AP Interview: Pedri brings back brilliance to Barça midfield

Sports

Barcelona’s Pedri, center, battles for the ball with Real Sociedad defenders during Spanish Super Cup semi final soccer match between Barcelona and Real Sociedad at Nuevo Arcangel stadium in Cordoba, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Barcelona will play the final after defeating Real Sociedad 3-2 in a penalty shootout after the game ended 1-1. (AP Photo/Jose Breton)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — It’s no coincidence that Pedri González conjures up those flashes of exquisite playmaking brilliance that Barcelona fans have been longing for since the days of Andrés Iniesta.

The 18-year-old Spaniard who is enjoying an excellent first season at Barcelona grew up absorbing all the Iniesta he could find, watching games at the fan club founded by his grandfather back home on the island of Tenerife and reliving his idol’s most awesome moments on the Internet.

“I always loved Iniesta and his way of playing soccer, because of how he was both on and off the field,” Pedri told The Associated Press in a recent video call. “He has been my reference and I have tried to model myself on him.”

The resemblance in playing style as well as demeanor is uncanny. Like Iniesta, Pedri is silky smooth with the ball on his feet, with his dribbling and passing in tight spaces. He also shares the Spain great’s coolness under pressure and transmits a similar calm when making split-second decisions with the ball.

His non-soccer life is, like Iniesta, centered on his family; he said when his parents make the trip from the Canary Islands to visit him and his older brother in Barcelona they like to play board games.

Pedri has scored three goals this season, but it is his passing and footwork with the ball that has set him apart. Twice this season, Pedri has produced no-look flicks with the back of his heel to roll the ball behind to set up Lionel Messi for goals. Those moments of majesty instantly draw comparisons to Iniesta, who sent Pedri a message encouraging him to keep working hard when he joined the club.

“The truth is that something must have stuck,” Pedri said. “I think I have seen all the videos of (Iniesta) on YouTube. I never missed a game of his, so I guess some of it wears off.

“Maybe that is something I learned from Andrés, but the truth is that these are things that just happen on the field. If suddenly you hear Leo, you know you have give him the ball because he will create danger and end up scoring like always.”

Impressed by the poise of his teenage teammate, striker Martin Braithwaite described Pedri as “a veteran player in the body of a young player.”

For Pedri, it’s just the way he has always played.

“From since I was little I have had this sense of calm, and I always played like that as a boy in Tegueste (his home town), so why would I change at Camp Nou?” Pedri said.

Pedri has been the biggest signing success for a club that has spent about 430 million euros ($512 million) to sign Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele in recent years, only to see them not play like top players. During that stretch, Barcelona missed out on other young Spanish talents like Marco Asensio, whose agent had reportedly been in talks with Barcelona until Real Madrid swept in and signed him.

Compared to those gargantuan transfers, Pedri was a complete steal. He cost Barcelona 5 million euros ($6.1 million) in 2019 when he was breaking out for lower-division club Las Palmas on the Canary Islands. Pedri remained on loan at Las Palmas last season before moving to Barcelona with his older brother acting as his chaperone and roommate.

Pedri credits coach Ronald Koeman for his frankness when spoke shortly after they both arrived at Barcelona last year.

“One day he pulled me aside and told me that he did not know much about me, that he had barely seen me play, and that I would have to show him what I can do in practice,” Pedri recalled. “I drew motivation from that. I knew that I had to work as hard as anyone to win my spot.”

Koeman must have immediately liked what he saw from Pedri. While the Dutchman has toyed with his starting lineup, Pedri is the one newcomer that the coach won’t do without.

Pedri leads Barcelona in appearances. Koeman tried him in all midfield and attacking positions except striker until he opted to align him alongside Frenkie de Jong in the interior of his midfield.

“Pedri is showing a level of maturity beyond his years,” Koeman said after Pedri scored one goal and assisted Messi for another in a 3-2 win at Athletic Bilbao on Jan. 6.

Pedri’s on-field chemistry with Messi has many Barcelona fans hoping that he might help convince the Argentine great to stay at the club he is considering leaving after 20 title-packed years. Pedri, however, said that although he hopes Messi won’t leave, it is enough to play with and learn from the club’s all-time greatest player.

“(Messi) gives very valuable advice, on how you have to remained focused, on how to play in the spaces between the defensive and midfield lines,” Pedri said. “On whether he stays or goes, I don’t get involved in that. That is his decision and the only thing we can do is to help him while he is here, and hope that is for many years to come.”

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