Goddammit. You were so close to making it, Gerard, and then you had to go and do this.
The news today is that Barcelona have officially triggered the buy-back clause included in the transfer deal made back when the club sold their homegrown-prodigy-turned-red-headed-step-child Gerard Deulofeu to Everton a couple of years ago. €12 million (a relative bargain in this insane new transfer market) and a new contract later, Barça and Deulofeu have mutually decided that it is time for the prodigal son to return. And it looks like a terrible decision for both parties.
Our chief concern is for Deulofeu’s own development. We here at Deadspin love him. We love him when he’s great, we love him when he’s dumb, and we have faith that if given time and freedom and encouragement and TLC he could maximize his moments of greatness while minimizing his spells of dumbness and turn into a consistently very good player. But going back to Barça right now couldn’t be a worse for the chances of that actually happening.
Deulofeu is a soloist. What he most likes to do—and what, at his best, he can be truly great at—is to play for himself, to pick up the ball, fling himself down the pitch with reckless abandon, take on any and all would-be defenders with the confidence of a man who thinks he could dribble through a brick wall, and either crack a wild (but sometimes unstoppable) shot or mash in an aimless (but sometimes spot-on) cross or lift an overly difficult (but sometimes inch-perfect) through pass over the heads of the defenders and onto the run of a teammate or, most often, lose the ball harmlessly because he tried to do to much.
Deulofeu plays like he believes games are won or lost solely based on what he alone does with the ball when he has it; more circumspect players think of their individual performances in terms of how they help the team as a whole achieve its goals. This trait of Deulofeu’s isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Almost every good team has at least one player with a single-minded focus on doing the things that directly lead to goals and wins. The problem is that this kind of player has to play in the right setup or else it won’t work at all.
In order to both fully express their talents and to improve, soloists need to play in a band without a front man, one where the soloist will be granted free rein to indulge their whims and to make mistakes and to lead the tempo and direction of the band’s sound. Deulofeu’s problem—well, one of them—is that he has had a hard time finding a group that will let him do all this.
It didn’t work out for him at Barcelona his first go-round there. It mostly worked at Roberto Martínez’s Everton, but later didn’t work at Sevilla or when he returned to Everton and Ronald Koeman’s took over as manager. And it doesn’t look like it will work at Barcelona this time. What makes this move back to Barça most odd is that the Catalan winger did appear to finally find the right band for him during the second half of last season while on loan at AC Milan. Instead of trying to stick around there or maybe finding a new, similarly accommodating home elsewhere, for some reason he chose to take a seat in the back of the orchestra at Barcelona.
Barcelona already have three of the best front men in the world, probably the best collection of soloists in the history of the sport. And those three rarely take nights off. At any given time on the pitch (during the rare moments he does get onto the field), Deulofeu will be at best maybe the fifth-best option to lead his team. A rotation forward at Barça needs to be content with spending the vast majority of the season on the bench, happy with playing in a disciplined, safe manner that defers at all times to the superior talent and decision making of whichever members of the Big Three are out there with him, and must only under the rarest circumstances engage in the kind of heedless runs and passes and shots that typify Deulofeu’s game. In short, Barcelona is not where Deulofeu should want to be if he wants to play they way Deulofeu normally plays.
These facts must have sat somewhere prominently in his mind (his return couldn’t have happened unless he signed off on it by agreeing to a new contract with Barça, and for most of the summer the news out of his camp was that he didn’t want to come back to his boyhood club precisely because he knew he probably wouldn’t get the playing time he needs), but were apparently overwhelmed by his desire to give it one more go at the club he always dreamed of starring for. It’s unfortunate, but it’s understandable, too. It’s hard not to come running home when it’s Barcelona calling you back. What’s even more unfortunate are the ulterior motives that most likely animated Barça to make that impossibly seductive call to Deulofeu.
For all the same reasons why Barcelona aren’t the best club for Deulofeu, Deulofeu isn’t the best player for Barcelona. The team probably could use a solid rotation forward who can play both on wings (as Deulofeu can) to give Messi and Neymar a breather here and there, as well as some speed and dribbling quality off the bench to help hack through stubborn defenses late in games. But their ideal rotation forward should look more like another homegrown castaway of theirs, Pedro—a player who always is exactly where he needs to be and will do anything to serve the more talented players around him—than the brainless individualist Deulofeu.
There’s a chance Deulofeu could play alongside Messi and Neymar and Suárez if new manager Ernesto Valverde experiments with a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it’s hard to see a formation with that many pure attackers working against all but the easiest matches on Barcelona’s schedule. More likely is that Deulofeu will only get a handful of starts in the meaningful competitions, spending most of the season cemented to the bench, occasionally getting chiseled off it for a few minutes in garbage time, alienated and unengaged and unhappy, just like he has been far too often when stuck on teams that don’t give him the chance to play his natural game.
Why would Barcelona make the transfer, then? For one, €12 million for a player of his talent and potential is a legitimately great deal financially. It also could maybe possibly work out and Deulofeu learns to adjust his game and play both within himself and the team dynamic to the perfect degree, becoming a valuable, valued, somewhat regular participant.
In reality, though, I suspect the club’s motivations are more cynical. I’d bet that Barcelona’s leadership don’t really have much faith that Deulofeu will come good for the team. Instead, they probably see this deal as a cheap, low-risk, high-reward punt, one that has an outside shot of working well and giving the squad some much-needed youth and depth, but will more likely wind up a quiet, mediocre campaign for the winger whom they will then sell for a decent profit next season. As well as the buy-back clause, the transfer agreement between Barcelona and Everton included language that prevented Barça from buying Deulofeu back and immediately selling him in the same window unless they gave Everton some large percentage of the transfer fee. After next season, though, any profit from a Deulofeu sale will be all Barça’s.
On top of the economic interests, there’s also Deulofeu’s status as a homegrown player. Barcelona fans have become agitated of late for the club’s perceived lack of support of its famed academy. Barça have been hemorrhaging some of their most promising young players over the past couple years, in large part because the players do not see as clear a path from the academy to the first team as had previously been the case. Rather than doing the hard work of recommitting the club to developing and actually utilizing its homegrown talent, Barça’s dumb and bad board probably thinks it would be easier to placate fans hungry for a player from La Masia to make it to the senior team by bringing back an established La Masia grad from elsewhere. This warped logic is also part of what’s behind the team’s push to sign right back Héctor Bellerín from Arsenal.
Combine all of these factors and you get the explanation for why a team and a club that both probably know they aren’t right for each other would decide to reunite anyway. And while both parties go into this knowing it isn’t likely that the reunion will have a fairytale ending, it’s Deulofeu who bears much more of the risk, seeing as he can’t afford another stagnant year in a career that already has spent too long with its wheels spinning in the muck.
If Deulofeu never becomes the really good player he obviously can be, then the upcoming year, which looks almost certain to be a disappointing one, could prove to be the turning point. Right after finding a band that was just right for him, the soloist left town to join a better group that didn’t really want him and that he never really fit with. The saddest part is that if Deulofeu really does fail to reach his potential, he will have to live with the knowledge that he saw the potential for his downfall before it came, and he could have prevented it.