Ilaix Moriba: Barcelona's 'new Pogba' closing in on a first-team debut

Ilaix Moriba Barcelona NxGnGetty/Goal

Teenagers leaving Barcelona has become something of a theme of recent years, with players who have earned their footballing education at La Masia then moving on just as they were beginning to be talked about as potential first-team footballers.

The most high-profile of those departures came in July as Dutch youngster Xavi Simons - who is named after the legendary Barca midfielder - left Catalunya to join Paris Saint-Germain.

Despite making headlines around the world, though, the Blaugrana's concerns over Simons were not as large as many on the outside would have believed. "We have Ilaix Moriba," was the message eminating from La Masia, and nine months on it is clear to see why the midfielder was held in such esteem.

Moriba only turned 17 in January but has already broken into the Barcelona 'B' side after outgrowing the various age-group teams. He has impressed during his first months of senior football, with his physicality, ability on the ball and enviable vision earning him comparisons with Paul Pogba.

Born in Guinea, Moriba and his family moved to Spain when he was very young, though his talent was soon spotted by Espanyol. Already physically imposing even at the age of six and seven, it was not long before Barca began to take notice, though it was difficult not to given some of the performances the youngster put in against them.

"Every time he played on Espanyol teams against Barca they suffered a lot because he was so good," Oscar Hernandez, who worked for 10 years at La Masia before leaving in 2017, told Bleacher Report in late 2019. "He was more developed physically than the other players - he was a different dimension - and his talent was obviously innate.

"He was the kind of player who is very destructive. He caused them grave problems. It was obvious that Barca had to sign him."

And sign him they did in 2010, with Moriba having gradually made his way through the various schoolboy teams in the decade since, albeit having played above his actual age-group at almost every turn.

Ilaix Moriba Barcelona GFX

It was felt for some time that Moriba would be destined for the Barca first team, though that dream almost came to an end last summer after tough negotiations regarding the teenager's contract. Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund were all cited as showing an interest in the midfielder, and with him free to leave at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, there were genuine fears another Masia gem was about to slip through Barcelona's fingers.

Eventually a deal was reached with Moriba and his agent, Jonathan Barnett, that will keep him at Camp Nou until the summer of 2022 while earning an annual salary of close to €2 million (£1.7m/$2.2m), with the buyout clause in his contract set at €100m (£87m/$109m).

"It was a long situation, it lasted a long time, but my first option was always to stay," Moriba said after the deal was closed. "I waited until the last minute because I wanted Barca's offer, which they made, that's why I wanted to wait. I didn't care about the other clubs. I could have left earlier but I preferred to stay to the end."

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WIth his future secured, Moriba set about taking the final steps towards establishing himself as a first-team option, though he was not always afforded the minutes on the pitch many of the Barca hierarchy felt he deserved under former Under-19s coach Victor Valdes. Moriba was part of the same Juvenil A squad as his great friend Ansu Fati, and while the winger has gone onto earn his stripes in the first team, Moriba has had to be more patient.

With Valdes sacked in October, Moriba eventually showed enough at youth level to become a regular in Barca's B side, who play in the third tier of Spanish football. He has thus far made nine appearances and scored his first goal in their final match before football was locked down as he volleyed in a late winner to complete a 3-2 comeback victory over Llagostera, becoming the second-youngest player to ever find the net for the team in the process.

Scoring goals is the part of Moriba's game that he needs to improve the most as, despite playing largely as a No.6 in front of the defence, he has the box-to-box capabilities that few others who play a similar role are able to showcase. As such, those Pogba comparisons are unlikely to go away any time soon, though it is more traditional defensive midfielders who first inspired him to take up the position.

"Everyone tells me that I look like Pogba and I must say I like it," he said. "But Busquets and Iniesta were the ones who made me play in midfield.

"My dream is to be with [Lionel] Messi, Busquets and all of them, to see if I have the opportunity to train or play a game."

That opportunity is set to arrive in the next year or two, with Moriba now seen as the clear fronrunner to become the next La Masia graduate to shine in the Barcelona first team.