La Masia: Barcelona Youth Hindered by Expectation

La Masia: Barcelona Youth Hindered by Expectation  -
BARCELONA, SPAIN – MARCH 15: A FC Barcelona badge at the entrance to the La Masia, the former FC Barcelona training facilities located near the Camp Nou on March 15, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

Barcelona – A club famous around the world for tiki-taka football, dominance in Spain and their brilliant youth squads. More recently, however, their academy has been faltering. In the 2011 Champion’s League final, seven of their 11 fielded players were academy graduates; this season, while five of their most-used eleven come from the youth academy, all five are either nearing or entering their thirties and have been at the club for years. It would seem the production chain of La Masia graduates has ground to a halt.

Barcelona’s youth academy used to be the envy of the world. It produced the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, legends of the Camp Nou. Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas‘ Golden Boy successes in the Noughties proved Barcelona’s dominance of youth. Such talent has yet to grace La Masia academy again since. Now we are left to ponder where the academy has fallen short in recent years.

Barcelona Youth Falling Short of Expectation

A Sign of the Times?

The rise in TV revenue in football has increased lavish spending amongst the bigger European clubs. Greater emphasis is placed on winning silverware, clubs throw financial caution to the wind in the hope of securing trophies. Barcelona shelled out €100 million last summer on Arthur Melo, Malcom and Clement Lenglet, three stars yet to reach their ceiling. The more recent €75 million acquisition of Ajax wonderkid Frenkie de Jong and a heavily-mooted move for teammate Matthijs de Ligt shows that the club is focusing on Europe rather than favouring internal talent like the old days.

Putting faith in your own talent is more of a risk than waiting for other, smaller clubs to do so. Barcelona often employed the tactic of selling on their talent with buyback clauses to ensure they don’t lose out totally. This is another manner of ensuring their interests are protected in the long term. Other clubs develop the players, Los Culés swoop in when the time is ripe.

Who Next to Burst Onto the Scene?

A club like Barcelona will always be brimming with young talent waiting in the wings. Their success in the 2018 UEFA Youth League showcased this. These are just a few of the players hoping to make a breakthrough in the years to come;

Carles Alena has been on the fringes of the first team this season; a combative midfielder with an eye for goal. Riqui Puig, the 18-year-old central midfielder has been tipped by many Barca fans as the heir apparent to Andres Iniesta.

Meanwhile, Juan Miranda has been deputizing for Jordi Alba a left back this season. He was pivotal in the youth team’s attack, providing five assists on route to the UEFA Youth League trophy.

These are huge boots to fill, and perhaps this is why the academy is coming up short recently; the expectation of immediate success is an enormous weight on these youngsters’ shoulders. Any youngster with a hint of significant potential will always be a victim of comparisons with Barca legends.

Have Ajax Taken the Mantle?

Ajax’s footballing machine has been famed for producing the likes of Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert. More impressive still, a youth academy graduate has appeared in the starting eleven of every one of Ajax’s games since 1981. Their success in the Champion’s League this season shows that money is not the key to the beautiful game.

They stunned Real Madrid and Juventus with a beautiful style of play and with half of their team made up of youth products. Matthijs de Ligt has already made over 100 appearances for the club, become its captain and scored the crucial goal against Juventus to book them their first semi-final place since 1997, all at the tender age of just 19.

Ajax are one of the biggest clubs in Holland. Though, with significantly less interest in Dutch football across the world than in the big four (England, Spain, Italy and Germany), there is less financial risk in starting their young stars. As long as these talents keep coming, the future sales of these players will buoy Ajax even more.

Transfers like de Jong’s big money move to Barcelona in the summer seem to be what are holding many La Masia graduates back from developing in the first team. For them to realistically have enough first-team opportunities, Barcelona would need to sell their first team stars.

Instead, they now find themselves forced out on loan. The ever-growing financial clout in the game is hindering their development. Ajax can continue producing talent at their current rate, enjoying domestic success without much pressure on their European performance.

Whereas European giants Barcelona will likely not be able to put such faith in their youth as they have done in the past. Maybe the success of Ajax can serve as a reminder that money is not the be-all and end-all of the beautiful game.