Since the early days of his career, Pol Lirola has been on a trajectory that, if not awe-inspiring, is at least impressive. Since his teen years, he has been working his way up the ranks, playing for Spain’s under-U17 level and the RCD Espanyol youth system before moving quickly to Juventus’ youth division and, ultimately, being bought by them outright. Cue a loan to (and three seasons with) Italian club Sassuolo, the end of which saw his best overall performance to date.
During his third season there (at which point he had been signed to the club), he scored his only two professional goals, achieved more assists than in the previous two seasons combined, crushed his record for passes that led to goals, and increased his shots by over 60%. So, the trajectory he was on was pointing onward and upward, right? This data analysis will try to answer that question.
A new team, a new formation, & a new role
Perhaps part of the success of Lirola’s 2018-19 season can be attributed to the two previous years he spent defining the part he was to play. Lirola played exclusively as a right-back or right-midfielder, working as part of the 4-3-3 attacking formation Sassuolo employed in over half of their matches during his time with them. Though benched or out due to injuries for several games in his first two years, Lirola played in nearly every game during his third season, leading to nearly 50% more playing time than the year before. He knew what to do with this time, leveraging his experience within his position and his familiarity with his team’s mechanics, marking the highest numbers of his career in nearly every metric. What was there, then, to stop this progress?
In August of last year, Lirola joined Serie A’s Fiorentina, on loan from Sassuolo, a move that meant significant changes to the style of play to which he had become accustomed. Though he stuck to his usual positions for most of the season, he was switched to left-back or left-midfielder for most of the last dozen games. Combine this with a difference in Fiorentina’s playing strategy: they make use of the 4-3-2-1 formation in the vast majority of their games, opting for Lirola’s familiar 4-3-3 attacking formation less than 20% of the time this past season. While there are surely many other factors that have affected his performance, it’s hard to ignore the impact of these new team dynamics when considering the stall Lirola seems to be facing.
Hitting a wall with Fiorentina?
One of the clearest ways to mark Lirola’s progress over the last few years is through an analysis of his performance to calculated predictions. After surpassing expected assists per 90 (xA90) in the 2016-17 season, Pol Lirola saw a significant dip in data before a drastic improvement two seasons later. He was able to complete more assists per 90 (A90) successfully without widening the gap from expected assists, implying that he was creating more quality opportunities than the previous year. That same year, he nearly doubled his expected goals per 90 (xG90) and surpassed that prediction, reaching his only goals per 90 (G90) metric of over 0 thanks to two goals of his own that season.
But what goes up must come down, it seems, as the 2019-2020 season reversed that trend. Lirola not only achieved fewer assists, but the gap between his A90 and xA90 widened, meaning that a higher proportion of the opportunities he created went unfulfilled. His G90 metric also reached its highest point ever, meaning Lirola had the most opportunities for goals than at any point in his career. (He scored 0.)
This season shouldn’t be considered a bust, but the differences that one year made are certainly noticeable. The radar chart below measures Pirola’s performance compared to other defenders at Sassuolo & Fiorentina in the last two seasons. By no means a prodigy, Pirola has still put up competitive statistics with these teams. But by nearly every measure, this latest season has seen him fall out of his groove. He has nearly maintained his number of passes leading to a pass per 90, but almost all of his other stats have fallen. The only area of these in which he has improved is his shots per 90, which haven’t translated to actual points.
Head to head with other top players
Comparing Lirola to the other right-backs that make up Serie A’s top market value players this season, the picture of a storm on the horizon that I’ve painted so far may seem a bit unfair. After all, he ranks 4th out of this group for shots per 90 and 3rd when it comes to passes that led to a goal per 90. Compared to his peers, he’s contributing to his team in a big way in these areas.
Still, it’s worth noting that the outlook isn’t so bright when you consider expected goals and assists within the same group, in particular comparing players’ expected performance to what they achieved. Lirola wasn’t able to repeat either of his two goals from last season, putting him squarely at the bottom of the pack for the percentage of expected goals scored (tied with a handful of others, to be fair). Though he fared better with assists, racking up a little over half of those that were predicted, this landed him in a mediocre spot just north of the ranks of those with no assists at all.
So, okay – the storm isn’t a typhoon. But I don’t think it would be a bad idea to grab the umbrella.
Onwards and upwards?
While he may never make it at a club like Inter, Lirola has definitely shown potential in the past. One lacklustre season does not a washed-up player make, but his first season with Fiorentina has put into question the considerable momentum he had built during the years prior. It took three years for Lirola to seemingly hit his stride with Sassuolo, working through injuries and significant bench time, learning the ropes, and doing his best to perfect his position. Perhaps it’s just more time he needs to do the same with Fiorentina. We certainly hope so. Regardless of the outcome, with Fiorentina having the option to buy him, it seems more time is what he might get.