5:06 PM EDT on August 29, 2023
No other sport really makes you feel your age quite like soccer can.
In the major American sports, unless you are a recruiting freak, you aren't likely to come across a young phenom until they've at least become adults in the eyes of the law, and the youngest of them are helpfully (if immorally) sequestered in the college game, where the rule of youth is expected and therefor less insulting. Soccer, in contrast, regularly unearths minors—literal children!—who, with faces so cherubic that even the best fake ID couldn't get them past a bouncer, step onto the pitch and start running circles around grown-ass men.
When you're young yourself, this effect is exhilarating; your fellow teenager's exploits let you feel, for maybe the very first time, that your generation is on the cusp of taking over. When you're old enough to remember what you were doing the year that wonderkid was born, the sound of their athletic explosion is only matched by your creaking knees as you fall to them in agony, wondering where all that time has gone.
Which is to say, Lamine Yamal has caused plenty of noise this month, both in the form of his own eruption and the millions of groaning joints it has surely inspired. Yamal is the latest budding hotshot to emerge from the Barcelona academy. He has started two of Barça's three matches in La Liga, and has been the clear star on the forward line. His performance in his team's 4-3 victory over Villarreal over the weekend was his best showing yet, and in a very real sense he was the single force most responsible for orchestrating the triumph. If all of that has piqued your interest, strap on your kneepads because here comes the kicker: Lamine Yamal turned 16 years old a little over a month ago.
When watching him play, the first thing you notice about Yamal—well, aside from his clearly 16-year-old face and physique—is the softness of his touch. No matter how barking mad a ball comes to him, he's able to tame it with a single brush of his foot. The ball listens to him, and he's always telling it to do difficult, dangerous things. Like when he sends it flying through the air with elegance and menace on one of his patent-pending cut-and-curled crosses, like the one that found Gavi's head for Barcelona's opening goal. Or when his tip-taps carry the ball and himself past defenders before he slingshots a wicked shot that crashes off the goal frame, as he did twice against Villarreal—the resulting rebound of his second post-rattling shot falling to Robert Lewandowski, who nudged the ball over the goal line to give Barcelona the winning fourth goal.
There's something different about Yamal, though, even when compared to the other members of Barcelona's recent procession of precocious youngsters. Many breakout teens find themselves playing their own game instead of the game as a whole. Maybe the tunnel vision helps block out what would otherwise be the overwhelming facts of their situation, but you usually find young attackers especially focusing exclusively on what they can do with and to the ball, not so much on what is happening around them. That's hardly a criticism. Those players breakout for a reason, and often that reason is their spamming of the one attribute or skill they've already developed at an elite level. The single-mindedness gets and keeps them on the field. The other stuff tends to eventually catch up.
Yamal, though, has an uncanny maturity to his game that allows him to participate in and even come to dictate the action across the entire pitch. In all three of his appearances this season, Barça has looked to him to organize and direct the team's attacks. His technical brilliance makes him an irrepressible dribbler, but his mind is what he uses to read the play, choose the smartest decision, and, crucially, to know when to go fast and when to go slow. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the most valuable skill in soccer is the ability to change speeds. Going slowly, remaining calm, and waiting for the right moment instead of leaping at the first opportunity is even more important than the simple ability to move at high speeds. And Yamal is an expert at changing speeds. His most lethal dribble move is probably his whiplash change of direction move, where he'll set up like he's about to go one way and then burst into the other direction. He's never in a hurry to get where he wants to go, which means he often gets there faster and in better condition to hurt the defense upon arrival.
As mentioned before, Yamal is only the latest player to come off La Masia's world-famous production line. In recent years especially, Barça has benefitted from the timely emergence of young talent, homegrown and otherwise. Pedri, Gavi, Alejandro Balde, Ansu Fati, Abde Ezzalzouli, Nico González, Pablo Torre, Sergiño Dest, Ilaix Moriba—these are some of the fruits borne of Barça's academy and young talent acquisition program, which has been a great boon to the club in the late- and post-Messi eras. It's encouraging that the club is still churning out and/or sniffing out such promising players on the cheap, especially in light of the club's financial woes.
Less encouraging is that Barcelona has seemingly failed to maximize much of that talent. Nico, Torre, Dest, and Moriba have all left. Ezzalzouli and Fati could very well find themselves elsewhere this summer. Most worryingly, Pedri and Fati, the two biggest talents of the bunch, have not been able to stay on the pitch long enough to develop in the way everyone would've hoped. (More so Fati than Pedri, since the former's injuries have been more significant and done more damage to the level he's shown when healthy.)
So while it's amazing seeing Yamal blossom like this, as it has been all the other times a young hotshot has come through at Barça, the real test isn't what he does this season, but rather if in five years' time he's still there, further along the skyward trajectory that lays before him. It's great that Barça has cultivated so many great youngsters of late, but unless they successfully transition some of those teens into great veterans, a golden opportunity will go missing.
But I'm not going to put too much future-focused pressure on Yamal just yet. When he was born in 2007, I myself was a teenager in an adult's world, spending the summer after my freshman year of college (very, very poorly) selling cars at the dealership my dad worked at. Yamal is managing the feat much better than I was then, and probably better than you were doing anything in 2007 as well. So for now I'm content to trust his talent, enjoy the ride, and be happy wherever it takes him.
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5:06 PM EDT on August 29, 2023