part of London. For more questionably hot takes, follow him on Twitter @BrianAngelino