Gerard Deulofeu - Why Barcelona chose Everton to educate their latest prodigy
Premier League seen as the perfect place for on-loan winger Gerard Deulofeu to mature into a star
Old Trafford last Wednesday, the Emirates Stadium today – a potentially daunting prospect, perhaps, for a 19-year-old. But when, like Everton's on-loan winger Gerard Deulofeu, you made your league debut for Barcelona in the Nou Camp at 17 and followed that up with a Champions' League appearance a few weeks later, perhaps not so daunting after all.
Born in Riudarenes, Girona, Deulofeu joined Barcelona at the age of nine, had an advertising contract with Nike at 14, and has shone for Spain at every level up to Under-21. Eighteen goals in 33 games for Barcelona's B team in the Liga Adelante (Spain's second division) last season earned him the league's player-of-the-season award. But after awarding him a new four-year contract in May, Barcelona deemed a loan spell more appropriate than adding to his five substitute appearances for the first team.
Everton beat several other clubs here and abroad to sign the talented Catalan on a season-long deal, but although he has managed nine appearances as a substitute there, including 40 minutes of the Merseyside derby, he had to wait for his first Premier League start and goal until last Saturday's 4-0 victory over Stoke City.
The terms of Deulofeu's loan require Everton to pay Barcelona more the less he plays, and the signs against Stoke were that leaving him out will be increasingly difficult for reasons other than financial ones. His first-half strike was followed by several thrilling second-half runs, even if team-mates were sometimes visibly frustrated by yet another dribble or shot when a pass was on.
One man who knows about trying to improve Deulofeu's team awareness is the Brighton head coach, Oscar Garcia, who was in charge of Barcelona B when the youngster reached reserve-team level. "He is the kind of player who needs to speak with the coaches a lot," he said. "I asked him, 'Who is the best player in the world for you?' And he told me, 'Messi'. So I showed him videos of Messi getting the ball back, running to help the team in defence, pressing a lot.
"Deulofeu wants to try his best for the team and not for himself, but he's a very confident player. Maybe another young player would play a [safe] pass and not try to do what only he can do. He is brave, because he played the same way for the Barcelona first team."
Brave, or arrogant, as suggested by reports that he once offered autographs to beaten opponents? "No, I don't think so," Garcia said. "The way he plays, some people could think that, but he's a good guy."
YouTube highlights showing control at pace, goals scored with either foot and skills that force comparisons with the young Cristiano Ronaldo whetted the appetites of Barcelona fans, but regular observers of Barça B games at the Mini Estadi could see that more seasoning was required, hence Deulofeu's move to the UK.
"I know [Everton's manager] Roberto Martinez and I think he's the right coach to help Deulofeu," Oscar said. "He knows how to work with young players and he plays attacking football.
"I would have been surprised if he had gone to a team that played long and tried to win the second ball, because that's not his game, but Roberto tries to play football, keep possession. It's the kind of football [Deulofeu] needs to play. He also has to compete in a strong league, and go one on one against good Premier League defenders. For him it will be a big challenge but a good one."
Martinez agrees that English football has been an education for Deulofeu. "In the first month, every time it was a 50-50 [ball] he would be looking at the referee, to try to get protection," he said. "Once you see that's gone, and he reacts to losing the ball by trying to get it back, that shows you he is going to be ready."
Martinez had tracked Deulofeu since seeing his debut in Spain as a substitute against Real Mallorca in October 2012. "This young lad came on ahead of any top player and that caught my eye," he said. "From that point on, I followed his development in the B side.
"It was a matter of pestering Barce-lona. I think the decision [for them] was: do we send Gerard to another club in La Liga or abroad? The final decision was that Gerard would benefit from not just a different football experience but a different lifestyle. Remember that Cesc Fabregas got a fantastic education by leaving Barce-lona and coming to England. He went back as a big star. Gerard Pique did the same. I'm sure Gerard [Deulofeu's] decision to come to the British game had something to do with those previous examples."
When he goes back, will he be ready to play alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar, or will further education be required? "From the first week he was my player I saw that he could be a big star," Oscar said. "How big? For sure he has all the qualities to be a Barcelona first-team player. It depends on him. But I'm sure he's going to improve a lot this year."
Arsenal v Everton is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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