Fans sometimes assume that a footballer's development is more or less linear. That a player who is good when he is young will necessarily improve at a more or less regular rate until he's about 30, then decline more or less regularly. This isn't the case at all, and it's impossible to predict. You have players like Michael Owen who become world-class before 25 but regress just as quickly. Some, like Diego Costa, live in relative obscurity, rocket to stardom, and fall back a bit. Most are up and down and all over the place.
Which brings us to the case of Sergi Roberto.
Roberto at the end of last season was considered a decent squad player at best. But he's flourished under Luis Enrique, skyrocketing in performance level and confidence. In the Clasico, Roberto assisted the opening goal, and it was no fluke. Yet, if I had told you a year ago that Roberto would be making Luka Modric look like an amateur you would have assumed I was on some hard drugs. Yet here we are.
There's a temptation to think this just came right out of nowhere, but that isn't really true. I'm going to bring you back to the past and show you his evolution. I will show you a few columns I've written and a few tweets and comments I, along with others, have made. Hopefully it illustrates how people felt about the man through the years.
November 2010: Sergi Roberto makes his debut for Barcelona.
April 2011: Roberto makes his first Clasico and Champions League appearance, playing the last 2 minutes of a 2-0 win over Real Madrid.
2011-12 Season: Under Pep Guardiola, Roberto finishes with 4 games, 2 goals.
January 2013: Asked to name the best prospects for the future, I discuss Gerard Deulofeu and Jean-Marie Dongou, at the time considered the best. But I also name a third: "Sergi Roberto is sometimes overlooked because he's not quite as spectacular but he's a tidy, smart midfielder in the Guardiola tradition." What's amusing to me is at the time I thought to myself that Roberto would become a very good player one day, but not at Barcelona because Thiago would surely block his way. Ah... yeah... about that...
2012-13 Season: Under Tito Vilanova, Roberto finishes with 5 games, 0 goals
July 2013: As Thiago leaves for Bayern Munich, I write that the plan is for Roberto to pick up a lot of the slack. Not just that but maybe one day replace Xavi. While I praise him as "a prototypical La Masia grad" among lots of other compliments, I call the proposition a "tall order." I end by saying he may surprise people.
2013-14 Season: Under Tata Martino, Roberto finishes with 27 appearances, 0 goals.
August 2014: In my season grades column, I give Roberto a C+. I call the expectation that he would immediately supplant Thiago "unfair," though refer to him as "pretty unspectacular." I predict that the next season might be pivotal and he could become a good squad player.
September 17, 2014: Roberto was being criticized harshly. In my opinion, a lot of it was very unfair:
Fans are pretty fickle, Sergi Roberto was praised to high heavens just a year ago and now he's "irredeemably bad" according to some— Luis Mazariegos (@luism8989) September 17, 2014
September 26, 2014: As FC Barcelona announce Roberto's renewal, the response is overwhelmingly negative. Not just one or two, but basically every reply shows no confidence in him. Some call him a cone, others say he's a "bottom-of-the table player," or just simply say...
@FCBarcelona_es NOOOOOOOOOOO— Barça (@RubenCg08) September 26, 2014
October 2014: I note that the hype train for Roberto, once so vibrant, is all but dead.
Remember when there was hype about Sergi Roberto? #FCBlive— Luis Mazariegos (@luism8989) October 18, 2014
April 2015: Sergi Roberto starts to settle into Luis Enrique's rotation, under the radar. But I start to notice him more and more. He comes in as a substitute against Paris Saint-Germain. It was notable how confident he looked against top opposition. Of course, this was in a cleanup role with Barcelona coasting on a big lead, but it seems almost prophetic now.
Roberto balling. Rafinha watch out— BarcaBlaugranes (@BlaugranesBarca) April 21, 2015
2014-15 Season: Under Luis Enrique, Roberto finishes with 18 games and 2 goals.
July 9, 2015: The season grades are in again, and I give Roberto a B. I note that he has "pleasantly surprised" as expectations, which were too high previously, were lowered. Luis Enrique protects Roberto by not playing him often, instead focusing on the midfielder doing better while playing fewer games. I figure he never will be a star but that he is a fine squad player.
July 30, 2015: Roberto has started to play at right-back, something that Luis Enrique had apparently been working on for a while. He looked up for it in preseason, and I say "Barcelona must retain Roberto" after teams such as Stoke, Everton and Bayer Leverkusen came calling.
@barcastuff Barcelona must retain Roberto, even more so with Douglas's injury.— Luis Mazariegos (@luism8989) July 30, 2015
October 2015: Roberto continues to grow, first impressing as a fullback, then scoring a vital equalizer against Bayer Leverkusen, and then pulling off two outrageous assists as Barcelona beat Getafe 2-0.
Not sure if Sergi Roberto or Xavi...— BarcaBlaugranes (@BlaugranesBarca) October 31, 2015
November 2015: Roberto starts his first Clasico and records his first assist in the fixture. Roberto gives a widely praised performance as Barcelona win 4-0.
Today Sergi doesn't look the least bit out of place in this picture pic.twitter.com/hUeSBfOG1T— Luis Mazariegos (@luism8989) November 22, 2015