The phrase - La Masia – has been synonymous with excellence in developing top-notch footballers over the past 2 decades, ever since the advent of Johan Cruyff. Much like West Point Military Academy is the most well-known military school in the world, the Barcelona school of football stands at its own pedestal in world football as the best guarantee to produce technically proficient footballers to elite European leagues.
In fact, so good have they been over the recent past that La Masia graduates Xavi, Messi and Iniesta notched the top 3 places in the Ballon d’Or rankings in the year 2010. Carles Puyol was also on the final 23-man list of top vote getters that year. From the same timeline as Messi, we have players like Fabregas and Pique, while from the next batch there are Jordi Alba, Sergio Thiago Alcantara, Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya, who have made regular appearances for the Blaugrana these last 4 years.
On the day of 25th November, 2012, following Dani Alves’ substitution for Martin Montoya, Barca became the first professional team at the highest level to field an XI containing only academy graduates in this century. That season appeared to bode well for Barca’s La Masia graduates, as despite the departure of Guardiola from the club, Tito stayed true to his philosophy of promoting from within.
A shift in order?
However, the very next summer transfer window saw the departures of Thiago to Bayern, Deulofeu to Everton and Rafinha to Celta Vigo (the latter two went on loan). This, despite the fact that Thiago was tipped to be Iniesta and Xavi’s heir to the Barca midfield throne. Even Bojan, who displaced Zlatan from the starting XI in a number of games at one point, was sent out on loan to Ajax.
On top of that, the club also made what has been revealed as a then-world record bid, successfully, for Neymar. This pushed Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello down the pecking order and directly resulted in the offloading of Deulofeu on loan.
A summer later, Barca sold Cesc Fabregas and bought Ivan Rakitic to slot into his squad position. For some reason, they had been losing faith in La Masia graduates. More exits followed as Cristian Tello left for Porto on a loan deal, while Deulofeu was sent out on loan to Sevilla again with the recruitment of Luis Suarez.
A lack of quality
Today, apart from Sergi Roberto, none of those La Masia graduates can claim any reasonable amount of starting XI candidature. Marc Bartra left this summer for Borussia Dortmund, despite the fact that Javier Mascherano’s departure would’ve given him greater playing time. Deulofeu does not look like getting back anytime soon, while Tello did not make much of an impression at Porto and Fiorentina in the past season.
The promotion of Munir El-Haddadi and his flying start to the 2014-15 season, alongside Rafinha, who returned to Barca with Luis Enrique from Celta, gave onlookers the impression that all was still well with the inclusion of La Masia graduates in the coach’s scheme of things. However, the signings of Jeremy Mathieu, Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan have helped only to reduce the playing time of prospects like Sergi Samper and Martin Montoya, who moved out on a rather unsuccessful loan deal to Inter in the first half of last season, before moving to Betis for the remaining half.
Overshadowed by Brazilian Dani Alves, who nearly always played second fiddle to Maicon in the Brazil setup despite multiple FIFPro XI inclusions, he never found the playing time at the highest level to acclimatize himself with its rigours.
Montoya’s case is not an isolated one. Isaac Cuenca is another promising youngster whose growth was stunted due to the presence of superior squad players. Deulofeu, Tello, Rafinha, Thiago, Fabregas and Bojan are but some of the players who have yet to show their full potential ever since being included in the Barcelona setup.
It can be argued that the success of Barca’s regular playing XIs over the last 10 years is responsible for the lack of opportunities for these players. The fact that their first team has touched unimaginable heights (in comparison to their past record) has made them more careful about ensuring that their line of success lasts.
For this, they have dived into their transfer chests and recruited some of the best-attacking talents in football history over the last decade like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Neymar and Luis Suarez (in that order). Although this has ensured their continuing success, it has also led to an exodus of their cantera graduates.