The Death of The Barca Way

What was The Barca Way?

I know the history of The Barca Way go back further than this, but I’m gonna be focussing somewhat on fan perception for a lot of this so because of that my reference point really has to be more recent than that, and really there is no other reasonable choice than the era of Pep Guardiola – it’s pretty much unquestionable that his time at the club (especially the early parts of it) defined a lot of what today is considered part of The Barca Way in the eyes of  modern fans. The 433, the high pressing, the lightweight pairing of Xaviesta, Dani Alves rampaging down the right flank and the slow, patient possession game that dominated and picked apart teams.

The football was obviously imperfect (as football always will be), but it has often been widely described as the best club team of the modern era or even of all time.

But far more interesting to me are the details of this team that aren’t remembered – you rarely hear praise of Eric Abidal dropping into the back 3 to cover for the attackers knowing that Iniesta and Henry were more than capable to being the offensive threat down that flank. Likewise, you rarely here praise for the ball winning abilities of Xavi and Iniesta either – obviously though far from incredible in that field both more than pulled their weight defensively, something that players compared to them since rarely do. What this has led to is a very warped and unbalanced perception of what made the Barca of that era good

What is The Barca Way?

Here is (unfortunately) the section where I’m gonna start getting a little mean – both towards some players and towards some fans. As I alluded to previously things have become rather muddled in the decade and change since. That that has led to some absurd levels of dissonance in what it means for a player to have Barca DNA.

Arthur seems a good place to start – pretty much universally hailed as having it due to his press resistance and accurate passing. Pity he didn’t really do anything with them. Xavi was not good because he could evade the press and had a high pass completion percentage, Xavi was good because he did that AND won the ball back defensively AND dragged players out of position AND was an elite creator who set LaLiga assist records – but he isn’t remembered for those anything like as much. Often perception of players colours how we see teams, but this is a clear example of the inverse – the perception of the team as a possession monster alone has reduced Xavi to that as well. But in both cases, what made them great was the breadth of skillset, not a single outstanding attribute.

This (arguably disrespectful) narrowing of what makes teams work leads to some strange tactical perceptions, most notably in midfield selection. I (and many others) have railed against the idea of a Puig-Frenkie-Pedri midfield for a while, and the common opinion for why people want this is to fit in the latest creative gem in Puig – which is an understandable goal, even if naive.

I do not think this is the sole root of this desire. Mostly because it isn’t new. Calls for a trio of Coutinho-Frenkie-Arthur predate the emergence of Puig and Pedri but are essentially the same idea that if you get enough good passers in a midfield then they’ll just somehow work it out the way Iniesta-Busi-Xavi did (once again erasing the genuine defensive nous all three had). Hell, this is even more evident when people talked about them in those terms: Coutinho was the Iniesta replacement, Arthur was Xavi’s spiritual successor and Frenkie was (somehow) just like Busquets. You can easily frame this as a form of idealism, rather than engaging in the material skills a team needs but instead engaging with what an ideal team SHOULD need.

Beyond that though we even get the really strange ones. I’ve made my criticisms of Nelson Semedo pretty clear over the years, but one of the defenses that took me most off guard was seeing him described as having Barca DNA due to his pace down the flank. It really was pretty bizarre after having the virtues of technically-but-not-physically-gifted players to see Nelson Semedo of all people in the squad being seen as embodying it. What this in my opinion demonstrates is the desire for direct replacement for that era’s legends – Dani Alves pushed high and athletically on the right, so Semedo should too. The individual characteristics of both players are pushed aside here – Semedo’s poor efficacy on the ball ignored as well as Alves’ ability to come inside and link play. The lack of much similarity beyond the aesthetic speaks volumes about how The Barca Way is used rhetorically, not to defend a certain type of play but to defend the desire to relive an idealised version of 2009 through surface similarities.

Chasing a Will of the Wisp

This desire to recreate the image of past glories is a very strong influence on the club and it’s fanbase. It’s a shame and a pain to admit we’ll quite possibly never see a side like that again, but as discussed above its manifestations are toxic and have serious effects on the running of the club.

For an example, lets look at the elections: Joan Laporta won and comfortably so, riding high on a wave of nostalgia for (you guessed it) 2009 era Barcelona. And yet he wasn’t even the candidate who banked most on Nostalgia – Victor Font the runner up largely bet his pitch on the nostalgia and name recognition of Xavi and Puyol, it obviously didn’t work, but between the two of them the fact that nostalgia for the era was directly driving the direction of the club was clear.

But that era is gone. The footballing landscape has changed, and those players are once in a generation if not rarer.

And even the defining icon of the era has moved on.

What’s changed?

Football in 2021 is very different to how it was then and a large part of that can be put down to 2 basic concepts: Transitions and Structure. More and more top teams are building their teams around either exploiting transitions or preventing them outright – just looking at this season’s UCL final is a clear example of this. Both Pep’s Manchester City and Tuchel’s Chelsea are both teams dedicated to the latter. And the way they build such systems is through rigid structure.

In fact, transitions have been a key part of the overall story of Pep’s story at all 3 of the top clubs he’s managed and though they were obviously a thing back then and managers used them, they were not as ubiquitous as they are now in terms of tactical thought. For Pep though, dealing with them has been a key consideration through building all his teams, his well-known tendency to do something mad in UCL knockout rounds can all be explained through desire to prevent transitions and counters. And while I could give and rundown of how he did that and why, that article has already been written by Grace Robertson – go read it.

The move towards structure on the other hand I haven’t seen such a comprehensive breakdown of, so I’ll discuss it in a bit more detail. Structure in football is often thought of as a fundamentally defensive characteristic, with the implication being that the offensive side of the game is much more letting talented attackers do their thing – and there are a lot of coaches who do exactly that. Pellegrini and Ancelotti generally took this approach and it served them well.

Key word being ‘served’ – cos it’s not really doing so now. In both cases despite being very highly decorated coaches, they’re currently at upper-mid table clubs (Real Betis and Everton respectively) not at the elite anymore. And why really does relate to their luck of offensive structure.

As team structure becomes ever more present in the game, if anything it causes a feedback loop because the best way to break down a structured defense is with structure of your own, with specific kinds of movements designed to drag the opposition in such ways that it makes you space. Just go watch Manchester City’s centurions and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve already written about the value of consistent attack patterns and Pep in that season found a pattern that worked and abused it like a video game glitch.

So, if controlling transitions and a concrete attacking structure are key components of an elite football team, we should probably talk about why Barca struggle with them so much.

Midfields are fake actually.

And so, to the recent Barcelona sides. If you’ve watched Barca at all since Valverde was sacked and you’ve seen a goal conceded, it’s quite likely it came from one of 2 sources: either a simple defensive error or from a quick transition and counter into the space behind our midfield – both have been painful in their frequency. The former there isn’t much to say other than “FFS Lenglet concentrate!”, at least not within the scope of this article.

The counters behind the midfield line are, unsurprisingly, due to structural issues with the team. The 1-2 shape in midfield (present in both the classic 433 and current 3142) gives has it’s benefits offensively, but as a trade-off it leaves free the half spaces behind each 8 for the opposition to attack. Short of just never conceding transitions there are 2 main ways of combatting this if you want to keep your 8s high: either have an incredibly mobile and tackle heavy holding midfielder (think Casemiro at Real Madrid) to mop up errors, or to have a full back shift inside (think Azpilicueta at under Mourinho or, oh yeah, Abidal at Barca).

As you may have guessed, Barca do not do either of these things. At Barca both Alba and Dest push high to try and have an impact in the final third (the former even succeeds in that endeavour) and Pedri, Frenkie, Moriba and someone I’ve conspicuously forgotten push high to link play and make off the ball runs. This leaves to defend just the CBs and Busquets. And at this point Busquets is neither incredible mobile, nor tackle heavy.

Now to given Koeman (and to a lesser extent Setién before him) has clearly recognised this and responded by playing a 3rd CB – Mingueza under Koeman and Sergi Roberto under Setién. Both players have experience at full back and the skills required to impact highers up the pitch so they can move up to assist in midfield duties, but even so the half spaces (especially on the left) largely remain open – if you want a good example of this watch Barca’s 2-2 away draw with Celta they LOVED to counter into the space show below as Barca’s midfield often left Umtiti exposed.

Barcelona’s starting XI away at Celta in June 2020

On the attacking side however, we see the opposite: Barca are extremely reticent to use counterattacks. Now yes, it’s obviously going to be true that possession dominant teams generally have a lower proportion of their attacks come through counters obviously – but short of Messi winning the ball off an opposing midfielder and running at the defense it’s something that’s completely absent from their play. This of course limits your ability to exploit transitions when attacking and limits your capacity for tactical flexibility for bigger games. But even in the modern era this was not always the case.

A club in Transition.

Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona were not afraid of going direct – Lucho recognised that giving his world beating attackers space to cause havoc would get the best out of them. There was still structure behind the chaos with Messi > Neymar > Suarez > goal being an absurdly frequently progression of attacks. It could happen slowly or quickly, utilising transition or foregoing it. And they won a treble.

Now don’t mistake this for a treatise on why Barcelona should be a counterattacking team now, but that first season showed both it’s value and more broadly the value of tactical flexibility. The seasons after that showed Lucho’s shortcomings – the struggle to break down top opponents was very clear because when the MSN trio don’t have the space to attack it turns out the control and more complex structure orchestrated by Xavi and co is extremely useful (quelle surprise?).

But this isn’t a pure retrospective, it’s a discussion of what the club needs to be in order to stay relevant, why and what changes need to happen to realise that? I can start with a discussion of the squad and just for the hell of it why not: get Emerson back at the club due to his better defensive ability and what little funds are available, prioritise a mobile and defensively active 6.

But fixing the squad does nothing if the structure of the team isn’t there to take advantage of those improvements. Barca are one of the most passive teams in the league in terms of pressing, they press high, but in the middle and defensive thirds that intensity drops off hugely compared to other teams.

Furthermore, the pressing structure is poor as well – the current Manchester City team use pressing as a mechanism to prevent the opposition from having a chance to create a chance. For Barcelona, the disorganised pressing is often the mechanism by which the opposition creates chances – there is a desperate need of structure.

Barcelona as a club lie at a crossroads. After years of mismanagement at MANY levels something is going to have to give. The club needs to modernise the scouting department and to solidify it’s mechanisms for ensure a long term sporting project, but at a fundamental level it’s footballing identity needs modernising, or at the very least a reality check – because the football that the fans remember isn’t what won titles a decade ago, and even if it were, the world has moved on.

As it stands, Barcelona is a club clinging to their past for fear of deviating too far from it. But eventually you must let go of fond memories and embrace the real world. The Barca Way is not a concrete set of styles and techniques, but a rhetorical device used to handwave away legends waltzing into jobs they’re unqualified for, to damn those who propose mechanisms to modernise the systems that hold the club back and to dismiss genuine tactical critique that demonstrates how this core identity is used against us.

The Barca Way is dead.

And everyone knows it but us.

Inconsistency and unpredictability

If you talk to the average person, however engaged in the footballing sphere they are you tend to find the same general views on both of these concepts: inconsistency is bad and unpredictability is good. Both of these views are on the surface are very sensible – consistency means someone can be relied upon and unpredictability means the opposition has to deal with more possibilities.

I would like to challenge these views, at least for attackers.

To start, let’s look at what they mean. Consistency refers to the degree to which a player’s output – be that goal contributions (which I’ll be focussing on here for simplicity), ball progression, defensive actions or anything else – varies from match to match (or between time periods). This can be quantified using things like standard deviation as a measure of this – as an example, let’s do an example comparison: Raheem Sterling vs Kevin de Bruyne.

I chose these 2 because they play on the same team, have the same number of league goal contributions (per Transfermarkt) and are both high volume goal contributors. Just by looking at their numbers it’s rather clear who has had a more consistent impact: Raheem Sterling – despite having played 3 more games this season, they’re tied on 13 for matches that lack a goal contribution. In fact, Raheem contributes to a goal in more than 50% of games, KDB does not.

The other side of the story however is that though Sterling has contributed more consistently, KDB has done so more in total (per game). Sterling has put up 0.59 g+a this season to KDB’s 0.67 even. How? Because Kevin de Bruyne’s inconsistency means he has FAR more games where he’s contributed to more than 1 goal. The Standard Deviations bear this out too – with Sterling’s SD being 0.62 to KDB’s 0.80. In short: KDB is less likely to score/assist in any individual game, but if he does, get ready for fireworks.

But is this actually a good thing? A few days ago @HemmenKees wrote a thread giving an example of how scoring the same amount in a less consistent manner results in better results in terms of points, so in that sense inconsistency could potentially even be an advantage.

But now it’s time to drop down a level – to the intersection of inconsistency and unpredictability.

When it comes to goals, people tend to like players who can “score any kind of goal”. xG models however, very much instead prefer players who do one kind of shot REALLY well – and expanding on that it does make sense, you can min-max your training time to get as good as possible at what you excel at. For a good example: watch Van Persie contorting his body to be able to shoot in a way more natural for him.

So for finishing at least, consistency of technique is important. That however runs it up against our other word of the day: unpredictability.

A common perception among fans (a perception that lead me to writing this in fact) is that unpredictability is a virtue in the attack – that great variety in attack patterns will make in harder for defenders to know what to do when defending. And this is an understandable, but as we’ve seen with shooting at least, that isn’t always true. Does it apply to buildup in the same way it does to shooting

Lets take a few case studies: starting with Arjen Robben. Obviously here I’ve gone with an extreme case – Robben is notorious for repeatedly cutting inside on his left rather than having more diversity in attack patterns. And as it turns out, it worked rather well – his ability to turn quickly and suddenly with such rehearsed precision meant that even if was predictable, it worked.

But what about on a larger scale? More often what this refers to is the capacity for a team to attack together in different ways – here I have 2 examples. To start, Manchester City’s 2017/18 season – aka The Centurions. City at the time were to put it bluntly: rather effective. But they didn’t do that much in terms of diversifying their play. Instead they had a very simple plan: Use Sane and Sterling to stretch the pitch, KDB and Silva sit in the half space between the lines and play balls into Sane/Sterling who cut it back into the box. It’s not a complicated idea in concept, but pulling it off well (and especially doing so with such defensive solidity) is extremely hard.

But couldn’t go the whole way with the style – be that luck or not, can such a rigid shape win something as prestigious and competitive as the UCL. We’ve already seen the answer: Barcelona’s treble winning MSN in 2015.

MSN is often looked back on as the greatest front three of all time (a very reasonable assessment) and incredibly unpredictable to play against (a clear post-hoc construction). Despite all 3 players having a very wide skillset and able to do essentially anything, the team’s game-plan (especially in big games) was pretty simple. The midfielders passed to Messi -> Messi drew players to the right flank -> Messi played a near perfect cross-field ball over the top to a now lightly marked Neymar who cut it back to either Suarez on an onrushing Messi. It was simple, it was fast and it was incredible.

It took advantage of the fact the fact that Messi (to borrow a Basketball term) had incredible gravity to his game – which would be expected of the greatest player in the world, but in turn left the 3rd and 4th best players in the world at the time with largely unmarked by comparison. And though 2/3rd of that 3 are now gone, the attack pattern remains.

It’s nowhere near as prevalent today, and the people involved are very different, but the same idea remains. Take a look at the picture below – it’s pretty iconic (at least to me) and I can remember the goal as it happened exactly. Ball across to the left, runner unmarked on the outside and a cutback to an onrushing Messi.

Lionel Messi Holding Shirt
Messi’s celebration after his winner against Real Madrid

The partner in crime had changed – but the style was the same. And finally, we’ve come to what prompted this whole endeavour: Jordi Alba.

Jordi Alba splits the Barca fanbase quite a lot. Many think his ability as an off the ball runner and general offensive impact to be exceptional, others think it’s too obvious what’s going to happen – they want some more unpredictability.

It should be fairly obvious given what I’ve written that I favour the former position here – repetitive or not, Jordi Alba’s ability to receive Messi’s (and other’s) through balls and send them in dangerously towards Messi, Griezmann and (somewhat surprisingly) Frenkie de Jong in or near the box is vital to play. The fact Barca’s play so heavily focusses in his side is not because Alba is too predictable, but because Dest or Roberto do not have the incisive and clear attacking strategies that Alba can provide (along with the rest of his game of course).

Alba is neither inconsistent nor unpredictable, his game and to a lesser extent the team’s game revolves around that they aren’t – but that’s not a critique. Neither of those things are desirable on their own.

Frenkie is not a Fiat.

Part 1: Zlatan.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, the title of this post is a reference to this famous Zlatan Ibrahimović quote regarding his role while at Barcelona:

“When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari you put premium petrol in the tank, you hit the motorway and you step on the gas. Guardiola filled up with diesel and took a spin in the countryside. He should have bought a Fiat.”

Zlatan Ibrahimović

While often discussed in terms of frustration at not being the ‘main man’ of the team, the complaint runs deeper than that – despite being often treated as purely an eccentric target man, Zlatan has a lot more to his game than that. He’s excellent at dropping deep to link play and create and while it’s obviously excellent to have such a broad skillset, this is not always useful in a tactical sense.

A good example of this was his single season at Manchester United – his desire for space to drop into somewhat enforced the lack of a 10 and thus a 433 shape – which meant due to the deeper midfielders and wide players like Mata, Mkhitaryan and Lingard not offering much in the way of box presence left United feeling light going forward a lot, and some speculated this was part of the reason his contract was not renewed despite his good goal return.

At Barcelona however, Pep took the opposite approach – rather than simply allow Zlatan to wander and compromise the shape he restricted him much more, asking him to sacrifice part of his wider skillset for the good of the team. While obviously on an interpersonal level this didn’t go down well, on a tactical level it was the correct call; Barcelona needed (and still need) a reliable, physical plan B going forwards and as good at dropping off and linking Zlatan is, he’s no Messi. Thus he stayed higher, much to his chagrin.

But this is ostensibly an article about Frenkie de Jong. Why have I written 4 paragraphs about Zlatan Ibrahimović? In short: this is what people want Frenkie to do for Barcelona too – limit his involvement in overall play to a smaller, vital role for the good of the team. In other words: to be a Fiat.

Part 2: To be a Fiat.

Specifically, people are wanting him to stay deep as a ball winning defensive midfielder (to replace Busquets) and give up his exceptional progressive dribbling and threat in the final third to for the good of the team. But I’ve already written about this have I not? Yes, but I’ve written about how his strengths lie in buildup and offense.

This piece is about how even if you’re willing to accept losing those strengths, he’s not a suitable Fiat either.

Pretty much all discussions of tactics can be addressed in terms of trade-offs. To use the above example: Frenkie staying deep is a tradeoff where the team gains offensive output (by cramming Puig/Moriba/Coutinho in as an 8) at the cost of defensive solidity. Alone this is fairly obvious, where tactics get interesting is in assessing the magnitude of those weaknesses/strengths and how you mitigate/maximise them.

At a fundamental level, the Frenkie as a 6 position originates from a poor assessment of these potential weaknesses and consequently, a failure to engage with their mitigation.

Now to give the position it’s credit, the idea of taking a 2-way midfielder and converting them into a pure holding one is not a new or a necessarily bad idea. Manchester City’s Fernandinho being a pretty clear example of success in that area, and for a player it likely would make sense for at a similar profile of club someone like Fede Valverde would likely fit. The problem is that unlike these two, Frenkie is not really a 2 way midfielder.

The reason so many people think of him as one is because dividing the field into 2 based on their starting position is a decent (though getting increasingly bad), basic heuristic for if a player is offensive or defensive – so seeing Frenkie start so deep but have such a impact higher up creates that impression. In reality however he offers very little defensively as the starting deep is to progress and develop play from deep rather than defend. And the stats more than bear this out.

Part 3: The stats.

As a demo, I’ve collected the basic defensive bar graphs from FBREF’s scouting tool for midfielders and jumbled them up: Frenkie de Jong, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Arturo Vidal, Wifred Ndidi and Sergio Busquets. Can you guess which is which?

It probably won’t surprise you that Frenkie is the top right here (4), which very much does not paint his defensive contribution in a great light. Now of course I’m fully aware that numbers aren’t everything and that they need context – but I chose these players not because they’re all super high (evidently some aren’t) but because they relate to a couple of specific responses people make to the idea he doesn’t defend enough – responses I’ll outline now.

Part 4: He hasn’t played as a holding midfielder!

One of the most common retorts to this is to suggest that the reason his numbers are insufficiently good is that he hasn’t been playing as a DM thus far and they’d be substantially higher if he were. This is a reasonable argument on the surface, but does not hold up for 2 reasons.

Firstly, all you have to do to see how this isn’t true is compare his numbers to non-specialist holding midfielders (as FBREF do here – the position categories are merged) like Valverde and Vidal (3 and 6 respectively) where he still performs poorly. As I said earlier, there are midfielders who do enough that it’s worth converting them – but Frenkie is not one.

Secondly, the idea players at the base of midfield always do more defensive work often isn’t even true – one of my personal favourite stats is Kevin de Bruyne topped City’s squad in terms of ball recoveries in 2016/17 despite playing as an advanced 8. More commonly, in anglophone football discourse regista has largely come to mean ‘holding midfielder who doesn’t tackle much’.

It’s largely irrelevant that Frenkie hasn’t been in role when you look at his numbers – if he were the tackling type he’d be doing more regardless.

Part 5: He can develop into one!

In a sense this is a very similar argument to the previous one, essentially “play him there and he’ll improve his defensive output”, but also a much weaker one. Rather than basing it on the sensible (though often wrong) idea that deeper midfielders tackle more it’s instead based upon speculation that as he ages and develops he’ll gain the required skills.

Suffice it to say that this is not a compelling case – players rarely become experts in skills that they were previously seriously weak in, but even if that were not the case: making squad-building choices based on speculation about what a player may become is extremely unwise.

Part 6: But we have loads of possession!

The third main argument is that Frenkie’s numbers are low because they aren’t possession adjusted – and I think this is by far the best of the three main arguments. Yes, possession adjusting stats is incredibly useful for a lot of things and with Barcelona being such a possession side it’s almost certainly true that Frenkie’s defensive numbers are lower than they would be on most teams. The issue here isn’t a question of kind, but one of degree.

While it’s true that they’re lowered, we can see that it’s not just that. Casemiro and Busquets (1 and 2) show that even for big, possession hungry teams in LaLiga it’s possible to put out much better numbers. Even current Busquets who is clearly in decline is outputting substantially more than Frenkie. It’s pretty clear from this that league, team or possession cannot be used to excuse his poor numbers.

Part 7: Deeper issues.

Thus far I’ve focussed this discussion largely on ball recoveries and his infrequency of doing them. This is a serious issue for Barcelona’s midfield going forward, but it is of course not the only job of the role. Another part of it is WHERE on the pitch this occurs.

Frenkie does not excel in any area of the pitch in terms of his defensive actions, but his numbers look the best in the final third. This is not an issue on its own of course, but when you’re asking someone to stay deep rather than push up the conflict is rather obvious. He’s already weak defensively, but deep in midfield is where he is at his weakest even within that.

In addition, being deeper makes his tendency towards being dispossessed more of an issue. Dispossession is not a serious issue for Frenkie, but it happens to him slightly more than average (just over once per game, contrasted with 0.42 per game for Busquets) and having him the deepest in a midfield directly exposes the backline. Being alone at the base of midfield not only hurts Frenkie from an offensive and buildup perspective, but also hurts his ability to actually DO the little defensive work that he currently does.

Part 8: Conclusion.

Now you might get from this article where I largely criticise him for not being good at things that I don’t rate Frenkie – but this could not be further from the truth. I’ve written before about what he’s good at, he’s one of my favourite players and my desire to see him succeed is a large part of why I want to see him used properly rather than being wasted to crowbar others into the side. And it’s that desire that motivates me to write these.

I want Frenkie to succeed and I want Barcelona to succeed – but neither of those things are going to happen with Frenkie at the base of a 3 man midfield. It not only locks away what makes him worse going forwards, but makes him worse defensively, makes the team worse offensively AND makes the team significantly worse defensively.

Contrary to what he wanted, Ibrahimović was a pretty good Fiat. Despite being played outside his usual role at Barcelona made sense tactically – it limited him to an extent but it still played to (some of) his strengths to improve the team overall. By contrast, Frenkie in the role Busquets currently occupies plays into his (and the club’s) weaknesses.

Pedri, Puig and Frenkie: a tale of three eights.

Now let me start of by saying this piece is not a critique of any of these players, but instead a breakdown of each of them, what makes them unique and in turn why they’re such an intriguing tactical puzzle.

The view typically taken of these 3 is is of 2 types: Pedri and Puig as the prototypical most offensive midfielders (either like or as a 10), and Frenkie as a deeper and more traditional central midfielder (or, much to my chagrin, a defensive midfielder). But this analysis doesn’t quite work overall – unsurprising the answer is substantially more complex.

Pedri ended last season primarily as a n10 or LW for Las Palmas, and many people expected him to fulfil a similar role at Barca. But though we’ve seen him there at times, most of his work has come later as an 8 or a 6 instead and he’s been very good in this role. He’s been an outstanding creator (though our finishing has robbed him of a lot of assists) and carried a significant goal threat while also putting up better tackles+interceptions numbers than all of our midfielders bar Busquets (and Moriba techincally, but 83 league minutes is WAYYYY too small a sample) and with exceptional pressing volume leading to said ball recoveries – Pedri is maturing early and into a gem of a midfielder.

It’s this underrated defensive ability that allowed Frenkie to get away with his biggest issue – he’s a passenger in the defensive phase. People talk about him being a DM or him having the required defensive ability to convert but it’s simply not true. Frenkie does very little active defending and due to Pedri’s pressing and ball recoveries that allow this. Frenkie can also get away with this due to his near world leading ball progression ability and recently in particular his subsstantially improve output in the final third due to his utility as a runner.

Do not allow the fact I said ACTIVE defending to make you think he doesn’t help – in the defensive phase Frenkie very often drops into a double pivot alongside Busquets to help cover the space that Busi’s ageing legs can’t. This passive defending of space doesn’t show up in the numbers but it’s very important, knowing when not to press is vitally important as well – but midfields still require active ball winners too.

So that describes the basic balance of our midfield. Both Pedri and Frenkie have exceptional on the ball value and complement each other when defending: Pedri is an active and effective presser and ball winner and Frenkie sits deep to cover space that appears due to Pedri’s press.

So, what of Riqui Puig? Riqui doesn’t really fit into either of these archetypes – he’s an exceptional creator and a good progressor too, but his defensive output makes even Frenkie’s look impressive by contrast – and the one exception to this arguably only makes it worse: his pressing.

Puig is a manic presser of the ball – he’s even ahead of Pedri for pressures attempted (though not by much), but manic does not mean good. His extremely poor record winning the ball back through the press is testament to it’s innefectiveness. Still, it’s a useful skill to have – expecially against tired legs when defenders may be sloppier.

But this is not a solo game. It’s a team game – and we need a balanced midfield. So how does Puig mesh with Pedri and Frenkie?

In a cohesive sense … he doesn’t. Alongside Pedri we’d lose the deeper lying cover than Frenkie provides and alongside Frenkie we’d lose the effective active defending that Pedri provides.

This is (again) not a critique of Puig – these potential balance issues in midfield stem not from a lack of quality, but the fact he is a much less obvious fit.

So how do we solve this? Well long term, having a DM with more mobility would allow both 8s to play higher up and still have the defense covered (though this would still be a risk in big games), another option would be inverting one of the full backs such that they form a double pivot with Busquets such that the 8s can push higher.

That said however, this is my (mild) concern about our 3 main 8s. If one of Frenkie or Pedri were to get injured, it’s very possible that replacing them with Puig causes even greater structural issues in the side. I don’t even think this is that controversial. many are calling for Moriba to replace Pedri vs Sevilla instead of Puig – I cannot know for certain but to mee that seems an admission that Pedri’s defensive work will be sorely missed.

In short: though on paper Pedri, Puig and Frenkie are a fantastic trio of 8s to rotate between, in play (through no fault of their own) it may be harder to rotate them than you’d think.

The search for a six, our shape and Teun Koopmeiners

Teun Koopmeiners - Player profile 20/21 | Transfermarkt

It’s been clear for a long time we’ve needed a 6 long term to replace Busquets. He’s still comfortably the best ball winner we have, but it would be wrong to assert he’s still the player he was a few years ago.

So how do we replace him and what is required of that role? Ball winning, ball retention and good passing are the obvious ones but others are required that are more contingent on tactics and shape – for example, if we are to persist with a straight 4231 with Frenkie on the left, they’d have to be comfortable sitting in and defending the right hand channel. And this lead me to leaving someone out when thinking about ideas for whom.

Players I’ve suggested like Bennacer have played on the right a lot – for Milan their starting pivot is Bennacer right, Kessie left. Others like Ndidi and Brozovic have largely (though not only) played at the base of a 3 man midfield. Teun Koopmeiners however, fits neither of these roles and is FAR less well known.

Teun Koopmeiners currently players in the Eredivise for AZ Alkmaar, he’s 22 and is a left footed defensive midfielder who’s been often compared in terms of playing style to Nemanja Matic. He’s a willing ball winner, making a solid (though not outstanding) 3.15 tackles + interceptions per 90, he’s an excellent distributor from deep – however I didn’t suggest him due to another feature of his that is similar to Matic (and Frenkie), his love of dropping into the left half space to build play. In the straight 4231 we started this season with they’d be very much in conflict for position and job – so he seemed a bad fit.

However, as some have noticed, there has been a subtle change in our shape recently – most clearly noticed by Frenkie moving to the right.

In our last couple of games we’ve played effectively a hybrid 4231 and 433. When defending and when starting buildup play its been a 4231 with Busquets left, Frenkie right and Pedri as a 10. However when attacking the shape shifts, with Frenkie pushing higher to form a 433 so that we can use Frenkie’s off the ball running to get in behind – and so far, it has been working. It means Frenkie can keep doing most of the work he excels in when deep (though restricts his ability to receive from CBs), while giving us an option for a off the ball midfield runner.

What does this have to do with Koopmeiners? Simple – it opens up the left side of the pitch where he plays so well. He wouldn’t have fitted well on the right of a pivot, but he’d be a near perfect fit in the role Busquets is currently occupying of a hybrid LDM and lone 6. He would provide distribution from deep (either centrally like a normal 6 or moving to the left of a back 3), could cover the space behind Frenkie and Pedri and could form a double pivot when defending (similar to Iniesta dropping in to form a double pivot under Enrique).

Beyond fitting this role perfectly though, he has another advantage over the others mentioned: price. With elite defensive midfielders so hard to find in the modern game – as the focus on transition makes them need to do more and more, I don’t think it’s likely that Bennacer is going for anything but a sky high fee, same for Brozovic or Ndidi. By contrast Teun plays football in the Eredivise where players are generally cheaper, and Teun is younger than any of those three.

Teun Koopmeiners is possibly THE most promising talent in the Eredivise, and if we keep playing our current ‘433 when attacking, 4231 when defending/in transition’ shape, he’d be a near perfect fit.

Stats via FBref.

Riqui Puig is not a goddamn six and Frenkie is not Busquets 2.0

Frenkie de Jong in search of a clear role at Barcelona -

This comes up often so I’m making I giant thread about it.

People here VERY frequently post about how we should construct out midfield, generally with 2 main (and bad) ideas floated.

  1. That Frenkie de Jong should play as the deepest midfielder as a Busquets successor.
  2. That Riqui Puig should be in the central midfield double pivot next to Frenkie.

Both of these fundamentally misunderstand what makes these players good (and in Frenkie’s case, world class).

Frenkie de Jong is not, nor has ever been a defensive midfielder – let alone one in the mould of Busquets. The one thing that Frenkie is truly elite at is progressive carrying from deep positions up the pitch. This is a vital function for any team and for a long time we’ve lacked it in our midfield – hence Messi dropping so deep to link play. But in Frenkie de Jong, we have one of the best in the world in that role

Frenkie’s method of doing this is comparatively simple. From his position in a double pivot he drops between or to the left of the CBs to receive the ball and from there dribbles forward, using his exceptional press resistance to do so. The tactical downside to this is that it requires a second pivot player to take over the job as a 6 when Frenkie is doing ball progression, but not do the typical job of splitting the CBs.

Consequently, this necessitates a double pivot and hence a 4231 (or similar) formation as if Frenkie were to do this in a 433 it’d result in 1 of 2 serious issues depending on where he played

  1. If he played as a 6 (like Busi) he’d leave the midfield zone completely uncovered and thus make it extremely easy for us to be countered – a single ball over/through the midfield line leaves the opposition on just our CBs.
  2. If he played in the 8 roles, he’d have to drop back much further – which both slows our attacking buildup AND means we now lack a left (or right) channel midfielder through which to progress play.

In both cases, Frenkie being used to his greatest effect conflicts with the structure of a 433’s midfield structure of a six + 2 eights.

That said, even when people know this sometimes they still advocate for playing Frenkie there with the hope they can adapt. This is absolutely absurd thinking.

The ‘sign good players and hope they adapt to what we need’ logic has been the fundamental cause of our issues in the transfer market for YEARS. Griezmann was signed upon the premise that he’d adapt to the CF/LW role, but it’s clear it’s not that simple and we CANNOT allow that kind of thinking to take any further root in this club. We have arguably the bets young midfielder in the world on our book, and thus we should be playing to his strengths – not shoehorning him where he doesn’t fit and hoping it works out.

So now Riqui Puig.

Riqui Puig should essentially NEVER play in a double pivot and especially when his would-be partner is Frenkie de Jong.

I understand the desire to see one of the best young talents of La Masia in years play more frequently, but playing him out of position is detrimental not only to us as a team, but to his long term development as well.

Puig has a very unique skillset – he’s incredibly creative, a decent but unspectacular ball progressor and very energetic (especially in final third pressing), but on the negative side his positional discipline is poor at best, his middle third pressures are not midfielder level and just generally on the defensive end not that great. As much as I enjoyed watching him at this end of last season, a critical eye cannot help but remember our draw with Celta where the half space behind him in midfield was countered into again and again and again. And that’d be much worse in a pivot, with only one midfielder deeper.

And this need not be a criticism – if Puig were to play as a 10 in a high pressing team he’d be elite. It’s just that his skillset is very focused on doing one role VERY well rather than lots of different roles.

One role that his skillset fundamentally does not suit AT ALL is a central midfielder in a double pivot. His lack of defensive positioning ability would not only be exposed, but his tendency to press high and energetically would also expose Frenkie de Jong with it. He simply does not have the defensive acumen to play in a pivot – he’s an attacking midfielder, not a deep one.

Furthermore, him being deep in a pivot would be detrimental to him doing what he’s excellent at – final third creativity in tight spaces. By pushing him deeper you ask a completely different skillset from him that not only has he not yet shown he has, but also jeopardises the development of his strengths in the process. The obvious comparison in my mind and Man United’s treatment of Anderson – where playing him deeper in midfield rather than as a 10 actively made him worse as a player (tho in his case other factors were obviously involved).

What infuriates me more however is the suggestions to do both at the same time. Because doing do actively would make all of the above issues MORE pronounced. Neither Frenkie nor Puig are at their best covering, neither do that much in terms of defensive output (though Frenkie obviously does more, it’s not the amount you need if asking a player to be the defensive core of a midfield) and asking either to do ball progression takes away the one thing they’d both be good at from a deeper position.

So stop asking for a Puig/Frenkie pivot. It’s bad for our structure now and long term potentially jepordises the development of both midfielders

A serious discussion of Riqui Puig: A fading star.

Who Is Riqui Puig? Barcelona's Latest La Masia Graduate Destined For  Regular First-Team Action Under Quique Setién

Riqui Puig is an outstanding talent and with the exception of Ansu Fati clearly the best talent to come out of La Masia in a long time. His creative numbers are exceptional and though it’s raw, his pressing intensity in the final third is very good. The vast majority of fans see him as a key part of the future of our midfield.

I’m here to explain why I do not. It’s gonna be unpopular, and my conclusions hurt to type, but this is why.

Our squad has been build incredibly poorly, but what has been built very clearly suits a 4231 both in the short and (more importantly) long term – Frenkie de Jong plays by far his best football in a pivot, Ansu Fati clearly benefits from more attackers to interchange with and players like Pedri (long/medium term) and Griezmann (short/medium term) play their best football in a n10 role behind a striker.

I’ve long said that Puig should play as a 10 (both in this system and in general) and I think his performance against Ferencvaros vindicated this – if he can prove what I say below wrong (and I hope he does) then this is where he should play.

But why do I not see a bright future at Barca for Puig? In short: Pedri. Pedri is more than 3 years younger than Riqui and has already proven himself a more adaptable and well rounded player than Puig has at any point in his career for us. The fact so soon after arriving at only 17 has he solidified a starting spot is, frankly, incredible.

Pedri is despite his age largely outperforming Puig across the board. On the defensive end, Pedri is completing more pressures (6.60 vs 5.09), more than triple the blocks (2.40 vs 0.70), more tackles (1.20 vs 1.05), double the interceptions (1.00 vs 0.53), more clearances (0.20 vs 0.18) and is dribbled past less (1.60 vs 2.63).

Offensively the story is admittedly more mixed, which Pedri producing a lower xA (0.20 vs 0.28), fewer key passes (1.40 vs 1.75) and worse ball progression, but in turn Pedri is putting up much better numbers in terms of buildup play more generally – with higher numbers for xGChain (0.95 vs 0.77) and xGbuildup (0.67 vs 0.41), which show that Pedri is involved in moves that more often lead to better chances and shots. Furthermore, Pedri is getting in much better places when shooting (npxG/sh: 0.15 vs 0.08) and thus has a much better xG overall (0.16 vs 0.10).

So what do these numbers tell us overall? In short, Pedri outshines Puig in all phases of play bar the final ball and progressive passing – if we are to build around of these 2 players as our 10 for the future, it should be Pedri not Puig. Pedri is outperforming him in almost all areas despite the age gap which could allow him to surpass Puig in those areas as well.

Ok, so onto the alternative solutions. Starting with the obvious: Why not both?

Fitting both Puig and Pedri into a lineup together normally comes in 2 variants – which I’ll call Pedri Winger and Dual Interiors for the purposes of this post. We’ll start with the former.

The idea of forcing Pedri wide to accomodate Puig is, in isolation, a sensible one. Pedri actually made more appearances on the (left) wing than as a 10 last season for Las Palmas in their 4231. He was (and is) still widely seen as a 10 long term where he performs best, but it’s very clear that he can play on the left. However I said it was a good idea in isolation for a reason – and that reason is Ansu Fati. The runner up Golden Boy has locked down the left wing slot for now and the foreseeable future meaning the only real space for Pedri in this would be on the right wing.

Pedri does not perform well on the right wing. He only played there twice last season and against Real this season. He was overwhelmed in the latter and couldn’t influence the game and this is the norm in that role. Despite being relatively two footed (20% of touches with his left to Puig’s 6%), he is still primarily right footed and being on the right thus prevents him from moving into his preferred areas. And that’s to ignore the presence of Dembele and Trincao on this flank.

The other option, and by far the worse one, is the idea of playing both as a 8s in a 433 with Frenkie behind them as a lone 6. I’ve explained at length as to why Frenkie should not be played in this role in general – it misunderstands what he’s good at, exposes our defense and prevents him from doing what he’s best at. But alongside this pairing of 8s it’s FAR worse – all three COMBINED only put up about the same defensive action numbers as an elite defensive midfielder. I understand the appeal of plenty of attackers, both from a theoretical excitement POV and from a ideological position of ball domination rather than defending. However neither actually work like that – we’ve seen how an effective 415 completely breaks down our progression and weakens our attack in the process when Koeman uses it to chase games, and for the latter – it’s just not true. Xavi played as a 6 sometimes due to his good defensive ability, Iniesta played in a double pivot in the defensive phase under Lucho – though neither were ever known for their defensive ability due to their fantastic ability in possession, it was still there.

Do I think this overall makes Puig a bad player? Absolutely not. Do I think he (assuming he stays) will have a role to play in our future? Yes. But what I doubt when looking with a critical eye at our squad and how it’s going to progress I do not think it is likely that Puig becomes a KEY player for us. He simply has too many weaknesses and hence lacks the flexibility to fit around others if they are the keys.

Can he prove me wrong? Yes, and I hope he does. But come 2025, I do not expect him to be in the gala XI – and as things stand, that’ll be the correct call.

All stats are per90 and sourced from Understat, FBREF and Transfermarkt

Saying that Pedri-Frenkie-Puig can be the next Iniesta-Busi-Xavi is an insult to the latter.

Los herederos del tridente Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta, en apuros

Ok this post is gonna break down into 2 major themes: so I’ll start with them outright

  1. Pedri-Frenkie-Puig is a catastrophically bad and unbalanced midfield trio that fails to understand why it’s constituents are good.
  2. To compare that trio to Iniesta-Busi-Xavi is not only naive, but underlies a SERIOUS lack of appreciation for those three beyond pretty passers among this fanbase.

To start, I’ll look at the midfield proposed by so many and why it simply does not make sense from a tactical perspective – the standard response is that none of them are defensively minded, and this is true (even if people try and claim Frenkie is a DM, he isn’t) but it’s reductive. Players can be offensively minded but still put up good defensive numbers – a example known to all of us is Arturo Vidal, who in his 2 seasons we us put about 4.5 tackles+Interceptions per game, approaching the levels of elite defensive midfielders.

Frenkie de Jong and Pedri COMBINED put up less than that (Frenkie 2.04, Pedri 2.38), and that’s despite the fact Vidal was not a defensive midfielder. If you look at elite defensive midfielders on possession teams you get values as high as Ndidi’s 6.62. The idea that Frenkie de Jong can be our long term defensive midfielder is, in a word, laughable. Don’t get me wrong, Frenkie absolutely should be in our team – he’s an incredible player, but not a defensive midfielder. We don’t have the data for prime Busquets for comparison, but over the past 4 seasons we do he’s been at 3.75 – MUCH higher than Frenkie despite his decline.

This is especially problematic due to the direction modern football is going – more and more of the game is focussed on transition play in behind the offensive line, and in response we’ve seen increasingly complex ways of preventing transition – a famous example being Fabian Delph at Man City dropping in to CM when the free 8s push up. This covers space behind and forms a double pivot to prevent counters. In fact due to this, City’s shape was effectively that of a 4231 when attacking, but instead of a winger cutting inside and the LB overlapping, the LB dropped inside and winger stayed wide.

How does this relate to the proposed PFP midfield? Well I’ve said it many times before, but Puig is not a good presser – when played as an 8 you have 1 main job defensively, and that is to protect your half space behind you to reduce the ground the 6 needs to cover. And Puig REALLY struggles with this concept, a lot of people (myself included) have called him a headless chicken while pressing and while that’s harsh it’s not entirely inaccurate (go look at his ratio of attempted to successful pressures – it’s 2/3rds of Pedri’s and barely half of Messi’s), in numerous games last season Puig’s high press was largely detrimental to us at points due to it opening space behind us. The biggest example was the game we drew with Celta, where it was painfully apparent they had targeted that space knowing this about him. What this means then, is that it would put even more strain in transition for Frenkie to deal with and he isn’t even equipped to deal with it in normal circumstances. If we had an elite defensive midfielder could we deal with that? Of course, but with Frenkie there we cannot.

I won’t go over (again) why Frenkie is MUCH better suited to play with a holding player behind him, but in lieu of that I’ll summarise the issue: Frenkie is not a defensive midfielder in any meaningful way, and Riqui Puig will only exacerbate his shortcomings in this area.

Now onto Iniesta-Busquets-Xavi – people like to discuss this midfield as if it were a demonstration of the fact you don’t need defensive ability in midfield if you can just keep the ball. This is a myth and a horrendous one – while it is true that maintaining possession reduces the opportunities for the opposition to attack, in order to be an effective possession team you MUST be an effective pressing team and thus excellent at both winning the ball back and defensive positioning – after all, you can’t dominate the ball if you can’t get it off your opponent.

This is where the mischaracterisation of our famous midfield trio begins. Xavi and Iniesta are typically presented as fantastic passers and creators/dribblers, which is obviously true. But also, it’s reductive to the breadth of their ability and has given people the idea that it was ALL they were good at – in reality they were exceptional in the press and though not outstanding in other defensive areas, they were GOOD. We don’t have the advanced statistics for either Iniesta or Xavi, but in 2016-17 Iniesta was putting up numbers substantially better than any of Frenkie, Puig or Pedri – and that’s despite the fact he was ageing AND that he was comfortably the worst of the 3 defensively. Iniesta was never a defensive powerhouse, but he put up good numbers in the role nonetheless – it’s pretty telling that in Enrique’s final season we defended in a 442, but Iniesta wasn’t shifted wide for that, he played the left side of the pivot.

Regarding Xavi, not much more needs to be said that he’s better defensively than Iniesta and not infrequently played as a defensive midfielder. He’s a shining example to show how it’s not about size, it’s about positioning and timing. And as for prime Busquets – he’s the best defensive midfielder of his generation.

This is why constantly calling for Pedri-Frenkie-Puig to be the new Iniesta-Busquets-Xavi is not only naive and tactically unviable, but also disrespectful to our legends. If you’re gonna compare a bunch of kids to some of the best midfielders and probably the best singular midfield of all time, then not only have you got to make sure those kids are fantastic, but you’ve also got to understand what made them so great to begin with – they deserve that respect from their fanbase.

All stats from FBref, thank you for reading.

Best and worst signing of each EPL team this season. (part 2)

As last time, please note this list features only permanent deals only, no loans. And only features players signed this season (2016/17) not before. I will also be following it up with the rest of the teams in future parts.


Best: Idrissa Gueye

Gueye went down last season with Villa but was one of the few players who could hold his head high. Escaping back to the Premier League with Everton has has become a complete dynamo in midfield. He tops the chart for tackles with 135 in total – given him totalling 2,686 minutes this season that results in him averaging under 20 minutes per tackle.


Worst: Yannick Bolasie

This isn’t really his fault, but Everton’s signings have been largely good: Williams has lead the defense, Gueye was a revelation, Schniederlin was great after arriving in January and both Lookman and Calvert-Lewin have been good as youth prospects. But Bolasie got injured in February and before that had only scored once anyway. He was OK – but nothing special and missed half the season. Sorry Yannick.


Hull City:

Best: Kamil Grosicki

After arriving in January, Grosicki positioned himself as a first choice player out wide – providing 5 assists in 15 appearences as Marco Silva got extremely close to saving Hull from the drop. Working hard on his flank (whichever his was) will have endeared him to many a manager in the top flight. Would not be suprising to see him back in the EPL next year.


Worst: James Weir

Signed from Manchester United’s youth Academy and expected to make an impact. He didn’t. Only made 3 senior appearences – all in the EFL cup before being shifted off to Wigan in Januaray – where he only made 4 appearences. Not good enough.




Best: Wilfred Ndidi

Ndidi was Leicester’s second attmept to replace N’Golo Kante – the heartbeat of the title winning team after Mendy failed to in the first half of the season. And in doing so was excellent – he didn’t have the same ability to carry the ball forwards to start attacks that Kante did – but he has covered the defensive aspect expertly.


Worst: Bartosz Kapustka

Kapustka has only made four senior appearances this season – solely in cup competitions. Though he is only 20 still this season has to be considered a failure. Especially given his performance in EURO 2016. But it’s far from a clear descision – the vast majority of the Leicester signings have not worked out well.




Best: Sadio Mane

He won their player of the year! How could it be anyone else? His destructive running and pace not only stretched opposing defenses but gave a target for Liverpool’s brigade of creative midfielders to exploit. Liverpool scraped to a top 4 place this season – but has Mane been available all season, they would have likely walked to qualification.


Worst: Ragnar Klavan

A reasonable shout here would be Alex Manninger – given he failed to make a single appearance, but he was never supposed to given has brought in as backup backup keeper. Klavan however has largely been a mess at the back unable to displace Lovren and even losing his position as backup later in the season to Lucas – who isn’t even a defender.



Manchester City

Best: Leroy Sane

This was another hard one – as though City made some transfer blunders, they also made some great moves. Namely: Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus. All three have been excellent, but I give this to Sane due to the the fact Gundogan and Jesus were only present for part of the season (be that due to injury of arriving in January). Sane has however been brilliant on the left flank – his dribbling, skill and pace tearing defenses apart almost every game. Well done Leroy.


Worst: John Stones

Stones vs Bravo – a battle of 2 evils. Both seemingly intent to allow City to concede as many goals as possible in the name of ball playing (inexplicably in Bravo’s case). Honestly Either would be deserving winners – but I went for Stones given his price tag was triple Bravo’s and that Stones comitting defensive errors was predictable – given that was his primary job at Everton as well.



Best and worst signing of each EPL team this season. (part 1)

please note this list features only permanent deals only, no loans. And only features players signed this season (2016/17) not before. I will also be following it up with the rest of the teams in future parts.



Best: Rob Holding.

It’s been hard to really call any of Arsenal’s signings a success this season. All of them have been OK, but not great. But probably the best of the bunch has been young CB Rob Holding. He wasn’t involved much until the switch to a back 3 late in the season, but since then he has looked an extremely accomplished ball playing CB from those wide CB positions.


Worst: Takuma Asano.

Likewise, It’s been hard to call any of Arsenal’s signings flops either. Xhaka has been largely good, but prone to moments of madness, Perez has spent most of the season injured – and when not he’s either been benched or played out of position (though still performed very well) and Mustafi to put it likely has had a season of 2 halves – his form collapsing post-January. So that leaves Takuma Asano – who signed but was promptly denied a work permit and sent on loan to the German second division. Which isn’t really the level Arsenal should be targeting.



Best: Lewis Cook.

Lewis Cook only made 9 appearances in all competitions this season. So why is he on this list? Because frankly Bournemouth’s transfer business has been nothing short of atrocious. Ake was a good signing and Wilshere was OK – but both came on loan so are ineligible. Congrats Lewis – You were these least incompetent.


Worst: Lys Mousset.

Wow was this hard. Jordan Ibe played more than 1,000 league minutes and ended with 0 goals or assists. Brad Smith was largely missing from matches and when on the pitch was possibly more so. But I’ve gone for Lys Mousset for being the most outright detrimental to Bournemouth’s hopes this season. His own goal cost Bournemouth a win vs Stoke and that was the only time he hit the back of the net all season. Congrats Lys – You are the only striker I’ve heard of score more own goals than goals in a season.



Best: Robbie Brady.

I’ve raved about Brady before here ( and he made the step back to the EPL with Burnley after 6 months. Since then he has made a impact offensively from a starting position on the left wing, being a creative hub linking the midfield and defence. Something important when the midfield is as workmanlike as Hendrick and Barton. Speaking of Barton…


Worst: Joey Barton.

Barton isn’t here for performance reasons. As a ball winner in Burnley’s midfield he quickly became a starter and a key cog in the midfield after joining in January. The reason Barton is here is that 3 months later he is banned from football for betting on his own games! Burnley, given his track record you should have seen something like this coming. This is on you as much as on him



Worst signing: Michy Batshuayi.

If you were new to football you could be mistaken for thinking Michy was brought in as a social media rep. despite playing 20 times in the league the length of those appearances has averaged less than 12 minutes per game. That said, he’s scored 5 and assisted 1 in that time. Frankly, he hasn’t been bad – just not at the standard of Chelsea’s other players and signings.


Best signing: N’Golo Kante.

Kante is the PFA player of the year and the FWA player of the year. Need I say more? I will anyway though. Kante has been a ball winning machine in the midfield this season – him and Matic a fantastic barrier that few attacks can break down. Key to Chelsea’s title win as he was to Leicester’s.


Crystal Palace

Best signing: Christian Benteke.

It had to be, didn’t it? He’s scored 15 goals this season and assisted 2 more. To put that in perspective all Palace’s other strikers totalled 3 goals. That’s a fifth of what Christian achieved. Free from a bizarre, ill-fitting stint at Liverpool he’s back doing what he does best: dominating defenders physically and smashing goals in from crosses.


Worst signing: Jonathon Benteke

Who? Good question. Signed from Zulte Waregem in the summer, Christian Benteke’s younger brother joined him at Palace. Or at least he did on the training ground – he’s only totalled 6 minutes of play in all competitions. He looked OK in that time, but the fact he could only manage that much speaks volumes