Gerard Deulofeu is 23 years old. That is but a year older than Jose Arnaiz, the youth player who has everyone buzzing.
Gerard Deulofeu seems older, because he has been omnipresent since coming onto the Masia scene as the answer.
Gerard Deulofeu has had chance after chance, at Barça, Sevilla, Everton and Milan. He is now on his last best chance at his home team, under the eyes of a new coach, Ernesto Valverde, who in considering his acquisition in the harsh glare of Camp Nou whistles, summed him up perfectly:
“Sometimes when you insist on doing something, it gets more complicated. You have to let everything flow naturally.”
From the beginning, since he has been the Player Most Likely To, Deulofeu has insisted on doing something. His talent is undeniable. He has pace as well as quickness, can do nifty things with the ball at his feet and has an eye for the incisive pass from the wing. The reason he gets chance after chance is because of this talent.
But also from the beginning, Deulofeu has felt the weight of expectation. “Do something.” “Okay!”
The pressure on him must be unimaginable. Sergi Roberto is a Masia talent who made it. The path was rough for a spell, but in the hands of a coach dedicated to bringing out what he saw in him, Sergi Roberto has become a legit first-teamer who many back for a permanent midfield role in the XI. But Sergi Roberto has a luxury that Deulofeu doesn’t have: less talent.
Sergi Roberto was always considered a smart, hard-working player with a very high football IQ. He’s also a midfielder, a position that, even at Barça, a place where you stumble over midfielders while walking around the Bari Gotic, is devoid of the pressure that is brought to bear on attackers. Barça produces mids like hens produce eggs. Of the long list of bright prospects, the majority of them are mids. If Sergi Roberto doesn’t succeed, there is another mid coming right along.
Barça doesn’t produce in the same numbers, attackers, particularly wingers. What is frustrating about that is that wingers are essential to the system of football that Barça bases its structure on. So when a winger does come along, the pressure is immense. He becomes The One simply because quite often, there isn’t another one. Adama Traore was ruined by his time at Barça B, where he was allowed to do the one thing that he does. His development suffered and now he is knocking around, a talented player who will get chance after chance because he has identical attributes to Deulofeu even as he also has the same flaw. Both players will produce a magical dribble, leave three or four players in their wake, then kick the ball into the stands.
Deulofeu always wants to do something. What Valverde meant by his quote is best embodied in the notion of la pausa. Andres Iniesta is the human embodiment of this quality. At one moment, during the Valencia match, a defender was barreling at Iniesta, hell-bent on making a play, on doing something. Iniesta just stopped. He didn’t dribble, didn’t do a turn or trick. He just stopped. The defender couldn’t, and overshot the mark. Then Iniesta continued on his merry way. You can sometimes do something by doing nothing.
What might Deulofeu have tried in that same situation? Probably faced up the defender and tried a dribble, or push the ball forward then run after it. What he would never, ever have considered is doing nothing. Pressure makes that impossible for him, a player who is in a position that is defined by action. Make something happen.
Every destination he visits is presaged by the same quotes, about Deulofeu being a player who can make things happen. He is. His problem right now is the same problem he has always had, which is that he tries too hard. Valverde, who recalled him from Milan for a 12m buyback that could seem a pittance if Deulofeu can develop into the player he has the talent to, might be the perfect coach for him. What Deulofeu needs is a calm, grounded coach willing to commit to him. Valverde must commit to him of necessity. Barça needs wingers. Badly.
But it is also in Valverde’s grounded, calm temperament, that quality that has already begun to permeate his team. Barça beat Murcia in the Copa del Rey at Camp Nou, but nobody expected they wouldn’t. What was unexpected was the quality of the win, a 5-0 hammering that found the Catalans in complete control. Arnaiz sparkled in a substitute role. Busquets Minor showed a lot of the same savvy and control capabilities of Busquets Major, an outing that Samper champions must have watched while shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Vidal played as a man possessed. Sergi Roberto came in as a sub and delivered one of the passes of the season, a one-touch glitter bomb to Denis Suarez, who knocked home the goal. Almost everyone who played killed it, except for Deulofeu, who was whistled.
People say that he doesn’t have a brain, that he isn’t smart. He is. His problem might be that he is too smart, too good. The beauty of Messi is that, in addition to his colossal football talent and IQ, like Iniesta, he knows when to do nothing. No Barça player, it is safe to say, has ever been attended with the pressure and expectation of Messi, who took on that pressure, shrugged and became the greatest player the game has ever seen.
Deulofeu is smart. Deulofeu is also talented. In many ways, he might be too talented. My life had the potential to be defined by speech impediment, a stutter. It was a significant problem for me, until one day a teacher said, “Wait. Take a breath before you speak. Your brain moves too quickly for your mouth to keep up with.” And suddenly, I could say my name without stammering, could talk to people. To this day, every day, that lesson returns. Valverde could be that person for Deulofeu.
He has already simplified his mission to, “Go out there, beat your man and make something happen.” That Deulofeu tracks back and works on defense now are benefits. They also give him the opportunity to get his hands on the ball sooner. But he gets the ball and because of his talent, sees multiple possibilities, where a lesser player might only see a couple. And too often, he doesn’t seem to know which of the options to choose.
Options define a player’s output. On a run, if Messi cuts right, even though that path might initially seem more clear, maybe he sees that a faster player is there, or the path leads to a dead end. So he will choose a seemingly more complex path that is eventually more rewarding. Xavi often passed up players, even as the fans said, “He’s open.” He would wait a bit, and there it was, a better option. Deulofeu, too much of the time, chooses the wrong option. In an impatient game, that is a fatal flaw.
There was a lot of snarking when he was bought back from AC Milan, a place where he looked better than anywhere before. Why? Freedom. The way Milan defends gave him a backstop. He never had to worry about the other half of the pitch. And the way Serie A teams focus on the center, Deulofeu always had running space on the wing. With that time and space, he had less pressure, more time to consider the many options, time to choose the right one. At Barça, where teams play a more compressed defensive style, time and space are gone. Pedro also suffered from it, for different reasons.
There is an urge to write Deulofeu off, to say he’s stupid and will never amount to anything at Barça. But think back to when culers wanted to sell Sergi Roberto, before Luis Enrique made him a project. Now when he signs his new deal with Barça, his clause will be something around 400m. Life changes.
Deulofeu will keep getting chances, because he is young and has things you can’t coach. A player either has them or he doesn’t. You can’t imagine the pressure he is feeling every day, every time the ball comes to him. But he is 23 years old, and a potential gem. His biggest challenge will be whether he can stop trying to gild the lily, stop thinking that every last possession is going to result in a goal or an assist, that sometimes he just needs the keep the ball moving, then reset. Maybe, just maybe, Deulofeu needs to learn the subtle art of doing something by doing nothing.