The following article was first published on www.thepathismadebywalking.com and is written by Jed Davies (@TPiMBW), author of The Tiki-Taka Handbook. Image courtesy of http://www.sport.es/es/noticias/barca/los-sucesores-1176497
Valdes, Dani Alves, Abidal, Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta,Messi, Pedro, Villa: arguably the greatest team ever to step onto a football field, yet F.C. Barcelona will maintain that the ‘greatest side ever’ is still not perfect, but a snapshot in progress of perpetual evolution.
One thing that is truly remarkable about the side is that eight of the eleven are graduates of the clubs very own youth academy: La Masia, translating as ‘the farmhouse’. Of the 114 Liga goals that Barça had scored this season (2012/13), players from La Masia had scored 89 of them (78%). Aside from the successful current side the academy is responsible for hundreds of top class professional footballers worldwide - Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta, Luis Garcia, Giovani dos Santos, Bojan Krkic, the list goes on and on…
Marti Perarnau, a spanish youth football expert and journalist highlighted recently that the success of the academy comes down to the comprehensive futuristic planning and interrelated philosophy of the club: from the first eleven right down to the ‘Infantil A’ squad.
La Masia, like France’s Clairefontaine and the former ‘Glenn Hoddle Academy’ houses many of it’s students on a full time basis. Each year, more than 1,000 handpicked and scouted boys from the ages of six to eight trial out for admittance and the best 200 are selected. From there onwards the philosophy is taught:
“The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child.” (Pep Guardiola)
Realistically very few survive much more than three years before they are released and their place is given up to a successor. Barca currently handles 256 players between the reserves and the youngest team. During the summer of 2011 – 82 players left and 80 new players were added – chosen from 4,763 trialled players. This natural and extremely competitive process drives evolution not just for the youth teams but for the first team too. The club is broken up into thirteen different teams:
Barcelona A, Barcelona B, Juvenil A, Juvenil B (ages 16-18), Cadet A, Cadet B (14-15), Infantil A, Infantil B (13-14), Alevi A, Alevi B (11-12), Benjami A, Benjami B (9-10), Prebenjami (7-8)
Throughout the entire academy, the same philosophy is taught and where appropriate the same tactical approach is taken from the first team right down to the infantil teams. Youth football in Spain does not play 11v11 until the age of 13, compared to the age of 11 in England.
The directors at Barça’s La Masia are keen to keep a constant line of succession for each and every position on the field, so that a future first team place is a realistic target for any player at La Masia. The basic idea of the system is for one or two players in each year to eventually compete for a first team squad place. This may not sound like a lot, however in comparison with most English Premiership teams this is, over time, of huge differential. Take Liverpool for example, a team that produced Michael Owen, Steven McManaman, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and co in the 90′s, had what seemed like an endless production line of talent. Since then, only Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly have really made an impact on the starting eleven and even then, neither are yet to come anything close to the former crop of youth academy graduates. This is something that has been replicated throughout the English Premier League, with a few rare exceptions. So Barça’s aim of one or two players breaking into a world class squad every year is actually quite something.
So this brings us to the question – who are the current successors to the greatest side of all time? Who, if anyone, can be considered as progress and as part of the eternal evolutionary approach for the club.
Despite years of concern over possible goalkeepers, this is a position that is now amply covered. The struggle to develop world class keepers on a consistent basis became the concern of Andoni Zubizarreta, who, because of his interest in the future of blaugrana goalkeepers, started a specialised area of work directed by Juan Carlos Unzué and Ricard Segarra. The specialised area takes charge of defining the style of the ‘keepers and their formative evolution, including strong emphasis on play with the foot. As indicated by Zubizarreta himself, “it’s not easy to find goalkeepers for Barça considering our [style] of play.”
There are five goalkeepers designated for the future:
Miguel Bañuz, in Barca B; José Aurelio Suárez, alternates in Juvenil A with Joseph Ondoa; Guillermo Lara, is the starter for the Cadete A team. Together with Pol Ballesté, also in Juvenil B
Common characteristics in all of them are: good stature, efficiency with balls in the air, bravery, agility and willingness to play with the foot without fear. The five possess a ‘command’ dedicated to finding the future Víctor Valdés and that suffers one peculiarity: they are accustomed to being needed much more often in the training sessions [to make saves, etc.] than in the matches themselves [because of the Barça style of possession].
RIGHT WING BACKS
While all other positions are well covered, the new ‘problem’ position for Barcelona is now that of the successors to Dani Alves.
Héctor Bellerín – was arguably the most promising in that role but moved to Arsenal (like Fabregas and more recently Jon Toral). The only specialists in the Dani Alves role are those of Martin Montoya (now supplementing the first team squad), Dani Segura and Sergi Palenci in Cadete A and Adrià Piñol in Infantil A. All others were recently released – including the son of former president Joan Laporta (Guim Laporta). Many of the youth teams are therefore consistently playing converted midfielders and centre backs to fill the role. The 21 scouts at the club received instructions at the start of the 2011/12 season to scout for right backs or wingers who could be converted.
LEFT WING BACKS
The remaining defensive positions are extensively covered and at Left back is arguably one of the most gifted players yet to make a first team appearance. Despite only being 16 Alex Grimaldo has been hailed by the coaching staff as a certain future first team player in the near future. Marc Muniesa has been a player called up to the first team on a handful of occasions, whilst Fran Álvarez in Cadete A is another notable talented left wing back.
As for centre backs, the search for a tandem similar to the duo of Piqué-Puyol presents the coincidence that in the cadetes we find Carlos Blanco and Rodrigo Tarín. The left sided cadete Xavi Quintillà can also play central defence as well as in the heart of midfield. With these four and a powerful physical presence (Sergi Gómez) in Barca B, the heart of the blaugrana defence appears to have able successors for the next decade.
The departure of Oriol Romeu has allowed other talented defensive midfielders to have the opportunity at the stake in the future of competing with Sergio Busquets. In Sergi Samper, aged just 16 is a player who could well do just that. Samper has already found himself in the unusual situation of being accelerated two categories as an undisputed starter for Juvenil A [ages 16-18] (when he was just 15). Wilfried Kaptoum, aged 16 is the only other truly notable name in this position.
The present competition for places in the first team means that Thiago and Cesc Fabregas often find themselves on the bench, watching Xavi and Iniesta take the field. This competition for the creative midfield position is found in any one of the Barcelona youth sides too, with a good stock of heirs: Sergi Roberto is a player with potential world class distribution. Javi Espinosa and Macedonian David Babunski are both players with exceptional ball control and dribbling abilities. Joel Huertas is another player noted for his excellent final ball. Simón Colina is making a name for himself as a player with strong playmaking abilities in his control of the rhythm and pace of his team’s play. Lionel Enguene is a player noted for his spectacular finishing and ability to push forward into great goal scoring opportunities; Jordi Ortega is yet another player who displays a remarkable vision of play. Clearly the creative midfielder is a position that La Masia has found great success in developing.
Pedro, Villa, Alexis are being chased down by Cuenca, Tello and Deulofeu for the starting eleven positions in the first team. And soon, they may well be competing with any number of the diverse and highly creative attacking players in the youth teams. Miguel Ángel Sáinz-Maza, Maxi Rolón, Sáinz-Maza and Munir El Haddadi are the best of a very good bunch. Maxi Rolón, the argentine, was brought over from FC Barcelona juniors Luján school the club has in Argentina, one of five Barcelona schools abroad.
While Barcelona seems to be forever mass producing superstars there are a few players throughout La Masia who have taken the teams by storm. Firstly, the two stars of last seasons NextGen Series (The U19 Champions League) are Jean Marie Dongou and Sandro Ramirez. Dongou is a Cameroonian who was discovered at a tournament from the Eto’o foundation. He was the top goal scorer at last years NextGen with 7 goals and scored over 70 goals in a single season despite being a great deal younger than his team mates and opponents. Sandro is a fast, clinical and dynamic forward from the Canary Islands. However, Rafa Alcántara, Thiago Alcántara’s younger brother is making a name for himself in the false no 9 position. Many predict that he will become a player good enough to rival his older sibling for a place in the starting eleven. Sergio Buenacasa is a unique player as he is tall and strong as he is technical, agile, and fast. Miguel Angel is another player who made a number for himself at the NextGen series and scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over Man City. Angel came across calm, confident and scored a goal with each of his feet. During the game he also displayed his ability to run at defenders and play quick intricate interchanges with his team mates.
FINALLY – SOMETHING A BIT DIFFERENT
While many will be given the unfortunate name-tag of ‘The Next Messi’ there are a two very young players who are at present amazing coaches at La Masia. Lee Seung Woo and Takefusa Kubo. Lee Seung Woo is a 14 year old South Korean who in his first year with Barcelona scored 36 goals in 26 games and recently scored his 5th hat-trick of the season and is known for his speed, intelligence and movement. Takefusa Kubo is an extremely young 11 year old Japanese player who has been accelerated ahead an age group. As a general rule, La Masia do not take players into the academy from abroad until they are at least 13. However, Kubo was identified by Barcelona coaching staff while training in the Barcelona School of Fukuoka in Southern Japan. In his first season in Europe he won the award of Most Valuable Player at a youth tournament in Belgium.
The three players with the greatest possibility of breaking the future first team:
1 Alex Grimaldo
2 Jean Marie Dongou
3 Sergi Samper