Barcelona have been a faltering giant for many years now. One would even say that the real decline had started after Luis Enrique won the elusive treble all those years ago. After that, it was all downhill.
Yes, the Catalans managed to pepper over the cracks with some La Liga titles and Copa del Rey silverware but the quality of football was never the same. Of course, it all seems to be culminating now in 2020. Josep-Maria Bartomeu is gone, for better or worse, Lionel Messi was close to leaving, the team is struggling to win games and the mood is as bleak as it gets.
The latest reality check they’ve received came in the form of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo at the Camp Nou as the Bianconeri crushed the Azulgrana 0-3 and usurped the first place in their Champions League group. As demoralising as the game was, it also proved some things we knew long ago – Barcelona are too reliant on a small Argentine lad and Riqui Puig is the only shining light in the squad not named Messi.
Ever since Ronald Koeman has taken over the team, the La Masia gem has been on the fringes. So much so that we’ve only seen him four times on the pitch so far in 2020/21 for a total of 77 minutes across those games. In other words, not even a game’s worth just yet. (Transfermarkt)
However, there’s also been a recurring theme around the 21-year-old midfielder every single time he stepped foot on the pitch – Puig has been Barcelona’s best performer whenever he was given a chance and not a single appearance has gone by without him impressing everyone.
Take the game against Juventus as the latest example. For the duration of the first 66 minutes, you can only say Messi was the one pulling the weight of the whole team. However, those 24 odd minutes he received from Koeman were enough for Puig to be named man of the match and change the whole dynamic of the team.
There is something about him that simply oozes class, skill and competence. Yes, everyone will criticise his diminutive stature and physique but when has that stopped a Barcelona midfielder from completely taking over games?
We also hate talking about the infamous Barcelona DNA but if there was ever such a thing, Puig would certainly have it. Whether it’s pure ball control, footballing IQ, positional awareness or space occupation, the young midfielder has it all.
From the moment he stepped on the pitch, things started moving for Barcelona – the ball was retained and recycled much quicker, additional passing channels were opened and the team started to breathe once again. In so many ways, Puig does things that would usually fall to Messi’s shoulders and Messi’s shoulders alone.
The Argentine is a highly creative outlet but without Puig on the pitch, he is also their only creative outlet, making Barcelona’s attack dull and predictable. Koeman still insists on the double-pivot as Barcelona’s only midfielders but even in such a structure, it will be interesting to see for how much longer can he ignore Puig.
That may not be his preferred position but at the moment, not a single other midfielder deserves that spot more than him. And this includes Frenkie de Jong who is somehow escaping all the criticism without really performing at a high enough level.
The way things stand, Koeman’s tactics are far from perfect and he’s been unlucky with all the injuries that have been mounting in the squad but part of the problem is that he’s not even playing his best players.
It’s a good thing that Barcelona finally have a coach who’s vocal and wants things done his way but in this instance, it’s heavily hampering the team. We know Puig has it in him to completely change the course of the game for the better and add that level of unpredictability and freshness but he can’t do it from the bench or even worse, from the stands.
We also know he loves the club but unless things change, he may be forced to leave it for his own good. At this point, who could even blame him? Performing on such a high level should see him start and finish games, not pray for a couple of minutes every other week and in insignificant clashes.
It might be a bit too much to call him Barcelona’s saviour but that statement is also not too far from the truth. Unfortunately, until Koeman realises the damage he’s doing by chaining him to the bench, there’s not much he can do to change their fortune.