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Pedri: The jewel in a weathered Spanish crown

Had it been ‘normal’ year leading up to a major tournament, Pedri would almost certainly have found himself in the Spanish squad for the under 21 tournament.

The Spanish national set up has typically preferred to withold from throwing their young stars in at a tender age. So settled was the first team after their Euro 2008 triumph that there was little room for a rogue tearaway to break in anyhow. Even after the humiliating 2014 World Cup debacle, there remained a reticence to overturn the status quo.

Isco’s; thirty eight caps in eight years. Saul nineteen caps in five years. Even Thiago won only forty one caps in ten years. Elite level players arguably restricted from complete international exposure in the years preceding the ‘golden generation.’

Pedri feels different however. So revelatory has his rise been at Barcelona, and so young as he is, that it feels like he could be the shock needed to awaken Spain’s ambitions.

England, France and Portugal are rightly reeled off as the strongest teams going into the tournament. Few mention Spain; a squad containing remnants of the greatest European national team ever, crumbs of their supposed successive generation of stars, and the odd dash of raw, untested vibrancy.

This is his story to date, and how he can grab a wounded bull and make it thrive again.

A short history to date

Having turned eighteen just last November, Pedri’s career and backstory is a relatively short one.

Born in the Canary Islands, Pedri would make his first professional steps at Las Palmas. Interestingly, he was born in the neighbouring island of Tenerife, with whom Las Palmas contest the Canary Islands derby.

Aged just sixteen, Pedri made his debut at the start of the 2019/20 season. From that point on, coach Pepe Mel never lost faith in him, to the point that Pedri completed 2,823 minutes in his first ever professional season.

Playing in the Segunda Division, Pedri would star in mid-table Las Palmas side. Used mostly on the left of a 4-2-3-1, what immediately shone was not Pedri’s instincts as a winger, but as a wide creator. Not blessed with explosive speed, nor a thirst for goals, Pedri would drift inside and link play centrally. Noted was also his awareness of space, and the movement of others around him. This reflects a comment made about Pedri’s youth coach for Tribune.

“His way of playing — everything very simple but very important at the same time.

“He was not looking to nutmeg people or do lots of stepovers: just the simple thing and the right thing. He was just different: the way he saw football, understood the game, found spaces nobody else could, the maturity he had compared to his team-mates.”

Pedri finished his first senior campaign with four goals and six assists, and Las Palmas would finish ninth, although just four points behind third placed Real Zaragoza.

The teenager was to depart the Canary Islands, somewhat inevitably given how good he had been for Las Palmas. However a deal had already been agreed a year prior. To a club as big as any in world football.

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The Big Time

In the summer of 2019, before his breakthrough season at Las Palmas, Pedri was signed by Barcelona. It is said that he had been on trial at Real Madrid just a year before, only for the trial to be ruined by adverse weather. A year later, and Barcelona scouted him on the recommendation of Las Palmas’ sporting director.

The deal was agreed, with Pedri loaned back to his boyhood club for the season. Barcelona somewhat staggered to second placed in La Liga, cycling through two managers and of course suffering an 8-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich in Europe. Quique Setien was replaced by club legend Ronald Koeman, and a factory reset required.

Fans and officials had excitedly watched Pedri from afar as he impressed in the second tier. Officially arriving and unveiled as a Barca player before the next campaign, it was still expected that the seventeen year old would be loaned once again back to Las Palmas. A seventeen year old with no top flight experience could easily have been swallowed by the Barcelona machine. Especially one so dysfunctional.

Surprisingly, Pedri was retained for the 2020/21 season. A theme of Pedri’s career has been snatching his chance, unphased by age differences or experience. Koeman favoured an attacking midfield three of Ansu Fati, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann behind Lionel Messi in his early games. Pedri was introduced for substitute minutes sporadically.

His first start came in a league defeat to Getafe, and was used in a variety of positions on the coming weeks. Koeman rotated between a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 as he struggled to land on his preferred system. Pedri shuffled from attacking midfield, to wide left, to wide right. It was in a 5-2 win over Real Betis that he scored his first goal, and effectively made himself undroppable.

The inevitable comparison

Koeman continued tinkering, and to little effect. Varcelona struggled to hit top gear, as Messi looked dejected and Griezmann underwhelmed. The teenagers Pedri and Fati pulled the club through difficult autumn months, offering a glimpse to what the future could look like.

Post Christmas however, they struck oil. The traditional 4-3-3 was proved successful, with Pedri playing as the left sided central midfielder. It is the role that Andres Iniesta played so beautifully for over a decade. Iniesta is the player that Pedri seems to have been influenced heavily by, and it is hard not to be drawn into comparisons.

Both lean without impressive height, both skip past challenges as if they haven’t been presented, and both seem to watch the game from the other side of the cranium.

From here, Pedri could now be fully appreciated. Not forced to push wide and limit his involvement, now he could drop deep to link play and carry the ball forward. Under Setien and in the early months of this season, Barcelona had been too passive and slow in their build up. With Pedri and Frenkie de Jong both starting in their preferred roles, the fast one touch passing improved dramatically. It opened up space behind the opposition midfield for Messi to enter, and consequently embark on one of the hottest streaks of his career.

It also allowed Pedri to press and defend more effectively. The teenager has attempted over one hundred more pressures than any other player in the squad this season. Again, he and de Jong pressing in conjunction takes the strain of the veteran Sergio Busquets, allowing him to screen without having to be drawn out so frequently.

Recently Koeman has even used Pedri in a midfield two in a 3-4-2-1. Whilst this is not his best role, and restricts the damage he can inflict in linking up with Messi, it is testament to Pedri’s maturity and development that he can be relied on to play this role.

Backing up the hype

Right midfield. Attacking midfield. Left sided central midfield. Left sided attacking midfield. Pedri has proven himself adept at each. So much so, that he ranks sixth for all minutes played in the league across the entire squad. This is a player that was expected to leave on loan for the campaign.

He has pressured more than any player, and wins over three and a half of his defensive duels. These are impressive figures for a teenager standing at just five foot nine inches.

Pedri has also created more shots than any Barcelona player bar Messi, and it is his link play with the Argentine that has really caught the team alight. Messi has developed telepathic connections with many of his great teammates. Dani Alves, Xavi, Iniesta and Luis Suares spring to ming. Pedri is another. A sensational goal where the two combined versus Athletic Bilbao showed this.

Messi fronted up the retreating Athletic defence, slipping Pedri in to the left half space at the edge of the box. Pedri controlled and cut inside, almost perpendicularly, with one touch. It seemed inevitable that he would shoot at goal. Messi however carried forward his run into the space Pedri had just left, into the youngster’s blind spot.

Without flinching, Pedri rolls the ball backwards into Messi’s path. One touch for Messi to finish. So quick and deceiving the movement, that even the goalkeeper is positioned for Pedri’s shot, and therefore horribly out of position for Messi’s. The great man has developed connections such as these over years of repeated dominance. Few have been forged, or willingly participated with, with a partner so quickly.

This hybrid role of Pedri’s is shown in his passing stats. Whilst creating as much as he does, he still completes on average sixty four passes each game, at 87% completion. This places him in the 81st and 76th percentile for all midfielder across Europe according to FBRef. His 6.42 progressive carries place him in the 87th percentile, and his 6.42 received progressive passes put him in the 97th percentile. A diverse range of skills and attributes, all performed at the higher reaches of Europe’s best in each.

The Spanish push for Pedri

The inevitable clamour arose for Pedri to be included in the Spanish squad for the first round of World Cup 2022 qualifiers. With this came his debut in a victory over Greece, arriving as a substitute.

Two further caps have followed, in which Pedri has started both in his now customary left central midfield position. National coach Luis Enrique has not yet deviated from a 4-3-3 in his two years in the job, bar for the occasional aggressive switch to a 4-1-4-1. Pedri has proven himself custom made for that left side central position, from which he can counter-press out of possession, and link play between the lines when Spain push up with the ball.

In these games, Pedri looked the part already. Collecting the ball deep in his half, he brought a speed of thought and pass missing from Spanish midfields since Iniesta retired. He created angles around the edge of the box, offering himself as an open passing lane at all times for the more static Busquets.

The competition facing him is great. Busquets and Rodri will likely contest for the defensive midfield position, leaving two to pick either side. Koke, Saul, Thiago, Sergio Canales, Fabian Ruiz, Marcos LLorente and Pedri is an immense range of talent, and skillset, to choose from. It is likely Pedri’s lack of experience may count against him compared to players of such prestige.

This could allow him to play further upfield in an attacking capacity. This does not exercise the best attributes of Pedri’s game, but playing him as a left winger, especially if Ansu Fati is short on fitness given his injury troubles, could be a more realistic way of using Pedri. His versatility, and shown quality in each role, has no doubt endeared him to Enrique.

Despite the midfield talent pool being so rich, few back Spain to win the tournament. The lack of centre forward depth, or flashier options than Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno, means little is expected of their attack. The central defensive partner for Sergio Ramos too is not certain. Also the stinging wounds of the last three tournament cut deep, and have rung around Europe.

That great Spanish team may have collapsed, and the one expected to take over from it, disappointed. But this team, nearly a decade on from that glorious era, can look to build new legacies away from the past. The successes of players such as Pedri are integral to that. Barcelona took the chance on Pedri, by just giving him a chance. He has repaid that faith monumentally.

It is time for Spain to do the same.

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