From Xavi to MSN: The numbers behind Luis Enrique’s Barcelona makeover

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Barcelona are playing a new and exciting style of attacking soccer, and the Catalan side’s 34 goals, a total that leads La Liga, actually understates the team’s quality. By expected goals, a statistical estimate of the quality of chances created, Barcelona should have scored about 39 goals this season – only occasional struggles with finishing have kept Barcelona from running away with La Liga’s title. If they keep creating chances at this rate, even more goals will come.

But the better story lies beneath the goal-scoring totals. That Barcelona score goals is not new, but the style and strategy of their attacking play mark a break with the club’s recent history. This team no longer just sets up shop into the opposition final third and probes carefully for breaking points in opposition defenses. Head coach Luis Enrique has worked out new tactics in which established, deep possession is just one tool that Barcelona use to unlock defenses – a tool that is no longer the first out of the box.

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This change can be shown statistically. The following graphic shows the number of shots per match that Barcelona have created from established possession in the final 40 yards, defined as a possession move including at least five consecutive completed passes in the final 40.

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Barcelona once created more chances like this than anyone else in the world. Under Pep Guardiola in 2010-2011, the club’s 140 shots from established final 40 possession not only led La Liga, but second place Real Madrid (64) and third place Villarreal (57) created less than half as many chances from this type of play. This season Real Madrid, Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid have all created more shots from established possession than Barcelona.

But of course, this hardly means that Barcelona’s attack has sputtered. Both the numbers and the quality of play have remained excellent. The difference has been a change in focus from the midfield to the forward line. Guardiola’s Barcelona were fundamentally the club of Xavi, who dominated play in possession, passing with his fellow midfielders in intricate combinations. The new Barcelona is defined by its forward trio, and  Luis Enrique has transformed his attacking tactics to get the ball to Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez more quickly and more effectively.

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This can be seen most clearly in Barcelona’s “danger zone passing” statistics. The danger zone is the region in the center of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored. One of the keys to Barcelona’s forward play is that when Neymar receives the ball in areas from which most forwards would shoot, he typically looks to play one more pass to a teammate in an even better position. Completed passes within the danger zone have been shown to significantly improve chance quality. Defenders need to commit to defend Neymar, and the pass then eliminates those who had moved to cover the ball.

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