Messi comparisons and fears of another Bojan: Patience is needed with Gerard Deulofeu

By Dominic Vieira

It’s always a thrill to write about the next generation of footballers, especially Gerard Deulofeu, a player with paramount potential and expectation, the boy which the city of Barcelona endlessly and eagerly talks about. He’s another talent shooting through the illustrious ‘La Masia’ school and due to his game, the Messi comparisons only became natural. In most cases, it’s possible to pin-point the turning point in a youngster’s path, but with Deulofeu it’s a challenge as he’s been incredibly consistent. Whether it’s winning back-to-back U19 European Championships, debuting for the U21’s last week, or continuously shining with Barcelona B in the second division; Deulofeu has responded and exceeded the high pressure which surrounds him.

But Barcelona know they must take their time with him, which was not the case with Bojan as his development was fast-forwarded; he featured in the main team a year or two too early. On the same note, the club won’t want to overhype him as they did with Giovani dos Santos, and nobody wants Deulofeu to follow Gai Assulin’s footsteps, remember him, the Ronaldinho from Israel?

Probably not. Ever since I saw Gerard Deulofeu play almost 2 years ago in the Catalan capital, it was clear that he was an outstanding performer. What alarmed me the most about the skilled, blonde haired winger, was his age, he was the youngest player in the Juvenil A starting XI, the U19 team. These statistics always stand out, which is why I’ve followed the evolution of ‘el chico dorado’ ever since.

Two years later and Deulofeu continues to be the club’s hottest property and next crack, the city is excited to see another remarkable graduate break into the first team. But remain patient Barcelona, give the boy time and stop comparing him to Leo, por favor. 

Pressure is key and Deulofeu has been flying past it, which is evident through his confident performances where he’s a constant match winner. It’s obvious at first sight that he’s fuelled with flair and loves to dribble, producing numerous step overs and sharp turns. Although this is not always a strong indication, as Giovani dos Santos was exactly renown for that, but Deulofeu is a far more refined product. He plays with his head.

An exceptionally talented player rises rapidly through the ranks at Barcelona, but an exceptionally talented and intelligent player climbs the ladder even faster, like at any club really. And that was the case for the ‘golden boy’ who made his debut for the B team in the 2010-11 season, a few months after I saw his match at the club’s training facilities. The following year, aged 17 and still attending high school, Deulofeu was officially promoted to the B team where he became a key feature rápidamente. A milestone rarely achieved at such a young age, unless the player possesses outstanding potential, which certainly was the case in both the careers of Iniesta and Xavi.

It was Nolito’s exit to Benfica in 2011 which opened space in the team for Deulofeu who inherited the left side of the attacking trio, a position where he waltzes past defenders and creates plenty of scoring opportunities. It was a positive year for the 17 year old in Liga Adelante, Spain’s second divison, where he made 33 appearances and scored on 9 occasions. Having seen his youth form, perhaps more goals should’ve been expected, but this is a completely different game, both physically and mentally.

The second division has not changed Deulofeu’s game, nor has it blown out his flair or stagnated his growth. He’s rapidly matured, developed his vision and thus, became more skilled at holding onto the ball, which is something many hyped youngsters fail to master when playing at top level. This has always been an ideal environment for Barcelona youngsters to flourish in. The club naturally paid close attention to Deulofeu’s development, where Pep advised and allowed him to frequently train with the senior team and Messi in particular, who he’s often compared to and strongly admires:

"My mirror is Messi because he is above everyone and we’d all like to reach his level. But you better not compare me to him."

A year later, now aged 18 and wearing the number 7, Deulofeu started this season in brilliant form, scoring 4 goals from the opening 3 matches. His stand out apperance was his hat-trick against Almeria, a match they lost 5-4. His impressive form is a continuation from his performances displayed at the summer’s U19 European Championship, where Deulofeu was a highly instrumental element, assisting Jese with the only goal in the final against Greece. For the second consecutive year Deulofeu lifted this title and could still win his third next year in Lithuania.

Barcelona are leading Deulofeu in the right direction, but perhaps they made an unwise decision handing him his first team debut last year. On the 29th of October 2011, Deulofeu, still aged 17, replaced David Villa in the 63rd minute against Mallorca and became the 19th Cantera boy to feature under Guardiola. A similar mistake was made with Bojan and the club’s director of youth, Jordi Mestre acknowledges this:

"We have to bear in mind that Deulofeu only recently turned 18, and we must make sure the history of Bojan doesn’t repeat itself. Letting him (Deulofeu) make his debut at the age of 16 was perhaps a mistake. We have to take things slowly. The coaches realise that in Gerard’s case."

However and fortunately, Barcelona did slam the breaks, allowing the youngster to evolve by playing on a regular basis with the B team for another season, thus protecting him from the highly demanding Spanish media. He must keep his feet on the ground and this year will be another and even greater stepping stone in Deulofeu’s career. The focus must remain on performing consistently and oustandingly with the B team. All Barcelona players take this path. 

Deulofeu, like every youngster, simply wants to play and by the end of the season he’ll hope to complete his promotion to the main team, it’s expected; he’ll be prepared for La Liga. However it’s not a straight forward objective, as the competition is colossal, after all he’ll be challenging Villa, Pedro, Sanchez, Cuenca and Tello for a place to accompany Messi on the flanks. Although competition can be healthy for his development, it will be incredibly tough and Vilanova is aware of this:

"We can’t expect an immediate impact when he’s competing with some of the best players we’ve seen in Barca’s history."

As he still looks to break into the first team, Deulofeu is now part of the U21 Spanish side; interestingly, it was his team mate Marc Muniesa who broke the news to him. His former U19 manager, Julen Lopetegui, awarded Deulofeu his debut in a 0-0 draw against Switzerland. The following match, 4 days later, Spain destroyed Croatia 6-0 and this time the attacker made his mark, cutting in from the left to finish a sublime solo effort. 

A player of this ability never goes unnoticed, which is why there are several stories linking Deulofeu with a move away from the Camp Nou, including a rumoured transfer to Arsenal last season - which seems to be standard for an upcoming Barcelona player these days. However, the attacker expressed his desire to stay where he is, "I belong to Barça and don’t care about any other club."

Deulofeu has remained loyal to the club which he’s been a part of since the age of 9. Barcelona were always aware of his talent and managed to secure an agreement with Nike, making it difficult for Premier Leagues to capture him - this has never been done before. The American sports company lost Messi to adidas, which was obviously detrimental, and therefore they won’t want to make the same mistake. Later on, Deulofeu signed a professional contract with the club (his current deal expires in 2014 and is protected by an elevated €20m release clause). Over the next few months, Barcelona will be negotiating a new contract with him and all the values will rise.

The future looks promising for Deulofeu, many of his next steps depend on the club, which has been patient when introducing new players into the team, recently Cuenca and Montoya have both adapted comfortably and impressed when called upon. All he can do is wait and work for the promotion, but ‘el chico dorado’ will be arriving under a far greater hype than most, and at the end of the day, it’s up to him to respond to the pressure.

There’s the door to greatness, but let’s not forget that the door to failure is much bigger, where many wonderkids have (unexpectedly) fallen through, especially at this astronomical club. Deulofeu’s time will come, but it’s not yet and remember, as club legend and director Zubizaretta puts it: "We don’t want comparisons with Messi."

This article was written by AFR editor Dominic Vieira, follow him on twitter @dominicvieira. Comments below please.

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