There are few things in football more delightful these days than watching Riqui Puig play at the game. “Play at” is an important modifier because in Segunda B, that’s what he’s doing. He’s so far above the level of the people down there that he looks like a visitor, like when a pro comes to visit a local recreational league.
That Puig is still with Barça B is but one of the many signs of the abject institutional failure of FC Barcelona. It can’t even properly manage a perfect hothouse flower.
You would be hard-pressed to find a culer of any age who doesn’t think that the Guardiola teams were the apogee of the club’s sporting history. They had everything. All the jillions of jigabytes of bandwidth expended in wondering why the club can’t replicate that, and this coach or that coach, this player or that player, all return to an essential core, like Origin Theory.
Everything was perfect.
What is most often said is that Guardiola had great players at the peak of their powers, facing off against a game not ready to deal with what they brought. What is less often said is how that perfection extended to the composition of the team.
When Guardiola came in, he jettisoned Ronaldinho and Deco. They weren’t going to bring the right attitude to the locker room but also, the way that they played wasn’t going to work for what Guardiola had planned. Can you imagine those two busting a lung on the press? What Guardiola, who himself was from the hothouse, decided to build was a perfect hothouse flower. He had a system that was home-grown, that understood how the game was to be played because it was raised in that system. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, Pique, Busquets, Pedro. The essential core of that team all understood exactly how the game was supposed to be played, and their coach knew the same. The only challenge, a significant one, was to execute. That they did was the stuff of legend.
When Guardiola left, Tito Vilanova ascended to the managerial seat, and had in place an evolution of the way that Guardiola played. It was still raised in the hothouse, but with a tweak. Illness prevented us seeing that, and Jordi Roura wasn’t up to the managerial task of continuing that process. From there, everything went off the rails. Tata Martino came in, an outsider, and tried to do something that he wasn’t up to. Luis Enrique came in. He was of the club, but not of the hothouse, and it showed. He had massive success, but the transfers and way of play strayed away from where things were as a function of how they are supposed to be. Then came Valverde, and more of the wrong kinds of transfers as with each new player signing the club moved away from the kind of football that it would, in an idealized state, play. It also moved away from the kind of football that its tykes were being raised to play. It is any wonder Puig isn’t “ready” for this team?
Or is it that the team isn’t ready for him?
You don’t sign Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele if you want to do what the team used to do, if you believe, as president Josep Bartomeu bleated at a recent event, that La Masia is the core of the club. If you believe that, why would you sign players who way of playing doesn’t match anything? Carles Perez fits what the team should do better than Dembele. Even Ansu Fati does. Part of why they don’t is because the system is broken. It isn’t that they are better players than Dembele. Far, far from it. But there’s a tool for the job.
In the recent Cartagena friendly, Dembele started. His performance was characterized by play that was as close to him looking like he was raised in La Masia as you will ever see. Short, tidy runs, head on a swivel, cognizant of space and where to move to take a pass. When he received the pass, he played it back with a single touch, then moved to receive the next pass. It was beautiful and weird at the same time, because that isn’t what Dembele does. It was like a racehorse being used to cart kids around. Yes, some of his play was almost certainly on the orders of Valverde, as in, “Get out there and get loose, work up a sweat, but don’t hurt yourself.” But that play was, for Dembele, atypical.
If Dembele played like that all the time, we would scream at our screens. Why isn’t he stretching the defense? Why isn’t he making dribbles and taking on defenders? What’s wrong with him? Marca bleated that in the Cartagena friendly, Dembele missed his chance to convince Valverde, completely missing the plot of what happened in that match, which wasn’t a match at all. Puig soared above everyone, because he’s too good for Segunda B but also because the team was playing Barça football, and it looked strange in a way, because the first team so rarely plays that way.
This is Valverde’s last season. Already, names are coming up. But if the club is going to be truthful to its roots, if it believes that Masia training and working with the young players to establish how they are supposed to play the game is what works, why isn’t that being instilled and carried through to the first team? Why isn’t the next coach coming from within the club, as Guardiola did? The way it is now, a kid learns that 2+2=4. That learning continues through every level he follows, from Benjamin to Juvenil to B. The first team isn’t even doing the same math, though. They’re dividing a two, carrying a one and who the hell knows? Where does a hothouse flower fit into that system?
Transfer names are popping up, and Barça supporters are getting excited, because that’s what transfers do. In American pro sports, there is this idea of “best available athlete,” where you pick a player with amazing physical skills, and work to adapt them to a system. Dembele would be an excellent example of that thinking. Fantastic player, so you grab him. Why not? Let’s see what he does. Griezmann would have been a delightful signing for a team that plays the thing most often thought of as “Barça football.” He lives in half spaces, plays off the one-touch, passes and moves with alacrity. He’s a mess in this current system, that uses the ball wrong.
Carles Alenya is a brilliant midfield talent. He plays the game in the right way, sliding from space to space as the ball pings off his foot. Like Puig, when he sets up to receive a pass it is always with a body position that not only allows him to receive, but return with a single touch. It’s lovely to watch, the rare times that we’re allowed to see it. Alenya doesn’t fit what Valverde wants to do. Arturo Vidal does. The rare times that Jean-Clair Todibo has played, he has looked the mold of a Barça centerback. Classy on the ball, quick to understand space, a one-touch player who is quick to return the ball to attack. He doesn’t play, either. Moussa Wague was promoted, and doesn’t play.
The game caught up to the way the Guardiola teams played. At Manchester City, Guardiola had a system built for him that allowed him to do what he wants, sign the players he wants. At Manchester City, Guardiola isn’t playing like his Barça teams did. A lot of that is that modern football places different demands upon a system. But what if some of it is that he doesn’t have access to a hothouse, to the players who grow up understanding a system and how to thrive within it? Puig plays the ball forward as if by reflex. He takes it, and already knows where it needs to go. If that spot isn’t available he will dribble, make space, ride a challenge if he has to, until a proper spot makes itself seen. You can almost see his shoulders slump in resignation as he makes a lateral or back pass, like his computer chip is broken.
If a team can’t find space for a player that is tailor-made for its theoretical ideal, then something is wrong, and the club should fix it. If you’re going to go down, do so with your principles intact. No, Masia training doesn’t mean that a player can’t play any other way. We see system-raised talents all over football, gracing pitches with their quality. But if there is going to be a Way, waved about like the Catalan flag that the club wraps itself in, if the best football we have ever seen has roots in that Way, why not give it a serious go? Appoint a coach from within, build a team that can play the way it needs to play to maximize the talents of the players it has weaned, and give that a go.