Have you ever wondered what it would be like to train at La Masia? What it must be like to follow in the footsteps of Barça legends like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets, to name but a few? Keen to investigate just what made these players unique, and to discover just how they refined their skills, I travelled to Catalunya to experience it all first-hand --starting at what would have been their footballing inception: a training session at Barcelona's famous academy.
Since the turn of the millennium, La Masia has rightly established itself as the gold standard in footballing academies. The Blaugrana adopted the philosophy pioneered in Amsterdam, at Ajax' famous youth academy, combined it with a touch of Iberian flair and a heap of Catalan culture for good measure.
The result? A footballing ethos that would revolutionize the very sport and bring the Blaugrana to the forefront of the game. The coaches at La Masia espouse the same lessons, the same philosophy at all levels, starting with the youngest and applying it throughout the ranks and age brackets.
Now, given that I'm slightly past my prime by La Masia standards at the tender age of 20, and somewhat taller than their average recruit at 6'4", they felt that it would be best if I didn't join the kids. Instead, I found myself 16 competition winners, plus a few members of crew and joined Allianz at their second annual BarcaDays event.
With a truly global feel to our group (participants had travelled from as far as Colombia, in addition to the contingent from mainland Europe), the premise was simple: to unite us all in the simplest way possible -- with a football, and with La Masia teachings.
Facilitated by two able coaches in Francesc 'Kiko' Melendez Pereto and Marcel Linzano, we got a two hour summary of what it's like to train at Barça, starting with a few ground rules.
Of course, we were all there to have fun, and to learn something if possible. First lesson came within moments of the start, as Kiko explained the importance of the Barça image and how this links in from the lowest level upwards. An example -- no socks above the knees, and shirts should be tucked in if possible. I mean, we don't want our next generation of talent to grow up emulating someone like Cristiano Ronaldo if we can help it!
Well, at least the more unsavoury aspects of his image and playing style anyway, I'll take the 50+ goal a season trait if possible.
With the formalities out of the way, we could get started on the session, first up was an old classic: the rondo.
For those unfamiliar with the exercise, the rondo is one of Barcelona's most prominent and fundamental exercises; the basic goal of the game is to retain possession in the face of pressure from two defenders, exhibiting close control, quick thinking and good vision to distribute the ball to a teammate within two touches. Taken to its logical extreme, the rondo serves as the ultimate test for any prospective Barça player.
- Can you control the ball under pressure?
- Are you confident in possession?
- Can you pick out an open teammate?
- Create space with your movement?
- How about closing down the opposition?
Simple, yet effective, the rondo served as the perfect platform for all of the morning's teachings. Open up your body and control the football after it has crossed your body -- so if the ball arrives from the right, control with your left. If the ball arrives from the left, control with your right. Its basic stuff really, yet so immensely effective. Try it the next time you play, if you don't incorporate this into your game already. Notice just how much more space you have with the ball, note how instead of one or two targets, the whole field becomes your oyster.
With that in mind, we pressed on. Admittedly, we weren't quite up to standard compared to the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, but it was a start. The next step was to implement this in more of a "game-day" situation. Six on six, possession for points. One "goal" was scored for every five uninterrupted passes completed amongst your team. To help you along, four jokers surrounded the playing area to serve as a safe reference point -- a pivote if you will -- with two jokers in orange, myself included, operating within the field of play as "Xavi" and "Iniesta". I was probably more Edmilson than Xavi, for anyone wondering.
"Pass and move!"
"Use the full width of the pitch!"
At a senior, 11 a side level, FC Barcelona are synonymous with the 4-3-3 formation. It's served the club well, bringing them unparalleled success over a number of decades and while it attracts some criticism, there can be no denying that when it really works, it's unstoppable. Case in point: Real Madrid on the 29th November 2011. Or Bayern Munich on 6th May 2015. Sorry Allianz, I had to bring it up.
It was at this stage that Marcel, himself a goalkeeping coach at third tier CF Badalona, stressed the importance of the goalkeepers.
"Use the goalkeepers. Don't be afraid to play the ball to them -- with them, your team becomes 7; the match becomes 7 against 6. Don't be afraid to use that advantage."
At goal kicks, or whenever the goalkeeper was in possession, the central defender would split out to one side, with the wingback on that flank utilising the full width of the pitch. The other wingback on the opposing side would collapse in, offering another outlet for the keeper -- with the midfielders ready to drop deep if and when required. Tactically, once again it was basic stuff -- but undoubtedly effective and clearly visible across the entire club, from Alevin to Juvenil level, right up to the senior squad.
Equipped with the skills and the know-how, the matches were played at a relatively high tempo, and always in good spirit. Some good moments followed, including a series of Mascherano-esque defensive interventions from one of my teammates, and it served as the perfect note on which to end our first session.
We return to the training facilities for more tomorrow, including a behind the scenes tour of La Masia itself, complete with a very special guest...
Thanks again to Allianz and all their team for making this possible. For more exclusive coverage of the BarcaDays event, be sure to keep your eyes on Barca Blaugranes, check out the Allianz Football Facebook page or follow the action on Twitter using #BarcaDays