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 the age of 16.
Carrying on the legacy
Growing up as the son of a great footballer can naturally be very daunting. Such is the case of González. His father, Fran González is a legend at Deportivo. He played with arguably the best La Coruña 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 central defensive midfielder with phenomenal ball control and great awareness.
As captain of the Cadete A, 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 thirty minutes per match. He has scored twice in the small number of chances he got. 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 is difficult to handle, and the competition, even more so. González thrives when he is challenged and it’s apparent for everyone to see.
The 6 with the technique of an 8
It would be too early to decide his final position now. González has many stages to transition through to get to being recognized as a player of a certain characteristic. As mentioned before, he is extremely multifaceted.
While playing at the Juvenil A level, González has been deployed at central defensive mid playing just in front of the defense. 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 mid in a double pivot. Throughout both formations, he has clearly played in a number 6 role. He could be seen occasionally moving forward. But there is something in his game reminiscent of a number 8.
Quick turns like Xavi were frequently made in many matches. Makes quick sudden bursts forward to take advantage of opposition players marking his teammates. Frequently he plays further up the pitch as seen from the image.
He seems to be more active and take more touches and move more than a traditional 6 but not as much as an 8. Frenkie De Jong and González are somewhat comparable in this aspect. He picks the ball up and transitions it from defense 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 and making 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 Youth League. Granted, he has not got 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, breaking opposition lines and starting off the attack. This amounts for his 14 progressive passes per match. That is approximately 3 progressive passes per 20 minutes. Effectively starting an attack in let’s say, 2 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. Bring the ball under control, with the first touch 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, with his first touch takes the ball away from them. And 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, and passes it. Again, starting an attack.
From these examples, we can infer a couple of things. González has an ability that most midfielders older than him by a decade master. The opposition teams at his level know his abilities and still they can’t pressurize him in a way to lose the ball.
It doesn’t matter whether he turns out to be a 6 or an 8. What he already is, is a La Masia midfielder with excellent technique and great potential and we all know how they turn out.
The Busquets role
As mentioned before, González has played primarily as a defensive mid. 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 give them that attacking freedom.
He can be seen near the halfway line shielding the defense. 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 4 matches.
Good stats but nothing impressive. Or is it? All this has been achieved at a rate of playing 30 minutes per match. While playing with 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 6. These traits add a new dimension to his skillset. He can frequently be seen moving further up the pitch. Playing as an attacking midfielder in the UEFA Youth League, he scored twice and as of now, is Barcelona’s top scorer despite not having played a full ninety 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 but 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 in the offensive.
This traditional Xavi turn is not at all a reflection of his potential, it 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, in the Juvenil A, González does not play in a formation which makes him the focus as Xavi was for Barcelona. But if in the future, he is the primary playmaker, he will surely shine.
González has not been deployed at positions other than midfield. And that too, mostly as a defensive midfielder. But his skillset extends beyond that.
González has good dribbling. Most of his dribbling is based on catching opponents off guard. He will aim to throw opponents off balance with his first touch.
On average González makes approximately 5 dribbles per match. And 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. dribbles per match. And 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 is more than capable of defending well. And he has shown that. The problem is in his consistency. Let’s take two cases. In both cases, 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, the 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. Whereas, 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 this 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 winger of Tottenham. González is no match in speed for the winger. Here, Gonzales 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. And a defensive midfielder who can act upon pacey 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. But with incredible technique, great control, great vision and with a wide skillset, Nicolás looks to be a player who is more than capable of fulfilling his very high potential.