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Alex Clapham writes a detailed scout report about Alex Grimaldo, who recently signed for Benfica from Barcelona.
12th of December 2015 in the Mini Estadi; Barcelona B vs Huracan Valencia, a ground with a capacity of little more than 15,000 that sits across the road from the world famous Camp Nou; the stadium that holds FC Barcelona’s first team and also the dreams of many young boys around the planet, but none are as agonisingly close to realising their aspirations as the youngsters that represent the club’s reserve team in this venue that is quite literally in the shadow of Europe’s biggest footballing arena just metres away.
The modest facility has been a breeding ground for World Cup winners such as Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol as well as the likes of Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola to name a few. However, a name that has regularly been on the lips of fan’s around the city of late is a young prodigy that has found opportunities at the elite level difficult to come by, the B team captain, Alex Grimaldo.
After rounding the goalkeeper to finish an intricate passing move that he started inside his own half just 6 minutes into the tie, the 20-year old raced away to punch the air by the corner flag in celebration of what turned out to be his final goal for the club that took him on at the age of 13 in 2008.
After the downfall of FC Barcelona’s second team over the past 18 months that saw them plummet to Segunda B (3rd tier of Spanish football) Luis Enrique admitted that opportunities of first team football will be few and far between for the young hopefuls of the B team, especially as Enrique’s team shook the world; winning every competition they have entered since the arrival of the Galician coach whilst demolishing goalscoring records along the way.
A few players that stood out in the relegation season such as Adama Traore (Aston Villa) and Alen Halilovic (Sporting Gijon on loan) have departed alongside many fans that attended the Mini Estadi regularly. The attendances have rarely crept above the 1,000 mark this term and the murmurs of the Grimaldo move to Portugal were in full force; the image of him surrounded by congratulatory teammates infront of empty seats was a melancholy one as the Valencian full-back was surely destined for big things with the club. After over 4 seasons with the B team, the player known to colleagues as “El Peque” still hadn’t appeared for the first team in a competitive fixture.
Alejandro Grimaldo Garcia was born in the city of Valencia and played for local club Paterna with friends, capturing the attentions of many before his beloved Valencia CF spotted him and quickly snapped him up. After two seasons playing as a central midfielder in Los Che’s academy, FC Barcelona caught wind of his talent and sent scouts south down the E-15 freeway to witness the boy’s magic. They liked what they saw and just days later a 13-year old Grimaldo travelled north to Catalonia to start a new life with his new club.
Within weeks of arriving at La Masia it was decided that Grimaldo’s playing character and attributes would best be suited in a wide full-back role. After 2 highly impressive first seasons in the youth teams Grimaldo was drafted into Spain’s under-15 squad and gained an invaluable experience amongst the greatest Spaniards of his age group; his efforts and progression saw him rocketed into professional football at the tender age of only 15 years and 349 days, representing Barcelona B against Cartagena to become the youngest ever debutant and stealing the record that had stood since 1998 (Nigerian Haruna Babangida) in doing so.
Things were happening fast for the newly-found superstar, perhaps too fast. In a spectacularly freakish incident, Peque picked up a shockingly bad cruciate ligament injury. The Valencian was ruled out for 11-months and at the budding age of only 15 this was critical to both the mental and physical growth and adaption of Grimaldo.
After a soul-destroying 324 days out of action, Grimaldo returned to the field in January 2014 and although he was finding strength and form once again, minutes and appearances were proving another challenge to overcome. He fought with Carles Planas for the Left-Back spot and the sheer determination and quality of the Valencian won Coach Eusebio over and Grimaldo was back playing regularly in the starting XI, winning the captain’s armband in doing so.
Barcelona B finished in 3rd place in the Liga Adelante (Spanish 2nd tier) that season and many tipped the youngsters to go on and dominate the following season as they were a group of academy graduates playing against opposition with plenty of experience and knowhow yet the famous “Barca-style” shone through and was winning out over the physical approach taken by many opponents in the league. However, things didn’t quite materialize the way folks predicted.
In what was a horrific season that saw the team fall to the 3rd tier embarrassingly, heated arguments between players were witnessed and dressing room unrest was the talk of the town. Losing is a big part of education and to bounce back quickly and react well is what is done in an ideal world. The 2014/15 season at Barcelona B really was a test of character and mental strength for the squad and the men were separated from the boys.
Although it was clear to see that many of the young players were far from ready for the demands of the professional game, a handful of individuals outstood. Traore, Samper, Halilovic and Kaptoum were amongst the names that still impressed in difficult situations and Alex Grimaldo’s was at the top of the list. A cultured left foot that can pick out passes at any distance or whip in a cross at the centre forward’s demand is in the Valencian’s repertoire.
Peque is a classy set-piece taker and has boasted 7 assists and 4 goals from dead-ball situations this year alone. Maturity in possession and excellent decision making has seen Grimaldo used as a midfielder on multiple occasions when necessary and he isn’t shy to become an extra option in attacking areas as he freely breaks forwards down the left-hand side, linking up play and supplying gorgeous crosses frequently with his left foot that is very easy on the eye.
Often compared by many to the great Jordi Alba, one attribute that Grimaldo may not boast of is electric pace to progress whenever his team are in possession the way Alba does, the Barca first team full-back is often seen using his speed that he is blessed with to retreat to make last-ditch blocks or tackles, Grimaldo must assess, pick and choose when is the correct moment to support and hold or to overlap his left-sided midfielder or attacker. At only 20-years old the young man has the head of a 30-year old veteran on his shoulders and plays with such ease and nonchalance on the ball that you could mistake him for a player in the autumn of his career that has spent years at the heights of the game.
Standing at only 5ft 7in tall, Grimaldo is at times targeted by long, diagonal balls against physical opponents in the 3rd tier, however, he is often seen using his tactical nouse to re-adjust by a step or two to position himself to challenge for the second ball as his taller, more physically inclined central defender will come to challenge in the air. As captain of the team, El Peque is viewed as the leader and is forever barking out orders to format his side as the game goes on.
Strong in the challenge and with impeccable timing, his percentage of tackling success is at a jaw-dropping 91% for the current season. It is no rarity to see Grimaldo winning a sliding tackle to come out with the ball hooked under his foot and quickly distribute play into an advanced teammate before marauding down the left-hand side to provide assistance in the final third.
Although boss Enrique stated that it will be no common occurrence to see a B-team player called up to the first team in the 2015/16 season following the relegation, ill- fate has landed him in scenarios where needs be and while injuries-upon-injuries have seen the likes of Sergi Samper, Gerard Gumbau and Wilfrid Kaptoum star in albeit cameo roles on several occasions alongside a Juan Camara substitute appearance in the Champions League, Alex Grimaldo’s name has been nowhere to be seen in any of the squads; not in Copa Del Rey fixtures, not in friendlies, nowhere.
The reserve team captain remained respectful and professional, going about his job to lead out the second-string FC Barcelona outfit weekly, however, all of the sports newspapers and radio talk-shows were questioning what the young star had to do to be given an opportunity under Enrique. Honestly, in the Segunda B division, his talents were completely wasted.
Transfer rumours regarding Grimaldo began to hit social media and newspaper headlines as he ducked and dived out of the way of questions fired at him regarding his future and where it lies; always devoting himself to FC Barcelona and making his services available should they be called upon.
As his contract was due to expire in the summer of 2016, clubs made their interest public. English Premier League clubs were sniffing around him, as were La Liga giants. Reports were leaking out that Portuguese Champions Benfica were leading the race and he was spotted in a rendezvous with club officials in December 2015 in a Barcelona restaurant.
Finally, on December 29th 2015, Alex Grimaldo signed his contract and set sail for the next chapter of his career in the Portuguese capital for a deal reported to be 1.5 Million Euros; a real steal for SL Benfica.
The Valencian star will have the chance to showcase his talent at the highest level of world football in the Champions League and work with an exciting young coach in Rui Vitoria; who plays attractive, attacking, free-flowing football. With International caps through all age groups from under-15s right up to the under-21s, Grimaldo will be looking to finally have the chance to fulfil his huge potential whilst gaining more recognition on the world stage to become a full international as he progresses into a first team regular in a successful team.
Written by Alex Clapham