Reasons why Leeds United move for Barcelona's aggressive left-back Junior Firpo would make sense

Leeds United need an attacking left-back and Junior Firpo needs to leave Barcelona for a fresh start, so this one makes sense.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 30th June 2021, 4:42 am
BIG MOVE - Junior Firpo and Nelson Semedo of FC Barcelona look on from the bench prior to the La Liga match against RCD Espanyol. Firpo, in need of a fresh start, is a target for Leeds United. Pic: Getty

The Whites’ interest in the 24-year-old defender makes a lot of sense, when you consider the forward-thinking style he employs on the left flank and the versatility that has allowed him to play in a number of other positions.

Firpo’s desire to leave Camp Nou also makes a lot of sense. His time at one of the world’s biggest footballing institutions was always going to come to an end this summer.

He signed from Real Betis in 2019 for around €18m, the €12m potential add-ons hinting at the potential both Barcelona and his former employers felt he had.

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But surpassing Jordi Alba was always going to be a difficult, if not impossible task and it was only ever the Spain international’s unavailability that presented opportunities for the younger man.

At Betis, where he played predominantly left midfield, he was a bit of a star and had already gained European and Spanish top-flight experience before his big move. At Barcelona he was an understudy and, given the club’s regularly highlighted and criticised recent problems with developing young talent, his struggle was maybe not such a surprise.

It seems reasonable to suggest the big move came a little too soon.

So now, like Everton’s former Barcelona left-back Lucas Digne before him, Firpo will go in search of happier times and regular football abroad.

A move has been on the cards for some time, with an AC Milan link persisting for months on end, but Leeds appear to have crowbarred themselves into the reckoning and are increasingly confident they can bring him to England.

They like him a lot and feel he’s the right man to strengthen the left-back area, regardless of what out-of-contract Gjanni Alioski decides to do this summer.

Data platform smarterscout suggests he was an aggressive defender for Betis, recovering the ball frequently when it was lost by the opposition, but not so hot when it came to tackling and one-versus-one defending.

That doesn’t unduly concern Josh Hobbs, player analyst for gaming platform Five Yards and writer for AllStatsArentWe, who sees a ‘classic attacking full-back’ who progresses the ball, dribbles well and has a desire to get into the box.

“My feeling is that he’s not great at winning the ball in duels but I don’t think it matters hugely,” he told The YEP.

“He is an excellent athlete and in our man-marking system that can cover for a few issues in defensive fundamentals.

“He’ll likely get caught out in attacking transition where he’s high up the pitch and can’t get back to defend counters, but that’s a hazard of the system.

“It happens to Gjanni Alioski a lot.”

Firpo’s attacking bent is what appears to have appealed most to Victor Orta and Marcelo Bielsa. He brings aggression and athleticism to the role, timing his runs to go past defenders and find space beyond the back line, where he can do damage.

“Going forwards, he’s a good dribbler – particularly when he gets up to speed and he can steam past players,” said Hobbs.

“He likes to play a pass into midfield and then sprint down the line to receive in behind and get into the box.

“His delivery in wide areas is usually a fizzed low cross, which is dangerous as often if the player at the front post misses it, can be met by somebody running centrally or to the back post.”

For a Bielsa full-back, the ability to get to the byline and cut the ball back across the area is crucial.

That tactic in particular has become a rich source of attacking threat and goals for the Whites during the head coach’s reign and was responsible for perhaps the most important goal of his three years in charge, when Luke Ayling’s low cross was tucked home by Pablo Hernandez at Swansea.

It can’t all be overlapping runs and link-up play with Jack Harrison, however, if Firpo does replace Alioski.

As the North Macedonian discovered last season, any defensive frailty, whether that be individual or a result of Leeds’ defensive organisation, can be punished ruthlessly in the Premier League.

As Alioski and Leeds also proved, even against the very best opposition, defensive frailty can be worked upon to the point where it no longer becomes a problem or a talking point.

The Bielsa effect, that knack of improving players and getting the best of them, has been a major selling point for Orta in the transfer market before and may well be key to turning Firpo’s head away from Italy and towards West Yorkshire. This might just be what he needs.