Barcelona's La Masia in relative crisis as production shows signs of decline
Barcelona supporters have spent the couple of decades boasting about the seemingly endless torrent of talent being carefully nurtured at their renowned La Masia academy. World-class stars such as Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, all products of the Catalan side's youth system, played a decisive role in the unprecedented collective success that the Camp Nou faithful have been spoiled with in recent years.
Perhaps more importantly, such impressive achievements came as a result of playing beautiful attacking football that generated admiration all around the planet.
However, the last La Masia graduate to truly cement his place at the first team was Sergio Busquets, promoted back in 2008. The likes of Marc Bartra, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha have joined the first team squad since but without fail, they have been assigned to a secondary role and forced to watch their teammates from the bench or, more disappointingly, the stands.
To make the situation even worse, Barcelona B will play in the third tier of Spanish football after finishing 22nd of 22 teams last season in the Segunda Division. Their fully deserved relegation came after an appalling year with only nine wins in 42 league matches, conceding an alarming 83 goals in the process.
Frustratingly, even Barca's Juvenil A struggled last season, finishing fourth and a huge 18 points behind city rivals Espanyol in the Catalan group of the Division de Honor. To think it was only a year ago that Barca's U19s conquered the UEFA Youth League, with Munir El Haddadi scoring the winner from the halfway line in the final, is pretty depressing.
Although former president Josep Maria Bartomeu has unashamedly gone on record and blamed this alarming failure on the youngsters' lack of attitude, there are deeper reasons why the current board has failed to address problems that became obvious years ago.
Since the late 1980s, every team in La Masia played following Johan Cruyff's traditional 3-4-3 formation with minimal variations. Such a consistent philosophy throughout the club's academy allowed aspiring youngsters to not only learn the system well, but also take virtually no time to adapt if promoted to the next age group.
Despite leading Barca B to decent top-half finishes in Segunda Division over his three seasons in charge, Eusebio Sacristan consistently failed to fully prepare his youngsters for achieving success at the first team level as, inexplicably, he often adapted a more defensive-minded formation when facing teams that he felt were superior to his own.
Contrary to what results may lead most to believe, Barca's current reserve team is actually full of incredible talent, including El Haddadi, Sergi Samper, Adama Traore, Alen Halilovic and Sandro Rodriguez. If lead by a more nurturing and tactically aware manager, the squad should have actually been challenging Real Betis, Sporting Gijon and Girona for the championship and certainly not finishing 13 points behind Lugo and firmly stuck at the bottom of the table.
Reality also shows that life at the first team is more difficult than ever, as exemplified by the fact that playmaker Roberto has only been trusted with 29 league appearances despite having made his debut under Pep Guardiola back in 2010.
Barcelona supporters have always been proud of their "cantera vs. cartera" motto, which means their club always prioritised their youth system to using their wallet to splash out to bring in new talent. But judging by the transfers made over the past three years, the focus has now changed. Don't get me wrong; world-class signings such as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Neymar or Luis Suarez have been crucial in giving the team that extra boost in order to compete at the highest level as, inevitably, not every great player in the planet is a La Masia graduate.
However, those who join the Catalans' first team having been properly nurtured in their youth system have an intrinsic love for the Blaugrana colours, can interpret the club's traditional formation perfectly and have an excellent understanding of what it takes to survive at the Camp Nou from both a sporting and psychological perspective.
Culers are fully aware that talents of Messi, Iniesta or Busquets can't simply pop out of La Masia on a yearly basis. Having said that, the likes of Bartra, Rafinha and Adama have the potential to become regulars alongside the team's stars as youngsters and, in time, become the leaders of the future.
Barcelona's current approach to La Masia is flawed on far too many levels. Let's hope that club members use their votes wisely in the upcoming election and that Barca's youth system can, once again, become something Culers can be proud of.