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FC Barcelona And La Masia: The Curious Case Of Gerard Deulofeu

There is no doubt Gerard Deulofeu is one of the most talented footballers contracted to FC Barcelona, but he has his flaws. He is arguably the human epitome of La Masia. Is he a future star or a lost cause? A Lionel Messi or a Bojan Krkic? Perhaps even a Thiago Alcantara?

David Ramos

FC Barcelona recently recalled Gerard Deulofeu from Everton expecting him to fight for his position and learn from the surrounding players with a view to him becoming a star for the club. Yet they have in recent days announced that he will be loaned out, again, this time to Sevilla. As a result, there has justifiably been a bit of a worry about his future at the Camp Nou.

For so long La Masia has been considered to be the holy grail of youth development in football, but with many talents having been wasted, there is a need to establish whether this is the case.

It is shocking to remember that the winger is still only 20 years old. Deulofeu has been a super-hyped star for several years now, but it is important to understand that he was still a teenager only a few months ago.

Regardless, the warning signs were there. Luis Enrique had little trust in him. He publicly berated him on two different occasions; Deulofeu had apparently neglected his defensive instinct. He did not like the fact that Deulofeu constantly lost the ball. He did not like his selfishness, his tactical anarchy. He wanted him to develop and improve with guaranteed game time in a La Liga team.

Yet it is also clear that Deulofeu’s speed and skill is almost second to none. With explosive speed, a quick first step, brilliant with set-pieces, havoc-like on defences, and a rocket for a right foot, he has the potential to become the modern winger without limitations. He, along with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Memphis Depay, Jese Rodriguez, Lorenzo Insigne and Xherdan Shaqiri, are a rare breed of young talented wingers.

There are two viewpoints to this loan move. The first viewpoint is that a player as good as Deulofeu simply cannot spend most of the season on the bench. He needs to have guaranteed game time and this was never going to be a given at Barcelona. While Deulofeu would no doubt do a reasonable enough job as a substitute option this season, he is a very real talent who could feasibly be a Barça regular for years to come, and the general consensus is that a loan spell with regular game time could help him reach the next level far quicker. At the same time, he will have the opportunity to show just what he can do in La Liga.

He started off well at Everton before a hamstring injury invariably hindered his progress. But Roberto Martinez for one reason or another did not start him in most of the biggest of matches; he was generally a super-sub in a season where he was meant to get enough regular game time in order to cement his promising excellence to the world. Indeed, a "don't pay as you play" clause was even inserted, to little sporting effect, in hindsight.

The second viewpoint is that the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar would have helped him to continue to mature, had he stayed. Suarez’s ban and Neymar’s injury represented a golden opportunity for someone to grab the situation by the scruff of the neck and Deulofeu has not been given the opportunity to seize it.

Furthermore, as a result of Suarez’s ban being upheld and Deulofeu’s loan, Barcelona’s attack looks a little short of depth at the moment. If another attacking injury occurs, there could be an injury-crisis of epic proportions. Luis Enrique has decided to loan Deulofeu in the best interests of the player as well as the club, but if Juan Cuadrado does not arrive, it is a fairly substantial risk to take.

Lluis Mascaro of Sport writes: "But I cannot understand that a player who has generated such frenzy for Barcelona, with his talent and image, is 'deleted' in this way by the team."

Luis Enrique, in May 2014, said: "Who stood out from my Barça B team? Deulofeu is the stand out. He’s got speed, he can beat a player and score goals." Deulofeu went from being the ‘Next Messi’, the ‘Next Cristiano Ronaldo' and Luis Enrique’s above quote, to being loaned out to Sevilla only a few months later.

Still, the 20-year-old is considered one of the brighter young talents in Spain, and Barca will be hoping he takes another step with continued playing time at Sevilla. Much of the progression he needs to take is mental, as Guillem Balague tweeted: "Deulofeu needs to learn that the game continues when he loses the ball as Roberto told him dozens of times. Emery will be tough with him." This is also echoed by Graham Hunter, who thinks Deulofeu will be a success in Sevilla.

Meanwhile, at one corner of the Camp Nou, wedged in between the northern end of the stadium and the maternity hospital and dwarfed by the buildings around it, stands the former 18th century farmhouse, La Masia. Appearing small yet standing tall.

Barcelona’s famous La Masia youth academy is on the whole brilliant and needs no introduction, it has nurtured some of the best world’s top talent. This was best illustrated away to Levante in November 2012, when after a Dani Alves injury, Barcelona fielded an entirely homegrown eleven for the first time ever. Indeed, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba,Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Martin Montoya, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Lionel Messi made up the eleven on the field in the Ciutat de Valencia stadium that night.

Yet a closer look reveals everything is not so black and white. A solitary Spain cap is evidence of Deulofeu’s progress already, but he needs look no further than a handful of former Barcelona "wonderkids" who never kicked on to realise that a single international appearance means, essentially, nothing. Indeed, this hints at a much deeper issue. Far too many "wonderkids" have become unknowns to even the most avid football fan. Far too many have slipped through the cracks at Barcelona. This is by no means a problem exclusive to Barcelona. Other clubs have the same, or an even worse problem, but Barcelona are so highly praised (and by the same token criticised) because of La Masia.

There is the argument that the players who have become unknown were simply not good enough to begin with, but hindsight is a great thing, and with many youth coaches and experts praising them to the skies, maybe saying they were not good enough is too simplistic. Injuries and bad luck often play a part, but not always.

Further to this, there is the argument that the players who have slipped through the cracks are simply not talented, but make no mistake about it, some of the players clearly are. The mentality and work-rate may be less than extraordinary, but it can be worked on, if the player is willing. Perhaps this "wonderkids" dubbing culture is detrimental to a player’s development. On the other hand, it can be argued that such high praise is needed for confidence purposes. Either way, it’s a fine balancing act.

Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello were both initially touted as big prospects but have never looked like Barcelona regulars in the making once they reached senior level, which is really unfortunate, since they clearly had the potential.

Even more pertinently, forward Bojan Krkic was a first-team regular often dubbed the ‘new Messi’ before his career hit the rails. Bojan was just 18 when he won his one Spanish cap; he is now aged 23 and embarking on his career with Stoke City, after a string of unsuccessful loan-spells elsewhere. Also, add the likes of Giovani Dos Santos, Jeffren, Vazquez, Nano, Falque, Fran Merida, Toni Calvo and Gai Assulin to the list of those going from the most promising La Masia players to flops of varying degrees... The list is endless.

On the flip side, you have some of the best La Masia graduates who got away. Luis Milla is one. Thiago Motta is another. Others include Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta and Luis Garcia. One of the biggest names in recent history is certainly Thiago Alcantara. The midfield playmaker, once described as the human epitome of Barcelona’s La Masia academy was last season sold to Bayern Munich after not getting enough opportunities to play. Herein lies the issue, if the likes of Gerard Deulofeu and others become frustrated of the lack of game time, there is nothing stopping them from moving to other clubs on a permanent basis.

To its credit, La Masia never ceases to produce top class players, and now is no different. The La Masia products of the first team are well-known. Rafinha will be expected to play a big part after a very successful loan spell at Celta Vigo last season. In hindsight, La Liga is where Deulofeu should have been loaned to last year.  Whereas Gerard Deulofeu did not impress Luis Enrique in the friendlies, some Barcelona B team members have. Indeed, none more so than Munir El Haddadi. The Spaniard of Moroccan descent is Luis Enrique’s top forward choice from the Barcelona B team. Others have impressed too, including, Sandro Ramirez, Adama Traore, Sergi Samper, Alex Grimaldo and Edgar Ie. Not to mention the whole Barcelona B team that could have been promoted last season after finishing third in Liga Adelante, but for them, understandably, being ineligible for promotion to La Liga. The future looks bright for Barcelona.

One thing is for sure, Deulofeu needs to start justifying he is worth the hype, and fast. His progress is slow but his talent is enormous. He needs to have a great season at Sevilla and return an improved player. La Masia is rightly regarded as the best youth development programme in football, but it is not without its flaws. The sooner this is realised, the better. On the whole though, La Masia is an extraordinary phenomenon. Other clubs and countries have a lot to learn.

We will leave you with a quote from someone who knows more about La Masia than most, Pep Guardiola: "The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child."

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