Barcelona have got themselves into a bit of pickle with Jordi Alba’s contract. By failing to put an adequate succession line for the left-back in place, they have backed themselves into a corner whereby they could well end up spending significant money to extend for five years the contract of a player who turns 30 in March.
Alba’s current deal expires at end of the 2019-20 season, and he and his representatives are reported to be seeking a contract that brings him up to the wage bracket of those other mainstays of recent triumphs, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets. Barcelona’s opening offer was rejected at first sight. No further progress has been made.
His position has been strengthened by an excellent campaign that has yielded a career-high 13 assists in all competitions and seen him do pretty much all the things you’d want of a attack-minded full-back on a title-challenging team.
The key question is how long he can continue to produce that kind of output in one of the most physically demanding positions in the game. Even if he is able to do so for a couple more seasons, would it really be a smart move for a club who is already presiding over the highest wage bill in Europe, with the highest wages to turnover ratio of any of the richest clubs, to commit to a big-money five-year deal?
Without an experienced direct replacement in the current squad – central defenders, right-backs and 19-year-old, B-team left-back Juan Miranda have all filled in – their options look fairly limited. Poor results in Alba’s absence this season suggest that regardless of whether they eventually reach an agreement with him, they will still need another left-back next season to avoid the drop-off in performances when he is rested or otherwise unavailable.
The club’s scouting department presumably already have a list of names they’ve been monitoring, but here we are going to use some of our data to identify players with similar statistical profiles and attacking output to Alba.
Using the StatsBomb IQ similarity tool, here are the players who have played the majority of their minutes at left-back or left wing-back, aged 25 or under at the end of this season, in the top five European leagues, Portugal and the Netherlands, over the last couple of seasons, who have 80% or higher similarity to Alba, ranked from the best match downwards: Andrew Robertson (2018-19), Thomas Ouwejan, Luke Shaw, Benjamin Mendy, Kenneth Paal, Ludwig Angustinsson, Alejandro Grimaldo, Angeliño and Andrew Robertson (2017-18).
That provides a good starting point, and we’ll return to one of those names later on. But we need to refine that list further by seeking out players capable of providing a similar assist output to Alba. His seven assists in league play are buttressed by an open play xG assisted per 90 figure of 0.22 — fifth amongst all left-backs in the top-five leagues this season.
Here are the players who, using the same age, positional and league criteria as before, have provided 0.15 or more open play xG assisted per 90 in either of the last two seasons: Angeliño, Andrew Robertson, Alfonso Pedraza, Benjamin Mendy, Konstantinos Tsimikas, Robin Gosens and Thomas Ouwejan.
That leaves four players who tripped both of the filters: Andrew Robertson, Angeliño, Benjamin Mendy and Thomas Ouwejan. Mendy’s injury record rules him out as a viable option, leaving three to investigate further: Robertson, Angeliño and Ouwejan.
By this point, the virtues of Andrew Robertson hardly require further enumeration. At Liverpool, the player whose spiky attacking output at Hull drew interest from bigger clubs has developed into one of the most complete players in his position in Europe.
The 24-year-old was the only player to meet the similarity score requirement in each of the two most recent seasons, while his open play xG assisted of 0.20 per 90 this season also ranks him towards the top of that list. Like Alba, he has provided seven assists in league play. It would certainly not be an inexpensive operation, but Barcelona would be getting the prime years of an ideal, like-for-like replacement for Alba, with experience at the top end of both domestic and European competition.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Angeliño appears amongst the results given that he is a player who has been on Barcelona’s radar for some time. They were interested in him when he was a youth prospect at Deportivo La Coruña, before he moved to Manchester City, and they also considered him last summer, before his transfer to PSV Eindhoven.
“He is a very good footballer,” a club source told El País in November. “He’s got speed, dribbling ability, and he gets forward well.”
That much is evident in both his open play xG assisted figure of 0.23 per 90 and his overall statistical profile.
The 22-year-old has the sort of skill set that would be well-suited to Barcelona. He is able to get forward to the byline on the overlap or the dribble to deliver into the area. Having done so, he usually gets his head up to try and pick out a specific option.
And he is also able to find teammates with direct balls down the line or cuter passes infield. He ranks third for PSV in deep progressions, with just over seven per 90.
Unsurprisingly, his numbers were significantly worse in the Champions League. PSV were outclassed in a group alongside Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan, and his attributes were not as well-matched to the open, back-and-forth encounters that those matches became. He is not a long-striding, powerful full-back capable of regularly carrying the ball forward into attacking territory from deeper areas. But neither is that necessarily what Barcelona would be looking for.
The primary point of concern would be Angeliño’s defensive capabilities. Particularly in relatively set defensive situations, he gives the impression of constantly being a step or two behind, reacting rather than anticipating. He also has a bad habit of setting himself a bit too square to his opponents, making it hard for him to adjust and prevent them getting past.
While his defensive work could be expected to improve with age, his weaknesses there may initially be even more noticeable against a higher average level of attacker, such as he would find in La Liga.
But overall, with a further campaign of good numbers behind him, Angeliño represents a safer bet for Barcelona now than he would have been last summer. There would be a learning curve, for sure, but he looks as good a potential long-term successor for Alba as there is in the current market.
Thomas Ouwejan triggered both of the filters, but did so in different seasons. His similarity score was based on his 2017-18 campaign, while his 0.15 open play xG assisted per 90 this time around saw him just sneak in under that criteria. His radar for this season at AZ Alkmaar displays a slightly different profile and one that squares with watching him in action.
The 22-year-old is generally a sensible, stay-on-his-feet defender, who concentrates on making himself difficult to get past. Going forward, he is a simple but efficient passer, and mainly progresses into advanced positions with overlapping runs past the skilled wide forward Oussama Idrissi. He is taller and more upright in his gait that Alba (and Robertson and Angeliño) and consequently less supple in changing direction in both offensive and defensive situations. He doesn’t possess a decisive change of pace.
While Ouwejan is certainly someone that top-half clubs in the bigger leagues should be looking at, he isn’t someone who looks capable of replacing what Alba provides to Barcelona.
If Barcelona are able to extend Alba for a lesser time period or even just retain him as a starter through the final season of his current contract, there are a couple of potentially cheaper options who would represent solid backups with room for further development.
Alejandro Grimaldo featured on the similarity filter, but failed to make the cut on his attacking output, with just 0.06 open play xG assisted per 90 in his outings for Benfica in the Portuguese league. There are, though, a couple of things in his favour: firstly, he came through the Barcelona youth system and they are due a percentage of any future sale, which could be leveraged for a good deal; secondly, in an admittedly smaller sample, his numbers in the Champions League this season were very solid.
The 23-year-old again profiled similarly to Alba (80%), while his open play xG assisted figure of 0.13 per 90 was much closer to the 0.15 per 90 cutoff we put in place.
Barcelona also currently have Marc Cucurella out on loan at Eibar. Largely a left-back in the Barcelona youth system, at Eibar he has mainly been employed on the left of midfield. An assist and standout performance in a 3-0 win over Real Madrid in November was the high point of a solid yet infrequently as spectacular campaign.
The 20-year-old has, though, showed himself capable of competing at a top-flight level and is unlikely struggle to find a place for himself in a Primera Division squad next season. What is much less certain is whether he has shown enough to convince Barcelona of his suitability for a place in theirs.