Pol Lirola: Juventus' Young Star Waiting to Replace Dani Alves

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistAugust 31, 2016

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - AUGUST 10:  Pol Lirola of US Sassuolo Calcio in action during the TIM Preseason Tournament at Mapei Stadium - Citta' del Tricolore on August 10, 2016 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Having won five consecutive Serie A titles with Stephan Lichtsteiner at right-back, Juventus' move for Dani Alves surprised many observers this summer.

The former Barcelona star brings greater attacking impetus than the Switzerland international, giving coach Massimiliano Allegri an enviable choice for the starting berth.

Few clubs in Europe boast such incredible depth, but even with that duo presently available, the Bianconeri will still have one eye on that role for the future. Indeed, Lichtsteiner will turn 33 in January, while his new Brazilian team-mate is set to reach his 34th birthday before the end of the current campaign.

Fortunately, Juventus have spent the past few years snapping up some exciting young talent, and one player supporters should keep an eye on is Pol Lirola, who is on loan at Serie A side Sassuolo.

Dani Alves in action for Juventus
Dani Alves in action for JuventusMaurizio Brambatti/Associated Press

Born in the Catalonian town of Mollet del Valles, 25 kilometres north of Barcelona, his career began in the youth teams of Espanyol before he was spotted by scouts working for Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici.

The Bianconeri official has spent the past six years amassing some incredible young talent, including the likes of Iceland international Hordur Magnusson, who is now at Bristol City, and Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi.

Then only 17 years old, Lirola had already progressed to Espanyol’s B team—who played in Spain’s third division—fielded for 90 minutes in their 2-0 league win over Gimnastic Tarragona in August 2014.

Joining Juve’s Primavera (under-19) side, he quickly made the right-back spot his own, impressing with his attacking impetus but keen defensive awareness. Having fully integrated himself into the team, it was little surprise when the Bianconeri exercised their option to make his move permanent.

According to Calciomercato.com, the club paid Espanyol €500,000 to do so, and that has proved to be an extremely wise investment.

His second season in Turin would see him take a major leap forward, as Romeo Agresti of Goal Italia and JTV explained to Bleacher Report: "Having watched him many times with the youth team last season, I think he has improved a lot under coach Fabio Grosso.

"In my opinion he was the best player in that side and, despite being very young he is ready to play in Serie A because he has the technical skills and is a very intelligent defender."

Seeing a young full-back improve in the Juventus Primavera should come as no surprise. The team is coached by 2006 FIFA World Cup winner Fabio Grosso, a man who clearly has much to teach a player in that role given his wealth of experience and proven pedigree.

His guidance clearly paid off for Lirola, his play vastly better at both ends of the pitch in 2015/16. As can be seen in the video above, he regularly linked up well with the attack, but he was often on hand to make crucial defensive interventions, tooa part of his game that was sorely lacking a year earlier.

The Spanish youngster made 37 appearances, weighing in with three goals and nine assists in all competitions. Strong displays in the UEFA Youth League were surpassed by his excellent performances in the Coppa Italia and domestic championship, although he could not help Juve avoid losses in the final of each tournament.

At the prestigious Viareggio Cup he would help the side secure silverware, however, creating the team’s opening goal in their quarter-final win over Bologna before scoring once, creating another and netting a penalty in their semi-final shootout with Spezia.

That strike (shown in the video above) also highlighted his increased aerial prowess, the youngster making full use of his 1.83m (6’0") frame to head home. A 3-2 win in the final saw the Bianconeri lift the trophy, and many wondered if he had done enough to earn a spot in the Juventus first team.

Yet despite Allegri telling a press conference last January that “Pol Lirola is a good player,” the chance to snatch Dani Alves on a free transfer meant that idea was a non-starter for a side in their position.

However, with Lichtsteiner given additional time off after his efforts at UEFA Euro 2016, the young Catalan was taken on the club’s pre-season tour and started in matches against Melbourne Victory and Tottenham Hotspur.

If that allowed him to gain invaluable experience, a well-chosen next move would do exponentially more for his fledgling career. Sent to Sassuolo, the 19-year-old joins a team that, much like Lirola, are diligently working towards becoming an established part of the Italian elite.

Climbing the table every year under the superb guidance of coach Eusebio Di Francesco, the Neroverdi secured a place in the UEFA Europa League by finishing sixth in Serie A last term.

By the time Lirola was ready to play, they had progressed to the play-off round and needed to beat former UEFA Champions League winners Red Star Belgrade in order to secure a berth in the group stage.

A comfortable 3-0 win in Italy put them on the brink of qualification, and Lirola was handed his first start in the return leg. Faced with a daunting opponent, he would acquit himself superbly, holding the Serbian side to a 1-1 draw with some excellent defending and swift counter-attacking.

Lirola would make a major impact on the game, his long ball down the right flank (shown above) releasing Berardi, who then danced past the Red Star defence to ensure that Sassuolo progressed.

Having spent time learning from Grosso in Turin, he was now getting on-the-job training from experienced campaigners like Francesco Acerbi, Paolo Cannavaro and Federico Peluso, slotting in well beside them and giving a fine account of himself.

Adam Digby via Wyscout

Red Star pressed hard early in the game as they looked for a way back into the tie, but the Sassuolo defence held firm, Lirola doing his part to quell their threat.

As can be seen in the image above, his positioning and ability to hold the defensive line was exceptional, vital for a team who play with the speed of Di Francesco’s Sassuolo.

He was also alert to danger, though, with the image below showing he was happy to step up and pressure opponents who tried to get into the spaces behind the Neroverdi midfield.

Adam Digby via Wyscout

Overall it was a fine showing, his ability on the ball coming to the fore in the second half and, according to the UEFA website, he was fouled three times as Red Star resorted to pulling him down to halt his progress.

There is, of course, still much for him to work on, but Agresti believes he has a bright future in Bianconero. He told Bleacher Report: "He needs to improve a lot on the defensive side, but his dribbling skills and willingness to fight for the ball are already excellent.

"He has the right mentality to become a top professional player and I think he will return to Turin in the future because he has the talent to represent the Juventus first team."

If he continues to deliver like he did in Belgrade, Lirola will surely usurp Marcello Gazzola in the regular Sassuolo starting XI, but he will almost certainly have his eye on a different spot.

Alves and Lichtsteiner cannot continue forever, and when they finally stop running, it seems Juve’s young Spaniard will be ready.

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