It’s difficult to write anything even remotely related to Barcelona that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. Debates rage on with regards to whether Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer to ever walk the earth and if we’ve ever witnessed a duo with as gloriously telepathic a relationship as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. But in this Catalan constellation, there seems to be one star continually overlooked.
At the age of 25, Senõr Eliezer Rodríguez Ledesma, or Pedro to you and I, is approaching what many would consider his peak years as a professional footballer. He has physically matured into a domineering athlete and has over 200 appearances for his club under his belt, and thus the experience we’re so often told is crucial to success.
Not that Pedro has been starved of that – he has been part of the all-conquering Barcelona side that has hoovered up honours on both domestic and continental level, and also has a World Cup and European Championships medal to his name. Not bad for a man who would still be challenged by shop owners in some areas of the UK when attempting to restock his cupboard of champagne. I’m sure he’s enjoyed plenty of that over the years.
But he has not been ‘part of’ this success the same way José Pinto has, for example, who, despite the occasional rumble with opposition staff, spent most of his time watching on from the sidelines. Pedro was and is a fundamental cog in this frighteningly well-oiled machine; a component that, for me at least, is too often left unappreciated by press and fans alike.
His mainstream breakthrough was perhaps the 2009 UEFA Super Cup in which he netted the winner against Shakhtar Donetsk. That season, he’d go on to become the first player to score in six different club competitions in one season (Barcelona won every single competition to complete an unprecedented ‘sextuple’); a ‘big game player’ if ever there was one.
The 2010/11 UEFA Champions League Final remains one of my favourite matches of all time – the team performance by Barcelona was, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest I’ve ever seen. Admittedly I haven’t yet turned 20, and wasn’t around to witness Brazil’s team of 1970 or fully appreciate Manchester United’s dominance in the 1990s, but this isn’t just adolescent hyperbole, trust me.
Messi stole the headlines as he often does. The ‘hipsters,’ who are as right as they are cool, I might add, will have pointed to Sergio Busquets’ colossal midfield performance. But many forget it was Pedro who got the ball rolling, scoring a fine opening goal. He had an outstanding game as something of an alternative outlet for Barcelona. And that’s why he’s so valued for both club and country, who of course play a similar tiki-taka style of football.
I would agree with most that he is perhaps not as truly gifted as some of his peers but that shouldn’t stop him from being recognised as a quality player. What he ‘lacks’ in natural talent, and I use that term extremely loosely – he’d certainly be England’s most blessed player – he makes up for in plenty of other areas, most notably his intelligence on the pitch. The fact he regularly keeps players like Jesús Navas, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla out of the Spanish national side is indicative of how highly rated he is by Vicente Del Bosque.
Pedro’s role is perhaps most pronounced in the ‘false nine’ setup Spain have favoured in recent years. This is where a midfielder, usually Cesc Fàbregas, appears to function as the lone striker, but does not operate as a target man or particular presence in the opposition box like a more conventional ‘number nine’ would, but in fact drops into trequartista territory on the edge of the area, dragging opposition defenders with him and creating space. In order to fully utilise this system, you need players to run in behind and exploit this space, and that’s where Pedro is so effective.
In a team that is so focused on patient, attacking play through the middle – where lest we forget Spain have had plenty of success – with Xavi, Iniesta and Fàbregas dropping into pockets of space and feeding balls through, and players like David Silva often cutting inside, operating as inverted wingers, it can become congested in and around the penalty area. Pedro offers something of a plan B and it’s not uncommon to see Xavi or Busquets playing diagonal balls into the channels where there is often more space.
It’s not simply pace that’s required for such a role, though, as some would believe. The timing of his runs needs to be perfect and I’d go as far as to argue that Pedro is the best in the world in his position in terms of judging when to run between full-back and centre-half. Of course it helps when the ammunition is being provided by players of the calibre of Xavi, but you still need the nous to know when and where to make your move. It can be a frustrating job when play is so centrally-orientated, and Pedro has often found himself isolated for large parts of games. He cannot afford to drop his focus any more than the full-back marking him can; needing to take advantage of any opportunity to get in behind what is almost inevitably a deep backline.
Theo Walcott is a good example of a player blessed with blistering speed but not possessing the weapons in his armoury to fully utilise it. I wouldn’t go as far as agreeing with Chris Waddle’s blasé claim that Walcott didn’t have ‘a football brain,’ but you certainly got the impression he didn’t fully understand the tactical nuances of the game, as to be expected with a young player, of course. Slowly, Walcott is learning and becoming a far more complete player. He times his runs in from the flanks with greater efficiency and, evidently, is making a more tangible impact in the final third. Pedro, as is the case with so many of his peers, was ‘fast-tracked’ and developed these skills exceptionally quickly.
It’s a similar story at club level with Messi not being an out-and-out striker and thus creating space in important areas of the pitch. The addition of Brazilian forward Neymar to Barcelona’s ranks adds an interesting dynamic and one would imagine Pedro will get the nod on the opposite flank, but will have Alexis Sanchez providing strong competition for the right-wing berth. It will be a test for the Spaniard who will need to step up and shine in a team always looking to improve its personnel.
Another string to Pedro’s bow is his ambidexterity. He has the ability to play on both sides, which he’s done on several occasions and uses both feet to great effect. I’ve personally raved about two-footed players on multiple occasions and I don’t think it is coincidence that Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie, who many would consider the best individual players in football at the moment, are just as competent with their so-called weaker foot as they are with their stronger one.
I’m not saying Pedro deserves to be put on a similar pedestal, but it is a trait too often shrugged off for my liking. As far as I’m concerned, it makes him a much more effective player than, say Arjen Robben, who is freakishly reluctant to use his right foot. Pedro can go inside and outside of his man, which makes him extremely unpredictable and difficult to defend against.
He’s already written himself into the history books in terms of statistical feats. Now he needs to be remembered for more than that with individual performances on the pitch – he needs to start outshining his teammates on a regular basis. It’s time for Pedro to create a legacy.