Despite a difficult season so far, Carles Aleñá remains as one of the brightest prospects at FC Barcelona. The 22-year-old midfielder has already played 39 matches with Barcelona and 90 with Barcelona B. He proved his value in the 2017/18 season when he scored 11 goals and was arguably the best player in the Spanish Second Division with Barcelona B.
But his performances in the B side haven’t been enough to grant him a first-team spot, and the Catalan playmaker moved to Real Betis on loan last January seeking playing time. He has played ten matches since then, providing three assists in his first experience far from the Camp Nou.
Aleñá is a proper Barcelona midfielder. Coming through La Masía, he has all the traits one could expect from a Barcelona playmaker. But he also has some physical characteristics that differentiate him from other talents of his age like Riqui Puig.
While his most common position is as an ‘interior’ in the typical 4-3-3 formation Barcelona normally use, Aleñá can also play as a deep-lying playmaker, as a number ten and as a right winger. This adaptability could be key in his future, as he will probably need to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the Barcelona squad.
In his heat map below, we can see Aleñá’s positioning this season. He has mostly lined up as the left central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation, but he often changes positions during the game and his influence can be seen all around the pitch.
Positional and spatial awareness
Educated in Barcelona’s academy, Aleñá understands very well every movement within the attacking phase. Thanks to his positional awareness and tactical intelligence, he can play the ball out of defence, connect the midfield and attacking lines and also be a threat going forward.
Aleña’s ability to find spaces between the lines is very useful in every situation. He combines this ability with his spatial awareness and great technique to receive in small pockets of space where he can quickly turn and advance the play. He’s versatile enough to do this in his own half to beat the first line of pressure or in the last third to create scoring opportunities.
When his team faces a high-pressing opponent, Aleñá drops from the midfield line to support the defenders offering passing lines behind the first line of pressure. He has the intelligence to spot the best passing lines, the confidence to receive under pressure in dangerous zones and the technique to solve difficult situations with one or two touches. Also, Aleñá is well-built and strong to cover the ball when he needs to, using his body to his advantage when holding the rivals and turning.
In the example below, Aleñá sees his centre-back under pressure and reacts quickly to find a free space and support him from behind the pressing line. The centre-back plays the easy pass and Aleñá plays first touch to leave Rakitic in a good position to go forward. The image is from the Inter vs Barcelona match in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Again in the same match, we can see Aleñá dropping even deeper to help the build-up. Inter press very high and Aleñá offers an easy passing option for the right-back. It’s important to note how his first touch leaves him facing forward. If he had needed more time to turn, his only option would have been a pass to the goalkeeper.
There are moments in which Aleñá is not the one in charge of playing the ball out from the back. In those moments, the Catalan midfielder shows his great understanding of the game providing passing options and positioning himself to exploit the spaces left by the opposition pressure.
In the next image, Real Betis’ Fekir is under heavy pressure from Rayo Vallecano. Aleñá positions himself behind that pressure and far from any rival, providing an excellent option to progress and create a dangerous counterattack. We can also see how he gestures to get the attention of his teammate, showing his confidence to receive the ball.
As his team moves closer to the goal, Aleñá adapts his movements to take advantage of any spaces left by the rival. He makes very good runs from behind to get between the lines and help his team progress. As we have seen before, he’s very useful when he dictates from behind, but his best version comes when he can receive closer to the box and create from there.
In the play we show below, Betis have already established themselves in the opposite half. Aleñá realizes he’s no longer needed to beat the pressure and makes a run from a deep position to get behind the midfield line. From his new position, Aleñá can progress to the final third and create a promising situation.
Finally, his positioning in the final third is very valuable too. Even if he can influence the game from any part of the pitch, Aleñá is a very attacking-minded midfielder. He always tries to get in and around the box, from where he can score or assist using the wide skillset we will analyze later. This is probably the role Barcelona lack in their midfield, where De Jong and Arthur are great at dictating from deeper positions but affect the final third less than Aleñá.
Let’s take the play below as an example. In the picture, we see Aleñá controlling a ball at the edge of the box. He received the pass from the right side after positioning himself between four rivals but far enough to have space and time to receive the pass. This position is difficult to mark as it would require one of the defenders to leave the defensive line and leave a hole in it. Also, his first touch leaves him in a good situation to shoot or pass before a defender can press him.
A final example of this attacking attitude is seen below. In a situation where lots of midfielders would look to receive the ball at their feet, Aleñá looks to attack the space between the centre-back and the full-back to receive the ball inside the box. Once inside the box, Aleña’s vision, dribbling and quality are always a threat.
His positioning in defence is good too, but he needs some work to adapt to teams that dominate less than Barcelona and their academy teams. Aleñá is aggressive to counter-press and is not afraid to use his body to recover the ball. He’s strong and can win defensive duels. But when he has to defend in his own half he has to be more active to intercept passes as sometimes he doesn’t provide enough cover to the defensive line and lets passes break the midfield line.
To affect as many phases of the game as we have seen in the previous analysis, Aleñá needs to have a very wide skillset. He can pass accurately, dribble in tight spaces, carry the ball in transitions and shoot from outside the box, which makes him a constant threat.
Aleñá shows a made-in-Barcelona passing style. He usually plays short passes trying to move the ball quickly to find spaces in the defensive line. He usually uses just one or two touches, with his positioning and body shape saving him time and unnecessary touches.
His vision is great to make the best out of his passing ability. Even if his passing seems simple, there’s always an intention behind it, moving the ball to the zones where he detects a weakness of the opposition. He thinks quickly and moves the ball before he gets pressed.
He’s very good at dribbling and carrying the ball forward. He combines powerful runs with intelligence to choose when to start running and when to pass. It’s his decision making regarding the exact moment to pass the ball that makes the difference in his game.
In the first picture below, we see Aleñá driving the ball towards the defensive line. When one of the defenders stops running back to press him, Aleñá passes the ball to the right winger, leaving the defender out of the play and his teammate in a good position to cross. In the second one, Aleñá has started a counterattack leaving two players behind with a powerful run, and when the third one tries to close him down, he plays a pass into the run of the right winger.
Aleñá can also create from deeper positions with his great passing range. He’s well aware of his surroundings and quickly spots the runs of his teammates. As we see in the next example, Aleñá is capable of beating two lines and assisting with perfectly weighted and curved passes. His long shots are also a threat, especially when he cuts inside from the right.
When assessing Aleñá using stats, we need to have two issues in mind. First, he has only played 438 minutes for Real Betis this season, so the sample available is not as big as in other cases. And second, his position is a mix of a central and attacking midfielder, so depending on the benchmark we set he will stand out more or less.
Knowing that, let’s get to the analysis of his stats in La Liga for Real Betis in the current season. The first thing that stands out is his creativity. Aleñá has 4.73 passes into the final third per 90’ (better than 69% of the central and defensive midfielders in the top-5 leagues), 0.16 xG+xA/90’ (better than the 65%) and 1.64 dribbles/90’ (better than the 86%). He hasn’t scored or assisted yet for Betis, but given the small sample, his expected goals and assists are a better indicator.
With a pass completion of 83.33%, Aleñá is around the middle compared to other central/defensive midfielders, but if we compare him to attacking midfielders and wingers he’s above the 87% of them. Something similar happens with his dribbling. Compared to CM/DM, Aleñá completes more dribbles than the 86% of them but with a success rate worse than the 89%; but compared to attacking midfielders and wingers, he’s around the middle in both metrics. This shows a good balance between keeping possession and risking the ball and the intermediate role he has.
His defensive stats also express his playing style well. He makes 2.26 successful tackles/90’ and his success rate is of 61.11%, both figures better than those of almost 60% of CM/DM, showing how good he is when getting into duels. But with only 0.21 interceptions/90’, Aleñá is one of the worst in the central midfield position. Even if the small sample exaggerates the figures, Aleñá needs to improve his defensive positioning, especially when defending in a low block.
Aleñá is approaching a crucial moment of his career. With more than 100 professional games to his name so far, he’s expected to be in the first squad of Barcelona next season. His performances so far suggest he can solve some of the creativity problems Barcelona’s midfield has shown in recent times, but the step is big and he will need to make the best out of his fantastic attributes.
If he adapts well to being a regular of the first team lineups, Aleñá will save Barcelona millions in the transfer market, helping them recover their identity too as he came through the academy and knows exactly what’s expected from a Barcelona midfielder. Alongside other exciting prospects as Puig, Pedri or Monchu, Aleñá could be part of a new golden generation at the Camp Nou.