The Barcelona board has been impetuous in the transfer market for the past few seasons. The Blaugrana have sold quite a few numbers of young footballers shortly after bringing them in.
The prompt arrivals and departures of players from the club have left a lousy repo among the fans. Malcolm, Paco Alcacer, and Phillipe Coutinho are some of the top names who fell victim to the lack of man-management from the Barcelona board and were sold or loaned out without being provided adequate chances to prove themselves.
The Arthur Melo-Miralem Pjanic swap deal is yet another prime example of how the Barcelona board has moved away from the Catalan philosophy of developing young players rather than recruiting established stars.
The above deal may have been economically justifiable, but it hampers Barcelona’s prospects as a football club. The departure of Melo means Frenkie de Jong is the club’s only first-team midfielder under the age of 30.
An ageing Barcelona midfield required Melo, who is just 23, to play a vital role in their midfield for years to come. Miralem Pjanic, aged 30, is not really a long-term solution to the Catalan giants’ midfield woes.
However, Riqui Puig, a young midfielder rising from the ranks of La Masia, is an ideal replacement for Melo, as the 21-year-old can energize Barca’s midfield.
The rise of Riqui Puig
Riqui Puig joined the Barcelona youth system at the age of 15 in 2013 after plying his trade for Jàbac Terrassa as a young teenager. Puig rose through the ranks at the academy by playing for multiple youth sides before securing a contract with Barcelona Reserves in 2018.
The youngster made it to Barcelona’s pre-season squad in 2018 and got his first exposure on an international stage when he came on as a substitute in an International Champions Cup game against AC Milan.
Riqui Puig’s ability to find players through perfectly weighted passes and his tendency to charge inside the box to split open opposition defences made him an instant fan-favourite.
Then-AC Milan manager, Gennaro Gattuso hailed the youngster and called him ‘spectacular’ in the post-match press conference. Puig then made his official first-team Barcelona debut in a 4-1 victory over Cultural Leonesa in a Copa del Rey clash in December 2018 and provided an assist.
He made his La Liga debut in a 0-0 draw with Huesca in 2018-19 and since then, Riqui Puig has played just six La Liga games for the Blaugrana.
The youngster spent most of his time in the 2019-20 season on the bench as former Barcelona manager, Ernesto Valverde failed to utilize him in the midfield. However, Puig’s fortunes changed with the arrival of Quique Setien at the helm.
What makes Riqui Puig special?
Riqui Puig is a hungry young lad, his tenacity and vigour complement his technical understanding of the game. Puig provides the killer instinct to an ailing, orthodox and predictable Barcelona midfield.
The youngster not only plays key passes but also makes quick, darting runs into the opposition defence, thus destabilizing the defensive equilibrium of the opposition.
When most Barcelona midfielders look to pass the ball back to the centre-backs or the full-backs down the flanks, Puig has been seen making inroads into the opposition defence and playing a forward pass.
He is not afraid to take a risky path and invite a counter-attack. Puig delivered a phenomenal performance against Atheltic Bilbao in La Liga in late June after coming on for the final 35 minutes.
Riqui Puig’s ability to play perfectly weighted balls over the defence to the full-backs during a forward move works seamlessly with Barcelona’s current playing style.
Barcelona often look clueless when going forward due to lack of creativity and pressure in the final third and Puig has been used to counter those deficiencies by Quique Setien.
The 21-year-old’s 35-minute stay on the pitch against Athletic Bilbao reciprocated the fact that Barcelona need a young and technically gifted midfielder like Riqui Puig to complement their ageing midfield.
The youngster is more than just dribbling past defenders, he has the ability to destroy an entire line of defence with one or two unconventional passes. He has great vision and spots spaces which disintegrates the opposition defence.
Puig is also not afraid to take risks in attack and makes darting offensive runs to get the ball and test the opposition goalkeeper.
The Spanish media has also gripped upon the Melo situation and is hell-bent on promoting Riqui Puig as the next Barcelona midfield spearhead. Catalan daily, Mundo Deportivo pointed out in one of their articles that Puig is already replacing Melo at the centre of the Barca midfield.
The article pointed out that Puig already has two assists to his name, just one less than Melo, despite playing half number of matches as the Brazilian. It also mentioned that Puig is only one behind Melo in creating clear goalscoring chances.
Puig’s urgency and efficiency to generate himself in the offensive phase of the game is well supported by his superior passing in the final third (26.41 passes to 22.21) and offensive actions per touch (8.33% to 7.95%).
Although Catalan media houses like Mundo Deportivo and Catalunya Radio are well known to propagate the decisions of the Barcelona board through such analytical articles, it is perhaps not up for debate that Riqui Puig is the one player Barcelona need to promote a lot more in the first team.
Riqui Puig’s exploits in the big 0-5 away win against Deportivo Alaves in the final league game of the season is further testimony to the youngster’s capability.
He became the youngest Barca player to provide two assists in a La Liga match since 2011 when Thiago Alcantara achieved the same feat in a game against Villarreal.
After making 11 appearances in La Liga, including five starts, Puig was expected to play against Napoli in the second leg of Barcelona’s Champions League Round of 16 tie.
However, to everybody’s surprise, Puig did not even come off the bench. With an in-form side like Bayern Munich up next in the Champions League quarter-finals, it is only natural that Riqui Puig starts for the Catalans as his pace and energy in the midfield could keep the Germans at bay.
Quique Setien has to be fearless and make some brave changes to the squad and reward youngsters like Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati at the expense of misfiring experienced campaigners such as Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal.
Barcelona need to promote their young players if they are to make a genuine attempt to win the Champions League this season and challenge for the La Liga title in 2020-21.