La Liga English

Barcelona young turk Riqui Puig could revitalise Setien’s midfield

When people talk about ‘Barcelona DNA’, the endless list of greats invariably come to mind and we all know who they are, having mesmerised, titillated, astounded and dazzled us with their mind-boggling skills and talents over the decades until even now. Mavericks and magicians performing their sleight of feet antics for our entertainment.

But with the dawning of this new era, a new tidal wave of young dynamos has hit the shores to impact playing styles and dynamics on the pitch even as they manouvre themselves into strategic positions next to the current greats whose eras will soon begin to fade.

Mention Barcelona DNA for this new era and we are essentially talking about a mesmerising and most promising Riqui Puig, the impressive youngster who has been tipped to blaze new trails with new on-pitch exploits and do great things for years to come. It’s only now that he is poised on the verge of becoming a regular in the Blaugrana’s first-team squad.

Like Xavi Hernandez, Puig was born in Terrassa. Like Sergio Busquets, he joined Barcelona from Jabac. And like Andres Iniesta, he glides seemingly without effort about the pitch. Shades of the greats, truly.

After an International Champions Cup clash with Barca in August 2018, the then-AC Milan coach, Gennaro Gattuso, could hardly contain his excitement and revealed that he had already heard about Puig. What he had witnessed that evening in Santa Clara merely confirmed the rumors that even by La Masia standards, the boy was exceptional.

“Riqui is spectacular,” Gattuso said at his post-match press conference.

“Even though they (Barca) have players that look like kids, the way they handle the ball amazes me.

“It’s the beauty of football. It’s like poetry.”

Another legend of his time, AC Milan’s Brand Ambassador, Daniele Massaro – the player who scored two goals in the epic demolition of legendary Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ in 1994 – was so smitten by what he saw from Puig that he actually asked for the teenager’s shirt after the game! That itself says a lot about the potential this kid had even at that tender age.

“He plays with real personality, always with his head up,” the former forward told reporters.

“We could be looking at the new Iniesta,” Massaro opined enthusiastically.

Question then is – why is Puig only now poised to feature regularly in the Blaugana’s first team and not much earlier?

There were various reasons why many Barca fans never truly took to former coach Ernesto Valverde with one being his alleged reluctance to rely on La Masia products, chief among them being Puig.

This said, it is still to Valverde’s credit as it was him who included Puig in that 2018 pre-season tour of the United States – less than six months after the youngster had made his debut for Barca B – besides also giving him his first taste of competitive action at senior level, in a Copa del Ray clash with Cultural Leonesa in December of that year.

Puig would then continue to make his La Liga debut, against Huesca, before the season ended. By which time, many supporters had grown increasingly dissatisfied with Valverde’s handling of the ‘jewel of the academy’.

Truth be told, in the coach’s defence, it was not as if he were turning a blind eye on the youngsters as it was on Valverde’s watch that Ansu Fati became the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history. However, Puig did not have the opportunity he should have had to see a single minute of first-team action during the first half of the current campaign.

And so it was that by the turn of the year, Barca’s possibly brightest young prospects was left with no alternatives but to publicly admit that he was contemplating leaving Camp Nou, the stadium he had first visited as a three-year-old.

The frustration stemmed not only from his lack of game time with the senior squad – the downer was mainly attributable to the fact that he was not even given the opportunity to train with them regularly.

“If I don’t have any minutes, I will have to make a decision,” he reluctantly admitted in November.

Then the wheels of change turned in the youngster’s favor when Barcelona’s board made the surprising decision to remove Valverde in January and his immediate replacement was Quique Setien. Overnight, and with almost immediat effect, Puig’s prospects changed significantly.

Although 61-year-old Setien arrived at Camp Nou without a single major trophy on his CV, he was, and still is, an avid advocate of the football mantras of Johan Cruyff, the undisputed spiritual guru of Camp Nou. More importantly, Setien came with the reputation for nurturing and developing young talent in his two previous clubs, at Las Palmas and Real Betis.

Therefore, it came as no surprise when Setien collared Puig into his first La Liga game as the new coach, against Granada.

Many had seen the decision to replace Ivan Rakitic with Puig as a symbolic moment as it signaled the changing of the guard. However, things did not quite pan out the way it had been expected.

Puig was quick off the starting blocks and impressed in his very next outing, with a start and an assist in a Copa del Rey win over Cultural Leonesa, yet he barely featured over the following two months.

Then again the wheels started to turn again when Setien needed to energise his midfield against a doggedly persistent Athletic Club on a particular Tuesday night – he turned his attention to Puig.

What really eclipsed the many exploits and performances of the many that night was the performance of the 20-year-old during the 35-minute cameo that featured not only his incredible technique, but his amazing composure and eself-belief.

Even the great Xavi had a most positive take on Puig’s performance in that pre-season game against Milan.

“The truth is that he is a boy who breathes talent,” the Barca icon told Mundo Deportivo.

“He has self-confidence, personality, does not hide and asks for the ball.”

Puig kept that up constantly against Athletic. Although Rakitic ended up the match-winner that fateful night, it was Puig who undoubtedly altered the entire flow of the game after coming on on to replace Arthur, absolutely re-energising Barca with his constant movement and crisp passing.

Now there are insistent calls for him to start in the next match against Celta Vigo this Saturday.

It is a likelihood that he will again be waiting his turn on the bench. Be that as it may, two years after stunning Gattuso and Massaro in Santa Clara with his knock-out talent, Puig is finally and significantly poised to become a first-team regular at Barca.

The Barca DNA, the talent, the self-confidence and the hutzpah – he has got it all and now, apparently and justifiably, he has finally got the chance to revitalise Barcelona’s midfield, something the Blaugrana giants desperately need to revitalise their squad and maintain their dominance.