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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Barcelona’s latest La Masia talent Pau Cubarsi steals the show in Real Betis win

With the same absurd simplicity of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Barcelona found another La Masia graduate to make an instant impact with the first-team, just like that.

On Sunday afternoon, Pau Cubarsi was one of the standout performers in Barca’s thrilling 4-2 win at Real Betis, becoming the first La Liga side to win at the Benito Villamarin stadium this season. Today (Monday), Cubarsi is celebrating his 17th birthday.

He teamed up with Ronald Araujo at the heart of Barca’s defence in Seville, with Jules Kounde in the right-back role. It was a bold decision from Xavi, who could have taken the safe option and used 31-year-old veteran Sergi Roberto as a full-back and trusted Kounde and Araujo in the middle. Instead, even with the waves of pressure swirling around the Barca manager, Xavi trusted one of his most precocious talents.

Ferran Torres ended up being named player of the match, scoring a hat-trick on the day he played his 100th Barca game. Lamine Yamal, who doesn’t turn 17 until July, also had a big role, setting up two goals and torturing Betis left-back Abner. “Alongside the game at Villarreal (in August), this was my best game with the first team,” Yamal said happily.

There was also a big moment for Joao Felix. Benched again by Xavi and the third and last substitute to come on, he entered in the 81st minute and had enough time to put Barca 3-2 up with a wonderfully taken shot in the 90th minute.

Among all the emotion and drama of a brilliantly entertaining game — from Barca’s dominating start to the Betis renaissance led by Isco’s two goals to tie the scores — it was remarkable to witness how comfortable Cubarsi was with it all.

Sunday was his first senior start after he had come off the bench at half-time in last week’s Copa del Rey win at Unionistas de Salamanca. It was easy to see why people have singled him out as a big hope for the future.

Cubarsi was not called up to the club’s pre-season tour of the United States this summer, with Xavi opting to take the recently signed 19-year-old defender Mika Faye. But Cubarsi was set on a different path towards the first team, joining up with Barcelona Atletic, the club’s reserve side who play in Spain’s third tier, rather than continuing his progression in youth football with the under-17s.

It was a big step for Cubarsi to take, but the way he has competed for Rafael Marquez’s side has left a positive impression on everyone, including Xavi.

Cubarsi has made nine appearances for Barca Atletic this season, and the team have lost one of the seven matches he has started. But since November, he has only played 30 minutes due to his participation in the Under-20 World Cup with Spain and his involvement with first-team squads.

Against Betis on Sunday, Cubarsi was taken off after 81 minutes as he was feeling muscular fatigue from the game’s tension. He registered 69 touches and made 58 passes, ending up with a 93 per cent passing accuracy (his pass map is below). He committed no fouls, made two clearances and two tackles, blocked one shot and intercepted another ball.

“We just saw him as ready, and his huge personality and talent did the rest,” Xavi said before the game. Those excellent passing numbers were no coincidence — with the win secured, Xavi pointed to Cubarsi’s ability on the ball as a reason for his selection.

“Today, it was really important to have players who could make a first pass in the build-up, and Pau has that quality. He barely missed a pass. He moves the ball forward, splits the opponent’s pressure line, the decision-making is superb. I’d say he has one of the best capacities in the build-up we have ever seen here.”

Having a glance through his best moments of the game, it’s easy to spot why Xavi believed Cubarsi was ready to make a difference.

The move for Barcelona’s second goal, scored by Torres two minutes after the break, began from Cubarsi’s boot. After receiving a pass from Frenkie de Jong, Cubarsi controlled the ball, waited for Betis’ high pressure, and quickly played a pass through Luiz Henrique and Borja Iglesias. De Jong was then able to play Barca up the pitch.

Just over a quarter of an hour later, with Barcelona having lost control of the game, Cubarsi also showed his defensive instinct by stopping Luiz Henrique, Betis’ pacey winger, in a counter attack with an important challenge in the penalty area.

Cubarsi joined Barcelona in 2018, aged 11. He was raised in Estanyol, a tiny town about 100 kilometres (62 miles) north east of Barcelona with a population of about 200. He grew up in a family of carpenters. Fusteria Cubarsi, based in Estanyol, was founded 105 years ago, and the footballer’s parents are the fourth generation leading the business. He has always been close to the family business, even helping out with work.

Cubarsi’s football journey started at his local club Bescano but, at the age of four, Girona recruited him to their youth system. His defensive skills, leadership and competitive mentality caught the eye of Barca’s scouts three years later.

He is from the same age group as Yamal. They played in the same team throughout their years at La Masia and remain close friends. Marc Bernal, the 16-year-old also now at Barcelona Atletic, and Quim Junyent, 16, are two other names spoken of highly among their renowned intake.

“The first thing that stands out from Pau is how serene he is,” said Albert Puig, speaking to The Athletic just after the Betis game finished and Cubarsi completed his excellent debut.

Barca’s win means they still trail Real Madrid by seven points and leaders Girona by eight (Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Puig was Cubarsi’s manager at Barcelona’s under-13 team and remained close to him during all his years at La Masia. He is now an assistant coach at Greek top-flight side Aris Thessaloniki.

“Pau’s build-up is extremely clean,” Puig added. “He can drive the ball up, thread passes to midfielders in the inside pockets but also send long balls to the opposite winger to provide the team with width and shake their opponents around.

“A specific feature a lot of La Masia coordinators highlighted over the years is how well he moves the ball. His passes are always played with perfect weight. It simply gives the team an extra gear.

“He’s brilliant at anticipating and reading the game, and goes into every duel with full power. He is aggressive because he loves it. Pau has the heart of a defender and would give everything to block a shot or intercept a pass. In that regard, you could compare him to Carles Puyol.”

Those are big boots to fill, as if there was not already enough pressure on a young player making his first steps in the professional game.  But his convincing performances against Real Betis showed that he was more than ready.

(Top photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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