Three Young Stars in LaLiga You Need to Know About
LaLiga clubs have produced some serious talent from their academies over the years and the ascent of players such as Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati, Yeremy Pino and Nico Williams into the national team over the last 24 months have been testament to the quality of the pool available to Spain.
As we near the finishing line of the 2022-23 LaLiga season, it’s time to highlight three young talents currently plying their trade in the Spanish top-flight who could become household names in the near future.
Among players who have played at least half of available minutes in LaLiga this season, only two of them have a better minutes per goal ratio – when not accounting for penalties – than Gabri Veiga (168). Those two players are centre forwards Robert Lewandowski (118) and Álvaro Morata (135).
If you didn’t know already, then just to clarify: Gabri Veiga is a central midfielder.
With nine goals to his name in 2022-23, the youngster is now just one shy of the heralded 10-goal season for a player in his position. And to take a look back in time (since the 2008-09 season specifically), Veiga will soon find himself – when he surely nets again – in pretty exclusive company as a 10-goal man.
Across every campaign since 2008-09, only five players whose primary position in that season was either a defensive or central midfielder has cracked double figures for non-penalty goals: James Rodríguez in 2014-15, Marcos Llorente in 2020-21, Cesc Fàbregas in 2012-13, Isco in 2016-17 and Xavi in 2011-12.
For the sceptics out there, the evidence of one notably strong scoring season might leave more doubts than certainties. And particularly in the age of expected goals and shot quality, it’s a valid stance to take. Marcos Llorente of the aforementioned list scored 12 times in 2020-21 for title-winning Atlético, yet his next-best scoring season in LaLiga after that is three goals in 2019-20. Sometimes everything goes in, and sometimes nothing does.
It’s true that Veiga is running pretty hot this season, having scored nine times from an xG of 5.3. In fact, he and Fede Valverde of Real Madrid are practically level in their ‘over-performance’ in the scoring realm this term, with both outpacing their xG to the tune of three-and-a-bit goals. So, although it might be a little hasty for us to pencil Veiga in for double-digit scoring seasons for the foreseeable, he’s far from a flash in the pan either.
The Celta youngster leads all defensive/central midfielders in LaLiga this season for xG (5.3), while his 47 shots are the joint-most along with Brais Méndez. He also leads all players across these position groups for big chances (nine), which Opta defines as a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.
Pairing those with the fact he’s one of only five players in his position with 50+ touches in the opposition box this season – along with Oihan Sancet, David Silva, Mikel Merino and Gavi – then the notion of Veiga being a real goal-scoring threat is hardly unfounded. The foundations are there, and well, he’s only 20 years old after all.
Indeed, what we’re talking about here is not your prototypical Spanish midfielder. The cerebral, pass-and-move, regulator of tempo type. Veiga has an extra couple of gears to go through, which makes for a box-to-box game that is more in the mould of a Jude Bellingham than resembling any of his current contemporaries in Spain. There’s a level of dynamism to his play that makes him distinct, and it is what makes his goal-scoring feats possible too.
A midfielder with ‘llegada’ as the Spanish would say, referring to his ability to arrive in the box, Veiga has the air of a player who is always looking to damage the opponent. If the situation calls for it then sure, he’ll retain the ball. But the 20-year-old is always on the hunt for opportunities to get forward, whether it’s in driving with the ball at his feet or punching passes up the pitch. Veiga arrives in the box well, and he’s just as good at going through the thirds.
In a recent press conference, Celta Vigo President Carlos Mouriño reiterated his desire to keep Veiga at the club beyond this summer, but at the same time admitted he was powerless to prevent his departure. With a release clause of €40m, their young sensation is on the market whether they like it or not. According to Mouriño, four of the Premier League’s current top 10 have already contacted them about Veiga’s availability.
Of course, the Premier League are always interested. Nothing much new there. But as the never-ending stream of young Spanish midfielders keeps flowing, there’s a reason why Veiga might tempt them more than most. The 20-year-old hails from the land of technical midfielders, yet combines it with a drive one would more typically associate with a midfielder from northern Europe.
Only three teams have scored more goals than Girona (40) in LaLiga this season: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid. So yeah, they’re pretty good at knocking down – or playing through – the barriers that stand between them and the opposition goal.
That’s very much what Girona do. They want to be the protagonists of the play, control the game with the ball and build through the thirds. And to do it successfully, you need players who with quick thoughts and co-ordinated feet.
At 19 years of age, Arnau Martínez is already among the steadiest hands that Girona rely on to roll out their game. A player who started his senior career playing as a centre back, became a right back, and then a right wing-back – where he played even more advanced – now looks to be settled as one of LaLiga’s most productive in-possession full backs. What’s more, his game is founded upon a versatility in line with the ever-changing fluidity of football tactics.
For those not aware, Girona are one of a number of clubs inside the City Football Group network, which is headed by none other than Manchester City. In a recent interview with Relevo, Girona boss Michel spoke of receiving reports from the City Group last season with data analysis on how the team were performing. In short, the reports encouraged him to stick with his ideas and existing approach, with the analysis suggesting Girona were on the right track despite a run of poor results. And so, within their partnership, there is a clear exchange of ideas that happens between the two.
The affiliation with Manchester City also affords Michel a line into Pep Guardiola. And whether it’s directly from Guardiola himself, or merely in the form of inspiration in watching his sides from afar, the tactical ideas at Montilivi this season can certainly be traced back to Manchester.
Arnau is a full back, but a full back of the new age. Some days he plays as an orthodox type and some days he acts as an extra midfielder. Often times, he acts as both throughout the course of a match. In much the same way as Manchester City have this season, Girona’s 4-3-3 has been developed to become a 3-2-4-1 in certain possession situations, and it is Arnau who takes the responsibility of vacating the back line to play in midfield.
As his touch map from a recent game against Atlético de Madrid shows, the 19-year-old is occupying zones of a right-sided central midfielder as often as he is stretching the play:
Whether he’s beefing up Girona’s options in the centre of the pitch, or overlapping his right winger who has come inside, Arnau’s value is best represented by his lucidity on the ball. That ranges from finding solutions out of opposition pressure during the build-up to producing that last pass once Girona have made their way through the thirds.
Arnau leads all Girona players for open play chances created per 90 in LaLiga this season (1.3) and ranks in the top five for full backs. Indeed, Barcelona’s Jordi Alba – who averages 104 touches per 90 – is the only full back who has created >2 chances from open play this term, so Arnau is firmly among the ‘best of the rest’ in his position.
As is well-documented in Spain – particularly when it comes to ruminating on what might be his next move – Arnau spent his formative years as a footballer within Barcelona’s academy at La Masia. From the 2010-11 campaign there remains a famous photo in which an eight-year-old Arnau is captaining one of the youth teams, donned in the same strip that Pep Guardiola’s side would etch into history as league and Champions League winners that season.
From being the young boy who cried when Barcelona released him, in 2023 he finds himself as one of the most ascendant young players in Spanish football, while playing in a position which is ever-bending in its definition at the top level. Quite simply, there aren’t many full backs with a grounding as dual midfielders, and even fewer at Arnau’s age.
Will Barcelona reach out this summer? If they don’t, then somebody else surely will.
If there’s one scenario that defines Álex Baena as player, it goes something a little like this.
After some sneaky movement behind the opposition’s midfield, he moves into a space and lets a teammate know there’s a passing lane open – even if it’s a tight one (This is Villarreal, after all). As the ball gets punched through the gap, Baena opens his body in preparation receive on the half-turn. From there, he secures the ball on arrival and sets off towards goal in the same fluid movement. Finally, he lifts his head and drives towards goal, where the calculation is made whether to shoot himself or slide a pass through retreating defenders.
Neither are typically good news for the opposition.
In what is his first real season as a starter at the top level, Baena has scored 10 times across all competitions so far. Not a bad haul for a player who has played largely as an interior this season. And while the records only show two assists to pair with those 10 strikes, there’s little doubting he packs a creative threat too.
As referred to previously, Baena has a particular penchant for providing what football fans, even if they can’t describe it succinctly, universally know as the ‘killer pass’ – the one that changes the dimension of the game in an instant, sentencing defenders into a scrambling tailspin. You know it when you see one.
Of players with 900 or more minutes played within Europe’s big five leagues this season, only one player has averaged more through balls per 100 touches than Baena (1.9), and it’s a worthy nam: the ‘through ball king’ himself, Lionel Messi (2.4).
Overall, only three players from the same set have averaged more through balls per 90 than Baena (1.0) this season. Those are, of course, Messi (2.0), Neymar (1.5) and Pedri (1.1). Indeed, the Villarreal midfielder is, for the moment at least, ticking just ahead of the average of the consensus master of the art in the Premier League, Kevin De Bruyne.
If you’re thinking that those numbers look on the low end, then you’d mostly be right. A through ball is, as defined by Opta, a pass that splits the defence for a team-mate to run on to. As high value passes and those that require specific situations, they inevitably don’t happen all that often in matches. If you’re averaging one per game, that’s a pretty strong rate.
In terms of creativity in its most obvious sense – the act of teeing up a shooting opportunity for a teammate – Baena is averaging a solid rate of 1.6 chances created per 90 in LaLiga this season. That’s pretty much on a par with David Silva, which I mention not only in reference to his career reputation, but what he’s still doing on a weekly basis. You’re going pretty well if you’re close to him in the charts.
Of course, not all ‘creators’ are made equal. The numbers tell us who is producing what in terms of volume, and when factoring in the likes of expected assists (xA), also the quality of those actions. The numbers can tell us how they do it too, but for the large part we all have a clear picture in our minds of what the game’s most impactful creators look like. There’s Messi’s chipped reverse passes, De Bruyne’s whipped crosses hit with the firmness of shots, Müller’s short slid passes into the penalty area. In the case of Baena, his trademark is the punched pass through opposition lines, via a quick release.
Among players with 900 or more minutes played in LaLiga this term, only Rodrigo De Paul (1.6) averages more line-breaking passes into the penalty area per 90 than Baena (1.3). And among attacking and central midfielders in this group, he has the highest percentage of his total line-breaking passes being those that end in the penalty area (23%).
Basically, if you’re a centre forward or a winger who threatens the last line, you’d like to have this guy on your team. Baena also leads all players in LaLiga this season for chances created following a line-breaking pass, with his total of 12 marginally ahead of Pedri, despite playing fewer minutes than the Barcelona man.
For a player who spent last season on loan with Girona in the second division, where he played a majority of his minutes in a wider attacking role, Baena’s return to Villarreal in 2022-23 has simultaneously elevated the competition level and placed him back into a central midfield role – and not just in any midfield either. Playing in that area of the pitch for Villarreal is a coveted spot and has been the case for much of the 21st century.
On his return to a club that looked well-stocked and as if opportunities might be scarce for him, Baena has banged the door down and taken his place right in the middle of everything. Good luck to anyone trying to shift him.
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