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Player Reviews 20/21

Barcelona season review 20/21: Pedri

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Photo via Imago

In September 2019, Barcelona signed Pedro ‘Pedri’ Gonzalez from Las Palmas, who, at the time, was only 16 years of age. The deal was to come into effect from July 1st, 2020, with an initial transfer fee of a minimal €5m. Layman supporters didn’t make much of the deal; perhaps he was just seen as another youngster to sign for the subsidiary. No one could have predicted his meteoric rise.

While he was always extraordinarily talented for his age, Pedri was the least expected player in Barça’s entire squad, perhaps, to become a starting player (and one of the most crucial ones) for the entirety of the 2020/21 campaign. With Philippe Coutinho having returned from Bayern Munich, Miralem Pjanic being signed, Riqui Puig having had a stellar campaign, and even the already brilliant Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets, it seemed Pedri had no chances to become a regular.

Fast forward one year, the young starlet has enjoyed a campaign that was nothing short of stellar. With all his deft touches and neat positioning, the youngster impressed in nearly every facet of the game. His intricate ball control and ability to dribble out of tight situations made for some drool-worthy highlight reels.

His differential first touches on the ball and calmness under opponent pressure made him a consistently reliable presence in midfield. His immaculate passing, scanning of the field, and understanding of teammates made him not just a natural but exemplary midfielder for the Catalans.

Tailor-made for Barcelona. (Photo via Imago)

In this article, Barça Universal will evaluate Pedri’s entire first season at the Nou Camp. Having played 52 of Barça’s 53 league games, the 18-year-old displayed some incredible consistency. We will analyse the several technical and tactical skill sets that allowed the young starlet to have such a phenomenal season while also reviewing his overall impact on the team and individual moments of brilliance.

Maturity and Composure

Jude Bellingham, Jamal Musiala, Youssoufa Moukoko, Eduardo Camavingo, Mason Greenwood, Ansu Fati…these are only a few of the incredible teen starlets in the current landscape of world football. While some fans may not consider Pedri on the level of a few of these youngsters, there is one trait in which he is above and beyond his peers by a long mile: composure.

The Canary Islander plays with a level of composure and maturity expected of a seasoned veteran. Slotting perfectly into Barça and Spain’s positional play systems, Pedri can pass or dribble his way out of any amount of pressure. He simply exemplifies ‘mind over matter’, as the youngster, no matter the age or physique of his opponents, can always outthink them and play with what is seemingly a few seconds advantage.

Yet this advantage comes by virtue of nothing more than intrinsic quality, the quality and skill to think one step ahead and then execute the motions to create that advantage. Pedri is archetypically Barcelona: he scans the field hundreds of times during a match, uses his first touch to create advantageous pockets of space, and always values the ability to think quicker than other players on the field.

After all, he himself said, “In football it’s better to have a brain and think a second before the opponent to get ahead of what they will do. I prefer to have a brain to muscle.”

Always thinking. (Photo via Imago)

Ronald Koeman has certainly picked up on these qualities that make Pedri so far beyond his age in terms of maturity. While the Dutch manager often prefers more physical, dynamic or experienced presences such as Frenkie de Jong or Sergio Busquets in midfield, he could not ignore the sheer quality and brilliance of Pedri for long. Soon enough, the young starlet cemented his place in Koeman’s starting eleven.

Positional Intelligence

Continuing on the theme of ‘brains over brawn’, Pedri displays irreproachable positional intelligence. The youngster can be seen all over the middle of the park throughout games, often making himself available for a pass or presenting numerical superiorities. He transcends tactical instruction in that he uses his awareness of spaces and teammates to always create time and advantages for his team.

Playing as an advanced interior, Pedri offers the perfect complementing profile to his fellow teammates. Sergio Busquets, who plays as the single pivot in a midfield three, often releases the ball as soon as he receives it. Frenkie de Jong mostly uses his ball-carrying ability or his preference to be on the ball in dropping deep and constantly being involved in the action.

In this regard, Pedri is the perfect compliment to these two incredible midfielders, essentially becoming the final piece in a magnificent midfield trio. Often available in more advanced zones on the field, Pedri attracts rivals out of position and creates pockets of space for his teammates; then, he uses his meticulous short passing to find attackers in better areas in the final third to create chances.

The perfect partners in crime. (Photo via Imago)

His positional intelligence doesn’t only shine in attacking contributions. Despite having a rather nimble frame and only being 5 foot 8.5 inches tall, the youngster’s defensive contributions are spectacular. While he is neither the strongest nor the fastest player in the squad, Pedri’s defensive brilliance comes from his immaculate positioning.

Across all competitions, Pedri has 226 successful pressures: the highest number of any player at the club throughout the season. Using his ability to think one step ahead, Pedri does not run meaninglessly, but only in those directions and with those body orientations that will afford his opponents the least amount of space possible. The Canarian’s effectiveness in buildups comes not only from his ability to pass the ball but also his awareness of the pitch, the players around him, and his relentless effort to constantly find pockets of space.

Analysing Pedri’s involvement in Barça’s attacking movements, we can see that he has a very high impact. His xGBuildup90 — a metric that measures all the attacking actions of a player per 90 except key passes or shots — is 0.69, meaning that the youngster is involved in almost all of the team’s buildup movements.

Even more impressively, his xGChain90 (the same as xGBuildup90 but inclusive of shots and key passes) is a staggering 0.91, meaning most plays leading up to final attacking motions involve Pedri at some point. This can be credited to the Spaniard’s intelligent understanding of positions and his teammates. Interestingly, he also averages 1.44 key passes per 90, meaning he effectively utilises his superior footballing intelligence with a great final pass.

Pedri constantly makes himself an option in several phases of the Blaugranas’ buildup play. Rather than stagnantly sticking to his ‘position’, the youngster occupies zones in and around the left half-space that will allow him to constantly be involved in plays and create silky smooth passages of play for his team.

Always on the move. (Photo via Imago)

Even seasoned midfielders in the Barça squad, such as Miralem Pjanic and Philippe Coutinho, are not half as effective as Pedri when it comes to understanding the spaces on the field. This, along with several other reasons, has made him the first choice left interior for Koeman’s midfield.

Beyond technical brilliance, Pedri is a machine

Perhaps the most impressive trait the young starlet can boast, beyond even his nifty technical brilliances, is his impeccable work rate. A combination of intelligence, awareness, and effort makes Pedri a relentless machine in the centre of the park, both to make himself a constant outlet or inlet, as well as in defensive efforts.

As already mentioned, Pedri has the highest number of successful pressures in the squad by a significant distance. He also attempts an impressive 3.09 tackles and interceptions per 90 while ranking in the 99th percentile for passes blocked per 90 (among La Liga midfielders this season).

Looking beyond statistics, the 18-year-old’s brilliant defensive work rate can be seen through glimpsing moments of his season. Perhaps his most impressive defensive moment came in a game against Athletic Bilbao, when he made a brilliant anticipation at the half-line to win the ball over his rival.

A workhorse at 18

Another phenomenal defensive contribution from the youngster came in the form of him risking his body and safety for the greater good of his team. In a tense moment in the 72nd minute against Real Sociedad, Barcelona had a narrow 2-1 lead. Dangerous Swedish striker Alexander Isak gets clear of the Blaugranas’ defensive line, only for Pedri to rush in behind all the way from midfield, make a brilliant tackle, and clash into the post at full speed. Impressively, the youngster came out totally unscathed.

Putting his safety at risk for the team

It is rare to find such youngsters with grit, determination, and relentlessness as Pedri. The fact that he put his body on the line for his team speaks volumes on his quality and his impeccable mentality to go the full distance and do whatever it takes.

Instant competitiveness, impeccable consistency

Many times in the past, youngsters with higher expectations — players who seem as if they’re tailor-made for the club — have come in and struggled in their first season at the Camp Nou. For example, Sergiño Dest came with some brilliant praise and touted potential. The then 19-year-old had come off the back of a brilliant campaign with Ajax.

With Nelson Semedo having been sold, much improvement in the right-back position was expected with Dest. While not suffering a bad season per se, the young American struggled to adapt instantly and stay consistent. The jump in competition level and pace of play seemed too much for the youngster in his first season here. While showing flashes of his potential, he couldn’t keep his level up for the whole campaign.

The same can be said about Frenkie de Jong, whose first season after arriving from Ajax, while not bad by any means, was a slight drop in level as compared to the campaign he’d just had with Ajax. Even the Dutch midfielder didn’t adapt perfectly in his first season.

It took a while for de Jong to settle in. (Photo via Imago)

In this regard, Pedri has been a sheer wonder. At just 17-years-old, he slotted in as if he’d been a part of the first team for years. It certainly helps that Koeman had placed his full trust in the youngster very early on, and some injuries had opened up a spot for him to prove his mettle too. Not to forget, his exploits earned him a place in Luis Enrique’s Spain squad as well, where he has been shining.

However, it is truly astounding to think just how much better than his age Pedri really is. Youngsters who were having their first season, such as Trincao and Dest, seemingly required more time to adapt. On the other hand, the Canary Islander took a spot in the starting eleven and made it his own in the matter of a few weeks.

Even more impressive than fitting into the team instantly, however, is just how consistent Pedri remained for the whole campaign. Week in and out, Koeman selected the youngster to start for the Blaugranas. Not displaying his full trust in the team’s alternative midfielders, read Riqui Puig. The Dutch manager placed a tremendous amount of responsibility on Pedri’s shoulders, who carried it like a seasoned veteran.

The youngster played a staggering 52 games in his first season at Barça. Most impressively, he didn’t miss a single game out on injury, fatigue, or any other issues, even though many believed his performances dropped off due to playing non-stop. He simply kept his head down, stayed humble, and worked hard to earn minutes: 3,526 minutes, to be precise.

Achilles Heels: where the youngster can improve

It seems harsh to criticise an 18-year-old who has displayed phenomenal levels that are far beyond his age. However, Pedri is not flawless, as is no player. Certain parts of his game are either lacking or not at the level they can be, yet this is natural, given his age and limited experience in football.

While the youngster is adept at creating play and being involved in buildups as an advanced playmaker, the same role often allows him positions outside the eighteen-yard-box with tremendous space to take a shot. But Pedri often struggles to portray the confidence to take a shot, even when the space is totally clear for him to do so.

An area of improvement: Shooting

In later stages of the season, encouragingly, we began to see the young Spaniard shoot more. However, also lacking the power to drive shots home with speed, these shots were often ineffective. As can be seen, the youngster’s shot map in the La Liga season is not too impressive. Given the amount of game time he received, as well as how often he was positioned in left half-spaces with time and space, Pedri could have certainly attempted more shots.

No doubt, it is not entirely The Barça Way to constantly attempt shots from outside the box. However, it is important to have the ability to do so, as Blaugrana midfielders often find themselves in situations where a long-range shot is the best option. Pedri, to a certain extent, failed to capitalise on such opportunities.

Pedri also finds himself lowly placed in shots on target among La Liga midfielders, only ranking in the 52nd percentile. Understandably, the youngster lacks conviction in his ability to shoot; a skill that he will surely improve with age.

Perhaps one source of his brilliance, composure and maturity, is also a source of weakness for Pedri. While the player displays indelible calmness under pressure, he can often play it too safe. The immaculate understanding of his teammates and his reading of the field lead to him being one of the most reliable midfielders amongst his peers; however, he also often fails to capitalise on opportunities to progress the ball in the same vein.

As Xavi said when speaking about the youngster, “He has to dare, dare, because many times we robotise football. In the three-quarter zone, you have to dare.” It would certainly not hurt Pedri’s progression to use his talent and technique in tight spaces more often.

Wise words from a legend. (Photo via Imago)

We have seen the youngster excel in such contexts. For instance, his total owning of Juan Cuadrado at the Allianz Stadium on the left touchline. Pedri displayed impeccable dribbling ability, using nifty flicks and feints to beat the Colombian time and again on the left flank.

Pedri has dared to attempt sombrero flicks, little dinks, nutmegs, and even Iniesta’s signature move: La Croqueta, several times in the campaign. But deeper into the season, it seemed that the youngster began to play it safe more and more often. The fewer opportunities he had at the start of the season, the more daring he seemed. But with increased integration into the starting eleven dynamics, Pedri lost some of his unique flair.

As Xavi advised the youngster, it would certainly be wise for him to dare more often. After all, a key goal in football is the entertainment factor for fans. Like Johan Cruyff once said, Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.” Pedri should take Cruyff’s ideologies in his stride.

The youngster certainly possesses the dexterity and the intelligence to excel in tight and pressurised situations. Rather than always playing it safe, it does not harm the youngster to show more confidence in his abilities. He has, in several moments, displayed how nifty and technical his footwork really is. Now, he should learn to do it more often. He should learn to dare.

Final thoughts and season rating

The promise and potential of Pedri go beyond his massively improved transfer value of €70m. Pedri would probably come across as a finished product for most coaches if they did not know his age. The fundamentals and concepts in which the youngster excels above and beyond his generational peers make him a truly standout midfielder.

Just getting started. (Photo via Imago)

He seeks always to use his intelligence, dexterity, and positional awareness to his advantage. He is constantly, consistently, and relentlessly reliable: totally tireless in his work rate. Cut from a different cloth, Pedri performs, and he does it day in, day out; something so rare in a player of his age.

One can only speculate what the future holds for the brilliant starlet. But speculation is unnecessary when analysing just how good he already is. It comes as no surprise that Barça legend Gary Lineker said, “Pedri is going to be a superstar.”

With time, experience, and learning, the youngster will continue to dare more, to shoot more, and to improve the already outstanding grasp he has on the beautiful game. He is, ultimately, an artist; a nimble technician who dominates the game through the process of thought, rather than the utilisation of muscle.

He is a dynamic midfielder who has even fulfilled several roles both in attack and in midfield. He shines in the concepts required to be an outstanding midfielder for the Catalans. So long as he continues to stay fit and consistent, the former Las Palmas player will certainly grow to an unmatchable level.

Pedri is a breath of fresh air for Culés. Under poor management from the previous boards of Sandro Rosell and Josep Bartomeu, the club has strayed away from the ideals that make it Més que un club. While not even from La Masia, Pedri simply embodies a return to the ideologies that make Barça the club that it is: dominance through technique, intelligence, and beautiful football.

Barça Universal Rating: 8.75

As a loyal Cruijjfista and proponent of positional play: modern football, old football, and the future of football will always and forever be dominated by agile, technically, and tactically astute footballers. Having the passion for this club and the privilege to express my views on Barça makes me forever grateful. ¡Visca Barça!