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Arturo Vidal - Barcelona’s underappreciated technician

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The Chilean is more than just a midfield warrior

FC Barcelona v Eibar - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Arturo Vidal turned 33 on Friday.

Over his career, Vidal has been called many things: ‘brash’, warrior, physical, etc come to mind immediately. Technical is not one of them. Vidal, perhaps due to his appearance and/or his demeanor, has been typecast throughout his playing days. He has been passed off as a regular physical ball-winner who brings ‘toughness’ to the team. Yet, that may be a fundamental misunderstanding of the midfield Swiss army knife that is Arturo Erasmo Vidal Pardo.

In a professional career spanning 15 years and counting, Vidal has displayed an extraordinary in-game IQ and has held his own as part of several star-studded midfields. He has been adored by famed technicians such as Pep Guardiola and has earned cult status at many of the clubs he’s played for. And yet, the tough guy moniker has stuck. By stressing on Vidal’s battling instincts, watchers of the game have ended up downplaying other aspects of his game, including an extraordinary understanding of space and ability to link up with advanced players. Vidal has always possessed great passing range, with a keen eye for decisive passing, yet many would acknowledge that. Stereotypes do stick.

In his prime, there was actually very little that the Chilean could not do. He could sweep up at the back, progress the ball and even put it in the back of the net. In fact, in 315 total 90s since 09/10, Vidal has scored 85 and assisted 57 goals, amounting to 0.45 goals and assists per 90 minutes. In the same time period, Vidal has also averaged 4.81 PAdj (possession adjusted) tackles and 2.22 PAdj interceptions alongside 1.3 key passes per 90. That is a genuinely astonishing record. The term midfield dynamo is often thrown around, yes, but it really does encapsulate Vidal’s playstyle; Arturo really has been a jack of all trades and a master of all.

Ever since Vidal signed for Barça, he has been clubbed alongside Ivan Rakitić as a player that is old and surplus to requirements. Yet, that could not be further from the truth. Over the years, Barça’s collective pressing has been on the decline with individuals sharing a disproportionate amount of the off-the ball workload. Ever since his arrival, Vidal has had an outsized role in Barça’s pressing. This season, he leads Barça’s pressing in each third of the pitch, and quite comfortably too. Not only that, Vidal has also led La Liga in terms of pressing since last season.

Vidal is La Liga’s best presser by a large margin. (18/19).

While he doesn’t quite lead the league in terms of defensive actions, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers are not adjusted for possession and hence are biased against teams that keep the ball for long. If they were, Vidal would be ahead quite easily.

It’s a similar story this season, as well.

Vidal’s defensive numbers (19/20).

Vidal has continued to stretch his lead as the league’s best presser as well as Barça’s. Interestingly enough, Vidal currently averages more pressure regains per 90 than Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong combined.

Moreover, as evidenced by the heatmaps below, Vidal has shifted his positioning at Barça. He now presses more and tackles more in the final third than ever before, indicating an advanced role.

Vidal’s pressures by third, from his last year at Bayern Munich till now.
In terms of tackles and interceptions.

However, Vidal is more than just a defensive presence. He also averages more key passes (1.17) than any Barça midfielder and more shots than any midfielder bar Rakitić, this season. Vidal also has phenomenal xA p90 [0.23] output (which is only bettered by Leo Messi and is more than Suárez’s since 18/19). Not to mention his ability to score. In 931 minutes (10.3 90’s) in the league this season, Vidal has already netted six goals. Only Messi, Suárez and Griezmann have scored more, and that too with significantly more minutes.

Vidal’s radar from this season.

In short, Vidal plugs defensive and offensive gaps in the Barça midfield/attack. He offers cover for Messi on the right, out of possession, and links up with the attack in possession. In a midfield consisting of relatively deeper players, this is an invaluable asset. With his energy, Vidal can continue to be the two-way threat he always has been.

Moreover, Vidal brings more than just numbers. As much as the moniker ‘warrior’ is limiting, it does bear some truth to it. Vidal brings certain intangibles to a mentally weak side. Last year at Anfield, Vidal and Messi were the only ones who redeemed themselves. They were the only ones who were looking up for it, fighting.

Selling Vidal doesn’t really make sense. Yes, there is a case for phasing him out of the team but he offers far too much to be cast away.

As always, Il Guerriero remains underappreciated.