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The curious case of Nico Gonzalez at Barcelona

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

The meteoric rises of Pedri, Gavi, and Ansu Fati have spoiled us all. Now, we’ve practically come to expect every youngster to instantly dazzle and shine without hesitation.

The truth is, these players are exceptions to the rule. Most starlets gradually improve season-by-season and require poignant development under the right circumstances and environment. 

This is Nico Gonzalez’s story: surrounded by supernovas, his star still shines bright. In his first season with the first team, he is a consistent presence on the bench and has even scored twice this campaign to help the team earn crucial points in La Liga.

Still, he has recently found himself on the outer orbit of a dominant midfield rotation including Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Gavi, and Sergio Busquets. 

Tough to break into a midfield with so much pedigree already. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA/AFP via Getty Images)

In many ways, Nico’s journey has been similar to that of de Jong. Both are versatile and energetic midfielders who are difficult to pin down to one position. Of course, the latter has finally solidified a role and duties under Xavi. For Nico, this may take more time, which isn’t a bad thing. 

In the following piece, let’s take a closer look at Nico’s situation: what is he doing well, why is he struggling, and what does his future look like?

Traits & Attributes

Starting with the positive, what are Nico’s standout traits and attributes? Towering at 188 cm (6 feet 2 inches) and built with sufficient muscle for a 20-year old, Nico stands out from the rest of Barca’s midfield. He is as tall as Busquets but has the physique of Ronald Araujo. 

His stature aside, he’s a La Masia graduate through and through, equipped with all the traits of a Blaugrana midfielder. Positionally, he is capable of playing both as a single pivot (number 6) or interior.

In fact, his proficiency as a pivot led many to tout him as Busquets’ long-awaited replacement. But like de Jong experienced before him, Nico simply has too much energy and box-to-box impact to stay seated in the number ‘6’ role.

No perfect replacement for Busi. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

First and foremost, Nico plays out of pressure with ease. Much like de Jong, the Spaniard can evade high-pressing opponents with the ball at his feet. Despite his imposing stature, he is crafty when dribbling. This makes him a reliable outlet in the buildup, whether as a pivot or interior. 

His positional awareness is also high for such a youngster; he knows where opponents are before collecting passes and can adjust himself accordingly.

Nico is adept at connecting the midfield line with the front line, and his movement resembles a box-to-box midfielder. Admittedly, this impact all over the pitch hasn’t been felt over his recent performances.  

Defensively, his physical attributes help him fend off opponents and make strong tackles. He ranks third in the squad for total fouls committed (54), which speaks not only to his aggression but youthful, albeit untethered energy. And the statistics (per fbref.com) also back Nico’s abilities.

No fear. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images)

Compared to positional peers in Europe’s top five leagues this season, the Spaniard is in the 99th percentile for dribbles completed per game (2.47), 97th percentile for progressive carries (7.66), and 93rd percentile for pass completion rate (90.5%).

The first two stats showcase his ability as a midfield runner, the latter as a sound keeper of possession. 

A drop in production

Nico started off the 2021-22 campaign with a bang – to the point where he was outperforming Frenkie de Jong on many nights. Since then, his performances have fallen off considerably. This begs the question: what went wrong? 

The Spaniard has made 36 appearances thus far this campaign, with 17 being starts. However, he has only started three matches since February 17.

Consequently, a lack of regular playing time means a lack of opportunity to develop consistency and stay in match shape. After all, it is difficult to make an impact averaging 21 minutes per game over the last two months. 

However, with Pedri’s recent injury, Nico could get some prolonged game time to try and settle into the system dynamics. He has to make sure he utilises it to the fullest and expresses all that makes him special.

Nico doesn’t quite have the explosiveness of Frenkie de Jong and Gavi or the passing and creativity of Pedri. As a more metronomic player, he needs long stretches of play to make a mark on the game. 

One thing that’s curiously been missing from his game is dynamism. If Nico isn’t making runs into the box, setting up forwards, or propelling the team with his ball-carrying, his impact is severely diminished. This may sound like a lot of duties to fulfil, but as an interior in Xavi’s system, it is crucial. 

Over the last two months, Nico’s progressive passes per game have also decreased. Quantitatively, he has two total progressive passes in his last eight matches, compared to over two per game he averaged in his first 25 appearances.

Waning. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Qualitatively, for example, against Levante, the Spaniard still looked to progress the ball out of defence into the opposition half, but the final “killer” ball was instead often a pass back to Busquets, or lateral ball to de Jong. 

Furthermore, Nico has tallied just one shot-creating action over his last eight appearances, whereas he was consistently producing 1.6 a game in the 2021 portion of the campaign. 

Looking again at the Catalans’ recent clash with Levante, Nico was subbed off after only 55 minutes. Paired with Busquets and de Jong, the entire midfield trio was average on the night, due in no small part to the opposition’s high press.

Levante covered Nico with ease, and while the midfielder misplaced only one pass, it was a timid performance. The team needed risks, not retention. It was the perfect time for Nico to showcase his calm aura under pressure but to no avail. 

In all, it is important to remember that Nico is only a 20-year-old and is a midfielder still learning the trade. After all, his long-term position is still (arguably) a mystery. 

Areas for improvement

Undeniably, there are simply too many chefs in the kitchen right now in Barcelona’s midfield. If Nico wants to cement a role in it, he has to continue to play to his strengths. 

Against high pressing opposition, the youngster has to show Xavi that he can admirably be an outlet for buildup. After all, his ball-carrying ability matched with his physique make for a powerful player, perfect for exposing pressing schemes. 

The perfect antidote to an aggressive press? (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

If Barca can’t pass out of a high-block, Nico can help break it down. The Spaniard must also take full advantage of his physical gifts. As an imposing midfielder, his strength should become, well, one of his strengths. 

In the final third, his decisiveness must return to its early-season levels. Once receiving the ball, he should look to play runners such as Ousmane Dembele, Ferran Torres, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into space, rather than passively playing the ball back to the other midfielders. 

Nevertheless, Nico needs consistency in terms of positions too. Sure, he plays mostly as an interior, but operating on the left or right half-space is a careful decision Xavi must make.

For example, Pedri had a quiet first half against Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg. He was placed on the right side of the triangle compared to his usual left. Busquets, of course, is always the pivot, Gavi typically plays on the right, and so does de Jong.

Meanwhile, Nico’s tendencies and preferences are not yet as developed. Without a doubt, this has an impact on his performances. 

Midfield combinations matter too. Alongside more creative midfielders such as Pedri or Gavi, Nico’s role as a box-to-box interior is highlighted. This is less of the case when paired with de Jong, although, they have shown great chemistry operating as quasi-double pivots. 

Looking ahead 

Unfortunately for Nico, the Blaugrana midfield will only get more packed. The arrival of Franck Kessie will throw a wrench in his slow but steady development. The AC Milan midfielder is another box-to-box talent who can fulfil similar duties.

More competition is on the way. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

On the other hand, Busquets will be another year older and the Catalans could try Nico out as a single-pivot even more. 

Nico’s drop in production is a curious one, but it’s nothing a little bit of confidence can’t change. Sometimes, all it takes is one good game to get back into rhythm. Ultimately, there’s plenty of time for Nico to turn things around, and he’s shown enough this season for Xavi to place his faith and patience in him. 

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