As featured on Guardian Sport
IN THE 14TH MINUTE of Barcelona’s game against Levante on November 25, 2012, Martin Montoya replaced Dani Alves completing a significant moment in the history of the club. For the first time in Barça’s history the entire first-team comprised of players who had graduated through the club’s historic La Masia academy. Two goals from Lionel Messi and one each from Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas sealed a comfortable 4-0 victory on the way to Barcelona’s 22nd league title.
Valdés, Montoya, Puyol, Piqué, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Fàbregas; the eleven players would go down in folklore as the realisation of Barcelona’s academy-based approach proposed by Johan Cruyff in the late 1970s.
The man who had taken the side to unprecedented heights was Pep Guardiola who knew, better than anyone, what representing the Barcelona shirt and Catalan pride meant, having progressed through La Masia himself before amassing over 300 appearances for Barça.
Not all the players were born in Barcelona; Messi travelled over from Argentina as a 13-year-old. Neither had they all gone straight into the first team; Jordi Alba was brought back to the club from Valencia at a cost of €14 million. However they all understood the ethos instilled by Cruyff’s philosophy and nurtured by Guardiola and his coaches, including the sadly departed Tito Vilanova.
In the 2012-13 season Barcelona’s only other transfer outlay – aside from Alba – was the €18 million spent to buy Alex Song from Arsenal. Marc Muniesa, Cristian Tello, Jonathan dos Santos, Marc Bartra and Montoya were all promoted to the first-team squad to boost Vilanova’s options. Barça stormed to the Liga title with 100 points, 15 points above arch-rivals Real Madrid in second place.
The following season saw a similar transfer structure in place, although this time under Tata Martino, who took over from Vilanova in the summer in what was less than a seamless managerial transition.
Neymar picked Barcelona over a host of Europe’s elite clubs while Rafinha, Sergi Roberto, Oier Olazabal and Gerard Deulofeu were promoted from Barcelona B to the senior squad. However the 2013-14 window was significant for two reasons. Firstly Thiago Alcantara, the regal playmaker, raised in La Masia as the heir to Xavi and Iniesta, followed Guardiola to Bayern Munich for €30 million, a fee that belied his talent.
The fact that Thiago saw first team opportunities limited enough to leave the Camp Nou, despite Xavi and Iniesta’s advancing years, was a worrying sign for a club that had built a reputation on an unwavering trust in its youth.
More importantly, Neymar’s transfer from Santos turned into a boardroom disaster. Sandro Rosell was forced to stand down as Barcelona president after the €57.1 million transfer fee quoted turned out to be nearer to €100 million. Lawsuits were brought forward against several of the parties involved in the transfer including Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barça’s current president, and Neymar’s father. Furthermore Barcelona were hit with a transfer ban which has stopped them from registering players until January 2016.
Planning ahead before the ban was handed down, Barça spent almost €170 million on Luis Suárez, Jérémy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, Ivan Rakitić, Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo and Douglas.
In the same window La Masia graduates Fàbregas, Tello, Bojan, Jonathan, Olazabal, Isaac Cuenca, Denis Suárez, Deulofeu, Puyol and Valdés left the club to either retire or pursue a career away from the Camp Nou. Even with the transfer ban in place, Barça have showed few signs of halting their transfer activity, signing Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal for around €50 million from Atlético Madrid and Sevilla respectively and a potential move for Paul Pogba in the pipeline.
Again, La Masia graduates are leaving the club, with Xavi moving to Qatar to play for Al Sadd, Deulofeu moving to Everton on a permanent basis and Montoya, the player who completed the academy puzzle on November 25, joining Inter Milan. So with a transfer ban in place and the constant pressure applied by a free-spending Real Madrid the obvious question is: are Barça moving away from their academy-based approach?
On the face of it the faith shown in Barça’s youth products looks to be in decline. Only Munir El Haddadi, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha were able to make an impact last season, with other promising youngsters Sandro Ramírez, Adama Traoré and Sergi Samper finding first team chances incredibly rare.
Samper is a prime example of a player that might need to leave the Camp Nou in order to fulfil his undoubted potential. The 21-year-old’s positional sense and technical ability have long made him a standout player for Barcelona B but he is now at an age where he needs to be playing regular first team football.
The arrival of Turan only knocks Samper further down the pecking order and in danger of following the same path as Sergi Roberto who, at 23, looks to be leaving Barcelona despite once being marked as a future star.
The conundrum that faces the likes of Munir and Rafinha is that in order to realise their potential they need to be playing regularly, and with a front line of Suárez, Messi and Neymar to break into that is highly unlikely.
Of the recent graduates to make the step up from Barcelona B to the senior side only Bartra can consider himself anything like a regular, and even that is at a push. Alba, Barça’s undisputed first choice left-back, had to leave Catalonia in order to return a better player.
Álex Grimaldo looks to have the best chance of establishing himself as a regular in the first team squad given Barcelona’s lack of depth in the full-back department, but that was what people thought of Montoya and he now finds himself playing his football elsewhere.
The likes of Samper, Sandro and Munir all have the ability to become mainstays in the Barcelona squad but it remains to be seen whether they will get enough football to reach their potential.
It is too simple to say Barcelona are being forced into a shift in mentality due to Real Madrid’s galactico approach, because that has always been the Madrid way even when Guardiola’s La Masia crop were in their pomp. There may well be a political element creeping into the Camp Nou, with prospective and current presidents keen to stamp their mark on their time in office with a marquee signing like Ronaldinho, Neymar or Suárez.
However, the likely answer is that Barcelona enjoyed a golden generation, the likes of which we would be very lucky to see again, as Manchester United’s class of 1999 and Ajax’s class of 1995 can attest to.
For a club to be blessed with so many outstanding talents from their academy takes hard work, dedication and cerebral coaching, but it also takes a huge chuck of luck. In modern football where television and prize money is gargantuan and winning is everything, would Barcelona supporters be happy sticking with their academy approach to the detriment of their domination of world football?
For some Barcelona supporters the lack of home-grown players coming through into the first team will be seen as a worrying trend. Others will be gleeful at the chance to see Turan, a magician of a midfielder, put on the famous Barcelona shirt, unperturbed by the fact that someone like Samper has been forced out because of his move.
The next 12 months are shaping up to be pivotal in the medium-term future of La Masia and its famed productivity.
By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist