Sometimes you sit down to write and the words just flow. Other times you try and try and try. Pedri is confounding that way.
Maybe one way to go at it is to think of something you have, something you use every day, that is just right. No, not perfect. Just right. Like you imagine where your life was before you got this thing. We don’t drink a lot of wine, but we have this wine bottle opener made by Campagnolo. It’s 35+ years old, and still perfect. Titanium hardware, a mechanism to grip the bottle, it even ejects the cork. There are lots of other bottle openers, but this one is right. Every time we use it, we just smile.
In a fantastic read by Ryan Hunn, there is the suggestion of reincarnation. My description of Pedri is that he’s an old soul. Watching him play, it’s like he’s seen the match before and already knows how opponents are going to move, what his teammates are going to do. Carles Alenya, who is now off permanently to Getafe, was another player whose game was possessed of that essential rightness, but nothing like Pedri.
Alenya got the ball and you knew he would do the right thing with it. Pedri gets the ball and everything about every aspect of the play is right. It isn’t just that he does the right thing with it. It’s that it’s all unruffled. No panic, no stress, nothing is misplaced. It’s all just … right.
Think about the number of passes you see players take where they have to do something with it, ball of yarn passes. “Here you go, now make a sweater.” Pedri’s passes are a sweater in a gift box, perfectly sized with a flawless bow.
Recincarnation, clairvoyance or something else seems logical for Pedri because he doesn’t have any obvious physical gifts. He can’t run fast, he’s small. His frame is slight, so he isn’t a physical midfielder. He isn’t quick afoot, either. Cruijff said “football is a game played with the brain, you must be in the right place, at the right time, not too soon or too late.”
We have seen the Iniesta comparisons, but for me those aren’t accurate. Iniesta wasn’t right. Iniesta was the living, breathing personification of beauty incarnate. He did things with the football that made the world stop, escaped situations that made you wonder about his powers of invisility. Illusionista wasn’t just a nickname. It was how he played the game, a player of whom it is often said if he could score, football would have made him illegal. He didn’t even run. Iniesta’s feet sort of moved, like a hovercraft, just above the blades of grass. Pedri is nothing like Iniesta.
Pedri doesn’t need to escape stuff. He just knows. And moves. And what seems to be a problem is a pass that is just moved along, and Pedri trots to the next spot to receive. Just a day at the office for a player who says he approaches games like they’re a kickabout with his brother. He doesn’t have to do tricks, or pullbacks. Watching him play is one of the weirdest things ever, because there isn’t any real way to describe it except that it’s right. It makes sense.
Nor is Pedri like Xavi. He doesn’t dictate play in the same way. Xavi was a metronome for an advanced musician, driving the tempo. Xavi knew where you were going to be. The saying, “Xavi plays into the future” was never more correct. There were counntless passes that Xavi released that made you think, “What? N … oh. Okay.” Pedri, rather than dictating, assumes the visage of the game. Fast? Got it. Slow? Okay. Mid-tempo, with 1-2s. Sure. But it would also be a mistake to assume this chameleonlike quality means Pedri doesn’t have character. He does.
Barça acquired him for 5m+variables. And people talked about him, talked about his game. Some of us watched him at Las Palmas and thought the kid had something, but it’s Las Palmas. And he’s so … slight. Not just small, but slight, a wisp of a thing that probably needs weighted shoes on windy days. He came to Barça and Ronald Koeman made him that essential thing you use every day. Luis Enrique saw him, capped him and Pedri became that essential thing you use every day.
The great thing about the Euros is that now, everyone knows what only culers and devotees of La Liga know: Pedri is an exceptinal talent, but he’s also a player you have to know football to appreciate. He isn’t going to score golazos, nutmeg people or work dribbles that leave defenders turtled in shame. There won’t be highlight reel assists. But Pedri is like a utility. If you need electricity, you turn the lights on. If you need football, there’s Pedri.
He doesn’t even look like a modern footballer. His shoes are used, socks are mid-calf and invariably drooping. Pedri looks like a picture of a 1950s footballer that someone brought to life and put a modern kit on. It’s almost funny to watch him sometimes because none of this makes sense. He’s 18, and is essential on every team. And the Olympics coach was like, “Essential for me as well.”
The saying is, “When you watch Busquets, you see football.” And certainly, the lanky Catalan is the closest thing, for my money, to Pedri. The cruel thing about the game, about time, is that Pedri has come along when Busquets is in his dotage. What a sight the two of them would have been, Pedri liberated from midfield donkey work to be the wee, associative genius that he was at the Euros. His passes are so simple, so why can’t everyone do them? Pedri never makes a pass and stands still, unless his video of the match tells him the ball is coming right back. He makes the pass, then moves to the most logical spot to make himself available. Watching him is beautiful if you know the game, because every team needs an utterly selfless player to disappear into the group, to make everything around him better.
In my fondness for NBA analogs, John Stockton, the great point guard of the Utah Jazz is an almost blissful Pedri analog, right down to the heavy, almost drawn-on eyebrows. Stockton wasn’t graced with physical gifts, and wasn’t that big. But he knew where the ball needed to be and he put it there with unerring precision. Like Pedri, you had to appreciate the game to understand Stockton, who even resembles Pedri. Like Pedri, Stockton played in the company of more-lauded players who needed him to be exactly what he was: right. Tidy, elegant and right. Both were men drawn from whole cloth from another time and dropped into a modern thing, both played like they had not only been there before, but seen what was about to happen.
We ask a lot from athletes, and precious few of them give us everything that we ask of them because what we ask of them is to elevate us, to make us able to vicariously experience beauty and excellence through their accomplishments. Week after week we watch Messi and week after week, he gives us something that is lustrous. In a different, but no less amazing way, Pedri gives us that. Time after time, week after week with that same rightness. Undroppable. You don’t understand what he does until you see how things are without him. And how the hell do you quantify that?