If there was ever one country that represented the very essence of football, it would have to be Brazil. From producing the great Pele to the new generation of world-class footballers such as Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain and Alisson Becker of Liverpool, Brazil is the nation where football is a religion. Within this religion is the Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, also referred to as Flamengo, which prides itself as being one of the biggest clubs in the Brazilian Série A.
In the recent year of 2019, Flamengo captured their 6th Série A title with exceptional style. Scoring a momentous 86 goals and only conceding 37, Flamengo blew their nearest rival, Santos, by a staggering 16 points. Looking into their advanced metrics, it is revealed that the Rubro-Negro recorded an xG – expected goals – of 72.9. Their xG differential of 13.1 is the best positive overperformance in the league.
Here is a bar-line graph showcasing their goals and xG for every match that Flamengo played. The bar indicates the xG while the line indicates the actual goals in that match. We can see that for most of the games, Flamengo outscore their xG – as indicated by the line being higher than the bar graph – by a decent amount.
How were Flamengo able to outscore their xG for these many matches and score 86 goals in a single season? Additionally, how does their attack trajectory look in the future?
Statistical References for Flamengo
Flamengo, under coach Jorge Jesus, like to play in a fluid 4-2-3-1 that easily transforms into a 4-4-2. These two formations constitute 68.3% of their formation usage. In these formations, Jesus has certain starters that ensure that Flamengo not only have the correct experience but also quality.
Here we see the fluid 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 with the first team of starters that Jesus prefers to have. Diego Alves takes up the helm in the goalkeeper position while Atletico Madrid veteran Filipe Luís, Pablo Marí, Rodrigo Caio, and Rafinha make up the strong backline. Two defensive midfielders in Gerson and Willian Arão make the midfield spine which supports the attacking set of Flamengo. Giorgian De Arrascaeta and Éverton Ribeiro make the two wingers while Bruno Henrique, who can also play centrally, pairs up with mainstay striker Gabriel Barbosa.
Here we see the 4-2-3-1 of Flamengo with goals and assists shown in the diagram – this allows us to know how the goals and assists are distributed throughout the Mengão. Goals are shown in the colour of the dot – pink meaning fewer goals while red meaning more goals – while assists are shown in the lines connecting the players. Blue indicates less assist activity while red indicates higher assist activity.
We can clearly see that two people – the top striker and the central player – take most of the burden of the goals while the assist activity usually occurs near the left-winger and some of it near the top striker. As such, clearly, Flamengo’s goal and assist distribution is shifted towards the left which serves as our reference point. From there, we’ll work rightwards and go to the players who showcase their involvement within Flamengo’s attack.
Gabigol and Henrique combine to put Flamengo first
Two striker partnerships are becoming rarer in the footballing world. However, Flamengo with Barbosa – nicknamed Gabigol – and Henrique lit up the Brasileirão with their combined 46 goals. With Gabigol scoring 25 and Henrique scoring 21, the duo made up 53.5% of Flamengo’s total goals. In addition, the duo also collaborated in assisting 11 times through the season. With their goal and assists contribution, the duo made up 66.3% of all of Flamengo’s goal-mouth activity. As such, it is much deserved to analyze the striker partnership and figure out their secrets through data and statistics.
We will start with some exploratory analysis that already confirms what we know – Gabigol and Henrique are excellent strikers. The extent of their quality is revealed in this graphic. Here graphed is non-penalty goals per 90 vs the xG per 90. Barbosa and Henrique mark themselves out from the pack by quite a considerable distance. We see that Barbosa records high xG per 90 but also scores in accordance with his expected goals while Henrique outperforms his xG per 90 by a huge amount.
What is important here to observe is that, regardless of the overperformance, Flamengo’s strikers are putting up the highest xG per 90 numbers in the league – an important indicator of a team’s attacking abilities.
Here is a boxplot graphic showcasing three statistics – touches in the box per 90, shots per 90, and shots on target percentage. This analysis is intended to illuminate the duo’s striking abilities.
Top-class forwards record more touches in the box than the average – their intelligence and skill mean that they get in the box more than usual. In this regard, we see that both Barbosa and Henrique record some of the highest touches in the box per 90 with Henrique leading the tally with 5.13 touches per 90.
As we see with the concurrent boxplots, Henrique and Barbosa also get across more shots per 90 than most strikers in the league with Barbosa being the most prolific shot taker with 3.43 shots per 90. The veteran Henrique has a rather poor accuracy rate, 45.92%, while the young Barbosa is one of the most accurate sharpshooters in the league with an accuracy of 57.69%.
Clearly, both Barbosa and Henrique are excellent strikers – forwards that get themselves inside the box often and take a lot of shots. Out of the two, Barbosa is the more accurate and consistent while Henrique is more clinical, as seen with his overperformance, albeit a bit inaccurate.
However, striking abilities are not the only tasks a forward needs to do. They also need to show some creative juice within their mercurial instincts.
Here is a graphic that analyzes how progressive – how active and forward-moving – both strikers in their runs and passes. We see that Barbosa ranks lowly in progressive passes per 90 but is rather high in progressive runs per 90. Henrique follows suit with Barbosa with only 2.26 progressive passes per 90 but a high 2.2 progressive runs per 90.
In context, this low performance on progressive passes per 90 does make sense as progressive passes, for strikers, are defined as those passes which progress the team at least 10 meters closer to the opponent’s goal. With the duo recording high touches in the box per 90, they are already rather close to the goal. As such, most of their passes won’t be as progressive.
It is becoming apparent that Flamengo’s dynamic duo isn’t that creatively inclined. However, to fully conclude that, we have to look at more advanced metrics.
Here we see passes to the penalty area per 90 versus final third passes per 90. In this more nuanced view of passing metrics, we see that Barbosa and Henrique rank rather in the lower-end of the cluster with only 2.3 and 1.95 final third passes per 90 and 2.37 and 1.95 passes to penalty area per 90.
However, that analysis was very nuanced and specific. After all, not all strikers are defined by isolated metrics. To give the benefit of the doubt, more general pass metrics were analyzed to see if the striking duo of Rubro-Negro would show its full colours.
Here, I have graphed forward passes and smart passes – defined by WyScout as a “creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in the attack”. With these more general passing metrics, we see the same trend with Henrique and Barbosa not being the most creative forwards. The pair don’t record many forward passes and very few of those break the opposition’s defensive lines as seen with the low number of smart passes per 90.
Concludingly, it seems that both forwards are not as creative and not involved in the attacking buildup play. Even though Barbosa collected 8 assists with his xA – expected assists – of 5.50, that occurrence is more down to luck as Henrique recorded a similar xA – 2.94 – and assisted exactly 3.
That leads us to question – who is supplying these strikers the creative balls?
De Arrascaeta, Ribeiro, and Vitinho’s trickery aids Flamengo
If Barbosa and Henrique represented excellent striking abilities, the pair of de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro represent the creativity of Flamengo. Even though they are wingers in the system of 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1, their metrics showcase that they behave more like inverted wingers.
Flamengo also has another winger, Vitinho, who is used in rotation with de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro. While the main focus will be on the pair discussed, any places where Vitinho stands out will be notified and made aware of.
The graphic here shows Assists per 90 vs xA per 90 which allows to see which wingers are the most creative on a per 90-minute basis. We see de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro mark themselves out of the pack by recording high xA per 90. In Ribeiro’s case, we see that he actually underperforms on his xA on a per 90-minute basis. On the other hand, is de Arrrascaeta who not only records the highest xA per 90 in the league but performs well on the expected metric.
We also see Vitinho’s presence here in a positive light. The 26-year-old records the second-highest xA per 90 for wingers in the league and himself underperforms on his xA. Clearly, Flamengo have three wingers who show themselves to be the most creative in the league.
The next step becomes to analyze their creative actions in nuance.
Here I have shown boxplots of five advanced attacking metrics: forward passes per 90, final third passes per 90, passes to penalty area per 90, smart passes per 90, and through passes per 90.
One thing that becomes apparent, when analyzing these graphs, is that there is a very good reason why Jesus consistently trusts de Arrrascaeta and Ribeiro. Not only do they lead in forward passing, but they also rank top in metrics like passes to penalty area per 90 and smart passes per 90. This indicates that the pair are very good at getting the ball into the dangerous areas and are able to place their teammates in good positions to threaten the opponent.
Where they aren’t top, the pair rank in top ten in that metric as we see with final third passes per 90 and through passes per 90. While not the best, de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro show that they are very well adept in getting the ball to the final third and making penetrating through balls that put the defence in trouble.
In fact, save for the metric passes to the penalty area, the duo, mathematically, distinguish themselves as outliers by placing themselves outside the boxplot. Even when they aren’t outright outliers, the duo of wingers place themselves very highly in the boxplots, reiterating the quality of their creativity.
Another responsibility of wide creative playmakers like de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro is to cross and to cross dangerously. In this regard, the duo, yet again, mark themselves out very highly. We see that Ribeiro and de Arrascaeta record 3.38 and 2.97, respectively, crosses to the box with 0.51 and 0.66 of them going to the goalie box.
However the winger that shows himself the most here is Vitinho who records the second-highest crosses per 90, 4.02, and second-highest crosses to the goalie box per 90, 0.75. This performance by Vitinho ensures that Flamengo can rotate between their wingers and still retain their wide attacking ability.
However, Vitinho does not only mark himself in wide attacking abilities. The Brazilian does not pop out in the more advanced attacking metrics due to him playing more as a winger compared to de Arrascaeta and Ribeiro who play as more inverted wingers.
Here is a bee swarm plot of metrics that correspond more to wingers – dribbles, deep completions, and deep completed crosses per 90.
Analyzing these metrics we see that our amazing creative duo rank rather average in dribbling and deep completed crosses per 90. However, here, Vitinho shines through as we see with the blue dot. Averaging an outstanding 8.79 dribbles per 90, we also see Vitinho rank strongly, second-best, in deep completed crosses per 90 with 1.56 deep completed crosses per 90.
In the metric of deep completions per 90, we see Ribeiro and de Arrascaeta come out as one of the best in the league – maintaining their status as the best creative wingers. While Vitinho does not rank highly in this metric, it is safe to conclude that Vitinho adds a more direct approach to Flamengo’s already flying attacks.
Here, shots per 90 are graphed versus touches in the box per 90. In essence, this graph is trying to understand how many wingers in the league are more inclined to the more direct actions.
We see that Ribeiro ranks in the average here while de Arrascaeta shows that he is an amphibian – being one of the most creative wingers but also being goal-hungry. In lieu of this, we see Vitinho ranking in high shots per 90, 3.43, despite taking the same touches in the box per 90 as de Arrascaeta, 4.18. In fact, in terms of being the most productive with one’s touches in the box, Vitinho ranks second as he records the second-highest shots per 90 among wingers.
As such, Flamengo show themselves to have an excellently varied profile of wingers: a winger that is creative and goal-hungry, a winger that is more creatively inclined, and a winger that is much more direct than the two.
We see this variety in Flamengo’s wingers shown in graphing second and third assists per 90.
Here we see de Arrascaeta recording a healthy mix of second assists and a high amount of third assists reinforcing the idea of just how involved de Arrascaeta is in the attacking build-up play. De Arrascaeta’s role as an inverted winger means that he doesn’t rank highly in terms of the second assist – the pass before assist – and instead ranks highly in third assists – pass before the second assist.
We see Ribeiro rank the highest in second assists per 90 however he also has a good mix of third assists per 90. Ribeiro’s role as an inverted winger is a little less involved in the start of the attacking play and consists of combining near the end. Lastly, we see Vitinho’s directness with him ranking the second in second assists per 90 however accumulating no third assists per 90.
Profiling Flamengo’s Squad for Attacking Trajectory
Trajectory is a concept most commonly applied to physics to predict the behaviours of objects in motion. In physics, trajectory helps us predict future behaviour and that is an important tool for clubs. Clubs regularly have to ensure that the trajectory of their first team, academy, and other departments is going on the right path.
Here is a squad age profile of Flamengo. Age is shown on the x-axis while the share of minutes played is shown on the y-axis. On the face, we see that most of Flamengo’s first-team players are actually in their peak with some, like Henrique and Cesar, heading out to be the veterans like Rafinha and Diego.
The midfield and the attack side of things for Flamengo seem to be set for the next few years as we see Willian Arão, de Arrascaeta, Piris da Motta and Vitinho being in their peak. Other players like Barbosa and Gerson are just getting into their peak.
The main concern for Flamengo should be their defensive line – especially their full-backs. As important as Barbosa, Henrique, de Arrascaeta, Ribeiro, and Vitinho are, every team needs good full-backs to succeed in the modern game. If we peer over to Rafinha and Filipe Luis, who are first choice full-backs for Flamengo, we see that they are well past their peak.
Not only that but defenders like Rhodolfo and Para are also on their way out. While Flamengo do have defenders ready to fill their positions, namely Rodrigo Caio and Thuler, the Rubro-Negro still need to be proactive in the defence market.
Looking at the market value change that Flamengo’s squad underwent in 2019, it is safe to say that the future of Flamengo looks bright. With various members experiencing a positive increase in their market value, indicating higher quality to a good extent, the Mengão are looking at a future squad whose first-team players are not only quality but are also either in their peak or getting to their peak.
In conclusion, as we’ve seen, Flamengo have a very good attacking squad. Composed of two amazing strikers who know how to move, get inside the box, and score, the frontline of Flamengo is sturdy and can stand any steel defence. Behind them, the wingers provide these sturdy strikers with a variety of support. The winger may provide a through ball, play interplay with them, or just score with them. This variety in Flamengo’s wingers along with an experienced backline allow the Mengão to truly express themselves in flying colours.
As we all wait for the pandemic to subside, it will be no doubt that the Rubro-Negro will look at their squad profile in a positive light. With young talents on the way and most of the first team in their peak years, Flamengo’s only worries remain over their ageing full-backs. The Brasileirão should be very careful – O Mas Querido do Brasil is back and they are not looking to mess about this time around.