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Barcelona need changes to restore La Masia to its former glory

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All is not well at the academy

Chelsea FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Youth League Final Photo by Robert Hradil/Getty Images

When Johan Cruyff arrived at Barcelona in 1973, no one could have envisioned the long-lasting impact that he would have on the club.

Although he spent just five seasons at Barca, he continued to establish his legacy as one the greatest players ever with a La Liga title and his second and third career Ballon d’Or. The Dutch international wowed audiences with his brilliant performances, but neither his goals nor the memorable moments at the Camp Nou are the sole reason as to why he is a Barca legend, it’s also because of the philosophy that he embedded at the club.

Cruyff implemented a culture with a style and tactics that at the time were unorthodox. The focus was never on developing the next flashy Brazilian or physical German type players but rather building players from the inside out with the basic fundamentals of the game. A possession-heavy play with an organized short, compact passing game would be the core of Cruyff’s style. As he did while he was manager of Barca, he orchestrated play based on technique and technicality.

With this mentality, he believed that it was best that this would not be just a short-term idea as he hoped to expand it to a long-term project for generations to come. And thus, the dream became a reality with La Masia -- Barcelona’s very own youth soccer academy.

Since its inception, the academy has strived to develop youth talents from Spain and around the world in the hope of modeling the next global stars.

It is eat, sleep and train for the talents in La Masia.

The possession-heavy and short passing game style is implemented starting from the adolescent teams up the ranks to the Barcelona B team. The tiki-taka approach that revolutionized the game is developed early on and improved as they work on all aspects of their play.

The academy reached its peak during the golden age of the 2000s and early 2010s when Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro all rose up through the ranks to win a record number of trophies with Barcelona. This group made history when along with Jordi Alba, Cesc Fabregas and Martin Montoya, Barcelona fielded a team with all former La Masia talents in a 4-0 home win against Levante during the 2012-2013 season.

Levante UD v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

But since then, reality has distanced itself from the dream that it was founded on. Scandals and controversies have rocked the foundations of the La Masia academy. A transfer ban caused inner distrust. Club officials are becoming less reliant on the academy and more on youth talents from other clubs. Barcelona B was relegated to the Segunda Division B this past season. Talents from the academy are deciding to leave for other clubs.

This is far from what Johan Cruyff envisioned.

For an academy that has been revered all around Europe, the current state of La Masia is nothing short of disarray. Its reputation has dampened and fans have slowly begun to lose hope in the illustrious academy.

Major changes need to be implemented but how can it restore the philosophy that Cruyff had inspired at while with the club?

Its return to a culture of excellence will only occur once there are changes and also a dedicated commitment from club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the board members.

Even though correlation does not always imply causation, much of the recent struggles from La Masia can be directed to the incompetent management of the board. The growing distrust between the board and La Masia stems from inadequate support and lack of transparency. While fans have been highly critical of recent debacles such as the Neymar transfer saga and sketchy deals with sponsors, none damaged the reputation of the club more than the infamous transfer ban.

This is arguably where it all really began to head downward for La Masia. After a lengthy investigation, FIFA concluded that the club violated rules in regards to signing under-18 international players. The investigation discovered that 10 players were illegally signed against FIFA rules by the club. The saga lasted two years and was detrimental to Barca’s image. The transfer ban tarnished the reputation of then-president Sandro Rosell and put current president Josep Bartomeu in a tough position to wiggle out of. Had it not been for an appeal that delayed the ban, Barca would likely not have been able to immediately bring in Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre Ter-Stegen and Claudio Bravo for what turned out to be a Champions League-winning season.

Now the impact that it had on La Masia was near catastrophic and far greater than what was initially expected. First and foremost, future prospects of La Masia became weary of what was to come with the academy. Most importantly, players already in La Masia decided that it was best to continue their youth careers with other teams.

Over the two years, Barca lost promising talents such as: Andre Onana (Ajax), Bobby Adekanye (Liverpool), Maudo Diallo (Roma) and Javi Romero (Sevilla).

Now while Barcelona and its La Masia academy have been able to recover from the transfer ban, the tightrope walk to recovery has not come with ease as the academy continues to lose some of its brightest young talents. Eric Garcia (Manchester City), Adrian Bernabe (Manchester City), Sergio Gomez, (Borussia Dortmund), Kays Ruiz-Atil (PSG), Robert Navarro (AS Monaco) and Jordi Mboula (AS Monaco) all completed moves away in pursuit of continuing their youth careers elsewhere. One common theme among the recent transfers has been the players’ desire for growth. Many of the top players at the academy recognize the hardships that come with earning a first-team opportunity for Barca as opportunities come sparsely.

This does not come as a surprise considering it was typical during the golden age of the 2000s and early 2010s when many La Masia graduates were forced to find a new club because they were blocked from contributing much due to the lack of playing time. For example, many midfield talents that came through the academy and worked hard to get to the first team were sent straight to the bench because Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta were not going away any time soon. One prime example was Thiago’s departure. One of the main reasons for him leaving for Bayern Munich was to become more of an impactful starter for a top European club in all competitions.

FC Barcelona v RC Deportivo La Coruna - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

While it is currently not a major problem, this trend should not become something of a norm for La Masia. The academy should not become a farm system for other clubs in Europe to take advantage of. The best and most promising prospects must become a central part of La Masia and must be given opportunities to become a significant contributor down the road.

The board and those in management of La Masia have to also remain committed in keeping the players engaged with the vision of having an opportunity to play for the first team. Club officials are currently in an inner dilemma in regards to pay and how they can keep talents from leaving so soon.

”We always try to help those that want to be with us,” Pep Segura said. “But we are not going to pay what some representatives are demanding, obscene numbers, like when they ask for one or two million euros to guarantee that a player that is already ours stays with us.”

Source | Sport

Today -- among the challenges that Barca currently has with the academy-- the most difficult of challenges centers around the disconnect between the board, first team coaches and La Masia. As alluded to before, Barcelona have become less and less reliant on La Masia over the years. In three seasons under Luis Enrique, over a dozen La Masia players were given playing time but it never came on a consistent basis. Just this past season under Ernesto Valverde, La Masia players made a combined six appearances. Also under Valverde, Barcelona fielded a team with no La Masia graduates for the first time in 16 years in the 2-2 away draw with Celta Vigo. And over the past couple of seasons, only Sergi Roberto has become a regular for the first team-- not what the academy had hoped for.

Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

What the future holds for the iconic academy is entirely unknown. What must be a priority is that the club does not shy away from La Masia and shift their club philosophy. In an era where teams like Manchester City and PSG are spending big to make the jump to becoming a powerhouse European club, Barcelona should not lose track of its pure identity and follow the same rationale of some of the other top teams. They can not afford to spend €150M+ in every transfer window while not providing opportunities for the waiting La Masia talents.

From Carles Alena to Oriol Busquets to Riqui Puig, Barca currently has a number of prospects that have the potential to be a starter for Barca and also for the Spanish national team. Now while Barcelona B was regulated, it should not overshadow the number of achievements by La Masia this past season, which include a UEFA Youth League title and over 10 league titles.

If the board wisely invests in the academy and holds a strong commitment to it, La Masia will soon return to its glory days and develop the next generational talents for Barca.