La Masia’s finest: Inaki Pena, a gem between the sticks
Barcelona have always been proud of their one of a kind style of play. It doesn’t take long to recognise that all of their players follow certain patterns or that they have to be of a certain player profile before they even join the club, even as youngsters.
And this is true for all squad roles in the team: the midfielders, the defenders, forwards, and believe it or not, goalkeepers. Actually, especially the goalkeepers.
“In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker is the first defender.” As the late Johan Cruyff used to say, and Barcelona are respecting his blueprints to this day. As a result, every goalkeeper that wears the Blaugrana jersey has to be good with his feet, as well as his hands, if he wants to succeed in the Catalan capital.
Inaki Pena is a young prospect of the famous La Masia academy, and his skill set is exactly what Barcelona are looking for in a keeper. This tactical analysis will use statistics and examples to determine whether Pena truly does have it in him to eventually make the big step up to the senior team.
For this 19-year old goalkeeper, football started when he was only five as he signed for Alicante CF. Some years later, after flourishing in the ranks of the Yellow Submarine, Barcelona bought him from Villarreal and he arrived in Catalunya in 2012.
His first appearances were for the U-14 team, and the tall guy between the sticks was crucial as the team clinched the league title, and for Pena, his first Blaugrana trophy for the cabinet.
Today, he is a Barcelona B player as he made the first big step up in his Barcelona career and started the 2018/19 campaign under Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta.
His agility, composure and dominance in the air are what make him a standout player in his position. But still, apart from his great reflexes and incredible tendency to deny the opposition from the spot, what Barcelona value the most is his footwork.
Inaki Pena is a young, and already quite complete, sweeper-keeper, and he is slowly but surely climbing the ladder, day by day.
Style of play
Generally, when we talk about goalies of all kinds in world football, we usually put them into two rough categories: a standard goalkeeper, who is more defensive minded, and prone to risk-free options when either passing the ball or looking to kick it long. On the other hand, the sweeper-keeper has the tendency to rush out, play higher up the pitch and play a bigger role in the build-up of the attack itself.
Basically, we are talking about a defensive vs. offensive mindset when it comes to the big men between the sticks. Now, with those boundaries being (roughly) explained, we can almost instantly put Inaki Pena in the latter category of a sweeper-keeper.
This is the youngster’s preferred position and one you will find him in on most occasions. Similarly to Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the senior team, Pena will often times get out of his box to assist his centre-backs in moving the ball from defence to attack.
Barcelona B play a very similar style of football to the senior team: they thrive on possession and playing out of the back, starting with the goalkeeper or in this case, Inaki Pena himself.
As Barcelona set up a pretty high defensive line, Pena not only acts as a contributor to the attack but is also a kind of a safety net in case the Blaugrana youngsters have to retreat all the way to their own half. This position of the goalie allows them to play shorter passes and transition between the second and the first third more easily.
Although this is beneficial in the offensive sense of their play, it also invites pressure from teams that are courageous enough to exploit it.
With their tendency to give the ball to Pena (this season he averages 16.47 passes received), the opposition is often seen pushing for the interception and pressing for mistakes right in the youngster’s face.
This is the crucial part of the “Barcelona goalkeeper initiation”. While many other teams won’t really have anything against clearing the ball out of danger, the Catalans insist on remaining in possession and starting the attack between the enemy lines.
Notice how Pena will rather opt for a riskier approach and pass the ball to an approaching midfielder rather than trying for a long ball into the final third. The latter option would definitely be safer, but would not guarantee possession of the ball and that is crucial in the system the team operates in.
As far as his short passes go, he is almost always on point with a staggering 98.1% success rate but this is mostly comprised of passes directly to one of his centre-backs so it’s also a deceiving stat, in a way.
Still, when we take all kinds of passes, risky or not, long or short, he still averages at a high 87.3% with 24.43 passes. Just to put that into perspective, let’s compare Pena to some of the finest goalkeeper names in world football.
We’ll start with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who is regarded as one of the best in the business when it comes to footwork. The German sits on 89.3% passing accuracy, just below Manuel Neuer with 89.7%.
Alisson Becker is also pretty high with 88.6% and following him is David de Gea with 82.2%. Finally, we have Jan Oblak, who is a brilliant example of a more traditional goalkeeper with 79.4% passing accuracy.
It’s difficult to compare such a young goalie who’s still playing in the lower divisions with the biggest names in his position. The intensity of the game, the context, the opposition, everything is different and without a shadow of a doubt – a lot tougher for the above mention players than it is for Inaki. Still, the 19-year old is holding his own in terms of pure stats.
And that is already a big achievement.
One thing that is always closely analyzed when talking about goalkeepers is their ability to successfully distribute the ball. This can be either in close or long range but since we have already dissected Pena’s ability to play through the lines with his teammates close by, let’s now take a look at his long-range passing ability.
When we simply crunch the numbers they tell a rather deceiving story. A total of 59.8% passing accuracy on average with 6.91 long balls per 90 minutes. The fact that he plays almost double those figures when it comes to short passes is not really a surprise given the system he operates in.
Still, the reason I said this could be a bit deceiving is the fact that Pena is, regardless of what the statistics might say, an excellent distributor of the ball. He sends 1.3 passes into the final third with 25.4% of them always hitting the target.
This means that if he sees an opening or a good run by one of his forwards, he will not shy away from a good-old fashioned goal kick. But it will often be a goal kick “with eyes”.
In the example above, which was taken from the time he still played for the U-19 Barcelona side, Pena sends a pinpoint accurate long-ball into the final third and right into the feet of his forward.
Notice how this ball was threaded between two markers, while the third was pulled away into the wings by his teammate. Not only is this pass really risky and the chances of losing the ball are high, but it also requires sublime skill and precision to pull off.
Although one example hardly does it any justice, Pena does these kind of “stunts” almost every single game, with his success rate varying from time to time.
In general, it doesn’t really matter if there are two, three or more markers around his teammates, if he sees an opening, and he will, you can expect a ball into the feet of one of the Blaugrana players.
With those excellent long-balls and creativity when building from the back, Pena is an incredible asset in attack. Especially since we are, after all, talking about a goalkeeper.
Defensive skill set
Now that we have dealt with his offensive side, it’s time we actually see what he has to offer in terms of facing his opponents head-on. On average he faces 3.11 shots per 90 minutes and concedes 0.72 goals per game.
While these stats are his own, a big part is also on his defense’s shoulders. Still, when he is put to the test, his reflexes are often what saves the day. 47.7% of all of his saves are reflex ones and he usually has to make 2.39 saves per match.
In this aspect, he is really remarkable as those stats edge out even the ones of Marc-Andre ter Stegen who relies on his reflexes 43.9% of the time. Note, however, that relying less on your reflexes does not mean you are worse in stopping shots but it does give you an edge in pure technical ability.
Again, compared to other goalkeepers: de Gea 44%, Alisson 42.5%, Oblak 41%, and Neuer 37.5%. The youngster’s agility and reaction time are well above average, as it can be concluded after comparing him to the best of the best.
Still, we mustn’t forget the arguments from before: easier league, easier opposition.
Considering that he is expected to concede 0.83 goals but in reality concedes 0.72, Pena is still outperforming his xCG by a margin of 0.11.
One other aspect of his game that we simply cannot overlook is his tendency to leave his line. More often than not, when facing a cross into the box or simply a rushing forward, Pena will opt to challenge him by advancing towards him.
This results in 1.83 exits per 90 minutes on average, which is way more than any of our before mentioned “heavyweights”. The closest in pure numbers is Jan Oblak who averages 1.31 exits per game.
Pena’s dominance in the air is what makes him so optimistic when challenging his opposition in the box. On average, he faces 0.64 aerial duels per game and wins an outstanding 95.3% of them. The fact that he is 6’0” (184 cm) also helps.
Although goalkeepers do win most of their aerial duels due to their usage of hands, this is still a commendable output which means that he doesn’t make many mistakes and that he knows when to engage and when to stay on his line.
For such a young keeper, it is truly a remarkable skill to have.
Inaki Pena plays in a high-risk, high-reward system, and also one that makes sure that all the goalkeepers get their chance to shine. As a direct result, he only played five games in total this season and conceded four goals in the process.
On paper, and slowly but surely on the pitch as well, this youngster is truly becoming something else. His shortcomings are not huge: despite his excellent reflexes, he still suffers in 1v1 situations, and for all the “sniper-like” balls, the percentage of his long passes has to go up just a bit in order for Barcelona B to improve their already dominant possession style football.
Still, we should not forget that he is a work in progress and should also be analyzed as one. Therefore, his flaws are pretty minor considering his pros.
Seeing how Barcelona favor the sweeper-keeper styles of goalies, it should come as no surprise if Inaki Pena makes it to the first team in the foreseeable future.
There’s still a long way until then, and the competition is tough, but as of right now, it is definitely on the horizon.
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