Top of Deloitte’s Football Money League and arguably the greatest club on the planet, Barcelona have amassed a stunning total of 92 trophies in their 120-year history, including 26 La Liga titles, five Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups.
The 2010/11 season saw Barcelona assemble arguably football’s greatest ever club side, including no less than 12 graduates from Barcelona’s famed La Masia, who went on to win each of the six trophies on offer.
Moreover, in a 4-0 win over Levante in 2012, Tito Vilanova played with an 11 made up of La Masia players for 61 minutes – the first time in the club’s history they were able to field a lineup made entirely of academy graduates.
Fast forward to April 2018, when Barcelona lined up without any La Masia graduates for the first time in 16 years.
Barça have suffered a drastic change in personnel at board level, sponsorship deals and to the framework of their academy, which has brought with it a change in approach from harnessing and developing young talent in favour of signing marquee players with an emphasis on winning in the short-term, not developing players for the long-term.
Joining the Catalan side in 2003, Joan Laporta (pictured above) was instrumental in building the foundations and principles which Barcelona (partially) continue to adhere to today. Laporta focussed on the development of La Masia and the talent which it harboured and, working alongside academy managers Oriel Tort, Laureano Ruiz and Joan Martínez Vilaseca, implemented the mantra of ‘we must develop players’.
The likes of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Pedro were all La Masia graduates who went on to have successful careers with the senior team under the guidance of Laporta.
It seemed the La Masia wheel kept turning and continued to churn out top quality players year after year, although a host of changes at board level were about to change this.
Following the dismissal of Laporta, Sandro Rosell (pictured above) was appointed as Barcelona’s president and brought with it a complete change in philosophy. Rosell steered towards a new mantra – ‘we must win’ and thus sought to sign marquee players already at the peak of their powers with a view to short-term success as opposed to long-term future building.
The signing of Neymar Jr from Brazilian side Santos in 2013 was the catalyst for such change, although not entirely detrimental. While Neymar represented a hefty investment he was still a young talent who could be moulded into a Barça style player and went on to form one of the world’s most formidable front lines alongside Luis Suárez, who was another marquee signing who joined in 2014, and Lionel Messi.
The transfer investigation into the acquisition of Neymar, which found €40m being paid directly to Neymar’s parents, led to the immediate resignation of Rosell in January 2014, thus leading to yet more change at board level.
Enter Josep Maria Bartomeu (pictured above), Barcelona’s 40th president.
Continuing on from Sandro Rosell’s ideology, Bartomeu spent heavily in the following five summer transfer windows. This included marquee acquisitions such as Arda Turan from Atlético Madrid, Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool, Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund, Malcom form Bordeaux and Antoine Griezmann from Atlético for a combined fee of £418m with a relatively low success rate. Not to mention some questionable (and unanimously unsuccessful) arrivals, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jeison Murillo, Paco Alcácer and André Gomes to name a few.
Compare those to recent signings made by arch rivals Real Madrid and Florentino Pérez, such as Vinícius Júnior from Flamengo, Éder Militão from FC Porto, Rodrygo from Santos for a combined £125m, and it appears Barcelona are the club who are falling behind in the transfer market.
Additionally, Real Madrid have promoted Achraf Hakimi, Martin Ødegaard and Federico Valverde from their Castilla youth side, while Takefuso Kubo was snapped up on a free transfer from FC Tokyo having featured for Barça’s Under-11 and Under-14 sides. Meanwhile, Barcelona have only promoted a handful of academy graduates in recent years who are still at the club – namely Sergi Roberto, Carles Pérez and Ansu Fati.
This not only resembles a shift in recruitment strategy, but also a shift in momentum with regards to success in the transfer market. Despite being known for their ‘Galáctico’ signing strategy in the early 2000s, it seems Real Madrid are finally building something with an eye to the future. Whereas Barcelona, who are predominantly associated with the development of their own academy players, have opted to sign already established players in their peak.
Perhaps Barcelona and La Masia are victims of their own success, replicating a once in a lifetime group of academy graduates year on year is a seemingly impossible task. The midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets is not only the best midfield comprised of players from the same academy, but perhaps the greatest midfield trip of all time. Rather unsurprisingly, this led to a mass exodus of La Masia prospects who patiently waited in the wings, but found themselves without the chance to prove their worth at senior level.
Over the years, La Masia has failed to hold onto their starlets with the likes Dani Olmo moving to Dinamo Zagreb, Andre Onana joining Ajax, Maurio Icardi signing for Sampdoria and Marc Bartra switching to Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund. It seems the chase for instant glory has reduced the amount of willingness to give academy graduates their senior debuts, thus damaging the relationship between Barcelona’s first team and their youth teams.
The recent failings of La Masia can also be felt in the Spanish national team with Spain’s recent Under-21 European Championship squad failing to include more than one Barcelona academy graduate. Carles Aleña was the lucky man, although he only managed to play a negligible 23 minutes under Luis de la Fuente.
Of course, it must be considered that a generation of academy products including Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Puyol and Busquets, Gerard Pique and Pedro is truly remarkable – a freak – La Masia cannot be expected to produce a batch of players of that calibre every few years.
There is still room for optimism at Barcelona as Aleña, Riqui Puig and Oriol Busquets are genuine contenders to earn starting berths at senior level with the Spanish giants. However, their development into world class players hangs in the balance. Bartomeu has to choose between instant success and building a future dynasty to rival that of Pep Guardiola’s side between 2008 and 2012.
If the aim is to be content with winning La Liga and occasionally compete for a sixth Champions League title, then the current business model is sustainable. If the aim is to provide a manager with a squad filled with world class players made up of Barcelona DNA and compete both nationally an internationally, then Barça and Bartomeu must return to their old mantra; Més Que Un Club.