Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have set the full-back bar so high that almost every newcomer to the club truly faces a mountain to climb. And often enough, as already proven in the previous seasons leading up to this one, it turns out to be an insurmountable quest. One they all eventually fail.
Jordi Alba was Eric Abidal’s heir. The latter is now Barcelona’s sporting director but the former revolutionized the club in his own way. The Spaniard marked a crucial change in the Catalan’s system, and was always, alongside Marcelo, the definition of a modern, attacking full-back or even a wing-back.
Once the standard has been set, there was no coming back for Barcelona, and every next player in line who was to give Alba a rest had to be a similar profile to him. This was no easy task. Neither to find nor to fulfill.
But if the reports and the media are to be trusted, Blaugrana has found Alba’s replacement within their own ranks. Against all the odds, and against all the expectation, a player of such capabilities but a slightly different skill set has been found.
His name is Juan Miranda, and this tactical analysis will use statistics and insight to try and find out whether the young defender truly is the answer to Barcelona’s left-back problems.
Juan Miranda is an 18-year old Spanish defender that currently plays for the Barcelona B side but is also expected to make a full transfer to the senior team in the not-so-distant future. Born in Seville and started his footballing career with Real Betis, Miranda soon began profiling himself as one of the most promising young talents in the academy.
It was not long until he joined the U16 squad in Barcelona, and worked his way up to the point where he is right now. His technical ability, mostly in going forward and linking up with his attackers, was of particular interest to Blaugrana, who have now, as it seems, decided to put some trust in the young defender.
His height of 6’1” (185 cm) and strength mean that he is a tough cookie to break in defence, on foot, and in the air, but that he also poses a serious threat from set pieces. Something not often seen in Barcelona’s ranks.
A dominant 94% of the time, Miranda will be deployed as a left-back but if push comes to shove, he can also slot into that left centre-back position, among other, less used ones (6% of the time).
Defending is an art
As a true left-back, Juan Miranda excels in the defensive spectre of things. Generally, he brings tackling, interceptions, aerial clearance and solidity to the table but what is probably the most important thing to note here is the fact that at 18 years of age, Juan does this extremely well, with composure, and showing maturity.
It seems that the Champions League debut for the youngster was the final test before making the big step-up and the start of his career with the big boys. Although he was not solely tested in that one game, it did, however, tip the scales in his favour.
Miranda was not that active in the offensive spectre of things but defensively he did well, considering Tottenham mostly outplayed that alternative Barcelona side. Juan made a couple of expected mistakes. Maybe it was the nerves, jitters, excitement or just the lack of big stage experience that got him but it did affect his performance.
Still, he remained on the field throughout the whole game, as Valverde has shown confidence that the youngster is up to the task. And, truly, he was.
What stood out the most is how he never shied away from a duel, and he would always commit to a challenge. He was pit against the pacey wingers of the London squad, who would get the better of him in a straight-up foot race but even still, Miranda made a total of 13 interceptions, and two blocked shots.
Here, Barcelona are once again caught in a quick transition but Miranda sprints right back and commits to a duel. He manages to break off the attack, and the ball ends up in the safe hands of Jasper Cillessen.
What was even more impressive is that out of four tackles that he attempted, he managed to get all of them successfully done with a 100% rate. This is a standard part of his repertoire, even though he is also considered as an attacking left-back.
On average, though, he makes 4.25 interceptions per game, which is a solid number, considering that Alba makes just a bit more, with 5.06. Miranda excels at different things, as he brings more strength, and challenges to the table.
As opposed to Jordi, who is shorter and lacks the physicality, Miranda often engages in duels, winning more on average, both in the air and on foot. Alba wins 19.9% of all defensive ones in general and a total of 40% in the air. The youngster edges him out in this one, just barely with 24.4% and 43.3%, which is still good enough, considering the experience and age difference.
Footballing intelligence and decision making
Generally speaking, whether we are talking about Barcelona B or the senior team, both squads thrive on possession so Miranda will often enough be seen in the final third, overlapping or just providing link-up for the team. This works fine when Barcelona are comfortably in possession but with the lack of Alba’s pace, Miranda has to rely on his intelligence and positioning, which he does really well.
Take the game against Spurs again, for example. Miranda is once again high up the pitch, and the attack breaks down. He has two choices to make: try to win the race against the wingers, which will probably be lost, or press immediately and break down the attack before it even starts.
As a result of a well-placed tackle, and good decision making, Miranda neutralizes the threat before it even begins. It has to be said that some defenders would opt against this, as it is fairly risky. If he lost the duel, the situation would turn from bad to worse in an instant.
Still, this is something he generally likes to do. In the game against Cultural Leonesa in Copa del Rey, Miranda was once again playing with the senior team. Barcelona were pressing constantly, and so was Juan, as he spent a lot of time in the opposition’s half.
After a couple of misplaced passes from both sides, La Cultu tries to break down the right side with Miranda still high up the pitch. Since he was reading the game well, he recognizes where the opposition wants to place the ball and reacts accordingly.
Notice how he intercepts the pass but also keeps possession by recycling it down the wings. Denis Suarez also has to be complimented for following closely, and the understanding between the two Blaugrana players allows Barcelona to not only stop the counter but also to continue their own attack.
Against Leonesa, Miranda made six recoveries but more importantly, four of those were made in the opposition’s half, which is essential to Barcelona’s style of play. Upon losing the ball, recover it as soon as possible, and preferably, exactly where you lost it.
Miranda makes 7.9 recoveries on average, and around 30% are usually made in the opponent’s camp. The numbers are still pretty low, but not even Alba is that far away from the youngster. The veteran makes 8.61 recoveries with a 33.3% success rate.
The game against Spurs was maybe not crucial in the decision to (eventually) promote Juan but it was a showcase of his abilities on the biggest stage of them all. What helped make his case even stronger was the ability to adapt.
Not all Barcelona players can say the same for themselves. Tottenham were counting on the Catalan’s tight man marking. This was heavily exploited and crucial in bypassing their high press, and it worked wonders.
Here, Spurs play a couple of one-twos on the edge of the box, and once again combine well to avoid getting pinned down. Miranda is tasked to stay wider and cover his man but he rather opts to break the formation and assist in the box.
Quick decision making and acting immediately mean that the young Spaniard gets there in time to cut off the run, and return the ball to the keeper. A bold move that saw his free the right side for Spurs but it was a calculated risk that paid off in the end.
Offence is the best defence
We talked how having an offensive side to your game is a must if you are trying to make it as a Barcelona left-back. Well, Miranda is certainly developing well in that department.
Even though the game against Tottenham was maybe not the best display of those capabilities as Juan only made two progressive runs, and did not overlap as much, we cannot deny that those definitely are a standard part of his arsenal.
When you think about Alba, usually the first thing that comes to mind is his blistering pace. With Miranda, pace doesn’t always play a pivotal role. His 185cms somewhat limit him in agility and speed but not to the point that it’s completely out of his repertoire.
Here, Miranda runs in-between two of his markers with slippery movements and then changes sides with a well-placed long ball. This is more reminiscent of a Sergi Roberto run as the right-back often does this to quickly transition from defence to attack.
Although Miranda doesn’t show great pace or acceleration, the close control of the ball and fast turns enable him to shrug off his marker and then link-up well with his teammates.
This might as well be what is so exciting about him. It seems that, although it’s still in development, Miranda already possesses a good final product. Often, after an excellent run, Alba lacks the finishing touches to either find his teammate with a pass or end the attack by himself.
He has gotten a lot better at that in recent seasons, though, but Miranda is heading down the same path, as well.
After arriving in the opposition’s half, Miranda repositions quickly and then switches side with an excellent cross that puts Rafinha in a good position, free of any markers. This also plays a big role in the system he would be playing if he makes the step-up to the senior team.
Fast transitions, whether through short or long passes, are essential. His link-up play seems to be up to the standard that is needed to succeed at Barcelona. Juan’s passing accuracy averages at a good 81.2% but what excites more than that is 66% (5.71 per 90) passes in the final third which shows off his attacking potential.
Just in the last game, against Spurs, he had a 100% success rate in passes into the final third, which was really impressive.
He will not always have a pinpoint through ball in the bag but he is more than capable of providing one when needed. Often times, it will come right after a progressive run all the way from defence.
Beating his marker is something Miranda is used to doing. 1.75 dribbles per game with 66.9% success rate is pretty decent for a low-paced defender, and on top of that, he wins 3.65 offensive duels per game which amounts to 58.4%.
Interestingly enough, that means he is more successful in offensive duels than defensive ones.
An extremely strong performance in the pre-season tour solidified Juan Miranda’s position as the number one contender in the substitute left-back race at Barcelona. Marc Cucurella was for a long time considered to be the next in line but was ultimately edged out by Juan.
The lack of experience is clearly visible with this youngster as the mistakes he makes are usually basic and still largely prone to improvement.
The youngster has all the early skills that one needs as a Barcelona full-back: a decent dose of pace, good control of the ball, crossing abilities, a good defensive spectre, intelligence and the ability to beat his man in both attack and defence.
The fact that he shares some traits with Jordi Alba is only a huge plus in his case. His early success with the Juvenile A team, as well as with the young Spanish selection are also proof that he won’t shy away from challenges, and will embrace big games with both hands.
Finding the next Xavi, Iniesta or Jordi Alba will always be troublesome for Barcelona but maybe it’s time they moved away from such comparisons.
As we’ve said times and times before, Juan Miranda is no Alba but no one should expect him to be one, in the first place. Instead of being the next Jordi, Juan should just be the first Juan. And if his performances and development are something to take into consideration, the future looks bright for this youngster.
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