And after a somewhat long transfer saga stretching from the beginning of the summer, Junior Firpo has finally been announced as the new Barcelona player. The Catalans have added the young left-back as their latest addition alongside marquee signings of Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong. But what kind of a player is Junior Firpo and how can his skill set complement Barcelona’s tactics?
This tactical analysis will look to give you an in-depth profile of the player and answer those questions along the way.
Héctor Junior Firpo Adamés or simply just known as Junior Firpo is a 22-year-old left-back who used to play his football for Real Betis in La Liga. Firpo is an electric full-back who can provide equally good returns going both forward and backward. His main attributes consist of great pace combined with dribbling abilities and an eye for a good pass.
His physique also means he is strong and good in the air, as well as solid defensively and in duels. However, despite his tendency to be a big part of his team’s link-up and build-up play, he is still a player with not much experience and a lot of room to improve.
Regardless of his passing prowess and more than decent returns, his crossing and final product in general can still leave wanting more.
Defensive style of play
Being a defender first and foremost it is essential that Firpo possesses enough quality at the back to be able to plug holes and cover for Barcelona’s main vulnerabilities out wide. Of course, being a Barcelona full-back generally means being extremely attacking-minded but the other side of the coin must also not be disregarded.
Just looking purely at his stats we can immediately see that Firpo excels in 1v1 defending and is an outstanding tackler in his own right. Just last season, he averaged 1.6 tackles per game in La Liga and has only been dribbled past 0.6 times per 90 minutes, which is a really impressive statistic in its own right.
One reason why he is so good in those situations is that he likes to think ahead of his opponent. In most instances when he recovers the ball or when he intercepts a pass, he can predict where the opposition wants to play and then aggressively engage in a duel. Notice in the example below how he breaks his team’s defensive setup to advance and retain possession with a perfectly-timed tackle.
Another instance can be seen below when once again he leaves his designated spot on the pitch in order to engage his counterpart in a duel and attempt to win the ball before the opposition can organise their attack.
This trait gives him 4.44 interceptions on average in all competitions in 2018/19 and 6.15 recoveries with 31.5% in the opposition’s half.
His pace and stamina also mean that even if the team gets caught in a transition, he will most likely be able to run all the way back and get that all-important tackle in to retain possession. This will be a crucial aspect of his play considering Barcelona tend to leave pockets of space behind their backs when their full-backs storm the opposition’s final third.
Here’s Real Betis getting caught in a similar situation in which Firpo is forced to run back to cover the open space left behind by his progressive run. Not only does he manage to get there in time but he also tackles the opposing player flawlessly inside the box – a trait not many can say they have in their arsenal.
And finally, one bonus trait that he brings to the table for the Catalans are the aerial duels. Barcelona are not really known for their prowess in the air, neither offensively nor defensively. The likes of Gerard Piqué or Samuel Umtiti get an odd header into the net sometimes and they can clear balls from the box but having an additional player in the team who can do that will certainly be of use.
On average, Firpo wins 55.3% of all of his aerial duels and 57.6% of all defensive duels in general. If we’re taking into consideration just the defensive contributions of Firpo compared to Jordi Alba, we can see that despite the 22-year-old trailing behind the experienced Spaniard, the difference is not really that big.
Attacking style of play
Barcelona’s full-backs are often only as good as their respective attacking play. And if we’re going to judge Junior Firpo with that in mind, he is more than capable of being a Blaugrana left-back through and through.
Despite his defensive contributions being more than just decent, it’s the opposite sphere that’s more interesting and more importantly, more impressive. Being an extremely pacy player, Firpo is often characterised by his overlapping runs and deadly cutbacks that often set his teammates up in front of goal.
Overlaps and cutbacks
And this is what makes him such a good fit at Barcelona. Let’s take a look at some of his attacking sequences and general positioning in the attacking phase. When in possession, Real Betis operate similarly to the Catalans – they enjoy possession-based football with the ball being with them 61.58% of the time on average in the last calendar year. In that scenario, they will mostly use a winger who cuts inside and lets Firpo overlap.
Notice how Firpo is positioned at the opposition’s blindside and is ready to storm into the box and pounce on a good ball. Now imagine Lionel Messi providing that killer pass for him and you can see why this should, at least in theory, work perfectly for Barcelona.
Another clear example can be seen below. Betis have the opposition pinned down, just like the Catalans usually do and Firpo is really high up the pitch and hugs the touchline, awaiting that ball to be played in behind the defence. And due to his sheer pace and the ability to beat his man, this course of action is what makes him so effective.
On average, he attempted 3.08 dribbles per game in 2018/19 with a success rate of 51.9%. But still, despite that big tendency to get past his marker and skin the defenders, Barcelona will be looking at those cutbacks in particular. Once he’s inside the box or deep in the opposition’s final third, Firpo will be looking for runners that he can pass the ball to and potentially assist the goal.
Last season, he tallied a total of three goals and five assists, still a far cry from Alba’s three and 16 but he also didn’t have Lionel Messi in the team. Until now, that is. Let’s look at a fairly common situation on the pitch. Firpo starts off wide and high up the pitch, just like Alba usually does, and then sprints into the final third with pace, controls the pass and then, potentially after beating his marker in a 1v1 scenario, proceeds to send that cutback ball to his rushing teammate.
It’s fairly easy to see the resemblance between that example and a typical Messi – Alba connection that has brought Barcelona dozens of goals in the past years. And poetically enough, this was never more emphasised in a game than in the match against Barcelona themselves where Firpo was bossing the flanks.
Here he is doing to Barcelona what they absolutely adore doing to other teams – Firpo sprints past the Blaugrana defenders and then slots the ball back into the feet of his teammate for a deadly combination. If he can replicate that with Messi, his assist tally just might go a bit up in the future.
Link-up and build-up play
We already emphasised that passing is an essential part of Junior Firpo’s arsenal. The stats can also attest to that. Just for reference sake, here are his numbers once again compared to Jordi Alba since the Spaniard will be Firpo’s biggest competitor in the upcoming season.
Just after taking a slight glance, we can see that Alba is superior in every category but that is mostly to be expected, partly because of the (slight) difference in quality and partly due to the (slight) difference in the quality of their respective clubs in the 2018/19 season. But Firpo can definitely hold his own, especially when considering the accuracy across the board, which is fairly close to that of Alba and this will also play a big role in his adaptability.
But since Barcelona very much rely on Jordi Alba and that left side of the pitch with 35% of all attacks flowing through that flank, the Catalans can sleep calmly knowing that Firpo is a big contributor to the overall build-up of his team’s attack.
Below, we can see a fairly average pass map from one of Barcelona’s and Real Betis’ games with Alba and Firpo highlighted respectively. We can immediately notice the similarities in their play.
Both players are clear links between the defence and the frontline, often serving as a direct channel to get the ball into the final third. The thickness of their respective passing lines towards the forwards can also attest to that. From that, it is clear – their task is to either carry or receive the ball in advanced positions and then proceed to pass it further up the pitch and into attackers’ feet.
And judging by their numbers, both players excel at that.
Shooting and overall attacking contribution
The final aspect of Junior Firpo’s style that could add an extra something to Barcelona’s tactics is his tendency to shoot. The Catalans are quite lacking at this front in general, and this should be a welcoming addition to the team.
Firpo’s 0.83 shots on average per 90 minutes are more than double of what Alba usually offers to the Blaugrana and 37.9% end up being on target. That also makes him somewhat more dangerous for the opposition’s net in terms of expected goals with his figures going as high as 0.9 xG compared to Alba’s 0.4.
Interestingly enough, Firpo makes a lot more progressive runs than Jordi Alba, which is something that is definitely a surprise. Still, with him being just 22, it’s expected that his stamina is greater than that of the Spaniard, which ultimately allows him to run up and down the pitch practically for the whole 90 minutes.
To round things off, here’s a comparison of both players’ heatmaps, which are fairly similar. Both players enjoy spending time in the opposition’s half and both players are extremely attacking-minded full-backs. That in itself makes Firpo very much a like for like replacement for Jordi Alba.
Junior Firpo is certainly not Jordi Alba just yet but even though he’s only 22, he’s already pretty close to him. And that says a lot, especially considering the experienced Spaniard is one of the best left-backs on the planet.
If we have learned anything from this tactical analysis then that’s the fact that Firpo fits Barcelona like a glove, at least on paper. How big of a success will he be in Catalunya remains to be seen but with enough work and some adjustment to the overall tactics, we just might be looking at the future Jordi Alba 2.0.
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