Over the next few weeks and months, you will see a lot of statistics related articles on here, catering to that part of our readership that loves the utilisation of numbers and data in the beautiful game. This piece by Sami Faizullah looks at Barcelona’s rather surprising signing, as they completed a move for Valencia’s Jérémy Mathieu.
A major focus of Barcelona’s weakness last season was on their defensive side of the game. Though they landed up challenging Atletico right up till the last day of the season, their campaign was riddled with a string of sub-par performances and disappointing results. They stuck to their beliefs in their general approach, but the attack didn’t cover up the problems in defence quite well enough. With club legend, Carles Puyol, also having left once the season was done, Luis Enrique’s priorities turned to improving the defence.
Though the likes of Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic have got fans of the Catalan club eagerly anticipating the new season, it was a controlled excitement as none of these helped the defensive third of their side directly. So when Barcelona announced their new defensive signing, supporters were left a bit stunned. There were a couple of rumours doing the rounds, nothing concrete and certainly nothing that had got supporters excited about the prospect of the signing. But Barcelona did official announce that Jérémy Mathieu would be their new defender, supposedly one who is the solution to their defensive woes. I say this not out of opinion, but because of the amount spent on him (€20 million reportedly). Though it has been stated that the club may still be in for another central defender.
Now a transfer isn’t a good basis to judge a player, as many will claim that signing a 30+ defender for that sum is ludicrous. But as long as the club feel they can spend that amount and still achieve their other transfer targets, the sum is irrelevant. Given the sum spent, it does suggest that Barcelona have put in a lot of faith into signing the Frenchman, who turns 31 by the time he’s played two months of football for the club. The interpretation would be that the club would not be looking into another centre-back this summer, with Jérémy Mathieu competing against Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra and Javier Macherano for a spot in Barca’s defence.
So without getting personal opinions into the fold, and using the numbers as the basis of judgement, can Jérémy Mathieu really stake a claim for himself in the side? Is he an upgrade on the existing options? Is he closer to a Carles Puyol or a Dmytro Chygrynsky?
The perfect central defender
Before we move into a statistical comparison of the four aforementioned Barcelona defenders, it would be beneficial to identify what would be the perfect central defender in our comparison model. We will be using the number of tackles won, interceptions made, aerial duels won and blocks done as the positive factors, while the number of tackles attempted but lost, fouls committed and defensive errors (in general) will serve as the negative factors. Both will be measured on a scale of 4 per game, with a maximum amount for the former being a good sign of the defenders ability, while a complete 0 for the latter also emphasises the defenders’ comparative superiority.
Note that none of these defenders achieve a maximum 4 or a favourable 0 for any of the factors listed. But a perfect central defender (if there ever was such a thing), would look like this on our statistical radar model.
The new man
It must be noted here that Jérémy Mathieu played for a club that would require more defensive work than Barcelona. The Catalan giants are a possession based team, and despite their poor season, maintained their large proportion of possession in games. Their defenders thus would have required fewer defensive actions, while Mathieu at Valencia would have required to be more defensively active.
Given that we assume more defensive work from Mathieu, his stats aren’t very impressive. He managed only 1.31 successful tackles last season per game, in the heart of Valencia’s defence, this is the lowest among the four centre-backs. He also conceded the least fouls among the four, at just 0.69 per game which could either show his experience in defence or his lack of eagerness to get stuck into a tackle. I’d give the benefit of doubt to the Frenchman and say it’s the former, an experienced head and a less erratic defender (hopefully for Barcelona’s sake). He also attempted and lost a fairly low amount of tackles, 1.44 per game. The concern though here would be that he manages to lose more tackles than win on a per game average. Not too impressive in that regard.
The biggest concern for me is Mathieu in the aerial duels factor. He is the second tallest defender in this foursome, and again eluding back to the fact that he might have had more defensive work than the other three, he managed to win only 1.88 of the aerial duels per game, the lowest in the comparison. It’s isn’t hard to envision that over a course of the season (having played more games than the other three), Mathieu and his Valencia defence would have had to face a fair deal of crosses, but the numbers don’t reflect well on him.
His reading of the game is impressive though, having managed 2.50 interceptions on a game average, third highest in the comparison. This could be seen as a result of him constantly stepping up to prevent opposition attacks. Experience also telling here again. I personally don’t see blocks as an important component of judging a defender. It doesn’t require too much quality, experience, class or intelligence. Often it isn’t even bravery, it’s just coincidentally being in the path of the ball when struck by an opponent. But, Mathieu manages 0.69 blocks per game, more than the remaining three.
Defensive errors in general, though vague, again suggest that Mathieu is worse off with 0.69 per game, but by a negligible margin.
And the rest
Gerard Pique, despite his ‘issues’ is seen as the strongest Barcelona defender. These issues though could come more to light with the figure of Puyol not there to back up Pique’s often peculiar displays. He too isn’t quite impressive in the tackles department, with only 1.54 successful per game. Though a 1.35 unsuccessful rate per game also suggests that he too probably isn’t quite one to get into tackles himself. Pique, as Barcelona fans will tell you, isn’t the most defensively sound defender with an intention to always wander forward with the ball. His lack of defensive play could be cited as the reason for these stats, including his extremely low rate of defensive errors. It’s surprising that his interceptions are as low as they are (1.96 per game), the least among all the defenders.
Pique impresses most in the aerial duels factor, with an unbelievable 3.69 successful per game. But again, a lot of this has to do with aerial duels in non-defensive areas of the pitch and more with when he wanders forward, and attacks set pieces.
Here’s an interesting statistic, Marc Bartra lost just one game in the league last season (against Real Sociedad), and drew two others winning 17 of the remaining 20 games that he played in. This isn’t to say that Bartra is the reason for Barcelona’s success, but rather shows how he was in the squad when the team were getting positive results. This is important to note as it could positively affect his statistics.
Marc Bartra impresses in all ‘positive’ departments. 2.05 successful tackles per game puts him ahead of the above two, 2.85 successful interceptions on an average is significantly higher that the others mentioned thus far. His aerial duels ability is beaten only by Gerard Pique, who is taller and we conveniently assume is more in an attacking sense. He loses 1.90 tackles per game, and though this number should be as minimal as possible, compiled with his tackles won, it does show more of an insistence on defensive tackling which we should commend.
Blocks as we mentioned shouldn’t be given much importance but he does manage 0.60 per game which is not too far off from the 0.63 of Mathieu. He has an extremely low rate of fouls committed and defensive errors which again helps his position and gives that above radar a pretty look.
We finally end up with our defensive midfielder turned centre-back. Javier Mascherano. Compared to those before him, Mascherano has a better successful tackles rate and rate of interceptions per game but not significantly higher than Bartra. The problem with this again is Mascherano, though a solid central defender on his day, can often be guilty of giving in to his natural central midfield tendencies and land up out of position, where he makes these tackles and interceptions.
His short stature obviously works against him in the aerial duels factor with just 1.21 successful per game (incredible that at 5’8″ he even manages that much), but this again suggests why shorter defenders are an issue. You’d expect a defence to always be adept at dealing with aerial duels, which Mascherano doesn’t provide.
His 2.32 tackles lost, though suggests his positive defensive mentality, is too large a figure for a player expected to play in Barcelona’s back-line. This also doesn’t bode well with his 1.18 fouls per game.
Statistics again don’t help Jérémy Mathieu’s case. He has experience on his side, but he doesn’t seem to add much more than what Barcelona already possess. His statistics are strangely low for the type of side he played for in 2013/14. Gerard Pique too isn’t the most solid defender, as we already know, and despite being a regular figure at the top of the beautiful game, he isn’t one that can/will be depended upon entirely next season.
Interesting to see how Mascherano is used because my personal opinion maintains he shouldn’t be played in the centre of the defence, though previous Barcelona managers have thought otherwise. Marc Bartra’s stats are quite impressive, and we may be guilty of not giving him enough credit for it. He seems to be the most defensively solid all-round defender with the major factors all in his favour. Would certainly love to see him given a more regular run of games under Luis Enrique especially since he may utilise a three-man defensive system. Barcelona fans wants another defender (preferably of younger age), here you have a solid 23-year-old in your system.
What are your thoughts? Mathieu, Pique, Mascherano or Bartra?