Yesterday, Barcelona played tragedy-stricken Brazilian club Chapecoense (you may remember them as the team involved in that awful plane crash last winter) in the Joan Gamper Trophy match. This match, hosted annually at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, is a friendly and thus doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. However, it is traditionally one of if not the last friendly of Barça’s preseason, and usually pits the home team against one of the bigger clubs in world soccer. That is to say that the match is generally taken pretty seriously as a high-intensity warmup for the real battles that are soon to come.
This Gamper match was much the same. It featured Barcelona’s strongest starting lineup, and the majority of the starters played the majority of the game. The starting XI included most of the names you’ve come to expect. World Cup winners like Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta, Champions League final goalscorer and late-era Barça staple Ivan Rakitić, young and exciting upstarts Samuel Umtiti and Marc-André ter Stegen, two of the five best players on the entire planet in Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. There was no Neymar, of course, and the gut-punch that was the Brazilian’s shock exit from Barça to PSG is still being felt as the club frantically searches for replacements to fill that massive void.
There was someone in Neymar’s position of course, a player who hasn’t won any Champions League titles or World Cups or attained legendary status. Hell, he’s never even secured himself a starting spot for an entire season during his budding, equal parts promising and maddening career. And this player’s decision to give up the steady diet of minutes and trust and support he’d finally found at AC Milan in exchange for what to all appearances was set to be starvation-level servings of playing time at Barcelona looked even dumber a move for him than it did for Barcelona. Yet there Gerard Deulofeu stood yesterday, out on the left wing as a starter, sliding into the open forward spot on what had been arguably the greatest line of attackers ever assembled. Deulofeu made what we rightfully were concerned might end up a career-crippling decision to try his luck back at Barcelona, and as of right now it has worked out better than anyone could possibly imagined. What a lucky motherfucker.
The good news for Deulofeu, as his performance in the 45 minutes the manager afforded him bore out, is that he actually could thrive in a starting role in this team. Deulofeu directly contributed to three Barcelona goals in yesterday’s match, scoring one himself and assisting on two others. The post-Neymar Barcelona will have to be even more Messi-centric than before, and to get the best out of Messi, he needs a fast, perpetually moving winger on the other side of the pitch to open up the width and depth necessary for him to work his magic in. This is precisely what Deulofeu can and has provided.
Deulofeu is fast as hell, is a true winger who wants to stay out wide and make runs in behind the defense, and loves to cut inside and dribble at players once he does get the ball to free up space for either a shot or a quick interchange of passes with his fellow attackers. He’s not someone who needs the ball at his feet all the time so that he can make plays for others, which is good because Barça already have Messi for that kind of final-third creativity. Deulofeu has a specific game and at it’s best could be exactly what this new-look Barça needs.
Since there is no obvious replacement for the complete package of skill Neymar provided, Barcelona’s best bet for filling that spot in the team is probably targeting an athletic, tireless, goalscoring winger who is best at making quick decisions with limited time on the ball and can finish lots of the innumerable chances the Argentine wizard conjures every match—someone less like Philippe Coutinho and more like Pedro. And while Deulofeu has never consistently demonstrated the work ethic and selflessness of Pedro, nor the dead eye for goal, he does possess all the raw materials to at the very least do a competent Pedro impression. It’s been said a million times about this guy but if Deulofeu finally does put it all together, he could be scary in a team like this.
The potential bad news here from Deulofeu’s perspective is that Barcelona are desperate for a new, big-name replacement for Neymar. (As they should be, of course.) Their chief targets are the aforementioned Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. Coutinho has mostly played as a left winger in recent years, and while he is great and loads of fun, he’s also not really a good fit for Barcelona; his skills as a winger are sort of redundant in a team with Messi, and if, as is likely, the club plans to play him primarily as a central midfielder, his attack-mindedness isn’t quite right for the more patient kind of midfield presence the team actually does need. Dembélé is really young and still pretty unproven, but he should be considered the absolute ideal Neymar substitute. His combination of speed, goals, creative passing, and upside make him the perfect prospect to compliment Messi in the short term and possibly take over for him in the long run. Barça want both, but even if they only get one, either Dembélé or Coutinho would probably greatly eat into a huge chunk of those minutes Deulofeu stumbled into when Neymar left.
But maybe Deulofeu’s luck hasn’t run out just yet. Neither Liverpool nor Dortmund want to sell their respective stars, and unless Barcelona are willing to pay a grossly inflated fee to secure one or both of those transfers, there’s a great chance the Spanish giants fail in getting either one. From there it’s possible that Barcelona scramble back to a fallback option, but there’s also a chance they decide to save their powder and try again for a true star next summer.
Because of this, it’s not at all a stretch to imagine a world where Deulofeu starts the vast majority of Barcelona’s matches this year, nor is it impossible to see one where he flourishes and scores some 20 goals and lays on 10 assists and cements himself as a legitimate, high-end player for an elite team. Sure, this scenario isn’t exactly likely, seeing as Deulofeu’s penchant for partnering every moment of brilliance with two braindead plays means he could find himself permanently nailed to the bench by October, but it is perfectly possible that Deulofeu gets his opportunities and seizes them.
Against all odds, the stars have aligned for Deulofeu. The rest is up to him.