To estimate how much losing Messi might hurt, I ran some simulations and compared the expected points for Real Madrid and Barcelona over their next seven matches. … At full strength, Real is favored to take about one more point than Barcelona in the next seven matches — Real has slightly better stats and a slightly easier schedule. If losing Messi makes Barcelona’s attack about 30 percent worse, then the gap jumps to about four points. If Messi makes them 20 percent worse, Real should take about three more points over the next two months, and at 10 percent the gap would be two points.
This helps explain why it is so hard to identify Messi’s value from the time he is off the pitch. Because La Liga is so unequal and Barcelona so good, Barca remains strongly favored in most of its matches even if the club is significantly weakened. The expected point gaps can be measured on the fingers of one hand, even in scenarios where Messi’s effect on his team’s quality is legitimately massive. Unless the loss of Messi causes an unexpected, utter disaster, Barcelona should be easily within striking distance of the title when its superstar returns.
In the weighted average, these 50 players scored about 52 goals above expectation for Real Madrid or Barcelona, and they scored about 41 goals above expectation for other clubs. This result suggests that most—perhaps 75 to 80 percent—of the “superteam” effect is a relatively simple equation. Real and Barca spend large amounts of money to buy players who are excellent finishers as well as being elite in other aspects of the game, and there is nothing surprising about guys who cost over $50 million clinically dispatching a few extra chances. They do the same playing for Udinese, Arsenal or Valencia.
While this is broadly true at the population level, there is one striking exception. Gonzalo Higuaín has simply been a different kind of player since leaving Real Madrid for Napoli two years ago. He had been one of the most deadly finishers in La Liga, scoring 75 non-penalty goals from 263 shots, beating his expected goals (58 xG) by nearly 20. For Napoli Higuaín has scored 27 of 191 shots, exactly matching his 21 expected goals. Indeed, Higuaín accounts for a significant amount of the variation between “superteam” finishing and “other club” finishing. While greats like Gareth Bale, Luis Suárez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have maintained finishing rates around their career averages, this is not true for every player equally.
For Juventus, the key was attacking a Real Madrid weakness. With superstar playmaker Luka Modric injured and defensive midfielder Asier Illaramendi out of favor, Madrid Manager Carlo Ancelotti shuffled his lineup. He played defender Sergio Ramos on the right of a midfield two, paired with Toni Kroos on the left. This pairing had been effective in the quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid, but Juventus seemed to have it sniffed out early.
Kroos was charged with driving forward from midfield while Ramos held the line in front of defense. On the flanks there was a similar pattern. Marcelo attacked from his left fullback position while Dani Carvajal remained mostly in reserve. The effect was a lopsided defense, and Juventus pounced on it from the start. Of Juve’s completed passes into the attacking third, about half were played down Madrid’s weaker left flank, compared to passes down the center of the pitch or on the right flank.
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.
These complaints arise every time an attack sputters out near the penalty area with a difficult pass that doesn’t quite reach its target. Clubs that focus on intricate passing attacks through the center of the pitch, most famously Barcelona and Arsenal, regularly field such complaints from fans and pundits alike. And yet, statistical analysis can demonstrate the value of attempting that one extra pass within the penalty box.
The statistic here is something I call “danger zone passes.” The “danger zone” is the region in the center of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored. DZ passes refer to passes which are played from within a few yards of this central area.
In general, if you get the ball at your feet in this region, you typically have at least a five or 10 percent chance of scoring with a reasonably taken shot. Choosing to pass essentially means letting that opportunity go by, but there are great benefits to passing if you can connect with a teammate in a better position.
Published at SB Nation.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Barcelona’s clinical striking is that it’s a consistent aspect of their game all over the pitch. Whether shot created comes from directly on top of the goal mouth or 25 yards out, they are more likely to convert than anyone else in La Liga. There is no region of the pitch where Barcelona don’t score more goals than would be expected.