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Are Barcelona better than results suggest?

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The fifth-placed team in La Liga has some reason for optimism

ESP: SD Huesca-FC Barcelona. La Liga Santander. Photo by Pressinphoto/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Barcelona are far under par this season, something that is obvious on its face. The team is struggling to beat even weaker teams in La Liga that it used to brush aside. Fifth place is far off for a team used to winning the title or at the very least competing for it until the last few rounds.

However, a deeper analysis suggests perhaps some of this underperformance can be corrected by simple regressions to the mean. A mix of bad luck and mental lapses have resulted in worse results than you’d expect, and that can be corrected easier than a sheer lack of quality can be improved. Of course, Barcelona’s problem is two-fold. One are factors such as luck and mental mistakes, and the other is not being good enough. But let’s talk about the first category for now.

Manager Ronald Koeman has frequently complained that his team deserved more when they are held to less than three points, and to be honest, he’s right a lot of the time.

Barcelona have conceded an abnormal amount of comedy goals this season. Of course, the ability to keep concentration at all times is essential, particularly for a defender and goalkeeper. So it’s not simply bad luck, but poor training leading to a poor performance. However, fixing a team’s concentration is something that could improve results very efficiently. With the right approach, Barcelona could erase a lot of potential goals that could arise in situations like this.

Next, the team has been cursed by a mixture of lackluster finishing and opposing goalkeepers doing extremely well against them. This is a mix of poor technique resulting in bad shots, and bad luck in goalkeepers simply being on song for that particular match.

Data from UnderStat shows Barcelona are far and away the league leaders in expected goals (xG) with 38.14. This number attempts to calculate the expected number of goals a team would normally score given the positions of the shots they took. Despite this, Barcelona have scored 30 goals - meaning there are 8.14 “missing goals.” No other team has as many “missing” goals as they do, with Celta Vigo coming second with 5.38. For comparison, Real Madrid are missing 1.25 goals, while Atlético Madrid actually have 4.69 more goals than xG.

Of course, the ability to convert chances into goals is what separates good teams and great teams, so the poor efficiency in terms of scoring has to be seen as a collective failing. However, it is better to know that your team is creating chances, and simply not finishing them well, than a scenario in which your team can neither create nor convert chances.

With Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann in the team, it stands to reason that they will soon start banging in the chances at a rate they are used to. It also shows how much Barcelona are missing Luis Suárez’s finishing, at least for now. The Uruguayan is making his opportunities count and scoring goals without needing too much service.

Next, we have to talk about goalkeeping. For whatever reason, Barcelona’s opposing goalkeepers have had great outings almost every time. In fact, one stat shows that Barcelona have possibly the worst luck against goalkeepers.

This stat is post-shot xG (PSxG), which is calculated after the shot is taken to try to capture how well the keeper performed.

According to FBREF, Barcelona have the highest PSxG in Europe. This means that opposing keepers are performing much better than expected considering the placement the forwards use to try to score.

FBREF calculates xG slightly differently than UnderStat, and they reckon that Barcelona have scored 7.8 less goals than what is expected. From those 7.8 goals, they attribute 7.7 to PSxG, or in other words, the #1 reason Barcelona haven’t scored about 8 more goals is because of extremely inspired keepers.

There could be some underlying reason for this. but it could also just be luck of the draw. This is an unsatisfying explanation, and has the feel of a cop-out, but it could be the truth. If that’s the case, that particular problem should probably alleviate itself due to sheer inherent randomness.

Of course, there are a lot of underlying issues with this team where even if all these trends reversed, you wouldn’t necessarily think Barcelona are set to win the league.

However, there is some reason to believe Barcelona over the coming months could make a lot of quick progress.