How Alex Collado can be a wildcard for Xavi’s Barcelona next season
FC Barcelona’s summer transfer window in 2021 was, to put it mildly, an eventful one. While Lionel Messi’s disheartening exit understandably stole the headlines, it was not the only drastic change to take place on the Catalans’ roster.
Josep Bartomeu’s stint as president left the club in crippling debt and desperate need of major departures to balance the books. So much so, that the newly re-elected board could only rely on free transfers to reinforce a team, with the primary focus leaning towards the exit door.
The key to financial stability was, of course, offloading the so-called ‘heavyweights’. Lionel Messi was the first to depart; shocking though it was, his continuity simply wasn’t financially sustainable. Yet he would not be the only one: the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, and Miralem Pjanic were also reviewing other options.
The problem, in their case, was that, unlike Messi, they were tied to the club on long-term deals. This, in turn, meant that to cash in on their departure, Barcelona would have to go through arduous and extremely time-consuming negotiations.
Come deadline day, the Garnet and Blue still had a heap of business to complete. Joan Laporta and co. had offers on the table for Griezmann, Emerson Royal, and Ilaix Moriba, whilst simultaneously trying to complete Luuk de Jong’s loan move.
A tough ask, for sure, but by the end of it, all the paperwork were signed. However, that day, Barça were supposed to finalise five deals, not four.
Entangled in that last-gasp melee, that too for all the wrong reasons, was Alex Collado. Previously the captain of Barcelona B, the 22-year-old was on the brink of signing with Sheffield United on loan.
Having spent three full years under the watchful eye of Garcia Pimienta, Collado’s message that summer was clear: a return to the subsidiary was out of the question.
With his sights set on promotion, he performed commendably in the preseason, but his efforts were deemed insufficient by first-team coach Ronald Koeman.
The door back to Barça B was firmly shut, a loan move was his only viable option. Initially, Club Brugge were the front-runners to secure his signature. Nevertheless, that operation reportedly collapsed, as the Blaugrana were unwilling to include a buyout clause.
Towards the back end of the transfer window, another suitor emerged, that being Sheffield United. Unlike the previous case, there were seemingly no complications that would make the move unfeasible.
However, the race against time that Barcelona were faced with, with all the other transfers in mind, turned out to be too hard a challenge.
So the first of September arrived, and Collado was still a Barcelona player. The key problem, though, was that the youngster had not been registered in time for either of the senior and B teams. This strategic error from the club, incredibly harsh as it was, meant that he would have to spend the first half of the season sidelined, away from all action.
For a player that had played such a prominent role in the subsidiary for three years and had earned his chance in the top flight, this was nothing but a cruel injustice. He had the minerals to succeed at the club, yet a combination of factors out of his control turned a dream into a nightmare.
Still unable to be registered with Barcelona in the winter, Collado signed with Granada on loan. There, his main task would be to regain his form and, most crucially, his confidence. However, the former Barça B talisman exceeded the initial goal.
Despite finding himself in a side in managerial turmoil and playing under three different coaches, he always left his mark, gradually growing into an indispensable piece of los nazaries’ dysfunctional puzzle.
While Granada were unable to avoid relegation, he was among the players that made survival a possibility in the first place.
Still, coming back to Barcelona after that fruitful loan spell, the pivotal questions remain unanswered. Does he have a future at the club? Can he earn an important role in the team in the short-term? Does he have the minerals to grow into a central figure for the Garnet and Blue?
To answer those, Barça Universal delve into Alex Collado’s player profile, as well as the long-term prospects of his continuity.
Unlike many of his fellow La Masia graduates, Alex Collado’s rise to prominence has been anything but meteoric. It was only by the end of his third full season with Barça B that his promotion to the senior side was even considered, though that delay was primarily down to Ronald Koeman’s preference for other profiles.
Still, perhaps that lengthy tenure with the subsidiary turned out to his benefit. Over time, Collado developed into a pivotal figure in his team, and such a starring role only enhanced his development and brought all his strengths to the surface.
By the time he was in contention for a first-team spot, he was already a mature individual.
Yet, with circumstances beyond his control forcing him to depart on loan, his maiden full season in the top flight became a whole lot more challenging. At Granada, Collado was thrown into the deep end.
Different environment, teammates of lower quality, a completely contrasting in-game philosophy — for someone as young as him, especially with his last competitive match dating over half a year back, performing at his best would be a tall order.
Nevertheless, undeterred by the adversity, the 23-year-old adapted in no time. Despite playing under three different managers, he never stopped gaining momentum. The final six games in particular, ever since Aitor Karanka took charge, saw Collado come into his own.
His brief stint in Andalusia remains the most recent and reliable sample when examining his profile. However, as previously mentioned, the in-game conditions at Granada were vastly different from those at Barcelona.
The aim is, therefore, not to simply analyse his playing style, but to also contextualise his qualities in relation to Barça and Xavi’s demands.
With a quick glance over Alex Collado’s statistical profile, certain numbers instantly draw one’s attention:
— Valuable involvement in the build-up phase.
— High volume of through-balls.
— Ludicrously high amount of pressures and counter-pressures.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘eye test’ backs up that information.
On the ball, Collado’s acquaintance with a leading role in his team is thoroughly evident. He loves to get involved in all phases of play and never hesitates to take the initiative. Such instinctive confidence is a rare trait among players with little experience at the top level.
Never afraid of taking matters into his own hands, he enjoys taking on opponents in unorthodox situations. In this instance, he willingly lures four players into battle, in hopes of eventually generating an advantage in the final third.
And indeed, through sheer determination, he somehow ends up unscathed, with the rival defence now numerically vulnerable.
The exact same applies to his shooting. Here, he picks up a loose ball about 30 meters away from goal and, in spite of the difficulty of the task at hand, he goes for glory.
Having placed his body perfectly underneath the ball and sliced through it with his laces, his effort forces a momentous save from Celta goalkeeper Matias Dituro. Mind you, this occurred in the 88th minute of a game where Granada were trailing their opponent by a goal.
Such nuances may seem trivial at first glance, but they are, in fact, invaluable virtues for young players. Few youngsters possess stupendous passing, dribbling and ball-striking, yet even fewer are those who consistently trust these qualities at their disposal.
In addition, Collado is a fabulous outlet under pressure. Whether it be the build-up phase or the latter stages of the attack, he is extremely tough to dispossess, by virtue of his impeccable ball control and retention, rapid change of pace and great balance.
One of the keys to his top-notch retention is the way he shields the ball. On this occasion, Collado asks for a progressive pass into the space between the centre-back and fullback. This, a prior, would drive one of them into a rash challenge.
The pass, however, proves too weak, turning it into a straight contest for control between Collado and Vilhena. But the former makes a critical manoeuvre just in the nick of time, positioning his body directly between the ball and the opponent.
This subtle move proves vital, as Granada manage to maintain possession.
Another defining feature of his game is his pace on the ball, which is aptly demonstrated in the following sequence. Already chesting the ball down on the move, Collado instantly finds himself encircled by a group of four rivals.
The 23-year-old gets into gear quickly, instantly steering clear of the player closest to him.
His evidently refined control at speed and delicate touch allow him to wriggle out of the initial challenges, luring all four defenders towards, and him and away from his teammates as a result.
And, of course, Collado’s vision is also on point. The La Masia graduate has no trouble detecting teammates in space and switching the play into uncongested zones. This not only eases the pressure off his side, but also forces the opponent to hastily regroup.
There is, nevertheless, a significant technical deficiency that greatly hampers his productivity: an inherently poor first touch. It is an issue so prevalent that it accounts for what is seemingly a vast majority of Collado’s dispossessions.
For all his exceptional positioning, that work is often undone due to his inability to efficiently and consistently cushion stiff forwarded passes.
One of the primary roots of the problem is that he tends to receive the ball flat-footed; this is precisely what gives the impression that he is caught unawares by the pass velocity.
It is undeniably an amendable flaw, but one that drastically affects his performance in advanced areas. Improving on that aspect is, therefore, a necessity if he is to take a further leap forward in his career.
For someone that so often finds himself at the epicentre of his team’s moves, identifying unoccupied space to create danger is also paramount.
A vital prerequisite to achieving that is the understanding of your teammates’ movement. Depending on the circumstances, that involves either predicting their manoeuvres or reacting to them. That is a skill Collado has already mastered.
This specific example is very telling. As the ball reaches the right flank, Quini makes a darting underlapping run that distracts Iker Muniain, thus opening up the half-space on the fringes of the penalty box. Collado immediately reacts, offering a passing option in this exact zone.
Having started the sequence under the close surveillance of his marker, the Catalan youngster ends up with more than enough time and space to pick out Jorge Molina with a perfect cross at the heart of the penalty box.
Another one of the essentials of generating space is blindside movement. This involves operating at an angle that prevents the marker from keeping both the ball and player within sight.
That is why the likes of Martin Ødegaard and Nicolo Barella, among others, are so difficult to contain. Alex Collado, too, is an adroit craftsman in his marker’s blindside.
This sequence is a demonstration of masterful positioning, timing and communication. As the centre-forward receives the ball with his back to goal, Collado is well-placed in the pivot’s blindside, narrowing down his awareness to just the area of possession.
As the space afforded to the possessor of the ball is closed down, the 23-year-old seizes his opportunity to exploit the space behind the pressing group. With a comprehensible drop of the shoulder, he alerts his teammate of his availability, with his marker still unsighted.
The eventual pass entices the fullback into the combat, thus leaving Luis Suarez completely unmarked in acres of space: a textbook manoeuvre where the merest of details have the greatest of impacts.
When there is no room directly afforded to him, Collado finds a way to generate some. He excels when participating in the second phase of play, essentially relying on chains of events forged by his teammates’ passes and movements to create space for him to utilise.
Here is one striking example: Collado initially offers a vertical lane to the centre-back, an option that is, however, excessively perilous. Moments later, Antonio Puertas detaches himself from his man further up the field.
Being free of any marker himself and knowing that the rival fullback will inevitably follow Puertas, Collado instinctively darts towards the space that will eventually appear.
Puertas is indeed pursued, but manages to get to the ball first and chest it down. With a smooth first touch for once, Collado is released into the space that was consequently formed. A step ahead of the opponent.
Nonetheless, his spacial occupation is still rather unpolished. Whilst it is not a persistent defect, it does occasionally handicap both him and his teammates.
This sequence is truly revealing. With his teammate isolated on the right wing, Collado offers an option close to him. Too close, in fact. At a more convenient angle (closer to the penalty box, both vertically and diagonally), there is acres of central space that provide a direct route to goal, with no resistance from the opposition.
Certainly, this is not a case of Collado invading his teammate’s space, as Arthur Melo and Riqui Puig often do. Still, his proximity to the possessor is restrictive for both parties involved.
Indeed, the Catalan wonderkid does eventually pay the price for that misjudgement. Due to his proximity to the ball, he does not have enough time to scan the pitch upon reception.
This, in turn, means he is obliged to take an additional touch before evaluating the options, which automatically costs him time and invites unnecessary pressure.
This instance is further proof that Collado is yet to fully master the intricate art of angles. Dropping deep, he, as shown above, clearly scans his surroundings but makes one lethal error that undoes his otherwise methodical approach — he makes a direct run, instead of opting to receive at a diagonal angle.
Consequently, his motion range is restricted. In addition, he ends up much closer to the rival striker, which limits his options even further. As a result, Collado cannot receive on the half-turn and progress into the middle of the park.
Instead, he is forced to retreat and, inadvertently, invites more pressure from the opponent.
Essentially, what we have got here is a flawed magician in possession, with visible blemishes, but equally so a broad palette of qualities and functions that would make him a valuable asset for most teams at the top level.
His contribution out of possession, though, is just as, if not even more impressive. Collado is a tireless presser and a stout-hearted defender, with extraordinary determination to dispossess his opponent at all costs, all whilst maintaining a disciplined approach to his duties.
Whether it be a man-oriented or zonal pressing structure, Collado always comes across as an opportunist. The slightest error from his opponent never remains unpunished, for when he senses the opportunity, the Catalan youngster is merciless.
On this occasion, he is tasked with marking the pivot, as Athletic Club attempt to build up from the back. Collado is wise to the situation and leaves his man some space whilst positioning himself at an angle that would force him towards the congested flank upon receiving the ball.
As soon as the pass is made, he immediately attacks Dani Garcia, pressuring him into an impulsive decision. With the left winger darting towards the right centre-back to cover off that passing lane, the Basque midfielder is left with no option other than to make an additional touch, and that is where Collado pounces.
The moment he recognises that there is an opportunity, he instantly launches an assault on Garcia, dispossessing him with an ambitious yet clean challenge — an action that earned him his second goal for Los Nazarites.
Even in defence, Collado never loses sight of his opponent. In this case, he is isolated on the wing against Javi Galan, one of La Liga’s most explosive fullbacks. The 23-year-old, no short of pace himself, reacts to his sprint straight away.
Crucially, Collado gradually diminishes the distance to Galan, and eventually blocks a cross that two opponents were ready to capitalise on.
The two sequences above perfectly characterise the former Barça B captain: a gritty, determined player that latches onto his opponent like a beetle, latches onto its prey, never letting go until he achieves his ultimate goal.
Yet Alex Collado should by no means come off as a reckless presser and defender. In fact, his approach tends to be extremely methodical. While misjudgements do sometimes occur, he remains very efficient on all fronts.
Here is an example of his measured aggression on display. Originally man-marking the pivot, Collado foresees the horizontal pass from one centre-back to the other, and bursts towards Inigo Martinez so as to narrow down his options.
He makes sure that the player he abandoned remains in his cover shadow, in essence marking two players simultaneously.
This particular sequence is equally indicative of his maturity when marking his opponent. Watch carefully as the 23-year-old cuts off Sergi Darder’s two best options to progress the play: first a horizontal pass to the central midfielder and then a vertical pass to the inside forward.
Vital reinforcement or surplus to requirements?
Collado’s resume of functions is undoubtedly an impressive one, to say the least. Still, questions need to be raised over the prospects of his role at Barcelona, in order for his future to finally be clarified.
Could he secure sufficient game time in the Catalan capital? Is he capable of growing into a mainstay starter in Xavi’s system? If so, what role would he be assigned with?
The prime concern, as always, is his competition. Barça’s midfield is stacked as ever. Pedri, Gavi, de Jong and/or Bernardo Silva, Miralem Pjanic (assuming Nico Gonzalez leaves on loan), as well as the recent additions of Franck Kessie and Pablo Torre — the Blaugrana certainly have plenty of high-quality options to choose from when it comes to the interior spots.
Add Collado to the list, and one may wonder whether the 23-year-old stands the merest chance up against such excellent challengers. After all, 19 games is all the experience he has at the top level, a feat that pales in comparison to his competitors’.
The idea of deploying him as a winger has been quite commonly thrown around but, truthfully, it was never the most promising concept. Not only would confining him to the touchline limit his impact, but it is also simply a role that does not cater to his key attributes.
With the signing of Raphinha and renewal of Ousmane Dembele, Xavi has made it clear that he needs ball-to-feet wingers adept in isolation running the show down the left flank, and Collado simply does not have the 1v1 prowess to fulfill those demands.
The left-wing, on the other hand, is locked down by more direct outlets in Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres — a mould that the Catalan youngster obviously does not fit.
But, realistically, does he even stand a chance in midfield? Truth be told, it is complicated. However, a player’s role in the team is dictated by profile suitability above sheer quality and experience. And, judging by the sample already at hand, Collado’s profile does match Xavi’s preferences.
With the fullbacks usually inverting in the offensive phase and staying high and wide in the build-up, an extra presence is needed alongside Sergio Busquets, in order to ensure a safe progression.
That asset would usually be Frenkie de Jong, his nonchalance under pressure and ball-carrying prowess being the Blaugrana’s get-out-of-jail card.
Collado’s functions are no different. He has the capacity to shift a gear in an instant and evade the pressure with his subtle touch and splendid body orientation, just like his Dutch counterpart.
Should he master the angles and distances, his impact in the progression phase would be tantamount to de Jong’s.
Another feature of Xavi’s game model is the emphasis on diagonal penetrative runs from the interiors when the centre-forward drops deep. De Jong, again, is particularly adept at timing his runs to perfection. Collado is a skilled technician in that regard, too.
Here is one striking example from his Barça B days. As Peque drops deep and abandons his zone, Collado rapidly charges towards the space subsequently formed, crucially positioning himself at an advantageous distance from his rival.
As he beats his man to the ball, his technique and precision do not let him down: a pinpoint-accurate cross finds Peque perfectly on the move. A menace from lateral positions.
Incidentally, that is also one of the main traits of the 23-year-old that could make him a desirable outlet for Barcelona.
Diagonal runs into lateral spaces from the interiors were often the missing piece in Xavi’s puzzle the last term, which is one of the main reasons behind the Catalans’ keen interest in Bernardo Silva.
Collado, while certainly not as efficient as the Portuguese wizard, still has no match among the players on Barcelona’s roster in that regard. The timing of his disguised runs is impeccable, and his ability to detach himself from his marker makes him a true force to be reckoned with.
In this case, as one of the opponents darts towards the possessor and the other retreats to the heart of the penalty box, Collado seizes his chance and attacks the channel between the two. Though the pass itself is overhit, it indicates how well he identifies lateral space.
Such moves are essential due to how effectively they lure opponents out of position. For Collado, they also bring his finest qualities to the surface: on the left wing, his sublime crossing and on the right wing, his sumptuous dribbling and close control.
Considering Bernardo’s seemingly imminent arrival will most definitely bring Frenkie de Jong’s stint in Barcelona to a close, Alex Collado looks like the closest alternative to the Manchester City star.
It is, therefore, safe to assume that he could theoretically operate as his backup option when called upon.
There is, however, another way to accommodate the Catalan youngster into Barcelona’s plans. Though he is yet to be tested in that role, there is every reason to assume that Collado would excel as a false 9.
For sure, opportunities to bring that idea to fruition will be scarce, given the presence of prominent strikers such as Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the team.
Nevertheless, depending on the nature of the opposition, a false nine could be better suited to the context of the game than a centre-forward.
A proclivity for roaming advanced areas in search of positional and numerical advantages, inventiveness in tight spaces, precision in the final pass and tremendous ball-striking — all these virtues make Collado the ideal candidate to flourish in that role.
Of course, this is merely a theory, but one that is undoubtedly worth a shot.
In Alex Collado, Barcelona have a diamond in the rough with a wide range of functions that would offer Xavi plentiful room to manoeuvre.
Besides, his profile matches the coach’s stylistic preferences, which could hand him a well-earned chance to prove himself. All that is needed is patience, for his rougher edges can only be ironed out with time.
For now, the prospects of his continuity at the club are rather inauspicious, given the competition for his spot in the team.
Yet should Lady Luck look down on him favourably for once, the 2022/23 season could very well mark the dawn of a long and successful tenure in the Catalan capital for Alex Collado.