Riqui Puig: Can LA Galaxy’s Barcelona signing deliver a Hollywood-worthy impact?
MLS has had quite the transfer window, perhaps its greatest ever.
The league has seen Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi swap Serie A for Toronto FC, as well as Giorgio Chiellini leaving Juventus for LAFC. He’ll be joined in The City of Angels by Gareth Bale as the Welshman departs from Real Madrid.
Labelled the “new Xavi”, the soon-to-be 23-year-old struggled for playing time under the Barcelona idol. Looking to revitalize his career, Puig is making a Hollywood entrance in Los Angeles.
The Spaniard is well known in the global football community. In fact, we already have a couple of scout report articles on him by our Barcelona expert, Domagoj Kostanjšak. Those tactical analysis pieces offer brilliant insights into the player. This analysis will aim for something slightly different. Rather than a full scout report on the player, will look at the LA Galaxy’s needs in midfield, how Puig fits into the picture and the developments in his game since our latest reports on the La Masia grad.
Puig’s Dreadful Data
As always, let’s start with the data.
Looking at the data profile below, you get a sense of why Xavi helped Puig out the door. His attacking and creativity statistics are fantastic, typically in the 80th percentile or better for La Liga attacking midfielders. However, his statistics are abysmal everywhere else.
The only three categories where his stats fall in the top half of the league are passing accuracy percentage, accurate forward passes percentage and fouls P90. For someone who is once regarded as the next big thing out of La Masia, Puig’s fall from grace has been quite the spectacle.
Based purely on the data, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Much like Barcelona, the Los Angeles Galaxy counterpress intensely and look to press high up the pitch. In terms of the defensive model, many of the same principles will carry over, though he may have to adapt to a 4-4-2 system. We’ll speculate more on potential changes of shape later in this analysis, but for now, suffice it to say that his defensive production must improve.
Looking at Los Angeles’s data, their resilient defending is one of the keys to their success. They’re also one of the top teams in MLS in terms of xG.
But finishing those chances has been the issue all year. It’s their stout defensive work that has kept them in matches and has them in contention for a playoff berth. Despite the presence of Chicharito, the legendary Mexican poacher, the Galaxy have struggled greatly in front of goal.
They’re getting plenty of touches in the box and shots each match. In terms of the p90 data, the Galaxy rate 5th in shots with 12.09 P90 and 2nd in touches in the penalty area with 20.68 P90.
Chance creation has not been an issue. It is interesting to see Puig make the move to Los Angeles since he is more of a creative, dynamic playmaker than anything else. That said, he does have the awareness to make runs into the box and connect with teammates to create chances for himself. He’s a player who can strike the ball well and get it on target too.
And that may be exactly what the Galaxy need.
What does LA Galaxy need from Puig?
The Galaxy or an interesting team to watch. Width is often provided by a single player on each side and the club has bought into the central overload model. They’re one of the top-possessing teams in the league with an average of 53.6%. Central dominance with easy access to the wings has been pivotal to their attacking tactics. Even though they’ve only scored 31 goals, it is important to remember that they are underperforming their xG by nearly six. The chances are falling to them, but the players simply aren’t taking their opportunities.
One thing Puig will enjoy is more open spaces in MLS. At Barcelona, the youngster ran up against the rigid low block week-in, week-out. That won’t be the case in MLS.
Instead, he’ll play for a side that still owns the majority of possession and features a central overload with minimal wing presence, but all in a more open game state.
With more space to exploit, the LA Galaxy will expect Puig to earn his keep between the lines. The Galaxy already do quite well in this area. Within their 4-4-2, the two forwards try to occupy the opposition’s backline, pinning them high up the pitch. Douglas Costa, another former Juventus man, will also take up a high and wide position on the right wing, further exacerbating the opposition’s press.
The work of the front line will create spaces between the lines for Puig, as you see below.
While the last example gives us a glimpse of the Galaxy’s preference for central penetration, they’re also quite good at linking up in the wings as well. While they do try to maintain a minimal presence in the wings, an example like the one below gives us a glimpse of the spaces they create. As the gap between the opposition’s backline of midfield expands, the Galaxy’s highest players will look to drop in between the lines to receive. That’s especially the case with the wingers, who generally don’t have anyone underneath them to obstruct their checking run.
When the Galaxy target players high in the wings, it’s common for one of the midfielders to offer support. In the instance below, the wing play creates an opportunity to dribble through the right half-space. In other instances, we could see them target a give-and-go to play the winger behind the opposition’s outside back.
Finally, this is an LA Galaxy team that gets a lot of numbers into the box. Puig must be prepared to make runs from deep. A common trend during his time at Barcelona, especially at the end, was to see him sit outside of the opposition’s pressing and leave runs into the box to the forwards and Frenkie de Jong. Height was prioritized as the diminutive Puig remained outside of the press and looked to influence play from there.
However, with the Galaxy and a more open league like MLS, Puig will be asked to continue his runs into the box. Looking at the example below, we get a sense of how the LA Galaxy’s central overload influences the way they attack the box. While box entry comes through the right half-space, it’s the five players making runs into the box from the central channel who signal the club’s intent.
In this instance, the runs are rather poor, not offering a diversity of angles for the first attacker, but we do see the general principle at play. The Galaxy will attack the box in numbers and the central midfielders play a role in that tactic.
Now, from a 4-4-2, it’s difficult to envision where Puig will play and what the club will ask of him. The Galaxy recently signed Gastón Brugman who has played well at the six. Marky Delgado has operated as more of a box-to-box midfielder and offers a quality presence as a number ‘8’.
Will the Galaxy switch to a 4-3-3 to accommodate Puig or will the La Masia grad take on another role, such as the second forward or left midfielder? Time will tell, but one thing is certain, the Los Angeles Galaxy need goals, so Puig must be prepared to make runs into the box.
Does Puig’s skillset match their needs?
During his debut seasons with the first team, Puig was the darling of the Barcelona fanbase. Tremendously talented with a knack for brilliant moments, he was the midfield playmaker the club had been looking for after the departures of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. But fate turned against the youngster. Rather than growing into a first-team role at Barcelona, his lack of tactical discipline and poor defensive work limited him to just 572 minutes during the 2021 / 22 campaign.
His fall from grace has been shocking to witness. His once bright future leading the midfield at one of the world’s leading clubs has passed him by. With Barcelona now in his rearview mirror, Puig will look to assert himself in the Los Angeles Galaxy midfield.
Given his issues within Barcelona’s hyper-tactical system and the style of play they were forced to implement, this move to MLS may be a blessing in disguise. The more open style of play will benefit Puig. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy have a more direct style of play than Barcelona. Though he may have to fight instinct during his early appearances, look for the changing system to bring the best out of the Spaniard.
It’s moments like the one below that made him such an acclaimed youngster. Positioned in front of the Getafe midfield, Puig received the pass, but not without pressure arriving from this front.
It’s in that second image that we get a glimpse of his dynamic ability and understand the hype surrounding his professional career. A little shoulder faint sells his opponent, baiting him to step too far forward in an attempt to claim the pass. However, Puig was in complete control and took a clever touch around his opponent.
His next action is equally praiseworthy. With his second touch, Puig drove at the Getafe right-back, drawing him higher up the pitch. That created space for Memphis Depay to make his run behind the backline.
In that instance, Puig did a really nice job maintaining his tactical discipline, taking up a good starting position and letting his teammates play into him.
That runs contrary to one of the lesser habits that he has formed over the past couple of years. Puig is a very active player. He’s constantly looking to offer himself as an option to the first attacker. While that may sound like a positive, the negative is that it often comes at the cost of leaving a better starting position.
That’s exactly what we have in this next Getafe example. Rather than staying between the lines, where he is in the middle of a 12 m gap, Puig decides to check the ball in front of the Getafe midfield.
Though Memphis appears to check centrally, which would give us an indication that Puig is reading his movement and leaving that space for his higher teammate, it’s actually Puig’s movement that starts the sequence. Rather than staying between the lines and receiving on the half turn, he puts himself within the midfield’s line of vision, making him a less desirable passing option.
This isn’t an isolated incident either. Against Celta de Vigo, albeit at the end of a 3-1 win, Puig did manage to keep his positioning between the lines, but his tendency to play negative showed up again. Despite loads of space behind him, he sent a lazy, lofted pass backwards to de Jong. Sure, there’s no harm in playing that pass and the game state didn’t require him to play more aggressively, but, as his time with the first team has evolved, Puig has formed a poor habit of deferring to the negative option without understanding the opportunities in front of him. In part, this is due to poor awareness and scanning. His scanning habits in particular have dropped off and he seems less aware of opportunities higher up the pitch.
Though he does have some bad habits to break, he’s still an exceptional talent who can take over a game. Further, he’s a very active player. One of Greg Vanney’s goals must be to funnel his movement into positive actions.
Puig is a willing runner who enjoys dynamic positional rotations when the opportunity arises. Unfortunately for him, many teams dropped deep against Barcelona, limiting the space to run into. Moments like the one below against Celta de Vigo were few and far between.
But that sequence does show that he has a player who can pick out running lanes higher up the pitch and he is willing to exploit them himself.
Above all, the Galaxy will expect Puig to help them generate higher quality goal-scoring opportunities, particularly in more central areas. With his technical quality and cleverness, he’s still a player who can produce a moment of individual brilliance.
Looking at the 4-in-1 image below, we get a sense of what Puig looks like when he’s at his best. First, he has a great position between the lines. Then, when he does receive the pass, he’s best when he can tap into a more direct approach and run at the next line of defence. He’ll have those opportunities with the Galaxy and even be encouraged to construct them. In the third image, we have weak pinning the defender before setting a teammate into the box, then continuing his run in the fourth image to receive his goal-scoring opportunity.
He makes a mess of the pass, fumbling his shot, but the starting positioning, movement and passing were there in the build-up to the opportunity. At his best, he’s good for a few of these moments each match. If the Galaxy can figure out how to get him between the lines, receiving in forward-facing positions and attacking the next line of the opposition’s press, they’ll unleash one of the top young talents in the world.
Puig’s arrival in Los Angeles sent shock waves through the league. Given Barcelona’s financial predicament and Xavi’s preference for other players, Puig’s departure didnt’ come as a surprise. However, his destination shocked the football world.
As he moves to Los Angeles, he joins a struggling side that sits just outside of the playoff picture. Should we come in and lead the Galaxy to a memorable postseason run, he’ll produce a season-ending worthy of Hollywood’s attention.
Though he may initially struggle with the physicality and openness of the league, Puig immediately becomes one of the most talented individuals to perform in MLS. Lots of questions still remain, such as how the Galaxy adapts its system to accommodate Puig or if he himself adapts and takes on a new role. Kévin Cabral has struggled in his debut season, which could very well lead to a change in system to a 4-3-3 or inserting Puig as the secondary striker.
Either way, this move positions the Galaxy to not only reach the playoffs but also sparks hope of a deep run.
The curtains are up and expectations are sky high. It’s showtime in Los Angeles and Puig is the leading man.