One of the perks of this job is actually going to watch matches.
Little can beat the thrill of covering a game, from navigating your way through the stadium’s entrance and through an ocean of aimlessly wandering people to the press box for an inevitable battle with the WiFi to undoubtedly the most exciting and terrifying aspect of this gig: filing a match report in time for the final whistle.
In the summer, I was dispatched from Football Whispers towers to the United States to cover the International Champions Cup.
Although the World Cup ensured the absence of several high-profile stars, following the likes of Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur and Roma during their exertions in California and Texas was a refreshing departure from the usual slog hunched over my laptop.
Thanks to my shiny media credentials, I went to training sessions, press conferences and lingered in the mixed zone after games, marvelling at these elite athletes as I elbowed my way into position for good, Instagrammable pictures and just generally tried not to get in anybody’s way (which proved much more difficult than I imagined).
Of course, when we’re not sticking a microphone or dictaphone in their faces, we often don’t exist to footballers. I was completely invisible to the players, most of whom went from the dressing room to the bus almost invariably like so: head down, wireless headphones on, engaging in as little eye contact as possible in case they got roped into post-match media commitments.
I did get a smile and a nod from AC Milan defender Ricardo Rodríguez and what I think was a smile from Spurs forward Fernando Llorente, although considering I was lost in his blue eyes at the time he may well have been telling me where to go.
Then there was Riqui Puig, the tiny Barcelona youngster around whom there seemed to be a lot of fuss. Having never appeared for Barça’s senior team, he was admittedly not a player on my radar. However, after he caught my eye during their ICC win over Spurs at the wonderful Rose Bowl in Pasadena, I earmarked him as one to keep a close eye on.
As he was an 18-year-old La Masia graduate, the interest from the Spanish media and Barcelona’s in-house media team was considerable. After Puig completed his post-match interviews, he was hurried by one of Barça’s coaching staff away from the glare of cameras.
As he shuffled passed me, he nodded and offered a beaming grin before disappearing onto the team bus.
That sealed it. After a decent performance and acknowledging my existence, he was my new favourite player.
Barça’s next game was against Roma at the breathtaking, spaceship-like AT&T Stadium in Texas, home to the Dallas Cowboys (and one of the biggest screens I’ve ever seen in my life).
The Serie A side ran out 4-2 winners and much of the attention was afforded to Malcom, who had shunned Roma to sign for Barça just a couple of weeks prior.
The Brazilian scored and generated most of the headlines but I instead chose to watch Puig, who replaced Arthur at half-time. The Giallorossi were admittedly far superior in the second half but I was still struck at the midfielder’s sharp movement, his close control, awareness of space and range of passing.
He seemed completely at ease and undeniably sure of himself.
The La Liga champions’ final ICC game also ended in defeat, 1-0 to AC Milan in Santa Clara, California. Puig again came on for the second period and exuded composure and intelligence on the ball, leading Gennaro Gattuso to offer the following assessment (via Marca) of his performance.
“It’s a spectacle to watch players like him play. He’s got a kid’s face, but he has football inside. It’s something I marvel at.”
Puig was not the star of the summer tournament but he was a player for whom Barça have lofty hopes. Watching him buzz around in the sizzling Californian heat, such hopes do not appear misplaced.
It still doesn’t guarantee stardom. Not everyone can have the seismic, landscape-altering impact of Andrés Iniesta or Lionel Messi, but you can’t begrudge the Catalan giants for taking extra care with this particular gem from their vaunted academy, considering the players who have in recent years left to further their careers elsewhere (Jordi Mboula to Monaco, Sergio Gómez to Borussia Dortmund and Eric García to Manchester City).
Enough about my experience, though: let’s talk Puig.
Of course, if UK viewers have already caught a glimpse of the midfielder, it’s likely to have been in the UEFA Youth League, which airs in the afternoon before BT Sport’s Champions League coverage, offering viewers a glance at the stars of the future.
Puig was virtually ever-present in midfield, pulling the strings and dictating the tempo with his rhythmic passing.
Standing just 5ft 5ins and blessed with an exceptionally low centre of gravity, he easily eludes challenges in midfield. Adept at reading how opponents approach him, he is able to subtly manoeuvre his way out of their path.
It’s a natural quality, one that can be honed but not necessarily taught from scratch. Like Messi and Iniesta, Puig just has it – and he knows when and how to use it.
In last season’s Youth League, he supplied plenty of thrust and dynamism on the left of López’s midfield three, averaging 3.71 take-ons per game and 8.1 passes into the final third.
Overall, he scored three goals and provided two assists but his goal in the 5-0 win over Olympiakos best demonstrated how his close control and quick change of direction can help him escape tight spaces.
Picking up the ball on the edge of the area, Puig draws in two challenges.
But he jinks and jives away from both of them in the blink of an eye, making space for a shooting opportunity.
He manages to squeeze his shot in between two defenders and through the eye of a needle to beat the ‘keeper.
Exciting times afoot
Puig’s performances for the under-19s earned him a regular spot this season with the Barcelona B side in Segunda División B, the third-tier of Spanish football.
Having impressed for Xavi García Pimienta’s side, though, Puig quickly broke into Ernesto Valverde’s first team with an appearance from the bench during the 4–1 victory over Cultural Leonesa in the second leg of the Copa del Rey round of 32.
Replacing Oriol Busquets in the 55th minute, the No.28 proceeded to create Denis Suárez’s second goal of the evening, driving towards the edge of the box before executing a deft, lofted pass into his team-mate’s path.
The move encapsulated Puig’s best attributes; receiving the initial pass from Suárez on the half-turn, he was immediately looking up and forward, tracking the forward’s run before timing his pass perfectly.
The gap between the two centre-backs is small but exploitable. It takes precision, timing and poise, all of which Barça’s little dynamo possesses in abundance.
Puig is all about building momentum in attacks, executing subtle but discernible increases in tempo that push Barça up the pitch.
Turning out for his boyhood club for the first time in a senior competitive game was a moment to cherish for the gifted teenager.
“I came to Camp Nou when I was three years old,” he said after the game. “I’ve been a Barça fans since I was little. Imagine how excited I was. My debut was a dream come true.”
Following his introduction to the first-team, Puig was also quick to remark that he remained focused on training with the Barça B side, offering an insight into how grounded he is despite the hullabaloo about his potential as a future leader at the club.
Posting on his Instagram page on New Year’s Day, Puig said: “The best is yet to come! Happy new year.” Seeing that he was involved in Barça’s first training session of 2019 after their winter break, it seems this year may prove monumental in Puig’s life, so don’t be surprised to see him popping up in headlines and on social media time and time again over the next 12 months.