Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig are two players that have been fawned upon in Barça circles for ages. Both are good to watch, versatile and are adept ball-carriers. Aleñá, the more senior of the two, has been shipped off to Betis this season, in a search for more minutes. After starting for Barça in the season opener, the 22 year-old was subsequently cast aside and never saw substantial minutes again. Much the same can be said of Puig, who was expected to break into the team this season. After making a mark in pre-season, it was thought that Puig would be a regular fixture in and around the first team, but that has not happened; Puig only has 22 La Liga minutes under his belt thus far.
Yet, it is hard to understand why. Barça have constantly lacked a dynamic player through midfield, one who can operate between the lines. With Messi and Griezmann working as ‘faux’ strikers, an advanced interior could easily exploit the spaces behind the defensive line. Either one of Puig or Aleñá could have been that player. At their time at Barça B, the two have played across the front line, with Aleñá having played an entire season at false nine (i.e 2015/16). Considering the ‘injury crisis’ that has unfolded at the club this season, it may well have been the best time to usher in the two Masía boys into the first team set-up. Yet, that never looked likely. Perhaps, the status quo is too comfortable for the coaching staff and the players. This is worrisome in two ways. Firstly, of course, it means that the club is left with an ageing squad. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, those senior players don’t feel threatened in their position and may, therefore, see no reason to push themselves and produce better performances. The status quo is too comfortable.
Comfortable, yes, but dead wrong. It is clear that Barça need a different profile in midfield, apart from the ball-progressors. In light of the COVID-19 situation, however, transfer spending may be curtailed. If Barça are not planning to buy a more advanced midfielder, then there is no excuse for further excluding either one of the La Masía prospects. In his time with Barça B, Puig has (time and again, mind you) displayed an attacking maturity that both Frenkie de Jong and Arthur lack. Yes, it is at a lower level, but instincts do not change with a change in difficulty of competition. Below is a comparison of Riqui with Frenkie and Arthur (at more attacking metrics). Yes, it’s an unfair comparison, on a like to like basis, but that’s not the point. It’s obvious that, as players, the latter two are vastly superior. The point of the graphic is to show their varying skillsets, and how Puig could, in theory, bring something different to the midfield.
Aleñá’s case has been quite interesting. In the few appearances that he made in a Barçelona shirt this season, he has looked sharp on the ball and has often dictated the show. In a standout display against Inter, Aleñá displayed the exact qualities of a Setién high-interior. In that 2–1 win, he completed 79 passes, with 16 accurate passes into the final third, two into the box, and three dribbles. This was coupled with two interceptions and five duels won. That performance was an example of the fact that Aleñá’s biggest strength is his versatility. Yes, he is most comfortable in higher areas of the pitch, but he can operate anywhere. At Betis, he has become Rubi’s handyman, and has been deployed everywhere.
Yes, he has not set the world alight, but Aleñá has continued to show an ability to make correct decisions under pressure; he possesses an extremely mature game-IQ. If given a prolonged run in the side, alongside two deeper midfielders, Aleñá could definitely prove important to the squad, even if it isn’t as an undisputed starter.
There is no doubt that fans tend to overrate their own youth prospects. That is inevitable. The case for Aleñá and Puig does not necessarily rest on their quality (or potential) as players. It has to do with their profile, and how that may help bridge certain gaps within the team, especially when Bartomeu and company may find themselves strapped for cash. Moreover, the window of time is shortening. Aleñá is 22 and Riqui is 20. Not exactly teenage prodigies anymore. The time to blood them in is now, if it hasn’t passed already. If that does not happen next season then it may mark the end of their careers at the club. It may also mean unfulfilled potential, and lost opportunities. The time to act is now.
Whether the two of them decide to bide their time anymore or not remains to be seen. Patience, after all, is in short supply these days.