Two Barcelona youth players made news and raised eyebrows this week. Gerard Deulofeu tore it up for Everton, tallying two assists in a performance whose effect was immense as it steered his team to a win. And Sergi Roberto made the La Liga team of the week for the website WhoScored.com. Both players are now being debated for very different reasons.
Youth is all the rage. No, not that youth. The right youth. The Real Madrid squad for its Champions League match at Malmo today has, of its 20 players, 10 that have played for that club’s Castilla. This prompted a culer to note that Barca is headed in the opposite direction, a philosophical and anecdotal notions that is really in search of a conclusion yet to be reached.
Deulofeu had a hand in two key goals for his new team just after he issued a demand for more playing time. Only part of that sounds like a rerun of his time at Sevilla. And for Everton supporters Deulofeu’s showing made that argument for him. In the wake of his two shining moments, there was joy everywhere except in Culerville where knives, already ground to an edge that could cut an atom, came out. Enrique this, Enrique that, stupid this and stupid that. All of the ruckus sparked an observation that dropped into that special Football Twitter place reserved for things nobody wants to mention, which is that the problem with Deulofeu during his Barça audition wasn’t what he did on the ball, but rather what he did off the ball, what he did those times that he wasn’t being brilliant. He was found lacking by two different coaches to a degree sufficient to get him loaned in one case, functionally benched in another.
At Everton, a place that some suggest is his last chance even as we know better, Deulofeu has delivered a match-winning free kick and now a pair of assists that led to match turning/winning goals. Three moments that in their entirety don’t even make a full minute, yet are sufficient to make two proven coaches dummies and a club foolish. Roberto Martinez, his coach at Everton, doesn’t think that Barça will buy him back, whistling past the graveyard of his ongoing efforts to make Deulofeu into a complete player. Because if Martinez makes Deulofeu into the force he has the talent to become, Barça will buy him back in about two seconds. But if Martinez doesn’t make Deulofeu into the player he can become, he winds up with what Unai Emery had, a sullen bench player demanding more playing time in order to prove that he is more than a sullen bench player. Because talent needs hard work to give of its best.
Enter Sergi Roberto.
My nickname for him used to be Vidal Sassoon, because of the lustrous tresses that Sergi Roberto sported as he bounded onto the pitch, ready for another display that would be deemed mediocre, no matter its result. Pep Guardiola said that this player had the talent to be anything he wanted, to play anywhere on the pitch. Yet his place for Sergi Roberto was midfield, filling in for certified culer legends and consistently found wanting. Enrique put Guardiola’s statement to the test and actually tried to play Sergi Roberto “anywhere.” He was an attacking mid, played in the hole, some false 9, a Busquets role. Then when Dani Alves was out and Douglas pranged, an odd name popped up at right back: Sergi Roberto. And he was wonderful, brimming with creativity, attacking flair and defensive mettle. “It was a one off.” Then he did it again. And again. When Alves returned from his knock only to lay a stinker against a rampant Celta Vigo, Sergi Roberto got the call against Las Palmas. He was just as good as he was against Atleti, a resurrection that was only completed when many began to suggest that he should be starting at RB over Alves.
Elsewhere in Masia news, Jonathan Dos Santos is a fixture in a Villarreal XI that is, for the first time in club history, atop La Liga. Dos Santos is in many ways a perfect example of what La Masia has produced of late, far more than players such as Iniesta, Pedro, Busquets etc. He is talented, good enough to start for many teams in La Liga and world football. The likes of Victor Sanchesz, Andreu Fontas, Bojan Krkic and Marc Muniesa have been fixtures of other teams’ XIs. Dos Santos stuck it out at Barça with a good-natured determination that ignored all the bile being flung his way. All he would say is “I am determined to fight for a place at Barca,” and he kept training and kept working, being left out of squad after squad. When he was finally ripped from the locker room of the club he was so determined to make it at, his skills began to sparkle at Villarreal, all one-touch grace and physical presence.
Dos Santos has something of an analog in Sergi Roberto, and a counterpoint in Deulofeu. Both have more talent than Dos Santos, but chose different paths. Sergi Roberto did what the coach told him, worked hard and made the most of the shot that he got. Deulofeu didn’t, was sent off to Sevilla where he did more of the same and is now at Everton, where he has the chance to shine in a less-demanding setup. Barca can’t afford a player who doesn’t do his share of work off the ball and in defense. Everton has more leeway in that regard. In an ideal world, Deulofeu would be at Barça. In that same world, he would have listened to Enrique, developed a knack for tracking back like Pedro and be coming off the Barca bench to make a difference in matches. He can become that extraordinary, match-changing winger at a time when football’s attack has moved to the wings. The world is his, in theory just as it is Sergi Roberto’s, a player who has finally realized the potential that Guardiola boasted of.
It’s easy to dream of a situation where Deulofeu might be coming off the bench. Too many blame the fact that he isn’t on Enrique, rather than Deulofeu. And this is true even as Sergi Roberto sits as an example, as did Pedro before him, of what having talent, humility and a capacity for working hard and doing what the coach tells you can do for a player at Barça. Time will tell with Deulofeu, whether he stagnates at Everton, or recognizes the extraordinary opportunity that he has been given. I, like all culers, hope that it is the latter.
The challenge for Sergi Roberto, on the other hand, seems to be keeping him out of the XI. On form, he might be the team’s best player this season. How and why Enrique decided it would be worth a shot putting him at RB is one for the clairvoyants. In many ways it makes sense, if you think about what a Barca RB has to do, which is facilitate attack, get up and down the pitch and have ball and crossing skills. That Alves was able to transition so neatly into a role that was in effect, right-sided midfielder should have clued us in that the reverse could also be true, that a midfielder could shine at RB.
Sergi Roberto is also lucky in many ways, even as luck is hard work that puts you in a place where you can take advantage of your talent. If he had been part of many other clubs’ youth systems, where a different template is desired, who knows where he would be right now. But this is Barca, where even defenders are attack minded as the team attacks and defends with eleven. The days when Sergi Roberto was deemed a talentless wastrel by supporters are long gone, even if nobody is haling Enrique as a genius for that transformation just yet.
And other youth players are having their day in Sandro, Munir and Gumbau, evan as the team is a ways off that chest-puffing time when Barça, during a match, had a team where all 11 players had spent time at the club’s famed La Masia. But that’s what time and retirements do. That’s also what the unpredictability of youth talent does, something that makes predicting the fates of Sergi Roberto and Deulofeu so hard to predict. Might they be on the same roster, part of an XI where one is at RB and the other RW, playing off the world’s best 10 in Messi? That was a lot harder to imagine last month, than it is right now.