It didn’t take long for Quique Setien, sitting in front of the press as Barcelona manager for the first time, to be asked about Riqui Puig. The sight of the young midfielder standing alongside the new boss during his first training session was widely circulated and gave fresh hope to clues that things were finally about to change at the Camp Nou.
That fresh hope didn’t last long, with Setien quickly suffering many of the same problems that had finished off Ernesto Valverde before him, but the emergence of Puig has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Catalans. Along with Ansu Fati, he is widely seen as the vanguard of Barça’s next generation.
Setien made clear after his appointment that Puig would be lifted into the senior squad from the B team. Billed as the next Andres Iniesta, the 20-year-old was expected to be introduced slowly into the Barcelona side from the start of the season, only for Valverde to stick with tried and tested options like Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal.
This apparent unwillingness to bring through young talent was just one of the reasons Valverde became something of a target for the Barcelona support and so in Setien they saw someone who would harness the likes of Ansu and Puig. That has been proven to a certain extent in the time since, although the transition has been a little slower than many envisaged.
Nonetheless, Puig now stands as a vision of the club Barcelona must strive to become again. Not only is he homegrown and a graduate of the famed La Masia youth academy, meaning he is steeped in the club’s principles and traditions, he is energetic, dynamic and fearless.
He is a Barcelona sort of player.
That much has been apparent in Barcelona’s recent games. The team Setien inherited from Valverde is an aging one. Barça’s spine can be found in Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and only one of those five players is under the age of 30 (Ter Stegen, 28 years old).
Puig gave Barcelona life at a time when their title hopes were on life support. Setien’s side struggled with the demands of playing twice and at times three times in one week, such was the compact nature of the schedule following the coronavirus shutdown, but Puig provided some much-needed energy and vitality.
The drop in Barca’s performance after Puig was withdrawn near the hour mark against Real Valladolid was notable, with the Catalans toiling for the final half hour without the young midfielder on the pitch. Setien's side were terribly predictable, with Valladolid content to simply sit deep and absorb Barcelona’s possession.
Barca’s midfield can be guilty of playing it too safe. This is why Setien, and Valverde before him, tends to hand a starting place to a ‘wild card,’ someone who brings something a little different. Arturo Vidal has thrived in this role since making the move to the Camp Nou two years ago—the Chilean has scored seven times in La Liga this season.
With Puig in this position, though, Barcelona are able to keep their identity and personality as a team while adding an element of creativity and invention. “The truth is that he is a boy who breathes talent,” Xavi Hernandez explained in a recent interview. “He has self-confidence, personality, does not hide and asks for the ball.”
It’s understandable that Barcelona cherishes its past given what they have achieved in the game, but recent times has seen the likes of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola lionised to the extreme. It’s irrefutable that these two men instilled values and principles at the Camp Nou that guide the Catalan club to this day, but it’s important that while respecting their traditions Barça also move with the times.
Puig represents what Barcelona should aim to for. His soccer education as a La Masia graduate is clear in the way he plays with the ball at his feet, but he is no ‘Tiki-Taka’ merchant. The 20-year-old is a product of the modern game and the way European soccer is at this moment in 2020.
This summer presents Barcelona with a crossroads. Boardroom politicking threatens to tear the club apart from the inside. The club's transfer strategy appears to have neither rhyme nor reason. And worst of all, Messi is re-considering his future at the Camp Nou due his very public differences with executive figures—mere months after affirming his desire to retire with the club.
But in Puig, there is a signpost pointing Barca in the right direction. Now they must follow it.