In an interview this week with Sport, Barça B midfielder Riqui Puig declared his undying allegiance to the club that at present, has him running in place.
His sense of devotion is the diametric opposite of a player such as Xavi Simons, who said as soon as he could, “I’m outta here, for greener pastures.” La Masia presents supporters with a weird dichotomy. It’s the club’s academy, where future stars are groomed. We always say that when a player is good enough, they will find a place in the first team, that this is how it’s supposed to work.
But of late, with the transfer-hungry policies of the club that eschew building a player in favor of buying one, what is the path now from La Masia to the first team? The last transfer to promote and get regular playing time has been Sergi Roberto. Since then, it has all been about transfers and letting academy players languish, or go on loan, leaving us to explore the idea of being “good enough,” and what exactly that means.
Ansu Fati came up, sparkled but hasn’t gotten a sniff of the pitch since Suarez and Messi returned, along with Dembele. Rumors of midfielders are floating about while Carles Alenya isn’t picked for yet another squad and Puig, along with Alenya a gem of La Masia, is consigned to the Segunda B ranks, where having chunks kicked out a physique that can ill afford to lose any weight has become the norm. He reiterated his affection for the club, and his desire to succeed there. Like Xavi and Iniesta, Puig is going through a time when it doesn’t look all that likely that he will be able to do anything for the first team of the club that he is devoted to anytime soon.
What is vexing about Puig is that when you look at the team playing of late, and the ball stagnation, the precise skill set that Puig provides, a single-minded devotion to advancing the ball, would seem to be useful. But no. On a first team that still has the weight of Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, there isn’t room. Now, the January loan idea is being floated, a notion that doesn’t exactly have a sparkling history. Name a Barça talent loaned in the last decade that has returned to the club a better player? Even transfers such as Alen Halilovic who were loaned out, never found their footing.
The idea of waiting for Puig to “grow” should be discarded. He’s 20 years old, a year away from adulthood. He’s going to be diminutive, a deficiency that didn’t hinder Iniesta in the least. Puig isn’t Iniesta. But he is a magician on and off the ball, skilled at finding playing space, skilled at getting the ball forward to players who can do something with it, skilled at making the runs that advance the ball, when it isn’t pinging off his foot. There are those who say that he isn’t ready for promotion, but every time he gets a display with the first team, he looks like a player who is ready, and then some. But he isn’t, because the first team coach says that he isn’t.
La Masia has developed a pair of sparkling midfield talents. One has been promoted, but hasn’t played since a clunky outing against a difficult opponent, another mystery. Even when he makes the squad, he doesn’t make the match day squad. And as his sharpness dulls, the odds of making a match day squad continue to diminish. Playing Puig at B is supposed to keep him sharp, but for what? Of what value is leaving him to be bruised and battered in a league many notches below his skill level going to do to get him ready for the first team?
Barça has lost sight of the path of progression. The frustration that made Iniesta impatient, and Xavi consider leaving was supposed to be a thing of the past. Even in the reality of a lightning strike that was the all-Masia lineup of the past, the path was supposed to have been clearer. Devote yourself to the club, do the work, and your talent will find a home in the first team. Alenya doesn’t have a home, nor does Puig. The other midfield sparkler, Simons, is at PSG. Alenya, like Puig, is being talking about for a January loan. It feels, from this keyboard, like the club is reneging on its commitment to its academy players. They have done the work, have displayed the skill, and what is their reward?
Worse is that both of them play the game exactly as a Barça mid is supposed to. Head on swivel, suffused with logic that makes the ball go exactly where it is supposed to. People who have tenure watching Barça can even predict where Puig or Alenya will place a ball. Both have the knack for holding, riding challenges and preserving possession, for taking and receiving, for knowing when to release after receiving. Promise isn’t a pledge, nor is it guaranteed. But the way things are structured now, there is no path, and promise promises at least that. Do the work, and there will be a path for you to succeed or fail on your own merits.
For many, it’s typical of the way the club is being run now that such a path is gone, that rumors are stronger about a 180m midfielder than a player who would fit how his team plays like a glove, getting a promotion. At FC Billion Euro Revenue, what place is there for a wee potential genius who wants nothing more than to succeed at his boyhood club?