La Masia is not what it used to be, that much we already know.
The 2010 era at Barcelona, where the club had – according to Ballon d’Or voting – the world’s top three footballers in Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, was always going to be tricky to replicate.
Yet nobody expected it to be as bad as it has been for the Catalan giants. With such a strong philosophy rooted in the development of youth prospects, nurturing them from a tender age to one day appear for the first team, the results have been poor in recent years.
Former manager Louis van Gaal once dreamed of winning the Champions League at Barça with 11 homegrown players, and the media made a mockery of him. Yet in 2009, La Blaugrana lifted the trophy with eight of them.
In 2012, Barca travelled to Valencia to take on Levante in a La Liga clash. Originally starting the match with Dani Alves at right back, the Brazilian was forced off with an injury just 15 minutes in, and made way for Martin Montoya. As the current Brighton defender entered the frame, for the first time in their 120-year existence, Barça had fielded a full XI of La Masia graduates.
And what a team it was. Then manager Tito Vilanova steered the club through one of the proudest moments in its long, illustrious history, as La Blaugrana won the match 4-0.
Despite fielding a full squad of academy players, Vilanova handed just one debut to a Masia graduate during his tenure. Carles Planas was the only player to appear for the first team, and the left back now plays his football in Cyprus with AEK Larnaca.
Since La Masia’s heyday in 2012, it has become increasingly difficult for academy players to get consistent opportunities in the starting lineup. As Barça grew in stature, the club transitioned into a results based phase, moving away from Johan Cruyff’s performance based theory.
Players would get opportunities based on their ability rather than the scoreline. As results dipped for the B team and mass changes in personnel were made, young prospects began to opt for moves away. Promising players like Alex Grimaldo, Sergi Gomez, Eric Garcia and Dani Olmo all left the club in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
Barça entered a new period of shoddy recruitment in an attempt to clutch onto their mammoth status. In hindsight, it was a weak decision to let the now coveted Grimaldo slip away, opting for a largely unsuccessful Lucas Digne.
Similarly, Sergi Roberto, now a regular performer in the first team, was made to wait patiently for his opportunity due to the signings of Andre Gomes and Paulinho, both of whom have left the club in recent years. And even now, he has to play at right back instead of central midfield.
In April 2018, under the now departed Ernesto Valverde, Barça lined up without any La Masia graduates for the first time in 16 years. With the club publicly unwilling to pay agent demands for the contract renewals of youth players, young stars are seeking more prosperous deals elsewhere, such is the nature of the modern game.
Infamous super-agent Mino Raiola is responsible for the latest high profile youth departure – Xavi Simons. Deemed one of the most exciting players in La Masia’s recent history, the Dutch youth international was lured away with a big-money move to PSG.
With Barcelona now making moves in the transfer market, swapping Arthur for Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic, it may be in the best interests of the club to re-adopt the philosophy that once served them so well.
The introduction of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati has been an encouraging step in the right direction, with both proving they can cope with high level demands. It remains to be seen what opportunities will be handed to the likes of Carles Alena, Juan Miranda and Oriol Busquets, each of whom have been tipped for success, yet shipped out on loan.
Pjanic undoubtedly adds quality in midfield, though the club’s thinking seems muddled, what with Alena and Puig waiting in the wings.
The class of 2012 proved to be extremely successful for Barcelona. La Liga titles were never far away, even if Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid stole the odd one here and there, and it’s frightening to see how La Masia has been disregarded in favour of frantic and confused incomings in recent years.
Barça need to be handing more youth players the opportunity to develop at the highest level. The cultured Pjanic may be able to make a more instant impact, but if Quique Setien wants to steer the club into a new era of long-lasting dominance, they have to start to trust in their youth again.