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Who Is This Highly Sought-after Barcelona Starlet And Is Arsene Wenger Behind Him?

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Literally, the Spanish word Quinta means country house. That´s the main meaning although it is often used in other contexts. For example, Quinta is referred to a cohort of companions who are called-up to the military service the same year while it can also identify youngsters of the same age bracket. In Spanish football, the word is frequently used too: Quinta represents a group of young players who make the breakthrough together. The most famous Quinta is undoubtedly La Quinta del Buitre (the vulture squad) who marked an era in the 80s when Emilio Butragueño, Míchel, Manolo Sanchís, Rafa Martín Vázquez and Miguel Pardeza were promoted from Real Madrid´s youth academy to the first-team. They all became legends at Bernabeu – except for Pardeza, who soon left the club to join Real Zaragoza – and they led the team to five Spanish titles in a row. The five were also members of Spain at World Cup in 1990.

Barcelona had their Quintas too. La Quinta de lo Pelat – Ivan de la Peña, Roger Garcia, Albert Celades, Quique Alvarez , Toni Velamazán and Juan Carlos Moreno – in the mid-90s brought a lot of hopes in a team that was in transition after Johan Cruyff´s successful era. De la Peña, nicknamed El Pelat (the bald guy), was perhaps the only player who had good spells, although his peaks came at beginning (his partnership with Ronaldo under Bobby Robson was amazing) and at the end of his career, when he joined Espanyol.

Years later, it was the generation of those born in 1987 that caught numerous attentions when Lionel Messi coincided with Gerard Piqué and Cesc Fabregas, before the former joined Manchester United and the latter Arsenal. Even the group of Thiago Alcantara, Marc Bartra, Oriol Romeu, Martin Montoya, Christian Tello and Isaac Cuenca received a lot of appreciation. However, it was the class of ´95 the greatest crop to be tipped as the one who will take over one day from Xavi and Iniesta´s generation.

The “New Guardiola” and the class of ´95


Forwards Sandro Ramirez, Munir El Haddadi, Jean Marie Dongou and Adama Traore (one year younger as born in 1996), defenders Alejandro Grimaldo, Roger Riera and Frank Bagnack and the midfielder Sergi Samper formed an impressive team which at earlier stage included Héctor Bellerín, Jon Toral (both went to Arsenal), Balde Keita (to Lazio) and Tony Sanabria (to Roma). To sum up the goodness of this side, Barcelona Under-19 won comfortably in 2014 the first edition of UEFA Youth League despite most of the aforementioned players didn´t take part of the tournament.

By then Sandro, Dongou, Grimaldo, Bagnack and Samper were already been promoted to Barcelona “B”, the reserve team that was playing in the second division. At the end of that season they finished surprisingly third behind Eibar and Deportivo La Coruña and only the rules – reserves cannot play against first teams – prevented Barça B to go into promotion play-offs. But the massive achievement was there. Many of those youngsters were praised for the feat and Samper was singled out as an irreplaceable cog in the machine.

In the summer 2014, an article published on ESPN´s website said that Samper would become soon the “new Pep Guardiola” as his style and position on the field reminded of that skinny lad who was throw by Cruyff in heart of Barcelona´s midfield in 1990. However, the verdict given by Lee Roden was far from a premature or hasty judgment: Samper´s qualities were more than evident. Playing in front of the back four, a key role for any Barcelona side, the Catalan midfielder was the chief orchestrator of this team, showing a vast array of skills: great technique, searing vision, composure with the ball and a beautiful range of passing,

Debuting in Champions League

Few weeks later, Samper took another step forward and debuted in the Champions League against Apoel Nicosia. Someone could argue that it was an easy match – the Cypriots would finish bottom of the Group F with just one point – and therefore not a bad night to let youngsters play. But it wasn´t the case. The first appointment of a competition such as the Champions League is always a tricky game and it could cause trouble, even to the best sides – see Arsenal this season. Barça eventually edged past Apoel 1-0 with Marc-Andre Ter Stegen making a vital save in the stoppage-time and denying a dramatic equalizer. Due to the suspension of Sergio Busquets, Samper started, alongside Sergi Roberto and Xavi, in his typical deep-lying midfielder role while Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic sat on the bench.

Samper played well enough, despite a bit of nervousness and fluttery butterfly in the stomach. As usual, he showed great composure with the ball and his passing accuracy was of 92%. Barça´s coach Luis Enrique in his post-match interview praised the young lad for his performance adding that Samper was another player who surely would help the team in its journey.

As season went on, Samper was called in action just three other times, all in King´s Cup ties. He started both games against Huesca (Barcelona won 12-1 on aggregate) and then he came as late substitute in a 5-0 home victory against Elche. Since then, there was no more first-team football for him although his appearance in Champions League earned Samper a medal in Berlin when Barça won the trophy defeating Juventus in the final.

Barcelona ended the campaign with a Triplete (Champions League, Liga and King´s Cup) but their achievements required efforts. They had a wonderful second part of the season when the likes of Messi and Luis Suarez were unstoppable, yet it had not been all a bed of roses. Luis Enrique had experienced a tough start and in his first months in charge he had struggled to find the right balance and his best starting eleven. It meant that Samper remained with Barça B and completed the season with 34 appearances in the second division.

As expected, at the beginning of the current campaign, Samper was called-up by Luis Enrique for the club´s pre-season tour of United States. He was there the previous season too, but this time the player could have felt as his moment was close to come. After being relegated, Barça B were in third tier, hence it was logical that the best elements would have moved on. Meanwhile, Xavi was gone after years of captaincy and Barcelona, due to a FIFA´s ban, were not able to include new signings in the squad until January 2016. With Pedro also on the verge of a Premier League´s move – it eventually happened – the prospects to become a member of first-team football were higher.

However, those hopes faded away soon. Samper had featured in two friendlies against LA Galaxy and Chelsea – in both he replaced Busquet in the second half – but when the team landed in Europe again, approaching the new campaign, the young midfielder suddenly disappeared from the first team.

A doubtful future and the Arsenal link

What happened? The explanation may be either that Luis Enrique was not convinced enough about Samper´s suitability in the squad or that the player fearing another season with the reserves could have asked for a move and consequently upset the club. Both hypothesis could be valid and perhaps both happened. That also may help to understand why youngsters like Gerard Gumbau and Juan Camara suddenly went ahead of Samper especially now that Luis Enrique is without many players through injuries. In the same day Gumbau debuted at Camp Nou against Levante, Samper was playing third-tier football in Olot. It seems very bizarre that a player of his talent and potential is not taken in consideration unless it is due to a disciplinary measure.

Samper could have felt as he was on a crossroad. Remaining in Barcelona or leaving. As his chance to be part of the first-team were extremely limited, a move would surely aid his development. And Samper would not be the first player who, despite the promises was forced to prove himself far from the Camp Nou: Bojan Krkic, Giovani Dos Santos, Gerard Delofeu, Tello are just some of the several youngsters who couldn´t earn a place in Blaugrana and therefore tried to be successful elsewhere.

In July, Mundo Deportivo claimed that Porto and two unmentioned clubs of La Liga were interested in Samper adding that Arsene Wenger was also in the race as the Frenchman had identified the midfielder as Mikel Arteta´s replacement. Samper had already rejected Arsenal´s offer twice, the first time in 2011 when the English club snatched Bellerin and Toral away from Catalonia and the second time in 2014.

However, nowadays it´s very difficult to understand if a rumour is true or just made-up (partially or entirely) by tabloids, especially if regarding a club like Arsenal. A good explanation about Samper´s link with the Gunners could be found in an article published by El Confidential

The Spanish newspaper claimed that it was the father of Sergi Samper who took the initiative and contacted the English club, proposing his son to the Gunners and not viceversa. He also criticized Pere Guardiola, Sergi Samper´s agent (and Pep Guardiola´s brother too), for having made the interest of Barcelona rather than helping his client to sort out the mess. On the other hand, the agent had a contrasting version: Arsenal were truly interested and ready to pay the release clause.

Will Samper be a bargain for Arsenal? His clause is understood to be around €12m, but at the age of 20, he doesn´t seem to be Wenger´s typical signing. The Arsenal boss is always keen to launch youngsters at Emirates but he usually prefers to bring players of 16 or 17, when a potential diamond is still rough rather than at 20. At that age, a footballer should have already proved himself to claim the payment of a certain fee. Undoubtedly, €12m may be seen as a small amount of money for a future star but, with that figure, a club could buy a dozen of players – let´s say a promising 16-year-old costs around €1m – and let him thrive according to the Arsenal way in the following 3-4 years. As a 20-year-old and with that fee, Samper should be able to play Premier League football instead and slot into the Gunners squad as soon as he would land in England.

Recently, Wenger has used that policy: Theo Walcott (he was 16 years old when arrived at Arsenal), Aaron Ramsey (17), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (17) Francis Coquelin (17) and Héctor Bellerín (17) – just to cite members of the current squad – all came in London as teenagers, although some of them jumped straight to the first team. In addition, when the Frenchman went for an older player, he demanded experience as he did with Calum Chambers, who had already played 22 games in Premier League when he joined Arsenal from Southampton in 2014.

The purpose is to make life easier for a young footballer. Abroad, far from the family, a 16-year-old needs time to settle in a new dimension. Even the language barrier represents a hindrance and often a player may become frustrated by numerous factors: a new lifestyle, an unexpected injury and consequent lack of confidence. Therefore, it takes time to adapt and develop as footballer. The example of José Antonio Reyes could be useful to explain such difficulties. In 2004, the talented Spanish winger was signed for £10.5 m, a quite good sum back then. Reyes was just 21 and in two seasons with Arsenal he alternated very good exhibitions with lacklustre performances. Nevertheless, he struggled hugely to settle down more off the field than on. For a lad coming from the carefree Andalusia – where people have lunch at 4 pm and dinner at 11 pm, and the average temperature in November is 15 degrees – facing the dull weather and the British lifestyle would have been arduous and that became soon a big stumbling blocks in his stride. Reyes went back to Spain in 2006, and since then – a part one season in Portugal with Benfica – he has been plying his trade only in his country.

These may be the reasons why Arsenal didn´t sign Samper last summer and why they could not interested in buying at all. At least, not at his original price. However, Samper could be on his way out of Barcelona soon, perhaps in January or at the latest next summer. A loan in a Spanish mid-table outfit could be a good step forward but it is not even ruled out the possibility – in case Barça will find the right buyer- that he may be sold.

Guest blog by @JuriGobbini