Heirs to Modrić & Busquets: U24 La Liga midfielders to watch out for in 2021/22 – data analysis
We’re just weeks away from the official start of the 2021/22 La Liga season. The last campaign ended in incredible fashion with many twists and turns and while the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid showed inconsistent form, some of their players still managed to shine.
In the second part of our data analysis series, we’ll be diving into the statistics of midfielders, trying to find the best young players to keep an eye on in the upcoming season. So, who can take up the torch from veterans like Luka Modrić and Sergio Busquets whose retirements edge ever closer? Let’s find out.
Setting the filters
Before jumping straight into our analysis, it’s very important to first set the filters so we know what we’re working with. Despite my best attempts to only include U23 players in this series, the sample for U23 midfielders who have played at least 500 minutes in La Liga last season is incredibly small. So, to make our pool somewhat bigger, this analysis will include U24 midfielders as well.
Once again, for the defensive metrics, I’ve calculated the possession-adjusted (PAdj) metrics myself wherever needed and have taken all data provided by Wyscout. Other categories include attacking output, creativity, progressiveness, press resistance and final third presence.
Note that only centre and wide midfielders were used for this data analysis as attacking midfielders will be dissected in part three of this series.
Initial data check
The first graph we’ll look at in this analysis concerns the attacking output. This is measured by four specific categories: successful attacking actions, shots, offensive duels and expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes. The top-right quadrant is where you generally want to be as that represents highly attacking-minded players.
Barcelona’s Ilaix Moriba tops this category easily as the most attacking-minded midfielder in our pool of players. The 18-year-old’s 11.92 offensive duels, 1.99 shots per 90 and 3.36 successful attacking actions are ahead of the rest of the competition, similarly as his 0.34 xG per 90 is the highest among all analysed midfielders.
A small caveat, however, is the fact he’s played just enough minutes to squeeze into the analysis, 589. Getafe’s new permanent addition, Carles Aleñá, is also very impressive with his 7.14 offensive duels, 1.74 shots, 2.64 successful attacking actions and 0.14 xG per 90 minutes. Other players worth mentioning here are Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde (5.27, 1.46, 2.67 & 0.17), Edu Expósito who just turned 25 on 1 August (6.56, 1.34, 2.51 & 0.11) and Mikel Merino (7.97, 1.26, 2.53 & 0.21).
Of course, there are others but these players stand out the most. Our next graph deals with the final third presence, measuring accelerations and touches in the box per 90. At the moment, there is no way to quantify runs in behind the defensive line but the combination of these two categories should give us a fairly good idea about it.
The outliers here are the players who tend to run with the ball a lot and those who tally high touches in the penalty area. Midfielders like Valverde (1.78 accelerations & 1.91 touches in the box per 90) and Frenkie de Jong (1.74 & 2.12) are clear standouts but so are Barcelona’s Pedri (1.24 & 2.45) and Moriba (1.07 & 2.9).
Aleñá is impressive once more, although this is more due to his incredible ability to drive the play forward with his on the ball runs rather than providing a huge final third presence with off the ball movement and touches in the box.
Moving on, we’ll deal with creativity, measured by key passes, deep completions (a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 metres of the opponent’s goal) and expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes.
Once again, the outliers are in the top-right quadrant of the graph. Pedri is incredible in both metrics, tallying 2.02 deep completions, 0.46 key passes and 0.1 xA per 90. While he’s not the one to often register assists, his contribution to beating the defensive block is incredible. The same can be said for De Jong (1.37, 0.51 & 0.1).
However, Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino is a new entry into the fold. The 24-year-old’s 1.3 deep completions, 0.43 key passes and 0.08 xA per 90 are equally impressive. Other players we should mention here are Aleñá, Valverde and Expósito, although the likes of Moriba and Real Valladolid’s Kike Pérez are great in their own right.
The next graph deals with the defensive output of our pool of midfielders. The data here shows possession-adjusted (PAdj) defensive duels and successful defensive actions per 90 minutes. The former gives us an outline of how often a defender engages in a challenge and the latter compiles all defensive actions (such as duels, interceptions, recoveries and shots blocked) and gives us only the positive outcomes.
All the players in the top-right quadrant are the ones to look out for as they are the individuals tallying high values in both metrics, displaying both volume and proficiency. Barcelona’s Pedri (9.86 defensive duels & 11.63 successful defensive actions per 90) and Moriba (11.17 & 8.73) are players you maybe wouldn’t necessarily expect to find topping this chart but their defensive engagement is incredible.
The same can be said for the Real Sociedad duo: Merino with 9.32 PAdj defensive duels & 10.94 PAdj successful defensive actions per 90 and Martín Zubimendi with 8.63 & 11.51 respectively as the other two outliers here. Honourable mentions go to La Real’s third player, Ander Guevara, Valladolid’s Fede San Emeterio and Celta Vigo’s Fran Beltrán.
The fifth category we’ll look into in our data analysis is press resistance. This is measured through passes made under pressure and successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Being in the top-right is desirable, but it’s not an absolute necessity. Some players prefer to pass out of pressure while others will beat it through dribbles. While a combination of both is ideal, either serves the purpose well.
That being said, Moriba seems undeniably the most impressive and most press resistant player in the graph. His 12.3 passes under pressure & 2.75 successful dribbles per 90 are almost unmatched, albeit with a caveat of lower game time. Other than him, Merino, Aleñá, Pedri, De Jong and Pérez are also quite impressive and can both pass and dribble under pressure.
We have to, however, mention Valverde and Expósito, who seem to be good dribblers but don’t pass under pressure nearly as often. On the other side, Granada’s Yangel Herrera, Sociedad’s Guevara and Valencia’s Uroš Račić are excellent passers under pressure but not as successful in dribbling out of it.
Finally, our last graph shows progressiveness, measuring measures progressive actions per 90 minutes (progressive passes + progressive runs) and passes into the danger area per 90 minutes (passes into the final third + passes into the penalty area).
De Jong is the clear outlier here with his 11.22 passes into the danger area & 11.11 progressive actions per 90 minutes. But equally impressive are Valverde, Merino, Valencia’s Carlos Soler, Guevara and Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Vencedor.
Aleñá is once again the only player standing out from the rest but in a slightly different way. While all of the players are either in the top-right or bottom-left quadrants, the La Masia graduate is in the bottom-right. This is still impressive even without being above-average in both categories.
However, will it be enough to warrant him a spot in our three-man shortlist? Let’s find out.
The shortlist will include three players with profiles compared to the rest of La Liga midfielders (percentiles in the bar graphs, per 90 values in the tables below) across all age groups.
Ilaix Moriba (Barcelona, centre-midfielder, 18 years old)
Seeing Ilaix Moriba on this shortlist shouldn’t come as a big surprise. He topped 4/6 graphs in our data analysis and compared to other U24 midfielders, he’s really unique in his output. Note, however, that the caveat of low game time still stands and has definitely had an effect on the final results.
That being said, the youngster is extremely press resistant with impressive attacking and defensive outputs. With Ronald Koeman reportedly looking for a different kind of midfielder in the market, one more physical and aggressive, it feels like Moriba could indeed solve that issue.
However, his contract situation at the Camp Nou is yet to be decided so only time will tell where his future lies. But wherever it is, if he continues developing, Moriba could turn into an exceptionally well-rounded midfielder.
Federico Valverde (Real Madrid, centre-midfielder, 22 years old)
For a midfielder to make such a big mark as Federico Valverde has within a team that boasts the likes of Modrić, Toni Kroos and Casemiro as their starters is extremely impressive to say the least. The Uruguayan has comfortably been the outlier in most of the analysed metrics, fully warranting a spot in the shortlist.
Valverde is a very aggressive midfielder, offering high attacking outputs and a big presence in the final third. But it’s also his engine and ability to both play wide and as an interior that’s also a standout trait. Not to mention that he’s very press-resistant and will surely be a part of Real Madrid’s future midfield once the veteran maestros inevitably hang up the boots.
His inclusion was never even a question.
Pedri (Barcelona, centre-midfielder, 18 years old)
So much has already been said about Pedri that his inclusion felt inevitable. However, all of it is warranted by his exceptional performances throughout 2020/21 and the international stage at the Euros. Pedri is among the best midfielders in La Liga across all age groups, not just the U24s, and that’s while being only 18 years of age.
The youngster is an elite creative cog with a great presence in the final third, commendable attacking output, a dose of press resistance, incredible defensive work rate and great progressive nature. In short, he ticks almost every single box in our data analysis.
For him, the sky seems to be the limit.
Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona, centre-midfielder, 24 years old)
All of the players in the honourable mentions could’ve easily slotted into the shortlist but have just marginally fallen short. Frenkie de Jong is definitely among such players but being 24 and a somewhat established talent, it felt like his inclusion wouldn’t feel as right.
However, that doesn’t take anything away from his ability. The Dutchman is an elite progressor with press resistance, attacking output and work rate built into his arsenal. De Jong will undoubtedly lead the next generation of Barcelona midfielders.
Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad, centre-midfielder, 24 years old)
Another 24-year-old centre-midfielder who deserves a shoutout in this data analysis is Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino. While not always as flashy and a clear outlier as some of the other players in this pool, he still managed to impress in at least 4/6 categories.
Merino has a decent attacking output to show for while being a very creative, progressive and press resistant midfielder as well. Not to mention that he has a very good work rate and was one of the standout defensive performers too.
Carles Aleñá (Getafe, centre-midfielder, 23 years old)
Carles Aleñá is the final name in this data analysis. His situation is strange as he’s been consistently separated from the pack in multiple categories. This makes the 23-year-old’s profile quite unique but not always an outlier.
Still, while his style of play may not instantly make you think of a team like Getafe, he’s been consistently impressive in 20/21 and has now permanently signed for them. Aleñá is very attacking-minded and creative, offers both crisp passing and pattern-breaking. Similarly, he ranked extremely high in press resistance while also being great at running with the ball.
On paper, he has what it takes to become a top midfielder. Only time will tell how successful he’ll be.