Luis Suarez integration could well drive Barca to Liga, Champions League glory
Three weeks ago, Barcelona beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad in their first leg of the Champions League round of 16. It was a good result by every account, but the scoreline result undersells Barca's dominant performance. The Blaugrana created four big chances in open play and drew a penalty, but they scored only once from these five shots. On the balance of chances, Barcelona easily could have won 3-1 or 4-1. As a result, they should be confident heading into the return leg at the Camp Nou.
What makes that victory over Manchester City important is the manner in which it reflected Barcelona's continuing brilliance in attack. They have been the dominant attacking side in Spain for the past few months and while most streaks do tend to go in cycles, the statistics suggest that their current pace is sustainable.
In their 6-1 romp over Rayo Vallecano on March 8, Barcelona attempted 18 non-penalty shots, but of these a full 10 came from the "danger zone." This region, the center of the penalty area, is where the majority of goals come from. Shots in that zone are scored at a rate of 15-20 percent, compared to less than 5 percent for shots attempted from anywhere else on the pitch.
The following map displays every shot attempt in the match, with the size of the marker relative to the "expected goals" value of the chance, based on location, assist type and several other factors. Barcelona created chances of such high quality that despite scoring five goals from open play, the expected goals method rates their chances as being worth even a few tenths of a goal more.
As usual, Barcelona fill the center of the penalty area with good chances. No other club in Europe has as many shot attempts from the danger zone in league play. Barcelona have attempted 216 DZ shots; England's Manchester City have the second-most (194) but City have played two more matches than Barcelona.
The key to Barcelona's dominance in attack is simple. Their front line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez has no equal in world football on paper, but what is impressive here is how Suárez has been integrated into the attack without taking opportunities away from either Messi or Neymar. In fact, he seems to have made them both better. It was to be expected that Suárez (3.1 per 90) would attempt and assist more danger zone shots on a per-minute basis than his predecessor, Alexis Sánchez (2.4 per 90). But strikingly Messi and Neymar have also picked up in chance production at the same time.
In a less dynamic sport, such an effect would be expected. When a baseball team adds a new starting pitcher, that pitcher makes the team better in a simple and discrete way: his innings are theoretically replacing the innings of a worse pitcher. But in football, getting the most out of Luis Suárez without diminishing the impact of Neymar or Messi is not so simple.
It required some tactical tweaks to the Barcelona system. In particular, manager Luis Enrique has dialed back the club's traditional midfield dominance in order to more quickly get the ball at the feet of his forwards. We can see their increased importance in the attack in the combination play up front.
To illustrate this, I have chosen a small but highly valuable subset of passes: open play passes by Messi, Neymar or Suárez from within a few yards of the danger zone to another of the big three, also in the same region. Last season, Messi, Neymar and Alexis only combined on 38 passes around the danger zone, but those passes resulted in eight goals. This year, in just 27 matches, Messi, Neymar and Suárez have already combined for 40 completed passes leading to 11 goals.
These passing combinations are also unmatched by the Real Madrid front line. Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have combined on just 20 passes around the danger zone leading to six goals. The differences in these two sides' styles of play is clear.
The green arrows represent completed passes that did not lead to goals, while the blue arrows represent those that led to goals. The 11 goals created on these danger zone combinations account for about 20 percent of Barcelona's league goals from open play.
By pushing the ball up the field and letting the forward line take control of the match, Barcelona has unleased an attacking band of three that is as proficient creating chances as they are finishing them. Luis Suárez' addition has not taken opportunities off the feet of his teammates but has made them more effective. If the attack keeping clicking, Barcelona should be front-runners for the Champions League trophy this year.
Michael Caley is a writer bringing a statistical approach to football analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @MC_of_A.