Gerard Deulofeu. It’s difficult to think of a more talented player to come out of La Masia in recent years, but there is also a problem, outlined here in the very good Sid Lowe column about Unai Emery. It’s worth exploring his complexities a bit in a quote from Emery about Deulofeu:
“He has incredible qualities but lacks others. Put him out there, one on one and … pfff,” Emery says, blowing out his cheeks in admiration. “But make him play football with team-mates, on a big pitch, and it’s hard. He doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet. I told him: ‘There are players here who aspire to a contract like yours, men with less talent but more hunger. Iborra, Carriço, Vitolo. They know what it costs. You haven’t experienced that. When you do, you’ll grow. I hope you get that. If not here, somewhere else.’”
This isn’t the first time that Emery had some words for Deulofeu directly. Earlier in the season when left out of a match squad, Deulofeu Tweeted “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” In response, Emery posted, “You can have the wood of a champion, but you have to shape that wood with effort, work and humility.”
When Luis Enrique took the decision to send Deulofeu off on loan (again) it was one that didn’t sit will with many culers, and it still doesn’t. The question of course, is whose responsibility is the shaping of a footballer, and what is the obligation of a first team as it pertains to a young talent?
A player is born in La Masia, where he develops the habits that are expected to take him through becoming a full-fledged professional. Those wondering about those habits, you can see them in players such as Iniesta, Messi, Xavi and Pedro. It’s work, it’s being a professional with all that the word entails.
Deulofeu is a more complex case. When he was sent on loan to Everton it was with an eye toward developing him under a coach known for getting the best out of young players. After a year in which he suffered an injury, he still hadn’t cracked the Everton XI though he was viewed as an impact sub, and returned to Barca when many felt that another year at Everton would have been better for him.
He did some of the pre-season with the first team, then the rumor popped up that he would be leaving on loan for unspecified reasons. When a player goes on loan, the motivations are many: the team wants to get the player consistent playing time, which isn’t going to happen if he stays; it’s a shop window for interested clubs; the player isn’t going to make it at his home club and it’s a chance to get him out of the pressure cooker.
In the case of Deulofeu he went to Sevilla, got playing time then suddenly stopped being included in match squads. Aside from unspecified buzz about attitude problems, nobody really knew what happened. The Emery Tweet was really the first word from the coach on what the situation might be. His comments in the Lowe piece made things even clearer. Deulofeu is not doing what he needs to do to succeed.
There are many reactions to that. Some believe that Deulofeu is a young player, with talent that requires special treatment and nurturing. That is the job of the club and its first team. He should have been kept at Barcelona this season so that he could learn from real professionals, betters who he understands the necessity of deference.
Another view is that as a professional footballer, his career is on him. He knows what he has to do because two different coaches have told him, and it’s up to him to do it. I’m somewhere in the middle of the two camps. I also wonder if Deulofeu had stayed, where and how often was he going to play? Could he have been another attacker for Enrique, or were his liabilities on the other parts of the pitch too significant?
Let’s not forget that Deulofeu came up in a broken home so to speak, under the aegis of Eusebio. That team was a mess, even as it was a successful mess until the doors came off and Eusebio was sacked. Deulofeu, because he was an immense talent, could do what he wanted. Like an adorable puppy who becomes a big dog that poops in the house, he didn’t learn things such as judgment, working within a team’s system (did B really have one?) and acquiring skill sets such as tracking back and doing the necessary donkey work, things that endear a talented player to a coach.
Then he went to Everton where he was showing signs of progress, then got injured, etc. When he returned to Barça, Enrique pretty much said “Holy crap!” and shipped him off to Sevilla, where Emery said “Wheeee,” and then “Holy crap!” And that’s where he is now.
Two different coaches have said to him, “This is what you need to do.” So at what point does a player have the responsibility for making his own way? We see it all the time when supporters are talking about a player who they feel is getting screwed, and deserves playing time. But playing time is earned by making it impossible for your coach to NOT play you. Pedro isn’t at Barça because he’s nice to puppies. He’s there because he does exactly what a coach tells him to, to the maximum effort. Neymar is tracking back like a demon these days, and covered the most distance for Barça in the Champions League tie with Bayern Munich. And don’t forget that he came to Barça as a YouTube show pony. He learned quickly, because he had to. To be sure, being on a team with examples such as Puyol, Mascherano, Xavi and Iniesta helped, and there was also Messi to show him how it was done.
True, Neymar wasn’t some Masia graduate struggling to find a place on the squad. But he was going to be a star without doing what he did. He understood from the examples set by veterans. Neymar came to Barça when he was 21, same age as Deulofeu is now. Is there anything to be learned from comparing the two players, or is Bojan Krkic, a Masia graduate who was promoted when he shouldn’t have been, a more correct analog? It’s easy to forget the “Boy of a Thousand Goals,” who is now the man of a few goals at Stoke, recovering from a serious injury. When Krkic forced his promotion, a lot had to happen for him to make it at Barça. It didn’t, and he went on perpetual loan, where coaches said some of the same things they are saying about Deulofeu, to eventually land in Stoke.
Deulofeu’s talent is without question. He has pace, a wicked shot and when inclined, is able to pick out the right pass. But he also doesn’t track back much, can be selfish and his decision making is suspect. Is this a nature vs nurture question? Had Deulofeu come up in a better B system under a coach such as Enrique or Guardiola, would he have become a better professional? As we all know, players react to praise differently. Some say, “Yeah, whatever … don’t believe you,” and resume working their butts off. Others begin to think, “Hey, everybody says this, so … “ And an entitled youth player is born.
The other complexity for the Deulofeu situation is that at the first team there is no time for young players. The team has to win or the world ends. People point to the recent examples of Pedro and Busquets, but both were players who were very close to being ready to play in a high-flying, hard charging team. Enrique came in having to deal with the pressure of needing to win. Pressure from the board, from the team, from himself, the supporters and the entorno. The calm, nurturing environment necessary to bring a young player along didn’t exist and was never going to this season, to the fault of no one.
Given that situation, however, sending Deulofeu on loan was, for me, the correct decision. He wasn’t going to get the playing time that he needed to develop, so Sevilla was worth a shot as Emery is excellent at getting a lot from young players. He got his shot, and didn’t take it. Emery has all but said that Deulofeu will not be back with Sevilla next season. Is there fault? At this point, you have to say that, mitigating circumstances aside, it’s on the player. Deulofeu knew what he had to do, and didn’t do it.
What’s next? He’s 21 and talented as hell. He will get another shot at Barça, but it will probably be his last shot. We never heard it said explicityly, though Enrique intimated that Deulofeu was lacking key qualities. Emery made that very clear. From this point on, the rest is up to Deulofeu.