Since the US pre-season tour, FC Barcelona player Riqui Puig has generated massive hype around himself but the player being overlooked is Carles Aleña.
The Mataro-born midfielder has already started causing selection problems for Ernesto Valverde with his highly efficient use of the time he gets on the pitch.
A modern midfielder
The first things that come to mind when thinking about a midfielder from La Masia are technique and immaculate understanding of the game. And Carles Aleña more than does this justice. Born in Mataro, 20-year-old Carles Aleña has progressed through the youth system of Barcelona and has captained Spain at youth levels.
Aleña is a left-footed central midfielder who plays on the right interior of the midfield, known as a ‘pierna cambiada.’ He slots into Valverde’s 4-4-2 as one of the four midfielders and as the right midfielder in a 4-3-3.
In the modern game, midfielders have to have a good physique, combined with great technique and great balance and dribbling. Here, Aleña is a natural talent. At 180cm tall, Aleña is very good physically and his shielding of the ball is the perfect use of his athletic physique. Along with dribbling with great close control his technical intelligence and sublime passing has made him perfect for the modern game.
As a player for FC Barcelona, his understanding of the tactical game is superb. Knowing when to drop deep and when to move up the pitch, when to press aggressively and when to block passing lanes, Aleña has it all.
This tactical awareness can be seen from the images. In the match against Celta Vigo, Aleña can be seen in a position which not only blocks a passing lane but also a position which is ready to go onto the offensive very quickly. In either case, Aleña will be ready to contribute to the team instantly because of his good positioning. This defensive contribution averages him 1.48 interceptions per match, which isn’t bad for an attacking-minded midfielder.
In the next image, against Tottenham Hotspur, Aleña sees that Tottenham have won back possession and Christian Eriksen is open to receive. Aleña has the awareness to recognise that he can not cut the passing lane but he can pressurise Eriksen to lose possession and that is exactly what happens. He understands the importance of Eriksen’s positioning and abilities to this Spurs side and takes the necessary actions.
By putting pressure and by making successful challenges, he averages almost four successful tackles per match. But these four tackles amount to only 19% successful duels. This highlights his significant attempts at defensive contribution but also shows it as one of his weaknesses.
Carles Aleña is more than just a good passer of the ball. What stands out from watching him is how clear his basics are. Many times players may have great dribbling skills or incredible vision but they are let down by their first touch or by the weight they put on the ball. Aleña is a beautiful passer of the ball. He averages 53.77 passes per match with a success rate of 87.6%.
His execution of the through ball while playing for Barcelona B in the first image shows his composure as the opposition is aggressively pressing and he has more than one player on him, Aleña is still aware at every moment. He notices the subtle shift in weight of his teammate and under pressure, executes a perfectly weighted through ball. This presents a clear opportunity for his teammate to cross the ball or take a shot.
This is clearly supplemented by the fact that he averages more than three accurate passes into the box per match.
The young midfielder has a vision that only a few players have and this combined with his wide range of passing skills are a certain threat for any opponent. On average, he makes nine passes into the final third per match.
In the second image, Aleña receives the ball, his first touch puts him in a position to get a view of all the movements on the pitch and he perfectly lobs a ball over the defence to free his teammate. In this process, he breaks the opposition’s defensive lines and puts Barcelona on the front foot.
The Maradona of Mataro
In his childhood, Aleña was likened to the great, Maradona. This is partly because of his hairstyle but it’s apparent that it as also a result of his dribbling. A low centre of mass, quick touches to throw the opponent off balance, dribbling through tight spaces and running with the ball when required. At six progressive dribbles per match, it’s no surprise to see why dribbling is one of Aleña’s greatest assets.
But it’s important to note that this dribbling is only made better by his decision making. Knowing when to dribble and when to not is just as important. In the image shown, Aleña shows his simple genius. With the first touch, he throws his opponent off balance, pushes the ball out of his reach and takes his first stride all at once. He could have passed, but he saw that most teammates had an opposition player tightly marking them and he knew he had to get the ball forward. It is a brilliant example of his decision making combined with dribbling skills.
In the next example, Aleña displays his agility and balance. As he approaches the edge of the box, he sees players closing in on him and a passing option has not yet arrived. So he shifts his balance, cuts inside and takes two players out of the equation and makes more space for himself. This provides him with two options, either to hold the ball and wait for a runner or go for a shot himself.
What makes Aleña different is his thinking. Many players would have passed and hoped for the ball to reach their teammate, many would have turned and stopped the attack in that process. Aleña showed exactly why he is a highly touted player here. And character helps him rather than hinder his progress.
At the very end of the 2017-18 season, Aleña got injured and would be out for approximately half a year. The 2018-19 season was going to be his breakthrough as he was promised a spot in the first team.
But throughout his injury, he worked hard to recuperate and get back to full fitness. When he was almost completely recovered, he was told that he would be playing with the B team again. He stayed calm throughout and went on to do his best wherever he was needed. And after that, his sublime chip goal for the first team, minutes after going onto the pitch against Villarreal, was much deserved.
Although it might not be something everyone looks for in a player, a youngster’s great mindset is what makes him a prospect who could not just become very good, but one of the best.
All in all, Carles Aleña is an agile midfielder with a low centre of mass and vision one can only be born with. We have seen many players predicted to become world-class talents and fail. But in Carles Aleña, there is clear talent, great determination, top class discipline and a professional mindset. Continuing to work as hard as he does, it is hard to not see Aleña being a starter for Barcelona in the coming years.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Get your copy of the FIRST of two December issues for just ₤4.99 here, or the SECOND of the December issues with an annual membership right here.