Regret may well have been Quique Setien’s predominant emotion as he watched Barcelona turn in one of their strongest performances for a long time in their final league outing of the season, putting five goals past Alaves in a commanding victory. Primarily, the 61-year-old surely rues not turning to Riqui Puig earlier in the campaign.
Having been left in the B team under Ernesto Valverde, Setien’s appointment in January seemed to suggest Puig would become an important figure under the new boss. Indeed, one of his first actions as Barcelona manager was to call up the young midfielder to first team training in an irresistibly symbolic move.
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Of course, Ansu Fati had already burst on to the scene by this point. Along with Puig, the pair represent what Barcelona’s future could, and should, be. They are steeped in the values and principles of the Catalan club having come through the famed La Masia youth academy and so if Barca are looking for an identity having struggled for one this season, they will find it in these two players.
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Ansu and Puig’s display against Alaves offered a hint at what might have been for Barcelona had Setien only placed his faith in the pair a little earlier. In particular, Puig would have given the Catalans something they desperately lacked after the restart, providing his team with much-needed energy and creativity through the centre of the pitch.
That Barcelona needed someone like the 20-year-old in midfield was obvious to many in the weeks following the restart. Against Sevilla on June 19, for instance, Setien’s side lacked invention, labouring to a 0-0 draw that gave Real Madrid control of the title race. Barca were, quite simply, too predictable, with the ageing central trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal too easy to defend against.
Puig was introduced off the bench with just two minutes left to play at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. He was also left out of the starting line-up for the following game at home to Athletic Club, another match which saw Barcelona struggle through the midfield and into the attacking third. Even in the next game against Celta Vigo, which Puig started, Setien unsettled his side by withdrawing the youngster with enough time left for the opposition to score a late equaliser.
It became apparent too late to Setien that his side needed someone like Puig in the centre of the pitch, and that Puig is the only player currently at the Camp Nou in his mould. Real Madrid have the chance to finish the season seven points ahead of Barcelona, but this season’s title race was one of small margins. Puig could have swung at least one or two pivotal moments in Barca’s favour.
Ansu could have done the same. While Barcelona spent much of the season attempting to force Antoine Griezmann into a left-sided role he clearly doesn’t suit, the teenager grasped almost every opportunity he was handed, scoring seven times despite starting only 11 La Liga games this season. Barca could have used his directness and cutting edge in a number of matches.
Whoever is in charge at the Camp Nou for next season, whether it’s Setien, Patrick Kluivert (as the latest reports from Catalonia suggest) or someone else, must build around Ansu and Puig. They are the players who give Barcelona hope for the future. They are the players who can ensure for the Catalans this season wasn’t a total waste of time.
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