At the end of the opening match in Barça’s defense of its Copa del Rey title, Luis Enrique declared himself “satisfied” with how the team played, performed and the effort that it put out.
The oddity of this statement was that precious few culers would place themselves in that same boat with Enrique. Nay, people were wondering why this, why that, why this player here, why did our knights in powder blue armor not dispatch Team of the Topless Mermaid like the wastrels that they were, questions, questions, questions.
During the match, Enrique mostly sat or stood there with a rather calm expression on his face as he took it all in. Did the match go according to his plan? Valid ask. With a back line that featured, in effect, three center backs, it wasn’t that hard to think that he wanted to build a solid defensive foundation, then tell the kids to go wild. The full XI was Masip, Douglas, Vermaelen, Bartra, Mathieu, Adriano, Gumbau, Samper, Kaptoum, Munir, Sandro.
Adriano was playing the left wing role via which he made a name for himself, confounding those newcomers who only remember LB Adriano, and what the hell is Enrique doing? Samper started the match in the role that he plays for Barça B, in the hole, then he moved up the pitch as Gumbau slid into the hole. And again, Samper isn’t in the role in which he can shine! What the hell is Enrique doing?
Not being a mindreader, who knows, but all of the signs were there that this match was little more than a glorified friendly. A Segunda B (fourth division) side gets the match of its lifetime, a draw with the glamor boys from the big city. They add seats to their tiny stadium, lay down a new pitch, clean and paint the locker rooms, all to put on a nice show for the big boys. The stadium atmosphere was glorious, a reminder of that purity that comes with being a football supporter, that this is MY team that carries you through everything, the joy of just seeing them every week. It was a combined picnic, party and pep rally.
You didn’t see tons of replica shirts in the stands because you didn’t need them to identify yourself as a supporter. You were there, and that was enough. Shirts are for the players, scarves for supporters, who identify themselves by screaming their throats raw. That post-match hoarseness displayed at the local bar is worn more proudly than a replica kit.
On the pitch, which had just been laid mere days before, nothing was going to happen for a number of reasons. Even a simple pass along the ground bobbed, bounced, weaved and slowed down. The field was smaller than normal, the ref was lenient and the home team spirited. These guys have jobs in town when they aren’t being lions on the pitch, and damned if their bosses, friends and colleagues were going to see them slacking off or being cowed by those superstars.
It didn’t even matter that the engine room of Barça was from its own Segunda B side and a couple of newly promoted B players. It was FC Barcelona, dammit! Nothing was going to happen for the same reason that if you put Messi in an alley kickabout on a pilfered patch of synthetic grass against some hotshot locals, he wouldn’t look like a divine being, either. You can’t. It was clear to Enrique, so what you do is set things up so that your team doesn’t concede, and get some good looks at youth players. Then you go home, where you can actually play football, and take care of business. It’s a two-legged tie anyhow.
What did we see?
Kaptoum: Lordy! There is hype aplenty for this player, the latest midfield gem who is a year away from the cognoscenti screaming that this coach or that coach is stupid for not playing him. For now, he’s a bright talent who reminds a lot of the Alcantara brothers in his movement, the way he glides/hops about the pitch and how the ball explodes off his foot. He seemed at times to be playing in fast motion compared to the Villanovense players around him. Yes, he lost the ball some, but so did the Alcantaras. A player learns that ball security as he progresses. Now that he is healthy, it will be fun to watch him move through the ranks.
Samper: His talent was already clear, and he did nothing to dispel those notions. From the broadcast booth at BeIN Sports, who broadcast the match in the U.S., Phil Schoen said that he saw nothing of Samper that made it seem a mistake that he wasn’t already a part of the first team, which was an interesting observation and one that I don’t entirely agree with. This is even as I understand the quality of the first team, the necessities of the B team and exactly why Samper is where he is.
But he moves with silk and honey, and has a preternatural vision for a player his age, or any age, really. Not every midfielder can see the lanes, the angles that are about to open up, the way a defender moves that will create an angle. Alves said that Xavi played to the future because he saw all of that. Samper seems to have that gift, something that became even clearer when he moved up the pitch. Making him the next Busquets when the current Busquets has plenty of high-quality years left is adorable, and Quixotic. What you want to see is how Samper runs a midfield, the vision and distribution. You also want to see that he has that Swiss Army knife versatility of a player such as Sergi Roberto, and can play anywhere from the hole to attacking midfield.
Samper wasn’t as glittering as Kaptoum even as he was just as impressive. It was also clear that he is a developing player who needs more work.
Gumbau: This is the name that can only be uttered in a spluttering rage by many culers who believe that he is standing in the way of Samper being anointed. Yet they shared a midfield at Villanovense, and did so quite well. Gumbau is a sharp, physical player who moves well and has a good passing eye, which was demonstrated time and again, even as the danger of being an unfavored player is that nobody sees the good things that you do. But coaches aren’t supporters. The more you watch Gumbau, the clearer it is why Enrique is using him — that physicality. He’s the player who an American football coach tells to “get in there and hit somebody!” His skills aren’t reduced to that, but in the same role, he is a saber where Samper is a foil. Enrique seems to believe that the first team, in this injury-ravaged time, needs a saber. There is plenty of time for he and Samper, and I suspect that the latter will be at the club long after Gumbau has moved on to his forever home in the XI of a mid-table Liga side. If Kaptoum is the New Thiago, Gumbau looks to be the New Fontas.
Aitor: Almost as exciting as Kaptoum (not coincidentally who he subbed on for), Aitor was less flashy, but every bit as dangerous. He has that unusual quality of always being around the ball and seeming to always be moving toward goal. Both of those are invaluable.
The rest of the match was Munir trying too hard, Sandro bottling another glorious chance, Mathieu being a colossus that doth bestride the Earth and Douglas not being anywhere near as terrible as his detractors would suggest, something else that Phil Schoen had the temerity to point out. Right from the start, when he bailed out the team by stopping a Villanovense break created by a sloppy Samper turnover, he showed well. There were interceptions, defensive stops and some high-quality free kicks.
That said, I can’t see any set of circumstances that will have Douglas at the club at the start of next season. Maybe he lands at Sevilla, as their sporting director, Monchi, has been very vocal in his admiration of him, on more than one occasion saying Sevilla wanted him.
The other question on many lips as the squad was announced, was why not Grimaldo? But given the player’s contract situation and very clear desire to leave the club first chance that he gets, why spend time and effort developing him or giving him first team time? As he said, he has his team and Enrique has his team. That was a messy situation that he tried to skin back by saying he was misinterpreted, but it’s almost certainly too late for that, and the ins and outs of a situation not all that well known by anyone except the directly involved.
Now the teams return to the Camp Nou for the second leg, a broad expanse of perfectly manicured pitch, where the passes roll true and nobody slips and falls when trying to plant, or stumbles over a turf seam. And Barça will win, playing lovely football probably with the same XI or close to it, and things will move on.
But for now, spare a thought for the parties that must have been on last night in that town, as local heroes were feted by an adoring local populace. They faced the glitter boys in the eye and didn’t blink, and it was glorious. The players know they don’t have a chance at the Camp Nou, and so do their supporters. But the magic of cup football, as we saw in England, is that underdogs can dream big dreams, and that is all kinds of wonderful.