Barreal’s continued improvement a key for FC Cincinnati’s future

How Álvaro Barreal progresses could go a long way toward how successful FC Cincinnati is in 2021. Nate Gilman dives into Barreal’s numbers.

Photo Credit: Joe Craven

Álvaro Barreal joined FC Cincinnati from Vélez Sarsfield in September 2020 for a reported $1.5 million transfer fee after playing just 288 first-team minutes in Argentina. Barreal’s first-team career minutes total just 992, the vast majority of those — 704 — playing for the Orange and Blue. 

That’s not a lot of game time to draw any sweeping conclusions about any player. That’s even more true about one who can’t legally buy a beer at one of the many fine establishments surrounding TQL Stadium until September. However, a deeper look into what Barreal has produced on the field so far for FCC, what he’s struggled with and what he’s improved on can be an instructive exercise. Barreal is far from a finished product, but Barreal’s status as a U22 initiative player raises the stakes on FCC being right in its scouting assessment and in its ability to develop Barreal’s talent. Because the MLS salary cap can be so constrictive, maximizing roster spots with set budget charges, like U22 initiative players and Designated Players, is essential for team success. 

So what has Barreal contributed so far?

Using Football Reference data, Barreal’s ability and willingness to take on opposing players with the ball at his feet puts him in elite MLS company. In his MLS career, Barreal’s attempted and completed dribbles rank among the highest by MLS wingers. However, looking deeper, it’s clear Barreal needs to choose when to attempt a dribble better as well as to improve his ball retention. Barreal’s 52% successful dribble percentage is below average for MLS wingers, and he loses the ball, either by miscontrolling it or by being dispossessed, far more than comparable players. 

[via FBref]

Barreal’s goal creation numbers so far leave much to be desired. His 0.20 xG/90 and 0.05 xA/90 put him in the 45th percentile and seventh percentile compared to other MLS wingers and attacking midfielders. That low expected assist number makes more sense when one considers that Barreal provides 1.15 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.51 key passes per 90, which rank in the first and second percentiles respectively. Clearly, Barreal has struggled to find a final ball to teammates so far. Though given the state of FC Cincinnati’s attack since he’s been on the team, it’s not terribly surprising. 

[via FBref]

Barreal’s defensive work rate is impressive too. He pressures the ball at a high level all over the field and has shown he can win the ball back through tackles, interceptions and blocks. For a team struggling defensively, having a winger willing to track back and contribute defensively is a major boost. Barreal shouldn’t be asked to carry a lot of defensive responsibility, but he’s shown he can be an asset compared to other MLS players in the same position. 

[via FBref]

Year-To-Year Improvement

Parsing Barreal’s MLS production from 2020 to 2021 introduces additional uncertainty into the numbers because it halves an already small number of minutes (324 minutes in 2020, 380 in 2021). That said, there are a couple of areas where Barreal has shown improvement and will be worth monitoring as the 2021 season continues.

So far in 2021, Barreal has attempted fewer dribbles per match, but he has completed more than in 2020, leading to a much higher successful dribble percentage. Having a winger who can reliably beat opposing players off the dribble gives FCC an added dimension going forward. Barreal has also demonstrated an improved ability to push the ball forward, including into the final third of the field. Barreal’s play so far in 2021 should give supporters optimism that he be a valuable ball progressor for the Orange and Blue. 

[Via FBref]

Barreal’s goal creation numbers have improved as well. He’s averaging 0.29 xG per 90 minutes and 0.10 xA/90. Also important are his improved shot-creating actions and key passes per match numbers, showing he has been able to set up teammates in dangerous positions on a more regular basis in 2021. If Barreal can continue to improve, both setting up scoring chances as well as taking them himself, FC Cincinnati will have another much-needed attacking option. 

[via FBref]

What To Look For For The Rest Of 2021

So as the 2021 season resumes, we should be watching Barreal closely to see if these improvements continue or if they are the product of a small sample size. I’ll be watching to see if Barreal can continue his improved play in the build-up as well as contributing to scoring chances, both by passing and by taking shots himself. 

If coach Jaap Stam continues with the 5-3-2 formation after the international break, Barreal’s place in the team is less certain. Despite starting as a striker against CF Montreal alongside Brenner, Barreal struggled to make an impact. Against the New England Revolution, playing as a winger, Barreal showcased what he can bring to the team. 

Barreal’s age, potential, contract situation and improvement are all reasons why his name should be written in pen on FC Cincinnati’s team sheet every week. Simply put, it’s in the best interest of FC Cincinnati, both in the short- and long-term, to give Barreal as many minutes as possible going forward. For FC Cincinnati to continue to improve, getting the most out of players like Barreal is vital.

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