I don’t believe in reincarnation. Well, at least I don’t think I do. To be honest, I’d never put much thought into it. But there’s something about Spain’s midfield maestro, Pedri, that makes me think he has been on this footballing planet before.
To say so about an 18-year-old may sound hyperbolic, but one of the most unfortunate aspects of Spain’s elimination against Italy via penalty kicks is that we won’t be able to see Pedri light up Sunday’s final. Even in defeat, he delivered another superb performance and has been one of the standout players of Euro 2020.
It took Pedri until extra time before he misplaced a single pass against Italy. He completed all 55 of his passes during 90 minutes (37 of which were in the opposition half) and by the final whistle, he had misplaced just two of his 67 attempts. Not only did he do this in a heavily congested midfield, but he did so against elite opposition in the semifinals of his first major tournament. His calmness under immense pressure from a relentless Italy side deserved the highest of praise and was the latest example of Pedri casually passing another test put in front of him.
“Not even Andrés Iniesta has done it,” said Spain coach Luis Enrique in his postmatch press conference. “What Pedri has done in these Euros I have never seen with an 18-year-old, not from anyone in the Euros, World Cups, Olympic Games. It’s something away from all logic. I’m delighted that many more are aboard the Pedri bandwagon.”
“Bandwagon” was an interesting choice of words from Enrique. And while it’s strange to suggest that a player who played almost 40 games for Barcelona last season has been overlooked, Euro 2020 seemed to be the moment that Pedri really went mainstream. Consider: He was playing for second-tier Las Palmas almost a year ago. Seeing him start for Spain in a major tournament so soon made little sense in theory and total sense in practice. So much sense, in fact, that his inclusion in the starting 11 wasn’t questioned at all. His performances in Spain’s six games—including a cruelly awarded own goal against Croatia—made him undroppable.
It’s rare for such a young player to break through and become undroppable for club and country almost immediately. Inconsistency is a common trait among emerging players—inexperience or a willingness to prove their place in the side often leads to performances laced with moments of poor decision-making. While Pedri may have the odd bad game, he so often plays with the wisdom and maturity of a great player approaching the latter years of their career.
It’s this quality that makes Enrique’s mention of Iniesta so telling. Comparing an 18-year-old to one of Spain’s greatest-ever midfielders is not something anyone would do lightly, let alone the manager of the national side, who once relied so heavily on Iniesta for a treble during his time as Barcelona coach. It’s a comparison we tentatively made on Stadio not long after Pedri started featuring regularly for Barcelona.
The comparison is another thing about Pedri that seemingly defies logic, yet makes total sense. He combines qualities from both Iniesta and Xavi—he plays with the intelligence, selflessness, and, rather curiously, some of the leadership of that legendary pair, despite being so young. Against Italy, Pedri was not only completing all of his own passes, but also could be seen directing his teammates around the field so they could complete theirs as well.
While a player’s influence on his teammates’ pass completion rate isn’t something that can be measured, it does provide a glimpse of what makes Pedri such a curious player to observe. Much of his influence will only show up in advanced statistics such as shot-ending sequence involvement, among other metrics that are yet to cross over into the mainstream. Those wanting to have an online #numbers battle to downplay his performances might point to his zero goals, zero assists, and zero shots for the tournament, but it’s hard to take such criticism seriously.
But anyway, who cares? Pedri doesn’t, neither do his teammates or coaches. Because they—much like those who have watched this past season at Barcelona, and those who paid attention to these Euros—will have seen the teenager’s influence at that highest level. He’s just getting started, too. In fact, he could be one of a new breed of players uniting two ends of the footballing observer spectrum: those with a keen eye for advanced analytics and those who love a good old-fashioned eye test.