Seasons watched: 2001–02 to 2003–04 (Age 19–21 seasons according to FBref)
The heights that Diego Maradona reached in the 1980’s were so grand that towards the end of his playing career, he joined an exclusive club of sporting figures where the media rushes to find their successor. Just in Argentina alone, there have been many who were given the label as the new Maradona. The likes of Pablo Aimar, Carlos Tevez, and Juan Román Riquelme established strong legacies in their own right which helped them just escape Maradona’s shadow. Others weren’t as lucky, with Ariel Ortega being a noteworthy example of how burdensome the tag could be. Only Lionel Messi has produced at a level to where the comparison didn’t feel nearly as necessary a part of his story.
One could argue that Javier Saviola belongs in the same group with Aimar, Tevez, and Riquelme. By the end of his initial run at River Plate in 2001, he was arguably the hottest prospect in world football. He was named South American Footballer of the Year in 1999, and won both the Golden Shoe and Golden Boot awards in the 2001 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Barcelona winning the race to his signature felt like a noteworthy accomplishment, part of the club’s mini period of massive spending in 2000 and 2001 following the controversial departure of Luís Figo to Real Madrid. Although a down period in terms of team success, Saviola’s individual stats from 2002 to 2004 was very good in domestic and European competitions.
And yet despite that, the general consensus still remains that his time in Spain didn’t live up to expectations, partly stemming from the aforementioned lack of silverware collected in the beginning of the 2000's. Following their La Liga title victory in 1999, Barcelona didn’t win another trophy until they won the league in 2005, a long enough drought for a club of their size to constitute an institutional crisis. Their hyper spending in the transfer market helped fuel the club’s financial difficulties at the time, a tale that is currently repeating itself. More than anything, The hope with Saviola was he could grow into a future superstar who‘d be the engine of the next great Barcelona attack, which didn’t end up being the case. Instead, the player they acquired was a peculiar talent who needed to be in a particular ecosystem to reach his full potential, and he never quite got that opportunity.
Part of what makes Saviola an odd player to evaluate was that he didn’t neatly fit a certain archetype of attacker. He could attempt to find open space between the lines and would constantly gesture to his teammates in the process, but he was almost equally as likely to try and play on the shoulder of the last defender. What was particularly telling in those situations upfront was his inconsistency in applying pressure on the backline by making runs into the box, like he was waiting in the perfect spot to get on a train and then not getting on when it arrives (H/T to Mark Thompson for the analogy). This is something that’s been pointed out by others in the past, and it amounts to quite a mixed off-ball package. There were some minor positives in his favor. He did have some chemistry with Patrick Kluivert at getting on the end of flicks near the box, and Saviola could occasionally drag central defenders in different directions to open up space for others.
Although he wasn’t immobile, it’d be hard to argue that Saviola possessed great acceleration on-ball. In particular within the final third, he seemed to shy away from going to his left and attacking the byline from the left flank or channel. Since he couldn’t consistently create space for himself in 1v1 situations, it made it crucial for Saviola to succeed through manipulation of his first touch in the interior along with astute positioning. The good news is that he was very good at receiving passes in tight areas. He could turn from pressure, albeit the lack of high-end burst made it harder to turn the initial advantage into something more fruitful. Near the edge of the box, he had a sense on knowing the right time to let the ball roll past him as a receiver to create that extra bit of breathing room. His positioning in deeper areas was generally decent, which allowed him to help create quick combination sequences.
As a passer, Saviola was proficient. For one, he was relatively solid utilizing both feet in the final third. His touch didn’t waver when executing different types of passes, such as quick lay-offs or reverse passes into the box. This allowed him to act as sort of a connective tissue where he could help create overloads and attempt to spring teammates forward in the process. There were two notable issues with Saviola’s playmaking that put a ceiling on his value added. He could occasionally hold onto the ball too long and miss passing windows, which led to potentially promising sequences fizzling out. The other was that his touch on crossing attempts was less certain, which combined with lacking gravity to beat his man from wide, made him more of a peripheral figure compared to his work in the interior areas.
Another aspect where Saviola’s athletic deficiencies came to the surface was with his shooting, specifically that it sometimes felt that he couldn’t consistently create enough breathing room to set up clear opportunities. He would occasionally shoot early after his first touch just outside the box after receiving within a gap in the backline, whereas a faster forward would attempt to carry it into closer range. Even when he got in behind the backline, if he didn’t have a clear advantage, he could be forced to drift away just enough by incoming pressure to make the eventual shot a tad harder. His ability to manipulate how he received passes was a positive, along with his willingness to attempt shots with his left foot, albeit his shot placement was around average. To some extent, Saviola’s tough shot-taking tendencies is reminiscent of Ronaldo during the second act of his career, just without the otherworldly finishing abilities that the latter had with both feet.
In terms of historical players from this series and Football Flashbacks, Javier Saviola is one of the more confusing ones that I’ve come across. His work off the ball was mixed, and I’d only lean towards rating him as a very slight positive because he was more efficient when given the chance to play minutes in more of a false nine role in 2003–04. Since he wasn’t an explosive athlete, he couldn’t make up lost value by creating chaos off the dribble. Playmaking wise, he was clearly good due to his versatility and if viewed more optimistically, it wouldn’t be a major reach to rate him as a high level creator despite his unspectacular assist rates. While he was capable of generating shots under duress to make up for a lack of burst and had some equity as a two-footed shooter, he had a tougher time maneuvering into clear cut scoring chances. In some ways, Saviola was the poster boy for the kind of player who could do a fair amount of things solidly, but none at a necessarily elite level.
Like many in this series, Saviola’s individual numbers on a per 90 minute basis ranked favorably compared to other attacking talents in Europe’s big five leagues. Among qualified players, he was in the top 50 in non-penalty goals and assists per 90 in each season from 2002–04, peaking at 33rd in 2003–04. It bears repeating that placing in the top 50 as a U21 player in NPGA per 90 contribution is nothing to sneeze at, as very few U21’s in a given season are able to produce at that level.
What’s harder to tell is how much of Saviola’s own success positively contributed to Barcelona’s attack in La Liga. They ranked 1st, 4th, and 3rd in shots on target for, and were in the top four in goals scored in each of the three seasons, peaking at 1.71 goals per game in 2001–02. It is important to note that in the 2000s, getting above two goals per game was quite rare. That said, even with greater parity in Europe at the time, their status as a superclub in Europe and the financial resources at their disposal should’ve equated to better results. With a defense that wasn’t at a high enough level to compensate, Barcelona’s team quality was largely capped at a level below the best. Although Barcelona’s end of season Elo rating in 2003–04 was third best in Europe, that does overrate them a tad bit, likely due to their quarterfinal run in the Champions League the year prior. Their expected points tally in La Liga in 2003–04 had them as a distant third behind Deportivo de La Coruña and Valencia.
It is rather surprising that 2001–02 represented the high point for Barcelona in an attacking sense given that there were fit issues in the forward line. Rivaldo loved to come deep and play as a #10, and Kluivert was less frequent in attacking space in behind compared to his younger days at Ajax. Combined with Saviola’s own off-ball tendencies, that led to an offensive structure that lacked vertical movement and relied more on executing quick passing sequences to generate good shots. Even with just him and Kluivert, the problem still persisted to some extent. Being played at times as a false nine in 2003–04 was an interesting wrinkle, and made at least some conceptual sense as he got to play alongside more teammates who would make forward runs more often. I do wonder if he had a striking partner in the mold of a Thierry Henry or Michael Owen, players who constantly made runs in behind, could Saviola have thrived as a deep-lying forward in a manner similar to Dennis Bergkamp. While not the same caliber of playmaker, I don’t think it was entirely out of the realms of possibility that Saviola could’ve done well if given the chance.
After extensive film watching and looking at the numbers, I still find it hard to confidently evaluate this three season stretch from Saviola. His production was near great for his age, but that didn’t necessarily translate to great team results on offense. Some of that stems from his skill-set and tendencies being somewhat atypical, which doesn’t make it easy to build a top notch attack with him as a key figure. That said, he was also placed into a Barcelona side that was constructed with very little foresight, so I do have some sympathy for him. Perhaps in an alternative timeline, he could’ve spearheaded strong offenses as a deep-lying forward with a large creation burden, but that does require one to believe in him as a great passer and I couldn’t quite there with him after reviewing the tape. Taking all of this into consideration, I would rate Javier Saviola from 2002–04 as a borderline very good attacking prospect.
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