Pablo Barrios has been Atletico Madrid's breakout player for season 2022/23 - so much so that he was rewarded with a new contract to 2028 last week.
“It has been a long time since a player from the academy has shown such a high level," said Diego Simeone of Pablo Barrios, the 19-year-old midfielder who has taken Atlético de Madrid's first team by storm.
Simeone has seen a lot of young hopefuls in his 11 years in charge of Los Rojiblancos, so when he singles out a player for such praise we had better sit up and take notice. But, even leaving aside Simeone's effusive words, it's difficult not to be captivated by Barrios' play.
The youngster plays without fear and, every time he is on the pitch, he appears intent on creating a spectacle, showing hunger to take opponents on. He is equally adept at dovetailing with his teammates, even if they are among the best players in the world.
Take, for example, his recent performance against Real Oviedo in the Copa del Rey. Barrios was introduced in the 61st minute and his first act was to play a sublime, defence-splitting pass into the path of Nahuel Molina, a newly-crowned World Cup-winner, to start a dangerous attack. Later in the game he scored the all-important second goal in the 2-0 win, playing a big role in a scintillating team move containing 18 passes before finishing it off with a first-time finish.
It wasn't even his first goal for Atleti. That came in another Copa del Rey tie against CD Arenteiro, when his side were up against it and drawing 1-1 on a difficult pitch. Barrios stepped forward and showed he has the personality needed to succeed at a top club, firing at goal from long distance. He may have enjoyed some fortune from the opposition goalkeeper, but he was rewarded for his audacity when the ball creeped inside the near post.
Audacity is something Barrios has displayed throughout his young yet promising career. He just loves to take on opponents, producing all manner of tricks and manoeuvres to dribble past them.
He made a name for himself doing so in Atlético de Madrid's youth ranks and starred in last season's memorable UEFA Youth League campaign, starting all 10 games in his side's run to the semi-finals and scoring twice in a 3-2 win over Real Madrid. That victory must have been particularly satisfying for Barrios, as he began his youth career across the city with Los Merengues before switching to Atlético in 2017.
At Atlético de Madrid, he has been able to stand on the shoulders of some giants of the club, having Fernando Torres as his coach last season in the Youth League before Simeone gave him the call to join the first team in October for the LaLiga Santander match against Cádiz CF.
“When they called me up for the game against Cádiz CF, I still couldn't believe it," Barrios recalled. “I was warming up on the sidelines and I got a call and a huge rush thinking 'I'm about to come on'. El Cholo told me to stay calm, to be brave, to have no fear and to play with speed."
His next LaLiga Santander outing was from the starting line-up against Elche CF and he truly grabbed the opportunity with both hands, receiving a standing ovation from the home fans when he was substituted off.
The biggest moment so far was being named in the starting line-up against FC Barcelona in LaLiga Santander. Atleti may have lost the game, but Barrios made his mark against the league leaders and starting such a vital match showed how much Simeone believes in him.
Another huge vote of confidence came this past week, this time from the club as they gave him a senior contract until 2028 with a 100m euro buy-out clause, also giving him a first-team squad number of No.24.
“I came here when I was a kid and Atleti have given me everything, not just on the pitch but in values too," Barrios said when his new contract was announced. “This is a dream come true, to form part of a dressing room of players and coaches that just the other day I would only see on television. It's incredible. Now I just have to keep working to give the best of myself."
Barrios may be young and inexperienced, but there is no doubting his talent and what he can achieve.
As Simeone put it: “A player's age doesn't matter, only that he understands the play and has personality." Barrios certainly has that and, if he keeps working hard, Atlético de Madrid will have a diamond in their hands for many years to come.