“We should always look for local players. The best players can be found here. When you give local people the chance, they respond and defend their club to the end”, Guillermo Amor, technical director of youth football at La Masia.
The Barcelona youth system is used to grinding players out and promoting them to the first team. They’ve produced a number of stars in recent years including the likes of Xavi, Puyol, Iniesta and of course Lionel Messi. Barcelona prefer to sustain their youth system and La Masia’s value is imponderable for the Catalan giants. The versatile winger Isaac Cuenca is one of the latest products of La Masia.
Who is Isaac Cuenca?
Isaac Cuenca is another Catalonia talent and hails from Reus, the same town that fellow Barca talent, Sergi Roberto, grew up in. Although he started off his football with Espanyol’s youth academy, it wasn’t long before he found himself at La Masia with a promise of a better future. It took him a while to settle down as he shifted clubs constantly in his youth, before finally settling in at Barca’s academy and eventually the Barcelona B team.
Cuenca made his debut for Barcelona’s first-team in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen, a small two minute cameo which didn’t tell us much about the player. Guardiola showed his faith in Cuenca a week later by giving him his first start for the senior side, against Granada.
It was the first of 5 consecutive starts in all competitions in which Cuenca completed the full 90 minutes as Barca dealt with injury trouble effectively by utilising young Cuenca. That Granada game was followed by an impressive performance at home to Mallorca, his first start at the Nou Camp, which he capped off with a goal in a 5-0 victory.
La Liga and Champions League appearances followed until another goal arrived; it was another 5-0 victory as Barca saw off Levante with Cuenca on the scoresheet again. Later in the season Cuenca got his first brace for Barcelona, when they hammered Hospitalet 9-0 in the Copa del Rey.
The youngster then alternated between the first team and the reserve side, restricted to substitute appearances. It was only in the Copa Del Rey that he was given a run of games, starting and playing till the dying minutes in both legs of the semi-finals against Valencia. He however wasn’t even in the squad for the final against Bilbao.
The future looked bright for Isaac Cuenca with many expecting him to carry on with his experience into the 2012/13 season, but his knee gave in and Cuenca faced a long lay-off on the sidelines, missing the entire first half of the season. There was some respite as Ajax opted to loan the youngster to the Eredivisie.
Isaac made his debut against Roda, assisting Daley Blind for the equaliser in a 1-1 result. Substitute Europa League appearances followed and two weeks later he started and finished a full game for the first-time against ADO Den Haag. But that would be as good as it got for the unlucky Cuenca, his knee gave in again and as a result, was out for 2 months. He got 10 minutes against NAC Breda on his return, which would be his last appearance for the Dutch club and in fact his last appearance at all.
Cuenca is still presently recovering from injury and has returned to the training field. Barcelona appearances are unlikely, and a loan move is not possible. We may have to wait until the 2014/15 season before we see Cuenca in action again. A supreme talent whose career has been dampened by injuries; it’s almost a given that Cuenca won’t be at Barcelona next season.
Style, Strengths & Weaknesses
Blessed with exceptional technical abilities, he can play as a striker or on either flank. Unfortunately, he has struggled because of injuries and has seemingly spent more time on the recovery table instead of the training pitch.
Let’s start with his weaknesses. First of all, Cuenca is an injury prone player having had a couple of serious injuries. He has suffered from knee problems both at Barcelona and Ajax. The second problem is his physique; he is relatively fast and agile but lacks balance and stamina. Cuenca’s progress as a first-team footballer has been restricted due to this.
He is also extremely weak when it comes to physical duels, although he has sufficient power he can’t seem to use it effectively. Is he going to be able to overcome these weaknesses? It is hard to answer that question. Although if his injury problems do persist then it’s going to be very difficult for him to grow as a player.
His defensive contribution is decent. He presses and by doing so, tries to help his teammates retain their defensive positions. His ability to press improved immensely under Pep Guardiola as you’d expect but the implementation on the pitch hasn’t been overly impressive.
“When I watch a game of football, the first thing I look for is individual skills. A good pass, good ball control and their speed of thought. Those are only things I focus on. It’s all about technique.” Pep Guardiola on youth team players. We can easily consider ball control, pass, vision and first touch as Cuenca’s strengths.
He decides what to do with the ball even before he receives it. His movements on the pitch are enviable and his dribbling skills are well advanced. Also, he always makes himself available to receive the ball. He tends to cut inside often when he plays as winger which provides free spaces for the overlapping full backs. In the 2011-12 season, he struck up a good relationship with Dani Alves, in fact Cuenca’s contribution to Dani Alves’s performance was immense.
Cuenca tends to drift from his original position, and it is hard to control him on the pitch. His pace is extraordinary. He is a versatile player and able to adapt to different roles, he can also play as a false 9 or as a wide forward. His versatility was the key reason in becoming a first team player at Barcelona. He can adapt his game on the pitch and is able to make full use of all his fundamental characteristics in terms of his technique.
Concisely, Isaac Cuenca, despite the all injuries in the past, can still become a great player. Having said that it looks like his Barcelona career will soon come to an end especially when you consider the depth and the quality they possess up front. He’s also reached a point in his career where regular football is a must. With him turning 23 in a couple of weeks, it’s hard to see him stake a regular first-team berth at the club.
“It’s been quite clear for some time that Isaac Cuenca’s future lies away from Barcelona, and that he remains at the club is a surprise. Cuenca posseses a certain amount of talent, that’s undeniable, but it isn’t of the level required at Barcelona. His movement, intelligence off the ball and ability to combine with teammates are key parts of his skill set, and in the future there will no doubt be a club he thrives at.
It’s no shame to make it elsewhere lower down the league in Spain, as many other La Masia products will testify, while a move to England can’t be ruled out. The very top clubs may be beyond Cuenca’s reach, but for an ambitious club with aspirations of European places he’d be an asset. Humble and hard working, he’d strive to make most moves a success.”Published 10 Feb 2014, 23:06 IST