This article was written in the spring of 2019. A shortened version of this analysis can be seen in video format at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b-EzUmWx7E
This analysis is the english and shortened version of https://fcbarcelonacentralen.dk/2019/01/18/overblik-sket-la-masia-sidste-del/
“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 analyzes 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 summarized 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. 2 years before in 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. 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 6 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 about him?
Pep Segura, who is currently in charge of the football department at the club, has previously emphasized, 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.”
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 honored 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 as 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 favor 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 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 criticized by several journalists.
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 was 99/00, Louis van Gaal was the coach and they won absolutely nothing that 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 squads. 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 last summer:
“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 2 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 the transfer of Jeison Murillo from Valencia 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 balance 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 their team was relegated. It 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.
3: The players are not given the chance at the first team
Another obvious reason for La Masia degenerating is the first team coaches that have not shown trust to the academy players. Going from a Pep Guardiola who made a virtue of using young players to Luis Enrique and Valverde has certainly made many talents look for clubs with better opportunities for first-team football.
After a match in 2010, Guardiola stated that “the biggest victory is to give a La Masia player their debut”. A total of 28 young talents from La Masia made their debut during Guardiola, but since his resignation in 2012, it has only gone downhill. Although Tito Vilanova (Guardiola’s successor) put 11 La Masia players on the field against Levante in November 2012, he only gave one academy player a debut during his year in charge. The lucky one was Carles Planas. Luis Enrique and Valverde have been so focused on results that they have counted minimal on La Masia players. Back in April, Barça lined up without any La Masia players for the first time in 16 years.
Piqué also acknowledged back in August that the lack of showing confidence in the youth is part of the problem, but that money – which is described in the next chapter – also is: “The more confidence you give for your own breeding, the greater the chance there is for those to stay. However, it is also true that some youth players choose the money rather than the sports project.”
However, it is not the first time in Barça’s history that there has been a lack of room for talents in the first team. For example, Piqué and Fabrègas left when Barça – after years of depression – was suddenly a winning side under the likes of Ronaldinho and the coach Frank Rijkaard. Also players like Arteta, Nolito and Pepe Reina left La Masia before they broke through the first team. These three never came back. While this may seem frustrating, it is important to remember that most people who are leaving Barça gradually disappear. An example is Arnau Riera who was Messi’s captain in the B team, but whose career went completely to the sink when he left Barça. He became a hotel receptionist at the age of 32. Also, players like Halilović and Lee Seung Woo, who were predicted a great future, roam today among mediocre teams with swinging performances.
Some will think that the quality of the youth players is declining and that is why fewer of them are accessing the first team. However, Andrés Iniesta does not buy that one: “There are many people who work in the academy and find the right players. There will always be quality players because we have the world’s best academy. The problem is to give them hope and confidence,” said Iniesta in an interview with Onda Cero on November 6th, 2018.
2: Great “pull effect”
Many talents have moved to other European clubs in recent years. Those include highly anticipated talents like Sergio Gomez of 18 years who went to Borussia Dortmund, Adrián Bernabe of 17 years to Manchester City and 16-year-old Robert Navarro to Monaco. It is just as much external issues that cause this as internal. In the world of football, a great pull-effect is seen, which is primarily due to agents. Agents have infiltrated the football game and they headhunt their players as young as 12 years old. This writer conversated with people inside top clubs and he got the same answer to their perception of modern football’s biggest problem: agents.
Every time an agent seals a new contract for their player, they get a commission. The bigger the contract, the greater the bonus. Agents have – apart from taking care of the player’s administrative work – a hidden agenda. Namely getting his player to change clubs as much as possible, as it means cold cash in their own pocket.
At the same time, we see a tendency for big clubs to happily use extreme sums of money on the youth section – which increases the pull effect to the benefit of the agents. Real Madrid has spent 100 million euros on the renewal of their talent academy “La Fábrica”, and most recently bought an 18-year-old Vinicius Júnior for 45 million euros. In 2014, Manchester City published a brand-new academy that cost 220 million euros. The architects behind are former leaders during the Laporta era: Txiki Begiristain who is sports director and Ferran Soriano who is CEO.
In Europe, only AFC Ajax refuses to work with agents working with players under the age of 16. Barça lacks – like many others – a way (or the courage) to deal with this money-prone tendency nourished by the expenditure of big clubs on youth football.
Pep Segura, the current head of football, says about the problem: “We always try to help our youth players. But we will never pay what some agents demand. This involves extreme sums – like 1-2 million euros for a guarantee that a player, who is already ours, will stay with us.”
As a comfort, it is worth remembering that Barça is quite good at exploiting the possibility of a buy-back clause when the luck is out and the player leaves. Just look at Piqué, Fabrégas, Denis Suárez, Deolefeu and Jordi Alba who were all bought back at favorable prices after not breaking through at the start.
Reason 1: Brain drain? No, rather too many brains
August 2020: Much has happened since in regards to organizational instability (reason 1). For example, Abidal was fired in August 2020 and replaced by Ramon Planes as the sporting director and Patrick Kluivert was appointed the head of youth football in July 2019.
The biggest reason for La Masia’s decline is instability. In recent years a lot of unrest has occurred inside the club. People were dismissed and scapegoats were found. The management, the coaches and the structure of the club has changed several times. What exactly happened?
Until Laporta took charge of the club in 2003, La Masia was the product of the work done by coaches and leaders that had been there for decades. Oriol Tort, Laureano Ruiz and Joan Martínez Vilaseca were the first masters that bred the academy from its start in 1979 till the end of the millennium. Along the way – in the 1980s and 1990s – came teachers like Joan Vilà, Albert Benaiges, Quique Costas, Rodolfo Borrell (now assistant manager in Manchester City), Paco Seirullo, Albert Capellas and Álex García.
When Laporta became president, FC Barcelona was in a dilemma. The commercialization of football was accelerating, and big money was pumped into certain clubs by hyper-wealthy people and organizations. This divided FC Barcelona. Should we keep on being unique or should we follow the flow? Should we forget traditions and instead get sponsors on the shirt or open offices in other countries to compete with wealthier clubs?
Sandro Rosell, the vice president at the time, was the first one to quit. He did so in 2005 as a protest against Laporta’s romantic approach to the issues. He wrote books on the naïve stupidity of Laporta. From then on, he gained tremendous support behind the scene. In 2009 people were tired of Laporta, as he refused to step down as president after a vote of no confidence. The biggest round of resignations took place. Many coaches, employees and board members resigned. Including the teachers Álex García and Rodolfo Borrell.
In 2010 Sandro Rosell was elected president. In the wake of a politically divided FC Barcelona, Rosell replaced his “enemies” with his own people. For example, he fired Benaiges, Alexanko and Albert Capellas who were in charge of the academy. Instead he brought in people like Guillermo Amor and Albert Puig. As the FIFA scandal emerged in 2014 (illegal acquisition of foreign minors) scapegoats had to be found. Another round of sackings. Amor and Puig were the main responsible and got fired.
Suddenly Rosell resigned in 2014 because of controversies regarding the Neymar transfer. Vice president at the time, Josep Bartomeu, then took over the rudder and this meant even more change.
replaced Rosell’s fired people with yet another round of people. For example, he
made Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira leaders of the academy – and later rehired
Amor along with José Mari Bakero to take control over the professional part of
The point is: Since the last past of Laporta’s presidency, constant switches in organization and personnel happened. Why? Because of politics, enemies, scandals and resignations. In 4 years we experienced 3 different presidents! You get a good picture of this by looking at the evolution of the sporting director position: Abidal replaced Robert Fernandéz last summer. Robert Fernandéz replaced the technical committee before him. The technical committee replaced Zubizarreta who in 2010 replaced Txiki Begiristain. That is a lot of replacements!
Many people think – like I once did – that these changes caused a brain drain. It is said that Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu are the ones responsible for firing too many masters and teachers from the academy. And while they did to some extent, it isn’t the difference in competence one got be losing some and hiring others that is the culprit. It is the instability itself. The aforementioned people that formed players like Messi, Puyol, Iniesta and Xavi aren’t gods whose knowledge only they possess. And the people that replaced those, like Amor, Albert Puig and Roura, aren’t evil or stupid. Let’s look on some of the masters we have lost:
- Albert Capellas: A real Laporta man (though he was hired before Laporta). He was dismissed in 2010 by Rosell, which caused criticism. He later became the assistant coach in Danish club Brøndby IF but he was quickly downgraded to U17 coach. Then he went to Israel as an assistant coach in Maccabi Tel Aviv but was there for a short time as he was offered the assisting manager role in Borussia Dortmund in the 16/17 season. He was fired half a year into the season. Not an impressive story for a “genius,” right?
- – Óscar Garciá: “Pep’s successor” according to laportistas. Óscar left Barça because he didn’t get to manage the B team as decided by Rosell. Since then he has been in countless clubs, never more than a year at a time: Maccabi Tel Aviv, Brighton & Hove Albion, Watford, Red Bull Salzburg, Saint-Etienne and most recently Olympiacos. And even if Rosell was criticized for dismissing a true Laporta/Cruyff man like Óscar, it was ironically under Rosell that he was hired.
- Benaiges: Benaiges was scattered with the wind after 2010. Benaiges switched from jobs in many small clubs. Al-Wasl SC to Chivas in Mexico to Cibao FC and now to Vissel Kobe where Iniesta also plays.
Vilá: The icon did not have his contract extended in 2017. But before giving
the management a scolding, it was ironically the same people who got him
re-recruited in 2014 after he went away in 2001 for the same reason as Óscar
Moreover, Vilá is 64 years old. Quique Costas “the coach who could predict best a player’s potential” that was dismissed in 2014, is 72 years old. Benaiges is 69 years old. In any case, you would have to find replacements in a short period of time. If these gentlemen have done their job properly, I am sure they have left behind a lasting legacy and taught enough to avoid their skills disappearing as soon as they physically disappear.
Laporta also has his share of losing people – like Álex García and Rodolfo Borrell. His leadership style was criticized a lot and board member Ferran Soriano was one of many to resign. Today Ferran is the CEO of Manchester City and has build an impressive academy and brought people like Pep Guardiola, Rodolfo Borrell and Txiki Begiristain. Even though Laporta managed to strengthen parts of the academy with the leadership of Benaiges and Alexanko (for example they made sure more players reached the B team and first team), he had his shair of failures. It was under Laporta that FC Barcelona opened an academy in Cameroon. This was the first step in a shift of focus towards foreign and more physical players.
Bartomeu and Rosell have also done good things. Among others: the re-appointment of Alex García, Joan Vilá and the introduction of full-time professional youth coaches. Sandro Rosell did make a massive fail by appointing Eusebio as the B-team manager in 2011, but Bartomeu has ‘recovered’ this by appointing Garcìa Pimienta – even though he used Jordi Vinyals and Gerard Lopéz in the process. The point is that the picture of Laporta as a god and Rosell/Bartomeu as the evil ones is not very accurate.
The replacements made by Sandro Rosell and Bartomeu are easily as competent as older masters. Amor himself was bred by La Masia and is the 6th most capped La Masia player of all times. Benaiges, for example, gives a great deal of credit for La Masia’s success to Amor. Albert Puig, Jordi Roura, Altimira and Bakero as well have a huge knowledge on the development of talents. “The Power of a Dream” is, for example, a great book written by Albert Puig where he analyzes which keys, values and conditions that make youth football flourish. The point is that these people’s ideas are as good as the ideas from before. The problem isn’t the ideas. The problem is the integration of these ideas, because an idea is only as good as the extent of its implementation.
Instability is the reason for why those great ideas were poorly put into practice. There are mainly two explanations for why this is true.
First, coaches and leaders did not have enough time to fulfill their ideas. Benaiges said the following when he was presented as a youth coordinator in the Mexican club Chivas: “In the formation of players, the word ‘quickly’ does not exist.” Ideas, especially the ones of Barça, take time to teach to children. Coaches and leaders simply did not have enough time to implement this before another one took over and changed the direction.
This is also a huge disturbing factor for the kids, and probably why we in recent years have seen La Masia teams play a kind of football that is very far away from the typical Barça philosophy. Luckily, the situation in the club is now a bit more calm and peaceful – and coaches can focus on their visions. Let’s just hope the presidential elections of 2021 won’t cause too much turmoil and sackings.
By comparison, Real Madrid has had Florentino Perez as president for 16 years, and the only replacements you see are basically the first team managers. They do not have the same idealists and specialists (perhaps even competencies) in the coordination of the academy, but because the same people and ideas have had time to be executed, the academy has had great success in recent years.
Stability is the key to success. I am therefore convinced that Josep Lluís Núñez is the one who must be credited for La Masia’s success. His presidency lasted 22 years from 1978 to 2000. During this period, La Masia had time for people to incorporate their ideas. Joan Vilá, Paco Seirullo, Benaiges, Tort and Co. may not be better than Albert Puig, Roura, Amor and newer people – but they had the time and stability, and they created players like Xavi, Guardiola, Puyol, Iniesta, Amor and many more. The success of La Masia is thanks to decades of work by the same people. Just like Alex García explains:
“If we hadn’t had patience and calmness, everything would have fallen apart. The most important thing is that there has been a continuity in the philosophy, at least in the academy, from the time Cruyff introduced the system. Independently of the flow of different head coaches after Cruyff, and the style of play they implemented, the football school has run the same system and adhered to the same rules and ideas. It is only because of this that Pep, when he took over, could base more than half of his first team on canteranos (La Masia products).”
Secondly, if Barça had a more stable development in the organization, you would not only have time to make your ideas flourish, but you would also have less focus on results and more on the process. Relegations would not have meant sackings, because you would have the long-term goal in mind: To promote as many players as possible and to play as beautiful football as possible. In recent years, every B-team manager that experienced relegation, was fired. Examples? Eusebio in 2015, Vinyals the same year and Gerard Lopéz in 2018.
on this shift towards short term thinking: “The B-team was relegated many
times in the old days, without it being a big deal. You did not change the
coach. Today it is different”.
In recent times, coaches have less time in charge, and therefore less time to get results and show what they can do, why long-term goals become secondary.
It is a pity for the young children that must perform and avoid mistakes, because their coach must obtain a short-term result. In an interview with Mundo Deportivo in 2016, Roura, La Masia coordinator, revealed this shift in mentality – and that it is also necessary, according to him:
“We need to be more competitive. Give up on our style? No, just a little. We have to play as we have always done, but how many times have we not played well and lost the match due to a corner kick? It must stop. It is part of the game and must be given relevance. And it also doesn’t make sense that a defender is trying to nutmeg someone in the last minute on his own half. It’s hard to change because we have special types of players.”
Although he is partly right, the opinion represents a change in La Masia’s focus since he got in charge 2 years ago. A focus on avoiding mistakes.
In conclusion, I believe that the difference in competence and quality between old teachers and new teachers is almost nonexistent. Instead, the constant shift in management has created unrest that hasn’t created the basis for long term thinking and therefore academy success.