Andres Iniesta is a legendary footballer, an all time great. An elegant wisp of a man with an incredible haul of footballing trophies and achievements including, of course, the Man of the Match award in the 2010 World Cup Final.
Throughout the years he has weaved geometric shapes all over the midfield, dizzying opponents with his ability to find pockets of space and has threaded passes between centre back and full back with unerring precision over and over again. At times he has appeared to be able to slow down time around him, freezing the opportunity so that he can create an opportunity for a teammate. Facing his own goal and feinting, circling around the on-rushing Yohan Cabaye, dipping gears and gliding past Edinson Cavani and a lunging Marco Veratti before drifting inside and treading water – waiting for the exact moment at which the desperately retreating David Luiz’s ankles lock – before sliding Neymar through to score. Even just three months ago, turning his body smoothly infield and in that one motion – more identifiable as belonging to Iniesta than maybe his own thumbprint – taking the ball under control out of Sami Khedira’s reach, allowing himself a full scan of the field ahead and placing the ball, weighted perfectly, between Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels and into Rodrigo’s path for a goal.
However, there are clear indications that Iniesta has declined significantly over the last few years and this season could be considered as one too many at the top level for the 34 year old. Fernando Hierro may, understandably after Julen Lopetegui’s shock dismissal, be keen to prioritise the stability of the Spanish team and put his faith throughout the World Cup in the starting eleven which he used in their opener against Portugal. Iniesta has always been considered a player who cannot be judged using basic information, such as goals and assists, and he did perform well against Portugal but a review of some underlying statistics over a longer period of time sets off some alarm bells and should be cause for Hierro to think about some other options and indeed for teams to think about the general risk of relying on someone of that age.
It is certainly no surprise that a footballer of Iniesta’s age is not at the height of their powers any more. Research by Michael Caley has shown that players generally peak between the ages of 25 and 28. Iniesta’s decline has been commented on for some time but the age factor is often ignored and the decline somewhat excused as being due to a stylistic change for Barcelona post Pep Guardiola and specifically because of a move to a more direct style under Luis Enrique. Iniesta himself is clearly aware of the toll aging has taken though and recently acknowledged to Sid Lowe that;
“I’m leaving (Barcelona) because my body’s asking me to. It takes longer to recover physically and mentally it’s exhausting. I’ve squeezed out every drop, there’s nothing left. This will be my last World Cup. I don’t know if my Spain career will definitively close but this might be the last time. In July we’ll analyse everything.”
He could, of course, be the reason that Spain go on to win this World Cup but let’s start that analysis a little earlier than July.
The quantity of chances Iniesta is creating has declined significantly this season. In the 2017/18 season in La Liga his rate of expected assists fell to half that in previous years and the quality of the chances he created fell back too. Naturally, given the reduction in both the quantity and quality of the chances he is creating there has been a quite dramatic decline in the amount of assists he was likely to contribute; he managed just two all year.
In addition to the decline in attacking output there are some significant changes in terms of defensive statistics. Iniesta is famed for his passing and movement but both his club and national side have also been renowned for their aggressive pressing and desire to win the ball back high up the pitch. Therefore it is noteworthy that, Iniesta is now making fewer interceptions and winning a lower percentage of the decreasing amount of tackles he is attempting.
Surely at least Barcelona understand that he is aging and they need to reduce his playing time accordingly? This season he played 2467 minutes in La Liga and the Champions League which is just over 27 sets of 90 minutes. It does seem like he had a bit of a rest in comparison, for example, with Lionel Messi who played 3780 minutes in those competitions. However, we should consider the fact that the average amount of time Iniesta played in those competitions over the previous 8 seasons was 2730 minutes – just around 3 matches more than what he played in 2017/18. In fact, in only two of those previous 8 seasons did he start more La Liga matches than in this one. The World Cup, with its condensed schedule of games, places incredible physical demands on any player let alone a 34 year old one who has just completed what, in effect, was a full season for him.
Barcelona did of course win La Liga in 2017/18 and incredibly were almost undefeated the entire domestic league season. Perhaps Iniesta was able to coast at times and statistics are not representative of what he is really still capable of and will contribute in the World Cup. If that is the case we might see some evidence of him saving his best performances for the UEFA Champions League but it doesn’t seem as though that was the case. He played in 8 games in the competition and averaged a shot and key pass per game while losing possession on more than twenty occasions. In the knock out stages against Chelsea and Roma he won under half of the tackles he attempted and in fact, when he was needed the most, in Barcelona’s collapse away to Roma he made the second fewest passes of any Barcelona starter, and contributed little defensively.
Curiously, there is one area in which he is showing a noteworthy increase; dribbling. However, a statistical increase there isn’t necessarily a positive. Euan Dewar wrote about how basic dribbling stats can be seen as more of a stylistic indicator and that analysing where an individual’s dribbles start and end and what they lead to may be of more value in terms of understanding whether what they are doing can be considered a positive action. Analysis, of the sort Dewar has undertaken, into Iniesta’s dribbles might reveal that he is not actually benefiting his team by dribbling more. In Friday’s World Cup game for Spain against Portugal he attempted five dribbles which was the most of any player on the pitch. One did lead to a shooting opportunity for David Silva inside the penalty area but on three of the other occasions Iniesta was deliberately funneled to his left towards the touchline and outnumbered and outmuscled by the opposition.
Spain performed well in many ways in the match against Portugal and clearly do have less to be concerned about than other pre-tournament favourites who also failed to start with a victory such as Brazil, Germany and Argentina. It is true that Spain were undone by some out of the ordinary events; a penalty, a David De Gea error and Cristiano Ronaldo finally scoring an international tournament free kick at the 45th attempt. However, there were some warning signs for them too in terms of a lack of clear open play chance creation from midfield, a lack of runners getting into the box from midfield for Jordi Alba’s cutbacks and some susceptibility to counter attacks. Mexico showed in their victory over Germany the damage that can be done on the break to an aging midfield. Spain at least, unlike Germany, do have some protection in the 6 position courtesy of Sergio Busquets but 34 year old Iniesta may turn out to be a liability in midfield against a team of that type. His declining contribution towards defensive work also flags up some concerns for when Spain play against a team that they should press. Ironically, he was exploited by Germany in their March 2018 friendly. Iniesta tended not to press Toni Kroos and allowed passes to the right half space behind him which pulled Sergio Ramos dangerously forward out of position. Perhaps Hierro should consider whether the younger Thiago might be a smarter choice.
StatsBomb’s very own Managing Editor Mike Goodman wrote about the recent stylistic trend of the ‘hybrid winger/forward’ and pointed out that there are multiple examples at this World Cup of high scoring wide attackers. These range from the obvious such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to younger talents such as Mexico’s Hirving Lozano and Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh. In fact, Spain are one of the few major nations without a player of this nature. Although David Silva has had a great season in terms of goalscoring contribution he is not exactly this type of individual. Another option for Hierro would be to move Silva inside to replace Iniesta and to introduce a different type of threat in Iago Aspas or Lucas Vazquez on the right or Marco Asensio, who had an xG Assisted rate per 90 of 0.31 in La Liga this season, on the left.
Iniesta is such a beloved, incredible footballer that there is the risk he is treated as a special case and not as a general lesson for teams about the ramifications of relying on old, declining players as key elements of your team. An understanding of the age curve and statistics beyond the most basic of outputs will help teams be a step ahead of the inevitable. If teams don’t manage these processes effectively there will be a relatively unpredictable point at which they will definitely have to take action – when the player themselves decides to move to a lesser league or retire – and there’s an opportunity cost in terms of the development of others. Playing minutes are a finite resource and if someone like Andres Iniesta is tying them up they can’t be used to develop, improve and retain the next candidate for that role. Consider as an example Thiago and the fact that he left Barcelona at the age of 22 and that they are now rumoured to be considering bringing him back for €70 million. Thiago is now 27 and, if he returns, the pattern could repeat itself again with the same impact on the playing minutes available to younger midfielders at Barcelona such as Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig. Time is creeping up on much of Spain’s midfield – although Busquets and Silva are essential team members they’ll be 30 and 32 at the close of this tournament so Saul and Asensio deserve some of their minutes – and there does seem to be some evidence that this was a season too many for Iniesta at Barcelona and it could well prove to be an international tournament too many for him as a starter with Spain.
(Header image courtesy of the Press Association)