On Barça’s attack and Messi

Over the past three seasons, during Lucho’s era, it was no surprise that one of the main characteristics of the Barça team was the reliance on the immense attacking power of the trio Messi, Suárez and Neymar. This had its advantages and disadvantages (of course). It led to seven trophies in the first two seasons and it probably was one of the main reasons why the team failed to deliver in the third season.

With the departure of Neymar, things were about to change. Valverde, Dembélé, Paulinho, Semedo, Deulofeu (and Coutinho in January) arrived and there was curiosity on how things in Barça’s attack will change:  how the void created by Neymar’s departure would be filled and maybe exploring opportunities to more evenly distribute the “responsibilities” in the attack. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, the attacking opportunities of the team during this season have been very limited. The main reasons probably are the two consecutive injuries of Dembélé, the injury of Alcácer (in one of his best moments), the bad form Suárez went through the first months of the season and the inability of few other players (Deulofeu, André Gomes, Denis Suárez) to provide important and consistent contribution in attack. The consequence is that this season Barça’s attack is incredibly dependent on Messi, both in terms of scoring goals and creating goal-scoring opportunities. I build few graphs to put this into perspective.

Fig. 1 shows a chance creation matrix for Barcelona for this season, with the aim to illustrate the combinations of players leading to a shot: x axis shows the player who takes the shot; y axis show the player who provides the pass before the shot (i.e. the player who creates the chance).  We move on these axes in order to see how often various players combine with each other. The number of combinations is shown by the size (and color) of the squares.


Fig. 1

Messi is the only Barça player who consistently creates chances for almost all of his team mates. You can perceive that by looking at the horizontal line along Messi’s name in the y axis. Most of the chances Messi creates obviously go for Suárez (red square) and Paulinho. No other Barça player has a similar distribution. Also, few interesting patterns can be observed from Fig. 1:

  • there is a strong connection between Sergi Roberto and Suárez (the same for Dembélé and Suárez);
  • Busquets likes to create chances mostly for Messi (his signature breaking-the-lines passes);
  • in contrast to Alba, Digne has never created a chance for Messi (or Suárez);
  • the vast majority of shots (vertical lines) are concentrated of course on Messi, Suárez and Paulinho. The contribution of other players is very small.
  • the last horizontal line shows chances not directly related to a teammate pass (after rebounds, interceptions, etc).

The graph in Fig.2 shows how shots are distributed within each La Liga team. Here the x axis indicates the portion of a team’s shots taken by each player. There are various situations here, with teams where shots are relatively uniformly distributed (e.g. Malaga) and other teams where this is not the case (e.g. Barcelona, Espanyol, etc). At first glance, it may look like Real Madrid are in a similar situation as Barcelona, with Cristiano Ronaldo taking much more shots than his teammates, but unlike Barcelona (where except Messi and Suárez, Paulinho is the only player with considerable input) there are many players at Real Madrid who share between 5-10% of the team’s shots each.


Fig. 2

The graph in Fig.3 is similar to the one in Fig.2 but instead of shots it shows the distribution of chances created. Here the situation gets more dramatic for Barça, with Messi creating almost 25% of the team chances, which is at least the double of any other Barça player). With the exception of Las Palmas’ Jonathan Viera (who now is in China) no other team rely on a single player, in terms of chances created, as much as Barça rely on Messi. Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid have a considerably smoother distribution.


Fig. 3

It’s not characteristic for a team that the same player who dominates in shots taken also dominates in chances created, particularly when the difference from other teammates has a considerable margin, as in Barça’s case with Messi. The consequences (either positive or negative) of this over-reliance on Messi are difficult to be foreseen but most Barça fans are not very optimistic (Surprise!!). It’s interesting to see if Valverde will have enough time to address this “issue”, considering that we are entering the final phase of the season and as he said, there is little room for experiment.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.

  1. Almost all the unreal, insane, eye-watering Messi’s game stats are based only on his open play on-the-ball actions.

    Your articles are excellent about how consistently good, polyvalent and versatile Messi is one season after one other.

    Now I would know much more about Messi’s set piece game cause I did find little to no data about this part of his game.

    How he does compare to other players in LaLiga and in the Big-5 European leagues in terms of set-piece crossing accuracy and set-piece chance creation for example over a common season and even over the course of his career ?
    And what about his set-piece xG and xA ?

    That may be interesting to see if Messi is statistically as impossibly effective and efficient on set-piece taking as he is on open play. Corner kicks, direct free kicks and indirect free kicks should all be included in the analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

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