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.
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.”