The 19/20 being his first season at Barcelona, 24-year-old left-back Junior Firpo has possibly disappointed. But will there be more to come?
This is the eighteenth episode of a series in which we review the performances of the different Barça first team players, as well as discuss their futures for the next campaign. You can check the series here
On 4 August 2019, Junior Firpo was signed by Barcelona on a five-year deal. Firpo, having attracted attention from most major clubs in Europe, was bought for a mere 18 million euros upfront along with 12 million euros in add-ons. The player was chosen over the likes of other talented, young, left-backs, such as Ferland Mendy and ex-Masía player Álex Grimaldo. By then, Firpo’s transfer looked like the bargain of the season. Now, however, it seems as if the money should have been spent on someone else.
Junior Firpo had dropped a masterclass at the Camp Nou even before putting on the iconic blaugrana jersey for the first time. His display in November 2018 led Quique Setién’s Real Betis to a 4–3 victory against Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona. He terrorised the opposing full-backs, and also managed to net a goal. His dreams of repeating his performance against Barcelona, for Barcelona, did not come to fruition. While his starting spot in the Catalan team wasn’t guaranteed, it did seem like Firpo was the perfect player to replace Jordi Alba at some point in time. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case, as according to reports, the club is looking to offload the 24-year-old left-back.
“I don’t think that the change of coach has benefited me. Valverde was already counting on me in the last matches, despite at the beginning it cost me. The only advantage for me is that Setién knows me, knows who I am and I don’t have to prove anything extra. I will try to seize the opportunity”Junior Firpo, in February soon after Quique Setién’s arrival
Firpo started the season under Ernesto Valverde. He seemed quite uncomfortable at the back and was struggling to keep up with the opposing wingers. Additionally, he was unable to widen the pitch and make efficient runs behind the opposing defensive line, something he had no problem doing while playing at Betis. While there were hints of a partnership between him and Ousmane Dembélé, the Frenchman’s nine months of injury put a stop to this brewing duo.
Neither with Valverde nor with his former Betis coach Quique Setién could Junior Firpo find the form that took him to Barcelona | Photo by Cristina Quicler / AFP via Getty Images
In January, when Ernesto Valverde was sacked, and Quique Setién, Firpo’s manager at Real Betis, was hired, it seemed like things would change for the Dominican-born youngster. Fans hoped that he would be able to find the 18/19 form that resulted in him being scouted by all the top clubs in the world. That, though, was not the case. Setién tried out different formations, like a 3–5–2, 4–3–1–2, 4–3–3 and 4–4–2, and Junior wasn’t able to excel in any. He looked just as uncomfortable under Setién as he did under Valverde. In his defence, he wasn’t given many opportunities by either manager, but on the other hand, his performances when he was given opportunities were anything but impressive.
Junior Firpo ended the 19/20 season with one goal and two assists in 23 games. He played 17 La Liga games and all three of his goal contributions came in the league. He wasn’t able to produce any output in the four Champions League matches he featured in. With Jordi Alba‘s injuries, he didn’t seem to exploit such chances and never really challenged the veteran when both were fit.
What next for Junior Firpo?
Today, Junior Firpo‘s future is in the air, with reports stating that the Barcelona board hopes to sell the left-back in order to obtain funds for a new player in such position, and to reduce the wage bill. Ronald Koeman, the Dutch Barcelona legend and the club’s latest manager, has not yet said if he counts on Firpo in his new, supposedly revamped squad. If Koeman wants to keep him, as either a back-up or a starter, the Spaniard could have one last shot at making the left-back position at Barça his own.
Football has evolved since its inception, and in today’s game, the full-back position is one of the most important ones. All of the other top European teams who have won the latest Champions Leagues have had world-class full-backs. As for left-backs, recent champions Bayern Munich had Alphonso Davies, arguably the most promising youngster in the world; 2018/19 Liverpool had Andy Robertson, the best left-back in the world at the time; and Real Madrid’s three-peat squad had Marcelo, for many the greatest left-back of all time. If Barcelona is to compete for titles in the coming years, especially without Lionel Messi, the left-back for the Catalan club has to be world-class. With the way Junior Firpo has performed in this 19/20 season, it does not seem like he has what it takes.
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