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At 16 years of age, Barcelona player Nicolás González was caught in a tug of war between the world famous clubs Manchester United and Manchester City. Barcelona were fortunate enough that he stayed at La Masia despite the Catalans not being able to match the British clubs’ financial offers.
Here, through studying statistics and through analysis, we see what makes González so special so as to have two of the biggest European clubs battle for his signature at such a young age.
Carrying on the legacy
Growing up as the son of a great footballer can naturally be very daunting. Such is the case with González. His father, Fran González is a legend at Deportivo who played in arguably the club’s best side to date. Fran was a left midfielder and played with Spain at Euro 2000.
Looking at González, it isn’t hard to imagine him surpassing his father. Born in 2002, González started playing at Montaneros. That’s where he caught Barcelona’s eye. He stood out as one of the best despite playing with an older age group. Soon, he was integrated into La Masia. This is where he got his identity as a quick defensive central midfielder with phenomenal ball control and great awareness.
As captain of the Cadete A side, González was the single pivot in the formation. Dropping back many times to receive the ball and play accurate short passes, he developed into a player akin to Sergio Busquets but with agility comparable to Xavi. González has many characteristics which are apparent to this day.
Great vision, even better close control and being defensively aware, the Spain international skipped Juvenil B and made the jump to Juvenil A where he now plays.
This year, in the UEFA Youth League, González has played four matches with an average of 30 minutes per match. He has scored twice from the few chances he’s had. This is quite a feat for a central midfielder.
Playing above your age group is a do or die situation. Only exceptional players thrive in such environments where the pressure, and the competition even more so, is difficult to handle. González thrives when he is challenged and it’s apparent for everyone to see.
The number six with the technique of an eight
It would be too early to decide his final position now. González has many stages to transition through before being recognised as a player of a certain characteristic. As mentioned before, he is extremely multifaceted.
While playing at Juvenil A level, González has been deployed at defensive central midfield playing just in front of the back line. For Juvenil A, González plays as a defensive midfielder in a single pivot, with Ilaix Moriba dropping back to temporarily form a double pivot.
In this year’s UEFA Youth League, he has been deployed as the left defensive midfielder in a double pivot. Throughout both formations, he has clearly played in a number six role. He could be seen occasionally moving forward. But there is something in his game reminiscent of a number eight.
Quick turns like Xavi have been frequently made in many matches. He makes quick sudden bursts forward to take advantage of opposition players marking his teammates. He often plays further up the pitch as seen from the image.
He seems to be more active, taking more touches and moving more than a traditional six, but not as much as an eight. Frenkie De Jong and González are somewhat comparable in this aspect. He picks the ball up and transitions it from defence to attack. The similarities in style to Busquets are uncanny. The signature Busquets pass can be seen being made by him. Opening up his hips, he can play a no-look pass to break opposition lines effectively.
González, being a La Masia graduate, is very comfortable on the ball. Making calm, calculated decisions he has a very high passing accuracy of 96.4% in the UEFA Youth League. Granted, he has not had much playing time but he has made the most of it as we shall see further on.
In the picture shown previously, we can see how González spotted his teammate, and executed a perfect pass. In the process, he broke opposition lines and started off the attack. This amounts for his 14 progressive passes per match. That is approximately three progressive passes per 20 minutes. Effectively starting an attack in, let’s say, two of those, it is still an impressive statistic against players above his age group.
What stands out about the young midfielder is his first touch, close control and his first movement after getting the ball under control. He brings the ball under control with his first touch to get it in a comfortable position and proceed.
He has mastered this series of actions at such a young age. In the images shown, we see an example of this. In the first image, the ball is at a significant height. Surrounded by opposition players, González, takes the ball away from them with his first touch. He then goes on to pass it to his teammate, starting the attack.
Here we have another example of his technique. González is again surrounded by opposition players and brings the ball under control, passes it and starts an attack.
From these examples, we can draw a couple of things. González has an ability that most midfielders a decade older than him master. The opposition teams at his level know his abilities and still they can’t pressurise him into losing the ball.
It doesn’t matter whether he turns out to be a six or an eight. What he already is, is a La Masia midfielder with excellent technique and great potential. We all know how they turn out.
The Busquets role
As mentioned before, González has played primarily as a defensive midfielder. Here, he doesn’t get too many touches of the ball but it is the belief that he is providing cover that gives his Barcelona teammates that attacking freedom.
He can be seen near the halfway line shielding the defence. His actions show why he is well suited as a central midfielder. On average, González makes 1.4 interceptions per match. He wins 100% of aerial duels and has won 18 duels in four matches.
Good stats, but nothing impressive. Or are they? All this has been achieved at a rate of playing 30 minutes per match alongside much older players.
We can see many examples of how González replicates Busquets. In the first example, González shows good awareness. He sees the ball being passed to him and adjusts himself accordingly. From facing the opposition goal, his footwork off the ball puts him in a position with his back to the stands. Here, he can clearly see any opposition players charging upon him. Doing a shoulder check, he ensures possession.
In the next image we see the feature most reminiscent of Busquets. González takes a look right ahead of him, giving the opposition no reason to question his intentions. But without a look, he sends a ball to his left and the opposition is caught unawares. This is a part of Busquets’ arsenal and Nicolás’ execution is excellent.
The Xavi element
González arguably has some traits which could help him play as a six. These traits add a new dimension to his skill set. He can frequently be seen moving further up the pitch. Playing as an attacking midfielder in the UEFA Youth League, he scored twice. As of now, he is Barcelona’s top goalscorer despite not having played a full 90 minutes.
In the image shown, González is under pressure. The ball is controlled calmly and he turns away quickly and gets space to pass into. Doing this under pressure makes it commendable. This simple movement makes a lot of passing options available and the number of players committed to him helps his team on the attack.
This traditional Xavi turn is not at all a direct reflection of his potential – that would be too premature – but it highlights what kind of a player he is.
The second image shows another similarity. As the ball approaches González, he lunges forward. This makes the opposition player close down, but González lets the ball run. This catches the opponent off guard. This further explains his statistic of 14 progressive passes per match.
As of now, for Juvenil A, González does not play in a formation which makes him the focus as Xavi was for Barcelona. If in the future he is the primary playmaker, however, he will surely shine.
González has not been deployed in positions other than midfield. Even then, he’s mostly been deployed as a defensive midfielder, but his skill set extends beyond that. He has good dribbling, most of which is based around catching opponents off guard. He will aim to throw opponents off balance with his first touch.
On average González makes approximately five dribbles per match. In the UEFA Youth League, he has a success rate of 100%. We clearly see he is a midfielder who makes a lot of attacking contributions throughout.
With a limited amount of time played and limited statistics available, any weaknesses pointed out have a chance of being inaccurate. However, after watching González’ performances in recent years, one thing stands out the most: his defensive inconsistency.
González has shown he is more than capable of defending well. The problem is in his consistency. Let’s take two cases. In both examples, González has players charging onto him. In the first case, González shields the ball, but because his left side has relatively less cover, the opposition player easily overpowers González. Due to his wrong footing, his balance is not steady. The opponent now has possession in an area very high up the pitch. This explains the 8.05 losses per match.
Here is where the inconsistency is very visible. In the next image, González has much better posture and much better shielding, leading to him having better control. He easily turns away from the opposition and has many options. This series of events leads to his team going on the offensive and getting a good chance. In the previous image, the opportunity is the same, just for the opposition. This shows why he wins only 15.4% of his duels.
Another weakness of his is speed. As a defensive midfielder or a central midfielder, great speed isn’t usually a prerequisite, but surely hampers his defensive duties. In the next image, Barcelona are caught off guard and a counter-attack could possibly start. González is caught in a footrace with the Tottenham winger. González is no match in speed for the him. Here, he pulls the defender away resulting in a foul.
While this is not a problem further up the pitch, closer to goal it is. Not being able to deal with pace would be a problem in stopping counter attacks. A defensive midfielder who can act upon pacy wingers is much needed by Barcelona.
Nicolás González is a very young player who has immense potential. It would be too premature to say he is destined to be one if the best or even one of Barcelona’s best. His development will be interesting, to say the least.
What is very clear is why the Manchester clubs were so determined to get him to play for them. With incredible technique, great control, great vision and with a wide skill set, Nicolás González looks to be a player who is more than capable of fulfilling his very high potential.
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