Tuesday 29 March 2016

BBC vs MSN: But This Year’s Clearly Different, Right?

In last January’s post, I subjected the goal-scoring performances of Barça’s trident and Real Madrid’s BBC to a comparative analysis. I showed that even though Messi, Neymar and Suárez overall turned out to be more efficient than Cristiano, Benzema and Bale, the constituent members of BBC do actually turn out to make each other better (synergistic), whereas Barça’s trident members rather seem to score more often when some of their strike partners are absent (cannibalistic). Neymar emerged as the most pivotal member of Barça’s trident. This analysis encompassed data from the start of both tridents being united at their respective clubs. Now that the 2015-2016 season is nearing a conclusion, it will also be important to investigate what the relations are like for the current season. Perhaps Barça’s trident is already combining much better than before? Let’s revisit the results for the current season only, including both La Liga and Champions League, to date.

We may recall that for the aggregated data, there was only one member of the two trios who was actually more productive when part of his threesome than when not: Cristiano Ronaldo. When looking at the current season, it turns out that all of BBC’s strike partners are more efficient when playing together than when not, whereas no member of Barça’s trident is finding the net more easily when MSN is complete than when not.

Fig. 1: Goal-scoring performance as part of trident (bar) relative to when not part of trident (100%-line)

As can be seen in Fig. 1, the numbers are most extreme for Neymar and for Bale. During 90 minutes on the field with both Messi and Suárez, Neymar scored, on average, 0.4 penalty-adjusted goals. When not part of the trident, in contrast, the captain of the Brazilian national team managed to score slightly more than 1 goal per 90 minutes. Neymar already played for over 1,000 minutes for Barça as not part of the trident this season and almost 2,000 as part of the trident. So even though the numbers for the current season alone are naturally more sensitive than the aggregated ones, there is a solid basis for comparison.

The scoring numbers for Gareth Bale are almost mirror images of Neymar’s. When not part of BBC, the Welshman scored slightly more than half a field goal so far during 90 mins; when part of BBC, 1.2 goals per 90 mins on average. This season so far, Bale has thus been more than twice as productive when part of BBC than when not and his bar in Fig. 1 actually extends beyond what is shown. Bale has been out injured quite a bit though and so there is less performance data on him than would be desirable. Still, he already played in over 800 minutes as part of the BBC constellation and in almost 700 as not part thereof.

So the synergism of BBC vs. the cannibalism of MSN turns out to be all the more true for the current season. Whereas BBC appear to be setting each other up to score more and more, Barça’s trident is not – yet(?) – showing any signs of such improvement. We may well recall from the January post that findings regarding BBC’s synergism and MSN’s cannibalism where quite much lessoned though by the fact that the constituent members of MSN combined were still more efficient than the ones of BBC combined. Let’s see if this still holds true for the current season. Turns out it does not! So far, the sum of the average number of goals scored by Messi, Neymar and Suárez during 90 minutes this season is 2.5, compared to 3 for the sum of BBC’s members. Furthermore, 90 minutes of actually fielding MSN together so far resulted in 2.1 goals, per 90 minutes, vs. 3.5 goals in the case of BBC.

Why then, one naturally wonders, are Barça already this season's uncrowned La Liga champion, with the merengues lagging ten points behind? Although both teams scored and conceded about equally in the league, the scoring data support a twofold answer. First, whereas the above analysis focused only on efficiency, i.e. the average number of (penalty-adjusted) goals per 90 minutes, naturally, efficacy, i.e. the actual total number of (penalty-adjusted) goals scored, is also crucial. Concretely, both Benzema and Bale have been injured quite some time, making that the members of BBC have played slightly short of a combined 7,000 minutes so far this season, in La Liga and Champions League together. Suárez, Neymar and Messi already have more than 8,500 minutes on their combined season’s teller. The efficacy of those three combined is actually higher than the one of Cristiano, Benzema and Bale combined: 78.5 penalty-adjusted goals vs. 76.

Second, the crux to understanding the differential in terms of team outcomes is "goal importance", a measure of how many incremental points one’s goals actually provide to one’s team. Cristiano, for instance, is the undisputed top scorer so far, with 37 penalty-adjusted goals. Suárez has 31, six less. Yet, Suárez’ goals often led Barça to take the lead and/or to win a game, whereas more than a few of Cristiano's goals didn’t actually result in Real Madrid gaining any more points from matches (e.g. neither of Cristiano’s four goals against both Malmö or Celta mattered). The total number of point increments for Barça as a direct result of goals scored by its trident members this season to date amounts to 48.5, compared to 37.5 in the case of Real Madrid (Benzema’s 24 penalty-adjusted goals actually yielded hist team more points so far than did Cristiano’s 37). This underlines the added value of a multi-measure analysis when it comes to top scorers, which has been the subject of a number of earlier posts in this blog, also detailing the goal-importance measure.

Let us conclude the analysis by looking at which player is most pivotal in the blaugrana's scoring as a team. I propose to do this by comparing how often a team (not just the trident) scores with and without a player on the field (a similar analysis for Real Madrid is prohibited by Cristiano not having been on the field for only a minute).

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

Although Barça turn out to score more often without Suárez on the field, the above discussion on goal importance illustrates why this probably should not be overemphasized. The main insight is that the role of Neymar turns out to be even more critical in the current season than for the aggregated data: with Neymar on the field, Barça managed to score 2.76 goals, vs. 1.89 without the Brazilian. The explanation hereof in light of Neymar being both the least efficacious as well as the least efficient of the three members of MSN? As for the aggregated data, of all possible combinations (i.e. solo, duos, trio), the one in which they were most efficient for both Messi and Suárez has been in combination with Neymar only. The presence of the Brazilian seems to enable his strike partners to score, this season more than ever. Most probably, he is the one who destabilizes the opponent, even more than Messi does, which in turn is what creates goal-scoring opportunities.