Balance in all things

This week, there was a pair of articles about Gerard Deulofeu that were very interesting. The most balanced, from Seb Stafford-Bloor (who is really worth looking up, as he is uniformly excellent) is here, an excellent assessment waylaid a bit by a misleading headline.

This Deulofeu piece was doubly interesting because it comes hot on the heels of an interesting week for Barça players, current and ex. In addition to Deulofeu, there was a meaningless Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen, in which a number of B teamers got a runout (and which will be chronicled in detail soon, by Isaiah. No pressure!) That match was summed up perfectly by Enrique Schloch over at Total Barça, and is worth a read.

When Sergi Busquets showed up as a gangly young’un inserted into the lineup by a madman who has become a genius, few knew what to think because hardly anyone knew. That is, Busquets was developing as a player and a force to be reckoned with in general peace and quiet. Back then, there weren’t as many highlight videos of B teamers and youth players. La Masia was still a club academy rather than a gold mine. Every now and again some noise would develop but for the most part, youth players were these things reserved for the true Barça hipsters.

Imagine how Busquets would be today, hyped, with video highlights, an impatient fan base following his every move, tracking minutes he received as a part of his first-team development, with this or that person being called stupid or a genius. But in many ways, that relative silence is a lot of why Busquets was able to become what he is. Imagine if Busquets had been saddled with the noise around Bojan Krkic. What kind of player would he have become? This becomes even more interesting with players such as Deulofeu, or Sergi Samper, and how we watch them.

What makes the TotalBarça piece so interesting is that it keeps the match in perspective, but also makes a fascinating comment about Samper:

None of the B-team guys covered themselves in glory either. Sergi Samper appeared the most seasoned though his defensive deficiencies are obvious.

This is quite accurate from my match viewing, even as it raises hackles among many. Note that Enrique, in the post-match presser, said that Samper was bad in the first half, but stepped it up in the second. Like Bartra, he’s soft. My Grandmother can get goal side of Bartra, and she’s dead. For Samper, turnovers, defensive positioning mistakes and losing a few physical battles (including one where a Leverkusen attacker just gangstaed the ball from him) are things worth noting, on balance. Noting these things takes nothing away from his obvious talents on and off the ball, but to ignore them does as much a disservice as focusing only on one aspect.

The same is true of Deulofeu. He makes an assist and he’s magic, and Barça should have kept him, etc. But balance is important. Deulofeu is still learning the game. So are Samper, Munir, Sandro and the coterie of other youth talents. Busquets was allowed to develop outside the glare of highlight videos, etc, which is a lot of why people freaked out when he showed up, ready to bump Toure Yaya from his spot. B-teamers no longer have that luxury, which is a shame in so many ways. Youth players should be able to develop in and on their own, bereft of hype and nonsense (as I have written here before). Aitor Cantalapiedra (who is going to become a smash, just to vex my typing skills) and Wilfrid Kaptoum should be left alone. I don’t care how a 17-year-old is doing, really. Because Dongou. “What’s wrong with Dongou,” a lot of people ask. Nothing. He just found his level, one that isn’t good enough.

In general, supporters see what they want to see. A Messi run can be many things, from “Ooh, almost!” to “There were two open men, why didn’t he pass?” Reality is always in the middle, but we often react to things based on expectation. Deulofeu is a badass, who can turn around and become a mess. Stafford-Bloor captured that odd but not unexpected duality in a way that makes it clear why he isn’t at Barça, but why he might eventually return to Barça. That duality is important as a part of the balance with which we need to view all things. When you watch that highlight video of Samper that is linked above, you will walk away shaking your head in wonderment at a player who appears to be a Xavi/Busquets hybrid. Perspective becomes a difficult thing to maintain, the idea that he is learning the game, and will need lots and lots of playing time to build the reps that will fix the deficiencies noted at TotalBarça, and by his club’s first-team coach. Getting him that time will be a challenge, and will require more balance from us.

What he needs is playing time at a high level, to work out the rest of his game in an environment where if he sneezes wrong a fanbase won’t fly into a tizzy of defense and recriminations. That isn’t Barça. We are lucky in that Barça already has a Busquets, so Samper is allowed to get the care and feeding that he will require. Send him to Gijon with Halilovic (who should stay there a second season)? Would be good, and Sporting need that kind of a player to close the circuit so that Halilovic doesn’t have to do as much work bringing the ball up and then attacking, the very thing that saps strength from Messi and diminishes the overall effect he can have on a match.

Deulofeu needs Everton. Watching him at the start of the season when he wasn’t playing much is very different than now, when he is playing a lot. He is tracking back, pressing, demonstrating an awareness of the entire pitch and the effect that he can have on a match. He isn’t just standing around, marking time until the next time he can have the ball. He’s growing as an attacker, keeping his head up more, using those cultured feet of his to pass as well as to attack. Many culers are noting that Deulofeu is better than Sandro and Munir. This is true. But he isn’t at Barça because the parts of the game that Sandro and Munir represent aren’t yet fully embodied in Deulofeu. A team that attacks and defends with eleven, can’t have one player slacking on part of that equation. Messi does, but he’s Messi, and his coach understands the aggregate of what Messi brings to the game even as Messi is significantly more devastating when he decides to also defend and press (which is why he reserves it for the big matches).

The biggest thing that all youth players need is patience, and quiet. Don’t anoint them too soon, nor should they be written off too soon. Munir is already being declared “dead” by some. One Twitter journalist wondered what happened to the confident, composed Munir of old. Well, he was playing against his physical peers. He’s 20, and still learning the game against bigger, stronger, faster players who are also more experienced. The last chronological will o the wisp who showed up ready to play was Messi, and even he had to learn the game and how to perform consistently at a higher level. How happy would the world be if Messi had stopped developing at the level of the ball of energy who bounded onto the pitch against Villarreal? Yes, still a good player, but …

In these different times there is much more information about players, along with the attendant hype. Samper was calm because he knew what the plan was for him. He is improving, which is why Enrique is using him more. Look for that trend to continue. What we need as supporters is patience and the ability to keep perspective on all aspects of the team’s performance. Samper isn’t watching his own highlight videos, so he probably isn’t struggling with that weird little buzz that builds in the tummy of a supporter when you see a blinding talent that your team has the rights to. Like any present, we want it now. It would be awesome if Samper was ready to step into Busquets’ role right now, would be brilliant if Deulofeu was a hard-working, coachable player who was sitting on the bench, ready to turn a match. Neither is true, and that’s where the balance comes in.

Deulofeu can be magic, but he can also be exactly as described in this wonderful bit of writing. Don’t write him off for that, but don’t crown him for something else, either. Every culer with a brain wants Samper to succeed, and not only because he’s ours. A youth player ascending the ranks at a single team to take his rightful spot in a first team XI is like a fairy tale come to life. That he is also a profile the team needs isn’t lost on many either, romance aside. As you watch Kaptoum shimmy and dance, understand what he is, know that Aitor is a teenager. Because after all, how stable were YOU at age 19?

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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.

One Comment

  1. dl
    December 11, 2015

    Among other things I’m thankful when posts included links to other thoughtful, worthwhile pieces on players and teams.

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