“People come here to Barcelona to learn our magic secret like it’s Coca Cola’s recipe. But it’s not that simple. There is no secret. La Masia is a product of years of hard work by many different people who believed in the same idea and system – which is not secret either.”
– The iconic La Masia trainer, Joan Vilá, in an interview with Michael Burgess in 2016
How can an academy, a few years ago associated with perfectionism, be so questioned today? In many people’s answers to this, they make the common mistake that Joan Vilá describes:
“Believing there is one right way to do it; certain people to be used; one recipe. And then they will take one missing thing out of the equation and say: This is missing! But there is no equation.”
Many journalists and analysts create a simplistic reality. At most times with a “good/evil” interpretation, where the Laporta-Rosell dualism is the classic example – and although they can partly be right, the reality is more complex. Many other articles are good at delving into one factor that has affected La Masia’s decline but are failing to look at the whole. I have therefore summarised various points, created an overview and assessed which ones are most significant.
La Masia is not what it has been. In 2012, Tito Vilanova played with 11 La Masia players for 60 minutes against Levante for the first time in history. Two years before 2010, the world’s top three players consisted of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, according to Balon d’Or. All raised by the same school and idea: La Masia.
In the summer of 2014, Barça was convicted of the illegal acquisition of some international youth players, which meant that the club received a transfer ban and at the same time had to say goodbye to a number of great talents. They could not return before they turned 18. Although it is unfair to expect the same success around La Masia as you experienced at the end of the 00s, the contrast to today is very big. What happened? I have collected six reasons sorted by importance.
6: Too little cynicism in the disposal of talents
Adama Traoré, Bartra, Thiago, Deolefeu, Andreu Fontas, Pablo Moreno, Jose Arnaiz, Bellerín, Sandro, Seung Woo Lee, Mboula, Halilović, Eric Garcia, Grimaldo, Gumbau, Nolito and Icardi.
These are just a few of many home-grown talents who have left Barça. Although it is depressing for a Culé to think about, Catalan journalists argue that one of La Masia’s problems is an inability to get rid of talents – and not to hold on to them.
It is argued that there is a frightened mindset among youth coaches who stagnate the system. “What won’t be said about me if I release this player and he ends up playing in Real Madrid” is what many coaches should think. Football is unpredictable. When Sergio Busquets and Pedro played for Barça B, no one predicted that they would be where they are today. In fact, everyone had put their money on Gai Assulin. Heard of him?
Pep Segura, who is currently in charge of the football department at the club, has previously emphasised, in 2014, that this problem should be fixed:
“The possibility of loaning out players is not used well enough. 10% of B players should come to the first team, 40% should be lent and the rest should be released to make room for new U19 players. Hard decisions must be made to not stagnate the system.”
Segura was previously a youth trainer at the club and was appointed as a director in the football department in 2015 and thereby ending a spell at Liverpool as their academy director. We now see, that more Barça players are loaned out.
This problem is reflected in the troop sizes. Most youth teams have between 22 and 26 players, which means that many talents are sitting on the bench without any game minutes. The same minutes they could get in many other places. Ajax consistently keeps their squad under-18 players but for example, Barça’s Juvenil B (U18) has a squad of 26 players, Juvenil A (U19) has 22 players and the B team has 24 this season.
However, the reverse is also dangerous. A club like Chelsea FC has a very aggressive rental policy and are also releasing many players. They have lost talents such as Kevin de Bruyne, Lukaku and Salah.
5: Players lack humility
Young players get a lot of media attention and many have a skewed self-perception before they are 17 years old.
Barças Xavi Simons is, for example, only 15 years old, but still has 1.3 million followers on Instagram and is involved in advertisements along with Kevin de Bruyne, Neymar and Coutinho.
This self-perception that young football players today does not resemble the reality just a few years back. Today, they are so honoured and confident that they will take over where they get the most money – instead of being humble and faithful to their club. We live in a time of low loyalty and frequent club changes. This applies to all clubs.
Take Pablo Moreno as an example. He was sold this summer for almost 1 million euro for Juventus FC and he is only 16 years old! A Jordi Mboula who had just turned 18 was bought by Monaco last summer for 3 million euros. Héctor Bellerín went to Arsenal FC at 16 years old. The same age had both Keita Baldé who went to Lazio and the defensive talent Eric Garcia who went to City for 2 million euros last summer. But can you blame them? To stay until you are 25 as Marc Bartra did, and be a third or fourth choice and win titles you do not really participate in?
Leaving your home and the football club that has done everything for you requires a special mentality and self-understanding. These kids move to other countries at the young age of 16. Typically, in the Spanish culture, a young man will not leave home until he is in his mid/late twenties. This mentality is completely different among football’s greatest talents. Just watch City’s Jadon Sancho leave them in favour of Dortmund or Brahim Diaz just transferring to Real Madrid. From the age of 12, they are treated like adults by their coaches, judges, teammates and parents on the sidelines.
But perhaps this mentality is a necessity to triumph in the world of football. Marc Bartra, who has been 14 years at the club, looks back on a tough and competitive childhood that he did not enjoy. Bartra told The Players Tribune:
“The worst part was the knowledge that if the coaches were just a little dissatisfied with you, they would get another one. That’s La Masia. All the children will play there. You saw talents come from – not just the whole of Spain – but the whole world. Mexico, Brazil, Germany, everywhere. Then you thought: If I do not perform, I will not be here next year. The others will though. Believe me, this is the epitome of pressure. Especially when you are 10 years old. I didn’t have the maturity to handle it. You live as a full-grown professional, but you are still a child. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it much.”
That is why it may be necessary to possess some cynicism to succeed in the world of football. This just often does not go hand-in-hand with loyalty. If you want to top, be a pro and win everything, you usually tend to push everything aside – even your own football club. Players like Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets are getting rarer and less frequent. People who both have a strong winning mentality and at the same time, great loyalty. They spent several seasons gaining ground on the team, where they were primarily sitting on the bench. We must pay tribute to these remaining types like Carles Aleñá and Sergi Roberto.
Perhaps the lack of loyalty can be due to more and more international players coming into La Masia who do not have the same affiliation with the club. This is also criticised by several journalists. When you walk through the gates of Manchester United’s academy, a picture of Lionel Messi cleaning his own boots meets your eyes. A small but essential effort from Manchester United to dwindle the egos of their young “rockstars.”
4: Better teams = more pressure
Talent development around the world suffers from the same paradox: the better players you produce, the better the first team and the better the next generation must be to break through. Below is the team where Xavi and Puyol debuted. It’s not a legendary team at all. The season is 99/00, Louis van Gaal is the coach and they won nothing this season. Although Xavi’s direct opponent was Guardiola, he was an old man who played his penultimate season for the club.
Below is the team where Iniesta and Valdés debuted during the 02/03 season, where the team finished number six in La Liga.
Our golden tiki-taka generation emerged during periods of poor results and mediocre troops. There were fewer predecessors and expectations were less. That meant that there were less pressure and more space to count on talents. Rakitić stated this in an interview with Sport some months ago:
“I would love to see a generation like Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Valdés, Messi emerge every second year. But it is not easy. Barcelona has reached such a high level that there is no room to test and then see what happens. The players must really be talented before it is possible. If the first team was worse, it would have been much easier.”
While the first team has become much better, another phenomenon is also seen within the club that increases the pressure on talents. Result minded football.
Johan Cruyff was known to always ask the youth coaches how their team had played in a given match, and never what the result had been. This ideology that Cruyff created has diluted a bit. We have gone from “we must develop players” to “we must win.”
Take the B team as an example. In 2007, Guardiola and Tito Vilanova took over a historically bad B-team, who had just been relegated the fourth worst division. Guardiola introduced a new system of “foundation players.” These players were typically purchased from other clubs and were older than the others. They made sure to create results and made room for the talents to develop. However, it was important that they were sold again after about two years so that they would not stand in the way of talents.
When Eusebio became the B-team coach in 2011, he took this system too literally. The foundation players went from having a supporting function to taking the place of the talents. Why? Result minded football. Eusebio did, however, create really good results in his four years (despite his last season), but he did not develop players.
This ideology that prioritizes short-term results, has spread behind the club’s doors under Sandro Rosell’s and now Bartomeu’s presidency. The transfer policy that has been run is a perfect example of the fear of bad results by using academy players. Why sell Grimaldo in the winter of 2015 and buy Lucas Digne the next summer? Why buy midfielders such as André Gomes and Paulinho when players like Aleña and Roberto waited patiently for their chance? Or our latest purchase Jeison Murillo when you have Chumi that impresses at the B team?
On the other hand, there have also been good purchases such as Lenglet, Arthur, Coutinho and Dembélé who have performed better than any academy player probably would have done. So, it’s really about finding the middle way between being the unique club that only uses the academy or the best club that only buys stars. Talents do not produce results at first – not even Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta as we saw before. Ajax Amsterdam is almost solely using talents in the first team and is some years fantastic and other years not. Talents do not come on continuously, and if you bet on them, you must accept that the results in some periods do not go your way.
Another example of result fixation is the firing of the B-team trainers Jordi Vinyals in 2015 and Gerard López in 2018 because they moved down. This was not normal beforehand to fire the B team coach because of relegation. You were often relegated and it was quite normal. One did not evaluate the B team and La Masia on their results but on the quality of the players that were developed – and how many. This long-term way of thinking has altered a little, and a constant replacement of staff does not create the basis for building something long-term. On the other hand, the firing of the two paved the way to Xavi García Pimienta, which I consider to be the perfect coach for the B team.
To be continued tomorrow…