First there was Pedri. Then there was Gavi. Now there is Nico González.
Pedri wasn’t a product of Barcelona’s famed academy at La Masia but just over a year ago he became the first sign of life in the regeneration of one of the game’s most iconic midfield trios. Since the group of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta came to its natural conclusion, the Catalan club had been waiting for the heirs to a midfield throne to appear. Not in expectance of equally able players, but more in intrigue as to what might follow in the footsteps of a trio who defined an era of football.
Following Pedri – recently voted as 2021’s Golden Boy – Gavi rose to fame as the youngest player in the history of the Spanish national team, featuring as a 17-year-old after only played a handful of times for Barcelona. Spanish national team boss Luis Enrique had been slammed by sections of the media for calling on a player of such little senior experience, yet Gavi’s performances quickly evaporated any sense of justified criticism within a few games.
Even at this early stage, it’s quite clear where Pedri and Gavi will fit in Barcelona and Spain’s future. They are central midfielders (or interiors in Spanish) of a diminutive nature; characterised by delicate ball retention and speed of thought, combined with energetic pressing without the ball. Occasionally, they will moonlight as wide midfielders who end up vacating the wing to connect play centrally, in the same way Iniesta often did earlier in his career.
As for Nico González – the latest of their teenage midfield trio to emerge – it appears it’s going to take a little while longer to determine exactly what the club have produced. Here’s why that’s great news for Barcelona.
At 19 years of age, Nico is slightly older than Pedri and Gavi, and so far, the least visible of this current trio to the wider footballing world. He is still playing in the Spain under-21 setup, for example, while his teammates are already embedded in the senior team. Of course, the former two are exceptions to the rule – midfielders of such little experience rarely rise to the top of the game so quickly and so easily. Maybe they have dulled the impact of what was to follow. What is clear to those acquainted with the 19-year-old Nico, however, is that he is to be taken just as seriously.
The Galician midfielder made his first team debut back in August, after impressing in pre-season under Ronald Koeman. As advertised by García Pimienta, the well-respected ex-Barcelona B manager who previously coached the youngster, Nico’s ideal position is the pivote – the deepest of Barcelona’s traditional midfield three.
“[Nico] is a player who can mark an era,” he told Mundo Deportivo in August. “If everything goes to plan, he is going to be the heir to Busquets.”
Barcelona would, of course, be delighted if that is how Nico’s career at the Camp Nou develops, and García Pimienta is far from wrong in his assertion that the youngster is a natural pivote. But as the games continue to tick by, another question is gaining momentum: is Nico González built for more?
In the midst of Barcelona’s transition to a post-Messi world, and while Sergio Busquets remains a first-class pivote himself,Nico has found minutes playing further up the pitch in a central role where he often resembles a box-to-box midfielder. And having been freed from the controlling role he is most affiliated with, Nico has presented himself as an unusually all-terrain export of La Masia.
One of the most striking attributes of Nico’s game as a central midfielder is his talent in running with the ball. The 19-year-old is distinct in his way of dribbling, combining the typical feints of a Spanish midfielder with a powerful ability to drive with the ball and punch holes in the opposition’s shape. At 6-foot-2 with a sturdy build, Nico is quite a departure from the classic style of all-brain, no-brawn midfielders at Barcelona.
Utilising our carry data, Nico ranks first among all Barcelona players in La Liga this season in per 90 averages for shot involvement after carries (1.5) and carries featuring take-ons (2.8). In fact, among central midfielders with 500+ minutes played, Thomas Lemar is the only player who ranks ahead of him for shot involvement after carries, while the teenager leads all players in the latter category including take-ons.
Despite his growing reputation as a threatening ball carrier, Nico remains a highly economical player in possession. It’s very clear to see the education from La Masia in his game when it comes to ball retention, composure of play and an understanding of how the Barcelona machine operates. His pass completion rate across all competitions this season stands at 91%. Similarly, he has only ceded possession with 13% of his touches – a practically identical rate to both Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong.
This combination of ball carrying and ball retention is the fuel that fires Barcelona’s midfield. It’s also a golden combination if it can be found in the same player, as appears to be the case with Nico. His competency in both areas – in terms of quantity and efficiency – is as much down to his exceptional decision making as it is down to his technical ability. His current manager Xavi Hernández was famed throughout his career for relying on his brain to get him out of positions where his physical traits would be an impediment. In the case of Nico, Barcelona have brought through a player with the characteristic poise of La Masia, who also has a physical profile that safeguards him across different types of matchups and environments.
Nico’s performance against Celta Vigo at the start of a November, for example, was an exhibition of his physical and technical prowess. In a game that was more transition heavy than Barcelona would ideally like, the 19-year-old had a thrusting impact with his progressive play and continually drove through the opposition midfield, showing a mix of power and technical ability that is rare for a midfield product of La Masia. Nico recorded seven carries including a take-on – the most by a Barcelona player in a league game this season, even though he missed the final half hour.
An injury would force him off in the 59th minute, at which point Barcelona were 3-1 up (they drew 3-3) and Celta Vigo’s star man Iago Aspas later insisted he still thought Nico was their best player on the day.
In an interview with Cadena Ser after the game, Aspas was asked about Nico’s standing among Barcelona’s youth renaissance. “Pedri is a bit more ready from what we saw last season, but for me, seeing his performance and where football is going today, I’d go with Nico. He’s a more physical player, more built to get up and down [the pitch]. He’s powerful, he arrives in the box… he’s the type of player you’re going to see in the future.”
For a player billed as the long-term organiser of Barcelona and heir to Busquets, the range of Nico’s contributions has somewhat muddied the picture. Albeit, in the best way possible.
The teenager has already shown he can fill multiple roles in midfield, shapeshifting between a controlling presence, a penetrative runner and also a chance creator. Across all competitions, Nico leads all Barcelona midfielders this season for open-play chances created per 90 (1.4). At the same time, he has averaged more tackles (2.5) and has won more duels (7.4) per 90 than any other Barcelona player so far this term.
The debate of whether Nico is the pivote of the future for Barcelona is worthy, but there’s no rush for them to determine it. Following closely behind the arrival of Pedri and Gavi, the club were already counting on a class of young midfielders that is the envy of most around Europe. Now they’ve acquired another teenager of notable class in Nico, who represents a distinct profile from the aforementioned pair, as well as compared to the club’s recent history of midfield graduates.
Is the 19-year-old the heir to Sergio Busquets, or an orthodox midfielder whose attributes would be minimised as the former? It might well be a question without a wrong answer. La Masia has delivered again for Barcelona, and their only problem will be in determining just how much talent they’ve found in Nico.
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