It seemed clear that Barcelona were already preparing for one piece of summer business - with the club’s sporting director Robert Fernandez all but confirming last weekend that they will take up an option to resign Gerard Deulofeu from Everton for €12 million.
“We consider Deulofeu an option for the future,” Robert told Catalan TV3 after Barcelona's 3-2 win over Real Sociedad. “He is a player who could play at Barca.”
The whole idea was being sold as the return to the Camp Nou of a player who had been allowed to leave to gain experience elsewhere but was always expected to come back home. Deulofeu was much talked about as he moved up through Barca’s youth ranks, having joined La Masia aged just nine. By the age of 17 he was a regular with Barca B in the Segunda Division, and been given a first team debut by Pep Guardiola in the Champions League.
The Girona-born winger never really nailed down a spot at senior level though, despite bagging 18 goals for Barca B in 2012/13. Neither Guardiola nor successor Tito Vilanova appeared to trust his tactical diligence or work rate, and it was not a huge surprise when he was allowed to join Everton at the end of that season.
In England there were further glimpses of his undoubted natural ability, but also frustration from managers who struggled to get him to fit within any team shape. It was the same story during the 2014/15 season on loan at Sevilla. And then again back at Everton for the next 18 months, where even a manager as flexible as Roberto Martinez could not regularly trust him to do a job.
It was no surprise that his face did not fit with his year’s sterner Toffees boss Ronald Koeman, and he started just four Premier League games in the first half of the season. But something appears to have clicked since he moved again, on loan to Milan in January. The now 23-year-old has played 12 times in Serie A [11 starts] since then, scoring two goals and giving three assists, and already becoming a key player for coach Vincenzo Montella.
Deulofeu’s arrival at San Siro also coincided with an upturn in results and climb towards a Europa League qualifying spot. The burst of form also saw Spain senior coach Julen Lopetegui, who knows Deulofeu well from shared underage international success, call him up for La Roja’s most recent internationals. He then came off the bench in March’s friendly in Paris, and quickly won a penalty before knocking home the second goal in a 2-0 win for La Roja.
This has all lead to a hasty rethink at Barca. Last autumn there was little or no talk among blaugrana fans or pundits about Deulofeu - and he was generally seen as another super promising youngster who, for whatever reason, had just not made it at senior level. Now the local media is abuzz with stories about how clever the club's board have been in making sure they can buy him back next summer.
Friendly local reporters have been briefed that Deulofeu’s return is part of a plan to return to Barca’s ‘DNA’ of cultivating home grown youth products, with the blame for the winger not having already succeeded at Barca going to outgoing coach Luis Enrique’s lack of faith in graduates of its La Masia academy.
A more cynical [or realistic] perspective would add that the club’s board are at least as much to blame for a dearth of young talent coming through. Also, Deulofeu’s impressive few months in Serie A are do not guarantee he would fit straight back into the Barca set-up, especially with a new, as yet unknown, coach incoming at the Camp Nou. Current favourite Ernesto Valverde has never looked the type of manager willing to take risks on talented but unreliable forward players.
There is also a good deal of uncertainty around Deulofeu’s actual contractual situation. Some in the Catalan press are sure that €12 million to Everton gets him back to them under the terms of his permanent transfer to Goodison in 2015. Others claim that Everton have an option to introduce other interested clubs into an auction and could ask for €18 million. Such high figures were seen as pretty much irrelevant only a few weeks ago, but Deulofeu’s recent form means everyone is now again looking to gain an advantage.
The best case scenario for Barca would be for Deulofeu to put in a few more eye-catching performances between now and the end of the season, maybe help secure European football next season for the rossoneri. That could persuade the Italian club’s new Chinese owners to do everything they can to sign him up completely, bringing a tidy profit which the Catalans can invest elsewhere in a player that their new coach really wants.