Jordi Alba’s decline in form seems to have continued in the 19/20 season. Even so, how has he performed for Barça this campaign, and what decision should the club make with him?
This is the eighth episode of a series in which we review the performances of Barça first team players, as well as discuss their future for the next campaign.
You can check the series here.
Jordi Alba has been one of the most polarising figures of the Barcelona squad in recent times, which in the context of the current Barça squad, is saying something. With a massive purge in the squad on the horizon, Alba’s prospects aren’t looking bright. He did not feature on the ‘no sale’ list that the club president Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed to the media. This is in spite of the fact that names that have not been regularly on the squad sheet, like Nélson Semedo, were included in the list of unsellable players.
In the meanwhile, it is worthwhile to ask: what exactly transpired to bring the stock of a Champions League and World cup winner like Jordi Alba down? Is it entirely due to the appalling season that Barça just had? Or has it got something to do with the individual player’s performance?
Injury problems have been recurring this term for Jordi Alba, who generally relies a lot on his athleticism | Photo by Manu Fernández / Pool via Getty Images
Before we review Alba’s performance over the season, we need to revisit the statements that he made following the previous season, so that we have the entire context in front of us. This was, one should remember, following the show that the Catalans put up at the Anfield. Having secured a three-goal lead in the first leg, the blaugranas went to Liverpool’s ground and conceded four and walked out of the Champions league. In a team that did not show even the will and vigour to fight, Jordi Alba was not really different. It was the mistakes that he made that led to the first two Liverpool goals. Reports emerged later that he had broken down in the dressing room during the half-time. And his comments in the post-match interview made things worse.
Alba was reported saying, “For better or for worse, we have spoiled people by winning so many titles and it’s really hard to win”, before adding “Taking out these two games [at Anfield and the Copa del Rey final] it is the best season of my career on a personal level, but like all humans I make mistakes and I do not have to be ashamed of this”. True, there was nothing to be ashamed of, but he didn’t have to name-call the fans either. You cannot blame the fans for being enraged when their team squanders a game where they went in as the clear favourites, especially after callous mistakes that turned the fate of the game around.
The second statement is in tandem with another he made following the controversial departure of Neymar Júnior. Alba said that Neymar’s absence in the attacking wing gave him more space and freedom to run into, and that this helped him enjoy the games further. He was right. However, he would never have imagined that the same reason would cause his deterioration.
“I now have more space to run into and, sincerely, it is much better for me [without Neymar]”Jordi Alba in November 2017
Alba has always relished attacking and even scoring. After all, he started at La Masía as a striker no less. The absence of a true winger in the starting eleven meant that the responsibility of adding width in attack and stretching the opponent’s defence fell squarely on his shoulders. The fact the full-backs on the right side – whether Sergi Roberto or Nelson Semedo – weren’t that efficient in switching between offence and defence, added to the burden on Alba. A younger version of Alba would have been more than happy to accept this and rise up to the challenge.
But at 31, he is not at his prime anymore. Injuries have been catching up to him. As opposed to the last two seasons, where he clocked 3,383 and 3,978 minutes in La liga and Champions league, the 2019/20 campaign saw his minutes on the ground fall sharply to 2,546 minutes. He missed thirteen games in total due to hamstring issues this season.
Alba’s playing style is highly dependent on his pace and positioning. This helps him compensate for his diminutive figure, when facing taller wingers. For a player who depends so much on speed, hamstring injuries are a curse. And needless to say, that often leaves him exposed at the back. Barcelona couldn’t do with his marauding runs up the field. But their overall drop in pressing, a leaky system in general combined with his inability to get back into defensive positions quickly, laid his vulnerabilities bare. That in a nut-shell is what happened in Anfield, and that is a signal of things to come.
What next for Jordi Alba?
Jordi Alba’s latest contract at the Camp Nou will last till 2024. He will be 35 by then. If he is becoming slower at 31, one can only imagine what is due in the following seasons. And that is exactly why Bartomeu has not named him on the ‘no-sale’ list. This doesn’t have to be the case, though. Much of Alba’s struggles could be eased with proper rotation. A starting quality player who could share the minutes with him would have relieved Alba from having to play every other match. Barça thought they would get that in Junior Firpo. They don’t seem so convinced now.
Rumour is that Alba is not so keen to leave. While a good percent of the fans might want him chucked as soon as possible, one should also consider the economic limitations due to the pandemic and the difficulty of getting a quality left-back for cheap. Some of the names that have been doing the rounds are José Luis Gayà of Valencia, Nicolás Tagliafico of Ajax and Angeliño of Manchester City. None of them are going to come cheap, and even if they do, they would need some time to adapt to the Barça way of playing football.
This means that having a senior player to ease them to the system as well as to share some minutes with, wouldn’t really hurt. At €8,580,000, Alba’s reported annual salary is much lesser than many other players who could be considered surplus to needs at Barca right now, like Ivan Rakitić, Samuel Umtiti, Luis Suárez, etc.
The smarter thing for the club to do then would be to find a quality left-back who can compete with Jordi Alba for the starting position, for there is no denying that he still has the ability to contribute to the team. Provided, of course, Alba understands the fact that he has to earn his spot in the team. For no one should be guaranteed an automatic starting position in a team like FC Barcelona.
A 19/20 season review of the new faces: Pedri
In September 2019, Barcelona paid 5 million euros to secure the services of Pedri, who would have a standout debut 19/20 season with Las Palmas at 17. In this article, we analyse the attributes and main statistics of the young and extremely promising attacking midfielder.
This is the first episode of a series of articles that dive deep into a season review of the incoming new faces at Barcelona. You can check the 19/20 season reviews here.
As Ronald Koeman‘s new Barcelona is already taking shape, the youngest member to be joining the first team is Pedro González López, affectionately known as Pedri.
The 17-year-old from the Canary Islands has been a member of UD Las Palmas through and through, right from the youth team set-up to his professional debut in 2019 with the first team. Playing primarily as an attacking mid or left winger, Pedri showcased his attacking repertoire early enough to become an important member of the Las Palmas senior team and went on to play 2982 minutes for them.
His skillset didn’t go unnoticed at the bigger clubs, and soon enough, he was snatched up by Barcelona. So, what does the young midfielder bring to the table?
Pedri was, admittedly, not the biggest goal threat in his first senior season, but given his age, that’s not an issue at all. He scored 4 goals and gave 5 assists.
Watching his shot videos and looking at his shot-map, one can conclude that he does need to work a bit on the judicious choice of positions from where to take shots. For example, there were a bunch of shots from the right with his right foot – shooting from such acute angles is quite unnatural for someone who is not a natural goalscorer. There are also far too many shots from outside the box, most of which, as the videos suggest, are hopeful punts than accurate attempts.
Given below are a variety of his attacking stats – both the raw value and the percentile (mentioned inside parentheses) when compared to other wingers or attacking midfielders who played at least 1000 minutes in the Segunda División of Spain last season.
Data by Wyscout
While most numbers appear to be modest, do keep in mind that this was a 16-year-old playing his first professional season. And his assists, expected assists (xA) and dribbling percentiles are particularly encouraging. It shows he is not afraid to take risks, and we are going to get more glimpses of that further into the article.
But before we proceed, let’s take a look at an animation of the only goal he scored from outside the box:
It was a well-struck fist-time half-volley into the left bottom corner, giving Las Palmas a 1–0 home win against Sporting de Gijón in September 2019. It also marked Pedri’s fist goal as a professional.
A big issue that plagued Barcelona all season was an uncoordinated and lackadaisical defensive effort put in by the team in general. Very little defensive activity by Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi led to Barcelona effectively defending with nine men. A lot of old men in the midfield in the form of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal also meant that the necessary speed to catch up with fast breaks was lacking as well.
All these afore-mentioned midfielders are very fine players – some of the top midfielders in their prime – but have grown old and lost a bit of their zip, which is much needed in the midfield right now. Meanwhile, Frenkie de Jong is very athletic, and Riqui Puig is deceptively fast, and both of them put in decent defensive numbers. And Pedri should complement them well were these three to take the field in a game together.
Pedri put in a good amount of defensive work for Las Palmas. Browsing through his videos, one can immediately conclude that Pedri is deceptively fast as well and good at reading runs, and he times and angles his own runs to cut the opponents off in their tracks and win back the ball.
Shown below are a variety of his defensive stats. Except for aerial duels – understandable as he is only 177 cms tall –, he ranks very high at every other metric:
Next, let’s take a look at Pedri’s passing characteristics, as shown below.
Pedri was highly involved in the attacking build-ups while maintaining a pretty decent passing accuracy for an attacking midfielder/winger hybrid. He played a lot of forward passes at decent accuracy – something that should bring smiles to the faces of the fans. The teenager is definitely someone who is not shy at taking risks and will mix it up with a decent range of long balls as well. Pedri played around 9 forward passes per 90 minutes, around 8 back passes per 90 minutes and the rest were lateral.
Once again, his video clips make it clear that he attempts to progress the ball and be vertical whenever possible, and the data corroborates that. But here comes the highlight of the article: his keypassing numbers.
What should be clarified right away here is that “dangerous passes” is a nickname I am using for all sorts of progressive and productive passes. This includes passes that lead to shots, assists and pre-assists, progressive passes etc. Let’s have a look at his numbers:
Here we see his greatest asset: his passing abilities to do something productive. And Pedri is outstanding at almost every single category. He ranks very highly in productive passes (which are passes leading to shots + 2nd assists + 3rd assists), passes to the final third and the penalty area, through balls, deep progressions and progressive passes, while also maintaining a reasonably good accuracy at each kind of pass.
This is arguably what attracted Barcelona, and the club will be well served by a passer who is already at this stage of calibre at such an early age. Let’s take a deeper look at his passes that led to shots and goals:
14 of his 19 key passes were into the penalty area – arguably the most dangerous area to take shots from. Only one of the key passes is a corner kick – everything else comes from open play, which is encouraging.
Watching the videos, three of the key passes that end outside the box came from fast breaks – counter-attacks – where Pedri carried the ball upfield from deep and laid it onto the path of his teammate, or found his teammate with accurate long balls from deep. So, even though they were far from the box, they led to extremely dangerous plays by Las Palmas.
Focusing on just the assists, it is easy to see how Pedri combines his speed at ball-carrying with his silky dribbling skills to get past opposition and create crucial amounts of space before finding a teammate with a laser-accurate pass:
And as a special gift to the readers, here is an animation of the assist that happens at the top right corner of the pitch in the viz above. Pedri makes a well-timed run to latch on to his teammate’s pass outside the box, before pulling off an outrageous piece of skill to dribble past his marker with a ‘Berbatov-flick-and-turn’, runs into the box and lays the ball off through two opposition players for his teammate to smash a goal in.
Pedri is an absolute gem, and along with Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Francisco Trincão and Frenkie de Jong, may well end up forming the core of a youth-based team. As such, Barcelona will do well to hold on to him and nurture him well. After an already promising – unofficial – debut against Nàstic de Tarragona on Saturday, culés can only hope for him to have a great season and future ahead.
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Samuel Gustafson, writer at Barça Universal, in collating the data and the videos used in the above article