One of the biggest advantages FC Barcelona had throughout its existence, which was especially noticeable during the Pep Guardiola era, was Barcelona's La Masia. During Pep's reign, and later in Tito Vilanova's sadly shortened coaching career, Barcelona would routinely start at least eight players that worked their way through the Barcelona youth ranks. It was something to be proud of, both for fans and members of the club, and it culminated on 25 November 2012 when for 62 minutes Barça played with eleven canteranos. It was a joy to behold, but it also marked the pinnacle from which it can only go down. Unless something drastically changes.
The downfall of La Masia, which has been most noticeable this season in the Barcelona B team, actually began much earlier, in 2010, quickly after Sandro Rosell took over as president from arguably the best president in Barcelona history, Joan Laporta. Rosell wasted no time in naming two of his men, Guillermo Amor and Albert Puig, as the heads of youth football, even though their predecessors did a fabulous job. The youth teams also became much more focused on results and not on player development, which should've been the measuring stick for youth team coaches. Most of the Barcelona youth selections are still performing at a high level, which could be a result of an immense talent gap between lower-level Barcelona youth teams to teams from other clubs.
But that is not the case with Barça's Juvenil A, which has fallen drastically from their UEFA Youth League winning performance last season and will finish far from the lead in their Spanish league group, and Barcelona B, which suffered relegation for the first time since 2006-07 and will play in the Segunda Division B for the first time since 2009-10. The Segunda B is no place to develop players as young as 17, 16 in extreme(ly good) cases. With it being a regional competition the travels will be shorter for the players, but the league is known for very physical play and bad pitches in which youngsters trained in the Barcelona arts will struggle to succeed. But Barcelona B has gone through tough stretches before and with some much needed adjustments, the team can once again earn a promotion to the Segunda.
The B team also struggled during Laporta's early years, but he was able to correct the fundamental problems of the academy, and he did so with the help of José Ramón Alexanko, whom he named director of youth football, and Albert Benaiges, who was Alexanko's second in command. The two worked diligently to improve every aspect of the youth teams, resulting in much better player development, with many more reaching not only the B team, but the first team as well.
The turnaround of Barcelona B started with the introduction of Guardiola to the head of the B team in 2007. Obviously, he took charge of a young group of players, many of whom were very talented, but lacked experience and leadership to get through the ups and down of a long season and the harshness of the then Tercera Division. So Pep relied on a select group of "role players", aged between 21 and 26. These were players who didn't have much chance of ever reaching the first team, but knew that they would be able to train at arguably the best B team in the world and that they would get "rotational" minutes on the pitch. That would expose them to scouts of bigger clubs while these "role players" would bring some much needed stability and experience to the team. They were talented players that offered relief and guidance to their younger teammates, and, perhaps more importantly, never stood in the way of player development. For Pep they were Emilio Guerra, David Corcoles, Xavi Torres, Abraham Gonzalez, Dimas Delgado, Eneko Fernandez and Victor Espasandin.
None of these "role players" stayed on the Barcelona pay-roll for long - two, three seasons at the most - and they were then allowed to join other clubs either in Spain or in Europe. Pep showed that the system of a young core reinforced with experience from "role players" worked, immediately leading the team to a first place finish and a promotion to the Segunda B.
It was the only season Pep spent with the B team, but the system survived his departure thanks to Alexanko and Benaiges. Luis Enrique, who was hired to replace Guardiola, inherited that system and with the help of a couple remaining "role players" and the additions of Goran Marić, Hector Verdes, Nolito and Jose Antonio Solano led to Barcelona B further success, missing a promotion play-off spot by a single point. The cycle continued next season and the one after that, some "role-players" left, some stayed another season, new ones arrived, but Barcelona B continued to produce results while never disregarding player development, even achieving a promotion to the Segunda where the team finish in 3rd place in their first season. Neither Pep nor Lucho were blessed with a generation of players that would include the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique or Cesc Fabregas, but both sent players to the first team. Highlighted by Sergio Busquets and Pedro, whom Guardiola quickly took with him to the Barça first team, there were players like Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Jonathan Dos Santos, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha, all of which have made some impact on the first team, some of which still hold potential to become starters in the future.
Throughout this four year period the B team played the same football as the first team did, which made the transition from Barça B to the senior team seamless for the youngsters, even if they only had to replace an injured player on short notice without much training with the first team. That all started to change in 2010. The two people behind the spotlight that engineered this turnaround, Alexanko and Benaiges, were shown the door by a president who was flexing his muscles, but with Lucho still in the driver's seat the ship didn't stray off course.
However, in 2011, Enrique took the managerial job at AS Roma and was replaced by Eusebio Sacristan. Eusebio continued to use older players to guide his team, but he used the system completely wrong. Instead of using "role players" for their added experience and to give talented youngsters some much needed rest, they suddenly became "key players". Players like Cristian Lobato, David Lomban, Ilie Sanchez, Carles Planas and Dani Nieto were seemingly always in the starting lineup, staying in the way of the development of the likes of Sergi Samper, Adama Traore, Alejandro Grimaldo, Fabrice Ondoa and Jean Marie Dongou. Another problem with Eusebio in charge was that even though the players went on the pitch in a 4-3-3 formation, they did not play the same style of football the first team did. Players often seemed unsure about their duties on the pitch, understandable considering most spent years being groomed in the Barça style in the lower ranks, only to have that changed by Eusebio. Eusebio also seemed very happy to start playing defensive, prevent football as soon as Barcelona B took the lead, a tactic that often hurt Barça B that like the first team knew only how to defend with the ball in their possession.
It was all forgiven though by the top brass, because Eusebio was able to produce results as the team always finished in the top 10 on the Segunda table. It didn't matter one iota that since Rosell took over in 2010 not one La Masia graduate was able to win a place in the starting lineup for a prolonged stretch of games, with Bartra coming the closest, and even that was severely aided by an injury bug the decimated Barcelona's defensive ranks.
But mid table finishes, with the occasional player promoted to the bench of the first, was enough to satisfy Rosell, Josep Maria Bartomeu, Amor and Puig. In January 2013 FIFA came knocking and informed Barcelona about breaching laws regarding the signings of U-18 players, but the club executives decided to do nothing and hope for the best, not even attempting to reach out to FIFA or form an alliance with other clubs in an attempt to correct what is a majorly flawed law. Over a year later, FIFA hit Barcelona with a two transfer window signing ban and suddenly there was some cause for panic. Amor and Puig were made scapegoats and were quickly fired, even though they weren't the only two at fault, and were replaced by Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimir - two former players who had no experience in running a football academy, with the former even showing a reluctance to play younger, less experienced players while he was in charge of the first team in Tito's absence.
But with the "culprits" of the ban now fired, Bartomeu, who has since become president, was again content with how the academy was being run, even if it could result in an entire generation of eight to ten year-old football hopefuls lost for the Catalan club. But four years of mismanagement of the academy has also left its toll in the higher ranks. The Juvenil B team is struggling with development and form, and after winning the first edition of the UEFA Youth League the Juvenil A team, which was known to win their Group of the Division de Honor Juvenil de Futbol, the U-18 league, by as much as 22 points, has finished this season in a disappointing fourth place.
The scenario has been even worse for Barcelona B. Led by the magnificent 1995 generation that includes Samper, Munir El Haddadi, Sandro Ramirez, Grimaldo, Frank Bagnack, Ondoa and boosted by the likes of Traore, Alen Halilović and Wilfrid Kaptoum, this team had enough talent to challenge the best ever finish by the B team, third place. But with Eusebio trusting minutes to the "old guard" of Patric, Sergio Juste, Joan Roman and Adrian Ortola, none of which was older than 22 when the season began, everything came crashing down.
Missing were the "role players" of the Jonathan Soriano mold who could lead the team through thick and thin. Missing were set roles for key players that should've been Samper and Adama, both of whom suffered through the injustice of being relegated to bench duties on a "technical decision", the reason for which was "because they acted like teenagers". If that is a legitimate reason for benching an actual teenager then Neymar should've watched half of this season from the stands. As should Pique. Missing was also the much needed coach-player relationship, which is especially necessary for young footballers, something former player Xavi Quintilla publically criticized Eusebio for, noting that the coach spoke to him only twice in five months. Guardiola has proven to be an excellent communicator with his players and Enrique, for the most part at least, has showed that as well, but both had older players to help him with the youngsters. This season there was nobody to guide the B team.
Eusebio was fired in February 2015 and was replaced by Jordi Vinyals, the coach that lead the Juvenil A team to European glory, but this ship was already taking on water, but it wasn't beyond saving, but Vinyals never gave the team a fighting chance. Forced to get results, Vinyals leaned heavily on the most senior players at his disposal, many of whom were out of form and on many occasions played out of position. It was a mockery to the foundations set by Laporta, Alexanko, Benaiges and Pep, and continued by Lucho. The B team was in shambles and with no leadership coming from the bench, even after Vinyals took over, players formed circles on the pitch before every half to talk among themselves, indeed showing some leadership abilities, even if Vinyals said otherwise after the season. But it was too late to save Barcelona B from relegation now
Now, a shorthanded Barcelona B team, none of Halilovic, Adama, and Munir are expected to stay with the B team, full of demoralized and mentally drained players will have to fight aggressive players on bad pitches for at least one season. A stay that could very well extend for much longer because Barcelona B can't add "role players" for one more transfer window and because the team supposed to supply talent to Barça B, the Juvenil A, is also underperforming. Just compounding the problem is that some of the most promising players of that age group, like Ayoub Abou, are rumored to be on their way out, while Lee Seung-Woo still can't play in an official game for any Barcelona team.
Barcelona B and La Masia are close to reaching rock bottom and something needs to be done sooner rather than later, a process many are hoping will start as soon as the votes after the presidential elections are counted, because later there just might not be anything left to salvage.