During the last transfer window, Barcelona splashed out €18 million to bring in 23-year-old Junior Firpo from Real Betis. While Jordi Alba is established as the club’s first-choice left-back, the need for more depth in defense was acknowledged as the Blaugranes acquired a highly-rated player who specializes at left-back. While many would expect Firpo to be the natural replacement for Alba on the days that he is not selected for the starting lineup, one could be excused for feeling confused upon seeing Nelson Semedo, a natural right-back, being selected in his place against Levante, while Firpo failed to make the matchday squad entirely. Are Junior Firpo’s talents being underutilized by the Blaugranes?
Firstly, it is necessary to understand why Firpo belongs at Barca in the first place. Halfway through the 2017/18 season, Firpo was promoted to Real Betis’ first team after playing two and a half seasons in the Segunda Division. While 22 years of age may be considered a late introduction to top-flight football, Firpo no doubt impressed during his time at the Real Betis B team. His start to life in La Liga was promising, as his potential shone during a goalless draw with the much-favored Atletico Madrid and a 3-0 drubbing of Espanyol. In fact, nine of his 14 appearances ended in a clean sheet, which is an impressive 64%.
Firpo enjoyed a bright start to his 2018/19 campaign, earning clean sheets against Alaves and Sevilla before earning his first call-up to the Spanish Under 21s. This game ended in a 3-0 win over Albania, and was followed by yet another La Liga clean sheet, this time a 0-0 draw with Valencia. 2018/19 saw Firpo prove himself against a whole host of major opponents, and attain standout results such as a 1-0 win over Atletico and a shock 2-0 away win over Real Madrid on the final day of the season. Such monumental showings, as well as a UEFA U21 Championship win, were enough to grab Barca’s attention in the 2019 summer transfer window. Firpo had proven himself to be a reliable player in a mediocre Real Betis lineup, and he was able to help his side rack up points against top-tier opposition.
So, the question now is why he hasn’t received any game time since recovering from a muscle injury? To replace Alba with Semedo against Levante makes little sense, as Semedo is typically a right-back, with little experience playing on the left side. Against Valladolid, Alba came off for Sergi Roberto – yet another right-back – while Junior Firpo did not even get a place on the bench. Even in the Slavia Prague game, Roberto was brought on for Alba yet again while Junior Firpo was excluded from the matchday squad.
To deny Firpo the opportunity to play at left-back in Alba’s absence is not just unjust, but downright illogical. Not only should Firpo be afforded more game time in order to better gel with the team, but to play Semedo and Roberto at left-back is ludicrous. Week in and week out, Roberto and Semedo take turns to start at right-back, with neither truly solidifying a place in the starting lineup. With either of these players in their primary roles, Barca continue to leak goals, so why would anything change if one of them are played on the left? With fresh talent in the form of Junior Firpo in the squad, the Blaugranes have the opportunity to reinforce their defense and potentially groom him into a star – something they have not been able to do with either Roberto or Somedo. But until they make full use of Firpo’s talents, it will be the same Barca defense as usual.