Samper, greatness and patience in the age of Now

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.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Calm and patience?Where?Lucho said today that he is here to win trophies and i saw some shoking tweets!People talk about Johan Cruyf but did really watched Dream Team??If u believe that this team was much different than Lucho go back and watch some games!Or the team of Rijkaard??Why we cant enjoy the team like what it is?Why to try every day to find something negative?Why we forget how boring was our 2011-12 team with all that midfielders?Why we must always must be perfect and play the best football in the world?What would be the future if Iniesta did not scored that goal?Who would be Guardiola if in 2003 a little boy did not arrive from Argentina?Why Samper cant have some patience?Why Lucho want trophies?

  2. I’m afraid this article entirely misses the point, in my view. You do realise that Samper will never fulfil his potential unless he’s given the chance to shine? It’s logically impossible, Busquets was no more proven (and arguably less overtly impressive) than Samper when he broke into the first team. But he was given the chance at the top level, and he shone before long. Samper has not even been given the *chance* at the top level yet. Will he ever play a La Liga game? It seems unlikely at this rate, no matter how many mids are injured – at least under Enrique, that is.

    Remember: no player can prove himself to be at a certain level unless he is tried at that level. Indeed, how can anyone even expect Samper to grow whilst languishing in the Segunda B? He’s not being stretched in the slightest there. That’s apparent to anyone who watches him regularly. And of course, it’s only from being challenged that one is forced to grow! If former coaches had always thought of Busquets/Xavi/Iniesta “hey, this kid is hugely talented, but he’s too raw for the first team”, do you know where they’d be? Still languishing in the B team.

    So the real issue here is, what is the mechanism for a player establishing himself in the first team? We knew exactly what it was in Rijkaard’s or Guardiola’s era, but now, if there is one, it couldn’t be less clear.

    1. I have to say that I think that you are missing the point also. Because he is playing well in the third division doesn’t mean he is ready to even be given his shot. It’s not like he is controlling games completely down there, he is frequently being overrun by teams in that division, so much so that they have played 442 in occasion to help out. They have improved over the past couple of games but to say that he should be promoted on a regular basis is, at present, too premature.

      I love Samper but if he is showing himself to be good enough I assume that Lucho will give him his chance.

    2. Was Gumbau good enough? Munir? Sandro? Camara? Lucho seems to be giving chances to the wrong players.

    3. But Gumbau did deserve a shot? Or Sergi Roberto in MF? Or Camara? Or Munir?

      Judging an individual player by the performance of a team, and whether the coach gets tactics right… well, that’s super rational!

      Samper has what is overall a poor team around him, a squad low on confidence, and a coach who’s made clear he doesn’t care about traditional Barça philosophy. Arsenal, Man City, and Bayern Munich have put in big bids to bring him to their first team squads. What do you have to say about that?

  3. good article .
    I can’t help but feel I read this here before . Over and over again.
    There are definitely more pressing and or interesting issues that deserve pieces too.

  4. good article .
    I can’t help but feel I read this here before . Over and over again.
    There are definitely more pressing and or interesting issues that warrant pieces too.

  5. And Gumbau was ready? To be even given his shot? I don’t think anyone is advocating that he displace Busquets or even be a starter. They want to see how the kid can fare. If he does not fair enough.

  6. I agree with the general thrust of this article which is that a game tonight doesn’t prove anything one way or the other for Samper. He may or may not play well but I for one won’t be judging him particularly on it. I hope he does play well because that will then place even more pressure on LE to give him a chance when it matters and that is when we’ll see if he has it. I wasn’t really aware of Gai assuming so can’t speak to that but as I’ve said before I haven’t really been impressed by any young player other than Messi ( and to an extent) Busi, although I still remember the headers to nowhere – often backwards !

    However, this isn’t like Busi’s arrival in the first team. As I know to my cost from my old man’s Monday night game passing is not a solo activity. You need those around you to be on the same wavelength. At a (much ! ) higher level you also need players of a high ability to carry off a true passing game. What we have tonight I assume is what Arsenal had last night. Which is a load of youngsters chucked in at the same time, floundering and Wenger. ( disgracefully imo, ) announcing afterwards that none of them was ready. If LE does the same tonight we risk the same result. With regard to Samper, coming into a midfield with Xavi and Iniesta , as Busi did , is different from coming in to play with two kids. You only find out about whether a player can play at a higher level when he plays with the higher level team.

    In a sense we’re back at the RS game of last year. Up to that point, I don’t think anyone would argue that Xavi wasn’t one of our best midfielders. However, after that game he became a sub, essentially because he carried some of the can because most of the first team were sitting on the bench. That was the point at which our midfield went downhill and we’re still dealing with the consequences now. I’d be more interested in seeing Samper playing with Busi and Iniesta where we can judge his ability to play with the best, even if it’s only in glimpses at the moment .

    All in all, worth watching tonight so it’s a shame Sky aren’t showing it. Worse than that, apparently. I’m taking the good lady to see Bond tonight so I’ll even miss my live stream ! Cue all the Bond jokes.
    “Do you expect me to play ? ”
    ” No, Mr Samper, we expect you to shine. ”

    Just a word on the Masche portion of the article. Speaking personally I’ve said all along I’d like to see him play at DM as his strengths are better suited there. I’ve also said that he’d make a good captain. That’s not to say he can’t play CB. ( he did and very well in the last half dozen games or so last season ) but he comes with quite a large downside as our permanent. CB . I don’t think his lack of height is the major factor but it has to be considered. We wouldn’t employ a GK of his height, would we ? If he’s the alternative to Busi it’s also fair to look at the two skill sets if both are available. If he’s playing with Pique we probably want someone with a bit more pace. However, I don’t think anyone would deny the contribution he has made to the team.

    Anyway, I’ll catch up tomorrow. Should be interesting either way.

    1. You only find out about whether a player can play at a higher level when he plays with the higher level team. – Thats the point Jim.
      With the present form of Masche – he was not that good from the Copa America – I was hoping his absence for the Classico would be good. With only 2 match ban, LE will play him. Both Masche and Busi in our midfield may not be good against RM.
      I agree the club is appealing whenever there is an issue like the recent Masche linesman one. But I wish we made a bit more ‘noise’ about all this. sometimes we dont even seem to get a proper appeal right?

    2. Jim, very good point about great players needing other great players to really show their talent.

      With regard to the points of Kxevin’s article, maybe Samper IS still too young to be thrown into La Liga games, it’s just the inclusion of those who are not much older and not more talented into the first team before him that makes us ask if that’s the real motivation behind it.

    3. I was about to post something very similar (regarding the underappreciated fact that you cannot play a pssing game on your own) before I saw your post.

      People forget that Xavi only became a true legend when he was 28-29.

      It was only after the keys to the midfield were handed to both him and Iniesta, and especially when Busquets joined and Messi developed his passing (another forgotten aspect of the evolution of the team), that the now iconic level of midfield control was established. But before that Xavi spent a decade in the first team, often a starter but sometimes on the bench, Iniesta was even further down the pecking order and we never really had the level of control over the midfield. that we now consider our divine right.

      Now was Xavi a worse player before 2008 or was it that he could only shine when the system was built around him and he had the right teammates? It’s probably a combination of the two — CM at Barca is the most complicated position in all of football so you basically have to keep learning and developing well into your 20s. to reach that level, but it’s also true that the pieces were not there.

      Anyway, the mental exercise to do is to go back to the year 1999, look at the Xavi of the time, extract him from that era and insert him in Samper’s place in today’s match, with Kaptoum, Gumbau, Ardiano., Sandro and Munir in the midfield and forward line. The question is would he have done much better?

  7. Off topic: I watched the first thirty minutes of Wolfsburg – Bayern (German Cup) yesterday, and Bayern was playing like 2011 Barca at their finest (though with less focus on the centre and more on the sidelines). Wolfsburg couldn’t get out of their half even once due to Bayern’s pressing, Bayern passed the ball around wherever they wanted, then went for the killing blow. They scored three in those thirty minutes without Wolfsburg having shot at goal once, then slowed down and allowed the game to trickle down for the remaining sixty minutes (3-1 in the end). They looked scary – but then, I found Bayern scary last year as well, and we all know what happened when they came to Barcelona.

  8. Just watching Greg Dyke of the FA being grilled by MPs over their support for Platini. Getting a hard time and rightly so.

    Fotobirajesh, I haven’t really thought about the Clasico yet. Hopefully, Matthieu will get some games and show his worth so that he retains his place in the back four. That’s my biggest worry. In the midfield, although not ideal, I wouldn’t be too upset about a Masche DM plus Busi and Iniesta against RM as I’m not sure they have the wherewithal to press us as much as they have recently and Masche will at least get stuck into Bale and Ronaldo. Matthieu will stay at home , Alba doesn’t get caught upfield too often with his pace so we’re really only looking at Dani. I say him because I’m not sure I want SR up against two quick forwards despite his decent displays and that area will certainly be the focus of their attacks. If they also control the midfield, and they could, we might struggle, especially with the latest thought being that Messi is unlikely to make it.

  9. Wait a minute,how madrid made a pre deal with a 15y old who play in Argentina??That s ok for FIFA??Our Transfer Ban is the most unfair and disgusting thing happened in Club s football this century.An obvious attack by this corrupted company of bastards and i hope in the future we will find the truth.

  10. (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.)
    Ah fink tz a stunning nd brilliant sentence

    Ah fink in de SR context, nt rily flamboyant in his few appearances buh dere was still flashes of brilliance especially goin 4ward (dahz chance)
    Buh, Gumbau has bin only makin up de numbas….he has done NTN (wif his chance)
    Mascherano played nd didn’t get de system nd was benched nd gradually eased himself tu a starter (chance)
    Buh, samper hasn’t even bin givin chance nor benefit of doubts nd dere z no denying he z top-notch talent
    Wif all de talk abt hw Samper z nided in de B-team,…ah wld lyk tu knw if messi, iniesta, xavi, puyol, busi, nd even de less successful ones lyk bojan; apparently he was bangin in goals 4 dem,(B-team) wasn’t also nided in de B-team buh they were still given chances nd benefit of doubts times again (some of dem 2-3seasons)

  11. Seems like Enrique just threw everyone who is at/near first team status but not a regular starter (save for Mathieu) into the starting lineup for today. If this group – for the most part with little experience in playing together – gets a good result then there HAS to be quality in those players.

    I’m not faulting him however, it’s clear a number of first-teamers need rest now as the next six weeks will be a tough schedule, and any setbacks today can be remedied with a more experienced lineup in the second game of the tie.

    1. However, the game IS very painful to watch. You’d think a number of La Masia talents could string a few more accurate passes in the opponents’ half together. I’m also not convinved Adriano is going to turn into a world-class forward at this point in his career.

  12. Very poor football played in the first half. Let’s hope for am improvement for the second…

  13. I have to say, I think I’d rather see ter Stegen outfield than most of this team based on the opening hour.
    It’s obviously miles too early in the season to draw mass conclusions but it looks like we’ll need to have a summer sale to clear out some dead wood. I won’t name names but there’s an incredible drop in quality from starters to squad players.

  14. That was an utter waste of a couple of hours of my life. I can’t imagine what any traveling fans would have thought.
    I had hopes that specifically Samper, Munir, Sandro and Gumbau would show more quality and Douglas might show us something.
    Kaptoum didn’t do badly for his first ever match with the seniors but we’ll have to wait and see.
    Masip looks rusty which is to be expected.
    Adriano is a utility player but looked very much out of place without a player ahead of him.
    Bartra and Vermaelen both got game time which is good.

    Disappointed for Munir and Sandro that neither got a goal. Both could badly do with the confidence a single goal would do for them.
    Neither player has a spark that makes you think they’ll turn out to be special players but damn Sandro works hard.

  15. Ok, just back from a nice Italian meal then Bond which is worth a visit btw, if only for the photography and the set pieces. My first visit to the cinema since Skyfall, the climax of which was filmed just up the road from me. Showing our age, both the good lady and myself were complaining about the volume of the soundtrack ( as well as the youngsters behind us ! )

    I’m guessing from the comments above that I was spared an ordeal. No surprise really. Suppose we should be grateful that we didn’t suffer the same fate as Arsenal and Man U. Btw, tell me LE isn’t persevering with Matthieu at LB ?

  16. I did not watch the game but from what i read now the problem is not that Lucho dont use the youths but How he use them.In the future we will find something else to complain.And when the Spanish federation will make Cdr a one-game cup?This thing is boring.Thats why England is miles ahead from the others.They now how to sell their product.In Spain they are afraid that we or madrid dont go to the final and then nobody outside Spain watch the final.

  17. The sad truth is outside Spain nobody cares about Valencia,Villareal,Bilbao.But for England teams there are people who care about Nothigham Forest,Ipswich,Derby County e.t.c.I live it here in Greece.If it was not for us and madrir La Liga would be viewed only in Spain.And then we want 70m frod Qatar.We would be lucky if we get 50.

  18. 2011-12:Our starting line up for away game agaist 3d division L Hospitalet:Valdes JdosSantos Puyol Fontas Maxwell Xavi Fabregas Keita Iniesta Villa Tello.Coach:Guardiola.Result.We won 1-0.Full La Masia.Goodnight.

  19. England ahead of the others? you’d have to put that in context, because its quite relative

    As for this game, i didnt watch it because i couldnt watch it.
    But then i have some reservations about the match. Its seems a bit strange using Adraino as a Center forward. but critically looking at the situation, it occures to you thats there wanst much to be done. Aside from Munir and Sandro, you’d be hard put to find the third guy to make up the front three. Except you want to randomly switch players( out of their positions) to try get a third forward.
    In any case, what i’d done, would have been to Play him as a left winger, but instead playing him as a forward, Ha! dunno how that was supposed to work

    That brings me to Munir, like would Munir ever improved?? Gosh! If you try to remember when last He scored a goal and compared that to the chances he gets almost match after match, its appaling. Like he’s made a personal resolution to never score a goal. always find a way to skew his chances.
    For Sandro, i feel like saying he’s exasperating, really. He’ve made it his personal agenda to be more or less Selfish. Game after game he always oddly wants to go for goal where he’s got better options, when it dosnt work out and he has a bad game, you think oh he’s learnt his lesson, he’d changed his game. Then next time he repeats it and end up having another bad game, continously. And you wonder whatever happened to Improvement. I’m just fed up with both.

    Kaptoum, reports i got seems to suggest he put in a fairly decent performance. Watch out for him (yes i said it!).
    That leaves us with Gumbau Samper and Douglas, who i honestly cant rate as i didnt watch the game.
    But for Mathieu, its quite interesting, seems like LE is not budging with his decision to play him at LB. And to think Adraino was the guy, who effectively blocked grimaldo’s first team chances by getting his contract renewed, and now he’s being played at where, Center Forward, really ? hard to understand.

    Whatever the case, considering the lack of chemistry from the guys, a win irrespective of the performance would have been okay. But an inept frontline effectively ruin that.
    Not meaning to hype certain players at the expense of others, i think had that frontline been made up of say Halilovic and Adama, we’d have gotten a far better result, honestly

    1. It was not shown in my country and missed it. But some who watched over internet had good words for Samper and Kaptoum.
      What they didnt seem to get or what they seem to understood was Samper was playing as an attacking mid. Is this right? If yes, that was very poor way to check out a new talent. You try Sergi Roberto in wing back, only after him getting used to the first team squad and minutes in his normal position. To put a new young guy, who is rumoured to be a Buquets clone, to play in attacking mid, is a strange decision, for me.

  20. I did watch the game and honestly I have to concur with most things pointed out by Cyclops. Munir misses chance after chance. He seems really weak when he is about to take a shot and Sandro’s decision making is suspect!! Its interesting that u say this Cyclops, but I was saying the same thing about Adriano to my friend. At least play him as a winger! Kaptoum did quite well. He seems like he may just make it amongst all the players in the B team. And so could Samper. And Samper I do not think played attacking midfield. He played the Xavi/Busi role. Like wanted the ball all the time and some decent movement and passing. But Kaptoum seemed to have more flair.
    Also LE really wants Mathieu to play LB. Time after time after time. I really hope he sees something none here can.
    Really drab affair. I kept switching to the Liverpool game and even managed to catch the goal. 🙂

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