Barcelona are failing to recognize and maximize the potential of Riqui Puig

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 19: Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with his teammates Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig and Arturo Vidal during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Granada CF at Camp Nou on January 19, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 19: Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's first goal with his teammates Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig and Arturo Vidal during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Granada CF at Camp Nou on January 19, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Riqui Puig is emerging as the next gem from La Masia. Will Barcelona soon provide him with the first-team opportunities to shine?

It was not too long ago when Riqui Puig was being touted as the next emerging wunderkind from La Masia. From his UEFA Youth League triumph in 2018 to performances in preseason games with the first-team, Barcelona fans were intrigued by the potential of this coveted midfield prospect. It has certainly been a while since Barcelona had an impactful midfielder come up from the team’s famed academy.

Now at the age of 20, some of the initial hype surrounding Puig is gradually wearing off. It is not because of lowly performances or injuries that have halted his development; he has been fortunate enough to avoid either of those.

Instead, his biggest obstacle centers around those within the club, mainly the first-team coaching staff and board officials. The Spanish youngster simply has not received enough opportunities to showcase his talent with the first-team.

Puig made his Barcelona debut last season under former manager Ernesto Valverde and since then, he has received just 285 total minutes played across five games. First-team experience is valuable for any youth prospect, but a mere 285 minutes will not do much for a player’s development and growth.

Puig’s career is now somewhat at a standstill.

With the first-team, he will not receive pivotal minutes this season considering that manager Quique Setien was heavily relying on a five-man midfield rotation, and the rest of the season is up in the air. Setien touched on this when speaking about why Barcelona B winger Alex Collado may be in line for more minutes than Puig.

“With Riqui there are a lot of players in the position where he would normally play but Collado, playing up front, he’s going to get chances,” Setien said in February.

And at Barcelona B, Puig has nothing to prove anymore.

In Spain’s Segunda Division, Puig already cemented his status as the best controlling midfielder by a significant margin. He advances the ball extremely well against Spanish defenses there; he ranks first in the league in passes to the final third per 90 at a 13.1 rate, according to Wyscout. And while he might not be the one directly creating goal-scoring chances with a 0.07 xA per 90, his ball distribution upfield is just as integral in the team’s build-up of goal attempts.

His astute play as a passer pops out the most when evaluating his on-ball play. He moves the ball with purpose and precision. He understands the fundamentals of passing between the lines and vertical movement — both of which fit the profile for a Barcelona midfielder. His quick one-touch passing sequences rank among his most impressive qualities when on the ball. Even with his smaller stature, he likes to fend off defenders by absorbing pressure from a press and distributing one-touch passes.

The 5’7 talent is essentially the nucleus of the team’s midfield structure. Whenever he does not play, Barcelona B manager Francisco Javier Garcia Pimnetia often switches the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1.

At this point, Puig is simply toying with players who are a bit below his on-ball skillset. Yet, it seems Barcelona are not realizing this or do not have a plan in place for Puig moving forward from the second division into La Liga. For a player of his quality, he should have already racked up crucial minutes in first-team football, whether with Barcelona or on loan to another club.

For instance, 21-year-old Martin Odegaard has already accumulated 111 first-team games with four different clubs and seems destined for a Real Madrid return.

Sure, every player has a different career trajectory. But with Puig, his career is trending at a low altitude.

The question surrounding Puig’s Barcelona status is simple: is there a clear plan in place to eventually integrate him into the first-team or will he be an afterthought like previous La Masia graduates?

The latter option is a microcosm of a bigger issue within the club, which former players like Carles Perez have had the unfortunate fate of facing. The 22-year-old recently joined AS Roma over the winter transfer window but was not fond of the club’s overall management of their youth prospects.

“People talk about the academy, but sometimes they prefer to spend millions and don’t have patience with young players,” Perez said in April.

Perez’s criticism is certainly warranted because of how Barcelona approached the recent winter transfer market. He was loaned off to AS Roma with an obligation to buy, although the move garnered stark disapproval due to his potential off the bench and injuries to other forwards. But all it took was a mere 13 first-team appearances for the board to come to a conclusion on his future. The club subsequently opted to splash €31 million on 20-year-old Portuguese forward Francisco Trincao from S.C. Braga, who will join in the summer.

Now this move could certainly pay off, but with the team’s recent signings over the years, there is reason to doubt. And for Puig, he may be concerned because his fate could end up following Perez’s.

In the midfield, Barcelona’s future trident is beginning to take shape. Frenkie de Jong is set to replace Sergio Busquets as the lone central defensive midfielder. Arthur seems poised to take hold of either the number eight or six role, which then leaves a vacant spot available in the 4-3-3. Puig would be an ideal candidate to eventually take either spot, but Barca may look the other way; they have already signed youngsters Pedri and Matheus Fernandes coupled with their rumored interest in 24-year-old Fabian Ruiz from Napoli.

Under club president Josep Bartomeu, Barca are seemingly putting all their marbles on strengthening the team through the transfer market and turning away from the plethora of talents in their very own academy. Thus, it may soon force Puig to make a career-altering decision.

Puig’s current contract runs until 2021, so any decision may come sooner than later. All options are on the table, including a loan move, which head of youth football Patrick Kluivert alluded to in November when Valverde was in charge.

"“If you see the first team midfielders, Frenkie, Arturo, etc. Where are you going to put Riqui? With all my respect. It’s hard. It is better for Riqui to leave on loan to compete at a different level and to return.”"

Still, Barca must not overlook Puig’s high ceiling and instead invest in him. This starts by putting a plan in place for him next season. First of all, he desperately needs to play against first-team competition. Another season in the Segunda Division will slow his growth.

The one viable option for both parties is a permanent promotion to the first-team. With Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal being likely candidates to leave in the summer, a spot in the depth chart could be opening up. Barca can still bring in midfield reinforcements for depth, but Puig would be a viable game-by-game option off the bench as well. He is more than ready to test the waters against Real Sociedad’s pressing system, Atletico Madrid’s defensive blocks and other tactical chess matches in La Liga.

However, a one-year loan is an option that the club may be leaning toward. If so, Barcelona must thoroughly evaluate which club they send him to. It would not benefit either party if Puig leaves Barcelona B just to go straight to the bench of a different first-team. For instance, both Jean-Clair Todibo and Juan Miranda were both loaned off to FC Schalke 04 in the winter transfer window, but neither has emerged as a regular starter for the German club.

If a loan deal is on the horizon, Barcelona must still put in place a plan for Puig’s future. They would not want Puig to go down the route of a Sergi Samper or Alen Halilovic where it turns into a revolving door of loan moves only to be sold in the end. He should not be viewed as an asset where the goal is centered on increasing his transfer value but rather one who has a future place in the first-team.

Nonetheless, Puig has what it takes to eventually become a household name for Barcelona. At 20, the youngster still has room to improve, from polishing his press-resistant play to defending, which Setien touched on. But the talent is there.

It is up to Barcelona to come to terms with this, but patience and trust will be key. Unlike with previous prospects, they must not be so quick to pull the plug and move on from Puig if he does not exhibit any signs of an immediate impact on the pitch. Even the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta — two players who were also 5’7 — did not become world class talents overnight.

There is always the chance Puig turns out to be another homegrown flop. But with the right investment and long-term plan in place, Puig can live up to his potential as an exquisite midfielder alongside De Jong and Arthur.

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