It wasn’t what Riqui Puig did, but how he did it.
It wasn’t what Ansu Fati did, but how he did it.
Just before the 60th minute of an eyesore of a Liga match as Barça engaged in trench warfare of its own design against Athletic Club, Quique Setien decided to roll the dice. He did this while scoffing at his own petard, when discussing youth players earlier in the week, and suggesting that quality was the impediment to them getting more time. Then he swallowed his pride and thankfully, not his tongue in choosing to insert the second-youngest and smallest of them all, Riqui Puig.
This was a match of bare knuckles, a match that included Beelzebub himself, Raul Garcia, a devotee of the Dark Arts whose every move makes the air redolent with the scent of brimstone. And in trots Puig, shirt tucked into his shorts, looking like a perfectly coiffed winner of the Player for a Day contest, where some lucky fan gets to train with the first team.
And he stood the match on its head.
We forget a lot of things about how something is when we’re used to it. You take the car in for tuneup, get it back and think, “Wow!” The performance deteriorates over time, and you become used to it, because it’s gradual. Barça isn’t a very good football team right now, in the modern sense of the game, or in many other aspects. It’s a slow, technically deficient group with too much space between players, lumbering around like pylons atop a Roomba that needs a charge as defenders smile and say, “Just don’t let number 10 kill you.”
Puig came in and looked jittery and impatient, qualities you would ascribe to him if you hadn’t watched him play before. That’s how he is. He wants the ball, because he wants to do something with it. Lateral passes exuded reluctance, like the kid at the grown-up table passing the salt because you were supposed to, rather than reminding Gramps about his high blood pressure. But then, at the proper moment, a run. A little bit of sparkle that moved everything forward, that accelerated play in a way that made you realize what is missing from this Barça team: purposeful forward movement from a midfielder with the ball at his feet.
Vidal makes runs, Raktic makes runs, Busquets spits out thunderbolts from a stationary position like a fixed emplacement. But the last midfielder to move with the ball at his feet, forward, always forward, alacrity in the soul not bigger than a minute, was Iniesta. Puig isn’t Iniesta, but he shares that same sense of magnetism toward the opponent goal. He goes sends the ball there, and follows so that he is where the ball is. Barça players too often send the ball on its way then stand there, like a father watching a child learning to ride a bike. “Don’t hurt yourself, now!” And that’s wrong. And slow. It also creates space for defenses to exploit.
Puig takes a pass with his body open and head up. He assumes control of the ball, and already knows what to do next. If he keeps the ball, it’s because somebody hasn’t done what they are supposed to do, and he has to hold it. Compare the way he plays to the way everyone else plays, two and three touches, then a release to another stationary teammate, who takes two or three touches then releases to another stationary teammate. Stonehenge rondos. Puig was everywhere, battling for balls on defense, forcing them loose while looking like that coding glitch that made one player in an NFL Football video game tiny compared to the rest.
Setien credited him with energy and drive, but it was more than that. He was a clarion call, a gauntlet that demanded effort from Puig’s elders. “Keep up. Let’s do this.”
And then came Fati, who among his first actions in the match sent Garcia tumbling to the pitch, his lack of respect for anything already abundantly clear. He faced up defenders, brushed the ball past them and sprinted, creating a footrace that was as much a dare as anything else, a capricious, capering thing having fun. Football is a dour, business that commands control of countless sums. But sometimes, it takes a pair of kids to remind us that it’s a game. That there is stuff to be tried, and so what if it doesn’t work? Try something else. What’s the harm when you have all the time in the world?
And that’s the problem with so much football, with Barça in particular. There isn’t a sense of wonder, only fear. Veterans mark time by its shortness. Only so long to win before prime moments are gone and legs become heavy. Luis Suarez takes a year to even start a run now, never mind catching up with a pass that asks the most optimistic questions of him. “I only have so long,” and it makes veterans risk averse, demands a backpass. No risk, no error, and maybe we win later. The lassitude pervades the game, makes everything so slow, so technically drab. Puig and Fati asked, “Why are we walking, when we can run?” This is why youth players are integrated into a team. It’s more than because it’s cheaper than transfers, or because it’s someone’s turn. It’s why interns make veterans raise their game. That young reporter doesn’t know you aren’t supposed to write six stories in a week. They just want to be published, as much as they can. Puig had essentially 30 minutes, Fati even less time.
What are we waiting for? Let’s do something.
Neither was directly involved in the winning goal, but the way they sped up the game was. And suddenly, Barça was fun to watch again. Cries of “They should start all the time” are hasty, even though the current Barça squad is a paean to corporate timidity and incompetence. But the future is bright, and more glimpses should become a regular thing, even from a man managing for his life instead of to witness the joys of possibility.