An in-depth analysis of La Masía 17-year-old midfielder Álex Rico. A look at his profile, playing style and expectations for the future.
A club like Barcelona, after decades of producing world-class midfielders, is reputed for having multiple impressive talents at any youth team at any given time. Considering these high expectations, there are few players who still manage to exceed them. La Masía prospect Álex Rico is one of them.
Álex Rico Pico, born on 25 January 2002, is a midfielder in a mould of a typical Spanish and La Masía playmaker. He is a very gifted footballer and definitely one to keep an eye on as we shall soon see.
Born in Lleida, he started his footballing career with Esportiu Lleida and AEM Lleida for 5 years. At the age of 10, he made his Barcelona debut. He is also a Spanish Youth International having played for the U17 team during the EURO Qualifiers. This season, he has been an integral part of the Juvenil A team. He has been very important for Barcelona in the Juvenil Division and has made three appearances in the UEFA Youth League this season. All these achievements show us how his progress has been very positive. Apart from this, he also recently extended his contract. It now keeps him at Barça until June 2020.
Álex Rico, with the Juvenil A before the second match of the 19/20 Youth League against Inter Milan | Photo by FC Barcelona
He has progressed through the La Masía ranks steadily and is not injury-prone at all. Rico is a reliable player to whom his teammates can always give possession and trust that he won’t lose it. A captain in many of his youth teams, it’s not a surprise to find out that he is very sociable and an important figure in the locker room. These qualities are more important than we realise as it is because of these that it becomes easier to fit in with a new team or manager. These are excellent attributes, not just for a first-team footballer, but any player.
Álex Rico’s natural position is as a pivot. He is the heart of the current Juvenil A and of the Juvenil B last season. All attacks seem to pass through him. He dictates the tempo, controls the flow of the game and looks to circulate play smoothly. It’s his job to ensure that the blaugranas have the opposition doing what Barça want, and we will see how he does that here below.
Although a natural 6, Rico can play as the interior in a midfield three, though he is quite defensive-minded. In a 4–3–3, he drops between the centre-backs to receive the ball and start the build-up from the back. It is also not uncommon to see him moving up the pitch when Barcelona have strong possession in the opposition’s half. In this scenario, his job will be to be there for support and try to stop any counters.
Álex Rico often acts as the lone pivot or, whenever defensive midfielder Álvaro Sanz is in the teamsheet too, as an interior | Photo by FC Barcelona
Rico is the kind of player that will always know what he wants to do with the ball before receiving the ball. Being always aware of his teammates’ position is an extremely important part of his style of play. He combines this with constant checking of the opposition’s movements to make sure he will hardly ever lose possession. Apart from this, he is a sure passer of the ball and circulates play very well. His line-breaking passes are quite frequent and accurate. Though Álex is not very physically dominant, he presses relentlessly. This is vital for his side as it means that they can rely on him to be the first one to start pressing and give his colleagues time to regroup. As we see, in all aspects, Rico is crucial for his team’s stability.
What does the future hold for Álex Rico?
Álex Rico is an exciting youngster, both at club level and national level. He will play a crucial part for the Juvenil A this campaign and will most probably switch between Barça B and Juvenil A next year. This should give him plenty of time to improve upon his weaknesses. Although I see him doing well at almost every team in the world, Barcelona have an exceptionally crowded midfield. Fortunately for Rico, he has a lot of potential and, even though his path will be tough, if he comes out on top he can become a special player.
La Masia, the state of football, and the future of the ‘Barcelona DNA’
An inconspicuous morning at the Ciutat Esportiva on the 6th of December, 2010 was interrupted by a historical message. The Ballon d’Or podium would be composed of three players from the same club and the same academy.
In a feat that is yet to be repeated, the massive presences of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez were felt across Europe throughout the year. That was arguably the moment that La Masia peaked. As the three posed together at the end of the training session for a photo, clasping a football together, they represented everything Barcelona stood for and everything that Barcelona’s football signifies.
A decade has passed, and it’s not a surprise to see that La Masia is yet to reach those heights. Players like these are generational. We know that for Messi, Iniesta and Xavi to reach the heights that they did, a lot of factors came into play. Out of these, La Masia’s backroom staff, coaches, managers deserve immense credit.
Since then, football has undergone changes as it always does. From controlling the game and keeping possession, and playing a patient passing game, the landscape is now focused on two major phases of play. Pressing and transitions. This raises a question which this article will try to answer; what changes, if any, will La Masia and, in turn, the Barca DNA have to undergo to adapt to the current state of football?
Football in 2021
In the 2000s and towards the early years of the 2010s, football was to some extent based on the French approach of pacey attackers with a strong midfield consisting of a ‘water-carrier’ type player accompanied by a more creative player, or on the Spanish approach of keeping possession and patiently playing your way around the opposition. In the past few years, the emphasis has been on efficient and intense pressing with innovative, adaptive transitions.
For example, though the pressing systems of some teams in the last decade, such as Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United or Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, were highly potent, they were not as intricate or well-timed as the current pressing systems. Rather, they were based majorly on optimal positioning and high work-rates.
It’s not that there aren’t teams that look to play a possession-based game nowadays, but that innovations in pressing and transitions are better rewarded due to the current footballing landscape.
You would be hard-pressed (pun fully intended) to find teams a decade or more ago that carried out these activities as well as Borussia Monchengladbach, Liverpool, or RB Leipzig do now. The positioning, player roles, and individual instructions, combined with the team’s structure and triggers, all combine to create a beautiful clockwork mechanism of pressing and transitioning.
Changes to the Barça style, if any
There is something special about the principles that La Masia is based on. Apart from those related to personalities such as humility, sincerity, and discipline, the more tangible ones such as the footballing model and the core philosophy behind it are in themselves a representation of a club of massive historical stature. What makes them special is how some of them act as the base, the sturdy philosophy, while some serve as flexible paths acting as a way to progress.
For example, consider the formations used in Barcelona. The 4-3-3 is always preferred as it allows for attacking play, controlled possession, and makes the most of great technique. This is a factor that is flexible to an extent. The most obvious example is Ronald Koeman’s recent 3-5-2.
Not a 4-3-3, but yet a formation that makes the most of great technique and looks to maintain possession. Granted, the formation is not the only thing that allows for the aforementioned qualities. It instead acts as the flexible path and allows for optimal balance between the club’s philosophy and tweaks made to the team to optimize the performance.
A rather steadfast characteristic is basic positional play. Optimal spacing, receiving behind the lines on the half-turn, forming triangles. Such aspects of Barcelona’s game are non-negotiable and for good reason. Having been taught these skills from childhood, every La Masia player assimilates them from day one.
These fundamentals are more than just simple abilities or skills. They are qualities that allow the player to adapt to most conditions and situations. This is because optimal positioning is the key to playing well in any position.
For a defender, tackling is then next best step once the positioning is sacrificed. For a midfielder, the body-orientation when receiving and ideal positioning are frequently very hard to display consistently. Similarly, offensively, positioning and spatial awareness — once again, things that are the basis of what is taught as part of modern football.
The point being, these core principles and the basics of what has been taught at La Masia and adapted by countless teams and systems across the globe. These should remain unchanged and should continue to form the basis for the players’ development. Not only are they fundamentals in football, but the way they are taught at Barcelona are such that they allow the players to adapt to situations well, perform with versatility and have a strong foundation.
The question posed in this article is not one with a candid answer. There is no single interpretation, it is impossible to neglect what is taught at La Masia or accept it completely. The basics, however, must remain. To ascertain the changes or alterations needed, let’s consider the cases of Riqui Puig and Ilaix Moriba, along with an exceptional midfielder and Gerard ‘Peque’ Fernandez.
Puig has had problems establishing himself under every manager in the first team. Apart from this, until recently, he was often neglected by Spain’s youth squads, only to receive the invitation for the U-21 Euros. The theory of him being physically deficient is, to an extent, true.
Consider Ilaix Moriba, a midfielder who has the same basics as Puig but is stronger, bigger, and has better shooting ability. In term of passing and vision, though, Ilaix needs improvement.
However, his skills are such that they allow his managers to count on him to make a difference despite the system. The point being made here is that not all short and agile midfielders can easily fit into the current footballing landscape. Different skills such as ball-carrying under pressure, strong attacking presence, etc., are not the norm for La Masia midfielders, but the lack of the same is being felt now. The examples of Xavi and Iniesta always spring to mind, but their pure intelligence and technical prowess is unmatched.
However, things are rarely black or white. There is a middle ground or an amalgam of both. And in this case, it is the aforementioned special midfielder — Nico Gonzalez. Currently playing for Barcelona B, Nico is a midfielder who represents modernity in the academy.
18-year-old and at 188cm, what immediately stands out regarding him is how he seems to glide across the pitch. Tackles come in, and they either bounce off him, or he just skips past them. Apply pressure on him, and he turns sharply and leaves the defenders looking at thin air. What makes him even better is his laser-guided passing and excellent special awareness. He has impressed everyone, and according to some news outlets, Ronald Koeman is looking to integrate him into the squad next season.
What Nico represents is a hybrid of two types of midfielders. The orthodox La Masia central-midfielder, an agile, technically proficient passing master combined with the attributes of press-resistance, strength, and balance needed to do well in the modern game.
Barcelona B’s striker, Gerard Fernandez, or ‘Peque’, as he is nicknamed, is a typical Barcelona striker. His link-up play when he drops back is always spot-on, his capableness in the box, admirable. To an extent, similar to Abel Ruiz. However, what they both lack is the ability to make a difference on their own.
Heading is naturally an issue, but apart from that, these aren’t the kind of strikers who can finish from anywhere in the box despite their usually impressive efficiency. Rather, they pass the ball into the net.
Though they have a unique skill set, one must also consider the needs of the modern game. A player like Mauro Icardi would not be preferred over a player like Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe. This doesn’t mean that Icardi isn’t an excellent player. It’s just that the situations needed for him to do well are much more constrained than those needed for the former two.
Evolution or adaptation?
It’s clear now that Barcelona need to retain the basis of what they teach at the academy. However, there are other skills that need to be given importance as well. It would be unrealistic to expect shooting akin to Ilaix from Riqui Puig. Despite this, to a certain extent, the latter would only benefit from picking up some of the abilities of the former. Players like Nico Gonzalez or Pedri Gonzalez, hybrids of what the past had to offer and what the future needs, are more valuable now than ever.
The philosophy that has gotten Barcelona where it is now is should remain the core of the academy. That is not negotiable. But there are areas, which if focused slightly more on, could make a huge difference and maybe, just maybe, eventually come close to replicating the iconic photo of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi at the training ground.