Sergi Samper: Barca's new Guardiola?
It is the fabled academy that brought through the likes of Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. Given time with Lionel Messi from the age of 14, Barcelona's La Masia can also be credited with helping one of the greatest footballers of all time develop. Throughout the season we will take a regular look at some of the next graduates who could make it big.
The first time I saw Sergi Samper play it was a freezing September night at Celtic Park, the kind of autumn weather not common in the Catalan territories anywhere south of the Pyrenees. Barcelona's under-19s were taking on Celtic in the now defunct Nextgen Series, a youth version of the Champions League that worked so well the concept was subsequently lifted by UEFA.
There were a few notable players on show from both sides: Barça's Cameroonian forward Jean Marie Dongou was already bullying opponents; while for the Glaswegians, young striker Tony Watt also showed his class by finding the back of the net. (Coincidentally, a year later he would repeat that feat at the same stadium against Barcelona's seniors.)
But one shone brightest of all: Barcelona's gangly 16-year-old midfielder, Sergi Samper, comfortably kept possession ticking over against players significantly older than him. Confident on the ball and sharp in the mind, Samper's skills were evident.
Being blown away by a young footballer the first time you see him doesn't really mean anything anyway: I'm pretty sure that happened for many when they watched Bojan Krkic score any of his innumerable goals in Barcelona's academy and the new Stoke striker has not made full use of his potential after years out on loan. But, watching Samper again a year later, I was much more confident about his outstanding talent.
It was in the same competition, at yet another ground fit for a senior Champions League clash: Tottenham's White Hart Lane. This time around the Catalan was far more authoritative while playing in a hugely demanding position, that of the midfield pivot -- the glue that holds Barcelona's system together. Only 12 months had passed, but he had improved quite notably. Half a second sharper in his timing and more confident while under pressure, he always seemed to know exactly what he was going to do before receiving possession and subsequently delivered with perfect technique. Those traits are essential in the position, and have been made into an art form by club teammate Sergio Busquets.
Samper is no Busquets, however: he is a very different kind of Barcelona pivot, one much more comparable in terms of his range of passing to the way Pep Guardiola played the role. With a capacity to place a cross-field ball on a sixpence that would make Andrea Pirlo proud, Samper also has the energy required to meet the physical challenges faced by contemporary midfielders. In essence, he is a modern version of Barcelona's No. 4, combining Guardiola's playmaking qualities with the ability to carry out defensive work at a high tempo shown by Busquets.
Having watched Samper countless times in the years since, observing how he has made the step up to second-division professional football, he has steadily overcome each new challenge along the way. Not every hurdle has been cleared at the first time of asking -- settling into Barca B took awhile -- but he has the desire to get back up and try again until he makes the leap, absorbing more valuable lessons each time. Now, the youngster is demonstrating that he is the future of Barcelona's deepest midfield role; the natural evolution of that position, in its formative stage.
The 19-year-old Samper was on show earlier this summer, though if you blinked, you probably missed it. The midfielder was given the chance to play in Luis Enrique's first game as senior Barcelona manager, participating in the second half of a 1-0 win over Recreativo on July 21. While unsurprisingly lacking in match sharpness, Samper still played an important part in the winning goal, though it wasn't necessarily the kind of part most football followers tend to pay attention to.
It wasn't a pass, or even an interception, that stood out, but what he did without the ball. In the 63rd minute, after showing to receive possession from Marc Bartra in his usual position but ultimately not being obliged by the defender, Samper had the presence of mind to take a quick glance over his shoulder, spotting Ibrahim Afellay dropping back from a more advanced role to pick up Bartra's pass. The Catalan midfielder knew what was coming, and ran diagonally away from his original position to draw the attention of one of the Recreativo players who should have been protecting the area Afellay wanted to carry the ball into. As a result of Samper's movement, the Dutchman had space to drive forward and look for a teammate, finding Gerard Deulofeu, whose spilled shot was subsequently driven home by Joan Roman.
It's no coincidence that coaches at Barca refer to the club's brand of football as "positional play": understanding what is required not only when you are the player in possession, but also when your teammate has the ball is vital. Samper displayed that understanding perfectly in this instance, despite not yet having trained regularly with most of his teammates from that game.
Unsurprisingly, the people behind the scenes at Barcelona have been impressed too. Luis Enrique's mentality is that if you train hard enough and play well enough, you're both old enough and good enough for first-team duty, so Samper has a huge opportunity to alternate Barca B with the seniors this season. The Asturian coach has explicitly demanded a short 22-man first-team squad with all additional reinforcements to come from the academy and, as such, there is an obvious opening for the young midfielder to capitalise on.
With the presence of players like Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi to learn from, Samper can only improve. Faced with another hurdle to be cleared, it would be something of a surprise if he hasn't done so come the end of the season.