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The future for FA Barcelona’s youth academy

This post has been prompted by a couple of talking points in the media. The first relates to the Spanish under 21 team’s victory in the recent European Championship. The remarkable fact is that this very talented squad contained not a single player from Barcelona. Almost unheard of in the past.

 

The second point is a bit more long standing and is about the lack of young players from the B team getting promoted to the first team squad. The youth academy, the famous La Masía, was once the pride and joy of Barça, with an apparently never ending production line of some of the best players in the world. Think of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets etc. What, if anything, has gone wrong?

 

As a starting point I have looked at the figures for B team players moving to the first team squad. The period I have chosen for this analysis is from the 2003/04 season to last season, 2018/19. A period of 16 seasons. I chose to start in 2003/04 as this was the beginning of the new Joan Laporta reign in charge of the club and the first season with Frank Rijkaard as coach. during this  period a total of 21 players from the B team were promoted to the first team squad.

 

The following key points emerged:
  1. Only a tiny number of B team players make it to the first team. The average worked out at just over one player per season.
  2. An even smaller number of B team players go on to become first team regulars. I define this as someone who plays around 65% of matches for more than two seasons. Over the 16 year cycle only five of the B team players promoted to the first team became regular players for more than two seasons.
  3. Apart from Thiago Motta and Thiago Alcántara, no other potential first team regulars have left the club. This refers to players who went directly from the B team to the first team.
  4. None of the other former B team players has gone on to play for a team of similar standing to FC Barcelona.
  5. There has been a very noticeable drop in the number of B team players who have gone on to become first team regulars. Since the arrival of Pedro and Busquets in 2008, only one other B team player has become a first team regular. This is Sergi Roberto who was promoted to the first team back in 2013, and became a regular in the 2015/16 season.
The last point is probably the most relevant as to why there are serious questions about the youth academy (La Masía) and B team at Barcelona. One success in 10 years is poor reward. So what may have caused this lack of success?
  1. In 2014 FIFA imposed a two period transfer ban on Barcelona, preventing them from signing new players. This was in response to the club being found guilty of breaching FIFA’s rules on the transfer of players aged under 18. As a result of this decision Barcelona lost a significant number of talented juvenile players. Some of whom may have gone on to reach the first team squad.
  1. The FIFA ban may also have had an adverse effect on the club’s scouting system. Certainly for a spell afterwards Barcelona did not manage to sign any of the up and coming talent in Spain or elsewhere. Which perhaps explains why not a single Barça player made the recent under 21 squad.
Looking Ahead
Last season one player from the B team did get promoted to the first team – Carles Aleñá. He missed the first half of the season through injury, but has played well when required, and will continue with the first team for this season. Will he make it to a third?

 

Will anyone get promoted for the coming season? The most likely is Riqui Puig, who is regarded as probably the most gifted youngest to emerge for many a year. He has already played a few times for the first team, and his class is there to see. An attacking, creative midfielder, he faces stiff competition to secure a place. As does Aleñá, who is also an attacking creative midfielder.

 

Another name that has been mentioned is centre forward Abel Ruiz. He may be the natural successor to Luis Suárez, if the club decide not to buy in a replacement. May have to wait a year yet.

 

Abel Ruiz is one of no less than six Barça players who are in the Spanish under 19 squad for the upcoming European Championship. A further two players in the squad are former Barcelona players who recently left the club to sign for Manchester City and Dortmund respectively.  This may be a clear sign that La Masía has begun to recapture its former glory.

 

The one major cloud on the horizon is the risk of losing players when still juveniles. The last two seasons has seen five teenagers leave the club to try and improve their chances of first team football elsewhere. In part this is a reflection of how difficult it is to break into the Barça first team squad, let alone become a regular first team player. Only time will tell if those who have left succeed.

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The All new Barça – A winning team?

The new La Liga seasons starts this weekend and Barcelona play their first match this evening. So time for a bit of reflection on the summer’s transfer activity.  It is not quite all change at the club, but this time around they have gone for more of a revolution than evolution. Luis Enrique, the new head coach, does have extensive Barcelona connections as a player and as B team coach. However he has been brought in to oversee some radical changes. Not so much in the way the team plays, which is expected to only show slight changes from previous years, but more in terms of discipline and fitness.

As regards the squad this had changed significantly, with a high turnover of comings and goings. Starting with the goalkeeper, both Valdés and his deputy José Manuel Pinto, have left the club. Two new keepers have been signed, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, while Jordi Masip has been promoted from the B team. Barça now have three very good goalkeepers, but we will have to wait to see if any of the three can reach the consistently high standard set by Valdés.

Finally we get to see some new faces in the centre of the defence. Two experienced and tall centre backs have been signed – Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. The team now has four recognised centre backs, the two newcomers plus Piqué and Bartra. This may turn out to be five as Javier Mascherano has played in defence in most of the pre-season matches. Mathieu and Vermaelen will add much needed experience and solidity to the defence. But it has to be doubted whether either can reach the levels of commitment and leadership of the sadly departed Carles Puyol.

In midfield at first sight it looks like a straight swap of Ivan Rakitic for Cesc Fàbregas. But as Cesc was more often used in attack it looks like Rakitic has come to replace Xavi in the first team. At one stage it looked like Xavi was going to leave the club during the summer, but he has decided to stay and fight for a place in the first team. Presumably Rakitic has been bought to add a bit of physical presence to the midfield as well as his undoubted skill. Still it will be a very different Barça without Xavi controlling the midfield. Sergi Roberto is the fourth midfielder, but he as yet has shown little sign that he can become a first choice player. Sergi Busquets remains the first choice for the defensive midfield organiser. Everyone assumed that Alexandre Song would leave the club and that Mascherano would offer competition to Busquets in this role, but as yet this has not happened.

Quite a few changes in attack for this season. Alexis has gone to Arsenal, while Luis Suarez has come in. If he keeps his cool, Suarez with his prolific scoring record should provide Barça with a potent attacking trio, alongside Messi and Neymar. However Suarez is not available for another two months, which should provide another opportunity for Pedro to shine. Luis Enrique welcomed back two loan players, Deulofeu and Rafinha. Somewhat surprisingly Deulofeu has already been loaned out again, this time to Sevilla. Rafinha, the younger brother of Thiago Alcántara looks likely to become the fifth option for the attack. The biggest surprise of the pre-season has probably been the youngster Munir, who ended up the leading goal scorer. He is also likely get an opportunity or two to demonstrate his talents.

All in all, the squad has gained in experience and solidity compared to last season. Once Suarez is available the attack looks very exciting. However both Neymar and Messi missed lots of matches last season due to injury. If either or both succumb again, the cover is not very deep. The midfield should be at least as good as recent years, with Rakitic to provide fresh legs and Xavi still around to provide that extra touch of class. The defence including the goalkeeper is where most uncertainty lies. We do not as yet know who will be first choice either as keeper or as the two centre backs. This is the area of the team that most needs continuity of selection to build up the mutual understanding that is crucial to any title winning team.

Once again we should see lots of goals from this team, but it may take more than one season to build a team that can win titles. Much will depend on whether the midfield and defence can settle into a pattern and how quickly this can be achieved. Whatever happens it will not be easy to win anything either in Spain or in Europe. Both Real and Atlético remain formidable teams, while the challenges from England and Germany are getting even stronger. Let the games begin!

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