Josh Hobbs takes a look at Junior Firpo, the Barcelona left back who is set to be the first Leeds United signing this summer…
All being well, Leeds United could confirm their first major signing of the summer in the next few days, bringing in 24-year-old Junior Firpo from Barcelona. There are varying reports regarding the deal — which should become clear soon — but the expectation is that it will be a four year deal and the fee will be around €12–15m.
Junior came to Spain — the country he has represented at under-21 level — from the Dominican Republic and made his way into professional football at Real Betis. His first La Liga appearance came in 17/18 and he followed it up with 14 appearances worth just over 1000 minutes. During this time, he scored twice and added another two assists. His second season was his major breakthrough: he played 2314 minutes across 29 games in all competitions, scoring three and assisting five goals.
Playing under Quique Setien, Junior was utilised as a left-wing-back in a 3–4–2–1, where his athleticism and aggressive runs forward made him a key attacking weapon for Betis. Off the back of this season, Barcelona decided to move for both player and manager: Junior signed in the summer of 19/20 for over €18m and Setien joined the club in January. However, it didn’t work out at Camp Nou for either of them. Setien was dismissed after Blaugrana were embarrassed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League and Junior is being sold at a loss, having played only 2144 minutes across the two seasons he’s been in Catalunya.
I can’t pretend to give a full-overview of what went wrong for him at Barcelona but a friend of ours at All Stats Aren’t We, @EthanFromOnline (follow him on twitter!) is an avid watcher of La Liga and Barcelona specifically and he has put out a few threads on Junior over the last few days.
With the 24-year-old’s last couple of seasons being pretty poor, it’s clearly a risky signing. However, I would argue that for a club like Leeds — one trying to re-establish themselves at the top level and with ambitions to get into Europe in future seasons — all smart transfers will involve taking risks.
Leeds can’t drop huge fees on major stars. Instead, they need to find up-and-comers who are tearing it up in lower quality leagues, such as the much fancied Noa Lang, or alternatively, they can look to take a chance on players who have made moves to top clubs that haven’t worked out for them, gambling that their quality would still be improvement to Leeds and backing their ability to nurture the player to reach their true potential. Junior fits into that second category. Even if this signing goes wrong and he bombs, Leeds haven’t spent a huge amount on Junior and they would likely be able to recover a good portion of their outlay.
So what kind of player is he?
In my reports, I usually like to start off with a data profile and contextualise a lot of what I see in the video in what I have observed in the data and vice-versa. This helps me make early conclusions about a player or at least tells me what I expect to then see when watching them. If I don’t see those things, I’ll ask why not, or perhaps I’ll see something that tells me the data is misrepresenting the player due to team-effects, league effects, etc.
In the case of Junior, I’m not going to use a data-profile. Given his small amount of minutes, I think it would be misleading. It would be possible to use the data from his final season at Betis, but as he played almost exclusively as a wingback there, I don’t think this would be particularly helpful either. Leeds do utilise wingbacks at times, as we know, but the majority of the time he would be playing in a four at Leeds.
Instead, I’ll just use video to make my observations. As such, I want to caveat this report with a disclaimer that, without using the data, I’m less confident in my conclusions than I usually would be.
That being said, Junior looks physically like the type of player who would fit perfectly into Marcelo Bielsa’s system. He’s got a strong, athletic frame and stands at a height of just over six feet. This additional height could be very beneficial to Leeds, given their issues at set-pieces in 20/21.
He has good acceleration and his pace over distance is exceptional. Having been a wing-back at Betis, he’s used to covering a lot of ground, which bodes well for him coming into a relentless pressing system like Leeds’. I feel that his strengths are primarily his off-the-ball runs and his ability to put dangerous low crosses in.
He is certainly more of a net-positive for the team in attack than he is in the defence. However, I think most would say that — aside from his pressing — Alioski is a poor defender. Junior might not be a great defender but in the man-marking system his athleticism could make up for some of his issues, although not all. He will also be an improvement in the build-up phase, although I don’t think he’s faultless there either.
I will now break down some particular things I noticed, using some clips to demonstrate my points. I’ll start with the main positive:
Attacking Runs and Crossing
When his team has the ball in the attacking phase, Junior’s off-the-ball running is superb. He attacks space very well and gets up to speeds which make him very difficult to deal with for a stationary full-back. I noticed that he makes these runs very regularly, which is great to see in terms of him fitting into Leeds’ system where there will be well-rehearsed attacking movements which will trigger these kinds of runs from him often.
The clips above show him making runs forward in a variety of different contexts. There are runs from deep, like the goal he scored for Betis against Barcelona, which was more of a counter attack as he began his run in his own half and was released in behind to score. We can also see him overlapping and underlapping to get to the byline to drive the ball across goal, as well as him making a run forwards as the only outlet on the left as he assisted a goal against Real Madrid.
Runs forward are something that Alioski has done very well for Leeds and are an important part of his role in the team so it’s very encouraging to see that Junior already has this is a key aspect of his game and won’t have to be something that Bielsa has to coax out of him.
As we know, Alioski can also be caught offside a lot when making these runs, but Junior seems to time his better and I would say that there is more quality coming from the end of them from the former Betis man.
Speaking of his quality of end-product, there is one specific delivery that I feel is his real attacking weapon. This is the drilled low cross from high positions:
As you can see above, he really fizzes these balls across the box which makes them horrible to defend against. These are the kinds of deliveries which can lead to own-goals when they come in because defenders are terrified of where the ball will end up and they end up lashing it past their own goalkeeper whilst running towards goal.
Also, it seems that he is aiming them into a specific area of the box — which just so happens to be the area where high-value xG chances are taken from, also known as the Golden Zone — rather than trying to pick out a certain player. On several occasions, his crosses are missed by the first man but buried by somebody running into the centre or to the back-post area. One could imagine Raphinha thriving off these kinds of deliveries as he attacks the back-post very well.
One issue that I noticed when looking at his crossing was that he struggles far more with lofted crosses. Alioski can be varying in his quality of delivery but his technique is largely decent for putting in whipped crosses. Junior, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to get them off the ground very well and certainly doesn’t generate anywhere near the amount of whip and pace that Alioski can when his aim is in.
From the clips above, I hope I can show you what I feel the issue is. For some reason, I think he seems to get the ball a bit stuck under his feet when attempting crosses like this and then he has to almost dig the cross out in an almost scoop or chip like fashion. He never seems to push the ball out ahead of him and then strike through the ball which is why he can’t get the power and whip on it. Subsequently, these kinds of crosses are dealt with very easily.
Whilst this is an issue in his game, I don’t think it has to be a huge problem as Jack Harrison provides this kind of threat so between the two of them they would have two different kinds of crossing threat on the left.
The other thing that I noticed about his play in this area of the pitch is that his effectiveness was dramatically reduced if he wasn’t running onto the ball. He was not good at taking on players from a standing start as he didn’t have a trick or feint to unbalance opponents. Players like Raphinha or Ian Poveda excel in these moments as they throw a stepover or a body swerve in and then explode away when the opponent has shifted the wrong way. Junior seemed to lack that explosiveness from a standing start, as well as missing the trick. Fortunately, this should largely be negated by him playing at full back as he will mostly be arriving from deep at pace.
Whilst he hasn’t scored a huge amount of goals in his career thus far, I think Junior looks to be one of the most dangerous in terms of goal threat of all the left-backs I’ve spoken or written about over the last few months. Again, this is an area that Alioski has been helpful in, chipping in with some important goals. The Macedonian has provided threat in his shooting from range, which I don’t expect Junior to bring a lot of, but mostly Alioski has attacked the box very well. Junior also does this and I think he’d score a few goals arriving late into the box.
Whilst not all the examples in the clips above end in goals, note the excellent positions that he gets himself into. I particularly like the goal he scored for Barcelona where the ball was coming in from the right and he attacked the six-yard-box to score. I can remember a couple of almost identical goals which Alioski scored against West Bromwich Albion in 18/19 or Millwall away in 19/20. These are not normal goals for full-backs to score. Again, it’s an excellent sign for how Junior would fit into Bielsa-ball.
Another thing that I feel that he would bring to Leeds is his propensity to drive into central spaces with the ball. This can overload the centre, get defences backpedalling, and open up spaces to exploit.
As I’ve mentioned earlier on, Junior is strong and athletic and when he gets up to speed he can be very difficult to stop. As such this makes him a real weapon when carrying the ball. On the right-hand-side, Leeds often utilise Luke Ayling’s ball-carrying as a way to progress the ball up the field. Only Lionel Messi progressed the ball further by carrying the ball than Ayling across all 5 top European leagues. Having Junior on the other side should really help Leeds in this regard as Alioski was far less effective as a ball progressor.
It’s important to note that he can make poor decisions in going for these runs and charge into congested spaces, leading to turnovers, but on the whole I feel this area of his game would be a net-positive.
Is he press resistant?
If you followed our Orta’s List shows, you’ll know that one of the key attributes we think is important in upgrading from Alioski is press-resistance. What we mean by that, is the ability to maintain possession and progress the ball despite being pressed intensely by the opposition.
This was an area where Alioski struggled badly and it seemed to be something that was identified by opposition managers. Cast your minds back to the Arsenal away game, where Alioski was pressed constantly in the first-half and he was turning the ball over constantly. He was pinned wide with the ball and would then panic and give the ball away. Brighton also did this very effectively.
As for Junior, I feel that he is better than Alioski in this regard but there are some issues.
He can carry the ball well through pressure and having played for Barca, he’s used to quick passing through pressure. These things alone should make him a level up on Alioski.
The clips above show that he’s able to break out from those wide areas and doesn’t get stuck there as easily as Alioski. Also, we see some moments where he’s able to take a step out from deep, beat a man if necessary and play a forward pass to spring an attack. These are very positive signs.
However, as noted by @EthanFromOnline, he was at times targeted as the weak-spot in build-up at Barca and Atletico pressed him relentlessly in one game, causing a number of errors. When carrying the ball out from the back, he can run straight into traffic and turn the ball over in very dangerous areas and at times he can get caught in two minds about what he wants to do and end up having to run backwards and then try to launch it away.
As I said, I still think he’s an upgrade on Alioski here as even the least press-resistant player at Barcelona is likely to be one of the better players for Leeds, but I can’t say he’s without problems in build-up.
Can he press?
I’m pretty confident in Junior’s ability to fit into the pressing system at Leeds. He certainly has the required physical attributes to do it and I think he plays with the required intensity, so it shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for him.
I noted that he would get very quickly out to the ball when required, which is what he’d need to do and more playing for Leeds. I would perhaps question his ability to be switched on to follow his man everywhere in the man-marking but I will go into that a little more when I discuss his positioning and awareness.
The clips above highlight his intensity in going to win the ball but again there is good and bad here. He closes down space very quickly but when actually going to win the ball he can be quite wild and gives away some silly fouls. As Leeds struggle defending set-pieces, he’d be wise to cut this out of his game. If he can learn to get quickly out to the opponent and then jockey them into turning backwards or turning over the ball, he will be a far better defender.
Defending in 1v1 situations is something that Junior didn’t have to do a whole lot of whilst playing for Betis, as he was much more of an attacking player than he was a defender. Coming into the Leeds team where he will primarily play in a back four, he will be asked to do this far more.
Having watched a lot of his 1v1 clips, I would definitely say this isn’t a strong area of his game and that his basic defending fundamentals aren’t great. He positions his body well and uses a side-on, knees bent stance, and he moves with short steps so that he can react to the movement of an attacker but when it comes to making a challenge he can be weak and dangle a leg out without committing and be beaten too easily.
His athleticism means that he can cope very well with the more explosive forwards, as he did when playing against Mbappe (Junior was on the right of the back three for this game) in the Champions League. He has recovery pace if he’s beaten in wide areas and strength to push a pacey winger off the ball. However, more technical dribblers can get the best of him and he has been known to give away fouls too easily in these scenarios.
Above are some examples of him defending 1v1. There are two where he is tied up by the opponent and struggles to turn to react to their close control, having to be bailed out by a teammate, whilst another shows him winning the ball comfortably on the touchline.
This is probably one of my main areas of concern regarding Junior as being beaten in a 1v1 can be disastrous in the man-marking system. If his opponent is able to drive inside and overload the centre, it will force another player to abandon their man and go to the ball and this can lead to giving away some big chances.
It should be said that Alioski is not particularly strong in this area either though, so Junior is unlikely to be a downgrade in this sense.
Positioning and Awareness
When it comes to defensive positioning, the most obvious thing to say is that in defensive transition he is often nowhere to be seen. This is due to the fact that he is so aggressive with his forward runs that if the ball is turned over whilst his team is transitioning to the attacking phase, he is simply too high up the pitch to make it back to defend. On the occasions that he isn’t too high up the pitch, his pace is a good weapon in defensive transition because he is able to catch up with fast wingers, as mentioned above.
Outside of those moments, his defensive positioning and awareness are certainly not a strong point. In those moments, it’s clear that he hasn’t spent his many years of development playing on the left of a back four.
When watching every left-back we’ve been linked with over the last few months, I’ve often had issues with players not scanning their surroundings well and being unaware of opponents attacking the back post from crosses. I haven’t been too concerned with Junior on that issue but I have noticed that he can be caught out when his team is holding a higher line as he has been completely unaware of wingers making runs outside him into wide open space. He can recover this at times, due to his athleticism but there are other times where he’s let them have such a head start that there is simply no recovery.
The clips above show one occasion where Junior was caught too high up the pitch in transition, leading to a goal and one occasion where his original position was too high but he was nowhere near the ball cut off the pass so he was just passed around. There are then two examples against Juventus where Juan Cuadrado exploited his lack of awareness to sprint into space behind him.
I find all of these examples pretty concerning and I have to say that my expectation is that there will be goals conceded due to errors like these. I hope this is something he is able to improve on because they are fairly basic but fundamental errors. Being caught too high in transition is forgivable in Bielsa’s system because it’s part of the way that Leeds play. Flinging bodies forward at pace after winning the ball is the name of the game and at times Leeds get punished for that but Bielsa doesn’t mind because on the whole it benefits the team in attack. The lack of awareness is much worse.
So, is this a good signing?
Overall, I think Junior would be a very good signing for Leeds. I explained earlier on why there is risk involved but that all smart transfers involve an element of risk. I won’t downplay the risk factor either, as there are many risks. His disappointing time at Barca, the defensive issues mentioned above, the fact that he’d be moving to play outside of Spain for the first time are just some of them.
However, there were some that thought Junior would have become Spain’s first-choice left-back by this point and he’s clearly a player with a very high ceiling — one that looks to have a lot of attributes to fit into Leeds’ system. If Leeds can help him reach his clear potential in a way that he was unable to at Barca, then they might have a real star on their hands and one that could end up going on to look like a complete bargain.