The mystery of Alejandro Grimaldo.
Grimaldo had been transferred to Benfica for just a tick over EUR 1m. Benfica immediately slapped a 60m buyout tag on him. The culerverse reacted negatively to the move, the overwhelming consensus being that the club screwed up and Luis Enrique is a dolt for not giving Grimaldo the first-team minutes that he deserved. There is consensus, but is there truth?
Any situation as complex as this one defies easy answers. To say that the Grimaldo thang has been fraught would be an understatement. Journalists haven’t asked about it at pressers, even at Enrique’s on the very day that Grimaldo was transferred. The player himself had some strong words for the situation with the first team coach that he later walked back, saying that he wanted nothing more than to stay at Barça. This, despite some scuttlebutt that the player had decided to leave as early as after the summer loan mess in which the club apparently wanted to move him to Levante, but didn’t consult with him. Grimaldo is rumored to have subsequently told his agent not to listen to any renewal offers from the club.
For Luis Enrique’s first season as manager, Grimaldo was part of a cadre of B-teamers who got a first-team rollout during preseason. His star was on the rise, but from here the picture gets murky. There were coaching changes and B was relegated. As captain of the team this season, a number of B teamers got tryouts, as well as Sandro and Munir finding semi-permanent homes with the first team. Gumbau got a look, and Samper seems to have been tapped as the player most likely to. Kaptoum has gotten looks, everyone worthy of any buzz, except for Grimaldo.
Luis Enrique said in a previous presser that minutes aren’t gifts that he doles out, and that they are earned rather than deserved. He also wasn’t particularly kind about the B team’s performance last season, nor should he have been. But other B teamers have received, and are receiving extended looks. What about Grimaldo?
He is one of the B team’s brightest talents, and its captain. It seems absurd that he hasn’t gotten any first-team time since that first season under Luis Enrique. There are lots of rumors, but nothing that can be substantiated, a mass of confusion that demands more than an instant, knee-jerk reaction.
Grimaldo said, even on his transfer day, that we wished that he could stay at Barça. Given that it took a team of strong men, a tranquilizer dart and begging to dislodge Jonathan Dos Santos, the last player who really wanted to stay at Barça, it strikes me that a solution could have been found. Who didn’t want the renewal, club or player? If the club didn’t want the player, why not? He’s the captain of the B team, a bright talent and a player for the future. He had a deal until 2016 with an option for an extra year that the club chose not to exercise.
If the player didn’t want to stay, why? Tired of waiting? That’s fair. In a recent interview, Thiago Alcantara said that at Barça he was a kid from the academy, but at Bayern he felt important. That was a very interesting phrase that not a lot of people picked up on, but it said quite a lot about his ultimate decision to leave. Is Grimaldo tired of waiting? Does he think that the club doesn’t value him? Were there circumstances under which he could stay that were unacceptable to him? There were rumors about any new contract coming with an automatic promotion demand. Rumors. So have your agent get busy, snark in the press, move stuff, make it clear that you want to stay. Public statements rarely equal private reality. He was renewed right after returning from blowing out two knee ligaments. What happened? Like everything else around the case except Grimaldo not getting first-team looks and leaving — rumors and speculation.
The difficulties of making sense of a situation that prima facie doesn’t make any sense are daunting. But here’s something to consider: What if Grimaldo wasn’t good enough? Being the best player on a relegated team means what, even if the team is punching below where its talent would dictate? What if people who are tasked with watching and evaluating players decided that Grimaldo leaving was a risk worth taking? “How do they know he wasn’t good enough, if they didn’t give him a chance?” Yet teams evaluate players all the time, and make decisions. Some work out, some don’t. For every Rakitic there is a Song. For every Messi there are 14 Assulins. With youth players, talent doesn’t always do what we want it to, or what it promises.
There is, right now, a Future Promises tournament going on, to which top teams are sending their young players to compete. Coming across it one day exposed this tiny, magnificent being playing for Barça, a mop of frizzy blond hair atop a dazzling skill set. Xavi Simons has pace, vision, the ball explodes off his foot. He’s a natural leader, tracks back, knows where to put the ball – the complete package. He is, rightly so, considered a sterling youth player. He might also turn out to be a much-touted dead end. Talent does that. Once upon a time, we didn’t hear about youth players until they got a first-team runout. Bojan Krkic was nicknamed Boy of a Thousand Goals. Today there would be an hour-long YouTube compilation of every one of them. Back then they weren’t on TV, nor were there websites and Internet spaces devoted to youth players. Everything is much more acute now. When Fabregas left, there wasn’t much. But each time a youth player leaves, the intensity ramps up. Reckon if Samper leaves, there will be ritual suicides.
Meanwhile, it’s worth a look at the competitive situation in which Grimaldo finds himself. Grimaldo is an attack-oriented player who occupies the LB position. He’s also 5-foot-7. If he wants to play left back, the first person that he will have to contend with is Jordi Alba, who is 26 years old. Alba is a 5-foot-7 inch tall, attacking LB. But Alba can’t play all the time, so who’s next? In the present rotation, Mathieu and Adriano. Shouldn’t Grimaldo be good enough to beat out those two? What if he isn’t? Or what if, already having a player that fits the Alba profile, the coach wants different types to allow for tactical versatility? Dunno. You can add my groans to the chorus when Alba is out and Luis Enrique rolls out Adriano or Mathieu at LB, but they add physicality that the diminutive incumbent lacks. Don’t forget that Vidal can also play on the left. Many assert that Grimaldo is better than Adriano, but is that really true. If so, he would be a life preserver to a first-team coach. So now what?
In another hypothetical, what if Grimaldo wants to have a go at the LW position. Neymar is there. Adriano also fills that role. And coming is Arda Turan. That spot is three first teamers deep, so what next for Grimaldo, beyond infinite patience? A plane flight to Portugal, where he will get regular first-team football and the chance to develop without waiting for a series of lightning strikes.
The incessant pressure to win, right now, forces a coach to make decisions that aren’t necessarily the same ones that he would make in a less-intense environment. They get conservative. Guardiola shortened his rotation as the season progressed. So did Tito Vilanova. Enrique has a bigger group to work with, that comes with a stupefying wage bill. That stunning collection of world-class talent also creates an immense barrier for a B-teamer to hurdle.
Grimaldo is excited about the chance to go to Benfica, and he should be. It’s the right course of action for him, as that is a next-level club that isn’t a huge club. He can develop his skills and, like any employee who leaves somewhere for a better job, be confident that his new employer will value him because that’s what happens with new employees. It’s his right to do whatever he wants to with his future, including deciding not to sit around waiting for better players to be given a day off or pick up a knock. A player wants to play. Football is a business where difficult decisions are made every day, and many of them suck from a supporter’s chair. Who wasn’t bummed to see Ronaldinho jettisoned, even as it was the right decision? Thiago Alcantara took the correct call for himself. So did Bellerin who starts for Arsenal rather than knocking around, waiting for a Barça first-team legend to take sick or something. Pique left. So did Alba, all because it was the right thing to do for their careers. And they returned to Barça as better players than when they left. It’s the risk. Grimaldo is leaving. It’s a shot, but one that will play out in front of thousands of eyes every week.
But the lingering question of is his departure an error is, right now, impossible to answer, even as it sucks when a youth talent leaves. If Grimaldo becomes a dazzler at Benfica, we can all call the club and Luis Enrique jackasses. But if he tanks, we shouldn’t be part of, the Stygian silence that will be there. At present all we can do is ask questions, queries for which there are no real answers, other than a talent is gone.