With both Riqui Puig and Pedri Gonzales at relatively early stages of their respective careers, both have, on more than one occasion, proven that their age is nothing more than a number. The pair have set La Liga ablaze, owing to their superb technical ability and potential to become future world-beaters.
Of course, there are fundamental differences between the two that have led to one being largely favoured over the other, much to the discontent of his ever-growing fanbase. In this article, Barca Universal explores the common denominators between the youngsters, their tactical flexibility and how their internal competition could be beneficial for both them and the team.
If anyone were to forge the ideal Barça midfielder in a factory, then chances are these two are what you’d get. Riqui Puig is, by many accounts, the embodiment of Barcelona’s football, mostly having played in La Masia all his life. Despite his upbringing, in a relatively different system, Pedri also fits the bill, all the way down to the stereotypical small build that has come to be associated with Barça’s esteemed academy.
Both footballers’ styles of play are awfully similar in many ways, especially coming down to their most basic of requirements as Barça midfielders.
They both show an impressive comprehension of all what is required in the process of passing. Before even receiving the ball, both have acquired the exceptional skill of first positioning themselves adequately then managing their body orientations so as to suit them better should they look to carry the ball forward or look for a passing option. When the time comes to switch possessors of the ball, both demonstrate that they are knowledgeable enough to look up and scan for a passing target before the ball even gets to leave their feet. This most basic of skills — which a majority of footballers seemingly lack —, is pivotal to maintaining and advancing the ball forward. The receiver is more often than not being loosely marked, and with the ball arriving at their stronger foot.
In addition to this, both Riqui and Pedri are exceptional pressors of the ball, albeit differently. The Masia graduate is a far more proactive figure defensively, often preferring to apply an intense spell of pressure on the ball possessor to provoke a mistake. Pedri, on the other hand, uses his footballing IQ to anticipate his opponents’ passing targets, cut off the potential lanes, and finally close in on the player, eventually leading to them aimlessly lose the ball in a long ball, or making low threat passes toward their own defence.
The pair also have a knack at reading the game, not only that of their teammates’ intentions but also that of the opposition. On the one hand, Riqui is excellent at creating passing lanes in between the lines, as even through a cluster of opposition defenders, he is dextrous enough to thread the ball to a teammate and create a situational advantage.
Pedri, on the other hand, has formed synergies with a number of his teammates, most notably Messi. Such is the extent of his reading of their body language that even when swarmed by opposition players, he lacerates their barriers with his trademark backheel passes into one of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann or Jordi Alba out wide, creating a positional advantage from absolutely nothing.
Lastly, the two tend to get rather involved in games, given the similarities in their profiles and roles in the team, but they do so in different ways. Owing to his comically small body frame, Riqui Puig combines his seemingly inborn agility with his otherworldly footballing intelligence to significant effect. Pedri meanwhile handles the opposition with graceful technical astuteness. Be it a pass, a dribble, a through ball or a back heel, all are done to utmost precision for maximum efficiency, and all create an advantage in one way or another.
Survival for the fittest?
One thing that is becoming glaringly obvious as time goes by; any conversation regarding Riqui Puig and Pedri on a football pitch should be more of an “either…or” rather than “and”. Ronald Koeman has reaffirmed his decision to either start one or the other, as was once again the case against Real Betis last night. While the fans might generally prefer to see them both tear through opposition defences with their mesmeric football, they will have to play a game of tug of war until one of them gives in.
Culés know all too well just how detrimental a lack of competition can be to the side’s overall functioning. Look no further than Luis Suárez over the course of his final two years as a Blaugrana. Such was his monopoly over the striking position that it mattered not wherever he had dropped a 10/10 performance or a 4/10, he was virtually guaranteed a starting spot simply for being. The squad management was deplorable from the coaches involved, but truth be told, the board never made life easy.
The sages coined that once bitten, twice shy, and the Catalan giants have more than enough examples in recent memory of just how badly a lack of competition could harm them.
The return to the 4-3-3 formation has seen Koeman deploy both Riqui and Pedri interiors in the left halfspace and with varying results each time. The Masia graduate has been rather unlucky with the team selection, often finding himself in squads that are dying to have him be a cut above the rest. Often times he does, but the external influence — particularly against Betis where he had next to no assistance from neither his fellow interior nor pivot — does have an impact on him.
An advocate for always seeking the positives even in a myriad of negatives, Johan Cruyff would perhaps see this as an opportunity for the 21-year-old to show Koeman precisely why he should play. Riqui has all the tools to succeed in a Garnet and Blue shirt and has for years, therefore it is paramount that he adapts to whatever situations Koeman throws at him. He will almost certainly feature against Alavés as a starter, and if his game against Los Verdiblancos was lacking, then an outing against Los Azulones should be enough an opportunity for him to shine.
Now clearly at the top of the pecking order, this would be no time for Pedri to rest on his laurels. His position might be under jeopardy quite soon, and the trust Koeman places in him means that he will play a majority of the bigger games, meaning he has a significantly higher propensity for failure than his counterpart and thus has to be even more industrious for his own good.
This is competition like it hasn’t been seen in years, and it can only serve to grow the players and benefit the collective, especially with the eight games that are to come over the next 30 days.
Both players have shown a steadfast commitment to the badge, and a burning desire to impress their manager. For a large chunk of the season, Riqui Puig has had the short end of the stick in favour of Pedri and is only recently getting within Ronald Koeman’s peripheral view. This is an opportunity he should snatch lest he once again loses relevance in his manager’s eyes.
The pair share many characteristics riddled throughout their gameplay, and now the ball is in both their courts and for the next few months it’ll be a tussle till the end to impress Koeman. This only serves to help them build on their incredible versatility, and this, in turn, has nothing but a positive impact on the functioning of the collective.