The La Masia Conundrum: What is wrong with Barcelona’s famed youth academy?
Written by: Anjishnu Roy
Gone are the days, when the LaLiga outfit had players from its youth system dominated the first team.
10th January, 2011......
Zurich was adorned with lights and attention of the entire football world as the Ballon d’Or ceremony and history was in the offing that night. Barcelona’s La Masia, that oversaw the production of nine in the 23 men Spanish squad that lifted La Roja’s first ever FIFA World Cup in South Africa a year earlier made history and received the media adoration of the entire world by becoming the first youth academy to have three of its exponents in the running for the golden ball in the same year- Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Messi took home the award that night but he made sure he thanked his cohorts and partners in crime looking on with joyous eyes. It was a victory for youth football, more so than anything else.
A brainchild of the visionary philosopher who played and thought about football for a living and became one of the greatest to do it in the process, Johan Cruyff, La Masia has been one of the biggest forges of talent in world football over the last few decades- Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Mikel Arteta, Pedro Rodriguez, Pepe Reina, Thiago Alcantara have all learned their trade at this centre for excellence which was essentially a farmhouse before its massive renovation in 2012 that saw it being shifted to world-class facilities and buildings.
Barcelona's 1987 La Masia generation: When Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique dominated the youth system
Ironically enough, eight years on since that night in Zurich and things are looking extremely south for Barcelona and its relationship with its youth academy and reality has distanced itself from the dreams that it was founded on.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu may unfurl large banners in the stands saying ‘’La Masia No Es Toca” (the Masia is untouchable) but it does little more than barely scratch on the surface as a PR move. The academy pipelines have dried in Catalunya and it is anything but a secret these days. So, what exactly went wrong?
Pep Guardiola's arrival in changed the club's image in the 21st century. The former club skipper utilised all his learnings from the great Johan Cruyff
The youth teams haven’t been as impressive since Barcelona peaked under Pep Guardiola. Its B team has been languid in the third division of Spanish football instead of the usual Segunda division and talents from the academy are finding it hard to establish themselves as first-team regulars and are being sold. Add to that the fact that there’s a flux of young talent who are leaving the academy even before reaching the B teams to attractive offers and sporting prospects from other major European powerhouses and a general sentiment of being unwanted and underappreciated among the academy talents and you have the entire issue. A broad and largely encompassing problem that begins from a lack of a clear plan, priority and direction from the Bartomeu board right down to mediocre personnel at the coaching structure and first team managers refusing to trust these youngsters.
Since Joan Laporta's departure, Sandro Rosell and Josep Bartomeu haven't been able to follow the La Masia tradition
Much of the blame for the recent disarray and disillusionment of La Masia begins with the board. Sandro Rosell and Josep Bartomeu succeeded Joan Laporta’s iconic presidency at Barcelona where the Catalan lawyer established an unprecedented model for success that depended heavily on its academy and its unique style of playing football that was inspired by Cruyffian principles. It’s fair to say Rosell and Bartomeu distanced themselves and unfortunately, the club from the very principles that helped shape its unique identity in world football. Chequebook signings and massive expenditure were favoured. It’s understandable buying superstars or wonderkids like Neymar, Luis Suarez or Ousmane Dembele who would provide different dimensions to the team on the pitch and off it as well but spending unnecessarily on fringe talents like Douglas, Alex Song, Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan, Jeremy Mathieu- players who never had it in them to make it at FC Barcelona and would only complete the squad instead of relying on the academy talents for that very purpose is strong enough evidence about the board’s lack of transparency and incompetent management while dealing with La Masia.
This issue has only worsened ever since Barcelona were slapped with a lengthy transfer ban by FIFA after being guilty of mismanaged U18 signings from other countries. The lengthy FIFA investigation that lasted for two years and ruined the image of the club and its presidents took a catastrophic consequence on the academy and as a result of the ban and even the lack of first-team chances, Barcelona have lost several talented players from the academy itself- Andre Onana (Ajax), Eric Garcia (Manchester City), Sergio Gomez (Borussia Dortmund), Robert Navarro (AS Monaco) and Jordi M’boula (AS Monaco).
Gone are the days, when the Barca first team was dominated by La Masia products
And those who chose to stay with the club instead haven’t received their share of reward for it either. While it can be argued that a lot of this also boils down to individual talent and replicating the production of generational talents like Messi, Xavi, Iniesta was always going to be difficult, if not improbable but the general lack of first-team opportunities from the Pep era compared to now is atrocious. Look at the case of Thiago for instance. Quick feet, slick accurate passing, a tremendous vision and a great composure in controlling the tempo of the game and resisting pressure, Thiago was an amalgamate of the Brazilian flair and Spanish technique during the period he was being integrated into the first team under Pep and was well lined up as the best candidate to ease the departure of the legendary Xavi Hernandez. Enter the Rosell-Bartomeu board. Cesc Fabregas was bought back from Arsenal for 40 million which made it harder for Thiago to game-time and he was eventually sold the following summer to Bayern Munich for a fraction of the price that his talent and age deserved in order to make way for Neymar. Alejandro Grimaldo, one of the finest exponents of the youth academy since Thiago was sold to Benfica for peanuts as Lucas Digne was signed to pretty much play backup to Jordi Alba. Unnecessary and reckless? You bet.
The likes of Carles Alena and Sergi Samper have been knocking on the door for quite sometime
The B team is lying languidly in the third division of Spanish football having been relegated under Eusebio Sacristan which finally reached the tipping point of the B team being exercised as mere short-term projects for managers initiating their coaching careers to fetch quick results and experience. They’re not interested in developing the players, working on their needs or easing their integration into the first team anymore. The players who get the most minutes for the B team now are those that have been signed from other clubs to fetch quick results and are in their early or mid-twenties and not youngsters waiting to burst onto the scene with the first team. You see the large problem at play here?
Gone are the days when Pep Guardiola would start with academy products like Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello in an important Clasico. 21-year-old Carles Alenya, one of the best young potentials in the world has seen only eighty minutes of La Liga action this year having been promoted in the summer. Luis Enrique and even, Ernesto Valverde while stressing otherwise in their press conferences about trusting the youngsters, pretty much showed their backs to La Masia’s pipelines and the departures of Sandro, Grimaldo, Adama Traore, Kaptoum, Arnaiz are as much on them and their failure in developing these talents as it is on the board. And I won’t even go into the discussion regarding Sergi Samper who still stands as a negative example to these budding youngsters on the potential downsides of choosing to stay with the club and ruining their potential and careers. In three seasons under Luis Enrique, only a dozen Masia players made their first team debuts (including friendlies) but nobody achieved consistent playing time or first team attention. Last season, La Masia made a combined total of six appearances under Ernesto Valverde.
Regarded as the pearl in La Masia currently, Xavi Simons is expected to be a future Barca captain
Gone are the days when Tito Vilanova had the resources to field an entire XI comprising of players from the Masia. Under Valverde, Barcelona fielded a team with no La Masia graduates for the first time in 16 years in the 2-2 away draw to Celta Vigo- a deeply worrying sign for the club.
After Iniesta called a twilight on his career by moving to Japan, only Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Rafinha, Sergi Roberto and Carles Alenya are the only academy graduates in the first team now. And to be very honest, the future doesn’t look too good for the likes of Oriol Busquets, Monchu, Chumi, Miranda, Abel Ruiz and of course, the brilliant Riqui Puig. Puig almost left the club this year after disagreements with General Director Pep Segura who has a fascination for the English brand of football as opposed to the Barcelona way, but has been absolutely scintillating in the pre-season displays and has won the adulation of Barca fans already.
19-year-old Riqui Puig is latest in the line of bright prospects from the much-heralded academy
What lies in the future for the academy is hard to gauge. The juvenile team won the UEFA Youth League last season defeating Chelsea 3-0 and playing some exciting football under Garcia Pimienta in the process offers rays of hope and Pimienta’s appointment as B team head coach this season might just act as winds of change. But with this board and a result-hungry manager like Ernesto Valverde in power who are hesitant in placing their trust on the academy, you never know. Right now, the best bet is to wait out the dark times of the academy’s repression, hold on to Alenya, Puig, Oriol Busquets and wait till the Presidential elections of 2021.
Eight years of instability isn’t nearly enough to call the historic La Masia dead or incapable of funnelling future talents for Barcelona. If invested into well and made a proper mandate in board projects, it will return to its erstwhile glory and continue producing the next Messis, Xavis and Puyols for the club and other European clubs as it has done for most of its history.
Published: Sun Dec 30, 2018 02:19 PM IST