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.
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.
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.
This season, Barcelona forwards have completed 31 passes to one another in or near the danger zone. In the first 14 matches of the 2010-2011, for instance, the Barcelona forward line (typically Messi, David Villa and either Pedro or Bojan) combined for only 17 danger zone passes.
The creative core of the Barcelona attack has moved up the pitch, from central midfield to the forward line. This is the trend that began last season, as Enrique looked for find ways to best leverage the incredible attacking talent at his disposal. Last year, Barcelona’s rate of danger zone passing among the forwards increased hugely. In the new season, Barcelona have solidified these gains while continuing to move away from the club’s former midfield possession style.
The following graphic compares Barcelona’s two modes of play. This shows the percentage of shots created following a completed pass in the final 40 between two central midfielders compared to shots created following a danger zone pass between two forwards.
This transformation has been quietly in the works for a while. Under both Tito Vilanova and Tata Martino in the 12-13 and 13-14 seasons, Barcelona slowly lessened their dependence on Xavi and the central midfield. Now after winning a treble, it appears that the club has fully committed to this change. The new Luis Enrique Barcelona move the ball quickly through midfield and place the creative burden on the forwards. This increasingly vertical style of play has kept Barcelona’s attack among the best in the world, and it has brought out the best in the already brilliant trio of Neymar, Messi and Suarez.
Neymar in particular has flourished with more time on the ball. He leads La Liga in shots assisted (51) and expected goals assisted (8.8). No one else has been nearly as productive in creating chances.
With their focus on getting the ball to Neymar and allowing him to create, Barcelona’s tactics have enabled the Brazilian to take the next step in his development. The new-look attack is not only producing chances and excitement in equal measure, but the transformed system has also helped make a new world superstar in Neymar.
Luis Enrique deserves credit for doing much more than simply taking care of a club with great players. He has overhauled the club’s approach and helped unlock the wondrous talents of the game’s newest superstar.
All data provided by Opta.
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