LIONEL MESSI, Sergio Busquets… Oh, that’s it?
Barcelona started just two academy graduates who have stuck with the club from youth level to the first team in their game against Espanyol on Saturday. Two.
Yes Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were part of the set-up but left and came back when they were better players while Sergi Roberto came off the bench as Messi inspired his side to a 2-0 victory.
But it is some fall for a club which prides itself on the world-renowned La Masia: the football school.
Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Pep Guardiola are just a few of the notable alumni who became Nou Camp heroes.
But has the production line dried up? Are the rumours that their local rivals Espanyol have overtaken them as the real developers of talent in Catalonia? SunSport went to find out…
As you walk through the hallowed corridors of La Masia at Barcelona’s training ground complex, you know you are somewhere special.
Players train here from age seven, living on-site from 12, all with the dream of playing for the first team.
Few will fulfil that dream. Fewer still will have the luxury of spending their entire career at the club.
Roberto is the newest kid on the block, the latest to step up, making 30-plus La Liga appearances in the last three seasons. But he’s already 27.
There are very few Barca B players knocking on Ernesto Valverde’s door. Midfielder Carles Alena has had chances – and taken them with both hands – while centre-back Chumi has made the odd bench.
PR-wise, signing Philippe Coutinho was a masterstroke: a £145million power move.
But it spelled more bad news for La Masia’s players. Another player blocking their path from the youth set up to the first team.
We don’t take the new signings well. We train players with the idea of them reaching the first team. From a generation of 50 players, only ten or 15 will make it to the top.
Sergio Vallecillo, Head of Methodology at FC Barcelona
Since the summer of 2017, Ousmane Dembele (now 21, £97m), Nelson Semedo (25, £26.7m), Arthur (22, £27.5m), Arturo Vidal (31, £27m), Clement Lenglet (23, £31.7m), Malcom (22, £37.3m) and Frenkie de Jong (21, £65.4m) have also joined in big-money moves.
Barcelona’s Head of Methodology Sergio Vallecillo said: “We don’t take the new signings well.
“In the same way outside of football, people can be motivated by a new recruit of someone of the same or a higher level than you.
“We train players with the idea of them reaching the first team. From a generation of 50 players, only ten or 15 will make it to the top.
“Last year we had 100 La Masia players sat here and the message from Sergi Roberto was based on them needing to be patient. Ambitious, but patient. Your time will come.
“He told them he had to wait for his turn to play for the first team. It took time but he was patient. He finally got a place.
“People talk about Iniesta but he did not consolidate in the first team until he was 21.”
Still, their video tagline “La Masia: The Future of Barca” seems somewhat misleading.
Across town, things are very similar… yet very different.
Espanyol made a pledge in 2011: to follow the example of Athletic Bilbao who strictly only have players from the Basque Country. It is some ambition.
Albert Saus, Academy Coordinator, explained: “We want players to get into the first team.” It sounds familiar.
But he continued: “We have a dream. By 2021/22, we want 100 per cent of the players to come from the academy. It’s very difficult but one day we will arrive here. It’s possible, we believe.
“If we arrive at 80 or 90 per cent, it’s still very successful. It’s now 50 per cent. This year three players moved up from Espanyol B. Last year four players.”
On Saturday, four of Espanyol’s starting XI were academy graduates.
Trying to scout in Catalonia is difficult. Not only do they have to compete with Barca, Europe’s elite are also fishing around including the Manchester clubs.
We sign a player when we do not have that player in the academy. First we look at home. If we don’t have it, we go outside. The best are always in our home.
Albert Saus, Academy Coordinator at Espanyol
That is why Espanyol have established academies in Iraq, Algeria, the UAE and China.
Saus added: “It is very difficult. We have a monster here next to us… in a good way! We have less resources.
“We can still beat them. Last year we beat Barcelona 1-0, Melendo scored. He arrived at five years old and now he’s in the first team. We are very proud of that.”
It sounds great. But are Espanyol sacrificing challenging for trophies if they insist on looking to the academy?
Should the club follow their philosophy or just win silverware? Following both seems increasingly impossible.
Saus said: “All teams want success. But we think if all our players are from the academy, it is possible to win trophies, win La Liga.
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“We sign a player when we do not have that player in the academy. First we look at home. If we don’t have it, we go outside. The best are always in our home.”
Last month, Espanyol B completed the league double over Barcelona B in the Segunda Division. So, who really is doing a better job: Espanyol or the ‘big monster’ neighbours?
Well, Saus replied: “It’s easy to answer. How many players are in the Barca first team from the academy? It is very difficult. The money! In Espanyol they have more opportunities.”
- SunSport was invited to FC Barcelona and Espanyol as a special guest of LaLiga