The cautionary tale of Riqui Puig

Riqui Puig was magic.

People who followed Masia talents spoke of him in the hushed tones that accompany unbelievable things. His talent was otherworldly, grace and skill on the ball, the ability to drive a team’s attack to good things.

Watching him with Barça B certainly presaged a great future. They were a different team with Puig running things as he flitted about, doling out intelligent forward passes. And the hype train turned into a bullet train.

FC Barcelona did a U.S. tour where Puig got to shine, got to make the eyes of no less a midfield fiend than Gennaro Gattuso spin around like pinwheels at his talent and ability. He was going places.

When he moved up to the first team, his first manager got to know him and didn’t play him. And supporters lambasted that manager, called him a fool. How could he deny that remarkable talent?

A second manager got him, got to know him, and didn’t play him. And that manager was also savaged. There was talk of personality conflicts, personal reasons that led to his not getting playing time, even in a game where a manager would play the Devil himself if it would help the team win. Both managers who didn’t play him also had the great misfortune of being ill-suited to manage a team such as FC Barcelona, both for quite different reasons that led to the same result. The sack.

When Koeman was sacked and Xavi was incoming, Puigophiles rejoiced. Here would be a man who would see, who would elevate this immensely talented Masia player to his rightful station. Instead, Xavi became yet another manager who came, and saw, and didn’t play. The more Puig played with the first team, the more his deficiencies became apparent. He was, in every way, a young player. With the ball as his feet and no pressure, he shone. When it came to reading play, defending, anticipating and reacting, things that round out a midfielder, he lagged. And as a consequence, he sat.

When the Puig to MLS rumor first surfaced, few could believe it. How could a player with so much on offer end up with a non-starter of a European career before he even got a real shot at one. Surely a European side would step up to grab this wonder of a midfielder. Then the deal was made official. Riqui Puig is a new arrival in Los Angeles, playing for the L.A. Galaxy.

What happened? There is not a player in Barça history with a bigger gap between the perception of his talent and the reality of his capabilities than Riqui Puig. And it’s a shame. The leaks of his recorded conversations dropping at the same time of his transfer didn’t exactly help, but one of them was also illustrative, where he talked about having received good offers from big clubs but wanted to stay in Barcelona, where he thought he had a shot.

But the player, like his countless fans, had hopes that were ultimately dashed.

My first time watching Puig in a competitive situation with the first team made me think he should find a Liga side that wanted him at his first available opportunity. The world in which an undersized midfielder lacking pace and physicality in a game that is increasingly becoming faster and more physical, is a small one. It mostly lives in La Liga at the European top flight.

The opportunity window for a player is, absent immense talent, a small one. At the time when interest in Puig was highest, he was determined to stay at FC Barcelona and fight for a place. Pedri came in and walked into the XI. Gavi came in and found a spot. Nico came up and found a spot. And there Puig sat, the equivalent of the player who subs on when a match is decided, pushed farther down the pecking order with each new arrival.

He did get opportunities to sparkle, subbed on a few times with matches in the balance, but he never was that player who dominated at B team level. Blame genetics if you like, but Puig is only about an inch shorter than Iniesta. Blame early career first team managers if you like, but they saw the same things that Xavi saw, the same things anyone could see if they looked closely. And those things are nothing against Puig. It’s just sporting reality that we see all the time. An athlete excels in college or at a lower level, gets to the big show where everybody is fast, strong and super talented, and they fade. Or they raise their game in response to the stressors.

The other thing is ambition. When Alenya saw the writing on the wall he went on loan for first-team football and became a regular wherever he went, deciding that while Barcelona was amazing, he wanted to play. He’s a talented footballer, and play he did. Puig is also a talented footballer, in the raw sense even more than Alenya. His ambition was to succeed at Barcelona. That can sometimes make a player not see things. Human nature.

Now Puig is moving to MLS in the same summer that saw Xavi Simons, another can’t-miss Masia mid, released on a free from Paris St. Germain, as he also works to find a level where his talent can thrive.

We still don’t know what Puig’s ceiling is. His determination to succeed at Barça has hindered his development because he hasn’t been playing. Slots in the XI are earned in training, but training isn’t the same as playing. Where would he be had he sought a loan during the Koeman time? Recall that was something the then-manager brought up, and was pilloried for. We will never know. And now he’s in Los Angeles, which really is an extraordinary city.

MLS has improved a great deal. Puig isn’t going to stroll through that league. Five years ago he would have. If he approaches that new gig with humility and hard work, he will definitely end up back in Europe. He has that kind of talent, but just needs to be able to demonstrate it on a more consistent basis. L.A. Galaxy is one of the glamour clubs of MLS. It’s a bright spotlight for Puig and a great opportunity. He will start, and play regularly. MLS is fast and physical, which will be perfect for forcing the kind of development that he needs.

Don’t forget that Puig is only 22. He has years and years left. Talent-wise, he belongs in European football. Career missteps derailed that dream for now, but it’s safe to say that at some point, Puig will be back. Not at Barcelona, which is likely to end up a bridge too far for him. But he will be back in European football. Smarter, stronger and more confident, with lessons learned, lessons that the game teaches us at the supporter level as well, about becoming wedded to talent and potential, sometimes at the expense of seeing and embracing reality.