Braithwaite's move to Barcelona is an odd one but the striker's ready to offer what the champions lack
"I like a tap-in," Martin Braithwaite said, and then he started laughing.
It was October, cold and misty outside at Leganes' training ground, where huge letters painted across the wall facing the pitch demand "train, compete, fight but above all, enjoy and dream." The Danish striker had been asked what kind of chances he likes best. Well, that was obvious, it was suggested: two yards out, no-one in the way, an open net. "That's an easy goal," Braithwaite said, laughing again.
He didn't get many of those at Leganes -- only three clubs have had fewer touches in the area -- but he might get a few more now. If, that is, he gets the chance to play.
On Thursday, Braithwaite became FC Barcelona's 24th signing in five years, an emergency solution to the injury suffered by Ousmane Dembele (and Luis Suarez before him). He cost €18m from Leganes -- left without their strikers and without much hope either -- and signed a four-and-a-half-year deal which few expect him to see out, probably not even him. In the morning, the money for his buyout clause was deposited at the league; in the afternoon he was presented at the Camp Nou.
Not that much was made of it. Sure, there were the kick-ups, smiles, a new shirt (no.19), and a medical, marked by the obligatory picture: shirt off, suckers on, thumbs up. There was a trip to the opening of a new club shop, too. But there were no cheering fans and not much attention on his football. When it came to the press conference, in the midst of an institutional crisis at the club, most of the questions were not for him. "Everything but Braithwaite," noted AS. "Anonymous," they called him, "practically see-through" or, as Marca put it, "eclipsed."
Barcelona's new signing only fielded two questions. "I hope to score a lot of goals," he said. That night, Abel Ruiz and Carles Perez, the men Barcelona had moved out during the winter window, actually did, for SC Braga and AS Roma respectively in the Europa League. And yet what little Braithwaite said also helped to explain part of the reason he is there, why he took this on and why they turned to him. Why it might work, too.
"It was a surprise, but at the same time not so much because I have always had the ambition to play at this level," he said. Whether that is his level -- and many doubt it is -- only time will tell.
But he doesn't even have that much time: unable to play in the Champions League, Braithwaite has just 14 games until the end of the season and possibly the end of his Barcelona career. Though he signed a four-and-a-half year contract, this is seen as a short-term fix that will probably end in the summer, when he could find himself stuck. "He's here for what's left of the league," Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu said, not exactly offering up a ringing endorsement. If he doesn't play much, it could have an impact on Euro 2020, too.
Braithwaite knows that. He is not stupid -- quite the opposite, which is precisely the point -- and on one level the answer to the question of why join Barcelona is simple: because it's Barcelona. Who wouldn't? It's often said that the train only passes once. A lot of the time, it's not true; this time, it is. Catch it while you can and see if you can stay on board. You'll always be able to say you played there. Or, and this is the risk, didn't. But then, what if? What if it works? And even if it doesn't, what's the worst that can happen? Barcelona never looks bad on anyone's list of accomplishments.
As for the club -- and leaving aside the debate about the rules and the ethics of this, plus the damage done to Leganes who, incidentally, said they didn't blame Barca and described Braithwaite as a "gentleman" -- they argue that there are reasons too. The Dane cost almost three times what Angel would have done: Getafe had agreed a deal for €6m, plus €2m in variables. But he is younger (28 against 32), he will play at the Euros, on display, and they believe that he will have a sell-on value, opening up a way to recuperate some of the money invested, which they haven't really got to waste. That they would really make back a significant chunk of the outlay is questionable, though.
But, believe it or not, there is football too. And while Braithwaite has played for Bordeaux, Toulouse, Middlesbrough and Leganes, a long way from the orbit in which Barcelona's targets are found, while he has not been an obvious candidate for far better clubs than that, his arrival does address some of their needs -- given the context and the market in which they had to operate. He has scored eight goals this season, six in the league. It may not be mountains, but at a team like Leganes, it is something. It is only two fewer goals than Antoine Griezmann, for example. It is also a third of all those Leganes scored; between them, the remaining players have eight league goals. This isn't a place of endless opportunity.
It's not all about what Braithwaite might lack; the Dane also brings some things that Barcelona do not have. "He fits our needs," Barcelona manager Quique Setien said, and those needs go beyond goals. They lack a forward who is a reference point but can also play from wide; the coaching staff see Braithwaite as a player who can help press, is aggressive, quick, good technically and finishes well. Someone who is strong in the air -- defensively, that helps too -- and can compliment what they have. He's able to combine but also go beyond the defence, making those breaking runs that stretch defences.
This isn't just about them watching him, either; he's been watching them. And this is the element that might make Braithwaite most useful, most likely to apply the qualities he has. It's probably what makes him most interesting too, something that will particularly please Setien: above all, he is bright, a player who wants to learn with a coach who likes to teach.
"I am a strong player, fast, physical..." Braithwaite said on Thursday at his unveiling. But it was what came next that that mattered more: "... my main characteristic is that I like to study the play." He added: "Barcelona play the best football in the world: I have spent the last two days studying the way they play and I will keep doing it."
He meant it, too. And not just because of where he is. His is an ambitious mind but also an analytical one -- adaptable, too. When he was playing at Bordeaux, Braithwaite went to the manager's office to ask Gus Poyet for help. He was making the right runs, he said, or so he thought, but the balls weren't reaching him and he wasn't able to contribute. Somehow, it just wasn't working. The midfielders, Poyet recognised, were not the kind to release quickly; the timing was not as well coordinated as it should be. Together, they sat and watched videos, planned the runs, re-designed them. Just as important, Poyet told him, was to build the personal relationship with the passers too, so he did that too.
He scored the next game.
Which goes back to that October day in Leganes, when Braithwaite was talking to The Spanish Football Podcast, explaining how the move had come about and why it was that within a fortnight he had scored against Madrid and Barcelona -- the level of team, he said, that "I try to measure myself against; I really want to be playing for one of those teams one day." It was, he said, "crazy, but it's not coincidence."
"I signed in January but [Leganes] had already showed interest in July," he explained. "I didn't know a lot about them and I kept an eye on them in the first six months in Middlesbrough. [When] they approached me again, I really started to study the team, looked at how they played and started to see how I would fit into the team and I thought I could have an impact on the way they play."
He did. Immediately.
"I see myself as an intelligent person. I try to be," he continued. "I try to look at my own game and see what I can improve, but it was really looking at the team: what kind of chances do they create? The people who are supposed to feed the strikers: what kind of passes are they giving? What kind of crosses are coming in? I tried to get down to the small details and think: how can I exploit the box? Where can I see the possibilities to get scoring chances? I looked at [Guido] Carrillo and [Youssef] En-Nesyri. Carrillo wins a lot of duels in the box and the ball falls down around him. [There are] a lot of chances you can get by staying near him."
That's why asking what kind of chances he likes was not such a silly question. It was one he had asked himself; it's one he is asking himself now, because the chances he likes are the chances that will come at Barcelona. The issue is recognising them, being ready for them, helping to make them happen.
"It can be a cross: we play a lot of crosses, we're a physical team," he said then, about Leganes. "I try to study the people who cross the ball, what kind of cross. Rather than them adapt to me, I try to adapt to their crosses. When you play like a team like Leganes, you have to be intelligent because we're not a team that plays the best possession football and creates a lot of chances in an open game, so you need to have a vision of where the ball is going to go down..."
Barcelona is different, he knows. And that, of course, may be no bad thing. "We have concepts that we have to explain and [Braithwaite] has to understand," Setien said. "We really do have a lot of faith in him: we've followed him for a while. He has qualities that will help us a lot. We know that he is not only a good footballer, but his head works very well. He can help us; he can give us a lot."
Speed, strength, intelligence, and the occasional tap-in, too.