Not so long ago, La Liga dominated world football with the two greatest players not only on earth, but possibly also in history. Now, as the dominance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo begins to wane, La Liga has to look to the future.
In the past, La Liga clubs haven’t been afraid to bring in the greatest young talents to make sure that the Spanish league maintains its dominance. Florentino Pérez and his gálactico policy prove just that.
A global pandemic has robbed even the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona of sticking to that policy. Instead, the brightest sparks have popped up at Paris Saint-Germain in Kylian Mbappé and Borussia Dortmund in Erling Haaland. Both were at their very best as they almost single-handedly dispatched of Spanish representatives in the Champions League.
But who do LaLiga have in their ranks to compete with the next generation of prodigies?
Félix was the man that many expected to lead this generation. Signed for €126m from Benfica as a teenager, his stock was high, and understandably so. He had scored 20 goals across 43 games in his debut Primeira Liga season and was ready for the step up.
Under Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid, he immediately went into a high-pressure environment. Replacing Antoine Griezmann following the Frenchman’s move to Barcelona, he had to adapt his game to a more defensive system and his goal tally paid the price with only six goals in his debut season. Despite that, he still averaged 3.23 shots per game, more than anyone else in the Atlético squad.
He continues to show sparks of world-class talent. A magnificent debut dribble against Getafe winning Atleti a penalty, a mind-blowing backheel pass against Huesca, six goals in three games against RB Salzburg, Osasuna and Cádiz earlier this season, he certainly has the ability. Where he falls short of his rivals, at least for now, is in finding consistency.
In early November 2020, it looked as though the real sensation of this season anywhere in Europe could be playing at Camp Nou. Involved in nine goals in the first 10 matches of the campaign, he was picking up the weight that Messi was failing to shoulder early on in the season. As speculation about the Argentine’s future continued, Barcelona thought they had found a long-term replacement.
With explosive pace and a real cutting edge in front of goal, few can rival his ability to create something out of nothing. Even now, only two men have outperformed their xG by more than Fati’s 2.14 difference between xG and goals scored: Álex Berenguer of Athletic Club and a certain Messi. Strong with both feet, he’s developed a tendency to score with his right, which accounts for 82% of his goals, but create with his left, accounting for 63% of his key passes.
A knee injury cut his season short in November and complications to that injury have delayed his return. “I hope I can be at Euro 2020, but first I have to recover from the injury,” he said in a recent interview with Goal. Fans will be hoping that he can do both in time to be back at his best.
For a brief period, Vinícius was the saviour of Real Madrid. Among La Liga’s top 10 dribblers with 2.3 per game, any time you watched the Brazilian teen you were almost guaranteed to be on the edge of your seat. A bright spark in a dull season for Los Blancos, Santi Solari put his trust in him and Vinícius repaid it with flying colours.
Since then though, he’s failed to kick on. His game has changed significantly, he’s now much less selfish and growing more involved in the build-up play and interlinking with his attacking team-mates. His dribbles in 2020/21 are down to just 1.2 per game, a remarkable difference, but he’s gone from 15.8 passes per 90 to 21.4, with a 10.3% improvement in his success rate. He’s changing his style of play, but still misses that special something.
Nobody can doubt Vinícius’ ability to take men on. If anything, he’s probably the best young dribbler in the world, and by some distance, but he still has room to improve on his end product. Against Atalanta, there was the perfect example. A 70-yard run, complete with a quick one-two and taking on four or five players, had spectators mesmerised. Then he sent his effort on goal wide. Until he has that clinical edge in the box, he will never truly be considered on the same level as Mbappé or Haaland.
While their teams have relied on each of the following to lift their sides in each of the three previous examples, in the case of Pedri it’s quite the opposite. Unlike the others, he is not a prolific goalscorer or a talisman, but he does possess incredible talent and potential. Only 18, he’s already a regular for Barcelona and is breaking into the Spain set-up, much like Mbappé’s meteoric rise.
More Andrés Iniesta than Messi, he’s already among La Liga’s 20 most accurate passing midfielders with a pass accuracy of 87.6%, higher than the likes of Saúl Ñíguez, Sergio Canales and Ivan Rakitić, whom he replaced at Camp Nou. The maturity in his play, decision-making and technical ability with the ball at his feet belies his age. “Technically and tactically, he’s very advanced,” explains Jonatan Vega, one of the scouts who discovered him as a boy for Las Palmas.
Thrown into the Camp Nou pressure cooker, he has made a spot in the team his own. While the likes of Félix and Fati may compete for the crown of the golden boy of their generation, the superstar goalscorer like Messi or Ronaldo, Mbappé or Haaland, Pedri will likely have a different role. Like Iniesta or Xavi before him, he could easily become the man putting in the hard work to allow others to shine, without ever necessarily receiving the plaudits he deserves.