It’s enough to make you scream, isn’t it? When Sevilla put the wood to us on Saturday in their house, many were talking as if we’d rolled out a lineup of total scrubs against their first-choice unit, which isn’t entirely true.
But, at issue here is that we had 4 canteranos: keeper Mino, center back Sergi Gomez, midfielder Dos Santos and defensive mid Oriol Romeu, in positions that are key to the success of our club. It was a grand experiment that, for about 62 minutes, was working to perfection.
And now comes the debate: Was Guardiola right to trust so much to the kids, how bright is our future, and how in the hell do you integrate future stars into a side, so that the Catalan press doesn’t go nuts as we try to buy back another farm product.
I went to a White Sox game this weekend past, and aside from wanting to gouge my eyeballs out with knitting needles at the insufferably boring spectacle, an interesting tidbit about a player brought my mind to our beloved club.
At issue was a guy named Juan Pierre, a former Cubs player who wound up at the White Sox, and his ultimate quality. A Cub fan at the game was talking about how much he sucked. The White Sox fan said “He’s a solid player, but when the Cubs sign a player and he doesn’t take them to the World Series in his first season, the fans turn on him.”
And I started thinking of so many things. But let’s start with the rather disgruntled-looking face up above, Bojan Krkic. This dude has talent coming out the wazoo. If he had Keita’s body to go along with it, he’d probably be leading the universe in scoring or something. But he doesn’t. He was brought into the first team when the club was under the reign of Frank Rijkaard, and he had some good matches with the senior side, after setting the world afire with the B team. He was a sure thing, right, the next amazing striker, and he was home-grown. Whoa.
08-09: 10 goals, 4 assists. Last season, 11 goals, 3 assists. Excellent numbers for a squad player, but Krkic isn’t meant to be a squad player. Expectations are immense, and balancing those expectations are his age. He’s only 19 years old, and is expected to grow into his talent.
And yet, we cut loose Gai Assulin, who was purported to be the next Messi by many judges of horseflesh, at the same age. What’s the difference? Good question.
I think the main difference is that when Krkic got his first-team chances, he showed aptitude for the job. Assulin didn’t. Simple as that, or is it? If Krkic were still a canterano, would we be talking about keeping him for the first team, or would we be discussing him as a project who needs to keep getting some first-team time, but let’s see how he develops under Luis Enrique? Another good question.
Expectations were immense for Krkic, expectations that will dog him forever, ultimately limiting the player that he will become, and his effectiveness for us. It’s a very different situation from those of two more recent promotions, Pedro! and Busquets. Both were brought up under the aegis of current coach Pep Guardiola. Neither had set the world alight on the B team, or scored a zillion goals. They were just talented players, who arrived in the first team to greetings of “Huh? What?” and not just by Keita.
And look what happened: Pedro! did indeed set the world alight, but as a first-teamer, scoring goals like crazy, crucial goals, and Busquets only made Planet Yaya expendable. Both shone in the most recent World Cup, as well. Both are also examples of managed expectations. Both are also, respectively, 23 and 22 years old, and arrived in the first club with absolutely no expectations except to be a good player for us. What we got was gravy.
Expectations brought Krkic, Pedro! and Busquets into the first team. Only two of them, in my estimation, should be there full-time. Krkic might, in two or three more seasons, develop into the kind of player that everyone thinks that he will become. I say might, because he’s in the first team, where he has to compete for minutes with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pedro! and David Villa. How does anyone think that story is going to end? He would have been better served developing with the B team with managed expectations, honing his craft and getting the constant playing time that he needs to develop into the player he can potentially become, playing time that I just don’t see him getting with the first team. But you can’t send him back. Expectations might ultimately damage his career.
Was Krkic too young? Good question. Messi made his first-team debut at age 17 just like Krkic, who eventually broke Messi’s record for youngest goal scorer. And the expectations for Messi were even bigger than those of Krkic. So what’s the difference? To my eyes, talent and confidence. I don’t doubt that Krkic is hugely talented, but he often lacks the confidence to go along with that talent. I think that he doubts himself. Messi is immensely talented but more importantly, never, ever doubts himself. When he runs at 5 defenders, he believes that he is going to beat them. Every time.
But expectations for Messi were managed, greatly assisted by coming into a team that included the likes of Ronaldinho and Eto’o. Krkic’s expectations should have been, on paper, managed well. He was the sole bright spot in a desultory season, so there was nowhere to go but up. Then suddenly the team exploded into vibrant, 6-trophy life and expectations changed. Krkic had to live up to deserving a role on our Murderers Row of attackers, without the consistent playing time to be allowed to do such a thing. There go those damned expectations again.
Jonathan Dos Santos is supposed to be the next Xavi. And if you look closely, you can see flashes, flashes that from time to time become full-on lightning bolts. He will most likely be promoted to first team this season, with the attendant expectations. Again, however, those expectations will need to be managed. People watched him against Sevilla, and churlishly gave him a low match rating, commenting on his speed of play leading to an overall lack of control (bastards! Off with his hands!). Those same people, aside from the evaluative necessities of that match report, saw a player who, for 60+ minutes, helped hold down the 4th-placed Liga side’s first team. Crazy. It is those kinds of expectations, carefully managed, that will give Dos Santos the best opportunity to become the next Xavi (whatever form that might take).
The same is true of Thiago Alcantara, who entered the match in the stead of Dos Santos. Again, ginormous expectations, amid rumors that he, too, will be promoted this season. But in the cases of Dos Santos and Alcantara, rather than coming into the side as sterling, can’t-miss examples of canterano excellence, they will be coming into the side as examples of canterano excellence that are works in progress, and have progressed to the point where they need what the first team can give them. Like Messi.
As for the other names such as Fontas, Muniesa, Oier, Mino, Soriano, B teamers who are being tapped as having the talent to make it in the big show, again it’s about managing expectations. Between Luis Enrique and Guardiola, there is not a shard of doubt that expectations will be managed in the way most likely to give those players the best chance to develop. Muniesa isn’t being called “the next Puyol.” He’s being called a talented defender who has the potential to maybe become as good as Puyol. There’s a difference. Will any of these names become what people expect? Who knows? But managing expectations and development are crucial. It’s one of my biggest worries about a premature Guardiola departure.
In that SuperCopa match, we saw delightful glimpses of the future from a coach comitted to supporting that future. I kept imagining Dos Santos with another season or two of maturity, or watching Mino scream at his veteran defense like a veteran keeper …. and it made me smile. So far, so good.
–Now, returning to the Juan Pierre situation for a moment, and fans turning on a player. My mind not only thought of the club, but of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dmitro Txigrinski, two players who in their first season with the club, have been labeled failures by many. One has already been sold, and the other many would like to see sold. Things went from “Yay!” to “Boo!” in a flash. But again, it’s an example of managed expectations.
Perhaps price tags, like gaudy goal totals with the B team, make it impossible to manage expectations. “For 40+ million, I wanna see about 947,000 goals.” This from a player whose best season to date has brought him 29 goals in all club competitions. Last season, for us, he got 21 goals in all club competitions. So should expectations have been managed by past performance and the condition in which the player came to us, or his price tag? Good question. I figured that his first season with us would be about like Eto’o’s first season with us. I was pretty close. You could even say spot on, if you count assists. Eto’o tallied 28 goals (0 assists) in his first season with the club. Adding to Ibrahimovic’s 21 goals is 9 assists.
So what, looking at Ibrahimovic’s annual club goal output (19, 15, 19, 10, 15, 22, 29), should have been the expectation, given his fitness level and the system? Probably right about what we got. Kinda funny, that. But he’s a player who will always, for the remaining season that he is here, battle the expectation created by his price tag and salary.
Dmytro Txigrinski is a different matter altogether, because defenders allow goals rather than tallying them. When he was purchased for 25m from Shakhtar Donetsk, in a world in which transfer prices had gone mad, expectations were immense. Never mind injuries, a step up in league quality which takes some getting adjusted to, language barriers and other complexities. “Where’s my 25 million dollar defender, dammit!” His transfer fee created a case of impossible expectations. So he was sold, in part, for not meeting those expectations, for not being a combination of Puyol and Pique, rather than being seen as a work in progress who showed flashes of being precisely that.
Kinda makes you wonder what kind of a world Cesc Fabregas would be coming into, doesn’t it?
As Rodney Dangerfield used to always say while doing stand-up comedy, “Tough crowd, tough crowd!” That is FC Barcelona fans. Expectations are immense, and players have about 12 seconds to live up to them. Thierry Henry will always be defined by his last season with us, rather than the treble season. Because the expectation was, even though he came from Arsenal injured and in the throes of a bitter divorce, that he would score as many goals as he scored during his glory days at Arsenal. Those expectations were impossible to meet. Sometimes, expectations kill players. Other times, expectations just kill how a player is remembered. I know that this post won’t make cules any kinder, gentler or less ready to jettison a player after a single season.
It’s just something to think about.