Barcelona B and Atletico Levante have collected a point each in a really tough game in the Segunda Division B last Sunday. With that point added to their tally, the young Catalans now occupy the fifth position on the league table, four behind a spot that would give them a chance of promotion.
Only three wins in the last 10 games do not really impose great confidence but the team has been slightly improving under the watchful eye of Francisco Javier García Pimienta, and some of the youngsters have shown undeniable talent.
One of those youngsters is definitely Ricard “Riqui” Puig, a 19-year-old midfielder. This tactical analysis is a part of a new series in which we will discuss La Masia’s finest, starting with the aforementioned gem of the world’s most famous football academy.
A Forgotten Philosophy
To find the last real instance when Barcelona relied on La Masia’s talents we would have to travel all the way back to Pep Guardiola’s era. The Catalan coach promoted the likes of Sergio Busquets and Pedro to the first team, and also got the best out of the members of the golden generation in Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta.
But, this was the last gasp of what truly was an inspirational story. When Luis Enrique arrived in 2014/15, the team was still extremely powerful and running on that La Masia cog but it was all downhill since then.
A staggering 672,5 million euros have been spent on incoming transfers since 2013/14 and the incorporation of Neymar, which was a sign of a new era.
The times were certainly changing.
Ernesto Valverde promised the renaissance of the old ways but to say that he committed to those words that he spoke during his presentation would, to a fair extent, be false. The Ant has only now been incorporating Carles Alena into the first team bench but not much more than that.
Still, Riqui Puig might be a breath of fresh air the club needed for so long. The young midfielder accompanied Barcelona to their US tour in the summer and donned Iniesta’s number 8 on his back while doing it. To some clubs, this might not be of great precedence, but to Barcelona, it is huge.
Interestingly enough, Puig’s performance in the States is what captured everyone’s attention. He went from being “just” a talent to the next big thing in a matter of moments.
And moments is all it took for the world to see that this kid is special.
Puig played all three games abroad and put on an impressive performance in each of those. He was used in his preferred role of a left central-midfielder. This is the role Pimienta chose for him in Barcelona B as well, and also the role that feels natural to him as it is used a dominant 67% of the time he enters the pitch.
163 minutes across three games amounts to less than two fully completed matches but it was still an extraordinary experience for the young Catalan-native. 90.2% passing accuracy and an incredible 100% dribbles completed suggest that Puig did the number on his back justice but it was much more than what the stats can tell you.
A La Masia Student Through And Through
Puig shows signs of a Barcelona prototype player in every possible way. His confidence on and off the ball, passing mastery and awareness of his surroundings are exactly the traits that the Catalans pride themselves on. Riqui has them all.
Tottenham Hotspur were the first ones to witness a child playing with adults, literally. Riqui was toying with grown men, as the commentators put it, all in awe and disbelief.
In the second half of the game, around 70 000 people in Los Angeles couldn’t believe their eyes when this 19-year-old kid chipped the ball over Christian Eriksen, controlled it almost flawlessly, and then proceeded to send a pinpoint pass to the wings.
A draw with two goals on each side was maybe not the fairest of results but Barcelona did edge out the Englishmen after the penalty shootout. Still, those preseason friendlies are rarely about results. It was the performance that was under the watchful eyes of the coaches and the fans alike.
When watching Riqui play, it was like truly watching someone play with the ball – no stress, no anxiety, just a kid having fun with his friends.
A true mark of a La Masia accolade.
Being that left part of a usual midfield trident, Puig is often the one the team will look to be a creative outlet when moving forward. He does this job extremely well.
He sends 9.48 passes to the final third on average with 80.3% accuracy. This was also evident when playing with the senior team in the US when Puig found those smart passes through several lines of the oppostion’s defense.
Although long passes are not his forte (72.2% accuracy and 4.79 on average per game), he is able to switch the play in order to advance the attack. Here, he draws several defenders on himself, only to quickly send the ball to an unmarked teammate on the other side of the pitch.
When the team needs to stabilize the play, Puig channels his “inner Xavi” and can twist and turn in order to protect the ball, recycle possession and often get rid of multiple markers to free up space for his teammates.
In the three games he played in the States, Riqui was dispossessed a total of 11 times but only three times (27.3%) in his own half. Still, for all those dispossessions, he had almost an equal amount of recoveries with a total of 10, four of which he mustered in the opposition’s half, to break up the play before it even begins.
What he gives in the attacking and the creative specter of the play, Riqui, unfortunately, lacks in the defensive one. With his small stature and lack of physicality, his 7.73 duels per game in the US, and 6.28 overall is telling enough.
This amounts to only 14.2% successful ones and when analyzing all competition, it only rises to 18.2%. Clearly, he is not built for a defender, nor does he attempt to contradict that statement as much in tackling or challenges.
Still, when it comes to his work ethic, his mentality cannot be questioned. When defending, he is always in line with his teammates, whether it’s by rushing back to cover the overlapping full-back or simply by respecting the system the coach opted for.
A Leader In Making
While it is too early for a 19-year-old kid to start imposing himself as one of the leading men in the senior team, Riqui is shaping up to be just that in the B squad. Maybe the greatest examples can be drawn from the latest game against Levante.
A new signing, Araujo, was not used to Barcelona’s way of playing all the way from the back, and slowly building up towards the final third, so he consistently kicked the ball long and cleared it from the pressing attackers.
This, while effective for staying out of danger, was clearly not a part of the plan, and not the Barcelona way.
Puig was the one who was yelling instructions to the new signing after every bad decision, and his disappointment was visible every step of the way. He was also the one rushing to fix every misplaced pass and every hiccup from his teammates.
Riqui Puig is not nearly a finished product and his ceiling seems to be sky-high. It’s been five years now that the young Catalan has been a part of the Barcelona family, and the early signs have been nothing but outstanding.
Still, Blaugrana has to be careful with how they treat their young starlets. Many have been dubbed “the next big thing” only to fall flat shortly after.
Regular first-team games still seem far out of reach for the youngster but consistency might be key in this whole story. Barcelona already made the initial move of putting a 100 million euros release clause to protect him and themselves from potential suitors. This might be a sign of some faith in the kid.
So far, Puig has three official trophies to his name, two of which he won as a part of the senior team alongside Lionel Messi and co.
His dream is to continue along that path and fill the shoes of his idols in the seasons to come. At the moment, he is definitely one of La Masia’s finest but can he turn out to be Barcelona’s as well?
Only time will tell.