The downfall of La Masia: Why Barcelona may never produce another Messi, Xavi or Iniesta
It provided the base for perhaps the finest football team in history. La Masia became synonymous with technical excellence like no other youth academy around and was the production line for Barcelona’s brilliant side. But its importance has since diminished.
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Pep Guardiola was, more than anybody else, the symbol of La Masia’s success. The Catalan coach was the first major talent to emerge from Barca’s fabled farmhouse – now a state-of-the-art facility at the club’s training ground – and later built his team around graduates from the academy – Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and Lionel Messi among them.
It was the perfect philosophy: a coach who had been brought up on the traditions of the Catalan club, emerging through the youth system, before going on to manage Barca B and then the first team; and a group of footballers formed in the same way – all pupils of a certain style, a certain ideology.
After winning 14 out of 19 trophies during the Guardiola era, there was continuity as Tito Vilanova took over in 2012 and La Masia made history on November 25, 2012 as 11 academy players all appeared together on the pitch for an hour in a 4-0 win over Levante after Martin Montoya replaced Dani Alves in the first half.
That was the peak. But just over four years later, the situation is very different. Barca were banned from transfers in 2015 for irregularities in the signing of young players and supporters subsequently raised a banner at Camp Nou which read “Don’t touch La Masia!”. And it seems Luis Enrique took it quite literally.
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Because while Guardiola promoted players like Pedro and Sergio Busquets to the first team after they had turned out in Spain’s Tercera Division, the current Barca boss has been reluctant to trust his homegrown talents with the exception of Rafinha (who he coached for an entire season at Celta Vigo) and Sergi Roberto (already a member of the first-team squad when he arrived in 2014).
Luis Enrique prioritises results and appears to care only about the here and now. In the summer, he let the highly rated Sergi Samper leave on loan and signed Andre Gomes instead, while Paco Alcacer was brought in for €30 million as Munir El Haddadi moved the other way in a season-long deal. The coach has the final say, of course, but it went against the Barca way. Why not use La Masia? Would Samper and Munir have done any worse than Gomes and Alcacer?
“The club’s idea is different to what it was before,” says a former member of the coaching staff at La Masia (who did not want to be named). “Even though, of course, football has also changed.”
Originally, Barca bucked the trend with La Masia by placing their faith in more technical – and sometimes smaller – players like Guardiola (initially considered too thin), later Xavi and Iniesta – a philosophy pioneered by former Barca coach Laureano Ruiz and then Johan Cruyff. “They always wanted us to have the best players,” the former La Masia coach said. “Not the strongest ones.”
But the policy these days seems to be going the other way and Luis Enrique’s midfield is as much about muscle as it is about technique – particularly when Iniesta and Busquets are out.
“We taught players to compete, to respect fair play and finally, to win,” the former La Masia coach explained. And he added: “Cruyff always asked how we had played. He never asked about the result.”
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It was that thinking that was handed down to the young talents, from Guardiola to Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Messi. But it is one that is changing for the current crop of teenage hopefuls at La Masia.
“These days they look for strong players, not talented ones,” the former Barca coach said. “Barca B play to win and they do so with footballers who aren’t at the age of players in development and that is cheating.”
It is a valid point. Out of 21 players at Barca B, only 12 are eligible for an Under-21 national team and two are above 25. And perhaps that is why the youth side is no longer providing players for the first team.
Meanwhile, Barca’s midfield has become more direct under Luis Enrique and the Asturian said on Tuesday: “Rivals press us high up the pitch and if we can score a goal from just two passes, why should we reject that possibility?”
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“I’m in agreement with him,” the former La Masia coach said. “It depends what those two passes are like, but it’s something we saw countless times in the Dream Team with [Ronald] Koeman, [Michael] Laudrup and [Hristo] Stoichkov.
“However, it’s a tactic which means losing the ball 90 per cent of the times you try it and against teams that defend deep in their area, that is when the real Barcelona, the one we all know and love, needs to appear.”
And lately, it has not been appearing enough. While Luis Enrique made the midfield more effective initially with a direct and aggressive approach, Xavi was still at the club and he could come on and allow the team to revert to the trusted positional play when needed. Since he left, however, the midfield has gradually fallen into decline and there is an over-reliance on Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar these days.
Messi is carrying the team through poor performances and papering over the cracks when previously he also benefited from the team’s majestic midfield and the fruits of La Masia. And even his coach admits Barca are lucky to have him around.
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“Let’s hope we can depend on Messi for many more years,” Luis Enrique said on Tuesday. Every Barca fan will agree with that. But therein lies a concern – because there is not another Messi at La Masia, nor is there an heir to Xavi. Perhaps there are no more like them anywhere else, either, but if there were, they may not even have made it into the academy as Barca prioritise physicality over technique in the current order.
“What you hear in the trials at La Masia now is ‘what a shame, he’s so small’,” the former Barca coach added. That is the reality at the Catalan club these days. And so, inexplicable as it may seem, Barca appear to be forgetting just what made them different – and also what made them great.