Pol Lirola was identified as a physically advanced and technically skilled fullback early in his career in the Espanyol Cantera which was led by David Gallego. Born in Barcelona, he joined Juventus for a fee in between 500,000 and 700,00 euros as Manchester City and Barcelona were also interested in his services. As a teenager, he played in Fabio Grosso’s youth team that won the Viareggio Cup. He joined Sassuolo for a fee of 7 million euros and has established himself as a top tier right back under Eusebio De Francesco and Roberto De Zerbi.
The 21-year-old is a component of Espanyol’s golden 97-98 generation which has developed many top-level professionals who participated in Spain’s recent U21 European championships triumph. Marc Roca played a pivotal role in the tournament while Aaron Martin accumulated some playing time in the group phase as Oscar Melendo was not in the squad but is a certified starter for Espanyol in La Liga. The young fullback moved to Juventus and intrigued Massimiliano Allegri as he kept the 21-year-old for the 2016/17 pre-season where he studied the work of Stephan Lichsteiner. Lirola had always been known as a prodigious attacking fullback but could sometimes fall short of his defensive responsibilities, his experiences with Lichsteiner helped hone and nurture his ability without possession.
“Lichsteiner is a model of mine, he is a great right-back,” said an 18-year-old Lirola to Juventus TV. “I always observe how he does the defensive phase, I try to learn from him and I hope, one day, to be at his levels.”
Lirola’s full name is Pol Lirola Kosok as he is the son of a Catalan and a German while he is a connoisseur of great fullbacks as he meticulously studies and models his game on German great, Phillip Lahm. Lirola was a squad player during the recent U21 European Championships but has long been a regular starter at Sassuolo, even playing in the Europa League a few seasons ago. His style of play has suited the playing style of De Zerbi, especially with his use of deeper-lying ball-playing fullbacks who are heavily involved in build-up play and can even drift into the centre to act as auxiliary midfielders.
Lirola excels as a combination play defender, against Inter Milan, he was under pressure and worked a pass to Stefano Sensi who flicked the ball for Lirola to drive forward and work a pass for his winger who prodded the ball back to him. Lirola then dribbled past his man and cut into the central midfield zone to play a line-breaking pass for Manuel Locatelli. Lirola possesses a well-maintained and chiselled physique which allows him to stride forward in possession with purpose while in defensive situations, wingers will rarely get the better of him physically.
Against Atalanta, an outnumbered Alfred Duncan worked the ball back to him as Lirola took on the pass, worked a one-two with a teammate and strode forward to try and release the striker on the break. In the same match, he showed his great crossing ability when he got in behind to play an accurately bounced cross for Duncan to tee-up Domenico Berardi to apply a calm finish. He had more crosses and combinations in the wide-areas and half-spaces to create opportunities as he is one of the more refined attacking fullbacks in Serie A. In a match against Fiorentina, he had another moment where he rolled a cross to the back post for an unmarked Rogerio to divert wide from point blank range.
De Zerbi regularly switched to a 3-5-2 in the tougher games as Lirola has experience as a fullback and a wing-back while his manager maintains the same principles with a back three as he does with a back four. In the aforementioned match against Fiorentina, De Zerbi deployed him as a wing-back as he worked a combination with Berardi who was out wide while Lirola was positioned in the half-space as the duo played a one-two for the Italian forward to flick a lob into him in the box. He was then positioned out wide to receive a pass from Mehdi Bourabia to then play an arrowed pass to the Moroccan midfield maestro in the half-spaces.
De Zerbi deploys a left-footed left-back and right-footed right back as Lirola relies greatly on his stronger foot. He receives the ball with his right, even when he receives a pass from the right side of his body while mainly using his right to pass the ball. The Catalan right-back also dribbles with his right foot as against La Viola, he took a throw in to a teammate who played the ball back to him on his right-foot for the youngster to beat his marker and drive into the opposition half to play a pass to a teammate with the outside of his right boot. This could be targeted as a weakness as an attacker would know to attack the right side of his body when marking him and pressuring him to win possession.
Atletico Madrid were said to be interested in the fullback earlier in the year, but they acquired Santiago Arias from PSV Eindhoven last season while in recent days, Fiorentina are said to have registered serious interest in the fullback. Sassuolo are willing to accept an offer of 15 million euros which should be of interest to most clubs scouring the market for a right back. The fullback position has changed as it was once reserved for wingers but is now reserved for midfielders to preserve press resistance. Lirola is well-versed in working the ball out of pressure while he can be involved in unlocking low blocks with his passing ability as he retains the ability of contemporary fullbacks on the overlap.
“Sassuolo gave me a lot, they allowed me to grow,” said Lirola in a pre-match press conference for the Spanish U21s last month. “I played 100 games between the league and the Europa League, but now it’s time to change teams.”
Spain will be spoilt for choice at fullback in the future while Juventus have sold two of the more talented fullbacks in Serie A to Sassuolo as they have a fine array of talent in the wide defensive positions. Lirola was sold after Dani Alves joined Juventus but will be a hot commodity on the transfer market this summer. Espanyol have produced three highly talented fullbacks from their academy as Adria Pedrosa will be a force to be reckoned with in La Liga next season. At 21-years-old, Lirola has managed to define himself as an exhilarating forward thinking fullback with a wide range of unique assets.