The Next in Atleti’s Long Line of Midfield Gems: Pablo Barrios 

La Liga has no shortage of talented young midfielders with immense potential. I’m sure several spring to mind immediately – Jude Bellingham, Martin Zubimendi, Pedri, Eduardo Camavinga, Gavi… the list goes on and on. But there’s one man that deserves equal recognition with the others for his current abilities and seriously world-class potential: Pablo Barrios.


My theory for why he doesn’t receive the same buzz as the others revolves around the identity of the team he plays for. Atlético Madrid, especially during their time with Diego Simeone at the helm, is not known for flashy or aesthetic football. As such, players do not get the same publicity as other teams in La Liga, especially compared to their cross-town rivals. Funny enough, that was almost Barrios’ path.


When he was five, he started his career with local Madrid youth team Escuela Deportiva Moratalaz. From there, he was noticed by Real Madrid scouts and joined La Fábrica in 2011. However, in 2017, he moved to the east side of the Spanish capital and signed with Atlético Madrid on a free transfer. Since then, he moved up the ranks of the youth system until he eventually broke through to the first team in 2022.



Part of the reason Barrios broke through into the first team at such a young age, in addition to his talent of course, is because he possesses many traits Diego Simeone values in a midfielder. Hard-working, tough, no-nonsense, happy to put a foot in, you get the picture. If you’ve never watched Pablo closely, but you have seen Saul Niguez, Koke, Marcos Llorrente, etc., then you’ll understand the profile of the player. However, he has some additional technical abilities in his profile not usually seen in the traditional rugged Atleti side, which I would like to explore with you.


The best way to understand a player’s profile (in my opinion, anyways) is to look at select underlying statistics. You might be thinking of stats like xG but it (and many others) are highly situational and influenced heavily by the team around the player, especially on a game-to-game basis. I prefer to distill it down to eight statistics, which can be broken down into two buckets: where the player touches the ball, and how they progress the ball in possession. Everything else is just noise.


Within the possession bucket, I look at the total volume of touches, then the number of touches in each of the defensive, midfield, and attacking thirds of the field. For progression, I look at the total volume of progressive actions, then at the per 90 count of progressive carries, passes, and receptions. It may seem over-simplified, but it really helps you quickly understand how the player operates during the vast majority of the game that isn’t shown in YouTube highlights. 



The graph I shared displays Barrios’ percentile rank among all midfielders with at least eight 90’s in a La Liga season, from the ‘21/22 season through right now. A couple observations we can make about his evolution from last season to this: he’s migrating further back on the pitch in possession, seeing more of the ball in the defensive third and much less in the attacking third. With that, his total progressive actions have declined, but his progressive carries have actually increased. 


This is quite an uncommon occurrence. Progressive carries (and all other dribbling stats in general) are highly correlated with players being further up the pitch. Typically, players that make a defensive shift like Barrios will see their ball carrying go down, but their progressive passing figures increase. Let’s explore this anomaly a bit further by analyzing Barrios’ dribbling statistics:



Using the same sample group of 485 La Liga midfielders to have logged 720 minutes or more in a league season from 2021 to now, I’ve plotted their take on attempts per 90 minutes on the X axis and their take on success rate on the Y. The dotted lines illustrate one standard deviation above the median number, providing a way to visualize players with exceptional volume (to the right) or exceptional effectiveness (above). 


You’ll notice that basically nobody rates as exceptional in both aspects. This is to be expected – the higher volume of take ons a player attempts, the lower the success rate. I have many theories for why this is the case, but it bears itself out across every sample group I have ever studied. For our man in question, you’ll see he has attempted fewer take ons this season than last, but has seen a dramatic jump in effectiveness. It took me a while to wrap my head around this, as I expected the opposite; Pablo’s progressive carries per 90 minutes rose this season. Why have his dribble take ons decreased?


Then, it hit me. Opta has a bit of a complicated definition for a progressive carry, but it effectively boils down to any carry that advances the ball 10 yards or more to the opponents goal line from the furthest point forward of any pass within the past 6 before the carry. Only carries ending in the opposition’s half of the pitch count, and any carry that ends in the opposition’s 18 yard box, regardless of distance covered, is a progressive carry. In other words: carries that move the ball forward, excluding carries in less threatening parts of the pitch. 


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With Barrios’ move further toward Atleti’s defensive half when in possession, he’s been afforded the opportunity to carry the ball forward more into open areas of the pitch, rather than having to pick out a pass or take on a player during the carry. As well, when he does take on players off the dribble, he has become better at it (and likely more selective), hence the big jump in effectiveness. In fact, Barrios’ 77.5% take on success rate is the highest on Atlético Madrid in both of the past two seasons.


Given the above observations, I feel pretty confident that despite the overall decline in progressive actions from last season to this one, Pablo Barrios is becoming a more effective progressor of the ball with his new, deeper positioning. For what it’s worth, even though his progressive passes/90 has dropped from 6.38 to 5.55, his progressive passing distance is actually up slightly this year, so again, what he’s lost in volume he’s making up for in effectiveness.


The other side of the coin to consider when a player becomes more defensive minded: does their defensive activity match the positional shift? While defenders (especially center backs) can be hit or miss in terms of volume of defensive actions, the best ones always have high effectiveness metrics (aerial duel win rate, tackle success rate, etc.). This is not the case for midfielders, however, as volume of defensive actions is king. Let’s take a look at Barrios’ numbers over the past two seasons.



His blocks/90 has gone down slightly, but everything else is up compared to where he was last year. Challenges (the defensive action equivalent to take ons) and interceptions are two of the most important stats in my eyes for a midfielder, as they show the highest level of defensive awareness. And Barrios has made his biggest strides in these categories. 


Tackles/90 minutes was the one I was surprised to see only increase slightly, as this is the one I have observed seeing the biggest increase for midfielders taking on more defensive responsibilities (a subjective observation – not something I’ve actually studied). So, let’s take a closer look at the zones in which Barrios’ is winning his tackles.



If you’ll remember back to the initial radar chart I shared, he’s seen a big increase in defensive area touches, slight decrease in the midfield, and big drop in the attacking third. This bears itself out in the tackle attempts as well: a big increase in the defensive third and  huge decline in the attacking third. Curiously, though, he’s winning more in the midfield as well, which is a sign that his effectiveness is improving overall.


I previously compared Barrios to the classic Atleti midfielders, and while his tenacity and mentality aligns, his playstyle really does not. So – who might you have seen that I can most accurately compare Pablo to? Using my “Positioning and Progression in Possession” criteria, I found two very intriguing players. The first: Leon Goretzka.



Goretzka’s ‘22/23 campaign, to be specific. He rated as the most accurate comparison to Barrios’ ‘23/24 season marks. While the German sees more of the ball in the attacking third, their progression marks are nearly identical. They’re both taller midfielders (Barrios at 6’0”, Goretzka at 6’2”), and have a reputation for being both physical, yet refined on the ball.


My model does not use these as inputs, just additional similarities. Thinking about early career Leon Goretzka playing under a manager like Simeone gave me chills, but that might be what we get with Barrios. The other comparison? Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa.



The Cameroonian’s ‘21/22 campaign rated as the closest comp to the ‘22/23 version of Barrios, and the 8th closest to his ‘23/24 numbers, so it is probably the most accurate comparison. Thinking about it further – it makes total sense. Zambo Anguissa is a defensive-oriented, box-to-box midfielder with a unique willingness to start counters and progress the ball with his carrying rather than passing. This description is exactly what I hope to have detailed about Pablo Barrios and his playstyle to this point. Given this was Anguissa’s age 25 season profile, and Atleti’s man is still only 20 years old, it is a very promising sign for Barrios’ future prospects.


If you take anything away from this piece, I’d like for you to understand that while Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid have a reputation for midfield bulldogs, Pablo Barrios is not that. He does check the box for the defensive effort level needed to play for the Argentine, but he offers an element of technical ability and effectiveness in ball carrying not often seen at the Wanda Metropolitano. He’s a really exciting prospect, he’s a really good player already, and any conversation involving the dearth of young midfield talent in La Liga is incomplete without mentioning the name Pablo Barrios.


By: Spencer Mossman / @fc_mossman

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images