How good can Sergi Samper be, and how good will he be allowed to be?
A Twitter conversation about Mascherano coupled with the news that Scottish side Rangers is giving Gai Assulin a tryout, made for a very interesting set of circumstances, particularly with the word that four B teamers including Samper, will probably start Barça’s opening match in the defense of the Copa copa.
Mascherano is a player who, like many players in the history of Barça and culers, isn’t appreciated for what he is but rather derided for what he isn’t. He isn’t Busquets, he isn’t tall. He doesn’t sparkle like the stardust players that have graced the Barça XI. But none of those attributes are why Guardiola wanted him and made him essential, and why he remains essential for every coach since Guardiola. People complain about various aspects of his game, say he’s too short to play CB, is a poor passer, can’t do this or that and coach after coach says “I need that. Now.”
Mascherano isn’t Busquets. Who is, and how should that affect the template used to evaluate what a player does. In a broader context this extends to youth players, and teams.
Gai Assulin was a name spoken in hushed, reverent tones. “The next Messi,” even before Messi was really That Messi. Even the name had flair, a sense of alliterative majesty. He played a few matches with the first team and people thought … um … um … He got time, got injured, recovered, got a shot and then was gone. He bounced around various teams, now resurfacing at Rangers. He’s 24 years old, in part the victim of colossal hype. Could any player live up to that?
Samper is … we don’t know. We know that he has talent. Gobs of it. So do and did many B players. Recall that Dongou was considered by a skilled observer of the game, a scribe no less than Graham Hunter, the most talented striker he has ever seen. At present he’s bottling goals for Barça B. People are screaming about Samper vs Gumbau and wondering why Samper, the living, breathing embodiment of the combo platter of Xavi, Guardiola and Busquets, isn’t playing.
Who knows? But the issue here isn’t as much his talent as expectation and whether a player can live up to it. What if Samper gets into the first team and is something like Sergi Roberto was when he first arrived? Is anyone prepared for that, and whose fault will it be if such a thing happens? We saw something of the same with Montoya, who was the next Alves, until he wasn’t. He didn’t get time under coach after coach, went to Inter where he would find his freedom and then … he wasn’t good enough.
Many blamed his lack of playing time as this thing that hindered his development. That’s easier than hype not living up to expectation. Which brings us back to Samper, who is well and truly an unknown quantity despite the vehemence of the assertion that he is ready to slot into what is, at present, the best squad in the world (until the next Champions League winner is crowned).
There is danger there.
Busquets is magnificent. He was slotted into the first team as an significant plank in the foundation of the way Pep Guardiola wanted to play. He was so good that he displaced a man considered one of the best mids in the world in Toure Yaya. Busquets is also one of those players that you only get one of. He’s that good, even as he wasn’t really appreciated for some time. What can Samper do with that? What happens when he enters the fray and isn’t Busquets, even the early, headers-to-nowhere iteration?
The expectation created around Samper is different than what existed around the likes of Krkic and Assulin, principally because of social media. There are accounts that follow youth players, that breathlessly recount the exploits of what some talented 14-year-old did against a bunch of other 14-year-olds. That ramps up the expectation, creates a situation that is often unwinnable for a player at the precise time that so much patience is required. We need look no farther than Sergi Roberto for a perfect illustration.
Sergi Roberto was hailed as a midfield wunderkind. Guardiola said that he was so good, he could play anywhere on the pitch and excel. But in midfield, all anyone knew was that he wasn’t Barça quality, as established by a trio of legendary midfielders in Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Off with his head. He worked hard, came along and kept playing when coaches put him in. No press reports about him being unhappy, about Wenger and Arsenal coming for him, and this was a player already promoted into the Barça first team. But culers wanted him gone.
Last season we began to see glimpses of what was possible. He played midfield, and sparkled. Then he played in the hole, in the vaunted Busquets role, and was good. Nobody said much, because Sergi Roberto had already been written off as One Who Wasn’t Ready. This season he got time and was good, even better than last season. Then came the right back experiment, and blammo, a star was born. Then he went into midfield, where he again was playing as if to the manor born. What happened? Confidence? That’s some of it. But more of it is a player coming into his own at about the time he is supposed to.
Sergi Roberto is 23 years old, younger than Gai Assulin. Sergi Samper is 20. Articles that sing his praises always say that he is ready to walk into almost any first team in football, such as Arsenal. Is he really? We have absolutely no idea, other than the expectation created by hype, glitter than can be a burden.
Football is impatient and often myopic. There was talk of the “next Xavi,” or “someone to fill that Xavi role.” Nonsense. Such a player doesn’t exist. Xavi was an astounding footballer in every way. He was also a footballer who was very close to leaving the club because he thought that his skill set wasn’t welcome at Barça. Imagine that. Today, he is the archetype. He is a legend, and a once in a lifetime footballer.
Hell, the Guardiola years were a collection that included a number of once in a lifetime players: Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta, Messi, Abidal, Henry all at the peak of their powers, a meteor that streaked across the face of football like something otherworldly. All everyone knew was that everything they know wouldn’t be the same ever again. That is the legacy of great teams – they redefine expectation. What great teams shouldn’t do is establish a template. Guardiola’s footballing ideas were extraordinary. They also were being implemented by some of the best players in history. The two combined to make magic, and it was astounding.
If you’re walking down the street and you find some money laying on the sidewalk, what do you do? Thank your good fortune, or keep walking past the same spot every day, cursing fate that your concrete automatic teller has come up short yet again. In many ways, that’s what comparing anything at all to the Guardiola years is like. Take that extraordinary thing for what it was, put it away in your memory banks or relive it via YouTube videos, and understand how magical that all was. Xavi to Iniesta to Busquets to Xavi to Messi to Henry. Pam pam pam pam! Are you kidding me? That happened? And we got to watch it? How can anything ever again live up to that standard, and how can we ever expect that meteor to come again?
Xavi was the orchestrator, the man who was getting ready to leave Barça. Patience. Iniesta. Patience. It’s the kind of patience that has been bred out of the game by social media and expectation. Everything is compressed, almost like the game is hurtling past and nobody wants to miss anything. Sergi Roberto is never going to be Xavi or Iniesta. Let him be Sergi Roberto. It was a shame that Thiago left Barça, but anyone who says that him walking into the Bayern XI proves anything about Barça isn’t looking at the full picture, because who was going to sit Xavi and Iniesta? Fabregas was easy but there were two legends, club icons who weren’t going anywhere. If you’re a young player who wants to start for a top club, you know what you have to do.
Thiago Alcantara popped into the Barça XI like a rocket, and right away his talent level was apparent. He was ready … right behind two of the best mids in the history of the game. Sergi Roberto was in that odd limbo where he was ready enough for promotion, but still needed time to come into his role. At present, Sergi Samper is with Barça B, who are trying to get out of Segunda B. He is one of the best players on the team, and a player who has been as exemplary as his proponents have been vehement. He works hard, says the right things and does his best for his team.
It is expected that he will land a starting role in the Copa del Rey match tomorrow, and there isn’t a culer around who doesn’t hope that actually happens. But when you watch him, look at the player and what he can do, with the opposition in mind as well. Adama Traore owned some Tercera side and scored a sparkling goal. He should have. Fully expect Samper to glitter against Villanovense, but don’t place any more on it than that, because Villanovense is a Segunda B side. We already know that Samper kicks ass in Segunda B, so don’t extrapolate that into any state of advanced readiness. Villanovense is very different than Villarreal.
Let what happens, happen. It might well be that Samper does wind up leaving the club. If that is the case, it won’t be because of anything other than a pile of talent and the breaks of the game, the difficulty of trying to break into a star-studded midfield. These things happen, just as players coming into their own happens. Both require acceptance and calm.