With every setback in the current title race, Barça fans breathe heavy. Even when Barça have been in front, the league has always felt like it’s Real Madrid’s to lose. As if we were somehow playing catch-up. Barça, due to a neverending set of circumstances, speculative and otherwise, have been left playing second fiddle. It was a similar story in the back-to-back draws against Celta Vigo and Atlético Madrid. Both games eventually ended in despair for culés, who find themselves falling behind a rampant Madrid side.
There has been a silver lining, though. A certain Riqui Puig has played both games in their entirety, and has looked on song. The much touted La Masía youngster has finally made his way to the Barça first eleven, and has looked ready to plug certain tactical holes, that have plagued the Blaugrana midfield.
Starting alongside battled veterans in Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets, Riqui has held his own and has impressed, exhibiting many of the qualities that made him an “exciting” prospect in the first place. Deployed in a hybrid 4-3-3/ 4-4-2 in both games, Quique Setién has looked to make Puig a presence both between the lines and in wider spaces. Of late, Barça’s midfield has either occupied space behind the play or far ahead of it. Vidal, Rakitić and Busquets have rarely offered passing options between the lines, at least for significant periods of time. Puig, on the other hand, has done so effortlessly. This has, in many ways, enhanced Barça’s passing options and has made wide progression easier. With Puig dropping in space, he has been able to ping passes to both wings, where Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba look to stretch the pitch. In the game against Atlético, in particular, Puig was constantly moving into pockets on the left and was then switching the play to Semedo on the right. This was somewhat of a counter to the centrality of the 4-4-2 that Setién had deployed; this became especially apparent in the second half, when Lionel Messi began to hug the touchline.
Moreover, Puig has looked to offer a certain attacking energy that the others do not. Vidal, for all his attacking prowess, cannot attack space with the same ferocity that Puig can. Against Celta, Riqui was almost always in the right space at the right time, picking up passes and moving the ball to safer areas. This space occupation allowed Barça to more easily build in the 3-2-5, against Atlético too. With Riqui occupying channels in and around the left, Rakitić could drop onto the left of the defensive line and offer himself up as an additional progression conduit.
In defense too, Puig has looked lively. Setién has often positioned Puig on the left of that out of possession 4-4-2 and has used him as a numerical advantage, especially while counterpressing. With Puig’s frantic energy, Barça can afford to crowd out players without necessarily leaving space open. In his appearances, Puig has averaged 24.3 pressures and 4.64 regains. This is far more than Rakitić and Arthur offer. In essence, it’s like having another man on-field. Especially alongside a more clunky gutbuster in Arturo Vidal.
Even with this small sample size, there is much to be excited about. Barça-oriented analysts continue to drone on about the midfield’s passiveness, and its lack of verticality. This is definitely not unfounded. With Frenkie de Jong, Busquets, Rakitić and (formerly) Arthur, Barça have managed to overload themselves with a similar deep-lying profile. Players that are excellent at middle-third progression but lack any sort of awareness in attacking areas. With Riqui, that could change. The 21-year-old is equally adept at occupying space out wide as he is in the left half-space, much like a *gasp* certain Andrés Iniesta. Eerily enough, Puig also happens to move and turn in a similar style to his predecessor. Of course, any comparison with Iniesta is practically heresy, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. To dream that we may yet see a semblance of our old number 8.
With Arthur’s departure and the two draws, the mood in the Culésphere has been bleak. The addition of Puig is a moment of respite. Ever since the emergence of Pep Guardiola and the enigmatic 08/09 side, Barça have thought of themselves as a club that prides itself on youth and its emergence into the first team. It’s fair to say that the Masía-first team tie has been severed over the past few years. Ansu and Riqui may well be the ones to push against the emerging Galáctico tides.