This post is about FC Barcelona’s fabled youth system – La Masía – as it is commonly known in Spain. Barça has become famous among other things, for the high number of players who have come through the team’s own youth programme. How many of the current squad have progressed from youth players, how has this changed over the years and is there anybody next in line for promotion or stardom? To get some kind of picture of the role of youth players in the first team I have looked at the composition of the squad from season 2003/2004 to the present season. Barcelona give so many young players a chance to play at least a couple of games for the first team that it would be meaningless to just use this as a criterion. So I have placed some restrictions on who to count as first team players. The first is that the player is not just a squad member, there to make up the numbers as it were, but is someone who plays regularly, albeit mainly as a substitute. The second qualification is that the player plays for the first team for at least three seasons. This immediately rules out many players, such as Jeffren, Giovanni Dos Santos etc who only lasted in the first team for a couple of seasons, and players such as Fontàs who though in the current first team squad, has hardly ever played a game for the team.
Back to 2003/2004, the first year of Frank Rijkaard in charge as head coach. Here we find that four players who had come through the youth team were first team regulars – Valdés, Puyol, Xavi and Oleguer Presas. The first three continue to provide the backbone to the team and may continue to do so for another couple of years or so. Oleguer is the odd one out in this respect. He only lasted as a regular first team player for four seasons. Which is a not inconsiderable achievement, but unusual as we will see. The next two seasons saw this number increase to five former youth players with the emergence of Iniesta, another who continues to grace the team. Another key player of the current team also began to emerge during this period, one Lionel Messi, but injuries prevented him becoming a regular until season 2006/2007. This brought the number of youth players to six. It remained at six for the next season, though this saw the emergence of Bojan and the disappearance of Oleguer from regular play. Bojan of course is like Oleguer the other player who has not remained with the team – he left for Roma last year. The following season saw two more former youth players join the first team – Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets – to make eight youth players in the first team. Piqué is interesting in that he left the youth team to join Manchester United only to be resigned by Barça. In season 2009/2010 another youth player, Pedro joined the first team. Piqué, Busquets and Pedro have all remained central to the team and indeed have become regulars with the Spanish national team. The number of former youth players to feature regularly for the first team reached an astonishing total of 10 players in season 2010/2011 when Thiago Alcántara was promoted. It has stayed at 10 for this season, when Cesc Fàbregas a former youth player rejoined the team after many years with Arsenal. By then of course Bojan had left the club.
This is the current situation with 10 former youth players regularly playing for the first team. In the case of Thiago and Cesc we will have to wait and see just how long they remain as first team players, though barring injuries, it is likely that both will continue to be key players for the club for years to come. An amazing progression over 10 years from four youth players to the current 10.
Some interesting facts emerge about the progression of these players. Most made their breakthrough while still teenagers. The oldest player to become a first team regular was Oleguer, who was then 22 years old. Valdés, Puyol and Pedro were all 21 when they became established, while Busquets was all of 20 years old. The rest were still teenagers. The other point worthy of note is that all of these players either established themselves as regulars right away or at the latest within two seasons of their debut in the first team. The final point to note is that the majority of this group were identified as most likely to succeed from a very early age. This particular group includes Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Piqué, Bojan, Thiago and Cesc. The only one of this group to make it to the first team and not last is Bojan. These may be useful pointers when it comes to trying to identify who from the current youth team might become first team regulars.
Looking ahead, which areas of the team need strengthening? Victor Valdés has been Barcelona’s most successful goalkeeper in a long time and perhaps ever. He is now 30 years old and as goalies tend to have a longer playing career than most players he can expect to be around for many years to come. Which is obviously not good news for the current generation of young goalkeepers. Oier, Miño and Masip are all 23 years old, so I would not expect any of them to succeed Valdés when he does hang up his boots. I expect that they will all have to leave the club to find first team football unless one of them accepts the position of reserve goalie in place of Pinto.
The defence is the one area of the team that both needs reinforcements and has benefitted the least from youth players. Only three young defenders have progressed to the first team and the last, Piqué, was way back in 2008. There are plenty of defenders around and many have already sample first team play. However none so far has won the confidence of Guardiola and his staff. When crucial games come up he has always preferred to swap existing first team players around. Witness the conversion of Mascherano into a first class central defender. Of the current crop of youth players Muniesa is the one whose name has been bandied about as a future first team player. Sergi Gómez is another central defender highly regarded. Both are now 20 years old and so should be making the step up within the next two years if they are to ever do so. However all the talk in the media is that the club is going to buy in two experienced defenders. A left back to cover the possible loss of Abidal and a central defender to eventually replace Puyol when he finally retires. This would indicate that the coaching staff are none too confident of the current crop of young defenders.
Midfield is where the first team is awash with former youth players. Of the six midfielders, only one, Keita, has not come up through the ranks. Even though Xavi is now 32, there does not seem to be any vacancy here for at least another two years. Not good news for the likes of Sergi Roberto and Martí Riverola. The one area in midfield where there may be a vacancy is in the role of midfield defender, currently filled by Sergio Busquets. With Mascherano now more of a defender there is no-one in the current first team squad who can challenge Busquets. Keita has played there, but he is more of an attacking midfielder. Don’t know if any of the current youth players could step up. The one who was expected to move up, Oriol Romeu, left the club last year for Chelsea. Maybe they will have to buy him back in a few years time.
The front line is in a bit of a flux at the moment. The club started the season with high expectations with the arrival of Alexis Sánchez to strengthen an already effective line up of Messi, Pedro and Villa, with Afellay in the wings. Alas, Afellay and Villa have suffered serious injuries, missing most of the season and Villa has yet to re-appear for the first team. In addiiton Pedro and Sánchez have both suffered from a series of minor injuries. Into the breach caused by these injuries has stepped two youth players, Isaac Cuenca and Christian Tello. Both have done well though whether either of them will become regulars is open to question. Firstly Barça will hope that the injuries of this season do not repeat themselves next season. If all the current first team players fully recover fitness there is little room for any young player. Secondly all the talk in the media is that to reinforce the attack the team needs a different type of player. Either an out and out goalscorer or someone who is good in the air and can alter the style of play when called upon. Neither Cuenca nor Tello fit into this profile. Both are now 21 years old and unless they break through next season, I fear they never will. For the future Barça may look to even younger players, where there seems to be an outstanding crop of goalscorers. Starting with Rafael Alcántara – Rafinha – the 19 year old younger brother of Thiago. Rafinha can play either up front or as an attacking midfielder and has been marked out for success for many years now. Close on his heels is 18 year old Gerard Deulofeu who seems to be more in the Cristiano Ronaldo mold and is another of whom the coaching staff are expecting great things. Even younger and perhaps the surprise package in a couple of years time is Jean Marie Dongou, only 16 years old and from Cameroon. Brought to Barcelona by Eto’o, he has already caused a sensation by his goalscoring exploits for the juvenile team. Such has been his performances that he has been promoted to the B team for several matches.
Given that Barça regularly give nearly all young players a chance to play for the first team, I would expect to see a few more youngsters make a first team appearance next season. In particular look out for any appearances by Muniesa and Gómez in defence. They need to get an opportunity soon to prove themselves one way or another. However it is up front where I expect to see the emergence of genuine challengers. Rafinha and Deulofeu have already sampled the first team experience and both should get more opportunities soon. I would not even be surprised if Dongou was to get a run out at some stage of the season. Remember both Messi and Bojan made their first team debut when 17 years old,, while Xavi and Iniesta did so when 18 years old. Finally there is always the complete surprise. The emergence of Busquets and Pedro caught just about everyone unawares. Is there another unheralded youngster out there who will surprise us all?
In conclusion, I am not expecting anyone from the current youth set up to make it through to first team regular in the coming season. But we should get a much better idea if any of them are likely to do so in the following season. Rafinha, Deulofeu and Dongou – these are the names to watch out for.