La Masia has always had a very strict hierarchical structure that they have made sure not to disturb. Many times, players have left the academy as higher wages and better playing opportunities have been offered in other clubs. Meet Ilaix Moriba, the 16-year-old who became the first player Barcelona took serious financial as well as sporting power to tie down at the club.
Ilaix caught the world’s attention when he scored a hat-trick as a 15-year-old against Real Madrid’s U19. However, the real story begins at Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on 19th January 2003. Born to a Guinean mother and a Liberian father, Moriba Kourouma Kourouma moved to Barcelona as a child. Originally a player for local rivals Espanyol, the Blaugrana signed him in 2010. After starting out at the U9’s C team, Ilaix progressed steadily and quickly, always playing with kids older than him. And this is no surprise, as he has always had a very developed physique. Now at the age of 17, he is 185cm tall and weighs 73kg.
Ilaix is a midfielder who has most recently played as an interior midfielder. He is very well-versed in playing as an attacking midfielder, and has some experience playing as a defensive midfielder as well. Interestingly, he was even deployed as a striker for one or two matches, but this of course isn’t much.
“He’s a little bit, maybe modern—in the English football kind of sense. It’s good to have him at Barca. The academy can’t be all about the Riqui [Puig]s or the Monchus—small players with a lot of talent. Football trends change every year, every month, but Ilaix is here not because he is tall or strong, but because he is very good in every facet of the game.”Silva Puig, ilaix’s coach at juvenil b
The above quote gives a good idea of the kind of player Ilaix is. He is different from the usual academy graduates. Always getting labelled as ‘Barcelona’s Paul Pogba’ due to his physique, people tend to overlook his technical qualities when in fact, he is a very well-rounded player and is a great combination of Barca DNA and the things that Barcelona’s academy graduates often lack.
Offensive and on-the-ball abilities
Something that immediately stands out when you watch Ilaix is how comfortable he is with the ball. Pulling off flicks to see a teammate through on goal, dribbling out of tight spaces and progressing the ball, executing a cheeky nutmeg to get past a player followed by a chipped ball over the defense, the Spanish midfielder always exhibits his readiness to have the ball at his feet. This helps his team in many ways, the most significant of which is progressing from deep spaces.
Ilaix’s physique helps him in many aspects, including this. Many times, he’ll receive the ball in his own half. If there is space to drive into, Ilaix will exploit it. His physique means that it takes much more than just simple pushes to get him off the ball. This is something that Barcelona B have not had in a player recently. Also very good in tight-spaces, Ilaix’s close-control is very polished. He adds another dimension to the team’s ball-progression.
Being a La Masia player, excellent passing and receiving are to be expected. The 17-year-old midfielder is exceptional at receiving. Though he looks to receive on the half-turn often, his receive with his back to the goal while turning is exceptionally good. In terms of passing, Ilaix’s passing range is the highlight. Incisive passes through the defense, delicate chips, and long-passes to switch the play, he has it all.
It’s impossible to give an overview of what Ilaix offers without speaking about his shooting ability. He has incredible shooting range and manages to generate a lot of power even with a relatively small back-lift at times. In the earlier mentioned match against Real Madrid, one goal was from the halfway line. An often-overlooked aspect of the Spaniard’s play is his timing when making runs into the box. He regularly gets into dangerous places and has an eye for goal.
Defensive and off-the-ball abilities
Ilaix has a good defensive work-rate. He regularly tracks back and presses well, making sure his team isn’t in a numerical disadvantage at the back. His anticipation, and defending in 1v1 moments in especially impressive. In a 1v1, the body-orientation is very important. Like maintaining balance on a tightrope, Ilaix follows the dribbler. Neither allowing the opponent to cut inside, nor drive forwards easily is the key.
In terms of positioning, Ilaix needs to be better at times. This season, as he has gained protagonism at the B team he has also started positioning himself carelessly at times. Unlike players like Nico Gonzalez alongside him, who receive the ball in threatening positions, Ilaix looks’ to receive the ball deep and drive at the opposition.
Rather than purely in defense, Ilaix shines when the team transition from defense to attack. He is capable of holding the ball up and involving his teammates in the play. Another aspect in which his physique is influential, but not without his reading of the game and awareness.
In Ilaix, Barcelona have a player who could grace the midfield for the coming decade. He is someone who can make a difference on his own. Being called-up in the first-team squad for the first time against Granada, Ilaix might get chances this season. And knowing the kind of player he is, Ronald Koeman is sure to take a liking to his attributes. Ilaix Moriba is still very much a raw diamond. Shaping him into what he can be should be an enjoyable task for his coaches.
Pedri vs Coutinho: One clear winner at Barcelona right now
Rumours are brewing from within the Catalan media, and the future seems bleak for a certain Philippe Coutinho. Following a bright start to the campaign, many alluded to this potentially being his redemption season with Barcelona; however, as time passes, it seems like anything but.
As per a report relayed by SPORT, Barcelona are more than open to letting go of the Brazilian in January, as given the current climate they find it difficult to pay his wages, and for him to sit on the bench no less. Finding suitable destinations for the midfielder may come as a hurdle, however.
The solution seems simple, and Barcelona might as well just play him, but the ex-Liverpool man has found himself in a battle to none other than 18-year-old Pedri Gonzalez. And truth be told, there seems to be only one winner in this battle right now; Pedri.
It is only early days, but the 18-year old is looking like twice the player Coutinho is, regardless of position, especially given Koeman’s strict demands for the team. What are the key differentiating factors between the two?
Blend with the squad
Pedri and Coutinho are polar opposites of one another. While the youngster has won the trust of his manager in large part thanks to his decision-making abilities, his Brazilian counterpart seems completely bereft of the same. The Spaniard shows a far superior game reading ability, and it goes well beyond his years.
There are several basic traits in football, and especially in the central midfield, that any player, and explicitly a Barcelona player, needs to have in their arsenal.
These come in knowing whether or not one is adequately positioned to receive a pass by surveying their environment and evaluating the potential of them advancing with the ball, or the probability that they might be dispossessed the second they receive it. In addition to this, it is imperative that the Barça midfielder know whether or not the potential recipient of the said pass is capable of profiting off of it. Being a midfielder is like a game of chess; every movement has to be calculated, as they each have a wide array of consequences.
All these are things Pedri has shown complete mastery of, and he is able to read his teammate’s moves to near-perfection, despite never having been trained in the La Masia. His quick thinking ability and his dexterity when it comes to benefiting the collective are light-years ahead to Coutinho, who seems more and more like a tactical liability.
The Brazilian has several vices that are all too recurrent and serve to no nothing more than destabilise the team. Unlike Pedri, he seldom receives the ball knowing what to do with it next, and constantly finds himself giving the ball away cheaply, or passing the ball to someone who simply has no plan whatsoever on what to do with the ball once it is at their feet.
Coutinho is also becoming more and more infamous for his deplorable body orientations. He is slow-witted and has plenty of inefficient tactics that are little resourceful for the team. A pattern of play all too common in his game, to the discontent of Barcelona supporters, is his excessive number of touches on the ball.
Again, because he receives passes knowing not what to do once he receives them, he often slows down play, giving the opposition that one extra second to react, and just like that, he transforms what should have been a relatively simple touch and go move into an unnecessarily overcomplicated scenario.
Pedri, on the other hand, utilises every touch of the ball to create an advantage for the collective. Be it out wide or centrally, the young Spaniard makes positional as well as numerical superiorities on the ball. If he is not upping the tempo of the match, then he is maintaining it to a rhythm that will take the team into the final third. This maturity in his play is one of the make or break situations for Koeman, and Pedri is a clear winner in this regard.
Creativity and Versatility
It would take little more than a quick search on one of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to find Culés in the thousands coming to Coutinho’s aid. Whenever he performs poorly, the common excuse is that he has been deployed out of position and that this, and only this, is the reason for his shortcomings. That, sadly, is nowhere near the truth.
This is too simplistic a way of thinking and it diverts the attention away from where it should be; on Coutinho. In addition to his poor game reading ability, the Brazilian shows a high level of incompetence when asked to perform in more than one role. This sort of one-dimensionality is surely going to be the end of him, and while Barça may be in the search for buyers, it is rather off-putting to have someone who costs so much, consistently produce so little.
He, for instance, has shown a complete ineptitude at playing in any position that is not the central attacking midfield. When deployed as a winger or even an interior, he is essentially flat-footed. So much so that the mere sight of him there, by opposition managers, take Alvaro Cervera, rejoice at how easy it would be to thwart him.
It also matters little where he is as he offers next to no creativity on the ball. Assists are often deceiving, as they give the impression that one is effective at creating chances, but Coutinho’s problem is one in which he does not create enough. At just 0.57, Coutinho has overperformed his Expected Assists by a whopping 1.5xA. His inefficient methods of playing give a better understanding of why this is, but in brief, he does not attempt enough of anything in spite of how high up the pitch he is, and what is expected of him from those areas.
Not to mention that the 28-year-old has created just one big chance in the league while missing five of the same. This ranks him second only to Antoine Griezmann in the squad, and joint-fourth in the league. This means that he is underperforming his xG tally by -1.81 goals, while Pedri is overperforming it by +0.08. A tiny number which goes a long way.
Pedri also offers much more in terms of both his versatility and creativity, which can be immediately proved by his two big chances created and 0.8 key passes per game, both stats twice as much as Coutinho’s.
Another metric, the Expected Goals Build Up, measures the overall involvement of players in the build-up to a goal, excluding shots and key passes and puts it into a number. It is used to quantify the contributions of players such as Sergio Busquets, who often do not make it into the assists category of stats, despite their heavy involvements in the middle of the park.
In this particular stat, Pedri is, statistically, more than four times involved than Coutinho in possession phases leading up to a shot and is also just over twice as good at creating goalscoring chances for others than the Brazilian. Why so? While Coutinho is inept at participating outside his comfort zone, Pedri gets himself involved in as much as he possibly can. Though unlike the Brazilian, he benefits the team with his actions.
From the flanks, he attempts to provide width when asked to; however, once he notices the likes of Jordi Alba overlapping or Lionel Messi in a promising position, he is more than ready to adjust his own to give either of them space, and in such a manner that it maintains rather than disrupt the rhythm of the play. The teenager is also more than open to be deployed as a forward, an interior, an attacking midfielder, and against all odds, even as a pivot.
His altruism, selflessness and “team first” attitude go a long way, and this seems like a path Coutinho has no intention of taking.
One need only watch the game against Real Sociedad to get a glimpse of the off the ball decisions that Pedri makes that give him the upper hand over Coutinho. One instance that won the hearts of many was the youngster’s darting run in the final fifteen minutes of the game to deny La Real what would have been an undeserved equaliser. He succeeded in preventing Alexander Isak from scoring, but at his own expense as his body smashed into the frame of the goal, essentially wrapping around it.
It surely hurt, however, he could care less about the pain, as his team was better off for it. While Coutinho is more involved defensively than he was previously, he is a far cry from Pedri, who outclasses him in this regard, almost too easily. In terms of defensive statistics such as interceptions, tackles and pressures, Pedri supersedes Coutinho at rates of two, three and even seven-fold.
This takes us back to the key elements of a central midfielder, one of which is defensive work. This non-negotiable task that anyone in the central, offensive or defensive midfield has to take up, is sometimes treated as expendable by Coutinho, and it certainly will only serve to infuriate Ronald Koeman.
Given all there is to see, it is no surprise that Barcelona are willing to let go of their most lucrative signing yet. For all Coutinho was worth, he does next to nothing to justify his hefty price tag, and it has happened for long enough for Barcelona to accept seeking him, perhaps for even lower than half the asking price. As it stands, Philippe Coutinho does not seem to have a place in this squad; not over Pedri, anyway.
Stats via Sofascore/Understat.