Talking Barcelona: Things do need to change, Vilanova

We don’t need to change any players’. Tito Vilanova’s words after Barcelona’s humbling 0-7 aggregate defeat against Bayern Munich.“What we do need is to get our injured players back because they are top performers,” he added.

“Bayern Munich came here with all their players available but we are here without some of our key players. I still think our squad is very good. I am convinced that if we had been at 100 percent we would have competed in a different way.”

Would they? Surely, playing with or without the best player in the world makes quite the difference. Recognised players like Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano would have been of more use then the likes of Bartra, Adriano and Alexandre Song.

But to state things would have gone very different is rather harsh. Bayern Munich were far superior and especially the different goal threats told a story.

‘Messidependencia’ and lack of a goal spread

In the two legs, Müller scored three, Robben two and Mandzukic one, the other goal coming from a Pique own goal. This Barcelona Champions League season has only seen Messi and Jordi Alba score more than one goal.

Eight Bayern Munich players have contributed two goals or more. The ‘Messidependencia’ is even more staggering looking at the percentages of the respective goalscorers. Müller and Messi have both scored 8 goals so far, but whereas Müller is ‘only’ responsible for 27.5% of Bayern’s Champions League goals this season, Messi is responsible for 44.4%.

This is not only an issue for Barcelona in the Champions League though. Over the last two seasons, Messi has been the only one to score more than 15 goals in a Barcelona shirt.

The three seasons before that, there were at least three scoring over 20 goals. The lack of players of the calibre Eto’o, Henry, Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic have really made the Catalans a one-man team scoring wise. This season, the overall direct involvement of Messi speaks volumes.

Not only has he scored 58 of the 144 goals, he has assisted 16 of them as well. The only two who come ‘close’ to having a similar impact is, as some will expect, Andres Iniesta and perhaps more surprising Cesc Fabregas. Both are on 24 goals/ assists, which is still not even a third of the impact the Argentine is having. More importantly, Iniesta (with 5 goals) has shown himself more of an assist man than a finisher.

For the wonderful footballer that he is, his lack of goals is worrying. His career goal scoring record (51/504) is worse than for instance that other Spanish catalyst Xavi (84/733), even though the latter plays in a more withdrawn role. This doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as there are finishers around. At the moment, as earlier stated, Messi is the only one consequently fulfilling that role.

Apart from the aforementioned ‘Messidependencia’, Barcelona have more running against them. Of their last six Champions League games they only won one. In that game, they kept their only clean sheet in this run too.

Pique, Puyol and Barcelona’s defensive problems

Before the onslaught by Bayern Munich they had conceded 5 goals in 4 matches. To say the defence is not exactly sound is an understatement. With the season not over yet, the number of goals shipped (65) has been overwhelmingly higher than the last three seasons (39, 39, 46).

The shield that is Busquets has not been absent as often as Vilanova’s statement suggests. If Busquets plays all remaining games, he would have played the same amount of games as two years ago and only six games less than last year. Furthermore, he was available for all Champions League knockout games bar the last one. At that point, the tie was all but over.

Carles Puyol has been on the slide for three seasons now, missing out on roughly half of the matches possible (60 of 109 league games). Mascherano has filled that void and it is only in recent games that young defender Bartra was necessary to make an appearance on the main stage for Barcelona.

Pique has missed out on quite a few games too the last couple of seasons (26 league games alone). But again, Mascherano filled in when needed. Puyol’s decline is a worry.

Ever since Pique has joined the club, Puyol has been dubbed by many as the lesser defender. But the league stats provided by Opta show that ever since 2008, the winning percentage with Puyol was considerably higher than without him (82.6% versus 69.7%, gaining 2.6 points per game with and 2.3 points per game without him).

Talking Pique, Barcelona have won more without him, although the overall impact of his presence is neglectable (75.4% with Pique, 81.00% without him, 2.5 points no matter what). When both are on the pitch, Barcelona pick up 2.6 points per game and win 81.7% of their games. Without both, the numbers drop to 2.4 points per game and a winning percentage of 74.6%). Most telling is perhaps the goals conceded.

A defence containing Puyol concedes 0.7 goals per game, with Pique 0.8. When Puyol is out, Barcelona concede 0.8 goals per game, when Pique is out, Barcelona concede 0.7 goals per game. When the two are on the pitch together or are both absent, the average is 0.8 goal per game.

Considering Carles Puyol is now 35, it is not very likely he’ll ever recover to full fitness for an extended period. Meanwhile, Pique is all but the mainstay of Barca’s defence. Busquets has been available the large part of the season and the same thing goes for Messi, who was fit during the AC Milan defeat and played part in all but the last Champions League fixture.

The story of Eric Abidal has been inspiring but at 34 and with four seasons of ups and downs behind him, he’s not likely to be part of reinvigorating this Barcelona side.

Vilanova himself has had health problems too and the reality is this also, unfortunately, has not aided the cause of this team. With the manager recovered and everybody fit, Barcelona would be a more worthy opponent. But this does not warrant all of Vilanova’s statements.

The attack is more one-dimensional than it has been in years, the defence is more prone to lapses. The dependance on a small core of players is concerning for a team that was considered ‘the best football team ever’ only a couple of years ago. If one or two players are out, the ‘Machina Blaugrana’ gets stuck pretty easily.

The loss against Bayern Munich may not be the end of an era and doesn’t knock Barcelona off its place as ‘The greatest team of all time’, but it surely shows that the Emperor’s Army is in need of some refreshments.

Note: I am aware a team does not consist solely of attack and defence and that the current situation can’t be assessed as simple as done above. However, this piece was mainly written to highlight several flaws of the current Barcelona squad, not to completely analyze every aspect of Barcelona’s game.

Furthermore, I owe all my gratitude to Opta Sports for delivering and confirming the statistics used in this article and a special word of thanks goes out to Duncan Alexander, who was kind enough to help me out resolving several difficult statistical issues. 

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5 Responses to “Talking Barcelona: Things do need to change, Vilanova”

  1. Jonathan F
    May 5, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    Interesting read this, Michiel, especially the point about the utter dependence on Messi for goals. I touched on some of the same issues last year when they were knocked out by Chelsea (days before Pep resigned):

    http://www.just-football.com/2012/04/dissecting-disappointment-4-key-reasons-for-barcelona-failure-this-season/

    As far as I see it, Pep had a clear policy to make Messi the main man, which is why the likes of Eto’o and Ibrahimovic were herded out early. This has created a clear dependency, as you rightly highlight, which while nice to have (he is the best in the world after all), has proved detrimental to the team’s balance without him.

    Thought-provoking read.

    • Michiel Jongsma
      May 6, 2013 at 7:06 am #

      Yesterdays match proved again how dependant they have become on the little Argentine. Good piece that, btw.

  2. bob
    May 5, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    i couldnt take this seriously when I read “ever since pique came, puyol had been dubbed the lesser defender..”

    by who? everybody knows puyol was the superior defender.

    this article was clearly written by someone who doesnt know a thing about barcelona or football.

    • Michiel Jongsma
      May 6, 2013 at 7:07 am #

      Thank you for your critique, I’ll see what I can do about it.

      • ninguen
        May 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

        In Spain there has been a lot of talking about Puyol not being the one who used to, so your statement it’s not far from truth on this…

        Thnks for making use of little numbers to clear up the points, here in spain it’s almost impossible to see this