“Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”

Sergi Samper. Just saying the name sends shivers all up and down the spine, doesn’t it? But Sergi Samper is indicative of everything that is wrong with Barça, La Masia and youth football in general, at almost every club.

Leave the kids alone.

In junior bicycle racing, the kids race in age category. So you have a 15-year-old who is big, tall and strong, racing against one who is small, short and strong in context, but not compared to the Youth Colossus. People watch that big, strong kid and say, “He’s going somewhere.” The analysis is flawed because he’s winning everything in a non-representative sample group. That kid becomes a senior, gets his butt kicked and everyone wonders what happened? Nature happened.

Earlier this month Southampton did a groundbreaking this in its youth division, matching kids up for games via biological development rather than strict age parameters. So that big, strong 15-year-old got matched with kids of the same physical and strength development, picking on kids his own size, so to speak. It not only has the potential to prevent the “Ooooh, looka him!” stuff that plagues youth football, burdening young players with the “Next …” monkey on their back, but it keeps things in perspective.

Bojan Krkic might have been the “Boy of A Thousand Goals” in the youth division, but he was a runt in the senior division. Dongou went from a talent lauded by Graham Hunter as a youth striker to something of a head case on his last go-round with Barça B, and not a chance in hell of being promoted.

There are Twitter accounts devoted to following the youth divisions, and players are signing autographs after practice when their testicles haven’t even dropped yet. The amount of information and levels of scrutiny have reached absurd levels, mostly because all of the information leads to an expectation that is almost guaranteed to never, ever meet reality. It has been noted before how remarkable the class that currently sparklies for Barça is. Pique, Iniesta, Messi, Rafinha, Busquets came atop others who are now gone. It’s a simply stupefying level of success, when most youth systems don’t even develop two world-class superstars over the course of a decade, never mind almost a full XI when all were present at the club. That remarkable success level has led to a different kind of expectation, that lightning will strike the same place twice.

Information is wonderful. But it’s creating complexities in that the vacuum that previously existed is now a glut of information. A 12-year-old midfielder is a kid who is learning what he and his body can do, learning a system. Let that kid develop in peace and quiet. It doesn’t matter what he is at 12 years old, when he is developing life skills in addition to his football skills. Not only do I not want to know what is happening with the latest lauded tyke scooped up by La Masia, but I don’t think we should know. Leave them be. Let them be kids.

Which brings us to Samper, and the tale of absurd levels of expectation. Eric Coffin-Gould wrote an excellent piece over at TotalBarca, which you should take a look at. It in part sparked this piece, though the “kids on display” business has been bothering me for some time. In it, he asks questions about what is happening with Samper, and wonders that his development is somehow being stunted because he isn’t getting regular call-ups to the first team and further, that he would be better served sitting on the bench and training with the first team than starting for, and plying his trade with the B team, who are doing battle down in Segunda B.

A cynical old bugger like me doesn’t remember forward passes that dripped with honey, as Ray Hudson would say. I remember Willian taking Samper apart during that Chelsea friendly, and wonder if that player really is ready for a shot in the murderers’ row that is the Barça first team. A first team slot isn’t charity. It’s earned.

samper 1

When Sergi Busquets was promoted, Pep Guardiola had a plan in mind. But aside from that plan, Busquets had his crap together, those silly, wayward headers aside. When he subbed for Toure Yaya, eventually benching him before Yaya was sold to Manchester City, it was clear that he was ready. It wasn’t just the passes and the metronomic way he worked with Xavi to keep things moving, but his defending. He had a remarkable knack for reading the game, and understanding where he needed to be. This skill was developed while he was on the B team, who were in Segunda B for much of his development time. It’s a lot more complex than “If it was good enough for Busquets.” Samper is a killer talent. So was Deulofeu. And Krkic. These last two were pushed too far, too fast. Deulofeu almost seemed surprised at how easily Liga defenders dismantled all that stuff that worked against Segunda defenders. Krkic kept running into bigger, stronger defenders and getting frustrated that he wasn’t getting more chances.

People are ladling the wrong kinds of expectations on Samper, asking “why Gumbau instead of Samper,” when the two players are as different as Xavi and Keita. If Barça was an American football team, Gumbau would be the guy that the coach sends in with a very simple order: “Get out there and hit somebody!” The few times I watched him play with the first team, he reminded a lot of Seydou Keita, in that (this isn’t a negative depiction) he has this remarkable ability to get in the way. Like Keita, he isn’t going to dazzle with his attacking or passing prowess. But he will make opposing mids say “Dammit, would somebody get that thing out of my way?!”

An astute evaluation of Samper that recently popped up on Twitter noted his deficient defensive skills that still needed work. Take that in the context of players who don’t play that often, get a run-out and people say “He just needs reps to get back in the groove,” and it’s very clear why Samper is playing with B instead of sitting in the catbird seats with A. He isn’t fully ready, and the best way to get ready is to play. Week in and week out, against attacking teams and buses, physical sides and run-and-gun ones. Play, and learn your craft. Busquets developed into the beast ready for the first team in Segunda B. So did Pedro.

Oliver Torres of Atleti is often brought up in the Samper context. He is the same age, and has started two matches for Atleti. He just returned to the club after a series of loans, ready for a serious look. He wouldn’t start against Real Madrid, but he could against Sevilla. Were we to loan one of the Masia pearls to Porto as Atleti did, supporters would scream about the level of the league in Portugal being below what our player needed to become the magic maker that he can be. But it worked for Torres. Loans can work if properly implemented, but the player has to be ready enough to benefit from the regular playing time. Torres spent a lot of his development time on loan because Atleti correctly surmised that playing regularly would help him more than sitting with the first team, carrying bags and training with them. It worked.

Samper is past that point, though a loan might be in his future after this season with B, because he is ready, but not ready enough to comfortably take first team minutes. He is on the passing and attack development side of things, but even against a defensive side looking to play off the break, what would happen if a jailbreak came rushing at him? If his lack of defensive skills is evident in B, does it become glaring in A? Willian probably thinks so, and Willian isn’t a player that any culer would countenance signing.

Let a player develop according the plan laid out for him. And there is a plan, one that shouldn’t be rushed because supporters are wondering why a sparkling player isn’t promoted, or getting his parts with the first team. Much of that comes from scrutiny at a level that has reduced youth football to fantasy land. Blind trust is always ill-advised. But a team with the youth talent track record of Barça probably knows what it’s doing. Sure, let’s ask questions. But the entitlement and chagin that happen when a player isn’t promoted or used in the way we deem fit? Naaaah. It seems an odd time to quote a Pink Floyd lyric, but youth players are indeed working to become “just another brick in the wall.” That wall is, ideally, the first team. And sometimes, the best way to ensure that proper placement is to, simply put, “leave them kids alone.”

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

20 Comments

  1. MSN
    September 3, 2015

    Gerard and Lucho seem convinced Samper is a DM, and I’d really like to see him being tried as a CM for a while…

  2. ciaran
    September 3, 2015

    I blame Messi…
    In reality, bar that alien of an Argentine, no player is truly capable of becoming a fully fledged member of the first team until they are in their early twenties. Xavi and Iniesta, two of the greatest ever midfielders weren’t good enough to command an instant starting spot at Samper’s age when our midfield wasn’t as good as it is now. Add to that we didn’t have the expectation of winning every single match for fear of the world collapsing but they still had to be gradually integrated into the side.

    Samper has the skills to make it but it takes a lot more than that. Heck, we’ve produced players with more skill than Pedro who haven’t ever made our first team but it takes a massive number of factors coming together perfectly to make a player good enough for our first team.

    If Samper is to be the next whoever, we must first see who he can be on his own.

  3. timtim
    September 4, 2015

    A loan to a lower la liga team would have been beneficial. A deal like Halilovic’s would have been just right. First team. Learns how to defend. With the analysis tho, he looks more like a Fabregas in d making. He will probably never be good defensively like Cesc. Maybe he should be groomed as a CM

  4. Davour
    September 4, 2015

    Another sobering piece, thanks Kxevin. It is an interesting notion how names are thrown around, mythologies created around certain names who are deemed “next-to-be-great”. I wonder, how many of the people screaming for Samper has actually watched many games where he features? Has followed his development and are knowledgeable enough to assess his qualities? These questions are not meant to be sarcastic, but earnest. I, for one, have only seen glimpses, but am aware of how the grape-wine has conjured up an image in my mind of Samper. I can feel the urge to vouch for him, despite my lack of insight, and wish for another great La Masia jewel to appear. But we must curb our enthusiasm. As cieran says: It’s all Messi’s fault. It’s a shame, I agree, his (and perhaps Busquets, in a sense) case has eclipsed the likes of Xavi and Iniesta and their way to the top. We have been impatient with Bartra because of Piqué, who emerged so good at an early age. But now, really, is the time we can begin to assess his chances (and they are perhaps not to favourable).

    Music inspires quotes, so I choose Guns n’ Roses: “All we need is just a little patience”.

  5. Jim
    September 4, 2015

    It won’t come as much of a surprise to most that I disagree pretty much with most of this article. I’m old enough in this space’s terms ( the old Offside) to remember you pushing for both Bojan and GDS to be promoted to the first team because they were ready, Kxevin, and I remember asking at the time what killer skill they had because without something that makes you a cut above the rest you won’t make it at Barcelona. That skill, imo, can be broken down into the general superb technical skills which they must all have to play for us and the particular skills they must have in our system. If, for instance, they want to play CB they need to be able to pass out from defence into a crowded midfield accurately, be able to cope with being drawn wide etc. up front, the ability to beat a man in a tight space is paramount ( why Alexis is no longer with us) . In midfield the ability to pass and move, head up and able to turn out of severe pressure while still oiling the passing machine is what we look for. ( the vertical stuff is way over exaggerated and actually pretty easy so I’m leaving that out for now).

    So we come to Samper. I watched that Chelsea game where he was “taken apart” by Willian. That must have come in the last 25 minutes or so after we replaced about nine players at the same time. Not sure how the continuity works there. Anyway, I’m not sure where it happened. What I saw was a Barca side struggling for rhythm preseason ( as were Chelsea) and I’m mindful of the lectures from some here that nothing should be read into pre season matches. Actually my abiding memories of defending in that match were of Masip’s mistake and Rakitic’s woeful effort for Hazard’s goal . Was he taken apart I wonder ?

    I’ve not seen enough of Samper to know if he will make it with us but I do know that I’ve not called for any other youngster to be promoted so I don’t do this lightly. It is, as Kxevin says, very difficult to break into a world class team. And there is always a tendency to value the £50m import as being world class because of the fee. However, I know what I see in Samper and. He is the first player from La Masia who I’ve felt has all the skills necessary to play at his position ( which I reckon may well not be DM as he evolves). Every time I watch him he has Xavi’s ( and also Iniesta’s ) ability to play with the head up and know where the opponent is and which way to turn. He can take a hospital ball and turn it into good possession and he likes being on the ball and not losing possession. I like what I see of him and the only valid question for me is whether now is the right time to bring him into the squad.

    Btw, I’m finding it hard to follow all the arguments against his inclusion. If I remember correctly at first he wasn’t playing because LE already knew how good he was, then it became that the seconds needed him more, now it’s that maybe Gumbau is ahead of him in development. Well, I’ve seen a bit more of Gumbau and I’m not holding my breath. I can see the attraction if you’re the sort of supporter who likes your physical effort player – the Mascherano, the Alexis the Rakitic but for me the ball players are the ones who will make the difference. I’ve been saying for over two seasons now that we don’t have a poor defence, we have an absent defence. Once that was sorted last year the treble was always on with our front three. This season I reckon a lot more will depend on our midfield play.

    So I’m not clear why Samper isn’t involved more. He’s twenty, has shown he can hold his own in our midfield and has bags more potential than Gumbau. Yes, we can take the fan bashing view that LE always knows best and we should be content with that but this is the same man who dropped Pique and risked alienating him, has fallen out with Mathieu, Messi and almost crippled our season.

    In fairness, I’d also have to say that he did reconsider his ways after the interventions and it takes a lot to swallow your pride and he quite correctly reaped the benefits from that. However, unless there’s something we don’t know about he risks Samper becoming enmeshed in a poor team struggling in a poor division which won’t help his progression one iota. Nor would a loan to a club which doesn’t play our system. If our possession game has to be automatic with our mids this is the place to develop it with the top players. Sometimes you get top players who look ordinary until they play with top players who are on the same wavelength. I suspect that may be true of Samper.

    • September 4, 2015

      Commenting solely to correct a misrepresentation:

      My stance on Krkic was that he and his entourage rammed his promotion through. It.didn’t sit well with me then, and still doesn’t.

      My view on Dos Santos, if I can recall correctly, was that he was a talent who deserved a look.

      I have never, and will never, call for promotion of a youth player. I don’t know enough to make those calls. It was as true then as it is now. But I do wish the Offside stuff wasn’t deleted from servers when that space changed masters.

    • September 5, 2015

      Criticizing LE, for Samper, might be considered equivalent to blasphemy, so I will keep quite. For me, from the very little I have seen, he deserves to be in the first team squad, 10 times more than Munir – from all his minutes I have seen him for the first team.

      Jim, I wonder you watched yesterdays Argentina match against Bolivia. There is this guy Kranevitter. Masche must have thought from the bench – that guy is going to retire me from the NT. He is defensively excellent and has that ability to pick excellent forward passes too. Atletico has bought a real gem. If Simeone is on form, Atletico is going to give a real scare for every European bigteam.

    • Jim
      September 5, 2015

      Didn’t see that game, Fotobirajesh, but from all I hear AM have bought well this summer. If he’s as good as you say I don’t think Argentina would suffer from Mascherano at DM. Liked what I saw of Jackson Martinez for AM as well. Problem for them might be that they’re not a surprise anymore and folk might start playing a bit more cautiously against them and they’ll be in our boat of having to break teams down.

      Kxevin, I wasn’t having a pop at you. That was my recollection from the discussions we had at the time around whether R10 should be picked ahead of either of the youngsters. Fair enough if that wasn’t your view. The point I was trying to make, though, was that neither of the youngsters had any standout skill for me that would make them a realistic first team prospect which isn’t, for me, the case with Samper.

      On another note I see Thiago isn’t in the Spanish squad. Pity. I’d have liked to see how he is progressing after his injuries.

    • September 5, 2015

      The Bolivia match was only a friendly. But at this very young age, the boy has been very important for the Copa Libertedores win for Rive Plate. Masche at DM makes Argentina a very defensive team, and without a good CM, that team suffer. Kranevitter looks more like a deep laying play maker. It was interesting yesterday that his through ball yesterday was converted by Correa, whom also has been brought by Simeone.

      If Tata continues with him, at least Messi wont have to play the deep lying play maker role for Argentina, like he had to do for Copa. 🙂

    • Jim
      September 5, 2015

      Tbh, at this stage I’m more worried about the amount of deep lying playmaking Mesi is having to do for us.

    • olbucky
      September 5, 2015

      Jim I have to say I think you’re right on with this here. I don’t get overly excited about youth players but ever since the first time I saw Samper in the Champions League last year against Apoel it’s been hard not to get excited when watching him play. He commands the midfield in a way that few midfielders do. Hey plays with a confidence beyond his age. He is definitely of the Barca mold.

      I think the problem is that LE doesn’t put so much value in that. He’d much prefer to stretch the field and play vertical. When Busqets went down a couple weeks ago I thought to myself I’d much rather have Samper in there as opposed to Masch. A whole dimension to our game is lost with Masch as DM. No flow. It never works. Not as a starter or when LE does it as a defensive substitution. LE doesn’t feel that Barcas best defense is to hold and control the ball. He’s more inclined to put in a double pivot and count on the back line. He’s gotten in trouble quite a few times that way.

      Bottom line I don’t think he appreciates Sampers skills the way a Guardiola would. If LE had the choice to bring up Busqets over Toure what do you think would happen? I’m guessing we would be talking about a loan for Busqets.

  6. Jim
    September 5, 2015

    Ramos continues his fine streak of awful defending for Spain just before Spain take the lead through Alba.

    • Jim
      September 5, 2015

      Much prefer the role Iniesta’s has tonight for Spain than the one he has for us. He has freedom to roam all over the pitch. Much more in the Xavi mould and doing it well.

    • Jim
      September 5, 2015

      Didn’t like to see Pique taking whistles from some in the crowd tonight – apparently for comments about Barca representing Catalunya rather than Spain ? And so it starts. Dangerous thing Nationalism for me.

    • Davour
      September 6, 2015

      From the parts I watched, Iniesta was commanding and brilliant (Busi also looked good). To me, he dwarfs Silva and reminds us why Fabregas was not good enough to run our midfield. However, in Spain he does not have three world beaters in front of him, that he needs to facilitate and cover up for… Silva is no Messi, Pedro is no Neymar (as we know), so Ini becomes the main man. How do you suggest he could have the NT-role in Barca?

    • Jim
      September 6, 2015

      Good question, Davour. I’m not sure I have an answer as I’m really not sure what role LE sees our midfield as having. No doubt in my mind that Iniesta’s looked happier last night in that role and with a vastly inferior front line to work with.

      At the moment the main emphasis for the mids at Barca seems to be a defensive one with Iniesta’s and Rakitic (almost) acting as cover for the FBs. This does two things; keeps them tied to small areas of the pitch and gives them a lot more running to do if they want to get up and down. All this seems to be based on the premise that we need a better defence. Here’s where I get on my hobbyhorse and say that we have never needed a better defence, we just need bodies back in front of the ball. That, again to me, just means joined up thinking. Both FBs don’t need to go forward every move and once there they don’t have to stay up. If we are short of numbers Busi should never be caught too far up so if they break on the wing our CB on that side should go out and Busi should slot in centre. It’s why Masche’s unexpected forays out of the back line to win a ball that didn’t need won cost us dearly over the last few seasons, although to be fair to him things improved a lot in the run in last season. He’s twice the player if we’re not having to watch “last ditch” crunching tackles in midfield on a man going away from goal !

      You could see this rigidity of setup last year with Xavi. When he was sent to calm things down he would initially stick to task but then began to wander much wider which is essential if you are going to try to control the rhythm of our passing. There was no sign of disturbance or imbalance last night as Ini moved right to left, forward and back. At precisely the correct time he would drop his shoulder and penetrate their midfield line with a quick burst letting Spain get at their back line. Their positions were fluid which, to me, is as it should be. You need to give Ini that freedom and leave it to him to judge when to use it. If you want to lock everything down you employ Mourinho who will happily drop someone if they stray out of position. That’s not how we play our best.

      At the moment if Messi sees our midfield not working he drops deep and in some games that happens pretty early. Now sometimes it works and always will but teams are now ready for that and since he is also our best bet for goals it leaves him with a hell of a lot of field to cover to get on the end of something. Just my tuppence worth but an interesting topic and one I’m sure will crop up more this year.

    • Davour
      September 6, 2015

      So, if I understand correctly, your suggestion is curbing the FBs a bit, to allow greater room for movement for the CMS? There was, indeed, a beautiful fluidity to the Spanish passing and movement, resembling Barca of old in a sense. I don’t see LE holding the FBs back to any greater extent (as he keeps referring to them as “almost midfielders”), but one way of seeing it is that this approach wastes (or decreases) Ini’s creative and playmaking powers. But is this necessary to facilitate Neymar’s game? And if so, is this a reasonable trade-off? Alba’s runs have been a useful weapon, to, overcoming the packed defences (which are generally more solid than Slovakia’s, I reckon). Also, I doubt that Rakitic is a good enough playmate in this particular regard, quick-passing not being one of his greater strengths…

      It is a tough issue. But either way, it was lovely to see the Don play like that, as good as ever. Greater fluidity would not hurt Barca, I’m sure, but would probably require more defensive work from Messi and/or Neymar, which I can’t see happening. Comparing the action zones in the Spain game with those during the Malaga game, the differences are not great. Messi a little further up and slightly wider than Silva, Busi a little more defensive. Spain were more compact in the middle, and we know this is perhaps not possible for Barca. Malaga as a team was much more disciplined and compact than Slovakia. Hence, fluidity was easier to achieve for Spain, as there was more space, while stretching the defence seemed more crucial against Malaga – which means more focus on FBs (though Alba’s position was identical in the two games).

      Perhaps finding the right balance between Alba, Iniesta and Neymar is another possible key, letting Messi roam and leave Raki to his defensive duties (making those runs when applicable), and letting the defence shift like you suggest, Jim. Who knows! He who lives shall see…

  7. realdox
    September 7, 2015

    i belief samper has what it take to be a success at barca though i only watched him once against apoel.the guy seem lik pass master,is jus that he has stumbling block inform of busquet and iniesta ahead of him just as the writer indicated .

  8. realdox
    September 7, 2015

    He should concentrate more on becomin cm because busquet is not going to vacate his post for him anytime soon.other problem is that i dont think enrique value what he has(opinion) because to me he deserve first team call up just lik sandro.

  9. Jim
    September 7, 2015

    From Barcastuff : Fifa have informed Barcelona that the youth players who can’t play for the club now can’t stay at the youth residence or train either.

    Now this is just getting silly … And vindictive . Time for a bit of legal challenge to this mob. Have to come from parents, though. Seriously, what do FIFA think they’re achieving here as far as the kids are concerned ? Jeez. That mob needs to go.

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