Friday, 22 January 2016

Barça’s Trident vs. Real’s BBC: Synergies or Cannibals?

During the past weekend in La Liga, no less than ten goals were scored by Barça’s and Real Madrid’s super trios, divided evenly between both. Moreover, each constituent member – Messi, Neymar and Suárez vs. Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively – got himself on the score sheet.

At first sight, one would have to conclude that both trios work splendidly. Indeed, both teams already collected a Champions League trophy on the back of their respective tridents. But let's have a closer look at last weekend's performances. Both teams played one half with their complete trident and one half with an incomplete one and whereas Real Madrid managed all of their five goals during the half their super trio were united and none during the one they weren’t, Barça only scored two goals – one of which a Messi penalty – during the half with their trident in tact. Additionally, Suárez completed his hat-trick entirely during the half when one of his strike partners – Messi – was no longer fielded. 

The important question arising then is, “Do these players actually make each other better?” Concretely, on average during a 90-minute game, do they score more goals when combined than the sum of the individuals, when not operating in a trident (i.e. are they “synergistic”?) or, instead, are they rather “stealing” each others goals, e.g. by being at the end of assists that otherwise a teammate would have scored (i.e. “cannibalistic”)? 

To answer these questions and to better understand what and if there is actually something meaningful going on in terms of discriminant performances between both tridents, in terms of individual vs. combined performance, we naturally need to consider more data. Thus, in preparation for this post, I collected information about all the goals scored by Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo as well as by Messi, Neymar and Suárez since they were united at their respective clubs (seasons ’13-’14 and ’14-’15, respectively) to date and considered what combination had been on the field at the time of scoring. As I do elsewhere, I take into account both La Liga and Champions League games, counting penalties for half a (field) goal. The main findings can be summarized as follows:

Table 1: Comparing efficiency (i.e. avg. number of goals scored
      per 90 mins. on the field) as part and when not part of MSN

Table 2: Comparing efficiency (i.e. avg. number of goals scored
      per 90 mins. on the field) as part and when not part of BBC

As it turns out, only one of the six players, Cristiano Ronaldo, actually scored more goals when part of his trident than when not. Some level of "cannibalism" may be expected, e.g. as penalties and free kicks may fall to a teammate in the absence of strike partners, but the relative performance of Barça's three main strikers when vs. when not combined is quite startling, as depicted in the below graph. The red line indicates each player's respective scoring level (100%) when not part of the trident; each bar indicates the corresponding player's scoring level when part of the trident relative to this line:

Figure 1: Goal-scoring performance as part of trident relative to when not part of trident

It can clearly be seen that Barça's trident's scoring performance falls well short of Messi, Neymar and Suárez' scoring performances as individuals (or duos). In fact, as a trio, MSN, on average, scored 2.14 goals per 90 minutes, whereas the sum of Messi's, Neymar's and Suárez' average scoring performances per 90 minutes, when not part of the trio, adds up to 3.22 - over a full (field) goal more. Moreover, the Barça player least cannibalized by the trident, Messi, is still more negatively affected as compared to Real's most negatively affected player, Bale. Real Madrid's BBC scored, on avg. per 90 minutes, 2.33 goals vs. 2.44 as the sum of the individuals' performances - less than a meaningful difference. 

Is there something going horribly wrong then with Barça's trident relative to BBC? Yes and no. On the one hand, yes, as Barça's individual trident members all appear to be sacrificing a substantial portion of their efficiency when operating as a trident. On the other hand, no, because, in absolute terms, overall, Messi, Neymar and Suárez still scored more goals than Bale, Benzema and Cristiano, on average, per 90 minutes (2.56 vs. 2.36). Thus, it would be harsh to claim the former are underperforming compared to the latter. What does clearly emerge, is that Barça's trident still show ample potential to up their performance if they find ways to create more synergies among the constituent players.

Critical question: now that we know that Barça have been substantially more efficient when not fielding Messi, Neymar and Suárez all together, would it actually help the team to keep one of them on the bench? To assess this, we need to consider the goal-scoring performance of the team as a whole (not just the trident) when fielding the trident and when not. After all, if one is not to field a member of MSN, someone else, e.g. Munir, with his own relative (in)efficiency will take his place. Barça's average number of goals scored per 90 minutes turns out to have been very similar when having fielded and when not having fielded the trident (2.60 vs. 2.63), which leads to yet another question: as the team turned out no less efficient without the trident, could FC Barcelona actually save itself quite some money by selling off either Messi, Neymar or Suárez, without sacrificing team goals? And if so, which one of them? 

Hereto, I repeated the exercise of considering team goals, this time with and without each Messi, Neymar and Suárez, respectively, having been on the field at the time of scoring. The results are depicted in the below graph. The blue bars indicate the average number of team goals per 90 minutes with the corresponding player having been on the field; the red ones, without him having been on the pitch - from the start of the '14-'15 season to date:

Figure 2: Avg. number of Barça goals per game with and without player having been on the pitch

From this, it seems that what Barça don't want to do is sell Neymar: not only did the blaugrana score more goals with the Brazilian on the field than with either the Argentinian or the Uruguayan, but also did Barça, on average, score fewer goals per game without Neymar than without either one of his strike partners. Furthermore, as evidenced by the descriptive statistics listed in Table 1, both Messi and Suárez found their most efficient combination of all possible ones (i.e. trident, duos or alone) in duo with Neymar. One likely explanation would be that Neymar is the one mainly able to unbalance the opponent, which is what creates goal-scoring opportunities for the team.