Ever heard of Barcelona’s Álex Grimaldo? No? How about Sergi Samper? That name might ring a bell for vigilant Arsenal transfer rumor watchers, but probably not most others. Even so, the fate of these two kids, who have oceans of potential that their manager seems curiously uninterested in tapping, has Barcelona fans in a tizzy.
Barcelona have been thrashed this season thanks to two mutually-reinforcing factors: a FIFA-imposed two-window ban on incoming transfers, which has prevented the club from bolstering its depth; and an almost comical rash of injuries that has whittled down what was already a reed-thin squad into a toothpick. Dani Alves, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Claudio Bravo, and Rafinha—all five of whom were to be critical components in Barça’s hopes of hobbling into January not too far off the league pace when support could finally arrive—will have spent considerable chunks of the season out with injuries. Couple that with Thomas Vermaelen’s regularly scheduled complete physical breakdown, Pedro’s departure to Chelsea, and the continued suckitude of full back Adriano and center/left back Jérémy Mathieu, and it all adds up to a potentially debilitating shortage of capable bodies on every line of the team.
This is where Grimaldo and Samper come in. These two have been with the club since they were little kids, which is about as long as they’ve been heralded as the next big things to come out of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy. The 20-year-old Grimaldo is a left back in the typical Barça mold, so good technically and with such a feel for passing that he can even play as a central midfielder. From what those who pay attention to Barcelona B—the reserve team currently playing in Spain’s third division, which generally serves as the final training chamber for the youth ranks before they are sent into the first team—he was one of the few standout performers in a disappointing season that saw them relegated from the country’s second tier.
Samper is an even more revered figure amongst hardcore fans. At the club he’s whetted his skills at since the age of 6, the defensive midfielder is breathlessly compared to everyone from Sergio Busquets to Pep Guardiola to the legend himself, Xavi Hernández. He is one of those rare and highly-coveted commodities: a central midfielder with the ability to control the tempo of a match with his passing range and decision making. That he’s been groomed almost since birth to inherit that controlling midfielder position that has been the hallmark of Barcelona’s long-standing institutional playing philosophy has made him nothing less than a cult figure.
It would make sense, then, if these two players, each right along that point on the development curve where you’d expect him to work his way into the senior squad—especially when the first team is starving for bodies—were training and intermittently showing up in matches with the big boys. After all, that’s basically what’s gone on with Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez, two 20-year-old forwards who for the second consecutive season have seen an unexpected glut of minutes in La Liga because of injuries and FIFA restrictions.
Yet Samper has spent barely any time even training with the main squad and made no appearances in games at that level, which is still somehow more involvement than Grimaldo has had. To add insult to injury, Gerard Gumbau—a more or less anonymous 20-year-old midfielder signed by the club in 2014 to shore up the B team, who doesn’t appear to have much upside—now regularly finds himself up with the first team as manager Luis Enrique’s preferred option to back up what’s left of his central midfield.
That all of this has the majority of Barcelona fans seriously confused is understandable. What verges on ridiculous is the overreaction to these turns of events. There are two factions in the Barça fanbase when it comes to Samper’s and Grimaldo’s fates. Both have lost it.
The first group is all about trusting the manager. Luis Enrique came into that viper pit-encircled coach’s chair last season, steadied what had been a wayward ship lacking a strong and consistent vision since the departure of (in fans’ minds, and not totally unreasonably so) The Greatest Soccer Manager In The History Of The Sport, Pep Guardiola, navigated past some choppy waters early on, withstood what threatened to be a full-on player mutiny, and in spite of all that captained his men in the sacking of every harbor in sight. To those supporters, a coach with that resumé deserves every benefit of the doubt. Further, deigning to question the beloved leader is tantamount to heresy and proof that, at heart, Barcelona fans are a bunch of entitled ideologues who will never cease finding ways to undermine even the most successful of teams.
Opposing the In Lucho We Trust brigade are those who fancy themselves the true defenders of the Barça Way. These fans were excited a year ago when Luis Enrique was first brought on, seeing in his journey echoes of Guardiola’s—both men had captained the club as players and got their managerial starts leading the youngsters in the B team to uncommon success—and hoped that this fellow Blaugrana disciple could approximate the glory achieved a few years prior.
As that first season wore on, they grew concerned about Luis Enrique’s apparent abdication of Guardiola’s patient, possession-based short-passing game, which they viewed, with some justification, as the sport’s pinnacle in terms of aesthetics and effectiveness. This group learned to accept Luis Enrique’s vision when it won everything last season, but with the sale of highly-rated homegrown wingers Gerard Deulofeu and Adama Traoré and the perceived failure to look to La Masia to solve the injury problems, they’re beginning to believe that their suspicions about Luis Enrique’s fit with Barça’s ethos were correct.
As is so often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It really is hard to understand why Luis Enrique hasn’t given more time to Samper at the very least, and probably Grimaldo, too. In light of the injury situation, the team has at times resorted to playing Javier Mascherano at defensive midfield (which, while being his natural position, does much to harm the team’s fluidity when in possession), pushing Busquets further up the pitch as a more attacking midfielder (which doesn’t maximize his unparalleled touch, vision, and game-reading skills that are so perfect when he plays deeper), and giving minutes in the center of the park to Sergi Roberto (who has looking shockingly great when filling in as a makeshift right back, but still lacks the abilities needed in Barça’s midfield). Injury problems tend to snowball, as a lack of depth leads to the overworking of those players that are available, leading to their subsequent injuries, so at the very least trying a player who appears to fit so naturally in the side seems like a no-brainer. Ditto for Grimaldo, who looks like a much more talented and fitting option to spell Jordi Alba on the left of defense than the at-times terrible Mathieu and Adriano, both on the wrong side of 30.
On the other hand, there’s nothing to the notion that Luis Enrique simply doesn’t get a club like Barça because of his short-term focus and distrust of youth. It was around this very time a year ago when Lucho responded to Neymar’s recovery from a broken vertebra and Luis Suárez’s ban for biting by turning a teenaged Munir into an overnight sensation by giving him significant run in the side. Every minute Munir and Sandro have gotten over the past two seasons, as well as his unrelenting trust in Rafinha over the years, should stand to squelch the argument that Luis Enrique disregards the youth. Fans are entitled to trust their own eyes and come to the conclusion that Grimaldo is a genuine talent who should play over others. At the same time, Luis Enrique—who sees way more of these players than we ever will—can make his own determinations. (Sidenote: for a good explanation of some perfectly plausible reasons why Lucho might favor Gumbau over Samper, check out this article.)
Sometimes, in an effort to avoid the “I know better than the coach” and the “The coach can do no wrong” fallacies, the desire not to err in one direction leads sports fans to find themselves sliding closer to the opposite extreme. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.
It’s dumb to think a coach who’s earned as much benefit of the doubt as Luis Enrique has turned into an idiot willing to cut off his nose to spite his face for no apparent reason. It’s just as foolhardy to believe any manager incapable of making a grave miscalculation that fans could see coming before the coach himself. Even Alex Ferguson messed up the Paul Pogba situation.
Barcelona fans are prone to turning molehills into volcanos, but if there’s one heartening thing to take from this controversy, it’s that the club has retained its unique culture. In an era of Chelseas and PSGs coached by Mourinhos and Ancelottis who value little more than buying up an assortment of superstars from around the globe and winning with them, Barcelona still means something different.
While lots of the talk surrounding the presidential election of this past summer centered on which candidate would be able to sign Pogba or Marco Verratti or some other high-priced, established young stud, fans have shown this season that they are still protective of the idea that Barça aren’t Barça if they aren’t developing and integrating homegrown kids of their own. As long as everyone involved stays true to that ideal, and as long as Grimaldo or Munir or Lee Seung-woo or any of the other promising kids in the system becomes a cornerstone of the team six years from now, things will be as they should.
Photos via Getty