EPL | Gerard Deulofeu’s strange return to Barcelona

Germany's Maximilian Arnold, left, and Spain's Gerard Deulofeu, right, challenge for the ball during the Euro Under 21 final soccer match between Germany and Spain in Krakow, Poland, Friday, June 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

FC Barcelona has a lot of work to do this summer. And if you ask much of its fanbase, as of today, it has managed to do none of it, outside of the obvious decision to extend the contract of the greatest footballer ever. This atrophy, at least at first glance, seems inadvisable, especially after last season’s “failure” of only capturing one trophy (a domestic cup, at that), and particularly with its main rivals growing in both power and influence.

Amid all of this turmoil, however, Barcelona did seal a deal, albeit a peculiar one. It decided to bring Gerard Deulofeu home.

Deulofeu, now 23 years old, was once a hotshot prospect in Barcelona’s youth academy. One of the jewels of his cantera class, the youngster, who began his Barca career at the age of nine, has always possessed unmistakable talent. He’s the kind of player who is so fast and athletic that it seems wholly unfair that he’s also a technical phenom with the ball at his feet.

The measurements always added up for Deulofeu as a youth. But as the age groups narrow and the levels heighten, more is expected of today’s kids. It becomes less about what you can do and more about what you’re willing to do. The hurdles become more mental than ever before.

Deulofeu first turned heads as a Barca B player in 2011, where he set the Segunda ablaze, scoring 27 goals in two seasons. But after making just two subsequent appearances for Barca’s senior side, Deulofeu was sent on loan to Everton in 2013. Under fellow Catalan Roberto Martinez, Deulofeu got off to a piping hot start before tearing a hamstring just before the turn of the year. But even with the injury, the winger managed 25 appearances during his season-long spell, helping the club to their best-ever Premier League finish, and generally leaving a good impression on Merseyside.

With Deulofeu’s trajectory pointed upwards, bust was the last thing on anyone’s mind when the youngster was immediately sent to Sevilla for another year-long loan stint in an effort to get more Liga experience. This is when the wheels began loosening on the hype train. Used mostly as a late-game substitute, Deulofeu struggled to make a positive impression on manager Unai Emery. By the end of the season, he wasn’t even making the bench.

When speaking to The Guardian prior to Sevilla’s Europa League 2015 final, Emery delivered the most cutting, yet honest critique of Deulofeu: “He has incredible qualities but lacks others. Put him out there one-on-one and pfffft. But make him play football with teammates, on a big pitch, and it’s hard.

“He doesn’t have the maturity or capacity for sacrifice yet.”

That summer, Barcelona sent Deulofeu back to Everton, this time permanently. The fee was €6 million with a €12 million buy-back clause.

This time around was more of the same for Deulofeu. As a second-half sub, he’d show flashes of panache in the final third, often providing wondrous crosses and through balls to his colleagues, but offering little else. After 18 months of inconsistent performances, Everton were ready to cut the cord; instead they struck a six-month loan deal with AC Milan this past January.

In Italy, Deulofeu immediately found his feet. Within a month of his arrival, he had played himself into Vincenzo Montella’s starting eleven, which continued until the end of the season. Following his time in Milan, Deulofeu lead Spain’s U21 side to the UEFA U21 European Championships in Poland. Despite being La Roja’s captain and all-time leading goalscorer, he failed to inspire during the tournament, being thoroughly out-shined by teammates like Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos. On the same day that Spain fell to Germany in the Euro final, Barcelona announced via its website that it would be exercising its buy-back option on Deulofeu. The kid was heading home. But to what, exactly?

Deulofeu claims he is now “more mature in every way,” and “a different player from the one who left Barca three years ago.” Although he’s made it clear that he “wants to be in Barcelona’s first team and have the opportunity to play with big players,” the hope is that he’s also grown enough to know that he’s a longshot. Sport is reporting that the club and player have worked out a deal in which Deulofeu will be allowed to leave smoothly if he doesn’t see regular first-team football under new Barca boss Ernesto Valverde. In this whole chaotic journey, that might be the most mature thing he’s done so far.

But even if the paperwork is ditch-free and both parties are content with where each other stands, it’s still a wonder that an elite club such as Barca is willing to take a chance, in its current predicament, on a player of Deulofeu’s ilk. Everton forward Romelu Lukaku may have enjoyed “all those assists” from Deulofeu when he left for Milan, but one wonders how much Seamus Coleman missed the Catalan’s nonexistent defensive contribution.

After all, this is a player who has repeatedly failed to prove that he has learned from his previous failures, with his flop at the Euros last month being the most recent example. Deulofeu might have the Masia blood flowing through his veins, but it’s yet to reach the head or the heart.

Still, the young man has been given a rare opportunity here, somehow. An opportunity to restart a tender but wayward career from the very point of initial divergence. While he’s been abroad in Europe, Deulofeu’s stock has plateaued at points and fallen at others. It hasn’t been a full-fledged disaster, yet it’s been disappointing enough to eliminate any genuine chance of him resurrecting the Blaugrana dream he started his journey with, or so we thought.

With the return of Deulofeu to Camp Nou, an arrogant young kid gets a sequel, in which he’s the underdog. He might not be an entirely sympathetic or even likable figure, but he’ll be fighting an uphill battle, one that has many more victims on its resume than champions. Now and forever, that’s all you need for a compelling story.

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