Riqui Puig is everything you’d expect a diminutive midfield graduate from La Masia to be. I could probably stop there and you would be able to formulate an idea of the kind of player Puig is.
At 5ft6 with a very slender frame it would be easy to think that Puig would lack the physicality to make it at the top of the game. But Barcelona and a certain Lionel Messi have certainly outed this dated myth, and proven that small can still mean mighty and can certainly mean quality.
Puig’s small frame makes him nimble, agile and extremely hard to pin down. He is always on the move, picking up pockets of space on the pitch. This can sometimes mean coming deep for the ball, other times this means positioning himself between the lines. Puig has predominately found himself deployed on the left-hand side of Barcelona’s midfield three (fig 1.) a position that Barcelona have struggled to fill since the departure of Andres Iniesta. With Puig only 20 years old, they’ll be hoping he is the answer for a long time to come.
‘Busy’, is the first word that comes to mind when watching Riqui Puig. Always on the move, looking for space to receive the ball, working hard out of possession and trying to make an impact on the game. Even before analysing technical attributes, Puig displays tenacity and intelligence, great attributes to have for a young footballer. His youthful exuberance and movement mean he can get on the ball frequently, which is compulsory for a midfielder in a Barcelona side.
This brings me on to my original comment about Puig being everything you would imagine from a diminutive midfielder who has recently graduated from Barcelona’s famed academy – La Masia. Like other midfield graduates, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas but to name a few, Puig is also comfortable and silky smooth in possession. Possessing an immaculate touch, Puig can pick the ball up in any situation and you would have the utmost confidence in him holding on to it and coming away with it. A standout ability of Puig’s is his body position when receiving the ball, he can receive the ball on the half turn and break through the lines, driving the play forward. This makes him difficult to pick up as pressing him too tight can open spaces.
Another unsurprising but still astounding quality of Puig is his ability to pass the football. Typically keeping it simple with one or two touch passing he remains totally in control, looking to play the way he is facing and keeping the ball moving. In addition to this, Puig does have an eye for more expansive passing, highlighted by the three chances he created in Barcelona’s last game of the season against Alaves. Two of these three chances ended up with the ball in the back of the net, scored by Messi and Semedo. Noticeably, Puig has the confidence in his game to really fire the ball into his colleague’s feet with assertion and expectance.
Arguably the greatest testament to Puig’s ability so far is the apparent faith that his captain and all-time great Lionel Messi has in him. Messi seems all but willing to give the ball to Puig in full confidence that he will receive it back, or Puig will make the right decision in possession.
On top of this, in the recent game against Atletico Madrid, a huge game which seemingly had Barcelona’s title hopes pinned on it. Puig started the match at the tip of a diamond with three midfield stalwarts in Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets behind. Three of the four central midfielders that started the game were removed for Sergi Roberto, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann. The one that remained… Riqui Puig. Such was the impact Puig was having on the game.
The confidence that resonates from Puig can also be seen with his reading of the game. You would expect any graduate from La Masia to be technically brilliant, comfortable in possession, and an immaculate passer of the ball, but arguably it is his mental sharpness that stands Puig above the others. Puig seemingly has a consistent understanding of the right thing to do, he appears in space, he knows when to pass quickly and when to hold on to the ball. This is why Barcelona fans will be confident that Puig has what it takes to cement his place in this side, for many years to come.
This does not however mean Puig is the finished article. It remains to be seen whether Puig will add the consistency to his game to produce performances like he produced against Atletico and Alaves on a regular basis. He will also need to contribute with more goal involvements, particularly with aging players around him. A question mark will also remain over the physical side to his game and whether he can develop this as he gets older. These all need to be answered by Puig, but the early signs remain hugely positive.
A look at the stats:
Comparing Puig’s stats from the Barcelona B team to his appearances for the first team.
|Per 90mins||Barcelona||Barcelona B|
|Shots / on target||0.97 / 55.6%||1.15 / 31.9%|
Puig is yet to notch for the first team, something which he will need to improve. The xG stat showing that he is underperforming in this regard. Noticeably the number of shots he is taking per 90 mins has decreased albeit in a small sample size of just 15 appearances. This could be somewhat understandable when you have Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann playing in front of you. Puig’s shot on target percentage has risen however suggesting that goals should not be too far away.
Passing + Creativity
|Per 90 mins||Barcelona||Barcelona B|
|Passes / accurate||65.56 / 91.1%||62.83 / 87.5%|
|Passes to final third / accurate||7.97 / 86.5%||11.32 / 79.4%|
|Forward passes / accurate||12.38 / 82.6%||17.76 / 77.6%|
Puig has three assists in his 15 appearances for the first team, two of which coming in his last game against Alaves. This puts his number of assists per 90 mins higher than expected and much higher than his number for Barcelona B. I am sure this has something to do with the quality of attackers that he is supplying. The number of passes per 90 mins is relatively similar as is his pass completion rate to his time in the B team – testament to both the fact that Puig has taken the step up in his stride but also to the footballing culture at Barcelona, where all teams play the same way making the transition easier.
Most noticeably with Puig’s passing stats, the number of forward passes and passes to the final third have decreased, although his success rate is higher. This suggests that Puig is being more patient in possession but also adopting a slightly more conservative approach, understandable when trying to break into the team. However, with three assists to his name, it could be argued that Puig is learning when the time is right to attempt the killer pass.
|Per 90 mins||Barcelona||Barcelona B|
|Dribbles / successful||2.58 / 54.2%||5.05 / 59.3%|
A key element of Puig’s game is his ability to skip a challenge or turn a player in the middle of the park and carry the ball forward. There have been occasions where Puig has displayed this for the first team, particularly against Atletico Madrid, but as a whole the stats do show that his dribbles and progressive runs are down by about half compared to his time in the B team. Reasons for this could be teams defending deeper in La Liga with less space for Puig to run in to, alternatively it could simply be that Puig is playing alongside the best dribbler of the ball in world football and possibly the best player to have played the game, and therefore his role is to find Messi in positions for him to do that. Either way it would be good to see Puig engage this aspect of his game more.
|Defensive duels / won||7.21 / 55.2%||4.96 / 52.1%|
As mentioned previously, Puig is 5ft6 and has a very slender build, but this does not stop him getting himself about and getting stuck in, this is highlighted by Puig’s 7.21 defensive duels a game with a better than 50% success rate. This is a huge increase from his time in the B team and it highlights Puig’s desire to hold down this slot in the first team, giving 110% and showcasing he can pull his weight defensively. Interceptions are down, but with arguably the best interceptor in the world (Sergio Busquets) sat behind him, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Puig’s competition for position this year was with Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Arthur and Frenkie De Jong. Albeit Arthur involved in a swap deal with Miralem Pjanic, the same competition will be there for him in the 2020/21 season.
Starting with goals, Arturo Vidal led the way with 0.31 goals per 90 mins, Puig yet to notch has someway to go to compete with Vidal on this, but Vidal is the most combative and box to box of the midfielders for Barcelona. In terms of play style Puig has more similarities to Rakitic, De Jong and Arthur who averaged 0.04, 0.22 and 0.06 goals per 90 mins respectively.
Puig has the smallest sample size, but he does average more assists per 90 mins than any of the others, the others average between 0.08-0.17 assists per 90 mins. Puig has made a promising start with 0.32, showing his ability to find that killer pass.
Arthur and Rakitic lead the way with forward passes and passes to the final third making on average 10 final third passes and 17 forward passes compared to Puig’s eight and 12. This shows that as Puig settles in to this team, he must start to expand his passing range and get the ball moving forward more often.
In terms of ball carrying, something which Puig excelled at with Barcelona B, he is marginally behind Arthur and De Jong who complete 2.7 and 2.95 dribbles per 90 minutes with a 63% and 65% success rate, respectively. Puig sits just behind on 2.58 and 54% success rate. Puig is undoubtedly capable of better and to secure his place in the team this could really be the aspect of his game that sets him apart.
Defensively Rakitic makes 3x the number of interceptions as Puig, maybe due to the Croats aging legs and experience his positioning allows him to intercept the ball more often than others. This will get better as Puig spends more time in the team and understands his role more and more. Puig is also behind the others on this stat, so something for him to improve on. This is not the case though for defensive duels, Puig is only beaten by the combative Arturo Vidal and comfortably ahead of the others who all average around four defensive duels per 90 mins, compared to Puig’s seven and Vidal’s eight. This is remarkable really for someone with Puig’s stature and goes to show his desire and commitment.
Forecast for the future
Puig has all the attributes to make it at Barcelona, more than any other club in fact. Not just technically, mentally he is just as impressive. With this I see no reason why he cannot secure more playing time with the first team next season, particularly with his competition (Vidal, Rakitic, Pjanic) all being over 30. However, when fit you do imagine the impressive Frenkie De Jong will knuckle down the position one side of Sergio Busquets. For Puig to reach that level and achieve his full potential, he does need to work on his contributions in front of goal and getting the ball moving forward more often, be it through progressive passing or making use of his impressive ball carrying skills.