40. Pol Lirola
Wing-backs are becoming increasingly important commodities in the modern-game, as their dynamism on both sides of the pitch are becoming an important asset to teams. Teams often deploy three-at-the-back systems which results in these full-backs providing more of an attacking outlet, thus converting full-backs to wing-backs, and rising the demand for players who meet these characteristics. Take Manchester City for example, who broke the transfer record for a defender twice this summer, with the signings of Kyle Walker and later Benjamin Mendy, while also adding depth in that position with the signing of Danilo.
It’s clear that these players are important figures to their teams’ setups, and every top club is looking to strengthen in that role. Juventus have one such player in their books, and he is currently learning his way in the game while out on loan to Sassuolo. The Bianconeri have had a good relationship with the Neroverdi since the latter earned promotion to the top division, with the likes of Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza honing their skills while donning the green-and-black, and Spanish full-back Pol Lirola is the latest name to be sent out to Modena to improve his game and refine his skills.
The full-back first arrived in Turin on a loan spell with the club’s youth team, having impressed scouts from sides like Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund while at Espanyol. Having impressed instantly in the loan spell, Juventus signed him permanently and allowed him to take part in their 2016 pre-season preparations, before sending him out on loan to Sassuolo, where he was a permanent fixture in Eusebio Di Francesco’s first team for the 2016/17 season. He made his official debut against Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League qualifiers, as the Neroverdi progressed to the competition proper for the first time in their history, where Lirola cemented himself in Sassuolo folklore.
In their very first game in the Europa League against Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao, he scored their first-ever goal in continental competition, and it showed everything he was made of. On his usual stride forward, he cut inside past one defender, before explosively charging forward past another Bilbao defender and finishing the move with a deft finish with his weaker left foot. The goal showcased his attributes, his potential and his drive that made him such a sought-after modern-day full-back. Sassuolo won that game 3-0, and Lirola was one of the stars of the evening, proving his worth to all that tuned in.
A dynamic full-back, his dribbling skills are his best attribute, giving Sassuolo an alternate source in attack. The 20-year-old completed more take-ons than the likes of Andrea Conti and Dani Alves in Serie A last season and offered more width and directness to Sassuolo’s attacking play. He also has the energy to quickly move up and down the pitch, closing down spaces on the offensive half, and can track back and quickly retrieve the ball while on the move in the defensive half, in case Sassuolo lose possession and face a counter-attack. His smart transitional play is one of his biggest strengths, but his foremost attribute is his agility both on and off the ball. While dribbling forward, he has great ball control and can quickly, and rather unpredictably, change direction and provide a major threat to opposition defences, as seen with both Sassuolo and the youth team at Juventus.
Blessed with the speed needed to be a full-back, it is the effective utilisation of his skills that makes him such a renowned prospect. He is smart, and quick mentally, which allows him to improvise situations. Lirola’s incisiveness results in him providing support to his attacking peers with overlapping runs, with Domenico Berardi and him moulding quite a partnership down the right flank.
Another one of his major skills is his tackling and defensive solidity. Most full-backs aren’t as astute at the back as they are in attack, but what Lirola offers is concentration and strength in the back line. He is a good tackler, and times his challenges well with a precision far beyond his 20 years. In addition to that, he has a strong sense of awareness and is able to notice and, subsequently cut out, any danger that may arise. It is this solidity that has heaped so much attention on him, and because he is still quite young, there is lots of room for improvement that will certainly make him into a top-quality right-back.
His weakness comes from his lack of size. Standing at 1.82 metres and with a relatively thin frame, he is often outdone while defending corners or crosses. Another area where he can improve is his crosses. Despite having a creative, attacking prowess, he occasionally lacks the quality in his final delivery. Add to that a lack of efficiency by his fellow teammates in the final third, his assist numbers leave a lot to be desired – he racked up just three last season – something his attacking aptitude didn’t accurately reflect.
The player has shown his desire to improve, and there is a huge possibility that next season, 2018/19, is where he earns his reward and cements his role in the Juventus first team. Dani Alves has already left, and Juventus are in need of strengthening in that area, with Lirola fitting the bill perfectly. He has previously cited Dani Alves and Philipp Lahm as his role models.
“I grew up with the legend of Philipp Lahm, but I see more of myself in Dani Alves – it’s a shame I couldn’t train with him.”
He also recently earned his first call-up to the Spanish U21 setup, having previously played with the U17’s. It’s a prize that is thoroughly deserved after two years of exceptional and visible development. Arriving to Sassuolo as quite a gangly figure with lots to work on, he has developed in the right way, doing just what was expected of him, and he is sure to be a constant name in the headlines with plenty chasing his signature. Supremely gifted, he will make an excellent footballer, and it’s not long before he becomes a household name in the sport. Full-backs are the future, and he is the perfect representation of the modern and future full-back.
By: Karan M. Tejwani/@karan_tejwani26