What's happened to Munir El Haddadi?
The Heavy Weight Of Expectation
La Masia is arguably the best youth academy in world football. And its finest moment probably came in 2010, when all three finalists of the Ballon d'Or award, had graduated from this fine institution. Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, are all fine examples of what Barça's youth academy is capable of. But having said that, there's been many youngsters over the past few years who've just seemed to slip through the fingers of the Catalans. The likes of Bojan, Jeffren, Cuenca, Tello all threatened to erupt onto the world stage, but it just never seemed to materialise. So why exactly is that? Because at the time, it was clear for everyone to see that these kids possessed the skill, and technical qualities to become successful at Barcelona. But that's not quite enough. It's all about mental strength. If you're going to break into Barcelona's first team, you need to be an incredible player, but you also need to be an incredibly strong character. You've got to stand up to the challenge, look it in the eye, and snatch it.
The New Boy
And this is where Munir comes into the equation. The Madrid-born youngster joined Barça's academy back in 2010. But his career really kick-started in the UEFA Youth League, in just March last year, where the striker scored an impressive 11 goals in just 10 matches. This included a wonderful brace in the tournament final against Benfica U19, with one of the goals coming from a quite spectacular long-range strike. It was after this tournament that Barça B started to show an interest in Munir, being called up for the final few matches of the 2013/14 season - and starting to show some real signs of promise. Unlike most youngsters progressing through the Barça ranks, Munir didn't play at B-team level for long. During the summer, Luis Enrique consistently used Munir during Barcelona's summer pre-season matches. And he took his chances well, finishing pre-season as Barça's top goalscorer, with four goals in five matches. Munir grabbed two of those goals in the Gamper trophy at the Camp Nou. And slowly the hype began. And sure enough, it didn't take Luis Enrique long to call upon young Munir in La Liga. With the absence of Luis Suárez for the first few months of the season, Luis Enrique needed some options. He decided to call up both Munir - and Barça B team-mate Sandro - to the first team at the start of the season. To everyone's surprise though, Munir started the match against Elche in Barcelona's first home game of the season. And that was when the hype began to over-flow. Munir scored the second goal - a fine left footed finish, in an eventual 3-0 win for Barça.
This would be the last goal Munir would score for the following 11 matches, where he would play a total of 510 minutes...
And then things got slightly out of hand. Before Munir barely got back in the dressing room after the match there was rumours about new contracts, international call-ups, his childhood. Everything just exploded. There we journalists digging through old photographs to find one of Munir in a Real Madrid shirt. There were national team coaches phoning him, trying to persuade the youngster to play for their country. At just 18 years old, at the time, Munir really was thrown into completely unknown territory. Then came his first Spanish international cap - and that really exacerbated things. Fans wanted his autograph, press wanted interviews, it was like a different life for Munir. And then of course came the mostly deadly thing of all, the comparisons. Before the night was out, we were hearing "The new Messi", and that's where you need mental strength. And honestly, I'm not quite sure if Munir was able to deal with it all.
And then came more speculation. As always when a young player is playing well, other clubs gather an interest in him. Whether it be a loan, or permanent deal. It was heavily reported that Arsenal were showing serious interested in signing Munir, for the release clause written into his contract. At the time, Munir's release clause stood at around £12m, which of course prompted Barcelona into another drastic move. Munir's contract was renewed with immediate affect, increasing his release clause to €35m. And Munir just seemed to lurch from one thing to another since his first team debut. It seemed like everything was happening far too fast, from his Spanish cap to his new contract. Munir couldn't keep up.
If you take a look at these two info-graphics, they really show us how the season has taken it's toll on Munir. Look at the first photo, showing Munir's passes against Elche. In Munir's first match he looked bright, he looked full of confidence, as though he was playing without fear. He was receiving - and sometimes demanding - the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch, he was playing without pressure. Now look at the second photo, Munir's passes in his most recent La Liga fixture, against Sociedad. Yes, he passed the ball less, but that isn't what concerns me. Look at his positioning here. He's deep, he's withdrawn, tired, devoid of confidence. Even when he does receive the ball, he's passing it straight back where it came from. This is the look of a player who's been caught up in the hype of the season, and desperately needs to be taken out of the spotlight.
Now look at the shots taken by Munir. Against Elche, he managed two shots, and against Sociedad just the one. So you're thinking, well that's not so bad? Well, it is. The shot against Sociedad was blocked, it was a weak, tame effort. Out of his two shots against Elche, one crashed off the underside of the bar, and the other ended up in the back of the night. And I think that speaks volumes.
Unquestionable Talent. But Questionable Timing.
It's no real surprise it's caught up with him, let's be honest. At just 19 years old, 5ft 9in, slim build, the physical demands of La Liga were always going to take their toll at some point. Add to that the extreme interest he's been receiving off the pitch too, and you can start to understand why Munir is feeling slightly jaded.
It's clear Munir has talent, of that I have no doubt. He's got a sweet left foot, an eye for goal, and is a very compete player on and off the ball. But right now he's just not ready. If it were me, I'd send him back to Barça B. That way he can get some closure, and also get some confidence back. He'll be playing in less pressured surroundings, and it'll just take away the heat for a while. He needs time away from the first team now to mature. He's got a taste of what it's like, and he'll understand exactly what he needs to do. But it all takes time. It started as a farytale against Elche, and many of us thought it could continue.
But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither are world class players - Munir needs some time out, and we hope he returns all the more stronger for it.