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Pep Talk

March 9, 2011

What was so controversial about Pep Guardiola’s comments about Jack Wilshere? As highlighted by football365 the comment in its entirety is fair, balanced and complimentary. To me, his intention was to highlight the gulf in expectations between the two clubs, and how that will be beneficial to Wilshere, Arsenal and England in the long, even short term. But predictably, like Pavlov’s Dog, the tabloid press sensed an opportunity to stoke up a bit of xenophobic antagonism and started frothing at the mouth. How dare a foreigner disrespect one of England’s brightest talents, he’s the future of the National team and they won’t tolerate a Spaniard criticising him. That will, of course, be their duty when such an opportunity arises.

But just for a second, let’s assume that Guardiola was in fact claiming that Jack Wilshere is only good enough for Barcelona B. In fact let’s take it a step further and assume he’s asserted that Wilshere would probably be warming the bench for the Catalan reserves. Is this such an outlandish claim? Have a look at the Barcelona first XI for starters. With a flexible 4-3-3 formation Wilshere would be in contention for one of the 3 midfield berths. At present two of those places belong to the 2nd and 3rd placed Ballon D’Or nominees, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez (although either one could have won the award without controversy). The last key man in the triumvirate, Sergio Busquets, is the unsung hero who performs the holding midfield role better than anyone in World football at present, and has seen off the challenges of Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano for his position. Between them they have 11 La Liga titles, 5 Champions League winner’s medal, 2 European Championship winner’s medals, 3 World Cup winner’s medals and several other team and individual medals and accolades.

Right, fair enough, but surely young Jack would be good enough for a squad place? Well, possibly not. Javier Mascherano is the current alternative to Busquets. Many, myself included, rated him as the best midfield destroyer around while at Liverpool. He’s captain of the Argentinian National team and would realistically stroll into most other teams on the planet. The two remaining regular squad members, Ibrahim Afellay and Seydou Keita are not beyond being replaced, but let’s have a closer look at them.

Keita has been with the Blaugrana since 2008 and in that time has won 8 trophies in 129 appearances. He also played in Sevilla’s 6-3 aggregate win over Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup in 2007. His pace and athleticism provide an alternative to the regular tiki-taka merchants. Afellay is the latest addition to the Nou Camp roster. He moved during the January transfer window after 7 years in the PSV Eindhoven first team, where he won 3 Eredivisie titles and two cups. He also won a World Cup runners-up medal with Holland in 2010. There is an argument that if van Marwijk had been more adventurous and dispensed with his two defensive midfielders in favour of Afellay’s skill and adventure, the Oranje may have won more fans if not the tournament itself. Several of Europe’s elite were chasing his signature, but when Barca come calling there’s only one answer.

It’s not beyond the realms of imagination that Wilshere could play some part in the Barca senior squad without looking too out-of-place, but as a 19-year-old he would need to have progressed from La Masia in this hypothetical scenario. Come on, say the Anglo media, Wilshere is a senior international, he’s far too good to be playing in the Segunda for a reserve side. Well, my smug reply would be, you have obviously never heard of Thiago Alcantra, Oriel Romeu or Sergi Roberto.

Alcantra and Romeu have progressed through the age groups with Spain and Barcelona, and were in tandem as Spain won the U-17’s Euro’s in 2007 (along with 4 other La Masia products), and reached the final in 2010 U-19’s competition beating England 3-1 in the semi’s (in a team containing 6 La Masia boys) . Romeu is the more defensive minded, whilst Alcantra has been described as a cross between Xavi and Ronaldinho, and is being groomed as the eventual successor to Hernandez. After Aaron Ramsey’s horrific leg break last year, Arsene Wenger was reported to have scouted Romeu to shore up his midfield options, but the move was scuppered when he signed a contract extension at the Nou Camp.

Roberto is the least heralded of the 3 but that’s more an indication of the quality of the other two rather than his. Another attacking midfielder, but in the style of Luis Enrique rather than Xavi or Iniesta. He was part of the Spanish U-17 side that came 3rd in the 2009 World Youth Cup, scoring a hat-trick in the quarter-final. He’s playing a year ahead of his age group after impressing Guardiola, and has already played for the first team in a Copa del Rey match.

As well as these stand-out prospects, the Barcelona B midfield options also include Jonathan Dos Santos (younger brother of Giovanni) who has played 9 times for the senior side and has 5 caps for Mexico. His major strengths are his passing, tactical awareness, long-range shooting and dead ball delivery.

Victor Vasquez, at the ripe old age of 24 has been in the reserve team for 5 seasons and is the current captain. He has seen former team-mates Messi, Pique and Fabregas progress while his chances have been limited to say the least. He nevertheless has a Champions League goal to his name. It’s been reported that he may be a transfer target for Arsenal in the summer.

Rafa ‘Rafinha’ Alcantra is the younger brother of Thiago and is also a regular in the B team midfield despite still being eligible for the Juvenil A. He has represented Spain at U-16, 17 and 19 level. He hasn’t yet got the reputation of his older sibling but in a friendly against the Brazil senior team his performance earned plaudits from Carlos Eduardo, Lucas Leiva, Pato and Rafael da Silva.

One of Rafinha’s Juvenil A team mates, Javier Espinosa, has also made appearances for the B team, and indeed scored on his debut as a half-time replacement. He was part of the Spanish World Youth Cup team that reached the semi-final in 2009 along with Roberto & Rafinha.

The final two (yes there are more) that would stand in the way of any possible game time for Wilshere are Andreu Fontas and Marti Riverola. Slightly older than the Gunners man at 21 and 20 respectively,y they are another pair of potentially world-class players. Fontas began his career as a midfielder but has spent most of his time as a centre back for Barcelona B. The left footer has represented Spain at U-19, 20 & 21 level and scored on his Champions League debut against Rubin Kazan in the Nou Camp. He has recently advanced to a defensive midfield position for the reserves with seamless ease.

Riverola is currently on loan to Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivise where he is under the tutelage of Ex-Barca man Albert Ferrer. He has been at the club since he was 6 years old and began life as a striker. He moved back into midfield and has developed into an attacking player in the Iniesta mould. He has captained the Juvenil A and scored on his debut for the B team.

As with Guardiola’s comments this isn’t intended to be an assassination of what is an undoubtedly very fine talent. It’s not total fantasy to suggest that Wilshere may prove himself to be better than the players currently in the Barcelona reserves. It’s more of a comment on the presenters, pundits and ex-players who have been sucked in by the knee-jerk reaction in the English media. It’s natural that they want to jump to the defence of Wilshere, but to blindly claim that Guardiola was being disrespectful without having any knowledge of the depth of talent at Barca is criminally ignorant. It shouldn’t come as a surprise of course, as the knowledge of most of the aforementioned doesn’t extend beyond the Premier League and a few of Europe’s elite. How hard is it to use Google before opening your mouth?

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